Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Outlaw Triathlon - Part 3 - My Race Performance

This is one of a three part set of posts about my first iron distance triathlon: Outlaw Triathlon 2017. This post contains the analysis of my race performance. You can also read about my training and my review of the event.

In this final post in my series on the Outlaw Triathlon I want to review my performance, look at what I learnt and how to improve if (when) I do another event of this distance in the future.


Prior to this event I'd never done an iron distance triathlon before. In fact, apart from the middle distance event I did in the build up, the longest I'd gone before was an olympic distance tri. I'd also previously run two marathons, including a 2:59:34 at London in 2016.

I've already covered training in another post in this series and felt that I was going into the race in the best possible shape that I could be. No injuries or niggles. Calves felt a fraction tight, but I find that's quite common for me after a taper period.

The Swim

I've been working really hard on my swim in the build up. Made some huge improvements. Prior to starting the training plan the longest I had ever swum in one go was 2.4km. Target pace was 2:00/100m that I'd been practising in training.

The main thing I don't like in a mass start swim is the washing machine that occurs while everyone gets going and jostles for a good position. I hate having my legs pushed down from behind. However, over the last couple of races I've been made a real effort to start in the middle of the pack to help overcome this fear. It worked!

I positioned myself at the front of bay 3 (70-90 minute swim time), figuring that my target time of 75-80 minutes would let me swim at the same speed as those around me. As it turns out this was a great decision. I was able to get away cleanly and by the time we merged with bays 1 and 2 the fast swimmers were already away and I had got into a good rhythm.

I managed to get in with a good bunch who all seemed to be able to swim in a mostly straight line. Got my stroke nice and smooth and my breathing nice and even. Being in a group like this creates a great drafting effect, meaning it's possible to swim quite fast with far less effort. Also the nice straight Outlaw swim course meant I didn't have to spend much time sighting as I have the fortune of generally being able to swim in a straight line in open water.

The swim seemed to fly by and I came out of the water with a swim time of 1:13:52 at a pace of 1:54/100m, so significantly quicker than expected. Got my wetsuit off fine, but a slight touch of cramp in both calf muscles while doing so was a bit worrying. Fortunately it didn't turn into a full cramp and eased off as soon as I started moving into the change tent – but did leave me with calf muscles tighter that I would have liked.


I swam with my tri-suit under my wetsuit, so no need to get changed in T1. Just a quick foot dry and put some socks on. Number belt, gloves, sungalsses and bike hat plus a few essentials into the rear pockets. Transition time of 5:37, which I would have liked to have been at least a minute quicker. Need more practice getting stuff in and out of kit bags!


I had a brilliant bike leg. During my long training rides I'd been averaging a speed of just over 29kph on a slightly hillier route than the Outlaw. I was therefore hoping that less hills and race day fitness would allow me to push that above 30kph and thus hit the sub-6-hour bike split. It worked!

The bike course is made up of three loops. Over the first two I was averaging around 32kph. By the third lap I was starting to tire a bit but also my calf muscles continued to tighten up. Knowing that I'm prone to tight calves at the end of a marathon I took the decision to back off just a fraction to preserve my legs for the run as much as possible. However, I was able keep the average speed high and come home with a bike time of 5:58:26, so job definitely done.

Given that prior to starting training for the Outlaw I'd only ever done one ride over 100 miles, to achieve such a good bike time was more than I had hoped for. I also feel that I got the bike nutrition pretty much spot on (but that's covered in its own section later).


Nothing particularly special about T2. The marshals rack your bike for you, which is most welcome. Then it's into the change tent to switch to run gear. I decided to run in my Saucony Type A6 racing flats and go with tie up laces. I felt the few seconds spent tying laces was well worth it given the extra comfort and fit over using elastic ones. Time in T2 was 3:15, which was good considering the amount of kit bag faffing involved!


The run was tough: far harder than I was expecting. Given that I did a sub-3-hour marathon in 2016 I was hoping to breeze round a 3:30 with the goal of pushing for a 3:20 if possible. Having never done this distance triathlon before I was slightly caught out at just how hard the run would be directly after such a long swim and bike.

(Note: actually a 3:46:58 as my watch died 8km from the end!)

My run problems were three-fold: not getting my run plan right; not getting my run nutrition right; and the tight calf muscles carried over from the end of the swim and the bike leg. This resulted in a 1:43:53 first half of the marathon, followed by an abysmal 2:03:05 for the second half. I've certainly learnt some good stuff for the future! I think the main problem was that I approached the run as if it was a standalone marathon (something I was already familiar with) rather than the third element of a long distance tri.

A happy face at the start of the run

I'd done all my long brick sessions with a run at target race pace of 3:37/km, with runs up to 1 hours duration. Throughout the training I always felt comfortable at this pace so set my race plan accordingly to just come off the bike and hit and hold this as a steady pace. I also planned a run nutrition strategy around what I would normally do for a marathon (see the nutrition section below).

What I discovered about 18km into the marathon was that this strategy didn't work. I then had to slow down quite a lot and take more time in the feed stations getting my fuelling correct. However, the constant stopping and starting really aggravated my tight calves, meaning that for the second half of the run my form and efficiency were way below normal. The result being that the run became even harder and my pace slowed down to about 5:30/km, which is way slower than even my typical long run pace of 5:10/km.

Feeling the pain towards the end

The final half of the run just became a case of breaking the distance down into a series of short sections from the current feed station to the next, walk through the feed station taking on fluid and fuel, and then sum up the energy to start running to again towards the next feed station. On the plus side I did still manage to pick up the pace for the last lap of the lake and run faster down the finish funnel!

One further problem on the run was that my watch ran out of battery with 8km to go. Not a major issue as by that time I wasn't using it for pacing as I was just moving the best my legs would allow. However, it would have been a disaster if I was close to target pace and relying on the power data from my Stryd footpod.

Overall, happy to have finished the run in an acceptable time of 3:46:58. I learnt a lot and will definitely be planning a different strategy if (when) I ever do another long distance triathlon.


