I have to be honest, after being injured last year and taking a step back from triathlon for six months, I wasn’t sure what 2019 would look like for me in the world of triathlon.
I had tentatively entered Ironman 70.3 Florida with the hope that I would be uninjured and ready to race again, physically and mentally. For the initial few months of the year, the running was coming along but it wasn’t anywhere close to where I wanted it to be, the niggles were flaring up a little every now and then, and I really had little expectation for my first race of the season.
In fact, in February, I pulled out of a 15k local trail fun run that I’d entered, because I could feel some soreness in my foot and was worried it would be detrimental to push through it. I sat there crying on the phone to my boyfriend saying that I’d be unlikely to be able to race at Florida because I couldn’t run more than 12k and my foot still hurt.
Fast forward eight weeks and I was stood on the podium at my first race back in 11 months, after my best international Ironman finishing position ever. How things change.
Ok, so I won’t pretend I didn’t have a good block of training leading into the race. I in fact had one of the best training blocks of my life. A double camp consisting of 10 days in Lanzarote and 10 days in Fuerteventura, with only 5 days at home in between, put me in an amazing place training wise and I saw some of the best figures I’ve ever seen on Training Peaks.
Massive credit due to my coach Duncan Grainge, SISU Racing, for this impeccably executed block. I have never met a coach with his attention to detail, it’s simply mind blowing.
A week after my second camp, I was racing my first half marathon since my injury flared up in May 2018. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to run the distance pain-free. Despite the good training block my run training had been limited – I’d only completed two long runs, one of 17k and one of 18k – I was walking (or running!) into a total unknown.
I ran the Lee Valley Half Marathon in 1:39, a whole 5 minutes slower than my PB, granted, but considering the circumstances I was very happy. And most importantly, I was still injury-free. This was a huge confidence boost for Florida.
I’d held off entering any more races until I knew whether the foot would hold up, so it was time to get excited about racing again and plan a few more for later in the season. Better still though, I was heading towards Florida a lot more excited and lot less worried about my injury.
Until, of course, I was struck with flu 10 days out from the race. Typical. Again, I sat there in tears because I had endured 11 months of no-racing due to injury and now, finally, when we were out the other side of the injury, I was ill – before my first race back. Gutted.
It was the debilitating ‘better off staying in bed’ type of flu. All training was cancelled. I ended up having about 6 days off barring one short spin on the bike to test my new helmet. Taper week was here and I was taking it seriously – by doing next to nothing!
We were worried I would lose my ‘sharpness’ from so many days of idleness but there wasn’t an awful lot we could do about it apart from maximise the rest and recovery pre-race.
So I flew out to Florida not having swum at all for nearly two weeks, only one run and two cycles in 10 days. Oh, and I still had phlegm in my lungs and sinuses. Wonderful.
We decided to cut it fine and fly the Friday (race was on Sunday). This left very little in the way of contingency. It was also unlike me in that I didn’t bother swimming the swim course, cycling the bike course (or even driving it), or even take a cursory glance at the run course. Nothing better than a quality recce, no?!
It was mega hot. 32 degrees Celsius confirmed that it would definitely be a non-wetsuit swim (the water temperature was 26 degrees!). Just to make things a little more difficult, of course.
Apart from a couple of issues with my bike the day before the race, I was feeling really relaxed and more than anything, just incredibly excited to race again.
A nice 4am alarm saw us stuff some breakfast down and head down to the race venue. The usual transition faff went smoothly and gradually, as the sun came up, it started to feel hot, even at 7am. As we stood on the beach ready for the gun to go off, I felt so happy that I could be here racing again, soaking up the vibe, adrenaline pumping.
With a traditional wave start I positioned myself at the front, on the far inside of the buoys. BANG. Off we went. I started out fairly hard in the hope to get a good position with some space around me, and soon settled into my pace. I hadn’t swum for nearly two weeks but didn’t feel too rusty. Soon, I was catching up with the stragglers from the waves that had started ahead of me.
This became pretty annoying as the swim progressed, as I was catching more and more of the slow swimmers and it hindered progress when you had to skirt around them. At the half way turn point in the swim I stole a glance at my watch. I knew it wouldn’t be a fast swim being non-wetsuit but my watch said 17 minutes – I was stunned! Ok, that’s not too bad all things considered.
I continued to push to hold a decent enough pace, but wasn’t working hard enough that I’d put myself in a hole for the rest of the day. This was a no pressure race and I knew I had to take it relatively steady given my recent (and still lingering) virus.
The last 500m or so of the swim seemed to drag on a bit and I was definitely feeling the fatigue set in. I exited the water in 34 minutes-something-or-other (official time 35:15), pleased with my swim split, and plodded up the hill towards transition. I recall feeling whacked already and hoped that my legs would come good on the bike!
