Dorney to the Dolomites: part 2

Sunday 4th July

Breakfast eaten, tyres pumped up, chain lubricated; I donned my cycling gear, clipped in and rolled down the road with a couple of mates. This has become quite a common Sunday morning over recent years. But what laid ahead was just a tad more than my usual Herts, Kent, Surrey or Sussex routes!

Maratona dles Dolomites. 138km, 7 mountain passes, 8798 riders from 42 countries. This was my first ever overseas sportive and – despite my plan to ride carefully and enjoy the day – I was very keyed up as the starters gun went off.

The sheer number of riders fighting for space on the road, elbow to elbow, handle bar to handle bar, made for hairy riding early on. The first climb – Passo Campolongo – did little to break things up and, whilst climbing well, I lost Al and Jonny quite quickly as it was just impossible to follow. The first descent was even worse. I’m normally quite a confident descender – the Pyrenees last summer did much to improve my ability – but lines were hijacked from all sides through each hairpin by crazy risk-takers going full bore. It almost felt comedic, as if we were in an episode of Whacky Races. I was in no mood to jeopardise months of training and backed off, accepting I would lose (quite literally) hundreds of places on every downhill. I was also surprised by how aggressive fellow riders were, even on the climbs: Passo Pordoi saw me forced to stop as one guy squeezed my space so much he actually cut my hand in the process. I did wonder whether those from countries with a stronger cycling heritage actually look down on British riders – maybe me being paranoid! I re-doubled my efforts and started picking people off; my confidence grew.

The next three climbs – Sella, Gardena and Campolongo (again) – went by very smoothly. I’m not a natural when the road ramps up: Al thinks it’s psychological, I think it’s power to weight ratio and anaerobic threshold; it’s probably a combination. But this was definitely the best I’ve ever climbed and I even passed a greying Roberto Baggio at one point (if someone can verify that it was the Divine Ponytail himself I’d be grateful! – his jersey categorically had his name, but he doesn’t appear on the Datasport results listings).

As my confidence sky-rocketed, I turned into what I thought was the big one, the Passo Giau; I stepped on the pedals and started riding past everyone around me. You can imagine my surprise as the road sloped back downwards just 2.3 short kms later. Closer inspection of the handy profile (above) on the reverse of the bike number uncovered it’s true identity: Belvedere di Colle Santa Lucia. By the time I’d read the name my surprise had morphed into concern, which then developed into acute anguish as I discovered my remaining gel had burst in my pocket. It’s a tough climb. There’s no hiding echoed in my mind as the real Giau quickly revealed itself.

Considering it’s only 9.9k I found this climb a great deal harder than anything Hautes Pyrenees threw at me – maybe it was the cumulative affect of the previous five, but 9.3% average brought me nearly to a standstill. I vividly remember the screaming back pain after the first 3k, but little else bar the very very brief respite provided by the flat bridges crossing the river. I sometimes suffer lower back pain – in the Chilterns last year in particular – and it must be to do with how I put power through the pedals on steep hills. I’ve done plenty of core, I can hold an aero position for hours with no issues, but when climbing steep roads of 10% ish upwards….. Alternating from seated to standing made it worse and I even had to stop to stretched it out twice. I finally made it to the top and wearily jostled my way through the water station before descending to the final climb of the day.

Passo Falzarego was a breeze in comparison, starting gently I cracked along at 17-18mph, then slowed down to 10mph as it gradually ramped up. Not long to go before the descent to the finish I told myself. At 2117m I crested the summit to immense relief. I coasted past the final feed station, just a fast downhill and a short time trial back to Corvara left.

30 seconds later my tardy study of the route map bit again. Falzarego turns into Valparola thanks to a sharp left turn at a roundabout and a steep 1.2k takes you further up to 2200m. I was very close to breaking point and it took a real deep emotional dig to turn the pedals as the summit hovered just out of grasp. At the top I stopped again, slumped over the handle bars, relieved to be on level ground; I needed to compose myself.

