Sunday, 20 June 2010

Are we having fun yet? (Astroman Race Report)

How come the tougher the race, the more satisfaction one gets? Are we all really, deep inside, just a different kind of masochist or is the relief of finishing that brings such great gratification?

I have been asking myself again and again if, knowing how hard the race was, I would do it again. I still have no answer, but let me explain myself first.

The race was simply wonderful - a very scenic, well planned and faultlessly organised race. My third half IM distance race, I went into it feeling quite calm and excited, fazed only by the heat which was predicted to be getting worse. Race day was predicted to be around 37 degrees Celsius (that's in the shade...) with little wind and rising humidity of around 60%. I was concerned, but everyone reassured me that I would be fine. I started hydrating on the Thursday, downing several bottles of Gatorade, (what felt like) tons of water and munching on saltsticks. Possibly the wisest move in preparation that I made.

Driving down on Saturday was not the wisest move D and I made, but we found the spot easily and we assembled bikes, got race numbers and generally got ready fairly quickly and easily. The hotel was as no-frills as they come (one sliver of soap between four of us, cutbacks you say?) but it seemed clean enough and far away from the road, so we hoped it'd be quiet.

After a fun, yet short pasta party, we headed to our room for a last minute equipment check, putting numbers on belts, threading shoe laces and other things I had neglected to do over a very busy week at school. I also spent plenty of time choosing race nutrition and packing it diligently. In the meantime I worried aloud to D, who very stoicly calmed me down every few minutes telling me that if I got too hot all I had to do was slow down... Little did he know....

Our sleep the night before the race was from the "how-not-to-do-it" handbook again. At around 12 o'clock most of the guests of the hotel started returning from what we found out later was a wedding and kept on coming, through the gravel driveway, into the hotel with wafer thin walls and preceded to have showers, which sounded like someone was showering in our own bathroom all the way to 4 o'clock... This combined with a broken aircon unit which would not turn down and kept pumping chilled air into our room, the lack of sheets (more cutbacks?) and an old Russian fridge that "woke up" to a rusty murmur every 20 minutes or so meant that D and I got very little sleep... Still, the alarm went in the morning and we both felt race ready! Bring it on!

We made the short drive to transition to be met by many nervous smiles - excitement was tangible. The sea was dead calm and I looked forward to a good swim. Last things checked in, tyre pressure checked, frozen water bottles left in transition ready and a quick race briefing brought us very near to 8 o'clock. The sea was warm enough to go wetsuit-less but both D and I decided it'd be nice to have the advantage of the wetsuit and so zipped ourselves up ready for the race.

I did not place myself well and felt I lost valuable time having to swim over everyone and their granny... I guess my confidence was a bit shaken after being beaten last time and thought that placing myself further back would mean less struggle. I am not sure if that was true - I found myself unable to overtake quite a few people, despite the fact that I was blatantly faster. Even after the first 300 meters or so, at the first buoy I was still overtaking slower swimmers easily. After the first lap I realised that I was leading a group of about 15 swimmers spaced out behind me, while the next swimmer up ahead was at least 50 meters up. So much for drafting!
At 39 minutes the swim was the slowest half IM swim I have ever done, but was done at IM pace - I felt like I oculd keep up the same pace for another two laps (if it weren't for the wetsuit, which by the beginning of the second lap had become a sweatsuit.) It brought me out 39th out of 110 starters, and with a smile on my face. T1 was 1:30 odd, but felt like an eternity...

Onto the bike, where it was all going to be HR effort. A furtive check showed my heart rate at a racing 151 bpm out of T1. "Settle," I told myself, quite possibly loudly... And I did. I sat at 135-137 bpm, a bit over my target of sub 130, for the first 15 kms or so, before I hit the hills. On the hills I struggled to keep the HR down, and quickly readjusted my target again to sub 145 (and readjusted again after I hit the toughest part of the +1200 elevation course in granny gear). All in all the first lap was wonderful, the views amazing, I did not lose much ground once on the hilly part and enjoyed myself. Nutrition was in check, one GU gel per half hour downed with plenty of water and a couple of GU chomps.

I began the second lap feeling strong. The ascents were easier than I had expected and the descents, which had worried me the day before in the car, had given me no trouble at all. I was taking in calories (still) and was drinking plenty. In fact I was drinking more than I had planned and was also throwing a lot of cold water on myself in an effort to cool down, making it necessary to take on board about 2 x 750 ml every 22.5 km. No problem, the volunteers were helpful, the aid stations well stocked and I was cruising.

