Sunday 29 April 2012

7 weeks to Wimbleball

It's starting to feel pretty close now - just 7 weeks today until our Ironman Ultimate Challenge kicks off with Ironman 70.3 UK Wimbleball. To keep the number of unknowns to a minimum, Mrs and I decided to book ourselves onto a familiarisation day to check out the area and the routes. In order to simulate race weekend as well as we could, we booked ourselves in to the same place we have lined up for the event weekend.

We took a steady drive down on Friday afternoon and checked in to the Anchor Inn - a nice little place on the Devon and Somerset border that's been transferred to new management around 10 weeks ago. Ann and John, the new proprietors, are slowly turning the place around following a few years of limited investment and care. It's still very quiet, most of the 6 guest rooms were unoccupied, and the bar was very quiet - but they've already made some significant changes in decor and the grounds to start bringing it up to spec. On a nice summer's day with tables down by the river I think they're going to do a roaring trade. So, that's one less worry for race weekend - our accommodation will be fine. I'd include a link, but their website has mysteriously disappeared - maybe that's the next thing to be refreshed.

The familiarisation event, organised by The TriLife and Ironman UK wasn't until Sunday, so Saturday involved (somewhat predictably) a parkrun. We got up nice and early for a tourist trip to Killerton parkrun (though not as early as you need to get up to cycle to Eastbourne parkrun). The lanes were great fun to drive round, I don't get to "play" in my car very often, so it was nice to have the opportunity (lots of blind corners and agricultural surprises though - stay alert, people!). Killerton parkrun is beautiful. It's on National Trust grounds and follows trails, winds around fields, and narrow tracks. The last 500m drops you out through a hedge (don't worry, there's a gate) and the finishing stretch is down past Killerton House. Mrs and I ran together all the way - no point in racing, got a busy day tomorrow - and she graciously let me win by 1 second, paying me back for when I let her win in similar circumstances back in frozen Sheffield when we ran Concord parkrun in -5C.

We used the afternoon to cycle up to Wimbleball Lake. The hills were short, and extreme. It was only about 11km but still took about an hour in each direction. It was immediately apparent that my bike was not set up for this kind of terrain. I'd decided to bring my TT bike rather than my road bike. The theory being that if I'm not sure if it's TT bike suitable, I should find out now, rather than bring my road bike and try and work out if I could have done it on the TT bike. I have hardly completed any hill work on this bike, so it took a while to get my position right, particularly when climbing out of the saddle. I found a technique fairly quickly, and was soon able to climb without hitting my bum with the saddle or banging my knees on the arm rests of the extensions - a good start. My gearing however was way off - with an 11-23 on the back I was crippled for low gears. Observation number 1 is that I'll definitely need to get an 11-28 on the back for this course!

The lake was calm and pretty. There was a little café where we had a cup of tea, and collected ourselves before cycling back to the pub. We were both hoping that the route didn't entail 56 miles of this kind of terrain - that would be a real nightmare. There was no flat whatsoever - all steep up and steep down.

We had a hearty meal for dinner, and got an early night - we needed to be at there lake for 7am. Ann and one of the bar staff brought us up a cold platter for breakfast. Cereal, breads, jams, macaroons, and lots of milk for tea. This was a lovely touch - we'd only expected some cereal!

Morning came and we ate and drove up to the lake. Already having ridden the route yesterday was a bonus as we knew where we were headed.

First up, after a short briefing, was a swim in the lake. We were all a bit nervous - it was seriously cold. The lake was at about 9C - 8 or 9 degrees colder than it would (hopefully) be come race day. With wetsuits on, we warmed up with some jogging, press-ups, high-knee jogging, and burpees. Normally this level of exercise in wetsuits would turn us into gasping sweaty messes - but it was so cold we were only just about staying warm. Without further ado we tentatively entered the lake.

A couple of buoys were set out in the same shape as they would be in the race, but much closer together. We had about 200m to swim in total. We started from the same place as the race starts - between two pontoons. It's a long time since I'd swum in open water, so I needed to remember sighting, what it's like swimming right next to other people, and how to swim in a straight line. I got round the course, but was getting very cold. We did a few drills afterwards between the pontoons - swimming backwards and forwards in a pack. I had one panicked moment with a couple of failed breaths and then a lung full of lake water - the shock of the cold made me cough a lot, and I started wheezing a fair bit. There were only two more exercises left so I stuck with it, but I'm very glad that it's going to be warmer for the main event - it would be no fun in this temperature. We'd only been in 15-20 minutes total and my hands were bright red and swollen, and I couldn't feel them or use them for anything. Still, it was good to see the start, get a feel for the run up out to transition, and get a first swim done in my new wetsuit.

