A Most Bothersome and Preventable Tragedy

Two bone breaks, both caused by stupidity

(A Spanish island’s where we lay our scene)

This training breaks down under scrutiny

I’m so far now from where I could have been.

From forth the awful year of Covid woes

I sought a brand new coach to breathe new life

But “misadventured piteous overthrows”

Sums up my body’s consequential strife.

The loss of practising the sport I love

And the continuance of miserable rage,

Which, now I’m diagnosed, is part removed,

Has helped me to become somewhat more sage;

And now, if you with patient eyes attend,

It may help you – and all the while, I’ll mend.

A quick bit of back story: 2018-19 were great and I was on a very marked upward trajectory. By the end of 2019 I’d had my first Ironman 70.3 win and a couple of further podiums, and raced a full distance Ironman for the first time since having hip surgery in 2014.

2020 was shit, mostly “because Covid”; I had massive anxiety by the end of the year. Aided and abetted by well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful unsolicited advice, I decided that the best way to deal with this was to throw out the coaching system that had worked for me in the past, and instead to have another bash at the “coach writes every session for you in Training Peaks” model of coaching.

Two weeks into said coaching model, the Netherlands finally caught up with the rest of (mainland) Europe and announced a lockdown including the closure of swimming pools. So naturally Ed and I found somewhere that had managed to keep the pools open and decamped there for the “five weeks” (haha) that lockdown would last.

Training programme while in Fuerteventura, Day 1: 4400m swim; 35 min easy run; gym session including box jumps onto an 18 inch / 45 cm box.

For those of you who have seen me attempt to jump, spring, or not be out the back of a rowing race at the 250m marker – even when I then go on to win the race – it will come as no surprise that I did not make it onto the aforementioned box.

I picked myself up off the floor – feeling like a massive idiot but imagining myself to be largely unscathed, as one does – and thought that perhaps I wouldn’t try any more of those today. I then realised I couldn’t really move my left arm…

The collarbone healed straightforwardly, and in the meantime I continued as directed with biking and running. I started a tiny bit of swimming again 4 weeks after the break and built up gradually, and for a while everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. I was training more than I’d ever done before, and it even seemed as though some racing might be starting to come back in a few countries.

But the training was hard. Really hard. With no recovery weeks, or even blocks, as far as I could tell. (I’d previously taken 3-day rest blocks every 3 weeks as well as more rest integrated into the programme – not a recommendation since everyone is different, but that seemed to work well for me.) I was getting more and more tired, slower and feeling stiff and beaten up.

I reported back to coach that I was tired and feeling stiff, but I didn’t want to complain too much. The way I saw it, that type of training clearly worked for “everyone else” so I must just be being pathetic.

My running during this time was also on hilly concrete, since there were no sensible flat options where we were staying. Hilly concrete is, as one might expect, harder on the body than the flat tarmac that I’m used to. In particular running downhill, where my not inconsiderable weight thunders through my legs with every step.

It will probably come as no surprise, then, that I woke up one day feeling extra stiff. Stretched and mobilised a bit more than usual before heading out as planned for my scheduled run session. Developed worsening pain through the run such that I could hardly even walk by the time I finished. And somehow still thought it was just some muscles tightening up.

I relayed this to coach, who opined that I probably wasn’t really injured and would be better in a few days. And that I hadn’t been doing enough training for it to be a stress fracture.

There followed three fairly hellish months of tears, confounded physios, MRI scans of various parts of my body (I spent about 6 weeks asking various medical people if perhaps we could take a picture of the bit that actually hurt), failed attempts to return to running, and some awful interactions with obscenely rude medical admin staff. Who I joked at the time weren’t interested in helping you unless you had a broken leg… oh the irony.

Yesterday I finally sat down with a surgeon and saw a CT scan taken the day before, clearly showing a stress fracture line through my femur. Although it also shows some signs of healing, I’m on full rest and only allowed to walk with crutches for at least the next 2 weeks, pending further scans…

A glooming peace this knowledge with it brings.

Though racing this year I’ll not show my head,

I do not want to dwell on these sad things,

But rather look at what to learn, instead.

It’s time to turn this story filled with woe

To lessons to take with us as we go.

So, in between crutching around, selecting the most nutrient-dense Bake Off recipes to try out, and sleeping as much as possible, I have been TRYING to see, if not positives, at least some learnings for when I (cliché alert) come back, better than ever. Hopefully these can also be of some use to anyone reading this…

  • Don’t trust the process… trust yourself

A bit of an odd one, this, in the triathlon world, with its oft-repeated mantra of “trust the process”. But personally I’ve found that whenever I’ve done exactly what a coach tells me, it’s a recipe for injury, illness or simply not getting any faster for the duration. For many if not most athletes, this won’t be the case, of course – but if you feel that training is too much, too hard, too long, and you feel like that all the time, then something is clearly amiss.

I’ve always looked at other athletes’ training hours (or at least, what they claim on Instagram are their training hours…) and felt that I must be completely failing and not suited to professional sport. Talk of “low volume athletes who only train 25 hours per week,” and of 30 hours being standard, have given me a stick to beat myself with, and stopped me from having the confidence to be less British with my “I’m quite tired” and “I’m used to having more rest than this, I’m not sure my body’s adjusted yet”.

Instead I should have flat out stated that the training was breaking my body down and I needed more rest. I even failed to take confidence from the training data that unarguably shows that I averaged well under 20 hours a week in the lead up to WINNING a 70.3. Which is, after all, the point.

One way in which I managed not to contravene the “trust yourself” principle too flagrantly is once I actually had the injury. I maintained that contrary to what all the medical professionals said, I didn’t just have tight muscles and that there was something wrong that they hadn’t found. Albeit that this largely took the form of lying on the floor, crying, and howling “why can’t they fucking figure it out and why won’t they at least CHECK it’s not a stress fracture”.

By the time I was finally diagnosed, I’d been convinced that I was a massive hypochondriac for thinking it was a stress fracture, but was at the point where I no longer cared and was going to persist in making people scan bits of me until they’d either found something or showed me two perfectly intact femurs on an MRI.

