Monday, 22 June 2009

Stein Long Distance Triathlon Race Report

We just got back from our whirlwind Benelux trip, which started with a ferry over to France then a drive to Luxembourg where we stayed three nights at a great little holiday apartment just outside Vianden. On Saturday we headed north to south Limburg in the Netherlands for my long distance triathlon race in Stein on Sunday. Despite weather that always seemed to be threatening rain, we had two 100km cycling days in Luxembourg: home of colourful and immaculate little houses and farms, great climbs and descents, and quiet well-paved roads. The weekend included an obligatory trip to Albert Heijn, and we got to see some of my Hellas Triathlon friends who were racing in Stein as well. The only downside was the 22-hour day we had getting back to the UK yesterday after the race was over, though it was much worse for Jim (who did all the driving) than for me (who raced, then got to sleep on the ferry).

colourful houses in Bettel, Luxembourg

Hills and valleys of lush farmland as far as the eye can see

The Stein long distance race is billed as being in the "Dutch Mountains" which is kind of cute -- it'd be like saying a race in the North Downs is in the Surrey Mountains! With a cheap entry fee of €85 and huge prize money open to everyone (not just pros), it's surprising that this race isn't more popular especially amongst British women who I think would be very competitive here. I've done it three times now (twice as a solo racer, once in a relay) and would recommend it to anyone who wants a low-key, well-organised and spectator-friendly race not too far from home in a very hospitable part of the Netherlands (Stein is just north of Maastricht right in the middle of Amstel Gold country). The race weekend also has a bunch of kids' races on Friday evening and both a sprint and a draft-legal Olympic distance Saturday afternoon. The long distance race is all day Sunday.

Waiting for the swim start

Running out of the water to my bike

The swim is 3km in the port of Stein (water was 20 degrees and calm, though a bit "industrial"), two loops with a quick exit/entry between. The day was unusually cold and rainy early on, making it a bit hard on the spectators, though Jim toughed it out despite having no rainjacket or umbrella handy. I got out of the water in 48 minutes, knocking a couple of minutes off my previous best time for that course. I can probably chalk it up to being very comfortable in the water and getting on some good feet, I think. Transition was slow as I pulled on a bike jersey over my trisuit for extra warmth.

Absolutely pouring rain!

Nonetheless, I was pretty happy with my new P3C

The bike is four laps of a twisty 27km mostly flat course with the three Surrey-like hills, one made of big cobblestones. The northern Dutchies with their 11-23 cassettes were weaving all over the road trying to get up the 14%er by the last lap, which made for an interesting sight. It took me about a lap and a half to get comfortable on the bike, as my legs were feeling the kms we'd ridden in Luxembourg. My plan was to ride at Ironman pace anyway so that I could put in a strong run and treat the whole race as a training ride, so I was okay with that. The rain started to pelt down hard by the second lap and I saw more than a few folks by the side of the road struggling with flat tires. Two of the female pros dropped out due to the cold and two guys managed to crash their bikes on the tricky descents leading to the climbs. I was able to pick up the pace in the third and fourth laps as the sun finally came out and I warmed up a bit. With a time of 3:35 I came in to T2 about 100th place of 200 competitors but with lots of energy in reserve.

By the time the run started, the roads had dried up and the sun was coming out

Very light-footed on the run, which was a nice feeling

The run is also four laps with two steepish hills winding through the town of Stein, each 7.5km lap finishing in front of the grandstand in the middle of town with the announcer calling out names. The entire town gets into the race, what with people sitting in their front garden cheering everyone on, and little kids collecting and distributing sponges and water. My target for the whole race was sub-7-hours (having done 7:30 in 2007) but my running was even better than expected, and with a 2:19 for 30km I ended up with a 6:46:47 final time. Good enough for 7th place woman and 48th place overall, overtaking many guys who had blown by me on the bike then blown up on the run, as usual. Three of my Hellas buddies put in a solid performance to take first prize in the mixed relay race, with another three Hellassers forming a second team who just beat me by 17 seconds. Three other teammates who were racing solo finished strong as well.