Next, a quick change into cycling gear, top-up snack, and get the bikes out of the car ready for assembly (putting the wheels back on) and heading out to ride a lap of the bike course. This was the main reason we were here. Everything we've read about Wimbleball goes on and on about how hard the bike course is. Not an article goes by without some sentence like "52 hills in 56 miles" or "the hardest 70.3 course in the world". It would be easy for these comments to build up into a major psychological problem - how hard is the bike leg going to be? If every report and review says it's so hard, it must be almost impossible! How hard is it compared to, say, The Hell Of The Ashdown? The only was to find out, was to come and see. So, with much trepidation (not helped by yesterday's ride!), we kitted up, clipped in, and set off.

The objective wasn't to race round a lap, but to become familiar with the course. The instructors set the pace for the most part, and stopped to point out landmarks, give gearing advice, and talk strategy. We set off slowly, and after the first climb and descent split into two ability groups. There were about 8 in my group, and about 5 int he second group. To be fair there wasn't that much of a difference in ability between us. It seemed like we stayed about 5 minutes ahead all the way round.

So what of the course? Well, it is tough, there's no denying that - but it's not like the crazy short sharp ups and downs we'd ridden the day before. The first half is fairly rolling with good surfaces. There is strong local support for the event - the council come and fill all the potholes a few weeks before the race, do another check a few days before, and even sweep the circuit the day before! There's no call for over-confidence though, in previous years there have been torrential downpours before (and even during) the race, and that just washes all the crap back across the road. We heard a few times - good tyres are essential, don't pick anything too lightweight and insubstantial. A puncture will knock out any seconds gained by saving a few grammes on tyres, and plenty more besides.

From memory there are three large climbs that stand out among all the small ones. Only two of those stick in my head as being long slogs out of the saddle in 1st gear - on race day I want to be able to get up these hills without rising out of the saddle unless I decide I want to (change of position, little burst of speed, or to relieve an ache or cramp) - a timely reminder that a wider ratio cassette is an absolute requirement.

With lots of ups comes lots of downs. Some of the descents are very (very!) fast - and today in the rain (and occasionally hail) was not the day for showboating. On a few of the downs I had both brakes on full, and was still barely slowing down. Second essential thing - very good brakes, and confident stopping power. I'd been considering riding on wheels other than my current race wheels (HED H3C front and H3CD rear) because they have carbon braking surfaces. Performance is quite "grabby" and feels a bit like ABS in a car, and I would not feel confident descending at speed and stopping under hard braking. They're incredible for flying along in a time trial, but not so great when it gets technical.

We had a car out with us that had some supplies in the boot, so it parked up where each of the aid stations will be. This was very useful as it helps break the circuit into manageable sections. There are two aid stations, each of which is passed twice.

We pulled back into the lake - tired and wet, but very pleased with the ride. I finally had some context for the reports, and something to visualise between now and race day. It's hard, but it's not impossible. Key on the day will be managing effort in lap one, and making sure I don't burn all my matches in lap two, as there's still a run to come.

After lunch at the café and some chat back in the classroom with the TriLife crew and then the Ironman crew who are organising the race it was time to run a lap of the run course. All the press is about the bike course - today I learned that some hills were saved for the run too! It's a mixed terrain course, 3x7km (approx) to make the half marathon distance. There are a few dead turns (stopping to change direction 180 degrees round a marker), and a lot of technical sections - uneven terrain, mud and grass, inclines, adverse camber - you name it, this course has it! However, much like the bike course, I now know what to expect come race day.

When my head is all over the place, and my body is full of adrenaline, I will hopefully remember today - the experience has been invaluable, and I have far less to be concerned about in my head than I would have otherwise. It will still be a big day, there is still a lot to learn as racing a course is very different to just going for a look, but I think as a first timer over a new distance this was definitely the right thing to do, and I'm very pleased we made the effort to come and check it out.

The TriLife crew were excellent (Mike, Dan, and Dean) as were the Ironman team (Richard the Race Director, Dan the UK COO, and the chap who is going to be in charge of the aid stations). We were also joined on the day by Sam Baxter, a top age-group triathlete who placed 7th in his age group at Kona in 2011 - his insight into racing at the highest level was invaluable. There's an interesting piece on Sam here. Massive thanks to them all, and of course to Anne and John at the Anchor Inn. Mrs and I can't wait to see all of you again in seven weeks' time when we'll be doing it for real!

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