Some days you’re the nail, but other days you are the Hammer…Challenge Almere, Long Distance race report. By Andy Hamilton

 Not a great start…

As I talked about in my previous blog, I knew for this race to go well, I had to manage my stress levels and control the controllables.  But of course, in life its not a simple as that is it….as there are things that come out of the blue,  that can try their best to derail your plans and inner calm.  And boy, was I tested for the last few days leading up to this race.

It started by me nearly missing my flight to Amsterdam, as I got the time wrong for departure.  A 6:40 flight, was in fact a 6am flight (the return flight was 9:40 which is where the confusion lay I think) and we made the flight with literally seconds to spare…. and accompanied by a nuclear bomb type death stare from my long suffering partner Maria, who had been dragged from her slumber with no chance to do hair or makeup into a speeding car and dumped kerbside at an Airport filled with people.  No harm no foul, and after a speedy hire car pickup we arrive at our hotel in a very sunny Amsterdam.  Its was still only 10.30am, and we were in our room and unpacking.  The panic that surrounded the start of the day has almost dissipated, and Maria was finally speaking to me.   Brilliant!!

The plan was to now get the bike built, and head out for a pre-race bike prep ride.  As I unclipped the top portion of my bike box a sight that for any cyclist or triathlete is quickly followed by a stomach churning sick feeling and the hands quickly smashing into your face greeted me.  My front Zipp 808 wheel was a complex mess of broken spokes, a snapped hub and random pieces of metal.

On close inspection and judging by a few other items in the box, my bike box looked to have taken a massive bang during transit, which had resulted in a snapped front hub.  “Stay Calm” this is sortable I thought….whilst Maria gently rubbed my back as I rocked gently back and forth on the floor.   The next 5 hours where a mix of frenzied typing into Google, dialing random numbers on my phone and driving around various suburbs of Amsterdam to find a bike shop which could either fix my wheel or offer a replacement.  After what seemed like days later, we crashed through the door of De Haan Cycling in a quiet leafy part of town.

We had spoken to them on the phone and the boss had done his best to work through the options whilst keeping me from having a small meltdown.  This ranged from looking for replacement hub and spokes, to ringing other places or local shops to help out.  However once he had the wheel in hand, it was obvious to him that it was beyond repair in the time frame needed and massively reduced my options.

After numerous internal dialogues, I had decided the best plan was a new front wheel. Even amidst the disaster, my inner triathlete came out and the opportunity to buy a new wheel had got me slightly excited.  I managed to go from needing a new front wheel into deciding that I needed a complete wheelset, as in my weird rationale, it made sense as it would give me a box which I could then use to transport the new wheel home and the broken Zipp.   Maria commented “You’ve basically bought a cardboard box for £900 that came with some wheels ;-)”  Credit card waved, and I was walking out of the shop with a beautiful set of 40mm Dutch handmade carbon clinchers (Infinito is the brand, for those wondering) and I was ready to race again. Catastrophe averted!

Plan now was to get back to the hotel, get the bike built and head out…..then head over to Race HQ for a practice swim, recce the course and to settle the nerves.

Upon arriving at this swim prep, I couldn’t help but notice all the kit people were wearing….I was surrounded by a sea of GB, German, French, Spanish and Dutch team tracksuits.….somehow in all the race entry, website and paperwork I seemed to have missed that this was in fact the ETU Long Distance Championship. Some the fastest AGers in Europe where racing and I now had to ensure not only I finished, but that I didn’t come last!  The pressure was mounting….but I still had another day to relax and chill out before the race on the Saturday.

A good nights sleep, and Friday morning arrived.  I managed to wake feeling pretty relaxed and philosophical about things, that was until I pulled back the curtains, and without putting too finer a point on it….the weather was biblical.  Stair rod rain, and wind gusting so hard it was rattling the windows.  Lovely!!!

Bar a few short breaks, this weather was to continue pretty much for the next 36hrs and the race.  Temperature was now forecast to be around 15 degrees on race day, with 40kmh winds and rain.

So as I stood in a dark transition on race day, clutching my track pump, looking at my soaking wet bike blowing side to side, through the torrent of water running of the peak of my cap I had one of those “what the f**k am I doing here” moments. This was miserable.  I couldn’t help but think it felt like the morning after a music festival….you know, a lot of tired people covered in plastic sheeting, crying, drinking Red Bull and eating soggy nutri-grain bars.

I got my stuff ready and headed out of Transition to my perennial support crew of Maria (who again felt slightly disgruntled at being dragged from her warm bed at 5am, and thrust into a gale force monsoon on the coast of Amsterdam, surrounded by weirdos and knowing I was about to leave her on her own for the next 12hrs).  Now Maria’s support style is unique to say the least….she bounces between uplifting words of encouragement to some very dark reverse psychology quips in the hope it will spur me on when things aren’t going well.  To date, she hasn’t quite got these the right way round for what I’ve needed at the time, but I’ve learnt to embrace it and now it makes me smile more than anything.

