All the fours: Outlaw Full (29th July 2018), 4th AG, 4 Iron distance finishes and 4 years

Racing Outlaw full (140.6 miles) yesterday was bitter sweet for a lot of reasons. The short of it was that I came 4th in my age group. That sounds and is my best result to date in a big event and would have been beyond my dreams when starting out. However, whilst I have only been racing four years, coming 4th in any sport is never easy. The winner in my AG was also the overall female winner who is a pro, broke the course record and whom I would put my bets on winning the Ironman World Champs in Kona. I’m pleased of course for her but also a bit annoyed that there wasn’t elite wave as in some other events because as the results stand virtually nobody in my AG could get anywhere near a GB qualification time. The overall winner isn’t usually allowed an age group prize as well either.

I know for a fact that I put in an absolutely solid performance and in the conditions encountered, 25 minutes slower than last year felt like an hour’s personal best! The foot pain is a permanent worry at the moment but on Monday last week I promised myself I would get to the start line as I wouldn’t make it worse. I wasn’t in the mood for dithering and ripping myself into indecisive bits further as to whether race or not. Green light from first thing Monday, head down and I put in to execution a good taper. I did everything I possibly could to minimize the chances of pain at the weekend and part of that meant minimizing time on the bike even more than usual. It wasn’t an easy week.

I was soldiering on nicely riding the tapering emotional roller coaster pretty well and then I looked at the weather on Thursday and then the game playing came along on its own accord. Thankfully I managed to ignore all future social media posts about the weekend, packed 3 rain coats and applied Velomati rule number 5 (Harden the f*@K up). I’ll be the first to admit I am terrible in rain and even worse in wind but there was a tiny part of me thinking that doing an Ironman distance in these conditions (permanent rain for 13 hours, 40mph winds at times) in some way speaks to the character of the sport and its bragging rights. I also very logically reasoned with myself that being freezing cold and wet would substantially help the feet situation.

The swim was changed to an Australian entry/exit which meant three laps opposed to one. I was out completely in 61 mins and 30 secs (getting closer to that sub hour!) which I was pleased with, even allowing for the ensuing rage in the first minutes from a bullying man who tried to rip my arm and leg off. Sorry Mum, I called him very bad words. The worst I’ve ever done in a race.

Strava and Garmin tells me I was faster on the bike in quite a few places compared to the same course in May (18) and last year. I did a lot of things right but it didn’t always feel like it. I suffered big style in the rain and wind and was on pain management until 90 miles (out of 112) until I finally pressed play when I realized I would complete the course without causing too much agony or further damage for the run. But I have to remember, I’ve had days in the past two weeks when I haven’t been able to manage more than 5 minutes without pain and ultimately its taking a lot of effort to have any confidence in riding a bike and any sustainable power (always been my game plan till now) of note is impossible. There were some further vile bits, like the puddle in my shoes for nearly 7 hours but then I also remembered that water was probably keeping my feet cool. My helmet ripping every neck muscle I have and oh, and jumping two feet across the road with deep rims wasn’t so great either.

Onto the run. I have never been so pleased to see retrieve a pair of dry socks from one of my kit bags in all of my life. I don’t always have a second pair but this was a big bonus psychologically. Just a few miles with agonizing feet but dry ones was a highlight for about an hour. I ran very solidly with a good PB on last year but it was enormously painful in the first ten miles and didn’t get much better really. I had miscalculated paracetamol timings and so when I ran bare foot on concrete through transition off the bike I knew what was coming on the run. Even with the pain I managed to keep running. I tried run (0.45 miles)/walking (0.5 miles) at one point but quickly knocked that on the head when I realized my walking was so bad that I couldn’t let myself do that. It wasn’t even a proper walk and I would get cold and join the growing number of other comrades who were getting hypothermia from being so wet and completing their race walking the run route with a foil blanket. Slow-ish and grimacing running was better. I had intentionally left the run as bit of a “training run” anyway for the European champs as I hadn’t been more than 2 hours and 15 minutes all year for various reasons. I was steady and lasted until about 21-22 miles when I started to fade a bit but kept running. The pain might still be there but so is the fitness and I was happy.

Overall I’m a little disappointed but this is the start of a journey to hopefully recovering my feet and I also know completing an Iron distance in those conditions has given me a massive weapon for the future, for the rest of my life riding and racing in fact. I can’t imagine I will face that weather on many start lines ever again, even in British summer. It was spectacularly awful and whilst I left my support team at home and missed them, I’m also glad they didn’t suffer that.

I felt an absolute car crash this morning but am now nicely recovering and reverse tapering back into training the way I went into race. August will be a relatively normal month’s training (for a long-distance triathlete with potential bone bruises/fractures) without racing before resuming a short race schedule in early September.

6th last year, 4th this year…next year? It’s only Nottingham and really is my home race anyway and I know the course well. Let’s repair the feet, and watch me grow into making me the athlete I have always threatened to be. It’s going to take a while but yesterday has shown me I still have something.

Oh and I’d be lying if G winning didn’t encourage me all the way around yesterday. Vive le Tour!

Keeping in the game: The relief of Team GB Middle distance triathlon qualification

For a few months now I’ve been wondering about my presence in triathlon racing both next season and beyond. And those queries being particularly relevant to full Ironman distance racing (140.6 miles). With things going on at work, having lots of project work, not sleeping well, the cost of racing (with no spare time to find a sponsor even) and unbearable foot pain, start lines have begun to become difficult to cross for the first time in my life. Apart from foot pain though, I’m in good physiological shape considering. Heart rate and particularly power readings are tops. However, racing requires the next level that I’ve been short of recently. I can push myself in training when planned (e.g. Trainer Road bike software says, 2 minutes at 110% of my full power and I will do it because I know its coming), but when someone else (i.e another competitor) puts the hammer down, I simply flop. I’m also not enjoying riding my bike like I always have done due to torturous foot pain virtually all the time. Without being able to ‘get in the zone’ I’ve found my mind switching to worry mode as I think about other academic stuff whilst riding and not about moving my bike forward in the quickest and most efficient way. These feelings were all made very apparent with twenty hours riding in Wales in early June. I had a really enjoyable Welsh tour but ultimately I had pretty much overdosed on paracetamol and ibruprofen in a desperate attempt for just a slither of less pain. I was slower at every stage compared to 2017 despite knowing deep down I am much fitter and capable of considerably better. That hurt. It’s also not just about racing though, riding a bike is my love and my drug and it is one of the most pleasurable ways of spending time and seeing the world, more so than running. As I drove across the M4 home, with my feet throbbing, I was truly gutted.