But by now my lack of calories was a real issue and the searing heat compounded the problem. I now think that I’ve never suffered a proper bonk, at least not when cycling; what I experienced for the next 30 minutes was like nothing before. Dizziness, hunger, zero strength, seriously wavering concentration (just slightly dangerous at 40+ mph on a tricky technical descent!), a tired over-heating body and a nearly broken spirit. I pride myself on my ability to maintain physical intensity when the going gets tough – it’s what endurance sport is all about. But believe me, this hurt. At one false flat – a section of road I would normal gobble up at 20mph – I struggled to maintain 10mph, and even stopped again to check whether my brake blocks were rubbing! (the mind plays strange tricks on an athlete in distress).The words get a grip burst into my head and suddenly I found strength to get myself going again.

8.07.48 clicked up as I free-wheeled under the finish banner. An unimpressive time, but still an achievement I’m happy with. An easy training ride? Yeah right. Al and Jonny put in top notch performances – read more here.

The Maratona is the toughest ride I’ve done, bar none, and it forces you to respect it. In actuality the lessons it taught me were invaluable and the strength – both physical and mental – will pay huge dividends. This is a brilliant event that lived up to my every expectation of an overseas sportive. I’ll be back!!

aka Team Hammertime

Al, Jonny and me. At the last minute, Al finally saw sense and opted for shoes.

Dorney to the Dolomites: part 1

This season has been all about one thing: Ironman Switzerland. It’s dominated my thoughts. It’s taken over my life. I can honestly say not a single day has passed that I haven’t contemplated some aspect of what ‘doing an Ironman’ involves. But I’m not the sort of person that can focus on just one single objective, setting everything else to one side.  I love to compete – whether against friends, unknown entrants or simply myself. To motivate me in the short term I need periodical targets to aim for. Without mixing in some other challenges, races or events along the way I’m not sure I’d make it through the 8-9 months it’s taken to prepare for my main event!

And so, when two opportunities came up which any sensible person would have considered mutually exclusive, I simply said yes. To both.

Friday 2nd July

I’d been searching for a fast Olympic distance event and the Marketing Industry Triathlon provided the perfect opportunity. Run by Human Race and set in the superb grounds of Dorney Lake, it’s a lovely course: clear water; 8 smooth laps of the lake on the bike; a fast up-and-back 4-lap run.

I got a good start as guest Daley Thompson fired the gun and was quickly into my rhythm. It’s always hard to tell where you are in the swim section, but I could sense I was in a good group near the front and – as we turned at the first buoy – glimpsed just three guys off the pack. Dorney is excellent for swimming as you can site off the rowing lane ropes so maintaining technique is far easier. I lost two of the group on the final straight but exited the water in 28.27 in about 9th place. T1 was straight-forward: 1.34.

I hit the bike hard. Well, the head wind going away from the boat house hit all of us hard, but I’d decided to go for it on the bike and stuck to my plan. I quickly caught several riders and moved up the field. I was feeling really good by lap 2 and focused on a high cadence and streamlined position perched on the nose of my saddle. Feet out of my shoes, steady dismount, I nailed a 1.08.55 split which was third fastest on the day. T2 presented a bit of a Macca moment with the camera man on me: “come ooooon” I said (more reservedly than McCormack of course!) as the insole of my right shoe slipped with my sockless foot for the third time. Fourth time lucky; I got away in 1.08 and onto the run.

I struggled in Weymouth for the early part of the run, and again my heart rate was high, breathing heavy and I felt rubbish. Still, I forced the pace and picked off one runner on lap 1. By lap 2 I was into my running. Positions were difficult to identify but I just kept pushing myself and managed to run 10 minute laps for 2, 3 and 4 and found a little something for the final metres to finish in 42.50. I was happy to dip under the 23-minute mark at 2.22.57 for 5th place. I was surprised to get a Eurosport camera and mic thrust in my face at the finish line; God knows what I said but it felt pretty cool!

Full results here.

