Once bitten and a “twice” try!

This has been a difficult blog to write, it was supposed to be a simple ‘round up’ of the year but as I reflected on my season, the reflective process forced me to look a little deeper at my season and do some rather deeper self reflection.  What follows is probably (it is!) a rambling collection of thoughts and musings on my 2014 race season, my race at Ironman Wales and, more broadly, Kona qualification second time around.  This blog asks more questions than it answers and probably exposes my insecurities and vulnerabilities as an athlete more than I am entirely comfortable with, hence it taking me three weeks to pull this post together.

When trying to work out where to start I usually find starting at the beginning, or in this case the end of 2013…

I have made no secret of the fact that my dream was only partially realised in 2013 when I became a Kona finisher, THE dream was to race Kona with husband Duncan and to turn in a Kona performance reflective of my ability.  I should say I remain immensely proud of ‘merely’ qualifying for Kona in 2013, to qualify I’d finished 2nd in AG to Norwegian Line Foss (7mins adrift and she is racing pro in 2014 with sub 10 Ironman postings) and I had a top 10 finish overall in Lanzarote 2013.  This was something I had to keep at the front of my mind as I took on the daunting task of qualifying for Kona again in 2014 but surprisingly, I was to find the psychology of Kona qualification a whole lot more challenging second time around.

My disappointing performance in Kona in 2013 has haunted me and less than generous ‘critiques’ of my performance and ability all slowly started to chip away at my belief that I was ‘good enough’ to be a Kona athlete. This lack of confidence was inspite the unwavering belief of the only people whose opinions that should matter to me, most notably my coach Jack Maitland, and fantastically supportive friends and family.  Low confidence was compounded by the weight of expectation that previous qualifiers carry; am I exposing myself to looking like a fool if I don’t qualify?  Maybe my ‘luck’ ran out in Lanzarote last year?  Maybe ‘they’ are right, maybe I am not good enough?

To be clear, I don’t want (or need) anyone to tell me my Kona performance in 2013 wasn’t disappointing, it WAS disappointing to me, and I am sure as hell not fishing for anybody else’s affirmation of my worth as a Kona qualifier.  I’ve always been very realistic about my ability and my physiological limitations (I’ve measured them in the lab, repeatedly!).  Yes, I work hard with what I’ve got, yes, I make big sacrifices to pursue my goals with dogged determination, yes, I’m focused and disciplined, but so what?  Everybody looking to qualify for Kona comes at it with good physiological potential (good race results and/or lab measured), a good work ethic and an acceptance that personal sacrifice is par for the course!  I don’t believe that any of these things make you exceptional if you are genuine in your pursuit of Kona qualification, they are merely pre-requisites.

The right psychology certainly has a part to play in becoming a Kona qualifier but only if you already have some physiological potential and are prepared to optimise what you have through hard work and a good deal of self sacrifice. Psychology is an area for improvement for me and my success in applying of the right psychology is a bit hit and miss, however somehow I manage to win the battles with negative and disruptive thoughts, MOST of the time, during my training and racing.  2014 had been a largely positive season.  During the early part of the year I’d ran solidly enough in some early season road races, and even posted a 10k PB of 38.35, a number of solid triathlon performances, over a range of distances, followed:

 

1st Leicester Sprint Triathlon

Triathlon England National Olympic Distance Age Group Champion

4th Overall at the Dambuster Triathlon

3rd Day in the Lakes Middle Distance Triathlon

1st Stowe Olympic Distance Triathlon

17th Alpe d’huez International Long Distance Triathlon

1st Female team (with Racetime team mates Sam Anderson, Eli Thorogood and Emily McLoughlin) at the National Relay Championships

 

Ironman Wales 2015 was very much a race of two halves in which psychology (my own) played a big part, hopefully my account of the race illustrates how impactful the ‘right’ psychology and mind set can have…

All my training numbers supported the fact I was in great shape heading into Ironman Wales and I did my best to focus on this and my good performances across the season.  I also had the added benefit of knowing Duncan was in supreme shape and hungrier than ever for his Kona slot, with a bit of luck (everyone needs that in Ironman racing, I don’t care how good you are!) surely his was a ‘card punching’ exercise?   I can honestly say, Dunc’s race was far more important to me than my own, he wanted it and he deserved it more than anyone else I know.  You can draw an awful lot of strength and inspiration from being around the best triathletes and I am lucky to married to one of them!