  • Seriously consider the risk vs reward of box jumps

A rather specific one, this, but since the collarbone injury I’ve described the mode of failure to various people, and been slightly appalled by the number of “oh yeah, I knew someone who was doing box jumps, fell and broke their collarbone / ribs / wrist / elbow” responses.

Obviously anecdote =/= data, but also, box jumps =/= speed in long distance triathlon. (Especially not in my case!) I’d argue that if rate of force production for bike and run is really an issue – which I honestly find debatable for long-distance triathlon, we’re not exactly training for steeplechase here – a similar effect could be achieved with significantly less injury risk using alternative exercises.

  • Remember that pain does not always correlate well with injury

Until I saw the surgeon recently, I’d been building up my running again with a run / walk programme, and was up to about 30-40 minutes of total running per session. The leg kind of felt stiff, and not great, but nothing like the sort of pain I’d imagined “running on a broken bone” to feel like. Even last week when the surgeon told me, on the basis of a rather blurry MRI, to use crutches for walking while we waited for the more detailed CT scan, I figured I didn’t really need them, it didn’t hurt that much and it felt a bit pathetic to be using them. (Now remedied, for the avoidance of doubt…)

Similarly with the collarbone break, I thought I’d probably just bruised myself a bit and that I’d be in way more pain if it was actually broken. I felt slightly ridiculous asking Ed to go fetch me some ice, and insisting on dragging us both to the doctor to get an X-ray “just in case”… until I saw the scan.

  • Learn from mistakes, but then move on

I’m still struggling with this one, to be honest. “If only” we’d stayed here, if I hadn’t done box jumps [because maybe without a broken collarbone I would have been doing more swimming and less running], if I hadn’t changed coach. And currently the hardest to process, possibly because it’s the most recent but possibly also because of the number of battles we’ve had along the way, if I’d been diagnosed without a 13 week fucking delay…

Accepting that I made the best decisions I could with the available information; that instead of accelerating my progress, it’s led to losing a year towards what is likely the tail end of my professional racing career; and that there’s nothing I can do about it, is hard.

But there’s nothing I can do about it now other than do better next time. Bottle the frustration and bring it out when I’m finally allowed to take it out on the pedals again. And, apparently, process everything via the medium of slightly convoluted tragicomic iambic pentameter. Your reward for making it to the end is not to have any further rhyming verse inflicted upon you… for now.

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Don’t mess with Texas, round 6

Texas 5, Frankie 1, and an exciting day for women’s racing

I’m not sure what it is about racing in Texas. After two terrible days out racing the Ironman in the Woodlands, two simply “meh” races at the 70.3 in Galveston and a DNF with hypothermia (yes, hypOthermia) at 70.3 Austin, you’d have thought I might have admitted defeat.

However, last Sunday in Galveston, I clawed back a point!

Race week kicked off beautifully, with Ed quarantined in a hotel due to a nasty cold and me being hit at considerable speed by an unlicensed, uninsured driver within a mile of the rental car centre. Thankfully colds resolve quickly and modern cars are well designed…

The rest of race week was mercifully less eventful and we arrived at transition on Sunday morning with what appears to be my new race day mantra of “everything has gone well so far, now just don’t fuck it up”.

Insert standard triathlon race report here

My [swim / bike / run] wasn’t as good as I thought it should have been because [the water was choppy / I hadn’t been training on the TT bike / I just wasn’t having the best day] (delete as appropriate).

All true, but apparently even my sub-par swim / bike combo was enough to have me rattling into T2 in second place, having moved from 15th to 2nd during the bike (if anyone needs me during the next few months, I’ll be in the pool…).

Unfortunately there was a pack shortly behind me, and my transitions, while vastly improved, are still not the quickest out there, so a group of us came tumbling out onto the run course together and all went haring off like lunatics.

Luckily in the seconds after this picture was taken, I glanced down at my watch and realised that 3:45 min / km pace was possibly not sustainable for 21 km (I’m working on it…) so focused on running my own race and getting myself to the finish line as quickly as possible, rather than trying to race those around me and ending up walking.

Probably the most exciting run of my career so far followed. For those who haven’t had the (dubious) pleasure of competing in the pro field, I have to admit that the race dynamics can often be quite boring, with big time gaps and few changes of place. This was the opposite of that! I went from 2nd off the bike, to 4th, to 3rd, all the way down to 8th at one point, and then back up into 6th, even running shoulder-to-shoulder with one of the others during the last lap before somehow pulling away again.

Strong women’s racing!

I crossed the line in 4:08:20, a big PB (aka PR, for my American friends), and in 6th place. There were 8 of us under 4:10 and within 8 minutes of the winner – a huge step up from previous years. The pro women’s field was also equal in size to the men’s for the first time, with 24 on each start list and 22 of each actually racing.

While on a personal level, this trend to strength and depth obviously makes it harder for me to podium or win a race, it also makes me pretty excited about the way the women’s side of the sport is heading. It will certainly be interesting to see if my races elsewhere this year (still TBD but likely in Europe and APAC) show a similar progression.

What’s next…

I’m back training in Tucson until the end of April. It’s currently not yet clear whether this will be (a) excellent heat acclimatisation or (b) death by fire for my pasty British body.

During May I’ll be based at home in Amsterdam preparing for the next block of races, kicking off with the Challenge Championship in Samorin, Slovakia.

Thanks are due to (and I look forward to continuing to work with)…

  • Steve, who masterminds the process while letting me believe I am in control
  • Dan at Swim for Tri and Michael at SwimGym for patience, encouragement and perseverance in the face of a total lack of talent
  • Homestretch Foundation for giving me a place to train and creating an amazing community that I am thankful to be a part of
  • The many people who have given me a place to stay for training and racing – I couldn’t do this without you
  • Everyone who has trained with me over the winter and put up with my morning grumpiness, obsessive tendencies and complete refusal to deviate from the plan
  • and of course Ed, for everything
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The great weight debate…

I’ve had an unprecedented level of response to my last post, mostly asking about weight loss and how I did it while training for long-distance triathlon racing. Below follows an attempt to set the weight loss in the context of the myriad of other changes I made; a brief look at the way coaches and nutritionists are currently approaching – or, in many cases, failing to approach – this issue; and then a discussion of what I did.