This was the second year the Marketing Tri has been run and it’s great to do something social with industry professionals that doesn’t involve booze! The highlight of my day was actually chatting to childhood hero Daley, who is the official ambassador for the event. I hope to see this grow in popularity in years to come.

As for my performance, well, I’d treated this as a glorified training session and was generally pleased. But I think I should be faster. The swim can improve, probably through actually swimming the distance (not zig-zagging) and tactical drafting. My bike could get quicker, maybe by a minute or two on a calm day and with more high intensity work. Breaking 40mins over 10k in a triathlon should be possible given my training paces, but car-induced injuries have led to my fair share of disruptions and specific brick work wasn’t timed for this event so I would hope to run stronger off the bike as time progresses. Sub-2h20 next time out!

Weymouth Middle Distance Triathlon 2010

This weekend was the first major test of my Ironman training progress and at the same time my third triathlon since moving into the sport last summer. Despite substantial disruption to my training since the accident on 8th May, I’d started to feel like myself again in the last ten days and lined up on the Weymouth beach brimming with confidence (if a little apprehensive about the temperature of the sea!).

SWIM & T1: 7.33am. The hooter sounded and into the water I charged along with friends Ewan and Simmo and the other 260+ competitors. Conditions were calm and far more manageable than the Channel last September. After the usual jostling for position I settled into a good rhythm positioned to the right of the pack, concentrating on steady breathing and a long stroke. The swim distance always looks a long long way from land but I was pleased to hit the turn around fairly quickly; feeling good, I opened up and found myself passing people on the way back in. Up the painful pebble beach and into T1: 34mins by my watch. Despite cramping calves trying to get the wetsuit over my heels, I safely emerged from transition with 37:50 on the clock for 63rd place. Simmo and Ewan were 7mins back.

BIKE & T2: after a dicey mount with wet feet slipping off my shoes I got myself down the road to the clock tower (see picture above) and hung a right out of town. I felt uncomfortable for the first 15mins but after the short climb out of Weymouth I found my legs and settled into a good 21-22mph pace, loving the aero position on the new Cervelo P2! The route was largely rolling A-roads with some dual carriageway sections and smooth tarmac; great for fast biking. There were some head- and cross-winds after each turn around point at Bere Regis and Wool but I found my confidence growing as I picked off riders on the windier sections. I saw Ewan flying past on the other side of the road after Wool which was a boost, but what was the time gap? I debated with myself for the next 10 miles! The temperature had really heated up during the bike leg and I’d been rationing 1200ml of drink (an extra bottle would have been nice). I also had to force an energy bar down; I normally like eating but maybe the excitement, adrenalin and heat combined to dampen my appetite. Entering T2 I hit the lap button: 2h35. I also nearly took out a marshal on the tight turn (smiling for my brother’s camera!) – oops. Very thirsty, the extra 350ml of sports drink I’d prep’d for transition was vital. Official time keepers clocked my bike + T2 split as 2:39:12 and 85th place. Simmo had pretty much matched my split whilst I’d pulled out a further 9mins on Ewan.

RUN: Trouble. My left knee was really stiff as I hit the sea front and range of movement was limited. I ran past my folks – putting on a brave face but wincing with every stride – and quickly found a double stitch causing breathing difficulty whilst sweat stung my eyes so much I could hardly see! Those first 15mins were tough. When I go through a bad patch I always have a minute or two where I ask this question: what injury could I suffer that would legitimate a DNF? It’s an odd one I know!! It’s strange how the mind works in times of extreme stress. But it’s whilst I contemplate how painful the wounded pride would be if I failed to finish that I somehow push through my bad patch; it’s getting through these moments that makes you learn about yourself and what it takes to achieve your goals. I went through lap 1 in 50mins and – hitting the beach again – suddenly Simmo appeared on my shoulder (he’d talked down his potential but clearly he’ll be a big rival from now on!). We spoke for 30secs or so before he pulled ahead on his way to an impressive 1h33. Whether it was coming off the injury or the impact of a good bike I’m not sure, but I didn’t have another gear on the run so concentrated on maintaining my own pace. I felt stronger and stronger through lap 2 and found a little something for the final few mins to ensure I came in under 5hrs (1h42 run). The buzz from winding it up down the home straight to the sound of my family and the crowd was something to cherish. 4:59:43 and 79th place. Simmo finished in 4:56:08 and Ewan at 5:10:40 (itself very impressive given that he’s not been training that much this year). Also noteworthy is Ewan’s Crystal Palace Tri mate Selwyn – he’ll be lining up with me in Switzerland – who finished in 5h04; could be close between us over the full distance! Full results here.