My coach Jack and I agreed my strategy for Ironman Wales was to be conservative on the bike and then deploy my strong running (which had been strong, particularly in the second half of the season, and has historically been my ironman strength) to maximum effect… Yes, Jack actually used the term “special weapon” to describe the run portion of my race strategy, which amused me greatly!  I should have felt supremely confident in my run but I hadn’t ran a Ironman marathon since Kona 2013 and my ‘energy lab implosion’ weighed heavily on my mind and those negative thoughts continued to nag at me.

Come race day, my anxiety levels were sky high but as I stood sobbing on the beach at Tenby I reminded myself at what a long way I’d come in ‘managing’ my pre race anxiety having previously needed to be coaxed out of a portaloo before the start (my first Ironman) and crying for almost a week before Challenge Roth in 2010… a few tears before the start was progress right?  The sea was rough and the swell big, not my favoured conditions being of slight build and having a technique that doesn’t translate well to rough conditions but I survived and exited the water about 5mins down on what I’d expected but I later found this was a fairly favourable deficit compared to many.  I actually quite enjoyed the 1k run to T1, the atmosphere was electric and it is a unique part of the event.

I saw Dunc exiting the change tent as I arrived which told me he’d probably taken about 90 seconds out of me in the water, “damn it” I thought, “I’m never going to hear the end of this”… 3 weeks has passed since the race and yet the daily reminders that he beat me out of the water in Tenby are still a minimum twice daily! Not that we are a competitive couple 😉 On to the bike and I was still finding my ‘land legs’, despite being the daughter of a Royal Navy Officer, embarrassing, I suffer really badly with sea sickness and I felt a little green around the gills but this subsided soon enough.  I will fast forward through the next bit but suffice to say it was not a good day for me on the bike and I struggled from the get go, I felt flat and just seemed to have no power on the climbs.  I battled with the same negative thoughts that have been recurrent in my training and preparation  and as I was passed by girls I knew shouldn’t be passing me I could feel my confidence ebbing away and my ride, unsurprisingly, was not going well.

I was at least conscious of the impact my negativity was having on my ride and decided I need to find a focus, which became my nutrition.  A complicated spreadsheet had calculated my strategy with methodical (possibly even obsessive) accuracy and in the final 40 miles my pre occupation with g/Kg/h of carbs, total sodium etc etc had helped shelve the negative thoughts and I even started to come back at a few of the riders who’d passed me on the first lap.  Perhaps most significantly I was well fuelled on arrival in T2!

Then came my biggest psychological blow,  the time on my watch had me coming into T2 almost half an hour slower than I’d scheduled and then “you’re 7th in age group” shouted by a friend.  “Shit, I have a mountain to climb here” I thought and my head dropped, I knew I needed to finish 2nd in age group to grab that Kona slot and I started to feel resigned to it not being ‘my year’.  However, as I put my shoes on I suddenly felt the anger building, anger at myself mainly and at that moment I decided I need a new strategy for the run and it was simple, go out as hard as I dare and hope to hell I could hold on!  I was down in 7th, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I felt good from the get go but then you always do for the first 10k or so right?  I knew I was running at a sub 3:30 min mile pace, on the first lap I began to move through the field at quite a rate and was moving quickly enough to cause a couple of the guys I was passing to do a double take as a wee girl clipped past them and more than a few of them probably thought I was on the fast track to an implosion and I wasn’t sure I wasn’t!  I have ran a 3:31 IM marathon before so it isn’t completely uncharted territory for me but that was on the pan flat Lanzarote run course not the tough, hilly Tenby course so it was a risky strategy but so far down on where I should be it was all or nothing.  As I passed the timing mats I imagined Jack on his laptop thinking “WTF?” but I pressed on.  By the end of the first 10.5k lap I was up to 5th and I’d spotted all of the girls I was chasing and knew I running faster, 3rd and 4th looked relatively easy pickings but 2nd (Mie Bruun, DEN) and 1st (Amy Ogden, GBR) looked well clear after both turning in impressive bike splits.  I caught and passed 3rd and 4th before leaving Tenby for lap 2 and continued to push hard.  Half way through lap 2 a friend confirmed me to be in 3rd place and if I could hold that pace I should catch second.  I could see that both Bruun and Ogden were moving more slowly than me, IF I hadn’t already burnt too many matches.

