Paris Triathlon Race Report

Happy Birthday Monica

For my 30th birthday in December, my family decided to give me the perfect present (for a triathlete): entry to Paris triathlon. So last weekend, I headed to Paris with my friend Dominic to complete the race.

I’d met Dominic out at a dinner with friends in January. I mentioned I was a triathlete, he said he’d always wanted to do a triathlon, so I said, “Well I’m doing Paris triathlon in July – you should do that with me!” And to my surprise Dominic bought a bike, started training, and came to Paris with me.

The Prep: Rain, Rain Go Away

Not looking very happy …
Not looking very happy …

On Saturday we headed to the Eiffel Tower to check in our bikes. As we were crossing a busy road to get to registration, the skies opened, and rain bucketed down. By the time it slowed to a drizzle five minutes later, we were freezing and soaked through – including our running shoes, as we’d worn those so we could jog back to the hotel. This did not bode well…

We picked up our show bags – with special goodies in mine as one of the 170-odd women who were racing: a 3/4 size purple bidon, with writing exclaiming, “Le Triathlon: C’est aussi pour moi!”, and a purple swim cap – which women could wear in place of your official swim cap and start behind all the men. “I’m a long way from Australia,” I thought, “where female participation is a lot greater than five percent. And where we race in sun…”

I woke a couple of times in the middle of the night Saturday. The first time, I rejoiced I couldn’t hear rain drops. The second time, I freaked out, hearing not rain DROPS, but the sound of a SHEET of rain coming down…

Race Morning: Don’t Let Them Eat Cake!

As we arrived at the race start, it was cold. I was wearing tracksuit pants, a jumper, a beanie – and still shivering. I prepped my transitions: everything was going in a big plastic bag to protect it from the rain – including two options for jackets. Dominic, who has cycled with me before when I’ve not been prepared for the weather (and ended up a shivering mess on the side of the road throwing a temperature tantrum), insisted on this point. I then used cellotape to attach two gels to my top tube, and my asthma pump, and went off to find the rookie …

I talked Dominic through his transitions – I love introducing people to this sport, and passing on all the knowledge other triathletes have given me in the years … Dominic was having a great time, soaking up the atmosphere of his first race. This included wishing every second person, “Bon courage!” He said this to one chap, who was eating chocolate cake in the transition area. The guy said thanks and offered Dom a chunk of cake. To my horror, he accepted it, and took a great bite. “What are you DOING?” I asked in horror. “I’ve told you: you never introduce anything new to your regime on race day – especially for nutrition! No new breakfast cereal, no new gels or bars … You have no idea how your body will react. And you have no idea what is in that cake! What if these people made it a space cake and want to get high when they race?” Yeah, I’m slightly neurotic pre-race …

I can also be slightly nervous. Shivering in the cold, thinking about the cold, slippery, wet roads on the bike, I turned to Dom and said, “I don’t want to race.”

“Okay,” he responded. “So what are you going to do?” As though not racing was actually an option!

“What am I going to do? I’m going to race, obviously. I just don’t want to right now.”

The Swim: My First Black Eye!

The start of the race was chaotic. There was a long 1500m walk down from transition area along the Seine. (Yes, we swam in the Seine, signing waivers the day before that we understood the water quality was probably not great …)

My coach Scott had encouraged me to race without a watch – this would allow me to race on feel, and we would see how I responded. Unfortunately, this meant I didn’t have an accurate idea of what the time was … (I think you know what’s coming…)

The swim start included a massive warm up area: some make-shift steps had been set up some 100m from the first bridge, which was the official start line. We were in between the bridge and the steps when the gun went off. I panicked, and ran around people, trying to get to the stairs quicker. “Monica!” I heard.

Poor Dominic – after all my talk of supporting him in his first race, I had totally left him for dead. I turned around at the bank as he caught up. To my right, guys were making big leaps into the water right there, rather than join in the chaos at the stairs. So I gave Dom a hug, wished him the best, and took a big jump off the edge of the bank – it must have been at least a two and a half metre jump.

And I was off! I felt like this was a very speedy swim, but chaotic – there seemed to be people everywhere. About half way through, I swam up quickly on another guy, and as he pulled his arm through he punched my goggles into my left eye. It was immediately painful, and I stopped to adjust my goggles. It must have been immediately obvious this felt hard to him too, because the guy stopped and asked if I was okay. “This is going to be my first black eye,” I thought, but responded, “oui, ça va bien,” and took off.

I received another, less hard punch on my right eye further on – but this didn’t cause much damage. It was a pretty amazing experience swimming down the Seine, the sun trying to make its way out from behind the clouds, and suddenly seeing the Eiffel Tower looming large as I took a breath.

I finished the swim in a speedy 24:47, a couple of minutes faster my goal time.

The Bike: Who Stole My Gels?

I ran into transition and made a call: the sun was coming out and it was warming up… And no one else was we wearing cold weather gear so … no jacket! I hoped I wouldn’t regret this…

As I grabbed my bike, I noticed something was missing: my gels. Somebody had untaped them from my top tube in the transition area at some point. I could not believe it … Who would do that?! Okay … New nutrition plan: no nutrition! Anger is fuel enough, I reasoned.

