2015 Ironman United Kingdom Race Report
I guess I should start at the beginning. I signed up for this race last year after learning that I would be on a work trip west of London England the week before the race. However, the race was sold out when I went to register. Good news is that there is a travel company in Europe that is a sponsor of Ironman Europe, called Nirvana, and they buy slots for all European Ironman races and make them available for those who book three nights accommodation through them. Turns out, I needed a room at the race anyway and the price was reasonable.
Once I paid £150 (~$180), they sent me a link to register for my Ironman slot on Active at no extra charge. I paid the final room charge about two months prior to the race. If you are looking to do a race in Europe, I highly recommend you check out Nirvana’s web site or click on link for ”special entries” on Ironman event registration. Even if listed as sold out, Nirvana is likely to have slots. For example, they purchased 400 Ironman Austria slots for the sold out race.
Once I signed up, it was time to get a coach and I started working with Coach Shelly around October. We set some goals for my race season that included improving my marathon time with an eye on qualifying for Boston at the Shamrock Marathon in the process. Training through the winter, my training was heavy on running and bike trainer with my new Garmin Vector power meter. The power meter gave purpose to my winter workouts on the trainer which I believe made a difference. Additionally, I signed up for the Blue Ridge Bike Camp to get a jump on my base miles following Shamrock. Because of my swimming background, swimming took a back seat and was mostly off the schedule through end of March.
Through March, the focus on running paid off with Half Marathon PRs at Blue Gray Half Marathon, then Cloud Snapple Half Marathon and finally a marathon PR of 3:21 at Shamrock Marathon. This was not simply a PR in my books, it was turning back time 17 years to 1998 when I set my previous best of 3:23 at London Marathon. I never thought this would be possible since I was faster then I.e., sub 16:30. 5K and sub 34:00 10K. However, it was my first marathon and I had no idea how to run it smartly. I went out way to fast and crashed at mile 21.
For Shamrock, I did lots of planning and stuck to MY plan and nobody else’s. I planned to run a 3:21 and nailed it which easily qualified me for Boston Marathon below the 3:30 requirement for a 50-54 age grouper that I will be next year.
Once Shamrock was done, focus shifted to Ironman UK and first up was the Blue Ridge Bike Camp in May. I had been doing trainer rides and keeping up with running but had not ridden much above 70 before the camp. The first day of the camp was horrible weather. At the start, it was below 50 degrees with light rain and in the clouds. The first day was about 109 miles with about 9,500 feet of climbing in miserable conditions with limited visibility which made the descents very nerve racking. By the end, I was more than ready to be done. Day two was much better with nice weather for a short 50 miles with 4,400 feet of climbing and then a 4 mile run. Day three was the reverse of day 1 with perfect weather and a great group of riders (Trey, Brett, Chuck, and Kristine). Camp was great and I highly recommend as this was an advantage for so many reasons.
Immediately following camp, life started throwing curve balls my way. I arrived home to my mom who was watching my kids while I was out goofing off informing me that she thought she had a kidney stone. I had a work trip planned for the following day and asked if I needed to cancel my trip and she said no, I’m ok. Next morning, my mom took me to the airport for a trip to Dayton. Shortly after I arrived in Dayton, I received word that my mom was in the hospital.
Before I could return, she ended up in intensive care with a septic infection in her blood. Over the next two weeks, I missed lots of training while visiting her with my dad and also taking care of him and my kids. When my mom was discharged, she was too weak to travel home to Pittsburgh so her and my dad lived in my tiny townhouse for over a month. Now I had two parents and three kids to take care of by myself. During this time, I did the best I could but my training suffered especially, the bike through mid-May. I raced Raleigh 70.3 as a tune up and during the race I faced another major curve. I have a non life threatening heart condition called Supra Ventricular Tachycardia (SVT) that occurs randomly and without warning for variable lengths of time. When it occurs, my heart rate races to nearly 200 bpm. An event can last seconds or hours. Unfortunately at mile 3 of bike at Raleigh my heart went nuts and the event lasted till I finished the race. As predicted by my cardiologist, it was like having a governor on my body. I was force to limit my power on bike and pace on run to stay under my max HR. In the end, this was my slowest 70.3 by over 30 min despite being more ready than ever. After the race I was very fatigued due to racing near threshold HR for 5 hours. Additionally, it took me weeks to recover fully rather than days. Following this event I went back to cardiologist for a consult on surgery to fix my heart. Based on his advice, I scheduled surgery for the Friday after Ironman UK. If all goes well with surgery, I can return to training 7 days after surgery when incision heals in leg where catheter is run up to heart during procedure.
