Week 12 – Triathlon: Part 2

This follows on from my previous post, which you can read here if you missed it.

After the Evergreen Ultra Triathlon in 2019, I took a couple of weeks to let the dust settle and enjoy a much-needed break. When it came time to refocus for the following season, I knew that I wanted to lay out slightly different goals this time around.

I went to Ironman UK in 2019 with a strong desire to win my category and qualify for the World Championships in Kona. When that didn’t come off, the pressure that I’d put on myself only served to make the end result hurt even more.

I wanted to avoid that in 2020. I wanted to do another Ironman, but go there and produce a good performance. I set myself no aspirations of earning a Kona World Championship spot.  I just wanted to get to the end and feel like I’d done justice to the work I’d put in, and lived up to the potential I knew I possessed.

Before running the first ever sub 2-hour marathon, Eliud Kipchoge simply stated that his goal was to ‘run a beautiful race’. I love that. The meaning is ambiguous but to me it makes perfect sense. If you perform like you know you can, the result will take care of itself. In fact, if you do that, the result often doesn’t matter. That’s what I felt I did in the Evergreen Ultra triathlon in 2019, and that’s what I wanted to do in Tallinn.

Why Tallinn? Firstly, because it seemed like a place worth visiting – even without the race (unlike Bolton). Secondly, because the bike course was flat.

The course in Bolton is arguably the most challenging/hilly Ironman-branded race of the year – and therefore the slowest. Although hills tend to play to my strengths when competing against others, I wanted to see how fast I could go on a flatter course – primarily to stroke my ego, but also to gain perspective on the times other athletes were producing around the world.

Choosing Tallinn turned out to be an incredible stroke of luck, since it was one of the only races of the year not to be cancelled by the pandemic. It was postponed by a month, but if anything, that worked to my benefit.

(more from Tallinn in a future post…)

As the final year of my degree progressed and all other races got cancelled due to COVID, the emphasis on Tallinn changed somewhat. When I turned down my graduate job offer and decided that I would train full-time through the 2021 season, Tallinn became an even bigger focus.

I wanted to use the race as a gauge. Prior to racing in Estonia, I was unsure whether to dedicate this coming year to Ironman racing (and the potential goal of professional sport), or whether to target even longer challenges, and return to ultra-endurance, multi-day events. If I failed to produce a good performance in Tallinn, I figured it may be best to turn to other things.

When it came to putting numbers to what a ‘good performance’ would be, I didn’t want to be overly specific, but I had a rough idea of what I thought I should be capable of. If everything went perfectly, I thought I should be able to do a 1-hour swim, 5-hour ride, and 3-hour run. If I could string that together, it would be 9 hours plus transition times. I viewed that as unrealistic but not impossible. I therefore saw 9:30:00 as a challenging but conservative estimation, so I set that as my lower end – essentially my benchmark for disappointment.

I wasn’t planning to go into much detail about the race. I didn’t necessarily think this was the place to do it and I wasn’t sure if any of you would find it interesting. However, when I sat down to write it, the paragraphs below kind of just fell onto the page. So here’s what happened:

Swim – 1:07:48 (1:47/100m)

I swam 1:01:08 in Bolton, which pleasantly surprised me at the time. I didn’t know what to expect from my swim going into Tallinn. COVID had messed up everyone’s swimming training with pool closures and the like. Naturally, I wanted to see an improvement on my race last year, but I didn’t care that much. Although I wasn’t too invested, I was surprised to be as slow I was. To go beyond 1:05:00 was a bit shit from my perspective.

Escaping the 16-degree lake as quick as possible.

Bike – 4:57:21 (36.2km/h)

The bike leg was the weird one for me. I wasn’t sure how close I would be able to get to my ‘optimistic goal’ of 5 hours. I had a problem with my bike over the whole duration (I’m still not sure what caused it, I think it may have been knocked by someone in transition) – my gears would skip every 20 seconds or so. It was very annoying and also quite costly. Not only did I lose time when I stopped to try to fix it (I failed), but it also led to unbearable knee pain. At least, I think that’s what caused it. It’s an injury that I’ve experienced a lot in the past, but not once in the last 12 months. As a final excuse, it was also an extremely windy day, but that affected everyone, of course.

I went through some really low points on the bike, and the only thing that kept me sane was the fact that I remained satisfied with my speed. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to run 5km, let alone a marathon, with my current pain level. Consequently, I spent much of the time thinking my race would be over as soon as I finished riding, which I found difficult.

I’d have happily accepted 4:57 before the race if you’d offered it to me. The problem is, I now know that I’m capable of considerably faster. In addition to this, a lot of other guys went a lot quicker than I did, which is irritating. I was limited massively by my knee, and with hindsight, I can see that 5 hours was a relatively straightforward aspiration for me.