I had hoped to go sub-7 hours so this was a great time

The prizes (€2700 for the winner down to €550 for 5th place in the women's race and €200 for 7th place in the men's, plus €100 for each age group winner) attracted quite a few pros this year. The men's winner was Fraser Cartmell of Scotland, the women's was Natallia Barkun of Belarus who also picked up another €500 for breaking the course record. I was disappointed to see my time 11 minutes out of the money, considering the same time woud have earned me 3rd place two years ago, but happy with my performance seeing as I didn't taper for it and used it as a race rehearsal of sorts for IMLP. There's talk of Stein trying to get a 70.3 franchise which in some respects would be great but in other ways would ruin this quaint small-town race, not least by tripling the entry fee I'm sure.

I've now got five weeks til IMLP and it's a great relief to know that my swimming and running are where they need to be. The P3C performed really well too, though I'd still like to get a bit lower in front (adjustable stem maybe?) and tweak my position to get more comfortable in the neck and shoulders. And I can clearly see my goal for these last few weeks of hard training: to squeeze every last watt out of my FTP so I can push that tiny bit harder on the bike and still put in a solid run. Tomorrow I finally get to pick up my Powertap 650 wheel so with a few Club 10 TTs and some time spent riding hard laps of the park I can ride myself into good form, I'm sure (I hope!)

Monday, 8 June 2009

All in a week of Ironman training

Last week was fairly unusual in that I raced four times in four days (five times in seven days if you count the previous weekend's Melbourne Team Series race). What started out as a fairly easy week on Monday with a beautiful evening run in Home Park became progressively harder as the week went on, culminating in a double-race Saturday (which marks my mid-season break from cycle racing so that I can focus on triathlon training), followed by a 22km run on Sunday with several intervals at half marathon pace. A tough week for sure, but it's all in a week of Ironman training.

Tuesday -- the long ride

The weather was beautifully sunny and hot, so Jim and I decided to give Hillingdon and Crystal Palace a miss -- and thankfully so, as there were big crashes at both races -- and do a 90km ride in the Surrey Hills with some of our favourite climbs instead. I set a surprising new best time on the Boxhill challenge with 6:38, knocking over 40 seconds off my previous best. It was only last summer that I was over eight minutes, and now I'm wondering when I will get below six!

Wednesday -- the running race

26.2 RRC, our running club, held its annual mile race on the local track. I've done a number of mile repeats in the past few months, but nothing could have prepared me for how hard four laps of the track was going to feel! Well, maybe some previous hard 400s and 800s would have prepared me... but nevertheless, after a warmup and some strides, I took to the start line with the rest of the ladies. At the gun we took off at an unholy pace, led out by one hardy soul running a 15-second first 100m until she crashed and burned, leaving me at the front of the pack to suffer alone.

1st lap: way too fast. There was no way I could hold this pace for the next three laps. 1:22
2nd lap: somewhat better. I was hoping to go under 6 minutes so this was about right. 1:30
3rd lap: despite my attempt to speed up on the back straight and drop the heavy-breathing women on my shoulder, it was actually slower and starting to hurt quite a bit now! 1:33
4th lap: after 150m I finally managed to lose everyone behind me and now it was just a race against the clock. The last 100m I felt I was gliding through the air, every stride was so long! 1:27 for a final time of 5:52, mission accomplished.

Once recovered, I figured I should make it a real workout, so I joined the men's race ten minutes later for a second mile at a more reasonable pace. I managed that one in 6:10 with much more even lap splits, leaving me amazed that a single second per 100m was the difference between a hard effort and an all-out gasping painfest. Clearly I need more track work on pacing if I'm ever going to run a good mile time!

The best part of the evening was the fun 100m dash we ran afterwards. I was transported back in time to when I was 10 years old and running at the Track and Field day at grade school. My time was surprisingly not much different either, around 13 seconds. I ran the entire 100m on my toes which felt amazing, though the next day my feet and calves were quite sore.

