Ironman Staffordshire 70.3 race report: Luke England

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2018 was not supposed to start like this. During the off-season, races were chosen and in a bid to improve my running I had decided to take on The London Marathon. The marathon was supposed to get my running legs up to scratch ready for an Ironman 70.3 later in the year. However, playing football on Christmas eve put all my best made plans to rest. I somehow managed to tear my calf which resulted in no running for 6 weeks. I was devasted and for a few weeks I lost all direction and motivation for training, the downhill spiral was well and truly in full swing.

I needed to find something to focus on and I needed to find it fast. Due to family and financial restrictions I decided Sweden, my original “A” race for 2018, was out of the question and it became more apparent that doing Staffordshire again was one of very few options left to me.

Training: Switching races meant that I only had 11 weeks of intense training before the race, and I knew I’d need to taper so that didn’t really leave much room for error.

During May, my coach and I managed to beef up the hours and we got some really good sessions in. My legs were starting to respond, and power was on the increase. I finally found some running legs and things were starting to look up.

As well as focusing on the running, we also got some 1900m TT swims in. The sessions were great for understanding the pacing of the swim. Going off too fast on the first 400m really does come back to bite hard on the last 600m. Doing this gave me a feel for a swim speed and the sessions increased my swim confidence even more.

Race Week/ Build Up: As you’ll come to know, I seem to be cursed with an ability to bring warm weather whenever I do a triathlon. I’m yet to race in sub 30 degrees and as usual the weather was set to warm up ready for race day.

This time however it shouldn’t be the low 30’s I have become used to, rather the low to mid 20’s – given past experiences, this was a win for me.

We drove up early on Friday morning, 1 wife and 2 kids onboard. A journey that should have taken a little over 2:30 ended up taking 4:30 and by the end of it we all just wanted to go home. It really was not the start to the weekend we wanted.

Once we arrived in Stafford it was straight to registration and race briefing. On arrival, something didn’t feel right and that feeling lingered all weekend. The magic of Ironman just wasn’t there, and the pathetic attempt at race briefing via a 5 minute video highlighted this perfectly. We got 

what we needed to do done, and I managed to drop my run bag off in T2.

Some advice for any future Ironmen and women, on a split transition site, get the run bag dropped as early as possible. It’s one less thing to think about and in our case it meant that we didn’t have to make the 40-minute round trip back to Stafford the day before the race.

Saturday was simple, rack the bike, drop the blue bag and try to remember where I put it. I was ready to race.

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Race: My alarm was set for 05:00 but the fear/excitement woke me at 04:00 and I decided to get up and start e

ating my way through two porridge pots.

We left the hotel at 06:00 and after a short drive we reached our parking space. From here it was a short walk over the M6 toll road to the transition area.

Once we’d arrived, I then went through the usual routine of pumping up tyres, putting nutrition and my bottle on the bike and within 15 minutes I was ready to roll!

We made our way over to the large grass area and waited for the tannoy announcement calling all pros to the start. It didn’t happen as planned, and at 07:00 it was announced that the swim start had been postponed until further notice due to a significant blan

ket of fog having descended over the lake at Cannock Chase. After about 30 minutes, the rumours started to circulate. Some people were saying it was going to be a shortened swim, others that the swim was going to be cancelled altogether. I just tried to relax and stay in my warm clothes whilst waiting for something official.

An hour after the initial announcement we had the news we had all been waiting for, we were going to race, and it was going to be the full course. That being said it was now very much a rushed job and this lead to my first problem: I had managed to miss queuing for the swim and now found myself 100-200 people back. This was not where I wanted to be having previously experienced what it’s like, I know all too well that athletes interpretation’s of being a ‘fast’ swimmer vary enormously and it’s not that easy to self seed!

Before I knew it, I was saying my goodbye’s to my family and good luck to my brother and we were off and in the water.

My plan for the swim was simple, keep it steady to the first buoy and then start pushing the pace and keeping the tempo high, aiming for a swim as close to 28 minutes as possible.

What actually unfolded for the first 400m was an elaborate game of dodge the swimmer. I lost count of how many people I overtook, but I really only have myself to blame. I knew I needed to get to the front and I didn’t. The swim itself felt very good, probably the best I’ve felt doing a 70.3 – I didn’t get bored, I kept focused and my pace really did feel as if it was on point. Once we had made the final turn and were heading back to the swim exit the lake started to really get choppy and it was very noticeable, so I just adapted my stroke and went for it. The added trips around people and weaving in and out of people added an extra 100-200m to my swim.

I exited the swim and checked my watch. 29:21… I was slightly disappointed at the time as I felt faster – but analysing it since, the extra distance I covered trying to avoid people accounted for where I thought I would be and where I actually ended up. I didn’t let it affect me though and I knew the real race was yet to come.

T1 is a very long run from swim exit to changing tent. Once you’re there it’s a frantic battle to remember where you put your bag, then it’s grab it and get changed. Or in my case, grab the bag next to mine, run off then run back and get the right bag! Another first for me…no idea how I can look at one bag and grab another, but there we go, sh** happens.

I’m pleased to report I managed to get the helmet, socks and shoes on – and yes to the annoyance of my wife and the official giving me banter at bike drop, I still have not mastered the art of a flying start! I grabbed my bike and we were off, back on the bike course I’m familiar with.

I had a plan for the bike, average 210 watts do not exceed my FTP on the climbs and on the rollers, try not to go above 230 watts.