It wasn’t just weight loss!

Firstly, my improved performances were not solely due to weight loss. Consistency in training is significant, with my longest uninterrupted period of triathlon training ever leading into the back half of last year. Mental attitude and willingness to make changes were key, and the “virtuous circle” created by the confidence I gradually gained as my speed improved in training also played into the progress. (This noticeably manifested in ways like being brave enough to say hello to some of the other pro athletes at our race briefings, rather than thinking they’d laugh at me for even being there…) Changes to the substance of my training itself were also critical.

The focus-on-weight paradox

However, it is undeniable that weight loss was a factor. At least, you’d think it’s undeniable, but I have found a remarkable reluctance from professionals in the field to acknowledge it or to advise me to lose weight, even in the face of direct questioning.

On one level this is understandable, given some of the issues around athletes and bodyweight. People want to do whatever is in their power to ensure that athletes don’t develop injuries or illness (including disordered eating behaviour), especially if this could be perceived to be as a result of them pressurising the athlete to lose weight.

However, I would argue that “flying blind” as a result of total refusal to discuss it, means that athletes are more likely to make mistakes in managing their weight, potentially ending up injured or with other issues that could have been avoided if they’d been able to obtain the right advice. I was lucky to have just the right level of gentle encouragement and advice from coach Steve, with Ed keeping a closer eye on me. None of us are specialists, but we’re hoping that three smart people doing our best and remaining objective have managed to do it well enough.

What I did

I weighed myself every day and recorded the number; weighed and calculated the calories in almost everything I ate; and netted off the calories I estimated I’d used in training. I then aimed to consume 200-300 calories a day less than I needed to maintain weight. Simple, right?

What I got right

Most importantly, I was crystal clear in my mind that I was doing this for performance-related reasons, and this helped me to be both sensible (I never skipped any meals, I always refuelled after training) and objective (if something wasn’t working, I was able to remain relatively unemotional about it and try to figure out why; I didn’t obsess over small fluctuations in my weight).

As a professional athlete I’m at home most of the time when I’m not training, so it was easy for me to choose what to eat and adjust quantities based on what training I did each day. For people who are in an office most of the day, there will necessarily be a higher level of organisation and meal prep, as well as self-control to avoid the snacks that always seem to be lying around.

Speaking of self-control – I avoided relying on it whenever I could. If there’s no chocolate or ice cream in the house, then laziness wins out over greed a good 95% of the time!

I didn’t try any stupid diets (a reasonably good rule is that if a diet has a name… it’s a stupid diet) and I ate A LOT OF FOOD and A LOT OF CARBS. Most days I was still eating upwards of 3,000 calories a day, some days well over 4,000. It doesn’t matter how much weight you lose, if you don’t fuel and recover from your training, at best you will underperform and at worst you’ll have much bigger problems than how fast you’re going.

I also didn’t eat any fucking kale…

What I had to change

The fact I wasn’t an optimal weight for performance to start with, was about 10% eating “the wrong stuff” and 90% simply eating more than I needed without realising. I was pretty shocked when I started weighing my food by how little I actually needed. (This will obviously vary from person to person – for example, as I already barely drank alcohol, I didn’t have the option of shifting a few kilos by simply giving that up, but if you do, that could be a great place to start.)

I discovered fairly quickly that I really had to weigh EVERYTHING I ate (except the occasional meal out, where someone else makes a predetermined amount for you, so you can’t portion-creep). And I continue to weigh everything most days to make sure I don’t gradually start eating more than I need – or, more importantly, eating less than I need and not making it through training.

I was also significantly underestimating calorie burn from cycling when I started out, which led to a few spectacular sense of humour failures and canned sessions due to low blood sugar. (Beware of trusting what your Garmin says here – mine appears to vastly overestimate calories used in high intensity bike sessions and underestimate for low intensity.)

I was hungry. A lot. It was hard. I drank too much caffeine in the mornings and I lay awake hungry a few nights when I would probably have been better off eating a little more and losing weight slightly more slowly, although I do think some hunger is inevitable if you have a relatively high quality diet to begin with.

Advice

First, get advice from someone more qualified than me…. but also:

Remain objective and do not associate your self-worth with your bodyweight (or your speed, come to that)

Always carry emergency food with you when you are training!

Build habits (for example, I now weigh food without really thinking about it or needing to remind myself to do it)

Make those habits easy (for me, the kitchen scales live on the worktop, with a notepad and pen next to them to write down calories)

Don’t necessarily aim for a target weight. I started this project with no real idea how much weight I had to lose, so when I’d lost 2kg I thought “great, I’ve lost 2kg” rather than “ugh, I have another 8kg still to go”.

Stay healthy, and remember that when you’re aiming for performance, health > training > weight.

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Reflecting on a year of change

2018 was an exhausting year. I moved house, changed my coaching setup and had my longest training and racing season ever. I had an absolute shocker of a race in June, after which I made some fairly drastic changes to how I approached training and racing. By the end of the year I’d taken 22 minutes off my 70.3 PB.

Safe to say the changes have been for the better!

New home

Ed and I moved to Amsterdam in 2015, leaving behind our house in London along with friends, family and familiarity. We rented an apartment near the city centre, which had its good and bad points. The lowest may have been when builders arrived unannounced, demanded access to our power and water, began external works that the landlord had commissioned without our knowledge, and promptly managed to flood the place…

The search for our own house intensified and Ed eventually found the perfect home. I managed to be in Amsterdam for long enough to visit it, between him putting the offer in and us signing the contract… admittedly I didn’t then quite make it back from winter training camp in time for moving day!