As already mentioned, my nutrition was a bit of a mixed bag. I think I got it pretty much right until I hit the run, as which point my plan was totally broken.

Pre-race was my standard approach of a huge bowl of porridge and a coffee for breakfast, followed by a banana and sipping a bottle of water about 30 minutes before racing.

On the bike I planned drinking four 750ml bottles of fluid: half water and half High-5 Zero electrolyte drink. Aiming to drink every 15 mins. Food wise I went with a mix of Chia Charge flapjack bars and small bags of pretzels. These were consumed as follows:

  • 0:15:00 – Chia Charge bar
  • 1:00:00 & 1:30:00 – half Chia Charge bar
  • 2:00:00 – 30g pretzels
  • 2:30:00 & 3:00:00 - half Chia Charge bar
  • 3:30:00 – 30g pretzels
  • 4:00:00 & 4:30:00 - half Chia Charge bar
  • 5:00:00 – 30g pretzels
  • 5:30:00 – Chia Charge bar

The first Chia Charge bar was to refuel after the swim. Then eating every 30 minutes was a great way to break down the ride into smaller segments (useful advice I got from a magazine article). This plan worked out at about 55g of carbs per hour, which I think was pretty much spot on for fuelling on the bike.

The only complaint I have about my bike fuel strategy was that I struggled with the very last Chia Charge bar being way too sweet. I don't normally each a huge amount of sweet carbs so I think five flapjack bars was a bit too much.

I came off the bike feeling well fuelled and hydrated ready for the run. (The fact I made it 18km into the run before problems hit shows I probably got it right). However, my run nutrition plan turned out to be rather lacking!

For a standalone marathon, my nutrition is usually to just take on a couple of mouthfuls of water every 5km and a 33Shake chia gel every 8km. This has always worked well for me, so that's what I went for. However, I didn't take account of the fact that my normal marathon nutrition is based on having reserves of fuel and hydration in my body at the start of the marathon, so my race intake is just top-up rather than replenishment.

On the first half of the run I ran through each feed station, taking a mouthful of water as I felt like it and hitting my chia gel intake at 8km and 16km as planned. However, the chia gels only have 11g of carbs each and I probably only drank about 100ml of fluid in the first part of the run. Therefore at about 18km I hit both energy and fluid deficit, which massively curtailed my pace.

Realising what was happening I backed off and make an effort over the next few aid stations to walk through them and take on plenty of electrolyte drink, some flat coke and a goodly number of Jaffa Cakes! It took about another 10km of this strategy before I felt my energy levels starting to restore.

The remaining 14km of the run I switched to a strategy of walking each feed station making sure that I kept fluid and fuel levels topped up. No more energy dips, but by this time my tight calf muscles were the main hindrance to me being able to get back to any measure of a decent running pace.


Having never put all three event distances together in one go before there were always going to be lots of things to learn from the experience. This post details my analysis of my race and here are my list of learnings that I will take forward for the future:

  • Pre-race massages for tight calves - I know that I generally suffer from tight calves, especially towards the end of a marathon. However at shorter distances it doesn't normally impact on my performance. For long distance events like this I need to spend more time ensuring that there's no tightness carried over from training into race day. A few visits to my sports massage guy in the weeks before race day will definitely be built into my training plan next time!
  • More savoury items on the bike - fuelling on the bike was sound but too much sweet stuff, swap at least one flapkjack for something more savoury.
  • Different race plan for the run - need to adapt the plan for the fact that it's not a standalone marathon. In particular adjust the target pace to allow for a few seconds of walking through the feed stations to ensure time to fully take on fluid and fuel.
  • Better nutrition strategy for the start of the run - plan run nutrition to continue intake of around 55g of carbs per hour plus aiming to consume 1,500ml fluid over the marathon distance. This requires fully utilising the feed stations in the early stages of the run so that fuel reserves never drop too low.
  • Different watch configuration - I had my bike watch config set to 'Good' GPS quality (rather than 'Best') but this still consumed too much battery. Reduce the GPS quality to 'Okay' for future long distance events .


It was a tough day with both high and low points. However, I finished my first long distance triathlon and smashed my 11:30:00 target by almost 22 minutes!

Will I do an iron distance triathlon again? Yes, probably

Next year? Definitely not!

I'm planning an easier year next year with some shorter distance triathlons, a few more running events and a bit more focus on athletics. Watch this space for a 2019 event though...

Outlaw Triathlon - Part 2: Event Review

This is one of a three part set of posts about my first iron distance triathlon: Outlaw Triathlon 2017. This post contains my review of the event. You can also read about my training and the analysis of my race performance.

The Outlaw Triathlon is an iron distance event (2.4 mile lake swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run) that takes place at the National Water Sports Centre in Nottingham, UK. This was the 8th year of the event and my first time participating in any long distance triathlon.

Pre-Race Communication

I booked the event back in August 2016 and didn't think much more about it other than having a QR code saved in the Passport section of my iPhone. However, as the event started to get closer the level of communications from OSB Events gradually picked up and my excitement began to mount.

The final weeks had a lot more info arriving, more social media activity and a buzz beginning to build around the race. A couple of weeks before race day the race info pack came out. This was a very comprehensive document and answered pretty much everything you could want to know about the race weekend. The only question I came up with not covered in the pack was whether we would have access to all our kit bags on the morning of the race. A quick tweet to the organisers was answered in minutes with an affirmative. Great communications.

Probably the only (minor) fault that I could find is that the on-site camping at Holme Pierrepont doesn't allow you to pre-book a camping pitch. It's just a case of turn up at the weekend and hope the field isn't full – with advice to make sure you have a backup plan! Not the best way to keep race weekend stress to a minimum. I therefore didn't risk the camping and managed to grab a spare room with some friends 30 minutes away from the venue, meaning a very early start on race day. The ability to reserve a camping spot would be a great improvement.