Trying to punch a tiny hole in the wind.

Run – 3:12:56 (4:32/km)

Thankfully, as soon as I started running, I discovered that my knee wouldn’t be an issue. I felt incredibly fresh coming off the bike, and my mood was instantly reversed. I set off, breezing past people straight away. I felt amazing.

My optimistic target was 3:00:00 for the run. My plan going into it had been to stay at or below that pace for the first half – no matter what.

I messed up. I was holding back a lot, breathing through my nose and I still ran the first 10km at 2:52 marathon pace, on a course that was much hillier than I expected.

I knew I would be able to do 3:10:00 without too much trouble, if I paced it well. Not only did I end up running slower than that, but I was forced to suffer through one of the most painful 90 minutes I’ve ever endured. Even though it didn’t feel like it, I set off too hard.

My theory is (just a theory, I’m not a sports scientist), I felt as good as I did at the start because my preparation going into the race was good. My body was ready for the effort. However, even though my body felt good, I still exceeded the capabilities of my muscles. I knew where my limits were, and yet I ignored them – it was my own fault.

By the time the finish line came round after 9 hours and 23 minutes, my feelings weren’t mixed – I was happy. I was within my disappointment time of 9:30:00 and, after a very painful day out, I was so incredibly relieved to have finally finished.

Wondering why I just ran a 40-minute 10km…

Shortly after the race, and, as the adrenalin wore off, I began to grow less and less happy. Although my time wasn’t terrible, I’d been soundly beaten by a lot of other guys. Apparently Tallinn attracted quite a few strong athletes after almost every other race got cancelled, and I finished unexpectedly far down the field.

This race for me was to be used as a gauge for where to focus my efforts this year. I figured there were two potential outcomes:

  1. I would pull off a time that I was very happy with. This time would put me high up in the results, and, although, I wasn’t expecting Kona qualification, I would have justification for dedicating the following year of my life to long distance triathlon.
  2. I would produce another lacklustre performance, and I’d have confirmation that I should probably move on and target some of the ultra-endurance ideas that I have in my head.

Instead, what happened was a third option. I produced a time that I was merely satisfied with, but not one that showed a huge amount of promise. I was left even more confused than when I started.

The following day, something unexpected happened. I received a call from Ironman, saying that I’d earned a World Championship spot for 2021 if I wanted it. This was never a goal for me, as I’ve said a number of times. Moving up to the 25-29 age category this year, I didn’t think it would be within my grasp. To be honest, it wasn’t, and I was only offered that space because someone in front of me didn’t take it. I was in two minds, but I accepted the spot, not wanting to regret a missed opportunity.

Two weeks on, I’m feeling pretty indifferent towards my Tallinn performance; although not disappointed like Bolton. I’m feeling a sizeable amount of imposter syndrome with regards to accepting the Kona spot, and the fact that I have the opportunity to train full-time for a year, but I no longer feel guilty. I’m also sure that I would have regretted declining a place at the World Championships.

I got lucky, but with Kona 2021 over a year away, I have plenty of time to justify my place there. I believe I have a lot of room to improve before then, so hopefully I can deliver…

Last week’s post was something that I’ve wanted to write since I first restarted this blog. I felt as though it provided necessary context for this whole process, and I thought it would be a useful practice for me to reflect. Having found myself blindly following a path that I thought I wanted in the past, I want to be vigilant and aware going forwards in case that happens again. However, as is probably clear by the fact that it’s titled Week 11, it took me a little while to put together coherently (and without going overboard on some things that, whilst impactful at the time, didn’t influence the trajectory of the narrative).

I’ve discovered, after a number of experiences, that it takes time to fully digest and learn from big events or milestones. It was years after finishing my ride around the world before I was ready to begin writing what became Emu Racing and Record Chasing. With that in mind, my second season in triathlon, and the subject matter for this post, only ended two weeks ago. Whilst it was not emotionally charged like the first season, I think it’s worth noting that the majority of what I feel towards Ironman Tallinn, may very well change over the next weeks and months…

Speaking of the next few weeks and months, I’ve got some exciting things planned. I will continue to update this blog as these plans develop, but I’m going to stop doing so on a weekly schedule.

This process has, so far, achieved exactly what I wanted. It has forced me to work creatively, on a number of different areas, whilst holding me accountable to some loose structure. However, I’ve found this blog taking more and more of my time. Although not inherently negative, it’s been eating into time that I would otherwise have spent reading, or stretching, or practicing a second language (etc.). So, in the interest of developing other skills, I’m going to take a break from the structure. I hope that makes sense 🙂


4 Replies to “Week 12 – Triathlon: Part 2”

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