So with all that taken into account I decided I’d do my 7 races this year (5 half ironmans and 2 full ironmans), get a new related tattoo (still happening, sorry Mum) and then not plan for any next year yet. This could backfire very badly as I really need to be registering and planning now. At my cross roads though at the back of my mind I had been hoping to qualify for Team GB age group at 70.3 middle distance half Ironman as this may provide an answer of sorts to work issues and foot pain. I know this shorter length of race would give me far less pressure training and ultimately require shorter harder sessions that so far this year have been very effective. It would still cost just as much money but it would give me thinking time. I love to train, swim, bike and run and that will never change, but going 70.3 miles is much easier to get around one’s head than 140.6 miles right now. I am also too aware that I don’t need start lines to keep me fit, I’ve done that all my life without anyone ever telling me to do so. Ultimately though, if I can’t be competitive, I don’t want to race. Just finishing stopped being enough for me several years ago.

Here comes the more positive bit. Promise.

At 4.30am last Sunday morning I looked up to the rising sun as I drove through the countryside from Kings Lynn to the start line of Holkham half Ironman 70.3 and thought this is going to be a good day. I can sense a good race coming and as I munched my pre race caffeine gum and listened to my pre-race tunes, I knew if I tried quitting triathlon, I would miss the race atmosphere like hell. On the Saturday I’d decided to leave my loving team behind and go and stay in a hotel the night before the race, by myself, in the interest of energy conservation and catching up with work. I’d had a really good week of preparing for the heat, tapered really well, had slept, had eaten and was getting there with hydration. So I took my chance, I knew I wouldn’t get many chances at races to do all those things right this season, even though they should happen every time. Things just aren’t like that just now.

The swim was good (no getting lost this time). I came out of the lake in 2nd. 1st was just in front but I didn’t need to push past, even though I could. I preferred to keep my heart rate down due to the heat. However, I did do a pretty nifty transition and that saw me out onto the bike 1st. The bike itself wasn’t great, more foot pain and I am sad about that as its probably my best and the most important discipline, but it could have been worse. That was made up with a run, that saw me actually running 13.1 miles, non-stop, with perfectly nailed feed stations and a steady pace the whole way. Interestingly I stuck to liquids and didn’t have a single solid bit of food all race.

I came home 12th, higher up the placings and faster than the same course last year and I felt I had been able to race. I found out the winners’ time and knew it was close enough to be worth running the maths. As I drove two hours home, working out 115% of the winners’ time over and over again in my head, I knew my maths wasn’t that bad. I was well within 115% which is enough for Team GB qualification at that distance. The relief is massive. I’m probably better at 140.6 miles as opposed to 70.3 miles but this will keep me in the game long enough to work things out. I’m also proud to say I now have Team GB qualification at cycling, half Ironman and full Ironman and hopefully soon Aquabike distances. It’s good to have choices, right? I’m still learning and the decisions and practices I deployed last week for heat management worked a treat. I’m also a little hopeful that I have learnt yet more about managing the recent collisions between academia and athlete stuff.

This weekend is the British Championships at 70.3. Recovery from last weekend has been good. I’ve never raced two half Ironmans a week apart though, which might prove difficult, but we will see and there is reason to believe a bit at least now.

Catch you all later

p.s. I’ve also found some new storage space for a new time trial bike! I suspect such is not actually for storing bikes, but instead is my Dad’s new shed he was hoping to keep bike and Charlie free. However, I am pretty sure I can find the key under his pillow.

UCI World Championship Qualifier: The dangers of gender inequality in cycling racing


Some of you will know that I am currently working with a team on a European Commission project researching gender equality in national level sports boards (GESPORT, see here for a brief in interested). We will soon be at the 6-month stage of a 36-month project and from the UK side, that means I am knee deep in developing a database documenting every single sports board member across 58 National Governing Bodies. I have spoken already about the closeness of this project in relation to my athletic pursuits in that I have never researched something in which I am actually involved before and I am still working out myself how those notions interrelate. I suppose that is for two reasons. One is I suspect subconsciously trying to maintain some level of objectivity in my research and the second is that I am so heavily engaged in the being of an athlete, that I don’t often spend all that much time reflecting on what else goes around me in that sphere, or what it means to be said athlete.

Of course, I do not need to know much more than a layman about the UK sport governance code to understand that some parts of cycling and to an extent triathlon, has a tainted history and that traditionally both have taken on a very macho culture. Although I will say in their defence that times are definitely changing there, and especially in triathlon with the GoTri female programme initiative.

But, a few weeks ago I couldn’t help but think more about the gendered nature of cycling racing more prevalently given what I was part of and witnessed. For years I have been the only female standing at 5 feet 3 in a pack of 6 feet plus men looking down at me in their wetsuits at the start line of a triathlon. Definitely thinking as they barge past me “What’s she doing so near the front, surely she can’t swim as fast as us”. “Guess what, she can. And will. And will also definitely be out of the lake and into transition one before you”. Generally, we laugh at these photos as it all seems harmless enough banter.

However, this small notion inkles towards some much bigger problems. My point thus far in the project has always been that in addition to reaching equality on top level boards, there are additionally very significant grassroots levels problems that need addressing in sport equality. This is the gendered perceptions and attitudes of the public (nationally and internationally), and especially those regarding spectatorship (see Insure 4 sport, 2018). In summary, the older generations of men are far less believing that females have the potential to be better than any men at any sport. It would seem very sadly that as my story goes on to suggest, that it is not just the public and those self-labelled as “sports fans”, it is some of the largest sporting organisations in the world as well who hold such ideas precious.

On the morning of the 3rd of June, I travelled to Peterborough showground for the UCI Tour of Cambridge Gran Fondo. Apologies but I will need to just give a brief bit of detail about this kind of race as it’s quite unusual. It is the only chance in the UK to qualify to cycle for the Great Britain Age Group team at the World Championships in Varese in Autumn of this year. To qualify, you need to be within the top 25% of your age group (e.g. in my case F19-34). Up until this last year the majority of people who qualify have done so from a Race Pen and this is where I qualified last year. The difference with being in a Race Pen as opposed to a Sportive Pen is that you are solely within your age group, you need to have a full race license and generally obey the rules of any cycle race, the biggest namely, if you get dropped, you stay dropped. If you are in a Sportive Pen then you self-select your estimated speed. I selected the Sportive Pen this year and the top average speed (21mph). A lot of us were encouraged to go in the Sportive Pen and not the race one this year, although no reason was really given but you can still qualify from there.