Registration, Racking and Race Briefing

As with most long distance triathlon events, registration, racking and race briefings are done on the Saturday. It's a great way to get familiar with the site layout, find the routes through transition and reduce race day stress. Loads of on-site parking at the venue is also a bonus and reduces walking distances the day before a race.

Registration was flawless. In and out in less than a minute with a nice Outlaw Triathlon branded blueseventy swim backpack thrown in for good measure. Nice large transition kit bags easily held everything I was going to need for the day. The transition area is massive with more then enough space for the bike. Excellent change tent as well with clear labelling of pegs for kit bags. All-in-all a great set-up for a transition area.

The 14:00 race briefing was slightly delayed, which some people with waiting families found a bit frustrating. However when it did get under way I found it well structured and very informative. I definitely came away feeling much more comfortable with the routes, transition process and feed station set-up than I had from just reading the race pack. Slightly bemused by the question from one competitor related to what to do if you weren't wearing any clothes under your wetsuit!

Couldn't really fault the pre-race set up at all. Great work. 10/10.

With everything in place I made a few purchases in the retail tent and headed off to the apartment my friend had rented and a welcome pasta dinner and a nice comfy bed. not forgetting the race number temporary tatoos....

Race Morning

Alarm set for 3:30am (yikes!) and a nice porridge breakfast with a cup of coffee then off to the race. Arrival was smooth and they parked us in a nice close car park. Full access to transition was great, meaning I could put nutrition both on my bike and in my run kit bag. Then it was in to the wetsuit and off to the swim start. We were allowed in the water 15 minutes early, making it possible to have a short warm-up before the off, which was most welcome.

The Swim

Having the National Water Sports Centre as the host venue means a nice simple swim. It's in the rowing lake, so it's just a straight length up the lake, round two buoys at the end and then straight back again, minimal sighting needed. A nice easy exit slope as well. The water was a comfortable 20 degrees, so perfect for a wetsuit swim.

It's a mass start of 1,200 athletes so the swim start is a bit hectic. They do provide four different estimated swim time bays to help break everyone up a bit. Personally I started out at the front of the 70-90 minute bay meaning I got away cleanly and a lot of the faster swimmers from the earlier two bays were ahead of me by the time I merged into the main swim lane. A friend in one of the faster bays had a less enjoyable swim start, having his goggles kicked off in the melee.

Great end of the swim with marshals to help you out of the water and also wetsuit strippers if you need them. Transition was a bit busy as I was out right among the main mass of swimmers. Could do with it being just a bit wider so that people accessing their kit bags don't block the corridor where others want to get past. Other than that, I think it's a great set up with lots of potential for a fast swim if you can get the positioning right and find some space. 10/10.

The Bike

The bike course is made up of two separate loops. You start doing the southern loop, then the northern one and then finally around the southern one again before heading back to Holme Pierrepont. The southern loop is mostly small rural roads and a couple of small villages. It's pretty flat, very quiet and quite scenic. The northern loop has a few more hills, including one short steepish one, and takes place on some busier roads.

The traffic management company did a fantastic job on all the junctions, keeping the bikes moving at all times. I can't think of any point where I had to stop at a junction or roundabout throughout the whole 112 miles! Apparently the bike course can be wind effected, but the wind was very light on race day, so I can't really comment on that. The only real weakness in the bike course is the last couple of miles where you have to pass down a poorly surfaced lane, over some little speed bumps and along the slightly gravelly drive of Holme Pierrepont Hall, but it's an interesting house architecturally so that made it more bearable.

Feed stations along the bike route were nicely spaced, with six in total. Very well organised and offering water, High-5 energy drinks, gels and bananas. Also toilets at every feed station. The volunteers were fantastic and did an amazing job both at handing out supplies and cheering everyone along. Someone even held my bike for me when I had to jump off to use the loo!

Perhaps the only downside I could find on the bike leg was that there was a fair bit of unpunished drafting going on, despite there being a number of marshal bikes on course. Looking at the results I can see some penalties for drafting but none of those being for names I recognised from out on the course (competitors had names on their race numbers). It's partly understandable on the first loop when the bike course was pretty busy – very hard to leave 12 meters without someone overtaking and cutting in. However, being passed by a peleton of eight riders at about 90 miles, clearly working together, was very frustrating after I had worked so hard to keep in front of them!

Arriving back to T2 your bike is taken from you and racked so all you have to worry about is transitioning to the run. By this time I was further up the field, so the change tent was much quieter and easier to get through. Great thought to have a suntan lotion dispensing marshal at the start of the run.

Great bike course, excellent junction management and feed stations, but better enforcement of drafting rules in the last part of the bike leg required for the non-elite riders. 9/10.

The Run

I found the run tough (but that's the subject of my race analysis post). However, the course did everything possible to make it easy. Nice and flat, not too many tight turns and very regular feed stations.

It's set up as a lap of the lake, out along the bank of the River Trent in to Nottingham and back, another lake lap, another trip to Nottingham and back, finishing with two more lake laps. I know some people didn't like so many laps round the lake, but I found the predictability of the route really helped with my breaking down the run into manageable segments. Finally you finish down the orange/red carpet and through a finish tape to cries of “Chris Turner you are an Outlaw”. Amazing feeling!

The feed stations on the run were awesome. Superbly stocked with water, High-5 energy, High-5 Zero, flat coke, gels, crisps, Jaffa Cakes, bananas and an ample supply of soaking wet sponges. The sponges were definitely needed as mid-afternoon was rather warm and sunny. The volunteers at the run feed stations went above and beyond to ensure everyone was catered for and I'm sure that I'm not alone citing them as a reason for me completing the run successfully.

A great run course with just enough interest to stop it getting boring and enough predictability to allow breaking down into manageable bits. Superb feed stations. 10/10.


After going through the finish line and collecting your medal, a lot of races just leave you hanging to sort yourself out. This one doesn't.