“You know what….if you get half way round the bike, your cold, miserable and hating it….naff it off…it doesn’t matter does it….you’ve still got Florida to look forward to and in the grand scheme of it all, its not the end of the world”

For once, she nailed it…. and on those words, I zipped my wetsuit up and headed to swim start…..all I could do was see what happened and if I wanted to, I could pull the plug.  I was actively controlling the pressure I put myself under, and when you feel like you are choosing to do something, and you are in control, its almost like the mist clears, the winds calms down and you are having your own private summer!

The Race:

The cannon sounded and the race was underway….over 2000 quality athletes pounded the water in a frenzied manner which replicated feeding time at the Piranha tank.  Now I love a mass start, and think the recent changes to wave or seeded starts dumb down what I feel is a key part of the beast that is racing long distance.  Yep, maybe controversial but thats been my view…but boy was I getting a lesson in “perspective” for the first 500m into this swim.  During which I’d been repeatedly punched, kicked, pulled, pushed, drowned, swam under and over.  The layout of the course meant we hit a turn buoy after only 100ms and then again after 350ms, which created a triathlete bottleneck.  Possible the worst mass start I’ve encountered and not the start I really wanted….but as is always the case, it soon thinned out and the rest of the swim was pretty uneventful other than a few rogue weeds doing their best to turn me into an extra from Swamp Thing.

I exited the swim, and into T1….it was still raining and windy.  Not that I was surprised.  Luckily, the changing area is in an underground shopping car park, which provided some much needed warmth and respite from the conditions outside.  Usual T1 boogie completed, and I headed out on the bike.  It was cold….and I was quickly regretting an early morning decision to not to wear a waterproof jacket, unlike a lot of my AG counterparts.  My Aero SpeedSuit has half sleeves and covers the shoulders and so I’d decided that if that wasn’t enough to keep me warm, the decision to pull the plug would be made for me.

Another interesting decision was around sunglasses…..which I rode the first 10miles holding in my teeth (I have pictures to prove this).  It was so dark and grey, that I needed lights never mind tinted shades.  But, here is a top tip.  After always suffering with steamy glasses when racing, I recently noticed a bottle of RainX spray in my garage, and had a Eureka moment (for note, this is the stuff you get from Halfords that basically repels water from your car windscreen, and reduces the need for windscreen wipers).  Or…..applied to a pair of Oakleys mean you can ride in the rain and not suffer any reduction in visibility.  I am a Genius!!!

The bike was a two lap affair with a small out and back into a forest to ensure the distance was achieved.  Amsterdam is flat, lets not try and say otherwise.  But throw in brutal wind, and sections of the bike that were totally exposed for over 30 miles it meant it was head down and just keep pedalling.  In fact, even someone like me who hates hills was screaming for one….any opportunity to get out the saddle or move around on the bike would have been welcomed.  I was riding pretty well considering, and despite the inability to feel my toes or clench my hands, I was riding well above my target watts! This may have been helped by my trying to ensure I stayed out of any drafting zones all day after my penalty at Roth and so pushed on past any athletes I came up to and also realising at 50miles there most of the riders I’d killed myself to pass were all middle distance athletes who only had 1 lap to do.  Bugger!!

My target was a 5:20 bike split based on my numbers, and to go through the coaching point at half way around 2:40.  I’d arranged for Maria to be there with some replacement bottles and nutrition, and said to her to get there no sooner than 2:30 after my bike start so she wasn’t waiting around.  Luckily on this occasion she chose to ignore me and as I arrived in 2:29, there was Maria smiling and holding out my fuel.  Legend!! I shouted “Hey babe….I think I’ve over biked…I’m way over on my power….I’m way ahead of schedule….shit…I’ve got to run a marathon off this”….Maria nailed it again “Well back the f**k off then”!!  Message received and understood. Fuel on board, lucky kiss (you have to get them when you can boys) and I headed off.

I rode to a mix of feel, HR and power on the second lap and despite the conscious effort to “back off” I ended up only riding 6 mins slower, which most of which was solo with not a lot of people around me, but roughly the same watts.  Oh bloody hell….I rolled into T2, with a 5:04 bike split and riddled with panic.  The famous saying of “biking for show, running for dough” going round my head.  Was this about to be another example of how to not pace an Ironman, and walk a marathon, whilst swearing at spectators who attempt to cheer me on when I’m broken? But oddly, I felt ok….and having raced a few times at this distances, I can tell you this was the best I’ve ever felt heading out to run 26.2 miles! Its an odd feeling that…hence why I typed it…..I’ve just ridden 112 miles and was now facing something that takes a lot of training to get right on its own.  But its that feeling, and rationalising of the hours of training you’ve done. Those long brick runs, and back to back runs that will all be validated if you get this right.