Anyway, so I am heading to the start line of my 21mph gate (this takes a while, there are several thousand riders) and I notice some very angry looking ladies whose race number tells me they are female 19-34 racers who should be in the Race Pen and not the Sportive Pen. I hear one of them say “they are starting us behind the men’s over-60 race and 15 minutes after the fastest sportive riders” (i.e. my 21mph pen) and this has been confirmed elsewhere. I can see why they are mad. Year on year the females are getting faster in this race and quite frankly it is a demotion behind the men’s over 60 race who will ride slower than them.

The race gets going, I started out very fast, but all seems well. I then settled and road along nicely in a pack in the 21mph group for a couple of hours. Time wise I am looking at a pretty big personal best on last year at the 50-mile stage and well within a qualification chance. I’d originally thought that if I stayed in that group then I would end up with a qualification place provided they stuck to 21mph till the finish line. Whilst I was tight in the pack and getting the full benefit of all drafting and protection from the other riders, conserving energy nicely, at the 60 mile point I noticed the legs were wanting to go more and I couldn’t ignore them given there were only 78 miles to ride in total. Ignite the rocket, I broke away, by myself, from a pack of 40 mostly men (again, little me, more comical pictures were taken). I had nothing to lose, if they get me, they get me, and I am back in the big group.

What happens next, I did not expect! And definitely hadn’t thought through.

A couple of minutes after my break away which I was holding very fine (thank you very much), a moto marshal comes past and shouts “Lead female, go go go”. “Eh, how the hell can I be the lead female of the whole race of thousands? Let me work this out for a few seconds whilst I pedal at 22mph+ in baking sun, several thousand calories down after circa 65 miles”.

And then it dawned on me. I had managed to ride well enough to stay in front of the female Race Pen which were actually stupidly started 15 minutes behind my Sportive Pen. Not just speculation then. Right. This isn’t good.

When cycling, it is generally quiet around you, so much so that you would be shocked, until one thing happens. A pack of riders is approaching which just sounds like a mighty whirlwind of whoosh and whirring. I can handle a bike reasonably well and I would like to think I am pretty solid still. That is until 30 females in the Race Pen come at you at 23mph+ mixed in with the other group I had just left who they had swooped up en route.

This is dog eat dog amongst two genders and groups of competitors. I’m all for genders racing against each other but above anything else this is DANGEROUS because of the different agendas at stake.

Evidently the laws of speed don’t bode well here. We have 23mph females under race conditions trying to fight through 21mph riders not in a race situation, but wait for it, one rider in that second pack is the male over 60 race leader, evidently with a purpose of maintaining his lead.

What then follows is jostling everywhere, people riding up banks (on road bikes), people barging each other, dangerous riding trying to make passes, carving people up, accidents everywhere. This wasn’t a normal cycle race where we expect some jostling, this is dangerous because we have double the amount of bikes in the same space leaving no room for maneuver, moving at different speeds, all with different agendas. I was utterly shocked that this was allowed to happen. Other than gender discrimination, what is the reason for putting females behind the slower men? I certainly can’t see one. Safety definitely wasn’t on the agenda any more than equality. Carnage was however. I can’t help but wonder “what on earth is wrong with letting 40 years younger females finish first and faster”.

If sport is to be equal, it has to be equal on all accounts. And especially the doing of sport, not just the managing of it.

I haven’t said much about my own performance on that day but whilst I was moving fast enough to stay onto the female race pen pack, the rules wouldn’t have let me because I didn’t start with them. I therefore had to hold back a bit, which was probably safer anyway! I rode solidly, and far better than I have done recently anywhere else, but I came in 52nd and missed out on qualification by two places and 79 seconds. I will almost certainly be offered a GB roll-down place, but I won’t be taking it. Athlete stuff is generally not so good and happy at the moment (more later) and I only really raced because I wanted to see what I was capable of and to get some racing under my belt so to speak.

And a last anecdote which I think sums things up nicely. After I let the female race pack go ahead I pushed on as fast I could to the end whilst maintaining a few minutes gap. There was just enough left in my tank for a sprint down the finish line. Which I did. And when I crossed the line I heard: “Don’t ever do that to me again, you have totally embarrassed me. Stop smiling. You started the same time and have just beaten me over the line”. Those were the words of a man, perhaps 40 or so who I didn’t know and who I had just taken easily in the finishing straight.

Wow. From another rider. A male. Never had that before. It would seem gendered perceptions do have that far to go amongst fellow competitors too.

The hardy of you will remember my explicit moaning about the shortened nature of female cycle races and so in part two of this theme I will share another case of gender equality that is equally shocking and is currently becoming a more prevalent issue within the cycling world.

Please feel free to share this post where you might like. I am also very interested in building up a portfolio of these types of cases, so please get in touch if you have something or would like to talk more. I am happy for these to remain anonymous if that is preferred.

Until next time.

Pocket Rocket.


Charlie’s taxis: Loving the labour of driving the disco bus

disco bus.jpg

A slightly off the wall post this one on driving, even if it is something relatively mundane in the modern world and just seen as a mere accompaniment to what we do nearly every day. It’s often framed as an annoying and exhausting addition to a working day when we want to get home and put up our feet. It’s considered laborious, but not work per se and we supposedly get no payment, at least not in monetary form. However, I am not with the majority here and have never really understood it in that way. It’s a space closely connected with being an academic and an athlete and for me far more than time eaten up just travelling to work and training. It’s not uncommon for an academic to make long commutes at some stage and as experience is gained as a triathlete there is no choice but to travel to bigger races.