Now we are settled in and unlike in our previous place, I can run and ride from the front door. This is a huge game-changer, although the winter weather remains a challenge…

New setup

I had full coaching for the first time in my triathlon career from November 2016 until May 2018, working with Michael Lovato and his great group of athletes based in Boulder, Colorado. We struggled a little throughout because I simply couldn’t spend enough time there (when it’s cold at home, it’s also cold in Boulder, so winter training camps there weren’t workable).

I also had trouble relinquishing control over my programme. I’ve always loved designing my own programme and for me it appears to be particularly valuable to retain the ability to “flex” sessions based around fatigue, conditions and occasionally even how busy the pool is on a given day. Head-up-breast-strokers plus Frankie flat out intervals does not appear to be a recipe for anyone’s success or happiness.

It was a tough decision to change setup – Michael and his athletes are lovely people – but eventually I decided I had to try something else. I’m now back working with the wonderful Steve Trew, who has me figure out in my own time how and when I complete his suggested sessions, and somehow manages to marshal my delinquent brain to make it do what we need.

The race that flipped a switch

At 70.3 Lahti, Finland at the end of June I came nearly last in the pro field and just over 26 minutes behind the winner. My swim was reasonable in that I managed to stay with the main pack, but I still lost plenty of time to those at the front; my bike was mediocre and run was a disaster – I felt sick and bloated and was struggling to run. Transitions were a mess, in particular T1 where I lost well over a minute to the leader.

There are often tears at the finish line simply due to the release after managing normal racing pain for hours, but this time it went deeper. I was still in a filthy mood days later, and almost considering quitting. Why keep trying when I have been this slow for so long and not made any progress?

We decided it was time to address some things I thought I couldn’t or didn’t need to change…

Until this year I’d never attempted to learn flying mounts or dismounts. I’ve never been the most co-ordinated of people: so bad at ball sports as a child that I almost missed out on sport altogether, and one of my strongest childhood memories is someone who should probably remain nameless calling me a “clumsy great lump” as I tripped over something yet again.

We started on a road bike with flat pedals and progressed to the full “tri shoes and elastic bands” model.

The first attempt! Despite my fears, I didn’t hurt my bike and I still have all my teeth

I’ve yet to manage the dismount in a race as it appears to be easier in training than after 90km of smashing it; work on this to be continued when it’s no longer snowing outside!

Having struggled to run off the bike in all my races this year, feeling bloated and nauseous, I finally figured out why. Turns out I was trying to eat and drink too much on the bike – a simple change of nutrition quantity and timing has since helped me leave T2 feeling, not “good,” but as good as one can hope to feel after several hours of racing…

Last but by no means least, after years of ignoring whether bodyweight could be a factor in my continued underperformance, I decided to try losing some weight. I’d been reluctant to do this after having repeated stress fractures while rowing and early in my triathlon career, and under advice from those I’d asked that it simply wasn’t an issue.

I’ll go deeper into this in another post….. but…… it is an issue. Having lost 10kg that I didn’t know I had to bring my BMI down to around 20, my biking is noticeably faster and my run has completely transformed.

I haven’t been able to obtain sensible advice on weight loss in any real level of detail, so I’ve tried to be as cautious as possible and take measures to avoid becoming unhealthy or injured as a result. I’m now simply trying to maintain rather than lose weight, and very much hoping I’ve managed it healthily – time will tell.

At Bahrain 70.3 in December, my race plan was essentially “don’t fuck it up”: have a solid race to see whether all the changes were starting to have some effect. Despite only being reunited with my bike the day before the race, I managed it. My best time up to June had been 4:33. I was dreaming of a sub-4:20 so was pleasantly surprised to see 4:11 on my watch as I crossed the finish line!


A good day out: 4th place in a stacked field, an unexpected slot to Ironman 70.3 Worlds and most importantly some confirmation that I was on the right path

Onwards to 2019, and more changes as required!

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Challenge Herning 2018 race report

 

Ed and I headed to Denmark to race

(We’ve been there before. It’s a wonderful place.)

 

The weather is hot and the racing is fast

Despite awesome swim gear, I’m onto land last

 

I jump on my bike and my power is so low

It’s hard to believe I’m not riding too slow

 

Near the end of the bike, I creep up into fifth

A glimmer of hope! A “maybe,” a “what if?”

 

Heading out on the run, I feel sick, faint and dead;

I repeatedly chuck water over my head.

 

It works, I speed up, and some others slow down

I finish in third after four laps through town!

 

This tale’s not quite over. I wouldn’t be here

Without the kind people who’ve helped me all year

 

So: thanks to the Homestretch for helping me train

And thank you to Steve for rebooting my brain

 

To Roka for giving me kit to #FindFaster

And Dan, who creates fiendish swim drills to master

 

The homestays who’ve helped us – you’re part of the team

and Ed, who supports me in living the dream

 

Thank you to you all for your kind words and thoughts

And for reading ridiculous racing reports!

 

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Before the start

 

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Making the best of a bad day. Thanks to James Mitchell for the fantastic shot

 

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No words needed as I cross the line. Another big thank you to James Mitchell for capturing the moment!

 

resting puke face

Resting puke face after the finish. Nothing but never-ending glamour in pro triathlon

 

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Podium girls! Congrats to Pernille and Laura on a classy first and second place, and having a significantly better champagne game than me

 

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VERY EXCITED to be qualified for the Challenge Championship 2019

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Ironman 70.3 Dublin race report, August 2016

I entered this race because all my friends seemed to be doing it…. which seems like a bad reason at first glance, but over the years I have learnt that racing needs to be fun as well as hard! I’d also raced here before, and knew that the course suited me. Added to the fact it was only a week after Challenge Fredericia, this combined to give me an opportunity to try back-to-back racing with a great course and environment, and without any pressure.

Ed and I flew from Denmark to Dublin on Tuesday of race week, and on Wednesday I headed out on my bike to find the course. We seemed to have brought the rain with us… Training still felt heavy and sluggish on Wednesday after the Saturday afternoon race, to the extent that I even did fewer race pace intervals on my run than the maximum number I was allowed to do (!!).