After passing through the medical tent (which I didn't need, but who did a great job patching up one of my friends who came off his bike during the bike leg) you then collect your race t-shirt. Nice to get a good quality t-shirt for everyday wear rather than yet another cheap technical top.

Next up you have to climb some stairs (but there were plenty of offers of assistance if needed) and into a tent for a free post-race massage. Very welcome and a great start to recovery. I was then able to access the transition tent to get changed and collect a few essentials – no rush for you to get your kit out. Finally it was off to the feed tent for a nice meal with some of my team mates who finished just a bit quicker than me. Great choice of three high protein meals (I had a chicken and rice dish) plus pudding and drinks. Again, it's all about the recovery!

I was then able to go cheer a friend through the last laps of the run before going to collect my kit and bike, wander back to the car and return to my apartment for a most welcome bath and sleep.

Great post-race facilities. Getting straight into recovery mode (plus some yoga on the Monday) means that today, Tuesday, I'm mostly recovered apart from slightly sore calf muscles. 10/10.


One of the best points about the Outlaw Triathlon is the atmosphere. Wherever you went if felt like there was a buzz. The race village was always busy and the feed stations were amazing. The welcome at the finish was superb – even finishing in 193rd place I was made to feel like I had just won a major race!

Only one improvement to suggest to the organisers: while running through Nottingham I heard quite a few comments from the public like “it must be a race as they've all got numbers on”. A few big banners along the run route publicising the race and the distances involved would certainly help engage the support of those interested by-standers (and maybe get them on board for future events!)

Great race buzz that can't be manufactured, only achieved by people who are genuinely passionate about what they do. 10/10.


A great race on a good course - great if you want to go for a fast time. I managed 11:08:08 in my first attempt at this distance, so I'm super happy! Well organised with a passionate events team. Great atmosphere and wonderful marshals. I'd thoroughly recommend it - especially if it's a first time stepping up to long distance triathlons.

As with all these events there's a lot of organisation involved so the entry cost is pretty high. However, I certainly felt that it was pretty good value for money. I'd certainly consider doing it again at some point in the future. Overall score 10/10.

Outlaw Triathlon - Part 1: The Training

This is one of a three part set of posts about my first iron distance triathlon: Outlaw Triathlon 2017. This post covers my pre-race training. You can also read my review of the event and the analysis of my race performance.

It had always been on my long-term goal list to complete an iron distance triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run). So, when some members of my club (Team Kennet) suggested taking on the Outlaw Triathlon I had a good think and decided to give it a go.

My main worry was the volume of training required to be competitive at an event of this duration. However, over previous years, my typical training load has been somewhere between eight and twelve hours a week, which seemed fairly compatible with many ironman training plans. The big difference was just the addition of the weekly long ride, which I was successfully able to negotiate with my family.

I started training in October 2016 for the race at the end of July 2017. Initial training was just base fitness work, strength and conditioning, yoga and general preparation for the winter's cross-country running season.

For the main training block I selected the Don Fink 30-Week Competitive Training Plan. I liked the fact that this plan is fairly run heavy, which fits in well with my season's other running events such as half marathons and athletics track season. Also, three other members of my club, who were also doing the Outlaw, decided to follow the same plan as well so this synchronised well in terms of being able to do some of our long rides together.


The training plan called for three swim sessions per week. I was already doing two sessions most weeks: one club session and one on my own. I was therefore able to add an extra session, usually in a lunch break, with more open water focus closer to the event.

Working with my club coach I was able to make some big strides in my swimming, going from pacing around 2:10/100 over 1,500 meters down to being able to sustain 1:58/100 over the 3.8k swim distance. Lots of changes working first on getting my legs higher in the water; then on building a better supporting platform with my arms while breathing; finally working on a stronger catch and pull-through with a lower but more effective stroke rate.

A couple of 4k+ open water lake swims in the month before the race gave me the confidence that I could comfortably achieve the race distance.

I broadly followed the swim sessions from the training plan, except on club nights when I did my coach's planned session. The main adaptation was that I had to cut a fair few of the Don Fink sessions to make them shorter as my swim speed wasn't sufficient to fit in the entire set within the allotted swimming time.


I've been gradually improving my bike over the last couple of years, but mainly focussed on olympic triathlon distance. Prior to starting the training plan I'd only ever done one ride over 100 miles in length!

Lots of turbo trainer sessions on Zwift took place over the winter to get the base bike fitness locked in. Then starting in March I started moving outside. A very warm May and June made some of the rides quite tough, but I could feel my cycling improving each week and my average speed getting better on each ride.

The Don Fink plan typically has 4 rides each week: a session with some speed/intervals work, a shorter brick ride, a long ride (starting at 2 hours and building up to 6) followed by a run, and an easy spin at high cadence. I typically did the easy spin on the turbo and the others all outside.

For my longer rides, most were undertaken along the A4 between Thatcham (where I live) and Bath. This is a relatively flat route with similar (but fractionally hillier) terrain to the Outlaw bike course, so most of my long training was very race specific.

About half the long rides were done with my club mates (with plenty of drafting going on), great for building up the distance without maxing out the effort. I also took care to make sure that I did three of the very long rides solo: firstly to make sure I could sustain the required effort on my own; and secondly, to do the mental preparation of six hours of focused riding with no banter!

Over time my bike speed gradually improved, starting out about 27kph average on the first long ride and settling at just over 29kph by the later rides. I was therefore hopeful that on slightly flatter Outlaw route that I might be able to maintain an average speed above 30kph.


Running has always been my primary (and strongest) event. Having completed a sub-3-hour marathon in 2016 I was very confident for a good run time. The Don Fink plan has quite a good run focus, but I did do a few variations to ensure that my running was compatible with racing a half marathon, a 10k and athletics track season during the training period.

Typically my run training consisted of two track sessions per week: one very hard intervals with longer rest periods and the other slightly less hard but with shorter recovery. Also included was a long run, starting at about 18km and building to 32km in the peak phase. Other runs were just brick sessions, mostly done easy and Parkrun with the kids as a recovery run. Typically doing five runs per week.