Wherever we are going, whatever the time of day or driving conditions, the type of roads, however tired I am or how far we will go, you’ll have to wrestle me for the keys. I only drive circa 19,000 miles a year at the moment (about ten hours a week), but it genuinely gives me the utmost pleasure, so much so that I am usually sad when I park the car after only 10 minutes driving. This is not an arduous form of labour in my life that might be expected. I can understand why many commuters think it’s a waste of their time and money, but I’ve never felt that way, perhaps surprising giving that I cram every minute into my working and training day and devote every bit of spare money to either bike parts or race fees. However, I never find it tiring, perhaps being quite fit helps. Similar to racing drivers who are exceptionality fit outside of driving and are often endurance athletes themselves, Jenson Button and Mark Webber two notable examples. On a tiny bit of caffeine chewing gum I can drive for hours on end.

Of course, we all know I adore riding and racing bikes and a cyclist as a driver is supposedly more proficient in reading the road, has quicker reactions, is more aware of other cyclists, is more adept at controlling and steering a vehicle etc., at least that’s what some insurance companies who give reduced premiums suggest. I certainly drive a car like I ride a bike but more on that analogy later. I adore racing and I can’t deny the similarity in occurrence when driving. I love the intuition with the car itself but also the memories of the regular journeys and things gone past. Precisely nailing every corner, roundabout, overtake, and gear change to perfection is my love and drug. It’s also a chance for me to enjoy music and I never ever drive without my iPod on shuffle. OK, I am destroying the environment and spending a fortune on fuel I won’t deny but it’s also a very effective means of sustaining some sanity, especially if I can’t get out to ride much. It thus remains a fundamental part of my lifestyle that I factor in every week and never feel guilty about it. It’s simply what I do.

Beyond the physical labour and enjoyment of driving the car, there is more concerning the labour on myself during the drive. Like most people, I tend to drive two types of journeys, either longer ones or shorter versions ten minutes to work, the shops or gym (yeah, I am lazy, an athlete never uses extra energy when they don’t want or have to). The shorter ones become more of a transition, usually from training to work in the office or work at home. Those shorter journeys enable me to enjoy myself for a few minutes before shifting to a work mind set in a different physical space. After ticking off my training tasks, I then put the academic ones to the forefront of my mind. Driving also gives me the greatest sense of calm and distraction, probably because I just love to control something moving, ten minutes in the car before an anxious appointment or meeting works wonders like you wouldn’t believe.

During the longer journeys, I love being away from my 3G/4G/Wifi, namely my iPhone and MacBook. No TouchId here, I am out of touch. One of my more frequent drives consists of the A6 and 55 junctions of the A14 and those miles happen automatically, on repeat without any thought. Even though I am not thinking about the drive, I don’t get bored or lonely either, I like that I have to have a lot of trust in the driver in front, but I also like that I don’t have to talk to them. Thinking time. Academically I conjure up my blog posts, lectures, seminar exercises, paper ideas and various other forms of writing. I try to store ten points and if I can remember them when I get home, then they are keepers (of course I can’t or don’t write them down in transit). I also think on a broader conceptual level about myself as an academic rather than my academic work, what’s my research identity? What are my one, three and five-year plans? In this sense both of these pursuits remind me of one of the great benefits of an academic job. I am not always welded to a desk, I think fora job, rather than solely just about my job. In my solitary journeys I find I can think far more easily and freely without the noise of emails, other worries or simply the noise of my own mind telling me I am thinking non-sense. Without the commitment of a screen or piece of paper I can also think far more liberally and give myself a chance to wander with impossible ideas. I don’t have to subject them to a premature death by writing them down until I am ready.

During those long journeys I don’t have a list of things I work through. I just let things pop into my head. So naturally I can’t help thinking about triathlon things given that it’s such a huge part of me. I plan races, strategies, I consider the order of next week’s training sessions, and I believe without restriction. I also use it as a form of recovery. I am sitting comfortably, pretty much resting my body from the week’s or day’s efforts and barely burning calories. I therefore use my drive as time to make sure I am up to scratch with the day’s eating and drinking and if it’s after a long race or ride I will usually be driving on recovery shake. I can’t obviously have a three-course set-down meal but you’d be amazed what can be made portable these days.

On that note re portability, I have recently moved to driving a ‘bus’ which is unavoidable given the amount of kit I shift each week. An athlete virtually lives out of their car. Never go anywhere without anything, just in case an opportunity for a few minutes training presents itself. It makes the labour of shifting to training before or after work much easier when you don’t have to prepare too much kit.

So there, as an academic and athlete, it’s safe to say driving is like my own version of an after-work or training feet up TV show.

Marbs 70.3: A brutally beautiful event, rest in peace fellow comrade

Sunrise on race morning circa 6.15am

I’m back home and having recovered and dealt with the post race tidy up I am now able to reflect on just how much of a ball I had in Marbella racing Ironman’s inaugural 70.3. It was a special event and I was overcome with emotion on the start line particularly, but the buzz and Ironman unique atmosphere was there all weekend and even continued in the departures lounge as we left Malaga three days later. I’ve written a full race report here (scroll to the bottom of the page if you want to read my review) and so won’t go into too much detail but in short, apart from the shortened swim on race day, it was a perfect early season race. On an individual level it was also perfect in the race set up and post race taper as I am fortunate enough to live only 20 minutes from the race start and thus had full training apparatus at the ready, and a beach and sunshine too. I sincerely hope all athletes behaved themselves and the town and residents of Puerto Banus are happy for us to return in 2019.

Results wise I am also happy. I finished 24th in my age group overall and within that I was 5th amongst the GB contingent. The time was 6 hours 18 minutes which is almost an hour slower than my PB but I am more than happy with that as a brutal first race of the year. Next up for me is Outlaw Half in Nottingham on the 20th of May where I will be racing the lowest race number I ever had. Numero 9 and going off in the elite wave. I didn’t select myself in that wave but clearly I have myself a little promotion there.

Back to reality and I am very aware I have a lot of grinding to do. There’s heaps of work and writing to be done and equal loads of training to be achieved by August. As the going gets tough the hardest part will be maintaining some sense of balance, the danger comes when I try to push boundaries. I have my quota of work and training each week and I need to try and maintain that because once that breaks it becomes a vicious cycle.

I have kept my race report short because I wanted to leave space for something which is way more significant and important. We didn’t find out until the day after the race but a fellow athlete, Sharon Lang, had a cardiac arrest in the water which left her brain dead. It is suspected that she had a heart attack and very sadly she passed away on Monday in Marbella. Thank you to those who knew I was racing and checked in with me on Monday when the news hit the UK media. To Sharon’s family and friends, please know there is an army of fellow triathletes sending you considerable comradely love during such a difficult time.

