Anyone reading this blog so far might think that cycle racing is my main focus, but actually my "A" race for this season is Ironman UK to be held on August 2, 2009. This will be my second Ironman race -- my first was last year at IM Germany in Frankfurt with less than stellar results -- and I'm doing my very best this year to try and qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October. Not an easy task, as there is only one qualifying slot for female 35- to 39-year-olds, which means only a first place finish in my age group guarantees me a chance to go. In reality, the slots often "roll down" to a later finisher when the original qualifier decides not to fork out the required $500 cash to claim the slot, but I can't count on this happening in IMUK this year. So it's first place or bust for me.
Last year I went into IM Germany hoping for a 10:30 time and a top 10 finish in my age group, and finished instead with 12:26 and 35th place. Excluding the time I spent on the bike course trying to replace then repair my destroyed rear tire, I would have finished with a time around 10:50 and 10th place. Even so, that would have been nowhere near a Kona slot; the last woman in my age group to get one of those finished in 10:09, more than 20 minutes ahead of my goal time! Just goes to show how competitive Ironman racing has become these days for front-of-the-pack age groupers. I definitely have my work cut out for me this year.
The first step was picking the right Ironman course for my strengths and weaknesses. Ironman Germany: too many elite Euro age-groupers, as affirmed last year; Ironman France in Nice: insane climbs and descents in the Alps, and way too hot; Ironman anywhere in North America: requires a trip there the previous year just to get in line to register for the following year's race! Uh, no thanks. Ironman UK: good weather, hilly bike leg, flat and fast run course, and with some luck, not many other fast female 35- to 39-year-old age-groupers.
The next step is training, and training, and training. Every day, every week, every month from January 1 to August 1, every bit of training I do is for this one race. Even cycle racing, or more like especially cycle racing. The coach I hired last year to put together a custom training programme emphasised the "fast" over the "far" in cycle training this early in the season (what could still be considered the off-season), and since I had managed to raise my lactate threshold considerably last year through this intense but short-distance riding, I've followed the same plan this year. A 20 mile criterium race or hard group ride means anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes in zones 4 and 5, my highest sustainable aerobic HR zones. While I could jump on the indoor trainer or force myself to do lap after lap of Richmond Park alone, it's way more fun and effective to use the power and motivation of others to push my limits and make the most of this high intensity training. When the days get longer and the weather gets warmer, the "far" will have to kick in, but until then, racing is the best cycle training I can give myself.
But running is quite another story... running is where I need to make vast improvements over my past few injury-plagued and low mileage years if I want to make a serious run at that Kona slot. A 4:05 marathon in the Ironman is just not going to cut it. I need to get down to 3:45, or within 15 min of my standalone marathon best. And what better way to accomplish that than to sign up for a spring marathon and follow a marathon training schedule the whole winter to force myself to get in the miles. So with that in mind, I've been precariously balancing cycling and running over the past few months, trying to get stronger in both without too many diminishing effects on either, and I think I can finally say it's working.
On Thursday, I went out for a 22km flat run along the river path, ipod full blast and my favourite shoes on my feet, just to test how this little experiment was progressing. After 12km, feeling quite strong and fit, I looked down at my Garmin and saw a 4:48/km average pace. My half-marathon race PB at 1:40:12 is only a 4:44/km pace, and that's on hard pavement -- this was on a dirt track. Turning for home, I ran the next 5km in 23:19, then 3km in 13:14. Cooling down for the last 2km still left me with an overall pace of 4:45/km for 22km, meaning I nearly ran a PB in training!
Despite running frequently, my long runs are actually a bit behind schedule for the marathon, and I'm a bit worried that my longest long run still won't be long enough to set me up for a marathon PB (currently 3:33). But after Thursday's run, ideas of running the first half of Rotterdam at top speed then cruising home at 6:00/km pace for the second half (or dropping out even) started popping into my head. Sure it would mean at best a 4:30 finishing time and considerable explaining to do at my running club. But the biggest problem with running a full marathon in the middle of Ironman training is the recovery time needed afterwards if I give it my all; past experience has shown me I need nearly a week before I can train hard on the bike again, and at least 2 more weeks before I'm back to regular running mode. This little sacrifice in Rotterdam might be a way around that predicament, and will make me feel much better than if I didn't race at all. Lowering my half marathon PB should offset any feelings of guilt. And I can probably be back on my bike within a couple of days of the race, back to my regularly scheduled life of training and more training for IMUK. After all, every session I do is for this one race that means everything in 2009... including the marathon. Looking at it that way, it's a pretty easy decision to make.
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