Thanks to Charlie for driving me round the bike course with minimal getting lost!

Thanks to Charlie for driving me round the bike course with minimal getting lost!

Once we’d had a few days to settle in, I was feeling much better – this was actually 8 days between races, but I felt ready to go again within a week. I’d also decided to try throwing caution to the wind and hammering the bike this time round, rather than sticking to a carefully calculated % FTP, and see what happened.

Pro women's swim start in beautiful conditions

Pro women’s swim start in beautiful conditions

This may have been the calmest sea swim I’ve ever raced! I managed to hang on slightly longer than usual off the start, but by a couple of hundred metres in was still swimming by myself, and eventually lost sight of the front pack in the overcast weather. In my mind I was definitely last and definitely going too hard, so concentrated on holding good form and sighting well. The final straight towards the swim exit was the most challenging section of the swim, as the current pushed me off course.

Coming out of the swim I was happy to see one girl leaving transition as I came in and another three bags still on the rack – fifth out of eight is my highest swim finish yet, so it’s time to lose the “I’m sure I must be last” thoughts while out in the water.

A reasonable T1 and out onto the bike - must remember that in this country we ride on the LEFT!

A reasonable T1 and out onto the bike – must remember that in this country we ride on the LEFT!

Not knowing how my run would be after racing the previous weekend, I had decided just to enjoy the stunning bike course…. otherwise known as smash it! The course never lets you get bored, with a couple of steepish hills, some great descents that you can push hard, twists and turns, all accompanied by beautiful scenery.

A big Thank You to the race organisers for changing the planned 5 minute head start to an 8 minute head start on the age groupers on race morning – this meant that I never saw the course get busy and the closed roads were largely mine to ride. I passed a couple of girls to ride myself into 3rd position at one point, but was then caught myself and came into T2 in 4th, ready to see how my body would hold up for the run.

The run is 3 fairly flat loops around Phoenix Park and a great course – as is often the case, the first loop was quiet enough that I wondered if I was going the right way a couple of times, but I soon had much more company. Leaving T2 with only a couple of minutes gap behind me, I was very happy not to slip into 5th place until my second lap.

Ed was giving me splits to 6th place and we were relatively happy that I had a comfortable gap, until spotting that the tracker was malfunctioning… I’d been pushing hard anyway, but then I realised how little gap there was with only a couple of km to go. Somehow I found a little bit extra, but until I was on the red carpet and heading to the line I was convinced I was going to be run off the podium and out of the money in the closing metres of the race.

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Once the world had stopped spinning and I had been released from the medical tent, we headed to the Phoenix Park cafe (a favourite part of last year’s trip) for lunch, then back to the course to catch up with friends. This included a venture back to the finish line to give Charlie his finisher’s medal, before watching him accept a slot to World Championships at the awards ceremony later in the day!

Charlie finishing the race after dishing out Polos on the red carpet

Charlie finishing the race after dishing out Polos on the red carpet

Top 5 pro women

Top 5 pro women

Tired but happy at the end of an exciting day!

Tired but happy at the end of an exciting day!

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Challenge Fredericia race report, August 2016

Having not really dared to plan anything based on what my body might still be able to do After The Ironman, I was slightly bewildered to find myself still in one piece at the end of June, back training normally a couple of weeks after the event, and needing to choose some races for the second half of the season. We’d had a great time in Denmark in June, so another race run by Challenge, and very close to where we’d raced previously, seemed like a good choice.

After spending July mostly keeping my swim and bike ticking over but running round the local park like a lunatic in a bid to gain some run speed, we headed to Fredericia a few days before the race, giving ourselves time to settle in and check out the course well before race day.

Outside transition, during a rare gap in the rain

Outside transition a few days before the race, during a rare gap in the rain

Investigating the course turned out to be an experience in itself! With dolphins (and other, rather less welcome creatures) roaming around the swim course, rain that had the bike route virtually under water at times, and my visor blowing away as I went for an easy jog round the first part of the run section, race day looked set to be an interesting experience.

Triathlete pick 'n' mix at the expo!

Triathlete pick ‘n’ mix at the expo!

Race start on Saturday wasn’t until 3pm – the trick seemed to be to fill the morning with just enough activity that nerves couldn’t set in too much. A lie in, quick pre-race swim and “race morning breakfast” at lunchtime occupied the time, and for a start so late in the day, it rolled around surprisingly quickly.

I’d spent most of the week trying to get my head round the swim full of jellyfish, knowing the real risk was that I would panic, rather than any damage caused by the jellyfish themselves…. Thanks to Yvonne for letting me stick with her during the warm up, and magically managing to calm me down in a few words when I first saw one of the stinging kind and freaked out a bit!

Somehow, when the gun went off, I stuck my head down and got on with it, taking it one stroke at a time and managing not to panic. It helped that another girl was swimming right next to me for the first section along a canal, and once out into the more open section in the harbour, the rough water and concentrating on sighting diverted enough of my attention to keep panic at bay.

Athletes swim 2 loops once they’re into the harbour section, and towards the end of the first loop I did jump a bit seeing something large and grey swooshing underneath me – but how very cool to see the dolphin during the swim! Starting out on the second loop I merged into the mass of age groupers who’d started 5 minutes behind us, trying my best not to accidentally smack any of them on the way past. Again, dodging round people and trying not to get a mouthful of the choppy sea kept my thoughts off the jellyfish, and soon enough I was out of the water.

As an added bonus, the number on my watch even started with 27 as I came into T1. A huge PB, possibly a slightly short course, but given how “busy” it was in there, I am still pretty happy!

