Last Sunday I did a race called the Gladiator. It’s a full distance triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run) held in the New Forest. As with most long distance triathlons, registration and race brief was held on Saturday, the day before the race. I don’t think I’ve ever known such a detailed brief. Richard, one of the main organisers is meticulous and had clearly considered a lot of details. That’s really what you want when someone is putting on a race for the first time. Particularly a long distance one where there’s so much that can potentially go a bit wrong. No one wants to take a wrong turn when they’ve got 112 miles to cycle! Being detailed the brief took a while, but there was a nice atmosphere, not tense, and the light-hearted jokes kept it cheery. We came away with the usual race numbers, t-shirt and a bag for the cycle, run & finish. They’d run out of medium t-shirts but I’ve got so many t-shirts, I’m sure my Dad appreciated a larger one.
There’s a lot to think about with a long distance triathlon, food being a major consideration. I’m burning a good 8000 calories. At the same time, you don’t want a lot of food digesting as you start the swim. This being the case, you’re better of switching to lower fibre foods a couple of days before the race. I’ll write a post on eating when I get it nailed, as I think it’s key to a decent ironman. I suffered on my first one from not getting it right and this one was a lot better, although there are still a few changes that I need to make.
The swim was set to start at 5am. It was one way leaving from Beauleu and finishing at Bucklers Hard, which was the location for the transition and finish. This meant that we got a bus to the swim start at 4.30am Transition was open at 3.30am and generally the consensus is to eat a decent breakfast 3hrs before the start, so that’s 2am. It was going to be an early start! In reality, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I went to bed around 6.30pm off a light dinner and my alarm went off at 1.40am… time for breakfast.
The last time I did a long distance tri (Challenge Copenhagen), myself and friend Kris, arrived with not a lot of time to spare. In part I think we’d been out for dinner and needed to get a bit more sleep and the journey to the start was a bit longer and involved trains. This time I was nearer the venue and up earlier. It was dark but the weather was warm and promised early morning sun. I took a few pics with my phone before stashing my bags, sticking in my earphones, and listening to a bit of Elliot Smith until the bus came.
Barefoot and clad in wetsuits we were transported to a lovely little pontoon shrouded in the early morning mist. The perfect tranquil start. Richard gave us a quick brief; we should all enter the water and make our way to the other side to swim near the right side bank. I prefer to get in early, especially if the waters warm. I’d done a quick dip the day before so I knew it was nice. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been swimming in a wetsuit. Getting in, you do appreciate the extra buoyancy it provides making swimming easier. If you want a relaxed iron distance swim start then this was the one to do. There was no current pushing people out of position and nobody battling to start at the front. The width of the river was big enought that the 200 of us could all find space.
It didn’t take long for the familiar air horn to blow and and we were off. I started pretty steady and found myself with a fair bit of space from people; It was a lot nicer than the usual ‘mass start’ chaos. I could have done with a new pair of goggles. A bit of misting always makes the sighting a bit trickier and there wasn’t a lot of light. I had to clear them of water once too. It was worth doing this early on as the route was not really marked and sighting the most direct line was tricky. There must have been a canoe for the leader to follow and several canoes behind me keeping people on the right path. You can see a GPS trace of my swim here. It ended being 3.9k not 3.8 but I reckon I took a reasonably good line.
At one point I could see a group of swimmers to my right and a group of swimmers in front slightly left. Then the person on my left made the decision to swim towards the group on the right. I wasn’t sure if the group on the left that I was following was off course but I chose to stay on the initial path which turned out well. It got brighter as we got to the latter stages of the swim, which helped the sighting a bit, and rows of boats began to form a more obvious route. Towards the end I just felt stronger- I’m sure that’s down to Jo Carritts early morning 4k swim sets I’ve been doing for the last 6 months. Nearing the end, I picked off a few people and got out the water in third with a super quick swim time of 53.41, which clearly had a bit of tidal assistance. I’m willing to bet I’ll never do a more relaxed long distance triathlon swim again!
Heading into the tent I had my bag given to me which contained a Kask aero helmet, race belt and a short sleeve aero top – the Castelli T1. I bought the helmet and top for the race. It proved to be a good choice having a dry top with sleeves layering the lycra vest tri top; it was still before 6am and a little chilly. Likewise the helmet has an open/closed vent system and keeping the air holes closed stopped the chill of a vented helmet, as well as giving it aero benefits. I had the vents shut on it all day and never felt hot.