I caught Bruun at about 28k into the marathon but sadly I’d left myself way too much to do to catch Ogden who held on well to take an excellent third place overall in the women’s race.  I continued to move through the field and ran a pretty even paced marathon in the end to post the fastest women’s run split of the day, including the pros.  My run performance was significantly advantaged by news that Dunc had finished 4th (21st overall) and had booked that coveted Kona slot in style with a faultless performance, it lifted me to a new IM Marathon  PB and my finish line celebration was realisation that we’d achieved the ‘SS Double’ that looked very shaky as I’d entered T2!

2014 wales run

It was a shame I’d let myself down so badly on the bike as I was the fastest aggregate swim and run by some margin, but 7th overall, 2nd AG and a Kona slot is not bad spoils from a sub par bike performance.  It was great to celebrate that achievement with our wonderfully supportive friends and family, particularly Janet SS (Ironmum), Terry, Faith, Evie, Isobel, Harry, Colly, Dizzy, Big Steve and my former swim coach Fez, all of whom made the journey to Tenby to support us.  Not forgetting the friends who spent all day starring at a screen and pressing refresh repeatedly, particularly ‘LTC intelligence’ Chris and Jane Sherwood and Chris Mawer for getting vital placing and timing updates out onto the course for both Dunc and I via text.

Immediately after the race I was lucky to bump into Paul Burton and Nico Vd Westhuizen, both putting in excellent performances at the very sharp end of uber competitive age groups.  I eagerly sought out news of buddies Charlie Pennington, David Rowe, Robbie Whitaker and Aled Smith.  Charlie, Nico, Dunc, Robbie and David had ‘punched their tickets’ while Paul and Aled, had a nervous wait till roll down the following morning.  We went to bed late and didn’t sleep much that night, excitedly catching up with our supporters and ensuring all our LTC buddies competing were home safe.

We all assembled for the awards ceremony the next morning and to share the inevitable war stories, I felt immensely proud to be on the stage with Charlie (35-39 Age Group Champion, 7th overall) and Nico, athletes I have known only from afar and by association until Tenby but admired greatly.  Next came Kona slot allocation and Myself, Dunc, Charlie, Nico, David and Robbie all went up to collect our lei.  Next came roll down and we were rooting for Paul and Aled, sadly there are very few roll downs at Wales as one of the earliest qualification opportunities and both missed out by one slot!  My heart went out to Paul for whom this is his second ‘nearly maybe’ but something tells me his tenacity will not go unrewarded and I look forward to sharing a mai tai (or two!) with Paul on the big island next October.

2014 wales

Congratulations to all our friends who made it a very memorable weekend in Tenby and everyone that has supported us both along the way, you know who you are, we are eternally grateful to you all.  I guess it is time I put the self doubt about whether I am ‘good enough’ for Kona behind me, I certainly need to not allow negative thoughts to hijack my race again, I’m now a TWO TIMES Kona qualifier and I AM deserving of my place on the start line next October.  My second trip to Hawaii is already better than the first as this time I get to share it with Dunc but in writing this blog I realise I may need to enlist the help of a good sports psychologist before next October… Any sports psychologists reading this that fancy a challenge, get in touch!

Well done to all the LTC and Racetime Tenby Finishers;  Doorsey, Ian, Iain, Patryk, David and Kieron. Special thanks to Janet, Terry, Harry and David who came to the Awards Ceremony to see us both get our Hawaiian lei.  Thank you to our wonderful Racetime team boss and friend, Johnny Nicol, all the fantastic team sponsors and my awesome team mates for their fabulous support over what has been a great season.