With my left eye constantly streaming tears, I put my head down and rode hard. Without my computer telling me how hard I was going, it was all down to feel. That, and the knowledge I had to push myself because Dominic was trying to catch me on the bike. Had I known then how fast he’d gone in the swim, I would have been much more worried…

The conditions were not great for riding: with all the rain that had fallen the roads were wet and slippery in places, debris all over the place, sections of cobblestones, and a lot of 180 degree turns. Thankfully, nearly everybody was cautious around these – particularly since it was a draft legal race. I saw one guy who was so cautious he slowed his bike almost to a standstill – and fell off! There were a few nasty falls, and a lot of flat tyres. It was a very unlucky day for some! Luckily, not for me!

By the end of the bike I felt I’d raced strongly. I hadn’t seen Dominic, but as we would find out later it was very close at this point: I biked 1:09:21, he biked 1:05:11. With transitions I was only 70 seconds ahead of him…

The Run: See how she flies when the sun shines…

What I wanted to do on the bike was push as hard as I could, and then see how fast I could still run. I found out the answer was: still pretty fast.

As the sun came out from behind the clouds, I was in my element: running, and racing in the sun. I felt like I was flying – my legs were turning over quickly, and I was passing everybody. (Well, everybody except a few fast men)

Just after I saw the 6km marker, I heard a by-stander yell out, “Only two and a half kilometers to go!” What? This is Olympic distance … This should be a 10km run… So it was not unexpected, but still disappointing when I saw the finish line just a few kilometers down the line …

Having done everything without a watch, I looked at the clock at the finish line – 2:15:21. I was stoked for a while, but had to take it with a grain of salt given the length of the run. The official times gave me a run of 33:30 – so definitely faster than expected, but of course shorter!

And Dom? I’d managed to strengthen my lead in my strongest leg, but he did a great job finishing in 36:24, and an overall time of 2:20:39. Not bad for a first timer! Not bad at all! Especially since it turns out he had his goggles on the entire race. Yes, instead of pulling them off after the swim, he pushed them down around his neck, biking and swimming with them like this …

Paris by Cervelo

After an afternoon of biking around Paris together, we parted ways: Dominic back to Amsterdam, and me down to the Pyrenees to start a ten day cycling camp. Maybe we’ll race again together some day… in a race where I don’t get a black eye, where Dominic doesn’t wear his goggles the whole race, where we can go really fast on the bikes, where the run course isn’t short, and where the sun is shining…

My First Bike Accident

On Saturday, I experienced my first bike accident since starting triathlon a few years ago. Well, first apart from my fall as a result of not unclipping my shoes fast enough during my first ride with cleats. And unlike that accident, where I was traveling very slowly – having slowed for an intersection (and legs no longer making revolutions, but desperately trying to unclip my shoes), this time I was traveling at speed…

I drove a friend’s car down to an area along the Amstel River called the Ronde Hoep. This is a favourite spot of cyclists over here: smooth roads, an easy loop of 18km, and limited traffic.

As I drove down to our meeting spot, I noticed for the first time how narrow the roads are. I drove slowly as a result, and pulled to the shoulder of the road when cyclists approached.

There were two of us riding together. We unpacked the bikes and took off. In many sections of the road, there is enough view of the distance (i.e. approaching cars) to ride two abreast. We got into a routine, where when we saw a car I would slow, and my friend would speed up and tuck in just in front of me. At other stages, where the road has frequent turns, it’s safer to be riding single file.

Unfortunately, at one stage we were riding two abreast, when a car came quickly around a corner in front of us. My friend, as per routine, sped up. I noticed two things in those few moments: the distance between us and the car, and the narrowness of the road. I panicked, braking hard and swerving slightly to the right.

Suddenly, I felt the back wheel slipped from under me. Time moved slowly: my back wheel was slipping, and I was still swerving to the right. I couldn’t correct either of those things. I heard the wheels slipping on rough gravel at the shoulder of the road. I heard myself shout out an obscenity. And then I felt soft grass under the bike – and then under my body, and I made contact with the ground – hard.

I waited for pain to rush through my body, and was relieved when it didn’t come. I clumsily unclipped from this position, and stood up carefully. I felt a moment of embarrassment at swearing – imagine if that had been my last word on this earth! The driver and my tri buddy returned at the same time, checking if I was okay.

I checked my body more thoroughly, but apart from a shallow 4cm cut just under my hip and dirt on my right arm and leg, I was fine. I checked my precious Cervelo – again, everything seemed to be working fine still.

I looked around in disbelief: not only had I landed on incredibly soft grass, but by falling at that exact spot I had avoided crashing into a road sign by less than a metre. Equally, had I fallen a metre back, I would have fallen on the road – or at least the gravel on the shoulder.

For all my friends who know the luck I have had in winning an iPad, restaurant vouchers and holidays: this was the moment in life I was most grateful for my luck.

I enjoyed another moment of disbelief when I realized: I hadn’t even cried. When did I get so tough? It must be part of the package of becoming a real triathlete!

After the adrenaline surge, my sugar levels dropped so I grabbed a snickers bar from my bento box. After that, it seemed like the only thing I should do was get back on the bike.