I’ve seen very serious accidents (including head injuries and it being me calling 999 from a field in the middle of nowhere) whilst out riding before, but I think this is either the first or second time that a fellow competitor has lost their life. I’m no medical doctor or cardiologist but I would imagine that whatever defect the lady had then this would have been catastrophic whether it happened in the water or later in the race during the bike and run. The swim was indeed very rough but it was not especially cold by comparison to usual temperatures. One possibility is that the high waves caused her too much stress.

Sometimes the media like to suggest that endurance sports carry greater risks than any other sports. They also play on the branding of an “Ironman” that is supposedly the hardest one day event one can take on. However, their views are very much based on the warped sense of moderation that journalists have of the general public’s health and athleticism. When someone dies in a race, and usually it is the heart, to my mind there are two types of death and one is far more riskier than the other. The first is the Joe Bloggs who attempts to run a marathon in full fancy dress attire despite having no history of sport or fitness. They spend a few months on a health kick, pushing their body to limits that a more trained athlete has known for life. I don’t wish to sound demeaning, I admire anybody who takes on a new challenge and breaks their comfort zone, but, such an individual is always going to be at greater risk for losing their life than someone who has even a small history of exercise. The lady who died on Sunday was a known runner/triathlete and I would guess has fallen to a second type of death that is more common with athletes and is the result of an unknown defect, rather than a broken body put under too much self-inflicted duress.

In terms of how I see it personally, none of my spiel here will take away any of the enormous amounts of pain these athletes’ families are feeling right now. Whilst I maintain that marathons and ironmans are no more dangerous than other sports, these recent events (I include the Master Chef Matt Campbell who recently died in the London Marathon) have made me feel luckily than ever to cross a finish line, but they won’t stop me continuing to cross them in the future. When I race for GB it is mandatory to have a medical, which usually involves me taking an hour out of my day to go and have an ECG. In the past I would have complained at this inconvenience and the £25 fee I had to pay for it. I have vouched never to moan about this ever again. Whilst I sign a waiver at the beginning of every race and accept a huge amount of responsibility and agree to abide by the rules of the game and ensure my own safety, I think perhaps what is necessary is to make ECGs a more formal requirement. This could be attached to a race license that is renewed once a year for instance. Such medicals are often spoken about in the media for football players and the physical requirements of even an age-group triathlete are no different.

Adios, rest in peace comrades x

Building bricks: Being a ‘tri-athlete’ through transitions

My brick session kit, complete with a drop of sweat

With the growing amount of people involved in the sport, being a triathlete will naturally mean different things for different people, for some it will be a one-off event, they are not even sure of the order they should do things, for others a lifelong pursuit or series of adventures. Yet, when I get asked, mostly in the gym, “What are you training for? What’s your sport?” I often stumble. I presume they ask this by the way because I have usually surpassed the average gym goers level of exertion and will be a conglomeration of sweat, vomit and escalating heavy breathing. It might seem a very obvious answer, a triathlete, someone who swims, cycles and runs in immediate succession over various distances. However, I think I hesitate because I have competed at many sports in my time but also because I almost never do all three sports in one training session, although I do more frequently cover all three sports over a couple of sessions in one day. As I move into race season I have been thinking a bit more about these onlookers’ queries and what being a triathlete means for me.

So, quite an existential question, but what am I? I race triathlons and I can do all three of those aspects pretty well, but does that make me a triathlete on a daily basis when someone asks? After all there is also some degree of normality and Average Joe at play here – doing an Ironman or a half Ironman has become a popular event on the bucket list of the reasonably fit looking to raise money for charity in recent years, dressed in a pink frilly tutu, or not. Thus, most of us can swim, bike and run to some degree if push comes to shove or if we are being chased by a growling dog. There’s also several varieties of physique on display at a triathlon that illustrate that it doesn’t have a standard or ‘ideal body type’ like with some other sports. For example, someone 7 feet tall is a candidate for a basketball player perhaps, oversized and built like a brick, maybe a powerlifter or rugby player, stick thin without an ounce of fat or muscle then they might be an endurance runner. When it comes to triathletes they come in three or more categories. If the athlete is predominantly a runner then they will have skinny calves, shoulders and triceps. If they are mostly a cyclist then their quads will be tree trunks and if a swimmer then broad shoulders, very strong lats and generally big legs will be present, somewhere between that of the skinny runner and powerhouse of a cyclist.

Indeed, some people are a mixture of all of these things and I certainly fit that bill. My game has always been built on power, earlier a cyclist and swimmer and thus I carry a significant amount of muscle on my quads and shoulders, back and arms. I also consider lifting weights my fourth sport which is unusual for a triathlete and therefore have a more muscular build for that reason too.

So, if I am saying a triathlete cannot be defined simply by its label or the apparent physique of the athlete, then what is the alternative? For me it is the general being of an athlete itself. Usually understood as someone who is proficient generally in sports and physical exercise, having physical strength, agility and stamina. It requires having a number of skills, managing three sports, but also the basic requirements of an athlete and the organization of their life that those combined sports bring.

In addition to managing a multitude of sport aspects (training, racing, recovery, physio, food) and a full-time job, physiologically and in a race situation, the notion of a triathlete resides with the transitions and the ability to transit the body and mind from one discipline to the next. This is where the saying that the transitions are the ‘fourth discipline’ comes into play, although most assume it is because this is where they need to be efficient in the process itself and not loose time. They don’t consider the underlying process of what it actually means beyond doing it as fast as possible. For me making the transitions are where many skills combine and are a key part of the general fitness of the triathlete. There’s two timed transitions in a race, T1 (swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run).

T1 goes like this – climb out of lake/sea (with or without the weeds), rip goggles and swimming hat off and simultaneously slide them into sleeve of the wetsuit (always my left), pull zip from back of wetsuit to start undoing it to waist level, then take left arm fully out, then right. By this point I should have run a few hundred feet, stood on several stones and located my bike amongst at least a thousand others. Next is helmet on as it’s a disqualification if I touch my bike without it. Once that furious fiddling is over its dancing to get the rest of the wetsuit off whilst also drying my feet on the towel I have left prearranged (note, not a bright colored towel because that is considered to give me an unfair advantage). Bike shoes and race belt on, gel in back pocket of tri suit. Run in bike shoes to mount line and I’m away cycling.