The run was 6 laps of just over 7km or 4.5 miles.  I was under strict instructions from my other boss, Mr Standidge, my long suffering coach, mentor and great mate.  “You need to get as much of this run done before the wheels start to fall off….take your nutrition with you and just keep moving…its all about the run this time”….Before I knew it was 3 laps in, and had held a consistent pace of around 8min miles, whilst remembering to gorge on High5 IsoGels every 20mins, and I went through the halfway mark at 1:45.  Despite feeling pretty good, I knew the wall would come and I’d hit the famous dark patch.

As it happened I wasn’t far from impending doom….and this doom was rumbling below the surface in my guts.  Man did I need to poo…..every yard between me and a portaloo seemed a marathon in its self.  I’m now hunched over and hobbling into the first big blue toilet I stumble across. For note…the term SpeedSuit doesn’t apply to getting it off or on…. and definitely adds some comedy to a rather serious moment….even I have to laugh. After a short few minutes rest (lets be honest you don’t need details), I exit the toilet and head into town to start lap 4.  I’m moving but I very quickly realise that I was still struggling.  I run through the finish area where Maria is on plan to hand me nutrition….she can tell I’m suffering.  “I’ve got the shits….its a f**king disaster” my woeful cry.  She smiles and simply shouts what nutrition do I want…..but this time I turn down the offer of any nutrition as I’m convinced it maybe adding to my issues.  I crawl around the corner and decide enough is enough.  I take a sharp left into the big blue box of despair.  I’m in there for over 10mins, feeling like this was the end of the world with most of it falling from my bottom.  But similar to that feeling when you’re hungover or poorly, and being sick….when its all over and the feeling has lifted, you suddenly feel almost human again.  Could this be it?  Could I carry on?

I headed out (to a small round of applause from a British support crew) and aimed for the first aid station about 1km away.  I decided to go back to my old plan of Coca-Cola (which any triathlete will tell you is the greatest thing on gods earth), and a short walk each station and running everything in between.  I turned into a muttering weirdo, who was chanting his plan out loud….”Keep running, then two cups of coke….drink, swallow, walk then run…Repeat”  Laps 4 and 5 were a blur. My pace returned and passed most of the people who I’d seen previously before my date with the Tardis of Excrement.

I headed into town to start my 6th lap….Maria jumping up and down and shouting. “Don’t you dare walk on this lap….don’t you dare”….I refer back to my point about her choice of support methods and this time I genuinely didn’t know what she meant….”Why, whats up….everything ok….is there a problem”  Its probably the right time to point out I don’t have time on my watch….just my numbers….I don’t believe knowing my time helps me at any point.  If I’m goosed, I can’t summon up the energy to chase a time down and if I’m feeling ok, would I then risk chasing a time and it all going horribly wrong.  “You going to be amazed with your time….just keep going….you got this…you could go under 10:30”  Now maybe it was the sunshine that had appeared in the last few hours, meant she’d got mild sunstroke or perhaps that awful TomTom sports watch I bought here was playing up.  No way this was possible…but back to my point of knowing the time doesn’t change my ability to run the last lap.  If I push and go bang it’s for nothing, so I decide to just stick to my existing rhythm and pace.  As I turn for home at the far corner of the run lap and head into town, with the sight of the Race HQ in full view, I think I’m safe to push it.  About a mile left….with the last few hundred metres being in the finish stadium (that you’ve ran through 5 times by now)….I go for it…the change in pace felt massive.  In reality it was less than 40 secs per mile, but if felt like a sprint. I turn into the finish chute, and cross the finish line….I turn and look…..10:19:55   BOOM!!!!

Somehow despite all the above, I’d managed to run a 3:55 marathon to complete the race and achieve a lot of goals I’d set myself before this race…..despite all the challenges.

I hugged Maria for what felt like about 10mins…..I didn’t want to let her go…..she’d lived this every step with me, and this felt like as much validation for her as it did for me.  I’ve easily taken for granted or under estimated her support at times, so this was as much my performance as hers.  So if I haven’t said Thank You, hopefully she will read this and know ;p)

So what now…..the kit has dried, the medal has been hung up and the honeymoon feeling is over!  I returned to training this week after 10 days lay off and focus is very much on the next challenge, Ironman Florida in just over 6 weeks.

There will be people who shout “Sub 10 at Florida” blah blah and expect my performance to be similar or a quicker result.   Whilst this result would lead people to think that, importantly I’m actually cool with whatever happens..sub 10 or sub 15.  I genuinely have no real targets, as I no longer feel any pressure to have any, as I know what it can do to my head.  If its on, great but if it isn’t then I’m at peace with having raced relatively ok at this distance for once.  Florida brings its own challenges….the distance we need to travel, the temperature, the course etc etc.  And as we know, at this distance….anything can happen….but also…..Anything is possible!!

See you in a few months….


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