We had a quick chat about the best way we could ride together from then on: single file! Then we headed back onto the loop. I rode slowly, getting a feel for things, checking each part of my body. I worked through all the gears. Since everything seemed to be fine, we gradually picked up the pace and completed another lap and a bit. Off the bike, I checked my legs – still fine – and started our 10km run. I figured if anything, I would feel the impact of the fall tomorrow, so I should at least get the training done in case I needed to take Sunday off!

I called my dad after we finished, and let him know what had happened. I told him how I wondered whether I was in shock, and would break down later in the day.

“Oh, more than likely!” he said. “Make sure you stay at home for the rest of the day!”

Then I heard my mum enter the room. “Monica’s been in a cycling accident,” he informed her. As she cried out in horror, he tried to reassure her I was okay. I could hear her asking questions and sounding worried.

“Dad, tell her I’m fine,” I said. “To prove it, tell her after it happened I got back on the bike, rode another 25km, and then ran 10.”

My dad said, “Actually, I don’t think you’re going to go into shock after all…”

Today I’m feeling a bit battered – my hip and shoulder are bruised, and my neck is a bit sore. But I am also feeling so grateful that things weren’t worse; and they could have been a lot worse. I was exceptionally lucky.

So cyclists out there: stay safe. Single file when conditions demand it. Communicate! And drivers – please be careful of cyclists – particularly in areas which are known to be frequented by cyclists.

Thanks to my friends at Giant Store Amsterdam for checking out my bike, and making sure it was okay. And thanks to my training buddy for his support – and for putting up with my yelling during our training sessions for the last two days, “I thought we agreed single file from now on! Did you learn nothing from that accident?!”

Austria 70.3 Race Report: Welcome to the World of Ironman

On Sunday, I completed my first Ironman 70.3, so named because of the 70.3 miles you complete over the course of the triathlon: swim 1.2 miles/1.9km, bike 56 miles/90 km, run 13.1 miles/21.1km.

Pre-race: Keeping Calm

148992_10151769660135527_1357901269_nI was staying with my friend Rich, a seasoned Ironman. We woke up at 4.30am, ate breakfast, and were in a taxi on the way to the event by 5.20am. With the long days in Europe in May, it was surprisingly easy to wake up.

Arriving so early, we had plenty of time to attach our water bottles to our bikes, check tyre pressure, double check our transition bags, go to the toilet a few times, and head down to the start, keeping the pre-race nerves to a minimum.

The Swim: Take my Breath Away

With my wave start at 7.15am, I headed down to the start and jumped into the water … a little bit too early. The water was a cold 19*C. Apparently my watch was a minute faster than the organiser’s, so this meant I was in the water four and a half minutes before we began – and since the start area was about thirty metres squared, there was no room for a warm up. On the plus side, I got myself into a perfect position, front and center. On the down side, I was freesing. I treaded water, and tried to warm up.

Finally, the organiser announced, “Go!” and we took off. After a few strokes, I lost my breath. It could have been the cold, or it could have been the fact that I hadn’t swum in two and a half weeks due to illness. Either way, it was not fun. People were swimming over me, and I was gasping for breath. I was still gasping for breath when we rounded the first of three buoys in the first lake.

Moving toward the second buoy, I was still trying to find my rhythm when a swimmer to my right caught my eye. “There’s something wrong with that girl’s stroke!” I thought to myself, but couldn’t figure out exactly why, since I could really only see her out of the corner of my eye. The next time I out my head up to sight I got more of a look at her and realised: she was doing backstroke! No wonder her stroke looked so strange. But wait – if she was doing backstroke, how was she keeping up with me? I pushed the thought to the side and swam on.

Rounding the second buoy, I finally found my rhythm and began to make progress. I  recalled years ago when I first went to a half ironman event and I had thought “1.9km is so far to swim. I might consider doing it if the swim were a bit shorter…” but on Sunday, I thought: “I am loving this. I am looking forward to swimming the whole 1.9km!”

The Austria swim is unusual in that you swim 1km in one lake, then jump out and run 200-odd metres to a second lake and swim the last 900m there. I finally got out of the first lake and began my run, where I had hoped to make up some time. However, the bridge we ran across was wooden and slippery, so I took it a bit easy.

The second swim was uneventful, and I exited the water in about 40 minutes, which was on par with my revised goal after my time sick.

Transition 1: To Sock, or Not to Sock … There was No Question

Running into transition, I was still trying to decide if I should wear socks under my bike shoes. Perhaps my toes would get cold without them! My mind was made up quite quickly however: the floor of the changing tent was wet from all the swimmers, which would have meant my socks would have been soaked through had I put them on. So: sunglasses, helmet, race belt, a quick sip of water and I was off, running toward my bike

The Bike: Finding the Cyclist in Me, Spectacular Scenery, and a Moment of Gratitude

I jumped onto my bike, and pedaled out. It was my first time putting my shoes on whilst on the bike in a race, so even though I’ve practised this move a lot in training, I was relieved it went off without a hitch.

The first part of the course was along the autobahn. Pre-race, everyone was talking about how there would be a great tailwind there, so not to get carried away and go too fast. At this, I was expecting to see speeds of 35kph. I was shocked when I looked down and realised I was pushing hard to stay close to 30. What was going on? Head wind… Of course! Murphy’s Law of Cycling: there is never a tail wind!