Thankfully the weather gods were kind to us during the bike, and I didn’t have to test out my newly-found carbon-braking-in-the-wet skills on the twisty descents. The wind was strong and gusty, but every time a gust shoved me across the road I gripped on tight to the aero bars and remembered that wind + disc = a big push forwards! The only place this didn’t work was going across the Old Little Belt bridge, with a rough road surface and very strong side winds, where the base bar seemed like a safer place to be…

After all my mental (thankfully not physical) wrangling with the jellyfish, I was speeding down a hill back into town at the end of the first of 2 bike loops when I felt something fly into one of the side panels of my helmet and get stuck, buzzing around the side of my face. After smacking it a couple of times, there was no more buzzing, but instead a painful sting on my cheek. Actually really pleased to have got a wasp stuck in my helmet, as it is something I have long been terrified of, and now it’s happened and no one died (apart from the wasp…) I will be less scared of it happening again!

Unfortunately I managed to miss the single aid station on the bike course, which is a few metres before transition, just round a corner, before heading back out onto the second loop. However, I did see Ed, who told me I had moved into 5th place without realising it… Now used to the corners and the wind, I managed to ride the second loop slightly faster than the first and hold my position, but rolled into T2 feeling slightly cooked after not drinking enough on the bike.

Having checked out the run course profile on the website, which claimed that it had a whole zero metres of climbing, it was a bit of a shock to find that other than the section I’d jogged before the race, it was almost entirely either uphill or downhill. Still, a leg of the course with no wildlife to deal with was to be appreciated, and I could feel a huge improvement in my running from the last couple of months’ training.

Although I lost one place on the run, it seemed to progress surprisingly quickly, and before I knew it I was coming into my last lap. Hearing that I had “3 or 4 minutes” on age-groupers behind me, I took off like a scalded cat… not used to my newly improved run fitness, I’d clearly gone out a bit conservatively, given the step up I was able to make at that point! Better than the huge slowdown in the run of my previous race, although with less than 4 minutes between me and 4th place, it’s annoying to know I might have been able to go faster.

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Sprinting to the line

Overall this was a great race, with an exciting course and great atmosphere – definitely one to come back to!

Awards ceremony

Awards ceremony

Next stop is Ironman 70.3 Dublin next weekend, where I will find out how my body responds to racing back-to-back weekends. Rumour has it they’re even sweeping out the jellyfish… luxury!

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Where next?

So – having finished Challenge Denmark iron distance in June – I can finally say I am officially back to doing what I love!

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Of course, the next aim is to do it faster…

After Denmark I had a whole FOUR DAYS of rest and going-for-little-walks, by which point I was starting to get a bit fidgety. Looking back over my training diary, I appear to have paid at least some attention to Russ’ Rules for Ironman Recovery, though the “no intensity in week 2” part appears to have been edited out somewhere between my brain and my legs!

The last six weeks has been an opportunity to train and build some fitness without travelling to camps or races, and only one daytrip back to the UK for physio and work on my S&C programme. I love training camps and I love racing, but it’s also been great to spend some time at home, not get on any planes and be able to speak to Ed without regular  instances of “what…. what…. sorry it’s cut out again…. maybe try audio only…. maybe try Skype? Ah never mind I’ll see you in 10 days anyway”!

Swimming has involved lots of race-specific skills and race intensity work, along with getting comfortable in my new wetsuit (for which thank you again SwimForTri!) in Amsterdam’s outdoor pools and lake. Very many thanks to Steve Trew for providing some truly revolting inspirational bike and run sessions – if I can execute these on a turbo trainer and while not tripping over the tourists or choking on the ‘interesting’ smoke in the Vondelpark, bringing them to bear on race day should be a doddle. Right?

Next is to test out my fitness, and so Ed and I will shortly be off on a racing extravaganza! First stop is a return to Denmark to race in Challenge Fredericia on 6 August…

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Outside transition, a couple of days before our last Challenge Denmark event

Then it’s a quick turnaround to head to Ironman 70.3 Dublin, where I raced last year. The course has changed slightly so comparison is tricky, but I’m still hoping to smash my previous time!

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Racing Ironman 70.3 Dublin 2015

From there, we head to Austria for 2 weeks for some training time in the mountains, finishing up with racing 70.3 Zell am See-Kaprun on last year’s 70.3 World Championship course.

Finally, a return to Amsterdam just in time for Challenge Almere, which I’ve regularly been told is a course that would suit me ever since I started triathlon – now I’m living nearby, it seemed an obvious choice!

And yes…. this is a lot of racing. It is all subject to change, and I need to be very careful to stay in one piece. But one of the pieces of the jigsaw is race experience, of which I still have relatively little. I have time, support and nearby (ish) races. Oh and as mentioned above… I love racing!

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Happiness is…

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Challenge Billund-Herning race report

Having finally managed to stay in one piece for long enough to do the training for an iron distance race, it was time to put it to the test! I chose Challenge Denmark months ago, looking for a race whose course and likely conditions would suit me, and was excited and not a little surprised when I actually made it to the start line in one piece. Unlike my equipment…. but I’m getting ahead of myself.

One of the positives of living in Amsterdam is the ability to travel to European races without having to cross a large chunk of water, and so, instead of flying, on the Tuesday of race week Ed and I bundled an incredible amount of kit into a hire car and set off to drive through Germany and into Denmark.

Incidentally, stopping for lunch in Germany and speaking German again when you’ve been learning Dutch for a year = Mind. Blown. Amazingly I actually managed to make myself understood!

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We arrived after a long day’s drive to our first ever homestay at a race – I was pretty nervous about it and didn’t really know what to expect. I needn’t have worried – our hosts Annette and Michael were absolutely lovely, and welcomed us into their home like family. I’m amazed and very, very grateful that people are willing to have athletes to stay with them for the races!

Race week proceeded as planned, with the usual mixture of bike rides, ridiculously short run sessions, a dip in the lake and inadvertently breaking the rules of foreign swimming pools (because using my snorkel is DEFINITELY a hazard to other swimmers….)

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Pre-race swim in the lake

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Outside T2

The day before the race, I went for a final spin, then we headed over to T1 for one last swim before racking my bike and bags and heading home for an early dinner and a good night’s sleep.