Until I hit the last 10 kms... It was already past noon and the heat was relentless. The last 13kms of the course were on a very nice gradual downhill and I should have been able to hammer it, without the heart rate creeping up, but I was struggling to hit 30km/h, while my HR was on the up. "It is impossible," I thought to myself, yet my HR monitor was not lying, I was struggling to keep it under 145 in the downhills. I had also ran out of water to throw on myself and the white sunsuit I was wearing was feeling asphyxiatingly hot. A draft buster/volunteer passed me for what felt like a hundredth time and asked me if all was good - he was possibly wondering how someone could be so red... I asked for water, and miracle of miracles he had some on his motorbike!! Cold, crystal clear water! I was delighted. He passed it to me and I threw it on myself (which might have made him wonder... I guess he expected me to drink it). It felt heavenly - water on my head and through my helmet and on my hot shoulders and face.

The end of the ride came, in 3:43, more than half an hour longer than either of my past 70.3 efforts, yet true to my goal of pacing by HR. I dismounted, had another speedy transition (in blissful shade) and headed out... into the oven.

The first kilometre felt OK, but brought with it two realisations. First, it was H-O-T. Secondly, my stomach had shut down for business for the day. I had a suspicion on the bike, after the fourth gel, which kept repeating on me. I had tried a few more chomps, which seemed to have gone down OK, but were they going to stay there? Was anything being absorbed? It felt like it wasn't. I knew it wasn't the pace, I was not going fast at all. But could it be the heat? With little experience in such conditions (thank you, England) I kept going, hoping for things to settle and trying to stick to my nutritional strategy of taking something (anything!!) on between running spells, in my walking breaks. 2 and a bit kms in it was pretty obvious that nothing was going in. It was also pretty obvious that my body was working pretty darn hard trying to keep me from frying, my HR was over 155 even when walking (slowly!!)

Temperatures were reaching 40+ degrees in the middle part of the course, a windless little road which weaved in and out of olive groves, but with no shade anywhere. I decided I could no longer keep the sun suit on, as I was not able to wet it enough to keep me cool, it took about 40 secs to get dry again. I took it off and left it with some volunteers and started dreaming of also taking my fuel belt off- I could not have what was in it, so no point carrying it. By this stage I was more than half way through the first lap and the thought hit me "I might not be able to finish this!". It wasn't a wish, the thought of giving up - I was not going to stop moving. But I had a feeling that my body might not be able to take me all the way through to the finish line.

I pushed all such thoughts aside when I caught up with another competitor who was walking and was visibly in trouble. "Keep going" I whispered "I promise you will feel better in 20 minutes," as much to her as to myself. After the first 5 kms the plan had been revised further. As long as I keep moving forward I am good! I was sticking to a 2mins run, 2 mins walk ratio, but the walk was not much slower than the run and it seemed as if I was keeping up with those around me. So I kept going... After my first 7km, the first lap, I was pretty certain I was going to finish.

Everything started blurring after that. First lap, second or third lap I am not sure any more. I know that the following happened.
  • a friend helped me rid myself of my fuel belt, and I was very grateful
  • I had some coke which stayed down and made me feel a little better
  • I met a German guy called Axel who helped me through a tough part of the course
  • I was helped several times by the best volunteers I have ever seen in a race, showered with ice, given water, helped to fill my flasks with coke, ice cubes etc
  • I met D, who after his own finish came on the bike to help me out
  • I asked D to leave me alone as I was trying to "focus"
  • I started feeling pins and needles in my feet and hands
  • I forgot to take on coke at one aid station and started debating going back 200 meters to get some, luckily another athlete offered me the second half of his glass
  • I was cheered on by people at cafes, on the beech and in cars, some sincerely and some mockingly
  • I started counting steps
On my last lap I was so confused that I thought the 5km marked on the hot tarmac was 5k to go... I was so sad, totally disheartened and very close to tears, when a volunteer told me I was actually only 2 kms away. Smile on and continued.

I finished the half marathon in 2:46 but at that stage this and everything else was irrelevant. I was sunburnt, felt dizzy and weak and all I wanted to do was hug D and lie down. I put myself around Duncan's neck and lifted myself on my tiptoes, only to feel my calves cramping. I sat down in the shade, took it all in and cried silent tears for all the things that kept me going. My dad, my husband, myself.