One specific thing that I did was to make sure that the brick run after my long rides was always done at target marathon race pace to that I got used to running at that speed straight off the bike.


Overall, the training was just about spot on. The Don Fink plan worked great and I found myself in peak condition at race time. The big four peak weeks in the plan were super tiring, but that was always to be expected. I think the plan had the perfect mix of swim, bike and run balance for my needs. I also managed to fit in a one-hour yoga session each week, which really helped with maintaining flexibility.

During the training period I was also able to complete a 1:23:11 half marathon and a sub-40 10k plus also my first middle distance triathlon as well.

Probably the only change I would make would be to try to be much more focused on getting a strength and conditioning session in each week. I started out well, but during the second half of the plan this was always the session that got dropped each week due to time constraints or tiredness.

The other thing that I would strongly recommend is undertaking training for an event such as this with friends and club mates. Going out for a group long ride made them so much more bearable. Having a social media message group also allowed us to provide support to each other and keep a bit of banter going when the going got tough. I think the whole process would have been far tougher mentally if I'd tried to do it solo. Thanks Sean, Chris, Bart, Dean and Cameron!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Immortal Half 2017

Yesterday I took part in the Immortal Half (middle distance) Triathlon at the Stourhead National Trust site in Wiltshire. Managed 67th place (out of 221 finishers) in 5:42:27, 25th (out of 69) in my age group. Here's a quick write up for any triathletes considering this event in the future...

Event was very well organised. Just big enough to have a proper race atmosphere but still small enough to have a personal feel to it. The location at Stourhead is stunning, with the finish line outside of the historic house. It's a hilly place, especially on the run, so not one to do if you don't like hills!

The Swim

Swim was 1,900m in the Stourhead lake. The water temperature was surprisingly warm for the time of year. Only downside is that the lake is very shallow in places so a lot of silt got stirred up and in places you were swimming through dark brown water full of mud – yuk! Still, my swim was good and finished in 36:50, which was okay for me. After the swim it's a 600m uphill run to transition, so a tough way to end the swim section.

The Bike

Bike course was slightly short for a middle distance event at 52 miles, but quite scenic taking in both Wiltshire and Somerset. A two lap course, best described as 'rolling': there were a good few ascents and descents along the route. Also quite exposed in places so the wind was a bit tough at times. Completed in 3:06:08 – not super fast but wanted to make sure I saved plenty for the run.

The Run

Run course is a killer - it's not an event you should do if you hate running hills! Three laps of 4.5 miles. Each lap starts with 2 miles of continuous climbing (albeit quite shallow gradient) on road. Then you turn back into the Stourhead grounds for a steep (leg killing) 500m trail descent followed by about 1.7 miles of further gentle downhill trail. Finally at the bottom by the lake it's half a mile of constant fairly steep uphill back to the main house for the next lap / finish line. Took me 1:51:06 for the (just over) half marathon distance, overtaking so many other competitors and making up over 50 places on the run!


Overall, very happy with my first middle distance triathlon. Great location and an enjoyable event. Definitely recommended – if you like running hills and trail!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Zwift - Making the Turbo Trainer Less Dull

Just over a month ago I finally bit the bullet and purchased a turbo trainer. I didn't really want to as I much prefer riding outside, but I did have a few good reasons:

  • I've spent the summer building up good cycling fitness and gradually improving my power output and I don't want to loose that completely over the winter and have to start from scratch again in April/May
  • We are entering the winter and while I don't mind riding in the cold and wet I really don't want to be risking icy roads - where a crash on the bike could ruin my spring marathon training
  • Riding indoors has the advantage that I can train and keep an eye on the kids and my wife can use the same time to go out for a run

I've therefore set myself an objective of maintaining at least one ride of between 60 and 90 minutes each week (usually on the turbo) throughout the winter as well as regular rides to work (only a couple of miles each way).

Turbo Trainer Purchase

With this in mind I purchased a barely used CycleOps Fluid 2 trainer off of eBay. I couldn't justify going for anything much more expensive given the relatively limited amount of use it's going to get. However I did spend enough to get a fluid model as these have significant advantages of smoothness and quietness over cheaper magnetic or fan based systems.

Level of noise was a big consideration as I'm usually cycling early in the morning and need to avoid waking the kids! I'm very pleased with the Fluid 2: it rides nicely and doesn't really generate any more noise than the washing machine.

First Sessions

The first two sessions I undertook on the turbo were mind-numbing! I opted to do a couple of structured workouts from a training plan, each of 60 minutes duration. For entertainment I went with trying to catch up with my backlog of running and triathlon podcasts.

I pulled off each of the sessions successfully, but the time just seemed to go so slowly. A 5-minute interval seemed like an age. Twenty minutes seemed never ending. I knew that if I was going to make it through the winter riding the turbo then I had to find something to make the whole experience less tedious.

My first thought was watching movies or TV series on the iPad while riding, but I wasn't really sure that would be much different to listening to a podcast. Then I saw an article (or mayby email) about Strava offering two months free access (for premium members) to something called Zwift...

Virtual Riding

The main premise behind Zwift is that it allows you to ride in a virtual environment with other riders from around the world. The data collected from sensors attached to your bike/trainer (see later) controls how quickly your rider travels through the virtual environment. Imagine a computer game where you are riding a bike and the speed is based on the cycling effort you put in on a real bike – that's pretty much it.

You have the option of just riding the course on your own, picking up other riders or a group and riding with them or even completing a specific structured workout. During general riding there are sprint and hill climbing challenges where you compete for the fastest time against the other riders in the game, plus the option to go for the fastest course lap.

Equipment and Sensors

So, how does all this magic work? First off you need a computer (PC or Mac) that runs the Zwift game. This needs to have a pretty good Internet connection so that you can see your position in the virtual environment along with all the other riders from around the world. I've found that the game is pretty processor intensive, so having the laptop plugged in seems to be essential.