To add complications, i got an upper respiratory infection about mid June and I had to move the last week of June and barely had any time to train the last two weeks of June. Overall, I felt like the huge effort I put into the spring was slipping away. I was completely moved by 1 July, only 5 days before flying out for Ironman UK on the 19th.
The week before departing, I decided to take my three children with me to England for vacation and the race around my work trip. Trying to pack twin 14 year old girls, one 10 year old boy, and myself for work, vacation, and an Ironman within days of moving was not easy. First thing I did was put all of my tri gear into one corner of my bedroom. I had my bike tuned up the day prior to my flight and packed it into my travel case which required removal of fork, pedals and obviously the wheels. First time I have taken apart this bike for travel and despite it being different than old bike, I got it done. Before I did my final packing, I went out and purchased enough nutrition for two races since I didn’t know how easy it would be to get it on site.
When Shelly and I met a day or so prior to departure, she said logistics will be a challenge, she was right. First challenge came with leaving for the airport. I called for a taxi to Dulles and requested a minivan or station wagon due to my bike case, 5 bags and four of us traveling. A Prius showed up at my door of all cars. I called for another and was told it would be at least 30 minutes. Not having 30 min to spare, I decided to drive my minivan instead. I didn’t plan on the additional time so we had to run through the airport to make our flight. Thank God for TSA pre check. About 7 hours later, we landed at Heathrow and headed to car rental. Despite asking for a station wagon, I was given a sedan which could not fit everything. Back to counter for another car. They gave me a hatchback and told me to try and see if case would fit. Once I had the seat down and wheels off bike case, I got everything to fit. However, while I was trying it out, another agent rented that car. Back to counter for a new car and out to spot only to find an even smaller car, ugh…. Went back in and due to all of the trips, they comped me a GPS once they found me the right car. Did I mention the last minute decision to take my kids and my move? As a result, I departed a week earlier than planned so we could have some vacation but that also meant we arrived with no real plans or a hotel. We went to the airport Marriott so I could get on wifi and reserve a room. Since I am a Gold member, I talked them into holding my tri gear and bike while we went into London for four days. For the next four days we did lots of sightseeing around London, lots of walking. I got a run and a swim in but not much else. After four days, we went back to the airport Marriott to pick up the car, bike, and bags. We drove about 1.5 hours west of London for my work conference. My work was Monday through Thursday the week before the race from 8-6 each day. Luckily the hotel was in the country so I got several bike rides and runs during the week. For a real treat, I found a lake nearby that holds open water swimming and was able to go the one Monday night it was on during my stay.
They had a 700 and 400m course set up. As a treat for the kids, I dropped them off at an indoor water park similar to Great Wolf Lodge while I went to lake. I wanted to get in 3,000m but I got lost on the way and only had time for 1,900. It was nice to get an open water swim in my wetsuit the week before the race and other than the couple dozen swans, I swam mostly alone.
Unlike triathletes, the swans and ducks mostly got out of my way as we swam into the sunset together. Following my swim, I joined the kids at the water park for some time on the slides and Wednesday was Max’s 10th birthday and I promised him a trip to zip line so I got up early and got my workout in before work. After work zip lines and cake, gotta have cake on a birthday. Thursday after work, I drove 30 min back to the Marriott by the airport to drop my bike case and bags I didn’t need for IM. This allowed me to pack car without breaking down my bike. Friday we left around 9:30 for what was supposed to be a 3-3:30 hour ride. I planned to get a short bike and run at race site mid afternoon. Little did I forget from my days living here in the UK from 96-98 that everybody travels north for the weekend in the summer. Our 3-3:30 hour ride took over 7 so I missed my workouts and the athlete briefing on Friday but I was able to check in for the race. With the short bit of sunlight left, I took a drive to see one of the two big climbs on the course. The climb is called Sheep’s House Lane which is about 3 miles long with an average grade of x.x% peaking at x.x% and climbing xxx feet on a winding and narrow road with a poor road surface. On the other side was about a 1.5 mile steep downhill on a winding road with sharp turns and even worse surface with lots of pot holes in all the wrong places.