Forgot my elastic bands to keep my shoes laying flat !
Now I could write so much about the time I spent in the last couple of weeks changing my bike position. Yes I know you shouldn’t be making major changes to bike position before the race. The reality is that I’ve not spent a great deal of time on my TT bike which obviously is not the greatest prep. My longest ride had been 2x30miles and that was on a different set-up to the one in today’s race. I made a last minute change moving my saddle back which stretched me out too far. I was so close to getting it right this time. My first ironman I’d had an extreme aero position with big seat-bar drop and it made the last 30 or so miles quite miserable. This is the position I used for the first ironman:[/vc_column_text]
I’d made a few changes to this position, including putting in an extra riser to lift the aero bars a little, which reduced the stress on my back. However, in the week leading up to the race I moved the seat back, as I wanted my glutes and knee further back on the bike. This left me less weight on the front meaning the steering felt too light. I took the riser pad back out from the tri bars and the steering felt better but the position for my back was too stretched. The moral of this story is that you should sort your position out well ahead of time. Get well used to riding it and be cautious about any changes close to the race.
The position with helmet shows the position I rode in. The one on the right is what I should have used based off the amount of riding I’ve done in the TT bars.
(before the saddle went back and the riser came out)
I mention all this because I found myself with back pain early on. It was the main limiter for me on the bike. It came on around 30 miles, so pretty early on for a 112 mile bike. When I stopped to refill bottles, the pain went for 15 minutes before returning again. There were periods when it was a little worse than others but for the majority it was just a minor ache that didn’t go. You can deal with minor aches ok but when you’re on the bike for 5+ hours they do eat away at you a bit. Saying that, the position was more comfortable than my first ironman and a lot of that was down to my saddle change. I’d switched out a Selle Italia saddle for the unusual looking Adamo Attack. I might mention that this saddle was not comfortable when I started with it but I had heard they need a little adjustment time which I gave it. I might write a short review but suffice to say, it was a really good buy and I felt no saddle pain on the ride at all. I also switched tri bar pads from the tiny Easton Attack to some larger Profile one’s, again, this was a smart move.
The bike course was predominantly a mixture of previous RaceNewForest events, the old forestman course (iron distance) and the swashbuckler (half ironman). It’s a rolling course that starts off towards Lyndhurst before doing 2 large loops (where the forestman did 3) and venturing back to Bucklers Hard via a slightly different route.
Old Forestman bike route (3 laps)
There was a longer climb that you did on the loop via ‘ornamental drive’ which I found to be pretty much absent of any traffic. It wasn’t too steep but at the same time, you lose a fair bit from your average speed! Amongst the two longer climbs are some shorter steeper climbs which you can see on the profile above. I thought I’d got my gears well indexed but turns out I had a bit of trouble shifting to the small ring so I had to muscle my way up most of these. Not great for giving you good run legs but at least the standing up was nicer on the back. Some of the roads are quite narrow and there are enough twists and rolling bits to mean that you’re not going to put a particularly quick bike time down on this course. I got caught in traffic once as I was heading back towards the end and we were waiting for a traffic light. There is also the unpredictable nature of animals in the road. I had to steer around a few cows and had a closer call with a horse galloping in front of me.
For the most part I was alone, and generally enjoying the scenery. When I left T1 I was in third. The first guy I passed was John, who would pass me back at the 106 mile point and enter T2 with me. The next guy I passed was the guy who’d led the swim and got out of T1 before I’d seen him. That put me at the front of the race for a while before the first relay guy came by. I think that was James Gillfilan who’s blitzed a few races before. Then a couple of guys from the short course arrived as I was filling my bottles at the 40 mile point. One other relay guy came through later on, and the eventual winner came by, probably around 60 miles or so in. I hadn’t realised some of the guys on the shorter course were not doing the full distance until I passed my Dad who shouted I was in second.
Nutrition wise I’d started out with 2 bottles of energy drink. I got through these by the 41 mile point which was the first drink stop on the course. I then skipped the next one around 60 miles and stopped again around 77 miles. The stops did take a few minutes out; there was no grabbing bottles on the move allowed. I originally had a plan of taking 4 bottles out on the course using a holder behind my seat. This broke the week of the race (I’ll spare you the details) and I ended up deciding against using it. Doing this course again, I’d sort out carrying more on the bike so I didn’t have to make 2 stops. I ended up drinking 6 bottles – just over a bottle an hour, although the last bottle I picked up tasted super weak and I wasn’t convinced I hadn’t been accidentally given water. Despite that, the tailwind drink available on the course was good . Not super sweet or gloopy like some energy drinks can be.