As I settled in, people started passing me. Not great hordes, but enough for the first negative thought to enter my head: “You still can’t compete on the bike! These girls just have more power in their legs! You should stick to running.” I pushed the thought to the side, replacing it with memories of hard bike training sessions I had completed successfully, put my head down and pushed on.

Race mantras all over my body and my mind
Race mantras all over my body and my mind

And then we came to our first climb, into a little town. Suddenly, I was passing people. I did a mental fist pump and said to myself, “You’ve got it on the hills! You have tenacity, technique, and far less wight to carry up the hills than anyone else. This is where you can compete!”

Then we went over the hill and a couple of heavier athletes sped past me. Okay, so I need to find a course with more uphill than down to compete on!

I cycled on, and was presented with the most incredible scenery: vineyards, castles, old churches, the Danube River – all highlighted by sunshine. I felt so blessed, and so grateful that I am involved in this sport which gives me the opportunity to compete in races and travel, and in this way see the world like few others get to see it.

I stuck with my nutrition plan, and felt strong as the ride continued – including on a big 8km climb. Here, I made the mistake of looking down at my speedometer, and freaked out about the slow pace. I decided I would have to push my fears to the side on the descents from there on in, in order to make up some time.

By the 80km mark though, I was ready to get off the bike and start running. Obviously I need a little bit more endurance training on the bike! 3 hours and 17 minutes after it started, it was finally over, so I swung my leg off the bike and ran back into the transition area.

Transition 2: No Time for a Sunday Picnic

I racked my bike, and tore off toward the bags. Well, “tore off” might be a slight exaggeration given the amount of lactic acid in my legs… I grabbed my bag, and read the inspirational notes my family had made for me, as I ran to the changing tent.

By this stage, there were a lot of people in the changing tent, sitting on benches and getting ready for the run. For me, it was socks, shoes, visor, gels, go! I was in and out before anyone else had stood up.

The Run: Finishing the Race. Twice.

It would have been 12 o’clock by this stage, so the sun was beating down. It was a hot day: 29 degrees, and the was no shade in the run course (as my horrific sunburn demonstrates).

I decided to let my legs settle into the task, then see if I could pick up the pace in the last 10km. In comparison to a lot of the runners on the course, I was moving quite quickly, passing a lot of people. But in comparison to what I normally run a half marathon in, it was a snail’s pace.

After 11km, I said to myself, “You’ve got 10km to go, let’s pick up the pace!” but my legs just would not respond, and continued to plod along. I looked at my watch: I was far outside what I had hoped to achieve before I got sick, but pretty much on track to run my revised race plan time. I reminded myself this race was about learning, pacing, finishing, and – most importantly – not doing any damage to my body so the rest of my season will go well – and decided to accept that this was the best I could do for the day.

So I plodded on, completed my second lap of the course, and found myself totally bewildered by a decision after 5 hours and 45 minutes of exercise: there was a sign on the pavement saying “Finish” and there was a man holding a handmade sign which read “Last KM”, pointing in the direction of a third lap of the course. I didn’t need to do a third lap of 10km, that was for sure. So I followed the sign for finish, went through the stadium, held up my arms in victory and smiled for the camera as I crossed the line.

I stopped my watch and looked down at it: my GPS showed I had completed 20km. What the? Oh my goodness, the “Last KM” sign!

I turned to an official – “I think I missed the last kilometer,” I said, panicked.

Happy at last ... or again
Happy at last … or again

Obviously I wasn’t the first, so she opened the barricade and set me back on the course. I re-started my watch, figured out the last kilometer, followed the sign for finish, went through the stadium, held up my arms in victory and smiled for the camera as I crossed the line for the  second time in my first Ironman 70.3 event.

Now, I know it’s not the first time I’ve got lost in a race, but don’t laugh: about 20% of the field (including one of the pro men!) made the same mistake. Some figured it out quickly like I did, and ran back onto the course to complete it properly without penalty. Others didn’t find out until the awards ceremony, when they were advised they would have 10 minutes added to their time as a penalty.

Anyway, my slowest ever half marathon time of 1 hour 46 minutes took my total race time to 5 hours and 51 minutes.

Final Thoughts and Thank Yous

So, how do I feel at the end of it? I raced a very different race to what I expected just a month ago. The illness I had probably took more out of my body than I thought, and I’m sure my fitness would have taken a hit from a week of bed rest. Because of the difficult lead up, I am really proud of the race I raced. It’s still a respectable time. And most importantly, now I know I can do the distance, with the right training I can take a lot of confidence into my next race and go faster. As long as I don’t get lost on my way to the finish line again!

Post race celebrations
Post race celebrations

Thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement – my wonderful family, my training buddies here and in Oz, my friends, my work colleagues, all the amazing triathletes I’ve met along the way, and my coach Scott. And of course, to the wonderful triathletes I shared this amazing experience with: Rich, Myles, Greg, Mark and Mike – you made this so special. Thank you.