As I came out of the water after a good swim, I could see Ed walking towards me; from his demeanour something was obviously Very Wrong. Half expecting to be told one of our family members had been seriously hurt, it was a relief when it turned out all that had happened was that my bike had developed a crack in the base bar that made it unusable. Somehow. Since Ed had checked it the day before and my ride that morning had passed without incident, I was perplexed to say the least.

Out of my wetsuit and into normal clothes in a time to shame many of my previous attempts at T1, we were onto Google and heading to a bike shop down the road in record time…. except it was closed on Saturday afternoons. And so was the other one in town. We headed back to transition, hoping there would be some sort of extra special mechanical support there that could magically solve the problem.

As it happened, there kind of was….

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We brought All The Tools with us. Just sadly not a whole spare bike

We owe a LOT of thanks to the race mechanics from Triudstyr for coming up with a solution! It involved

  • A new base bar
  • New pads, extensions and Garmin mount
  • Completely recabling my brakes and gears
  • and of course… who needs a top cap when you have…. Duct tape! to hold it all together

 

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Check out my duct tape top cap as I head out of T1 wondering whether my bike will disintegrate during the ride! Hashtag Marginal Gains 😉

After all too short a time at home and about 3 hours’ sleep, we headed back to T1, racked the beast at last and then headed over to the warm up area. Very impressed with the race organisers for providing an in-water warm up – at least, I really appreciated it, though didn’t see any other athletes using it!

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Warming up before the start

I’d already decided to make the most of where I was: even if the bike bodge didn’t work, I still had a shot at the swim. If it and I arrived safely into T2, no matter how slowly, I still had a crack at finishing an ironman for the first time in over 2 years.

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…and we’re off!

The swim passed without incident for the first 400m. Then we turned left round the first buoy into the rising sun. My goggles were dark, but not dark enough; with the glare on the water I couldn’t make out any of the buoys, nor any of the sighting points on shore I’d carefully noted before the race, and had to rely on the other athletes to sight off. Not ideal. Despite swimming well, I sighted atrociously, and must have added minutes to my swim time. Lesson learned!

Somehow I still left T1 in second place and – somewhat apprehensively – headed out on the bike. It took about 15 minutes for third place to pass me – on the flat, and she went by as if I was standing still. I looked down. 216 watts, bang on target. I told myself either she’d blow up, or there was something still wrong with my bike, or she was just stronger than me and there was nothing I could do about it.

I stuck perfectly to my nutrition and pacing plan, eating and drinking every 20 minutes and riding consistently at exactly the power I’d planned. I guess there still was something wrong with the bike – I rode much more strongly and consistently than usual but still lost much more time to my competitors than in previous races. However the bike did, as hoped, get me to T2 without further incident, so now “all” I had to contend with was the marathon.

The run course consisted of six loops, and our supporters were allowed to give us food and drink at a designated point on the loop. So the six communications went something like this…

  • “Hello! Yes all good, gel and Coke please, no one closing behind me? Good.”
  • “Seem to be slowing down a bit, still doing good, thank you, see you next time.”
  • <shouting, run into Portaloo, run out, grab gel> “Hgnnnnngggh”
  • “I never want to see another gel in my life”
  • “No don’t go to the finish line yet I don’t care if I make it before you I NEED TO KNOW I WILL SEE YOU NEXT LAP”
  • “I want to die I want to die see you at the finish line”

 

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My best “I love my job” face

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Game face back on

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My first pro podium! Congratulations to Mirjam and Anne

Thanks to everyone at Challenge Denmark for a fantastic race!

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Journey back to Ironman, or, when you’re going through hell, keep going

In May 2014, things were looking good. I’d just qualified for World Championships in Kona via a top 10 overall result in Ironman South Africa, was enjoying a balanced amount of work and training, and lived with Ed in the house we’d recently bought in London. The stability I’d been aiming for to build a platform for training and happiness was finally in place and working.

By June I could barely walk, let alone train. After a couple of months of misdiagnosis, we found out that I would need surgery on both of my hips to have a chance of competing again. I had a relatively rare condition called femoroacetabular impingement, which damages the inside of the hip socket – it’s exacerbated by training, but the underlying cause is skeletal structure.

I ended up having four separate operations between July and November. During that period, work dried up, and I didn’t dare try to take on anything new while I was on so many painkillers. People I’d thought were good friends stopped replying to messages. Post-op, the injuries took longer than expected to heal, and I couldn’t imagine being able to jog round the park pain-free, never mind race.

Or, the way I try to think of it: I had private health insurance, giving me swift access to excellent medical care. Without work and training keeping me busy constantly, I realised that if and when my body allowed, I wanted to “go all in” with training. I learnt who my real friends are, and now when I’m training and it’s hard, or it hurts, I think back to how I felt in the latter part of 2014 – and it doesn’t hurt at all.

It felt as though my world had fallen apart, like a nightmare that I never woke up from. A day while I was injured went something like: wake up, have coffee, and try not to have much breakfast because of the weight I was gaining from inactivity and pain drugs. Check emails and social media. Cry because other people were training and I couldn’t, or because races were going on that I had planned to compete in but couldn’t. Physio exercises. Watch TV. Physio exercises. Message Ed. Cry some more. TV, physio exercises, more dinner than I ought to have. Cry. Try to sleep.

Six months of days like the above is a long time, and patience is not my strong suit, so it would have been no surprise to anyone when I tried to rush back into training and racing in 2015. After a whole year out of racing, my body wouldn’t absorb even a moderate amount of load without breaking down again. I repeatedly got sick, and for a year I had to strap my ankle every time I raced, following another injury after my first race back in May.

I managed to haul myself round a few 70.3s, but all the wanting and trying and positivity in the world can’t make up for missing a year of training, and despite improving as the season went on, my results left a lot to be desired.

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During and after Dublin 70.3

During and after Dublin 70.3

My lamentable excuse for the 2015 season came juddering to a halt in late July and early August, when another insidious and apparently inexplicable pain in my back, hips and legs stopped me from walking again. In the meantime, Ed had moved to Amsterdam for work, and I felt isolated and very confused when repeat visits to a specialist doctor yielded only “everything’s a bit inflamed and you just need to give it a bit of time to settle down”.