Next off you need a turbo trainer and of course a bike! Zwift works best with a smart trainer where the game can control the trainer resistance to match the virtual hills on the course. However, it works just fine with a classic trainer and there are pre-calibrated profiles for most of the main manufacturers (Tacx, CycleOps etc.)

Finally you need some sensors to measure what you are doing on the bike. Ideally you should have a power meter as the game is largely built around power: so you will get the most accurate behaviour by using a real power meter. However if, like me, a power meter is beyond your budget then it also works just fine with a standard speed sensor – in which case Zwift use an algorithm to estimate your power. So far, the estimation seems to be pretty accurate as far as I can tell. You can also pair a heart rate monitor and cadence sensor for additional metrics.

By default Zwift works with Ant+ devices, and you will need an Ant+ USB dongle in your laptop. However, it's also possible to run the Zwift App on your mobile device, which allows pairing with BLE devices as well. The App and the computer must be on the same network so that the App can transmit the readings from the BLE sensors to the game. Additionally, the App also works as a cycle computer display and controller for the game, so it's pretty useful even if you aren't using any BLE devices, and it stops you dripping sweat all over the laptop!

This all ends up being quite a complex configuration of kit with lots of interconnecting parts (Internet, computer, phone App, bike sensors, hrm, trainer). There's quite a lot that could go wrong here, but surprisingly it works incredibly well. I had one small problem getting the phone App and the game on the laptop to communicate properly resulting in no reading from my BLE speed/cadence sensor, but once everything is communicating fine it seems really stable throughout the ride.

Riding Experience

The riding experience is really good, even with a classic trainer. As you ride, Zwift uses your power output (either measured or calculated) and translates this into a relative speed within the game. As the virtual course goes uphill, your virtual speed at the same power output goes down and visa-versa as the course goes downhill again.

I thought initially that it would seem strange going from flat to uphill without any change of resistance from my basic trainer, but the visual perspective of the course is good enough to trick your mind into thinking it's climbing a harder hill even though nothing in the real-world environment has actually changed. I have however taken to switching up a gear or two on the hill climbs just to make it feel tougher!

The virtual sprints and hill climbs are a great incentive to push a little harder, and seeing yourself on a leader-board against other riders from around the world is great. There's an inherently social element to riding with other people, seeing where they are from, what kit they've selected, how their performance relates to yours and so on. You can even chat and give a virtual 'Ride On!' along the way.

I've certainly found the experience immersive enough that even a 70 minute turbo trainer session seems to fly by much more quickly than before I started using Zwift. It really feels like you are out for an actual bike ride.

Workout Mode

For those who don't want to just ride round a virtual course, there's also a workout mode. You start by picking a workout from the list (I think a workout designer has just been released or is coming soon). You then ride the workout, with the game prompting you what your current interval power output should be and how long to maintain it before the next interval. There's also a virtual FTP test you can do as well.

In workout mode, you don't get to compete in the sprint or hill climb segments and you also don't get any benefit from drafting. You are however riding around the same course as everyone else so the full virtual experience and social element is still there.

Stats and Metrics

As you ride you can see your current power output, cadence, heart rate, virtual distance and speed. You also collect experience points that unlock new clothing, bikes and wheels that you can use in-game.

Once you stop riding there's a nice little summary screen with a couple of graphs and some power statistics. What's even better is that if you've linked your Strava account to Zwift then the ride is uploaded to Strava as a virtual ride along with all the data, virtual segments and Strava analysis. What a great idea!

Ride On!

I'm currently enjoying my 2-month free Zwift usage that now comes with my premium Strava account. However, I'm getting enough value from the Zwift experience that when this runs out I think I'll be paying my monthly subscription in order to see me through to the end of my winter bike training.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

First Cross Country Race

I haven't done any cross country running since school. All I really remember was being made to run 5km along local footpaths and alleyways to the country park and back again. I vaguely remember being able to occasionally get into the top group, while the slower runners looked for every opportunity to hide somewhere along the route and then re-join on the way back.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I agreed to make my first outing for my new club (Team Kennet) at a cross country event. The chosen event was the Berks, Bucks and Oxen Cross Country Championships, held at Horspath Sports Ground in Oxford.

The morning of the event dawned fairly bright but cold, with a very strong wind gusting to over 50km/h. Temperature was only a few degrees centigrade and the wind chill made it feel much colder. Pretty much perfect weather for cross country running ;-)

I'd intended to run in just shorts, club running vest and gloves. However at the last moment I decided to add a long sleeved base layer to counter the cold wind. With hindsight this wasn't the best decision as I was rather warm during the race. For shoes I went with my Saucony Peregrine 4 trail shoes as these were the best (only) thing I had for running off-road.

The senior mens' race was made up of 106 runners of all age groups from 18 years and up. All the entrants were serious club runners so I knew it was going to be a tough event.

The course was pretty challenging. It started with a run across some fields and over a dry ditch. Then it was two laps round the main loop - starting with an uphill section on a reasonable gravel/packed mud path; then a flat slightly muddy section followed by a downhill on similar gravel/packed mud; finally a section across some rather wet and muddy fields back to the start of the loop. After the second lap was a very muddy footpath and a final sprint back across a field.

The uphill section was a bit of a killer: one of those hills that you go up and then, just as you think you are at the top, you turn a corner and there's more hill left to go and it's even steeper than what went before! I'm pretty strong up hills so I was able to push it to the top on the first ascent. Second time round I approached it with a bit more respect and adopted a slightly slower pace right from the bottom.

I found the downhill section much more challenging. The secret to going downhill fast is to just go with it and move your legs quickly underneath you to keep from falling head-over-heels. Trying to hold back or control speed through leaning back just doesn't work and tires you out really quickly. Unfortunately I found that running downhill fast aggravated my slightly tight achilles. Also, I wasn't confident with the grip of my trail shoes on the steeper parts. I therefore lost quite a bit of time and a couple of places on the two downhill sections. Running downhill will certainly be part of my training as soon as I get my achilles back in full working order!