Heading out of transition on the bike I switched my bike computer on. We had agreed to a conservative bike power plan in light of the virus, and the goal for the first race back was literally to just have fun and enjoy racing again.
There was a problem though. I had no power reading.
This was odd, as it has never happened to me before and everything was working fine on the practice spin the day before. After a few classic, failed attempts at ‘turning it off and on’ I quickly realised that I’d have to just ride ‘blind’.
Once I had accepted this fact, I was actually excited. I said to myself, “ok, game on. All I need to do is ride within myself.” I was going to have to ride the entire bike leg by feel. And when you’ve been out of racing for nearly a year, you’re treading a very fine line!!
I tucked down and pushed on, mostly passing people and realising I was riding well. I constantly monitored how I was feeling by doing a few sounding board type checks: “Am I feeling ok? What effort out of 10 does this feel like? Can I hold this pace for another few hours? Ok, all good then.”
At 30k I realised that if I maintained this pace, I was on for a 2:30 bike split. Not too shabby. In my head though, all I could think was “Duncan is going to kill me.” It was a fair bit off our projected bike split based on conservative power figures. Oh well, I feel good, so let’s just crack on!
I was really enjoying the bike, I was riding fast, averaging around 34-35kph and feeling strong, my position felt amazing, comfortable, and very aero. It was very windy, gusts of up to 50kph, but I actually like a windy bike course – after so much training in the Canary islands, I was feeling strong. More importantly, hardly anyone was passing me and I hadn’t seen a single woman (apart from those in the relay who had started ahead of me).
The first half of the course was mega flat, with a few hills in the second half – nothing too dramatic though so I was managing to keep a respectable average speed. We hit the tailwind in the last 20k or so back towards transition and I kept the effort going. I had that 2:30 figure in my head now and couldn’t let go!
I rolled back into transition with a bike split of 2:33, my second fastest ever bike split. I wonder what my power was!? It would be interesting to know, but I never will!
As soon as I started running I knew it would be a long day out there. My legs instantly felt heavy and it all felt like a bit of a struggle. Then I hit the hills. Wait, what!? Hills!? On a 70.3 run course? Why would they even do that!?
To make matters worse, it was hills with a headwind. Oh, and did I mention that it was 32 degrees? Now I’m not getting my excuses in, but I’d only run 21k once in just under a year, and that was a few weeks previous! My long run training had been extremely limited coming into the race, because we were still in the process of getting through the injury.
Anyway, I started out looking slightly despairingly at my watch as my average pace dropped to slow steady run pace, desperately trying to recover some pace on the downhills and flats.
I plodded on, knowing it was a matter of getting through and that I wouldn’t be seeing a storming run split here.
Every lap, I was expecting a female to pass me, and when I finally got onto the third and final lap, still not a single one had. This was incredible. Presumably they’re all having just a bad run as me!?
Despite the heat I wasn’t even throwing water over myself. I knew it would be vital to get as much water inside me as possible, so as I ran through each aid station I just grabbed cups and threw them down my throat instead! I mean, you end up spilling half of it on your face anyway, so it sort of cooled me down…. This was testament to the limited but vital heat training I did. It didn’t actually seem to bother me too much…
5k from the end of the run course a female finally passed me. I couldn’t see what age group she was in so in desperate paranoia, I tried to keep a few metres behind her. She very gradually pulled away from me but I managed to keep her in sight for the remainder of the run course, only a few seconds behind as she went through the finish. It turned out she was in the age group above anyway!
I was delighted when I went through the finish line, I felt utterly broken from the run (which I completed in 1:44). Due to messing around with my watch when I had no power on the bike, for the first time ever, I had absolutely no idea of my overall time.
After getting my stuff and retrieving my phone I found out from my parents and my coach, who were tracking me, that I had come 2nd in my Age Group and was 5th female overall. I couldn’t have been happier with that result.
To top it off, my boyfriend Tom had an awesome race too coming top third in a tough age group and getting a PB of 5:45. It was so fun to race together, and we did some fun filming while out there for CocoPro and Kitvision so watch this space for the video!
I did not expect in a million years that my first race back would be sub-5 hours (4:59:24) that I would be on the podium, and that I would qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Nice. It was just the most incredible feeling and I couldn’t have asked for a better result.
The best bit (and my coach Duncan had said exactly the same to me when we did a debrief a few days later), is not even the awesome result. It’s the fact that we know I have so much more potential than this because there were so many factors to consider in the lead up to the race. If I had raced my absolute hardest and given it absolutely everything I have, then fine, there’s still scope for improvement throughout the season, but I would know I gave it my all. But I raced within myself, kept it conservative, and wasn’t even in top health.
Ultimately, it just bodes very well for the season ahead. I am beyond excited to see what I can give it, when I truly do give it my all. But before that, there’s a lot more work to do first….