Overall I’m delighted. The swim exceeded expectations (for a sea swim) and the bike was strong (although I fancy I can improve here). The run was disappointing, although understandable given the injury. 7 weeks until Zurich so coach Steve will no doubt be working me hard!

Caution runners: Sussex Beacon Half Marathon 2010

Sunday 21st February marked my first race outing of the new decade, and what better place to do so than my home town of Brighton. This year was the 20th annual running of the Sussex Beacon Half Marathon, a race that has grown beyond all measure over the years.

Just three years’ ago I ran this – as I started out on a metamorphic journey from former national-level high jumper and loosely active twenty-something, to obsessed amateur endurance athlete – and was one of 3208 finishers. Incidentally, so too was former GB track star, Olympian and Sussex resident Sally Gunnell, with whom I had the fortune of running for a few miles, until her superior pacing kicked in!

Yesterday, 6064 brave souls battled heavy rain, at moments sleet, fierce icy winds and biting cold to run 13.1 miles up and down the sea front. The starting area was understandably filled with plenty of cautious faces before the gun went off. And – as the weather battered the coastline and Palace Pier – there were plenty of hardy supporters looking even more cautious about the next hour or two.

Substituting this event for a scheduled hard training run and using it as a barometer for form/Ironman training progression, my race plan was simple: go out at 7s and see what happens. I hit mile 3 (the only marker I saw) in 20mins – slightly too quick – but then faced the headwind going west after the turnaround; it was really testing, but I held form as best as possible. Of course, a headwind never seems to manifest itself as a tailwind when going back the other way – sods law! – but the going was easier on the return and I came in under the finish banner at 1.32.35. A race day PB (although I’ve run quicker in training!).

Overall I am delighted to be running this sort of pace off less than half my normal marathon training volume/frequency. Moreover, thanks to end of ’09 season niggles, Britain’s January big freeze and reckless North London drivers, I’ve had a few knee problems to contend with. This is a real boost going into Coach Trew’s next training block and what will be a crucial period in the build to Ironman Switzerland.

Now for the criticisms: how difficult is it to 1/ issue and police proper colour-coded race numbers corresponding with finish times? 2/ label starting pens clearly? 3/ set out 13 mile markers (not just random barely visible signs)? Okay, the entry levels have skyrocketed, but this is a real mass participation race now and other organisers don’t allow such elementary problems to occur.

Saying this, the Sussex Beacon is growing year-on-year for a reason: it’s a top race on a flat scenic course, ideally timed before the spring marathons. And with the inaugural Brighton Marathon on the horizon, running on the south coast is really on the UK road running map. Great for the sport and great for the city.

Congratulations to friends Simon Clarkson (1.42.22), Richard O’Connor (1.43.37) and Louise O’Connor (1.43.12) – PBs across the board.

We did it!!

The English Channel: Dover to Cap Gris Nez. 21 nautical miles. 16 hours and 16 minutes. 5 swimmers, 1hr rotational stints in 17-degree water.

This was a challenge like no other that I’ve undertaken. We set out shortly before 4am in the pitch black from Dover Marina, our first swimmer Burt swimming to the shore to start the official timing. The first three of us had to affix glow sticks to our shorts and caps and swim in the cold, cold water with zero visibility to the boat and only a side light for directional guidance. I did – however – have the fortune of seeing the sun rise whilst turning my stroke over 2.5 miles out into the sea; this is a memory I will never forget.