The other sections where I really struggled were those where there was a lot of mud. While my trail shoes had reasonable grip on the grassy and packed sections, as soon as I hit a section of deeper mud I found myself sliding all over the place. The last section was a very muddy footpath and I found it really hard work keeping on my feet through here – not what you want in the last 2km of a hard 9km race!

One other thing that I found very different is that in all the races I've done previously, I've been able to make great use of the data from my GPS running watch. I've been able to ensure that I'm maintaining a sensible pace, not going off too fast while at the same time not letting the speed drop too much. In the cross country race this information source was pretty much useless!

Firstly it was really difficult to get a chance to look at my watch as I was so busy trying to stay on my feet and pick good lines through the roots and mud. Secondly, the constantly varying terrain and gradients made any sort of pacing plan almost totally redundant. All I could really do was run to RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) and just use the watch data for post-race analysis.

I completed the 9km race in 42:14, which I was fairly happy with given that my flat 10km PB is only just under 40 minutes. I managed 69th place out of the 106 starters, and 22nd in the veterans (40+) category out of 42 runners. Happy with that in my first cross country event which was also a county level championship.

Learnings from the race:

  • Don't make last minute kit or clothing changes, stick with what I know works for me
  • Trail shoes don't really cut in when it's really muddy and that lack of grip affected my confidence going downhill. I've added some cross country spikes to my Christmas list!
  • Trying to use GPS watch data for pacing decisions is pointless, just race using perceived exertion
  • I need to do much more practice running downhill fast and letting myself flow rather than holding myself back

I really enjoyed cross country. It's nothing like I remember it from school, and I will definitely be doing some more of these races for my club in the future.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The 2015 Huntsman Triathlon

Back at the beginning of October I competed in the Huntsman Triathlon, my first Olympic distance event. I delayed this blog post a bit owing to the fact that I wrote a short race report that was published in the December 2015 issue of 220 Triathlon magazine. Here's my full account of the race and my performance.

The Race

The Huntsman Triathlon took place on Sunday 11th October 2015. It is based at the Hawley Lake complex in Minley, Hampshire. The swim takes place in Hawley Lake itself; the bike through the villages of Yateley, Finchampstead and Eversley on the Hampshire/Berkshire border; and the run along the trails surrounding Hawley Lake.

The race offers both sprint and Olympic distance events. After a strong summer of racing and training I wanted to finish the season with a challenge, so I opted for the Olympic distance event (1,500m swim, 40km bike ride, 10km run). This would be my first event at this distance. Pulling together metrics from my training and other performances, I set myself a fairly aggressive goal of a sub-2:45 finish.


I didn't undertake any specific training preparation for the race, having trained all three disciplines strongly over the summer. I'd have liked to have got a couple more open water swim sessions in before the race, but other commitments made this impossible.

I did head down to Hawley Lake a couple of weeks before the race and took a ride round the bike course to familiarise myself with the route and conditions. This proved to be a valuable exercise and something I would suggest for every race, whenever time allows.


The morning dawned with pretty much perfect triathlon conditions: clear blue skies, almost no wind and a predicted temperature of about 12-14 degrees centigrade. Not bad for a day in mid-October!

I got up early and had my usual porridge with a 33Shake All-In-One Shake mixed in, prepared my drinks and nutrition for the race, had a final kit check, loaded the car and set off. Fortunately I'm only about 45-minute drive from the lake so it wasn't a too arduous morning.

I arrived at the lake with loads of time to spare. I headed into registration, which was very professional with iPads for looking up your race number. Interesting set of goody bag items including a nice beanie hat and a miniature blue cowbell!

Then it was off to transition to set up the bike and other kit. There was a really good atmosphere and lots of good camaraderie between the athletes. The only fault I could find was that the bikes were racked incredibly close together, not giving you much space to set up your kit.

The pre-race briefing was perhaps the best I have experienced. Lots of good information, nice and loud and clear and with a good amount of humour and anticipation building mixed in. Always Aim High Events seem to have got this part of the race preparation just about perfect.

The Swim

Leaving transition we all headed down to the swim start. The Olympic swim course was two laps around the lake in a roughly triangle shape. Getting into the water was a slightly painful affair as you had to walk across a small stony area and then along the stony lake bottom until the water was deep enough to swim in.

Just before I got deep enough to swim I felt something sharp on the bottom of my foot, but as the water was a chilly 16 degrees centigrade my feet went numb pretty much straight away and I didn't think any more of it at the time. A future suggestion to the organisers would be to have a small floating pontoon so that competitors could jump straight into deeper water without having to negotiate the stones!

After a quick swim warm-up we were off. I really wasn't looking forward to the swim as it's my weakest discipline and I'm still not comfortable with mass open-water starts: last time I attempted one I panicked and it took me a good few minutes to get my breathing back under control. This time everything went much more smoothly and I took great care to focus on exhaling properly, despite getting a few bumps along the way. After about 100m I managed to find some calm water and got nicely into my (somewhat slow) stroke.

The first lap went by quite smoothly and I was still feeling good. Slightly disconcerted when at the beginning of the second lap, the first yellow hat swimmers from the wave that started five minutes after ours started to overtake me! Still, I kept on with a steady pace and could see other swimmers from my own wave around so I knew I hadn't dropped too far behind. In the end I completed the swim in 33 minutes, which was about what I was targeting.


The main drama of my day occurred at the swim exit. The water was quite murky, so I couldn't really see the edge of the submerged concrete jetty that we were supposed to exit onto. Finally I found it with my knee. The concrete wasn't smooth either!

I managed to recover and clamber out, but, given my disrupted exit, I stood up far too quickly. A wave of dizziness came over me and I proceeded to fall sideways off the jetty, saving myself with a handily located race flag. Fortunately these things are quite strong! Not the most graceful thing to do right in front of the supporting crowd. I recovered just as the marshal came over to help and staggered slowly to my bike.