Despite being soaking wet and freezing cold, T1 is actually far easier on the body than T2. Above anything else, T2 is what makes and defines triathlons. By time exercising alone, it is now getting hard, on a full Iron distance triathlon I will have already swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and will be several thousand calories and sore muscles down. T2 goes like this: off the bike before the dismount line, run to my ‘station’ where my kit is in transition, rack bike on the rail before taking helmet off, get my bike shoes off if I haven’t already managed that whilst riding, socks on, running shoes on, press start on running watch and go.

During and directly after T2 is physiologically critical, but also dependent on athleticism requiring an efficient heart and lungs and well-trained muscles to make that transition possible immediately. As I run out this is when I have to manage the discomfort from shifting from biking to running before I can then assess how my body is really feeling during the race, as opposed to just dealing with the transition. If anyone wants to do a triathlon, then this is the bit that carries the greatest fear and requires the most work in my opinion. It is very important to begin running at a reasonable pace, at least until the first feed station (circa a mile), however much it hurts. This is also a place in the race that can warrant a strategic advantage, catching up those who haven’t made the transition so well or racing ahead if all is well. The shift itself involves quickly using different muscles and energy stores and feeling the blood in my legs moving to different places, as this happens it’s not uncommon to feel very sick and shaky. It’s getting through this and managing it that is key before I finalise my run plan. Psychologically the thought of running at all, without even sitting down, let alone 26.2 miles requires some resilience, stupidity and a general belief that you have a fit body.

Unsurprisingly then the most important session of my training week is a brick session – 75 minutes on the Wattbike immediately followed by a 20-40 minute run on the treadmill simulating race conditions and pace. Whilst I only run a short distance in these sessions, it’s where I visualize the run for race day. It doesn’t matter that its short, the important point is training to get past those first ten minutes that will happen in any race and once I’ve done that I know I will settle into the zone whether I need to run for 1, 2 or 5 hours. I also like this session because it’s a big training load that requires me to execute a good recovery with correct fuel in the ‘magic hour window’ after it. If I have got that wrong, those are the days I will be seen a little big groggy at work by 11am and looking to eat everything in sight followed by a nap. I like that I have to work extra hard at this to avoid it impeding my academic working day.

So, there you have it, I might be a triathlete, and that’s important, but for me it’s also about generally being a well-trained athlete who takes pride in managing all of the aspects required for success. The transitions are the places that execute and show general athleticism. I enjoy being versatile and physically fit enough to turn my body to most things, including having fitness for reading books and writing. Having several sports to choose from gives me a fair amount of freedom and also means I can fit my training in around work, including when I am away and engaged in different tasks.

Get building those bricks then!

Game face on, 2018 race schedule: “Race the race you have trained for”

run your own

Wow. We are now just two weeks out from my first race of the season at Marbella 70.3 Ironman on the 29th of April. As I work my way through some race admin I thought I would share a few moments of reflection and my schedule. If you want to support or say hi just drop me a line. I have a lot of other blogs written but I am looking to upgrade the site in a few weeks so will save them for now. The quicker bit:

29th April – Marbella, 70.3

20th May – Outlaw Half, Nottingham, 70.3

3rd June – UCI Gran Fondo, Cambridge, World Championship qualifier

8th– 10th June – Tour of Wales

1st July –  Outlaw Half, Holkham, 70.3

8th July – Castle Hever, 70.3

29th July – Outlaw Full, Nottingham, 140.6

8th September – Vitruvian, Rutland Water, 70.3

23rd September – European Long Distance Championships, 140.6

So that is quite an ambitious race schedule and I always find the first race of the season a somewhat tricky one. On the one hand one is terribly excited to see what results winter has brought and simply to enjoy ‘racing’, it’s what I do after all, but on the other it is important to remember that my ‘A’ races will come later in the year. I can’t afford to totally flaw myself and spend weeks recovering. In short, I am in a hefty few months of full distance Ironman training until late June as the mileage and volume increases week on week. I heard a well-known Ironman commentator say the other day “Race the race you have trained for”. That is sound advice, indeed, do your thing. If you are not quite at your peak fitness make sure you avoid the temptation of chasing a faster athlete if your gut instinct is that you are not quite there. You will blow up and you will ruin your day. Likewise if you have had an injury or illness.

Tapering, when an athlete reduces training volume before a key race is often the cause of much grumpiness. It is unbelievably hard to significantly reduce your training when you are at your fittest. This is also hard for me when training is so closely connected to my writing and academic productivity. That’s going to hit very hard this year. It feels a bit like a self-inflicted injury. The grogginess is vile as is the few pounds gained. Meanwhile your legs start getting very edgy. In athlete’s terms, they feel like they want to “bite”. For bigger races tapering is an absolute must. However, I won’t be tapering much for Marbella because it’s not one of my bigger races and its early. I just want race time in my legs. In fact I will ride 200 miles the weekend before and then have a very short taper, just enough to feel fresh on race day.

I still obviously must “prepare to race” and I find this possibly one of the most pleasurable parts of racing and being a triathlete itself. How each individual approaches their race preparations are very individualised but there’s a few sessions that I do and take as signs to know I. Am. Good. To. Go. These include a sprint set on the Wattbike (20 secs on 40 off, numerous times), riding 30 miles in about 1 hour 20 mins, a fast 1.2 miles in the pool with sprinting every 4th length and the last a 20-30 minute “brick run” at full race pace after 30 miles on the Wattbike. After all those things I can assess just how much my legs are biting.

There’s also a reason it’s called “race week” – even though the race is only one day. That “week” requires lots of arduous and laborious working outside of training. The training is nothing really and just keeps you ticking over. The key is maximising recovery after training which is usually shorter faster efforts, eating at the correct time slots, timing the carb load, sleep, hydration, massaging and getting every bit of kit in the right place so any last-minute panics are avoided. And then, once you have racked your bike the day before the race you get out of the way of everyone as quickly as possible (never ever go to the pre-race pasta party it is a very evil thing) and hide/sleep. Being as precise and perfect as you can during that week inevitably produces results come race day. It is the difference between getting round and high end performances.

A little anecdote. Every year I have one song that I memorise every single word to so that I can rehearse it over and over in my head when I need to pick up the pace and volume during races. Headphones are not usually allowed racing so I have had to improvise. This year it is Ben McKelvey – Stronger.