Luckily, Ed does not have my tendency to blindly accept medical advice. After a couple of months with no improvement, he finally managed to convince me to see a different specialist, who MRI’d my lower back and found a torn, bulging disc that was the source of all the pain. Season over, but eminently treatable, and this time with only one hospital visit and corresponding unpleasant procedure! And, of course, a hell of a lot of physio.

By October, Ed and I had found our new apartment in Amsterdam, and moving day was scheduled on a Thursday. Of course as luck would have it, that day Ed was in Amsterdam directing the removal guys, and I was in hospital in London having a needleful of steroid stuck in my back. Unlike the hip operations, I had to be wide awake for the whole thing, but at least I was allowed to fly out to join Ed (sans heavy luggage, of course) the next day.

There followed some more months of only gradual improvement of the injury, combined with constant doubts about healing and competing again. Thankfully the rehab this time was much more active, and getting to know a new city – not to mention learning a new language – provided some distraction.

Once I’d been deemed well enough to go on training camp, albeit with significant volume and intensity restrictions on what I could do, I headed off to Lanzarote and spent as much of the winter there as possible! It was hugely frustrating watching others go out on rides and runs that were longer and harder than anything I could currently do, but I’m pretty sure I set the record for the number of hours spent in the lovely Trisports gym doing strength and conditioning work…

By March 2016 I could feel a little bit of fitness coming back – I still don’t feel back to the level I was before injury, but it was definitely an improvement on the point in late 2015 where I’d been literally unable to get out of bed (or, on one particularly embarrassing occasion, off a physio table) unaided. I was also desperate to race, having written, rewritten, re-rewritten and finally binned my race plans for the second half of 2015.

So we headed to Mexico for Monterrey 70.3, where I managed not to embarrass myself as 12th out of 14 pros – hardly setting the world on fire, but a sizeable run and overall PB, a strong bike split in a red hot field and “not coming last” made me pretty happy.

Stunning swim venue at 70.3 Monterrey

Stunning swim venue at 70.3 Monterrey

Back home, I trained in Amsterdam for the next block, making sure we got our money’s worth out of the turbo trainer with some truly hideous interval sessions, joining our local tri club for swim training and running seemingly endless loops of the Vondelpark. The idea had always been to work my way back to racing iron distance as my stronger event, and I felt as though I was finally approaching a level of fitness where I could think about heading to a start line.

Challenge Denmark was already on my radar, after I’d been signed up to race the half distance last year and had to withdraw at the last minute with one of my many injuries. I entered the full distance this year: it looked like a great race, with a lake swim, rolling bike and flattish 6-loop run – which sounds hideous, until you realise it means you can see your supporters 12 times for a bit of much-needed encouragement!

A training camp in Italy in May laid the final steps, with two weeks hammering the swim under Dan of SwimForTri’s expert guidance, coupled with riding up some hills, running on a very forgiving trail and some wise words on mental attitude from Steve Trew, who’s been running this camp for 30 years. Many of the athletes on the camp have been attending for years too, but I felt entirely welcome as a newcomer and met some lovely people.

Back home, only a few days remained before starting the taper, so I squeezed in one last long ride and long run. The “long” run felt very long but was only 16 miles, very short for marathon prep, and I was more than a little nervous at the thought of doing all that, after the swim and bike, and then still having 10 miles to go, but I told myself it would have to do.

Going into the race, in a sense I didn’t care about the result (spoiler alert – I finished – but I’ll save that story for another day!). For the first time in over two years, my body had made it through the training for an ironman, and that in itself was a lot to be thankful for.

Speaking of being thankful – there are many, many people who helped me through the nightmare:

Daz and Debs from TriSports Lanzarote, who provide an amazing training camp destination (which I’ve previously written about here) and who were kind enough to let me move a recent stay at 3 days’ notice when we started to realise the latest injury was more serious than we thought

Dan from SwimForTri, who has the patience to coach me on a regular basis, and who came up with something productive I could do when I first turned up to meet him on a cold, wet and miserable day in November 2014 and said “I want some coaching, I need to break the hour for the ironman swim, oh and I’ve just had hip surgery so I can only swim with a pull buoy, is that OK?”

Russell Cox for reading my rambling emails of data and questions, and coming up with useful suggestions in reply to questions like “I’ve just had hip surgery, can I do 2 Ironmans next year?”

Steve Trew for something I can’t quite explain, but will try to summarise as judicious application of off-the-scale emotional intelligence

Cris Kellett and the whole team at Progress for reconstructing me when my disc tore

Joy, Cath and Giles at Sport Hip London for hammering my hips back into shape (literally, I believe – happily I was unconscious for most of it) and Jane Attard at Central Health for physio support and not minding when I spent a session crying instead of balancing on one leg with my eyes closed

Anna Waters, who helped me get my head round injury and recovery

Laura Turner, who taught me to run in a way that bore less resemblance to a baby elephant, though I admit there is still work to be done here

Ed’s dad, Martin, who has come to many of my recent races to support, providing conversation and perspective. Thankfully, he enjoys the experience equally whether I come first or last

Friends and family who have come to visit, listened to me, read my wailing emails and generally been there when it mattered – I doubt any of you want to be named on my blog, but you know who you are

And Ed, who not only stayed with me through all of this when other people would have left long ago, but did, and does, anything and everything he can to make my world a better place: from holding my hand while I cried as they knocked me out for the operations, to providing me with food, cuddles and shiny pieces of carbon fibre, to cutting the dead skin off my feet after races, to acting as chef, chauffeur, psychologist, coach, #bikebitch, Head of Legal and of course Team Manager, Great Britain

Everyone wants to spend a snowy Sunday in February feeding their girlfriend gels and water while she runs round the forest, right....?

Everyone wants to spend a snowy Valentine’s Day feeding their girlfriend gels and water while she runs round the forest, right….?

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