Writing Again and Reassessing Goals

It’s been a while since I’ve written in either of my blogs – there’s been a lot going on in life… So I apologise to my dedicated fans – of which I know there are at least two (thanks Mum and Dad), and will endeavour to make up for it and write of all my adventures since January soon.
But let’s start in the here and now: today I am just a few days out from my first half ironman event: Austria 70.3.

I race on Sunday. In general, training went well over the last few months. My new bike is fast, I was managing my work time well enough to get in the training I needed, and I had a great week in Andalucia at Tridynamic’s triathlon training camp.

After the camp I realised I needed some guidance (i.e. I realised I had not idea how to prepare myself for a half ironman), so started working with a coach again. He was giving me some really hard sessions, and I was getting a lot out of them. It was great!

And then, two weeks ago, I got sick. Really sick. What felt like some swollen glands and the familiar aches and pains of the flu turned into tonsillitis, a fever which I couldn’t shake for days, and some very unfamiliar pains shooting through my body.

So instead of having one last hard weekend of training and then two weeks of tapering, I spent the last weekend resting, trying desperately to fight this illness, and then the rest of the week succumbing to it.

The fever was affecting my body so much that I was getting shooting pains through my head and muscles. I was in so much pain some nights I was in tears, considering whether I should go to a hospital. (To be honest, the only things which were stopping me were the facts that since I am in Amsterdam, I actually have no idea where a hospital is, and even if I did, I would need to cycle there … and I wasn’t sure I was up for that challenge.)

The antibiotics the doctor prescribed on the Monday had had no effect by the Thursday – I woke up in agony and tears. I went back to the doctor, and was given a different course of antibiotics, and told they should start to take effect Saturday night.

When I reported this to my coach, he advised me if I wasn’t going to start to get better until Saturday night, then I shouldn’t race.

I was devastated. I have worked so hard all year for this – and it felt like it was gone in an instant. More tears. My mind started picturing the race that could have been …

And then I suddenly felt a change as my body and mind rallied together for the first time all week: I felt the same energy I feel when I’m close to the end of a race and someone tries to pass me – my body says no, and grows stronger. Suddenly I was fighting this illness properly.

Within two hours my resting heart rate had dropped 10 beats per minute, to close to a normal range. My temperature dropped half a degree.

“I’m getting better! I can still race!” I emailed my coach. Of course, it took a lot more to convince him than just that … On the Friday night we had a skype chat that almost led to a break up – as if I hadn’t had a hard enough week already! Thankfully, we agreed to stay together, but reassess my goals for the race.

It’s about finishing, pacing, learning … and getting through the 70.3 miles without damaging my body. So Sunday morning central Europe time, please send some positive thoughts my way.

I’ve spent the last week preparing mentally for what’s to come, and I feel I’m ready to race this new race. And as Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” And I’m pretty sure that anyone who has ever lived with me, worked with me, trained or raced with me, or even played a board game with me knows: I have an indomitable will.

January 2012: Back to Basics

Preparation Training

It went a little quiet here in November and December – mainly because I decided to take some time off to enjoy birthdays and Christmas parties before knuckling down to train for my big half ironman races in 2012.

I’ve now coached myself through January – the preparation phase in my plan. That basically means January has been (relatively) easy: only easy zone 2 heart rate training (i.e. I feel like I’m not working hard enough) and 8 hours a week.

So far, so good! And here are some lessons I learned throughout the prep phase …

You don’t get better at something if you don’t practise!

Seems obvious, right? Well nowhere is it more obvious than in my swimming abilities after 2 months out of the water! Some serious work is in order here …

One has to be super-organized to train 10 hours a week and work in management consulting

And fortunately I am. My fridge is more often than not filled with lunches and protein shakes I have prepared for the week.

I can’t think about racing if I want to do training in heart zone 2

In the prep and base periods, I need to spend a fair bit of time in relatively easy training to build my aeribic base. But whenever I think about my upcoming races I get so excited my heart rate sky rockets!

Europe can be really, really cold

I was fine in -4 degree temperatures whilst skiing in the Austrian slopes last weekend – with my thermals, ski pants and ski jacket. But -4 was a different story when I returned to Amsterdam. How is this related to my training? Well, I think it means another few weeks in the gym…

It’s nice to have support around you when you train

… such as last week when I was doing a two hour brick session at the gym, and the gym manager used the PA system to cheer me on: “Go Monica Hardcore!” (who knows what anyone else thought of this bizarre announcement!)

February has arrived, so it’s now time to start base training. Let’s hope Europe’s cold snap doesn’t last too long and I get get some training done outside … Especially since I pick up my new Cervelo this weekend!

Training through Travel, or: How to Train for a Triathlon in Outback Australia

As I embark on a series of work trips across Europe, looking at each week’s travel plans and adjusting my training, I find myself reminiscing on the most horrific work travel adventure I have encountered, and how I managed to train through it…

A few years ago, I was sent to Karratha in north west Australia for work for four months. Karratha is the picture of mythical Australia: red dust, hot sun, and kangaroos jumping around everywhere.

It was approaching triathlon season, so I needed to train. More than that, there was nothing to do in this town in the middle of nowhere, basically built around Australia’s north west gas shelf. The only providers of entertainment were Mermaids’ Tavern or Trawlers Nightclub. Not really my scene…

But training there proved difficult. For a start, it was hot. I arrived in July – winter in Australia – and the average temperature was 30 degrees celsius. This only rose, and by the time I finally escaped in October, 40 was the regular low temperature of the day!