Pulling down my wetsuit I discovered a trickle of blood running down my leg from a small gash in my knee. I then noticed a hole in the knee of my almost new Huub wetsuit, which at the time seemed like a much greater disaster!

Here's my knee at the end of the race. Don't look too close if you are a bit squeamish about the sight of blood...

I managed to get myself focussed on the transition. It was all a bit slow as I had decided to wear socks due to the coldness of the water. That turned out to be a good decision as my feet stayed numb until well into the run and it would have been much worse without socks. Have you ever tried putting socks on when a bit dizzy? Probably explains why my T1 was just over 2 minutes long.

A message to the race organisers: can you please put some kind of matting or underwater padding over the end of the jetty please? I don't want other future competitors to have to experience the same wetsuit ripping, knee gashing experience that I went through!

The Bike

I don't remember much about the first ten minutes of the bike. I was busy dealing with trying to stem blood loss from my knee and assess the gash to see if I needed to stop and seek medical attention. Fortunately the cut didn't look too bad and after about ten minutes it finally started to clot and stop bleeding. All the faffing probably cost me about a minute on the bike overall. Once I'd got settled in I picked up the pace and started to catch and overtake some other riders.

The bike course was an out section followed by two laps and then a back section in to the lake again. The laps were quite varied. The first half of each was quite undulating with some narrow roads and tricky junctions, as we worked our way from Yately and on to Finchampstead. This part wasn't helped by a number of very hesitant cars who were struggling to overtake some of the slower riders. This tended to cause a bottleneck of faster riders stuck behind them and a fair amount of frustration from those trying to chase a fast time or a specific position. Still, I guess that's the nature of non-closed road courses.

The second half of the lap was a long straight flat section through Eversley Cross and back into Yately, which gave a good chance to recharge a bit before the returning to the hilly sections. I continued to make good progress, keeping up with some fairly fast riders, gaining positions and only being overtaken by a couple of aero-helmeted missiles on slippery bikes that cost nearly as much as my car!

Mid-way through the second lap I overtook a rider who didn't appear to be in the race (well he wasn't wearing a number anyway). He then tucked in behind me, hanging just a few meters back off my rear wheel. I'm not sure what he may have thought when the race marshal car pulled up beside him and had a word about drafting rules! Still, good on the organisers for taking the time to keep a good eye on people who might be attempting to gain an unfair advantage.

After the two laps it was then time to head back towards Hawley Lake. The return section has a big long hill on it, so I'm glad that my course reccy from a couple of weeks prior had prepared my for this. I'd saved enough to push up the hill without leaving myself too drained for the run. It was then a nice downhill and flat back into the transition area.

My finish time for the bike was 1:19, which was about four minutes faster than my course reccy from the previous week. Very happy with this time considering the distractions at the start and the number of times I got bunched behind hesitant cars.


Not much to say about T2. All went smoothly and I was out in under a minute, even though I had quite a long run pushing the bike, as I was about as far away from the bike in point as it was possible to get. Picked up an extra 33Shake Chia Gel and I was off.

I'd considered doing the run in my trail shoes as it was going to be mostly off-road and we'd had some rain earlier in the week. In the end I decided to stick with my normal Saucony Kinvara 5's and this proved to be the correct decision.

The Run

The run was a 10km route, made up of two laps through the woodland circling the lake. It was a bit more hilly than I was expecting with a few areas of quite uneven terrain. Still, it was a beautiful morning with dappled sunlight filtering through the trees and I love running in conditions like this.

It took the first lap before my feet finally thawed out and I got some feeling back in them, but I'd got into a good running flow way before this. I managed to settle down into a good 4:20/km pace with some slower bits up the hills. I would have liked to have gone a bit faster than this, but the terrain pretty much dictated that this was about my best pace. I steadily worked my way up the field, picking off a number of other runners along the way. Then it was a strong finish for a time of 47:40 for the run.

The Finish

I crossed the line with a finish time of 2:43:14, which was just under two minutes better than my target of 2:45:00. Got to be pleased at that given the eventful swim exit and T1. This was also my first Olympic distance event, so doubly pleased with having put in a good performance at this longer format.

I have to mention the post-race goodies, which were way better than anything I've ever come across before. There were the obligatory bananas or course, but there were also bowls of trail mix, various sweets, broken up chocolate bars and a superb selection of biscuits! You even got a little pick-and-mix cup to put then all in. Superb!

There were also cups of Erdinger Alkoholfrei on offer. It's strange that even though I'm a non-drinker and hate the taste of beer and larger, that for some reason I really like the taste of this stuff at the end of a hard race.

Always Aim High don't usually do medals, instead preferring to give out lovely slate coasters with the race name and details on. This has pride of place on my desk and reminds me of the race every time I have a cup of tea. A nice touch.

After gorging myself on sweets and biscuits I headed over to the St John's Ambulance, where they did and excellent job of cleaning up my cut knee and assessing that it didn't need any further treatment other than a good bath and a sterile dressing.

It was at this point that the feeling started to fully return to my feet and I started to feel a pain under my left foot whenever I stood on it (if you can remember back as far as the swim entry and that sharp feeling while entering the water). Removing my sock I discovered a small hole in the bottom of my foot right through to the raw layers of skin underneath. I expect it would have bled quite nicely had it not been for the cold water and the general numbness of my feet! It took a couple of weeks of painful walking for this one to heal fully, but there don't seem to be any ill effects.


Overall, the Huntsman Triathlon was a great event. The organisation was pretty much perfect and you could tell that Always Aim High Events have a real passion for running the best triathlon they possibly can. The quality of the field was very high, so if you are looking for some serious competition then this event is definitely worth considering.

The lake made for a good swim and both the bike and run routes were challenging but not beyond the ability of most triathletes. Marshalling was good all the way round. From my point of view I'd be much happier if they could improve the swim entrance and exit to give them a bit less potential for injuries!

I was very happy with my performance, especially as I beat my goal time. I'll certainly be looking at returning next year to go faster and have a much less eventful swim.