Sheep’s House Lane looked formidable for a Saturday ride and I had to do this twice. Saturday I got up for the practice swim at Pennington Flash, the race lake. I got to the lake which was about a 15 minute drive from my hotel at T2 to find a very choppy lake being kicked up by a 20 mph wind out of the west. I noticed the guy parked next to me had an RWB shirt on so I asked where he was from. He was an American who was prior Air Force and now living in Oxford while his wife was completing her masters degree. Turns out he was also Pro triathlete Brad Williams who was about to compete in his first pro IM race. We talked for a while and he gave me some insight into the bike course and run. He rode the course a week ago and his advice was much appreciated. He also said the run was a tough course and said overall, this was a course that required strength and patience. A battle of attrition is how he said the day would go down. Brad went to check in his bike and I went for a 400m swim. I forgot my swim cap but luckily they let me swim without. The lake looked like a washing machine, similar to San Fran Bay when I did Alcatraz. It was also cold enough to give my naked head a bit of a brain freeze. The swim was good for getting to know what to expect especially, the lake grass that got caught on my goggles enough to be really irritating. Following the swim i dropped my bike off for a tune up and check at T1 then, I went back and finished packing my transition bags. I turned in my T2 bag at the transition area outside of my hotel and then drove back to the lake and T1 to turn in my T1 bag and bike. I wish I would have had this ready to go prior to swim so I only had to make one trip but, second trip it was. Everything turned in and back to hotel by 1pm. Went to Pizza Hut for lunch and then Nirvana’s carbo dinner with kids before race. Went over course with kids and where they could see me and when. Also turned on global cell coverage so they could track me via athlete tracker. Gave Shelly a call for last minute thoughts and headed to bed around 10pm facing a 3:30 wake up for a 4:20 bus.
Wake up call right at 3:30 after about 5 restless hours of halfway decent sleep. I was dreaming that the weatherman was wrong with his forecast. Unfortunately he was right for once. It was 50 degrees, driving rain and 15-20 mph winds with gusts up to 30 mph. Thank goodness I took the free poncho from the tour bus in London. I went to the hotel restaurant and ate 1 1/2 bagels with peanut butter with a cup of coffee and a banana. Following breakfast, I walked about a half mile in the rain to the bus and waited about 15 mins for next bus to the swim start. The ride took about 20 minutes and dropped us off about a half mile from T1. We walked in the rain to T1 and I calibrated my power meter, set up my Garmin, checked tires, visited the porta potty and then got dressed for the swim. All that was left was turning in my morning clothes bag and heading to the swim start, it was now about 5:30 with race start at 6:00 for pros and 6:05 for age groupers.
I walked to swim start which was a rolling swim start based on estimated swim times. They had predicted time signs similar to marathon starts corrals for sub 1hr then, 1:00-1:10, etc. I was shooting for about 1:05 so I found people in middle of sub 1:10 group shooting for same time. I talked with a guy who was shooting for 1:05 and he gave me additional tips about bike and second big hill that I didn’t know anything about. He said it was about half the length of Sheep House Lane but had steeper average grade and got steeper the second half. He said stay in saddle till last third the, stand for the final climb. Told me hill starts around mile 42 so be ready. We waddled to the start which was off a floating ramp into the lake. Not sure where the timing mat was because I never saw it so I started my watch just before I jumped. The first lap went pretty good in light rain. Due to the overcast skies it was a bit hard to sight but not too bad. As I exited the water after first lap, my Garmin said 33 min and change which was about what I was hoping. As I was running the 150-200 yards back to start lap two, I was thinking, go a bit harder and you will hit 1:05. As I jumped in, I pulled up my legs to not hit feet on bottom and felt my right hamstring cramp. I immediately lifted my head and trusted my foot to straighten my leg. I rubbed my hamstring and luckily the cramp let go so off I went. On the first leg of second loop, a squall line came to the lake. The rain was so heavy it sounded like a power boat was in the water. The wind was very strong from the south west and directly a cross wind making sighting really hard and blew me right of course. I had to correct several times around the course fighting the wind. With about 700 meters left, I started getting cramps in on of my calf muscles from the cold. I was able to fight them off by letting off my kick but I think it also slowed me a bit. I exited the water and Garmin read around 1:10 and 2.61 miles. I exited the water with the other guy shooting for 1:05 so I’m not sure what to think of swim. At end of swim, my official time was 1:11:49 and I was 42/300+ in my age group.