There was a tendency to try to “beat the heat” in the town, so we would start work at 7am, but often not return until after 6pm. Since, as I mentioned, there was nothing to do in town, the team I worked with often insisted on “forced fun” or team bonding sessions in the evenings so I took to training in the very early hours of the morning.

I would run around the town in the dark at 5am. After a few sessions, my pristine asics runners had turned red, covered in the red dust that infiltrated everywhere. Other mornings I would swim lap after lap of the 20 meter pool. For someone who, as a child, was afraid of being eaten by a shark in the swimming pool, swimming in the pool in the dark and on my own like this was a major achievement!

One thing I couldn’t do so easily was get out on my bike. It was really dark, both morning and night, and with slightly suspect night vision I couldn’t trust myself. Also, there was a surprising amount of traffic, and since I was new to cycling I was not inclined to get out into it. So I bought a wind trainer and set it up in my room.

Now let me just describe my room for a moment. I lived in a workers camp, with about 400 “dongas” set up. The word donga refers to the temporary accommodation tin sheds they set up in workers’ camps such as mine: The Bay Village Resort (it was neither by a bay nor anything like any resort I’ve ever been to incidentally).

So my donga was even smaller than my apartment in Amsterdam – probably about 12 meters squared. As you can imagine, it took some maneuvering to fit the bike on the wind trainer in there! Unfortunately, a wind trainer can be quite loud, and with the thin walls between dongas, it was certainly not appropriate for me to do this in the mornings. So I would make excuses to get out of forced fun evenings, so I could go home and train in my cell …

As for weights training, well there was a gym at the Bay Village Resort. But remember how I mentioned there were 400 residents? And this was a town built around the oil & gas industry? Well women were few and far between. I was one of about ten women living in the resort, so my presence often raised a bit of attention. Guys would literally stop doing weights while I was in the gym to gawk at me. It was awkward…

This week we started the two months of business trips in Madrid. I headed down to the hotel swimming pool on Monday evening. While twenty meters long, this was no lap pool: it was just one long spa – the water was hotter than bath water! But I just shrugged and thought, “If I can train in Karratha, I can train anywhere!” So here we go…

Photo at the top courtesy Jim Bendon: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jim_bendon_1957/12870481014/in/photolist-kBjzB5-fBc4QV-d31bUW-cYi6ud-comNyG-dqrvxP-d32Vs9-cYi4n3-daASsB-d31cch-cYHUjL-boUMZC-boUMRQ-cDUBob-c2bgvE-dqrwVc-cDUDcJ-daRfba-cokcFh-hTpfyV-cYjsah-cFCo87-cYi3Gm-cYi3ch-cDUCVE-cYi7pW-kRmYgX-eFYu5N-cDUxGo-cFCiD7-cFCikS-daAZJN-comFEY-comCoU-comwBE-cYHfvW-cYHbHj-dYYe7G-eFSmvR-d31bbS-bsT3Zw-cb8C1f-cYjt2Y-cokuNy-dSUYPj-mzmQa3-eFYumG-coknPN-eFYu1W-cYkonE

Confessions of a Novice Part I – Or, how I finally learned to swim properly

I had a swimming breakthrough this week, which I am super excited about.

Time and time again, I have had people give me pointers or talk about good swim technique in general. A consistent message is this: keep your elbows high.

To be honest, I always thought this was a bit strange, because I thought they were referring to keeping your elbow high when in the recovery position – i.e. when your arm comes up above the water and you get ready for your next stroke. Of course it’s going to be high, I would think, it’s above the rest of your body.

Anyhow, this week a post on Twitter caught my attention: how your catch should feel to you  Standing in the line at the work canteen, I opened the link.

I looked at the pictures and read the words. Oh my goodness! I thought excitedly. You keep your elbows high when they’re IN the water doing the stroke! Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get to the pool. Swim training was not until the next day, however.

I left a note on my door on a post-it, “Elbows high!” to remind me in the early hours of Wednesday morning. I got to the pool, and it was amazing! Doing the stroke, I knew immediately: this was new to me – I was engaging different muscles, I was using less strokes to reach the end of the pool.

I was reticent to make it all about timing myself (and I mis-fired the stop watch a few times!) but I managed to take 10 seconds off my best 200m time. The rest of the session I just spent time really getting the feel of the stroke.

That’s one step closer to the Ironman Dream … I’ll take it.

Gluten Free Triathlon

Four years ago, I spent four months feeling absolutely miserable: I was tired all the time, and my stomach was constantly bloated. A blood test revealed my iron levels dropped to almost anaemic levels for the first time in my life. My diet had not changed. Apparently my body had though: I had developed an intolerance to gluten.
Dealing with the symptoms

When I first received the results, I was disbelieving. “I’m a long distance runner,” I told my doctor. “Pasta is my friend. The test results must be wrong.”

Apparently they weren’t, for after a week of being gluten free, my stomach went flat again. In the next month, I noticed I was feeling a whole lot better. As my body returned to a healthy state, I realised that while I had being going about thinking I was “normal,” I had actually been living with a really stressed out gastrointestinal tract for a long time.