Thursday -- the handicap race

The Surrey League holds a series of handicap races over the summer and the circuit for this week's race was one we know pretty well. Having heard from teammates that handicap racing is the best workout around, Jim and I decided to give it a try. I was set off in the first group of 4th cat vets (40+) with teammate Ian, Jim went off in the second group of regular 4th cats and 3rd cat vets, teammate Andy was in one of the regular 3rd cat groups, and 1st cat Steve went off in the scratch group with a full 8 minutes to make up on my group. In fact, we had done an entire lap of the 3 mile circuit before Steve's group started, making it not only a physical but a psychological challenge for them to both catch us and then lap us to get in front!

We went off fast, and though we dropped several guys, I managed to hang on to the core group of half a dozen vets quite well. The difference in men's and women's racing became quite apparent, however; while I tried to do my part in the paceline, I found it ridiculously hard to pull through at 42km/h after sitting in the draft at that speed. In the end, I probably only did one out of every four turns that I should have, but I did manage to be less of a sandbagger than the guy who sat completely on the back and never took a single turn!

Nearly eight full laps went by before Jim's group -- led by Jim pulling the group along at the front, as usual! -- caught us. We all realised that this large group would be the front pack, as neither Andy's nor Steve's group were going to catch us in the two laps before the finish. I was hoping Jim could get a good placing and some points, so I stayed mid-pack to help him out where I could. On the last lap, right after Jim had reeled in an attack, another attack went up the hill and I jumped on the front to pull him back. That done, I settled back in the last km as Jim headed to the front to see what he could do in the uphill finish. Ended up a strong 4th place for him and 6 license points, while I cruised in at the back of the pack, picking up some Surrey League points as the first (and only!) female to cross the line. One more finish like that and Jim will be a 3rd cat himself.

Friday -- the swim TT

An easy day off the bike, and with my feet still feeling rough from the track work, I went to the pool instead. I'd been meaning to do a 1000m time trial to verify my threshold swim pacing and this was the day for it. After 1200m of warmup and drills, I hammered through 10x100m at 1:30 pace, maintaining good form throughout and finding the aerobic side of it surprisingly not taxing. Clearly my running and cycling fitness has clearly helped my swimming as well, as has the losing the extra 10 pounds! I think I'll do another one of these in a few weeks and see if I can't knock another second or two off my threshold pace, seeing how fast I can go before my form and technique gets too ragged. My swimming confidence is back, now I just need to get to the lake a few times with my wetsuit to burn the rust off my sighting skills.

Saturday -- the double race day

The morning dawned rainy but cleared up in time for the South East regional women's road race championships in the afternoon. With a field of only 30, it was a smaller race than what I've been doing lately, but still had its share of strong riders. Not a very hilly course and only 60km long, so next to no chance for me to get a podium place. However I did have two Kingston Wheelers teammates racing plus I knew there could be a break of half a dozen strong riders, so was hoping to join that if it happened.

Early on it was slow going, but on the second lap Charlie Blackman attacked hard -- she is so powerful when she does, she just takes off like a rocket -- and the rest of us gave chase. I knew Natalie from Twickenham would be my best bet either to reel Charlie in or to bridge over to her, so she and her Twickenham teammate and I set about working. Being the new and inexperienced and unorganised riders that we are though, we never managed to shed the rest of the bunch so after nearly a lap Charlie came back to us and we settled in for a few more laps with nobody really on the attack. My teammate Lise (a very good cyclist in her first race ever) turned out to be a bit of a wild card by racing very strongly, so when it became clear that it would end in a bunch sprint, I took to the front to drive the pace, figuring Charlie and Natalie would battle it out for the win and Lise would be up there as well. In the end, Natalie won it, Charlie came second, Lise picked up 7th and my other KW teammate Leona got 10th. I rolled in at the back of the bunch, feeling conflicted with my own poor result, but happy to see Natalie get a win and my teammates finish top 10.

Charlie (in white) before she attacked.
photo by Jim

Later that evening were the Smithfield Nocturne crit races in central London around ~1km of twisty city roads, including two sharp corners requiring some skill to navigate. The women's race was a last-minute addition to the elite race and men's support race, so I was keen to support it and help put on a good show for the 10,000 spectators lining the streets including a bunch of KW teammates on the "pub corner". Six or seven girls from the afternoon's road race were there as well, looking noticeably tireder than the bright fresh teenaged track riders and junior elites who were there to contest the win.