The signs are that I am training well, although I don’t have as much long distance cycling in me as I would like. I’ve been bit of a lightweight with the British “spring”. However, by far the biggest victory for me this winter has been resolving my foot pain both running and cycling. I have trained more effectively and harder than ever, but, I have spent an awful lot of time with foot mobilisation therapy, getting new running and bike orthotics/shoes custom made, wearing in new orthotics, self-massaging my feet, treating blisters, etc etc. To be able to bike, run and bike and run together without pain is a sweet thing. If I finish Marbella without any repercussions of those pains I will be well happy.

Let’s pick up the pace and volume. I’ll be back soon!

Being Allegro: Riding the waves of being an academic athlete with music and tattoos

This came out today:
Ben Mckelvey _Stronger
Fits the bill perfectly right now.

The Academic Athlete

I already have tattoos, my first an M-Dot Ironman emblem on my left wrist, the second a self-designed initial of Bradley Wiggins on my right wrist. I got my third three weeks ago. Of course, I am proud of being an Ironman that has held a world ranking, and I’ll never stop admiring Wiggo. However, this latest piece of ink is more about me, being Charlie, day in day out. It represents the interdependencies and interconnections between being an academic and an athlete via the medium of music, a very large part of my life. Whilst the design took months to decide upon, the idea and what it resembles travels back to my teenage years: when I became academically minded and began to grow athletically.

You may know I operate on two categories of noise: deafening silence to work, or ear bleeding music when I am not. Whilst I train…

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The journey from triathlon to Ironman to Team GB Long-distance Athlete 2018

IMG_1568IMG_1641Starting and finishing my first Ironman and raising over 3K for charity was a little scary and a big challenge.

Not finishing my second due to a bike mechanical was a hard but lesson well learnt.

Completing my third with a big personal best brought the realization I could race at that distance.

Coming 6th in my fourth after throwing away 3rd place on the run was OK.

Preparing to be on the start line of my 5th in July 2018 is already making me think of last year’s unfinished business.

Starting my 6th in September 2018 in Team GB kit is everything I’ve been waiting for.

My journey as a long distance triathlete began a fair while ago, perhaps when I was a competitive swimmer until I was 16 years old. I don’t remember my route into swimming but I raced the hardest discipline, 200 metres butterfly. I’ve had a lifelong passion for endurance sport. Racing forward a few years and I was brought my first road bike at around 20 years old. Almost immediately I began riding 100 miles for fun. I had always run in various guises (another story for another day) but suffered from biomechanical foot pain which meant anything beyond 5 miles was agony.

I got to work. I knew if I could run a marathon then I would become an Ironman at some stage. It was the last part of the jigsaw. I had a biomechanical assessment and then with orthotics and many blisters did my first marathon at Bungay and happened to run it fast enough to qualify for London the following year. No ballot lottery for me.

Once my running was secure I headed to Bolton for my first Ironman. Training for your first full distance 140.6 miles is no small thing and like every other “virgin” (their words not mine) I was happy to just finish. Well perhaps not “happy” I thought I was about to die. However, I remember to this day standing in the Macron Stadium and looking at the results. I was around the top ten but in reality I wasn’t bothered about that. I had my eyes on qualifying for Kona (Ironman’s branded World Champs), in the days when you could get there by racing lots. But, even more than that I wanted to race for Team GB. From that day on it was my target but I kept it quiet. In the course of those 14 hours I had gone from completing my first Ironman to racing them. Huge difference, completing is dragging self around and having a cheeky rest when you feel you can justify it. Racing one is a significantly bigger more focused effort for 12-14 hours. Every female you chase because you can’t always see their age group on their race belt. Seconds count, places count. Eyes on the prize. So you chase, everyone, no matter how much everything hurts. Find a way, make a way, do whatever.

December 2016 brought some nice news, I had become an All-World-Athlete for Ironman – in the top 10% worldwide. That was nice but you could get that status by racing lots rather than being fast and beating people. That wasn’t necessarily the case for me though, I made my position up with just two races.

Throughout 2017 I raced pretty sound, although as I have already said elsewhere, I literally threw away third place at my only full distance triathlon with foot pain and then the flu. Neither were a fitness issue. That was all forgotten when I qualified for Team GB age-group cycling the very next day. I remember saying to a friend at work that I am not quite ready for Team GB triathlon yet, and so I had a trip to Albi for the World Cycling champs instead. Apart from the foot pain and cost and commercialisation issues I have already written about, I probably said what I did about the triathlon because I wanted that place more than you will ever know and I was beginning to dream. At some point I have also bribed myself with qualifying just for the half Ironman distance and that indeed was my aim for 2018. Little did I know I had qualified last July for the triathlon long distance World and European championships.

Now, I don’t believe in luck, sorry for the cliché but I make my own if I can. I do however have a bit more time for superstition and a few things have fallen into place. Last Autumn I purchased my own bike box with the intention to travel internationally a lot more. I have also spent a lot of time this winter when not training getting my feet fixed, sorting my running orthotics out etc. The off season this year has also been successful from a training point of view and I am lean and fit for the end of February. The latest readings on the bike suggest I am putting out somewhere around an extra 20 percent of power compared to January 2017.

I have had a two week wait for the news after submitting my intention to qualify for Team GB in mid February. To pass that time I have trained like a demon, safe in the knowledge that even if it didn’t work out I would be ready at some stage. Just last week my feet are well enough to run again and today I have managed an hour non-stop up and down a hill. I had also previously arranged my race season so I reach peak fitness again in September. Just so happens the long distance European championships are in Madrid in September. The day before I submitted my intention to qualify and had done the maths I had booked a project meeting for July. I didn’t know it clashed with the triathlon World Championships. I now firmly believe in that start line in Madrid in September for the European Championships. I have no intention of stopping all of this anytime soon but to some extent tonight I feel I have arrived at my destination and “made it”, at least with my own goals.

Right now, though, I have a ‘Q’ next to my name and I think I need a new tri-suit. It’s blue, red and white and has my name on it. I’m dead excited to see what happens next. Let’s goooooo. Pick up the pace and the volume.