It was about a third to half mile run to the T1 tent across a very muddy field. I got my bag and started getting my bike gear on. My feet were covered in mud, grass and gravel. I wish I had put a hand towel in my transition bags so I could clean feet. I took extra time to clean my feet despite no towel and put on compression socks given to me by Tanya Good. I had a bad experience at Raleigh with small stones in my shoes so I didn’t want to repeat. Additionally, I usually bike without socks but given rain, cold, and my Blue Ridge experience, I wanted extra warmth. I got my bike and headed out to course via a very slippery muddy field. My T1 was about 7:40 which was 2 more than I hoped.
I mounted my bike and headed out on the bike course. It was still 50 degrees with driving rain in 18-20 mph winds gusting to 30 mph. To make matters worse the bike was on typical English roads. Think old school country roads of tar and gravel with no real engineering to give a camber to the turns, in fact, some corners had negative camber. Due to the rain, there was a lot of gravel on the roads where water was washing across thus forcing you to slow down. The first 15 miles or so, you climb uphill the whole way till passing the town of Bolton. Then you have a steep half mile downhill prior to sheep’s house lane climb. The first half mile of the two and a half mile climb was lined with spectators in stadium jackets and ponchos while we were half naked. It was very much like a Tour de France atmosphere with crowds parting as you advanced. The first third of the climb is steep and straight then, it lets off a bit before getting steep and winding to the top. Lots of crazy, think Savageman costumes, on the top part of the course that almost made you forget the pain. At the crest it was a beautiful view especially, the downhill ahead. Two things I remembered from the local guy at swim start was don’t let crowd at bottom get you beyond your own power and make sure you spin downhill because there is a 100 degree left turn into immediate climb at bottom and you don’t want legs to tighten up, get out lactic acid. The decent was very winding, fast, wet and windy with crosswinds that were blowing my rear disc and deep front making it tough to control bike. First big hill done and on my way, course was up and down for next 25 miles with little shelter from wind. I did a really good job of keeping aero which was key with the strong winds but predictable crosswind gusts made bike control tough at times. It seemed like I passed the most people when going into headwinds. Next was the second big climb which was everything they said, very steep, long and crowded with crazy fans the whole way up the hill. It was hard and I stood the final third or so. It was a true parting of the seas experience for sure. Glad I wouldn’t see that hill again for 45 miles. Around this hill, nearly three and a half hours into the race, the rain stopped but the strong winds remained. There was one other significant hill at about 4% for a mile but again in a town and slammed with fans that parted as you went through. There was one section on first bike loop that was on a single lane road where I was really moving only to get stuck behind a slow moving farmer that I could not pass for over a mile, really frustrating, lots of swearing out of my mouth. Second climb up Sheep’s House Lane went well and I think my decent was better.
Second climb up the steep hill went good but about two thirds up, my left leg cramped in the long muscle from knee to groin on inner thigh. I immediately stood up and finished the climb standing, the cramp went away and did not come back, thank God. My nutrition, hydration and electrolyte maintenance went according to plan on the bike. I maintained about 75% FTP normalized power until the last 5 miles. I believe I ended at 69% NP for the ride. The bike course totaled 6,580 feet of climbing and on average took the pros about 45-60 min longer than average. Of the three ironman bikes I have raced, this was 45-50 min slower than my average time. At the end, my bike was 6:18:44 and I had moved up to 29/300+ in my age group. As I dismounted, I was greeted by my fan club of three cheering kids. I gave them high fives and ran
In transition, I had really wet feet so I stripped my socks, re-cleaned my feet despite no towel and put on fresh socks. I then grabbed some water, hit the porta potty and headed to the run course. As I exited the tent my cheering section had moved outside of tent to cheer me onto the run course. I told them, see you at finish line in 3:45 or so and off I went. T2 was about 6:55, close to my 5 min target with 1/3-1/2 mile run from dismount to run start.