The first 10 miles of the bike course at Ironman Staffordshire are ‘interesting’ to say the least. Some would say it is not fit for purpose and I had no idea how the larger groups behind me were going to negotiate it. Once you hit 10 miles the course opens up and you can really start to concentrate on your numbers and game plan, however it was at this point that I found myself in what can only be described as a team time trial. Initially I stopped pedaling as hard and tried to drop back, after Vichy last year I did not want to risk being carded or worse.

However, no matter what I tried to do I always seemed to find myself back with the same people, so I thought to myself sod this I’m going to do my own race cycle wide and see what happens. What I will observe though is that during the entire bike course I did not see a single race referee, and that is simply not good enough. In a race that prides itself on it’s ‘no drafting’ rules, you would expect officials to be there to enforce it.

(Just a little food for thought for the organisers on drafting – if each rider was 12m apart it would take 24km of road space to ensure 2,000 competitors were all complying. This in my opinion is never going to work when hundreds of athletes are coming out of the swim minutes apart. Surely this needs to be reviewed, it also explains why from 40 miles onwards of the bike course drafting seems to reduce.) 

That being said, I quite enjoyed the 46-mile bike course after the narrow country lanes. The aid stations are positioned well to ensure you only need to carry one bottle and the terrain is undulating enough to maintain speed. The climb isn’t as bad as I had remembered from last year, but that could have been because I kept to my numbers a lot better and kept the ‘matches’ for the run.

My aim for the bike ideally was around 2:32 – I’m not entirely sure what this was based upon, but it just felt right.

With 17 miles to go I began to doubt this was possible, how was I going to cover that distance in a little over 40 minutes? I blocked that out, got back to my numbers and decided, what will be will be. I often have blind faith in what I’m told to do, and this time I hoped it would pay off.

I came into T2 in 2:30:49 which made me a very happy person, but what impressed me the most, and this might sound stupid, was that I needed a wee. This immediately told me I had got my nutrition right on the bike. I’m told all the time that you should wee once on a 70.3 bike and twice on a full Ironman distance. Before this race I’ve never needed a wee, and I’ve often thought dehydration was a factor in my poor running times.

After all that, I found myself facing the run. 13.1 miles and lets put it bluntly… who knew what could happen? It was time to knuckle down and brace myself for a rollercoaster of emotions and pain.

I tried to block out past experiences and told myself that I’m a different athlete now. The pace the boss had set me was 7 minutes a mile. But boy o’ boy, from the first step it wasn’t pleasant. I knew this was going to be a battle, but I just wasn’t sure at which point the real war of mental strength was going to kick in.

I managed to find a rhythm and the pace was bang on where it needed to bIMG-20180611-WA0017e, I took a new approach with the aid stations, there was no walking this year. I simply went for water over the head, slowing enough to ensure the enervit drink went in my mouth and not around it and then back up to pace again.

This brings me nicely to the run course itself, which must have been modelled in am attempt to try and break the world record for the amount of turns during a 70.3 run. It was crazy, every time you got into your stride you had to slow for a turn and I personally think this needs addressing if they plan on keeping the run in Stafford Town Centre next year. It was also not as flat as it looked from the elevation charts. There were a few leg sapping climbs and on a 3-lap course these play on your mind as you know where they are and what they feel like. On the first two laps the support was pretty much non-existent and it was very disappointing compared to previous races I’ve done, but I had a job to do and I kept focused.

As part of my mental battle I knew that a real test would come at mile 8 as this is normally where the wheels very much come off. This year did feel different and my mile laps were still in and around 7 mins a mile, this was the first small win for me. It was now a case of Russian roulette and I had a sneaky feeling the legs were going to blow but I had no idea when it might be and I just hoped it would be near the end.

The answer was mile 11. The lap started slow as it came just as I went to get fluid from the aid station and after that I just could not get the time down no matter what I tried. My mind started to play tricks on me, but I knew I had just over 1 mile left, surely I could grind out the pain and survive around 8 minutes without fully blowing up. I focused, drank some red bull, lifted my head up and went for it and hoped I’d make it to red carpet in some sort of fit state.

Luckily, the crowds in town had picked up and this helped me get to the line. Once you see that sign…100m to ‘laps & finish’ it gives you that extra boost of adrenaline to get you home. I turned left to find the finishers chute, and my initial feedback is it was a lot longer from that turn to the actual finish than I thought.

As I approached the red carpet my Dad was standing there cheering me on and as I kept running I saw my wife and daughter on the side. I gave them a high 5 and at this moment emotion hits you. Ideally, I wanted to run a 1:32, that was my goal, but who am I to complain at 1:33 – especially after my other races had seen times closer to 1:45.

I finished with an official time of 4:41:47 and it felt amazing. I felt like I had finally put the running demons to bed.

The best part of the race was having my family there, and it was the first time my kid had seen me race, even though Henry (2) had slept for most of the day. They are both at the age where they sort of understood what was going on, and as usual my number 1 fan and 17-week pregnant wife was there to cheer me home.

I’m fairly sure if I told her I had signed up to race on the moon, she would complain at first but then fully support me and make sure I gave it my best shot. It was also the first time since my debut in Zell that my parents had watched me compete and it was great to have everyone there.

Overall, I think that the race was missing that sprinkle of magic dust that I have come to expect from an M dot event, it might just be that Vichy really was amazing and that no other red carpet can compete. It just didn’t feel like it should have done, it wasn’t just the red carpet it was the entire weekend which is a real shame. But, nothing can take away from the PB and the feeling of achievement I got running up to the finishing line!