When I tried reintroducing gluten a month later, my body did not react well. Not only did I experience cramping and gastrointestinal upset, but I felt mentally upset, had some nasty temper outbreaks, and just felt like the energy had been zapped from my body. Every time I have accidentally ingested gluten since then (okay, sometimes it’s an actual “cheat” where I really, really feel like having malteasers), some or all of these symptoms return. Sometimes I will out of the blue hear my stomach gurgling loudly, find myself feeling blue, or throw something across a room in rage. When that happens, I go back carefully over what I have eaten in the past few days – sometimes it’s finding a hidden ingredient on a label, and other times it’s acknowledging that the restaurant I thought was so good would be better without a second visit …

So what’s my diet like?

Probably not that much different to yours, actually! A typical day would be:

Breakfast: gluten-free breakfast cereal with fruit and yoghurt
Mid-morning snack: rice cakes with peanut butter and honey
Lunch: my big meal – perhaps rice, quinoa or gluten free spaghetti with vegies and tofu or lean meat
Afternoon snack: banana with peanut butter
Evening meal: maybe a smaller version of what I’ve had at lunch, or soup with gluten free bread
So what do I differently as a Gluten Free Athlete?

1. I pore over ingredients like they’re the most riveting news story of the year!

In Australia, there are strict food regulation laws, requiring all products to clearly list whether a product contains any of the main allergens. Life is easy: I turn a product over, it states in big capital letters CONTAINS GLUTEN, and I put it back on the shelf. Since moving to the Netherlands, things have been a bit more difficult for me. Occasionally, I will find a product stating “Gluten Free”, or “Contains wheat” but more often than not, I am scanning through the ingredients – in Dutch. Sometimes I will find English or American products with the ingredients list covered over with by a sticker with the ingredients in Dutch. I have to admit I am a bad shopper: I remove the label and read the ingredients list in English …

2. I check the ingredients of race day refreshments!

This one is a biggy. With all the random products they put into electrolyte drinks, I will sometimes find gluten is amongst them. When I look to sign up for a race, I need to check the refreshments sponsor, look up their ingredients online if possible, or contact the company directly to find out if I will need to supply everything myself. If it’s a short race, I can deal with it (have my own stuff on the bike, take gels for the run). But if we’re talking a long race … that might not work out so well …

3. I have to figure out how to deal with the effects of gluten “poisoning” while training

Last week was a bad week of training … I had some chips on Wednesday which turned out to not be gluten free. On Friday, I was absolutely wiped out when I should have been doing my big brick session for the week. I had no energy to carry my bike down the stairs, let alone put in a big effort, and I was close to tears most of the day. This is where I have to learn to be kind to myself – I’m not doing myself any favours going on and doing a punishing session when I’m feeling like that … I decided to take myself to the swimming pool: at least there if I felt like crying no one would notice;-)

I’m feeling much better now, and ready to go for another week!

And finally, a word of advice …

If you know anyone, or meet anyone who is gluten intolerant or celiac, may I pass onto you the two most annoying things you can say to them? (in the hopes that you never do!)

What happens when you eat gluten?
Well … the politest way I can put it is this: it affects my gastrointestinal tract, so I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear about the symptoms – and I certainly don’t want to talk about them!

2. “Oh, I wish I were gluten intolerant!” (this is usually said at a social occasion, when the person is gorging themselves on pizza and beer, or cake, and I am chugging the sparkling water.)

Yes, you might be healthier if you didn’t drink beer and eat pizza or cake, but really, imagine not ever being able to eat them – for the rest of your life! (plus I’m rather hungry right now!)

See above re: symptoms – does experiencing that through accidental ingestion really appeal to you?

It’s Not about the Bike … Or Is it?

I want to share a series of fortuitous events from my last weekend of triathlon, and I’m keen to get people’s opinions.

Some Background

I ride a Specialized Dolce. It’s not the Comp or Elite model, so it is bottom of the range Specialized. Now I know Lance Armstrong said it’s not about the bike, but it is not the lightest bike in transition, and it’s not helping me be much faster …

Anyhow, on Friday night my new bike computer arrived. I could not set it up properly, despite working on it for an hour. I determined to try again when I got to Ieper the next day, the day before the triathlon.

So I headed to Ieper for the triathlon on Saturday morning. When I arrived in town, rather than go to my hotel I pulled my car over to the side of the road quite randomly, close to where I knew the bike transition area was. I pulled my bike out of the boot, and started working on the placement of the speed sensor and cadence sensor.

Suddenly, I heard a police siren. I turned around, and suddenly a police motorcycle went past – along with a mass of cyclists, and then support cars. What was this? A Tour of Ieper bike race?

Fortuitous Parking

I went back to working on the computer. What was wrong with it? I couldn’t sense speed or cadence! I looked up, and across the road, a van was parked. On the side of the van, it read, “Estonian Cycling Team.” A guy wearing a cycling jersey sat in the driver’s seat, reading a newspaper.

How fortunate! I walked over to the van. “Hi!” I said with a smile. “You look like you know a bit about bikes! Can you help me with my bike computer?”