The first quarter mile was flat then you have a steep half mile climb, think Hunter Mill on W&OD heading West then it flattens for a while. I felt good off of the bike and mile one was 8:05, mile two was 7:45 and I averaged 8:00-8:30 through mile 10. From mile 10 to the end, you ran three loops in the city that was similar to Raleigh’s hills but twice as long and twice as steep. You also had two steep hills near city center on all three loops, one was about 250 yards long and other was about a third of a mile, again think Hunter Mill. To make matters worse the loops were mostly East-West oriented with the up hills mostly facing West directly into the 18mph headwind. I followed my nutrition plan through mile 14 but then took in some Pepsi at a water station which I later realized started to upset my stomach. I tried to hit a porta potty about a mile later to empty my bladder but it was so nasty in there that I couldn’t go. Not realizing it was probably the Pepsi that upset my stomach, I took more at the next aid station and now my stomach was really fighting with me. Shortly after, I had to make another potty stop that was successful this time. My bladder felt better but stomach was still not better. By mile 20 I was back to 8:35 mile and averaged between 8:30-9:00 with exception of mile 24 where I walked through a double water stop at final turn around to take in a gu and water. I did not stop again over final 2.5 miles and passed a lot of people to the finish. The finish is similar to Louisville as you run near the finish line each loop and then turn in on the last loop. The crowds along the three city loops were huge and the final mile of the course was slammed with cheering crowds. As I came down the red carpet, I saw my cheering section about 5 yards before the finish line on the right against the fence. I ran over to give them all high fives and crossed the line saluting the crowd in true military fashion. My marathon time was 3:57:44 which was an IM run personal best of over 20 minutes from last year in Mont Tremblant and was on a course with 1,132 feet of climbing and 18 mph wind. I was happy with my run, my 4th fastest marathon ever after a really hard day.
In the end, I finished in 11:42:52 and placed 23/300+ in my age group which was 214/2,400+ overall. Not an IM personal best overall but a personal best of over 20 min for the run after the hardest bike course I have ever done in crazy tough conditions. After the race, I met up with my new Pro friend Brad Williams who came in sixth. He said all pros were 45-60 min slower than average with most bike times 40-45 min slower and run times 10-15 min slower so I should be really happy with my race on a ridiculously tough day. Turns out IMUK 2015 was the toughest of all 11 years and the slowest IM of the year so far. The following day I went to the awards ceremony with Max who got to sit next to the top two men and my friend Brad Williams. We sat through the roll down and I when the third and final 50-54 age group slot went to 20th place at 12:22, I thought maybe one of the 6 slots in my group would reach me at 23. Not so lucky, all six gone by 7th place at 11:05 finish time. Too bad I wasn’t 5 months older, I’d be going to Kona.
This was a great experience and everything I hoped for in an IM. It was a challenge, it was beautiful and as always the other competitors and more than ever, the fans were awesome. I decided after my first Ironman at Louisville in 2013 that I wanted to choose my Ironman races by destinations and with Mont Tremblant last year and Bolton, England this year, I have done so. If you ask me, this is what it is all about as an age grouper, constantly challenging yourself while enjoying the ride. If you are not combining life with your sport, you are doing it all wrong.
Next for me is Ironman Superfrog 70.3 the last weekend in Sep. Superfrog is a 2016 Kona Qualifying race for active Duty Military and I will compete for one of 14 slots total slots. I will be in the 40+ age group that will have 3-5 slots and I should be very competitive. This was a great tune up and confidence builder for Superfrog. For next year, I am waiting to confirm dates of this same work conference near end of June in Paris to pick my Ironman, it will likely be either Austria or Frankfurt and booked again through Nirvana as they have slots for both sold out races, any takers?
One final note on the race. This race did not have the same feel of a North American IM race. No athlete village or large expo site. Additionally, having the swim and T1 a 20 min bus ride away from T2 and finish a good six miles from T2 made it tough for your fans to see you prior to T2 and run loops. Overall felt like a small local event that was well executed. I think this helped me stay calm up to the start but it would have been more fun racing with a few other Teammates.
I want to say thanks to coach Shelly for a great year so far despite many personal challenges that got in the middle of my training. I believe I was ready for this race and more importantly, I am ready to hit my Superfrog training even harder. Let’s kill this so I can race Boston and Kona in 2016 in my new age group while representing the best Air Force in the World!
Finally, I want to thank my three kids for putting up with all of my training and being great Sherpas for all three IMs I have race. I am really impressed that for my last two Ironman’s, Tremblant and UK, they found their way around both courses to cheer me on and make them truly great days. I am proud that they are able to navigate the course better than most adults and are excited to do it. And for this year near the finish line, the official photographer captured Millie, Lexie and Max’s excitement as I passed.
Surgery update: I had my heart surgery this past Friday the 24th of July. The procedure went well but a minor complication kept me in the hospital overnight for observation. The surgeon said the area of concern was easily triggered when simulating exercise which means I was probably experiencing events more than I realized. He said that it is possible that my performance may improve with less fatigue. Let’s hope he is right. I am not allowed to do anything through the 31st but starting Aug 1st, I can return to training as if nothing ever happened. August 1st begins road to Superfrog and hopefully Kona 2016. See you Saturday for the team ride.