I didn't learn much that can be transferred to Denmark in August, unless Copenhagen gets a freak heat wave and grows mountains. I did learn that a plan is only as good as its flexibility. I also learnt that no matter what happens, as long as I keep moving forward, I am in the race!

Thanks to the organisers, Marie and Leo. To the volunteers, Christina and Stelios, Thomas and Hara and all the other guys who stood there for 8 hours only to help us reach our goals (and keep us from being hospitalised)

p.s. I didn't pee for another 24 hours from the start of the race. The next day all I could eat was Pringles... A week on I feel like I am recovered!
Relief, happiness and exhaustion all in one picture!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Turn the heat up!

Two weeks ago - loved racing again!

I often play this game of "this time next week" or "this time last month". It puts moments into perspective and things into a bigger context. It makes you see the big picture.

So here goes:

This time 3 years ago I had just finished my second half Ironman where Duncan and I met. Exactly 3 years ago to the day we were on our first date. He later mentioned as a pretty bad first date - half way through, returning from the loo, he even thought I had walked out on him. To his relief (?!) I was only at the next table, hidden by a well placed pot plant. I later described the same date, as the "best first date ever" to my good friend H, and my housemate at the time. Go figure...

It can't have been all that bad, as this time last year, we got married. What a wonderful night that was! Two days later, my dad went into hospital for what we thought at the time would be a life-saving 11 hour operation.
This time 3 months ago, I lost my father. I still miss him every day. The pain has softened, but the gap is still so big and cannot be filled by any amount of training, work, time with friends or family. He taught me much of what I know and gave me much of what I am, and in that sense he is always very close to me.

This time 6 months ago, I could not run more than 15 minutes. I could ride my bike for maybe 30... I was in pain and could not even imagine that 6 months down the line I would be training for an Ironman...

In 10 weeks if all goes well, I will be lined up with another 2000 people at the start line, in Copenhagen. That's the dream. But as the last year has taught me, dreams don't always come true. You still have to fight for them, though, with all your might.

So... this time next week, I will be lining up for another starting gun - the one for the inaugural Astroman. With the company of another 110 athletes we will all be trying to get ourselves to the finish line. I have been very excited about the race. Yet, this week I have been nervous, primarily for two reasons.

The one is intrinsic, and I guess it's very controllable. I am worried about pacing. I am worried because I am meant to be using this race as an IM dress rehearsal, going at IM pace, using my IM nutrition, gear etc and seeing how my body reacts to it all. However, I know myself and I know that it will not be hard for me to get caught up in the racing. I also have the fear of being last... The guys who are racing here (oh ok... and the 4 women) are all seasoned athletes, this is not the country of mass participation sport (yet) and so it is very likely (in my head at least) that they will be packing up the finishing chute while I am at km 20 of the run.

I have, therefore, decided to race with my HR monitor - it will be my first half IM and only my second ever race where I will do that. That should keep my excitement in check and give me some honest feedback, aside from feel, on how fast/slow I should be going. I hereby declare that I will not ignore the beeping!

The second, and more serious of the two worries, is the weather. Extrinsic, and therefore not controllable. The weather forecast is for a scorcher (not an English scorcher of 26 degrees C) a real scorcher of 35++ in the shade, which means that the hottest part of the day will definitely coincide with the hardest part of my race, in the least shaded part of the course: the run!

Now all my racing experience has involved ice cold bodies of water, rain and a maximum of 17 degrees Celsius. I have done some training in hot weather, including last week's 4 hour ride in 34 degrees heat, plus humidity, and I can tell you I do not respond well. On top of that I have been reading this month's Triathlete magazine, with a great article written by ex Danish pro Torbjorn Sindballe on dealing with the heat and it strikes me how unprepared I am! (here is a much shorter version of the article

Sindballe covers the all the bases and what I can take away from it is that there is a direct correlation between heart rate (and therefore pace) and overheating, and also both of those combined and ability to take in calories. The only good news is that I do have a small advantage, being smaller than more of the other athletes who will race on the day, at 52kg.

So, after reading the article, it makes it even more important for me to stick to a slow pace. It will be important to stay in fat burning zone, as I will be able to ingest only minimal amounts of calories (and absorb them). I know my body and I have troubles taking food in even at more normal temperatures. Secondly I need to keep my core temperature down, mainly by keeping the heart rate low again.

In conclusion... if the heat is up, I will be going s l o w l y. Let the fun begin!