Fortuitous Computer

The guy, Andros, told me he was more than happy to try, but not sure if he would be that successful. As we crossed the road, he told me he was a former Junior World Championship cyclist, and now acted as support crew for Estonia’s Juniors team. This was a prep race prior to their trip to Copenhagen next weekend.

He looked at the computer. “Would you believe,” he said, “I set up this exact computer on my bike a few weeks ago?”

Sharing of a Mechanic

Within twenty minutes, the computer was up and running. Andros was concerned about my bike however. There was a lot of instability in the forks – could I need new bearings?

“You know,” he said, “the Estonian team has a great mechanic. Maybe he could take a look at it for you after this afternoon’s race finishes?”

Meeting the Mechanic

By the time the race had finished, the mechanic looked quite exhausted (he had been following the team around in the support car all afternoon). Andros asked him if he could take a look at my bike. The mechanic looked slightly put out. “Where is it?” he asked.

“Right here!” I responded with a big smile. I had parked right beside the Team Estonia van.

He looked it over, tightened the handlebars, fixing the problem. He also tidied up the job we had done on the computer. I asked if he could see anything else wrong with the bike. He took it for a spin, and tightened a few other things.

A Word of Advice …

When he came back, I asked him, “How often should you replace a bike? Like, I’ve had this one for two years – when do I need a new one?”

He looked at me. “You need to replace this one yesterday. You cannot race competitively on this bike. It’s too heavy, it’s not aerodynamic, you need new wheels, and a new saddle.”

Wow … Tell me what you really think! I did really appreciate his advice. It was unbiased – not like if I were to ask a mechanic at a bike shop. I had often wondered whether a new bike would make a big difference …

In this Race, it WAS About the Bike

For those who read my pervious entry, you will know I got a flat tyre in the race … Even the spare tube couldn’t save me.

A New Bike?

So the question is … do I take the mechanic’s advice and get a new bike? In light of the fact that he told me I needed a new bike, and this one failed me. Now, admittedly, any bike can get a flat (and this bike actually didn’t get one for two years!) but I am always open to the idea that God, or fate, or the universe – whatever you might think is out there – might be guiding me in a certain direction.

Plus, I am going to do Austria Ironman 70.3 next year … I need a good bike for that.

Have I found it?

I started doing a brief search online last night, and found a Cervelo on sale – like a 30% saving. There’s only one frame size left … and it’s my size … What should I do???

Welcome back to Racing!

This weekend I had my first tri in 18 months. I borrowed a friend’s car for the weekend, and drove the 300km from Amsterdam to Ieper/Ypres, Belgium, for the In Flanders Fields Triathlon.

The race plan: get through the 1km swim, race the 40km bike like I’m a cyclist (since that’s where I’ve been doing my hard work), and see what happens on the 10km run when I put serious effort in on the bike. If I fail, it’s a learning experience for Barcelona – my first Olympic Distance tri in four weeks.

So here’s my race report:

After a bright sunny morning, the temperature dropped dramatically and the clouds started moving in as we gathered in the transition area. As soon as the first wave was allowed in the water, the rain started coming down. All the women were in the third wave, and as we were held in the pen it started to hail. A bad omen?

Winning at Swimming

Suddenly they called us through, and the gun went off. “Survive the swim” has a nice ring to it, and I’ve always kind of used that mantra in tri’s. For me, finishing in the top half of the swim is considered a good result. But obviously all my plugging away in those crowded Dutch pools is paying off: as I continued to sight the buoys, I was sighting – not too many women in front of me.

I made it out of the water in 16:15 – which was four minutes faster than my goal!

In the run to the transition area, I ran past four other athletes. (With a loop back on the cycling course, I was able to count 15 riders ahead of me – meaning I had finished in the top 20% of the swim!)

Now About the Bike …

I got to transition and looked down. My carefully laid out arm warmers to deal with the cold on the bike were SOAKED through. Okay, they were not going to do me much good. I had planned on socks due to the cold, but they were also wet. So straight to the shoes, and I was off!

Within 1km I caught another female on the bike. Unfortunately, by the time I reached 10km a couple of females had passed me too – one on a downhill, which always seems to happen since I don’t weigh that much, and a few others around quite technical areas of the course. There were lots of hairpin turns and narrow paths. But I was feeling strong. This was a much better performance on the bike than I had ever had before.

Around the 14km mark I felt it:

KA-TUNK! from my back wheel.

Every few seconds … KA-TUNK! KA-TUNK! KA-TUNK!

No, no, no! I thought to myself. This is NOT a flat! In two years I have NEVER had a flat with this bike! I am just riding over some bumps!

A little voice in my head replied, Then why is it only your back wheel feels these bumps?

I was in the middle of a hill, so I cycled to the top. I had a spare tube, so I figured I could change it and then cycle off on an easier section of the course – no point having to get back on the bike after I fixed the tyre and climb this stupid hill!

At the top, I pulled the wheel off, got rid of the inner tube and replaced it. Next step: put some air into it. My fingers were freezing by this point, and perhaps that had something to do with it. But I had trouble affixing the pump to the needle, and when I looked at it again, I noticed the needle was broken.

So that was it: race over. That’s triathlon for you. Welcome back to the sport.

And I began the long, cold walk back to transition…

No Run Today …