I entered the Ironman 70.3 UK Exmoor event not long after I had completed the Challenge Weymouth ironman last September. The last 9 months of my life have been focused on training for this event. I did the London Marathon, some Audax rides and other events in between but the 26th June 2016 is the date I have been training for. Most weeks my training log shows about 17 hours. This is just the training time – I spend a lot of time faffing about doing at stuff to do with training. I enjoy the training mostly. I have a training plan which I invent based mostly on my own experience but sometimes I do what I fancy whether it is on the plan or not. Usually I end up doing more than the plan suggests. I’m not very good at rest days. My bottom line is that it has to be fun. If it is not fun it is not sustainable. I am very fortunate that by training sensibly and listening to my body when bits inevitably start niggling, that I have not developed any injuries that have stopped me from training during this 9 month period.
Triathlon is much more challenging than any single discipline event. Any triathlon whatever the distance is difficult and fraught with things that can go wrong. As well as having the skills and ability to complete all 3 disciplines, it is a neat trick to string them seamlessly into one continuous event. So why make a difficult sport even more difficult by choosing a rural hilly event – one which is marketed as the hardest in Europe?
The fast flat triathlons are most popular and tend to fill up very quickly. Exmoor 70.3 although being well established and in its eleventh year was still open to entries on the day. Fast flat urban events do not interest me. I am not in this for a fast time. I am here to enjoy the riding and running and I want to do it in a nice place. Scenic usually means hilly but that’s OK.
All it means is that this 70.3 Ironman is not comparable to any other in terms of the time it takes to complete. I realise that by choosing rural and scenic that completion is much more challenging and inevitably slower. Exmoor 70.3 is all about completing inside the cut off times. Not everyone who starts is allowed to continue if they do not complete the courses within strict time limits.
We went to Exmoor and stayed close to the Ironman bike course for a few days in February and again at the beginning of June so that I could familiarise myself with the bike and run.70.3 I discovered that the tough reputation of Exmoor 70.3 is justified. The bike course has 1500m of elevation. It has 4 hill sections over 14% and the rest is continuously undulating.
I got familiar with the courses– and a bit scared. I could manage the bike – I could manage the run- but this is triathlon.
I was very apprehensive about the undulating mixed terrain run after a hilly bike course and knew I would have to be very strict and not race flat out the bike. There are no prizes for the fastest bike split! I knew from training on the course what I could do in terms of speed on the day. I swim at 20 minutes a kilometre usually so with a 38 minute swim, an average speed under 24 kph on the bike and approximately an average of 7 minute kilometres on the run would give me a target time of 7 hours and 30 minutes. This allows for 15 minutes for the in between bits – the clock does not stop while you dry between your toes in transition!
The run is on mixed terrain. In practice this is gravel tracks, some concrete, and some tarmac but also single track rough grass with a very uneven surface. There is one significant hill and one flat section- across the dam and back again at Wimbleball Lake.
The rest of the course undulates. The run is 3 laps – so 3 proper hills.
On 26th June 2016 the 1300 athletes who had registered for the swim start assembled in the starting pens ready to begin at 07:00. The organisation of Ironman events is meticulous. Every detail is sorted so the athletes have a safe, fair race. The weather for Exmoor was good, it was not actually raining! The athletes self seed into the pen closest to their expected swim time. I went for 37.30!
It wasn’t an exact science but the rolling start was much more civilised and safer than a mass start. At 07:00 the hooter sounded and the swim began. Every athlete has a timing chip fastened onto their left ankle and the time begins as the mat is crossed at the start of the swim.
The swim is 1900 metres and looking at the first leg of the course stretching across the lake it looked like a very long way. The water was warm compared to the sea and I felt comfortable throughout the swim. I tried to sight a line close to the buoys so I didn’t swim further than necessary. I don’t have a watch to record my swims, so I didn’t know my time. However, the people around me as I came out of the lake looked young and fit so I knew it must have been OK. In fact, my swim time was spot on – 38.07, which was exactly on target.
The lake is at the bottom of a hill. The bikes are parked at the top of the hill 400 metres away. Changing took place in a very busy, steamy marquee. Every athlete has 2 bags – one with bike kit and one with run kit. They are hung up on a numbered pegs. The run up the hill was hard work and it was quite difficult to remove my wetsuit and put my cycling jersey (quite a chilly day) and socks shoes, gloves and helmet on top of the wetness. My tri top and shorts (not a onesie as I always will need the loo at some point) dry very quickly but were still quite damp from the swim. Once dressed with helmet securely fastened I found my bike on the numbered rack and ran with it to the mount line.
The bike route starts on a very narrow lane so this was fairly hectic and several people failed to get going and just fell off.
The first 9 km of the bike route are uphill. It takes me that distance to get warmed up and really focused but once I was underway I enjoyed myself.
I knew the course well from my training sessions and I kept my effort reined in with my average speed on target. I can almost trust my experience to gauge effort but I had my Garmin on my bars to be sure.
There were 2 feed stations on the bike ride so there were 4 opportunities to get gels, energy bars, bananas and electrolyte drink or water. I was conscientious about hydration and ate dried fruit and nuts which I had on my bar bag. I also ate 2 whole bananas –which I suffered for later. There was great camaraderie on the bike course particularly amongst us girls. Everyone was very supportive, kind and friendly. The number bibs had names and age categories on them. A few kind (blind?) people suggested that I was in the wrong age category and couldn’t possibly be over 60 – ‘riding like that!’
I completed the two laps in just under 4 hours at an average speed of 23 kph. So I was still on target. I definitely had someone else’s legs when I dismounted the bike and tried to run on them back to the bike rack. It is very difficult to change from bike legs to run legs despite the many times I had practised ‘brick’ sessions.
Once my bike was racked I ran to the changing marquee and found my numbered bag. It was a much quicker change this time as all I had to do was change my shoes and pop my helmet and cycling jersey into the bag.
As soon as I started running my tummy started to complain. Fortunately Ironman know all about runner’s tummy and there are several strategically placed portaloos around the course. The run element is a half marathon of 21.1km. It is a course of 3 laps on the western side of Lake Wimbleball. The terrain is mixed and the majority is on gravel tracks but there is also some tarmac, concrete and long undulating sections of single file knobbly, rough grass. The timing chip keeps a track of progress.
I managed to keep going at a steady pace and my resulting average speed was 6m 55s per kilometre. I’m not sure how I managed even pacing, as I was diving into every available loo for the first half hour of the run, thanks to those bananas. One of the little sayings I keep for when the going gets tough is ‘this too will pass’ and I kept that in my head when I was having to dig in deep on the run. Completing a triathlon is a mental challenge as well as physical.
I was very pleased when I had completed my 3 laps and at last turned the corner and headed for the magic red carpet finish.
My finish time was 7 hours 12 minutes which was great. I was pleased with that. I received my finisher’s medal and felt that I had earned it.
As I was the only woman in my age category to start – never mind finish – I was also a winner.
Ironman 70.3 UK Exmoor also had 30 slots to be allocated for the World Championships in Australia. As an age group category winner I was offered a slot but we have decided not to go. I just feel that the pressure and stress associated with such a trip would outweigh the fun element. I am also not interested in the status and accolade that some may consider this would bring.
However I enjoyed my moment of glory on top of the Ironman podium.
If there was ever any doubt that triathlon is good for you – click this link!