I wasn't sure how my legs would feel given the afternoon's race -- where admittedly I'd only done 15km of real work -- but after a quick recce lap behind the car, we lined up and started off fast. I took forever to get clipped in, and in that few seconds the main group was gone, leaving me to thread my way through riders as they got dropped off the back. Every lap brought me closer and closer, and having all that space to myself meant I could get used to the turns on the course, not that that helped my awful cornering technique much! About five laps into the race, I finally tagged onto the back of the main group which had about 15 riders in it. After a near miss on one of the worst corners -- skidding my front wheel and nearly hitting the barriers -- I eased off a bit and decided not to try to move up the group, sparing the other riders any close calls with my terrible cornering. This meant chasing on after that dodgy corner on every lap, but my legs turned out to be great. Since hard accelerations and sprints are not my forté I was pleasantly surprised to find that staying with the main group wasn't that hard at all.

About halfway through, a group of three girls attacked and left the rest of us behind, after which I just hung out at the back and enjoyed the atmosphere. The crowds at the start/finish line were banging on the boarded barriers every time we rode past, and on the opposite side the KWers were drinking more and more beer and cheering me on with gusto. Nineteen laps and 30 minutes after we started, we sprinted for the finish and then took a slow cooldown lap to the applause of the crowd. A very cool experience and lots of fun to be racing in front of so many spectators! And a great way to top off my racing season. Once the Ironman is over, I'll be back cycle racing but until then the road bike is taking a backseat to my new TT bike.

Giving a thumbs-up to the KWers on the pub corner.
photo by Jim

The new kit looks great!
photo by Jim

Taking a corner hard.
photo by Larry Hickmott for British Cycling

Monday, 1 June 2009

Melbourne Team Series race report

Yesterday was my toughest road race to date, and surprisingly turned out to be my best performance to date as well. At the finish line, I was shaking my head disappointingly, but after a day of reflection and studying the results, I now feel like I can be proud of how I did. Fifteenth out of a field of about 50, in an 80km race with over 1000m of climbing. Oh yeah, and on a hot and sunny day (who knew England could be so summery in May?)

Melbourne Team Series Race 31-05-2009, Elevation - Distance

5 Laps of Hilly Joy

This was my last race in the women's Team Series for a while, as I'm turning my focus 100% to Ironman Lake Placid training now. Well, I've got one final race next weekend, the South East Regional Women's Road Race championship, where I hope to go top 5 or so -- but aside from that, I'm doing the great majority of my cycling miles on my TT bike these days. In fact, my new Hed Jet6 650c wheels just arrived and once the rear is built with a Powertap hub, I'll be all the more motivated to ride that bike hard and fast.

Yesterday's race consisted of 5 laps of a 10-mile course, with 1 longish climb, 2 medium climbs and a couple of shorter lumps in each lap, getting to about 10% at their steepest. The finish line was after 1km of false flat road at the top of one of the medium climbs and there were hill primes for laps 1, 3, and 5 on the longer climb. We started out fairly quietly from the town of Melbourne through the neutralised area, but once the lead car took off, so did the group, gunning for the first hill prime. I had decided already not to try for those unless I was really well-positioned mid-way up the climb, as I'd rather conserve my energy for the attacks and breaks that invariably would happen later in the race when I tend to be stronger anyway. My ultimate goal was to get away in a break somewhere in the middle of the race and guarantee myself a top 5 finish if I could.

Lap 1 was fast and furious, dropping lots of not-as-good climbers from our starting peloton of 50 in the process. By lap 2 we were down to about 30 riders in the main bunch, with little attacks going regularly and being chased down. There were 3 large teams with several contenders each, plus a handful of other teams who had one or two strong riders. Nobody seemed to really get organised to launch attacks as a team; it seemed like (as usual) everyone for herself, and over the course of the next 3 laps it was a war of attrition as the hill prime accelerations tired lots of legs and the steep and fast downhills strung the group out quite a bit. I managed to stay near the front, thanks to my good climbing fitness and a newfound descending technique: elbows below the drops, nose to the handlebars, chest on the top tube and rear end in the air, AKA the "don't try this at home" position that the pros do. I hit 70km/h as my top speed at one point, not bad considering the descents were into a headwind!