The last 5 miles I was starting to feel more tired, so I took a caffeinated gel on. My first ironman I screwed up my bike nutrition and couldn’t digest the bars I took on the bike. This time I went purely with liquid energy. This worked well but I feel like I could have taken more on board. A drink and gel per hour rather than just a drink per hour. Of course you’re meant to try and figure these things out beforehand but it can be difficult to replicate such an effort in training – particularly when you’re a lazy athlete like me!
It’s funny really. I came off the bike thinking that I was annoyed my back, had held me back! In my head I thought I was now going to destroy the run leg, as I felt I hadn’t put out a big effort on the bike. Coming out of the tent I felt ok and my legs felt good but I soon discovered an unhappier place. In my experience, this happens when you run your nutrition low. There’s not a lot you can do at that point. You can take gels or energy drink on, and sometimes you can get a spike of feeling good, but you can’t maintain this. You can’t take enough energy on in the run to put yourself back to a steady state of feeling good. And I do mean relatively good, as you’re always going to be running tired.
I think it’s important to use the word relative sometimes. The organiser Richard had described this course as flat and fast. On the race brief he then said that he meant fast compared to the forestman that he used to run. Then he decided that he should add in an extra hill to avoid the now wet offroad path he originally planned. As such, the run was not so flat and fast. You’d probably call it quite hilly !
That bit at the top of the run course above relates to the spiky hill on the profile. It was about 650 metres to the top where an aid station awaited you. Then you did a U-turn and ran back down turning right along the solent way path back to bucklers hard. There was another aid station before making your way up another hill from the river towards the road. The difficulty there was trying to drink whilst you made your way up the hill. It didn’t work and was easier to stop if you needed to drink at that point.
The course carried out along the road with a dip and then slow rise towards the end to another turnaround point and aid station. You then had to head back to Bucklers hard to do the whole thing again for 4 laps. The course was built around passing Bucklers hard multiple times to allow good spectator support. The drawback was that the solent way path is relatively narrow and with runners going both ways, coupled with families and dog walkers, it was all a bit busy and hard work to navigate around people and remain polite whilst trying not to stop or annoy people. In the most part, people were nice but it wasn’t ideal.
You can see some of my splits on the run map. I was holding 7min miles for the first 5k- perhaps a bit quick considering the course profile. The leader probably had about 4 minutes on us at the start of the run. He was going well but so was John who I’d started the run with. I reckon John closed the gap down under a couple of minutes at one point. Nick, the guy in the lead, forced out a smile every time we passed each other, the same as me. Despite the pain, I could see he was keeping a good pace. John seemed more enthusiastic – I really wish I’d asked him what he was taking! He didn’t end up catching Nick, who was the only one to come in under 10 hrs for 9.55. Nick came in 5 mins later. Me 5 mins later again. Nick had been the guy under pressure really. I had a 12 minute gap to the guy behind me so I knew I wasn’t going to lose 3rd unless something went badly wrong. I also knew I didn’t have it in me to push hard and challenge for 2nd.
Running the last downhill towards the finish was a great feeling. I was shattered when I crossed the line. It was good to see my Mum, Dad and Sarah who were all great supporters on the day. I had a chat to the guys ahead of me and headed to the river for a quick wash, before getting a massage. Nick, if you read this, thank your lovely wife for buying me a coke!
Winner Nick on the left. Me in the middle with wonderbra. John on my right with itch.
The medal and trophy are of the figurehead of the warship named the Gladiator which was launched at Bucklers hard in 1783. A really nice memento from a great race. If you were thinking of doing a long distance Tri, I’d totally recommend this one. Relaxing swim, beautiful scenery. It’s well organised and costs a lot less than your average ironman.
So what’s next for me. I would like to do another long distance race and prepare a bit better. I didn’t change my normal training for this really. I wasn’t doing regular long runs, I’d only done a handful of long bikes and 2 swims a week is pretty bare minimum. Saying that, I’ve been enjoying a week off. Well, I did sneak a swim in on Thursday, but only to help the sore back feel a little better. It’s now a week later and the aches and pain have gone. I’m off to France to watch the Tour de France and ‘amble’ up a few of the big climbs. Then I’ll come back and have a think about the next race.