It took 30 mins to stop shivering, and – after grabbing 2hrs shut eye in the cabin – I could finally feel my feet again. The Gallivant had a small kitchen so I devoured a pot noodle and other high carb foods, before preparing mentally for stint two by shooting some footage of Burt and Ewan.

By 11am the 20-degree sun was high, and the swimming was far better. We all felt strong, comms with the boat was easier – although still hit and miss as you couldn’t hear anything, relying instead on pre-determined time boards held up by team mates. The pressure was on to keep swimming hard as currents and timings are vital; one missed tide and we could add hours on, or even risk failure.

Karen and Luke put in further sterling efforts and by 2pm we were looking good. Channel swimming is very different from other endurance events: knowing you’re on your own in cold conditions, out of comms with the team, and questioning everything constantly – the mind plays tricks and mental fortitude is paramount. Progress is key but – in stark contrast to marathons or triathlons – the time length is not finite and, indeed, completion is far from certain. The third swim was hard: physically and mentally draining, the sunlight almost gone, the temperature cooling, the boat a dark shadow and visibility back to virtually zero.

6pm and Cap Gris Nez was tantilisingly close, like Everest’s summit from the Hillary Step. But, one simple factor would determine our success or failure: could we push far enough with the current before turning in to the peninsula? If we couldn’t, then when it changed course the current would take us sailing past and into channel swimming oblivion. But if we could, the shore was in our grasp. Luke finished his third stint strongly, and Burt stepped up for his fourth – an epic final hour for our tired but impressive lead swimmer. His mind visited some dark places – to use his words – but he swam hard and got us to touching distance, before Ewan celebrated his birthday with 16 minutes and a struggle up the rocks to land.

After cheering a soloist who’d been behind us through the day – whose identity I’m trying to establish – we commenced the journey back to Dover. I could write many more words on this experience. In retrospect, I could have been a lot better prepared and I shall learn from this; but to swim in such challenging conditions gives me a tremendous confidence for the comparatively simple Ironman swimming to come. Moreover, we are proud to join an elite and very unique club and it’s something to cherish for years to come.

Incidentally, below is our exact route as charted by our crew; this is the first ‘V’ finish in 40 years.

Channel Route

New Forest 70.3

Just posted the pictures of the New Forest Middle Distance Triathlon! (click on the photo below or the Flickr photostream, right).

And the results are in. Finishing time 6h03 and 125th place. Swim + T1: 46min (132nd).  Bike: 3h10 (141st). T2 + Run: 2h06 (129th). Matt finished in a very creditable 6h25, especially considering his only previous tri was a sprint last year!

Overall I’m very happy with the result – I’d have taken 6hrs if offered to me beforehand. But, like most of us, I’m already looking at where I can considerably improve. If anything – on reflection – I took my running for granted, choosing to focus the middle part of this year (post-London Marathon) on cycling and swimming. Whilst this has definitely paid dividends, I dropped the ball on the second half of the run: my knee pain returned, and I just hadn’t done enough hilly long runs or brick sessions to cope with the ruthlessly difficult off-road run route in this tri. I know what I need to do for IM Switzerland! That said, this is a very tough 70.3 and having completed it in target time I’m confident in moving forward with winter training and 2010.

Half Iron 016A

Big thanks to the organisers, the marshalls and the venues. This is a fantastic event and is a must for any triathlete. 2010 races can be found here:

Aqua Sphere Long Swim Series 2009

AquaSphere Long Swim SeriesCompleted the Dorney Lake long swim today. 1h26, which I was happy with considering it was 16 degrees and I wasn’t using a wetsuit. For anyone looking to experience a mass start long swim in open water ahead of a triathlon or swimming event, I’d recommend this series. Dorney Lake is a great setting – my Channel Swim team mates also did the Bournmouth sea swim – and the organisers said they are looking to add another sea swim and one to two lake swims to the 2010 schedule.

Twitvid: at the start.