An anecdote. Organized chaos: A few days in the life of Hurricane Charlie


People often say they can’t do what I do, but they are usually referring to some form of exertion and the physical amount of training rather than the labour around being an academic athlete. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have even considered that part. After a few quite hectic days earlier this week here I am thinking about what I really do, how much goes on behind the scenes to be a working academic and race fit athlete Charlie.

It is so much more than those ghastly 5.15 am starts nearly every day. Getting the athlete into the right place, at the right time, with the right kit, support team and food is a military operation in itself, like you wouldn’t believe.

We are now entering pre-season for a triathlete and it will soon be play time. Play time is sweet but essentially the more I train and race, the more I sleep, the more I eat, the more washing that needs to be done. Whilst I have been on study leave I have a bit more freedom and so last weekend I worked two long days to ‘clear’ my desk for a few hours off Monday. Except, ‘clearing’ one’s desk in my world doesn’t actually mean that because all I do is take myself away from my Mac and transport myself to the perpetual train of triathlon organizing.

Sunday: drove in the evening from Leicester to Ipswich, where I am stationed less than 18 hours. 1000 miles in a week driving. As I fly through the door at 7pm, I am an hour earlier than normal, my Mum is as always delighted to see me, but is swallowing the last mouthfuls of her tea and I can see she is wondering about what she was doing before her meal and before any sense of calm was about to be disseminated by Hurricane Charlie.

Still Sunday night and so we get to work. Every second counts in this world. What is the urgency to drive over 300 miles in sub two days you might ask? Preparing a bike box ready for the airport on Wednesday and it has to be done in case I am not back again. Said bike box is destined for Spain, except I won’t board the plane with it. It’s all in preparation for when I arrive in three weeks time. Not now. I send everything I need to ride a bike with my parents who are boarding the plane, paying attention to every last detail, from the subscription to Trainer Road trainer software, through to the right pair of socks and energy gels.

Yep, still Sunday evening. No day of rest in this house. Next job. Never-mind, been going since 5.15am, a full days work, 30 mile ride and 125 mile drive. Next, sign all forms and deal with all post etc. that needs doing and do the all-important check to make sure my writing from the week is syncing to every single Mac in every location I work (5 in total). Whilst doing that I announce another gem for my dad. “We need to put the new airless tyres on the new bike before you leave to go on holiday because we won’t actually see each other when you get home, we will be handing Baggles (the cat) over virtually. I’m riding in the Midlands that weekend and wont drive to Ipswich first”.

He sighs. “What I have to do that before I leave for holiday?” I hear my mum do a little sigh too, perhaps a more sympathetic one more sided with Team Charlie. She asks him “What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?” There isn’t a clear answer. There shouldn’t be, he’s retired.

I can almost hear my Mum telepathically communicating to my Dad in husband and wife language. I think she goes something like this…“Honey, I know you don’t really want to do that (the airless tyres) after the gym and would rather read your book and enjoy lunch, but, if you don’t do it then, you won’t like the alternative. I promise. Boomerang (our daughter) will be back at a less than opportune moment and there will be very little patience involved. Plus, I have to go to Sainsburys after the gym to get food for the machine before I leave for my afternoon appointment and so you are definitely not alone”.

Time for my dinner, no effort required. There is one prepared meal left. It’s chicken and broccoli. It was cooked a week ago and left in Ipswich with enough carbohydrates in it for tomorrow’s planned training. Simultaneously I start food prep for the next week and think that there doesn’t seem much chicken left in the freezer as I get meat out for week. Silly me, delivered on Friday at the end of the week, pre-ordered, the date chosen to maximise time riding and writing at the weekend with less defrosting required. Seriously.

Monday: I finish preparing food for the week at 7am, I then pack the right amount of meals in the car based on the number of days I’ll be away for. I count out every supplement. I work out the order of every day’s training. Writing my own training programmes (just another of my laborious tasks away from training). After I deal with a tonne of triathlon admin. Booking events, appointments, races, rides, travel, bike boxes, insurance. Endless. I then head to the gym after the rest of cooking is done and the meat is cooling and prior to the rest of the additions in the 20 odd tubs. Yes, I just organised my training around meat cooling.

Back from the gym. Note to self, no dirty kit from Leicester, no dirty kit to Leicester. Remember. If you came with kit, make sure you go back with it. Otherwise, you will totally disrupt the balance of the right kit in the right place.

Guess what dad’s doing, the tyres!

I pause for a brief moment as I ferry around the kitchen and I notice Baggles sitting by his food bowl. He hasn’t had his breakfast, its 1pm. A gentle and calm soul of a cat. He’s not starving, you don’t need to call the RSPCA, he’s just patient and delightful. He offers me a little meow, not a screaming “do it now” (the kind I regularly deliver) but just a little reminder “hey! I’m here, I’m ready now, whenever you are”. He’s used to the madness around here.

Dad carries on in the kitchen with the tyres. He says it will take him another 45 mins to prep the second tyre before he needs my help finishing them off. So, I train a second time, next door on my Watt bike and come ready, dripping in sweat at my allotted time slot.

Monday afternoon progresses and I am all done here for now. A 13 minute shower. Back in the car. Drive to Leicester, via Norwich. Yes, you read that right. Foot treatment in preparation for racing season. All part of the deal. I make a note of how my feet are feeling and also set a reminder in my phone to check progress in 6 weeks. Performance and fitness monitoring all on my to-do list too. I arrive in Leicester where every single thing is ready for an interrupted day of work tomorrow before driving back to Ipswich. And of course, meal and clean kit included.

Tuesday: Back to Ipswich after work where I am then all installed for a week of heavy writing and training.

This all sounds like hell, I know, and it also sounds like I micro manage my life to within an inch of it, because I do.

However, these last few days epitomise organized chaos. I live in busy and chaotic moments now to ensure the day to day running later is totally organized and entirely not stressful. These give me the calm spaces to write and train, eat and sleep with very little effort required. I have as much space and time as I want for all of those things. It goes like: train 6am, write 4 hours offline, 30 minutes recovery sleep (very important), write another 4 hours offline, train 6pm, finish remaining odd bits of work. Sleep.

I work just as hard at all of the preparation to get the quality academic and training time as I do the training itself. And as you can probably see, I am very gratefully supported by my loving parents (who probably collapse the moment I hit the A14 out of Ipswich). I couldn’t do it without them.

Oh, and where’s Baggles? In the bath fast asleep. Thank God. Team, the fort is held for another little while.