The 3rd lap saw Twickenham's Natalie Creswick, a former triathlete turned road racer who's having a stellar breakout season, pushing the pace on the front to try and catch some escapees and drop some more out of the back of the group. I knew if I could stay near her, I would eventually be rewarded with one of her patented "hey she's speeding up! no, actually she's breaking away" attacks. I did some work on the front but mainly just kept an eye on everyone around me, tried to stay behind fast wheels and not get trapped behind riders suddenly hitting a wall on the climbs.

All was going well until lap 4, when we were riding into the headwind slightly downhill along the main road. I had been seesawing between the left and right side of the road all race long, trying to strike a balance between the dangerous cat's eyes and oncoming cars on the right with the chances of getting boxed in on the left. At this particular moment I was on the left, directly against the curb. Just as I started thinking "gotta get over to the right, something's going to happen", it happened: Natalie accelerated cleanly away to bridge to a couple of girls who had gotten 100m on the group. I had about 3 seconds to decide what to do: wait to see if the line of BC Junior team riders in front of me would chase? Or try to squeeze by on the gravelly left-side of the road to give chase myself? In those 3 seconds, another rider took off from the outside to chase and nobody did anything, and I suddenly realised with a sinking heart that one of the escapees up the road was a BC Junior and the girls sitting on the front were actually going to work as a team to police the front of the bunch for a change. MaxGearRT and, the other strong teams in the race, were no help either, as they also had riders represented in the break. The bunch kept riding along as if it was a club ride while I watched helplessly, trapped and boxed in by my own lack of attention: the winning break was being made and I wasn't in it.

By the time I got clear enough to chase, it was too late. And having no great acceleration on my own -- had I been where I should have been on the right side, I could have timed Natalie's jump and tried to grab her fast wheel, working my heart out to go with her -- I gave up on any ideas of a solo attack and just decided to ride the last lap as best as I could and limit any more damage to my final placing. This meant driving the pace as much as I could up the climbs, hoping to tire out already tired legs for the sprint. I was well-hydrated and fed, and as usual had been feeling better and better as the race went on, so I had lots left to push hard on the front. On every climb I put in an acceleration to force the pace up, I descended as fast as I dared, and on the flats I put out near FTP watts.

By the final climb I was at the front of our whittled-down group of 15 and as it flattened out to the last km of 1% uphill, I let a few riders come around me to pick up the pace for the sprint. Held on to a wheel as best I could and was rewarded with overtaking a few spent riders 50m before the line to take 10th in the sprint and 15th overall. That effort earned me my first road race point ever, which took the sting out of missing the break. Natalie ended up finishing second in the sprint to Dani King (who usually rides with Nicole Cooke's professional Vision 1 Racing team), and the other 3 riders in the break were all cat 1 racers as well. I would have been in good company and hard pressed to stay with them I think!

In the end, I can't be too disappointed with how my race went. At least this time I knew when I was making a mistake as it happened, rather than realising it after the race was over. I need to do a better job of staying aware of the group in general, looking up the road for people who have escaped, and predicting when the next bridging effort or attack will go. I still don't have enough confidence in that kind of field to attack myself, though I'm hoping that will grow over time. I probably just need to race more often and try out different stuff to see what works and what doesn't, not be afraid to blow up or get dropped or be in a break that's caught before the finish line. One thing is for sure: next week's race is not nearly as hilly and therefore I will have to get away from a bunch sprint if I want any hope of finishing high in the placings. With the field of racers including Natalie, elite rider and strong TTer Charlie Blackman, and elite circuit sprinter Janet Birkmyre, it's going to take both physical ability and some good tactics to put in a good performance!

Gritting my teeth on one of the early climbs