What a difference a year makes – A novice’s perspective on what is possible

Dean Golba took up the sport 14 months ago as a Triathlon “newbie”. This is a really in-depth story but to anyone wondering how to get good, fast, then this is a fantastic review of a first season becoming a real athlete.

North West Triathlon 2017 – the start of the journey

A year go, I would’ve never pictured my life the way it is now.

Count back 14 months ago, I entered my first sprint triathlon. My colleague asked if I fancied trying a triathlon with her and I thought, well why not, I’ve always loved being in water and swimming, I have a road bike and I’ve been doing a bit of running on and off now for a couple of years.

So, the entry went in for the North West Triathlon at Nantwich and I had 1 month to prepare. I got into the pool for some training, and I struggled to complete one 25m length of front crawl. I really thought I could do front crawl, but I was shattered from one length only! So I conceded and worked on my breast stroke instead. For the bike element I did a couple of 20k rides and felt reasonably good, completing those rides in around 40 minutes. Running wise, I had done a few Parkruns and I think my 5k PB at the time was around 21:33.

A little background on myself first before I proceed. I come from a strong engineering background, especially in the motorsport area. I competed at National level for a number of years in the British Karting Championships which then developed into running my own race team; DSG Motorsport. We had many successes during our time including becoming a chassis manufacturer. I put a lot of our success down to my approach both pre-race and post-race. If I ever felt I didn’t know something, I was happy to research it and learn. Throughout my involvement in motorsport I kept learning and improving and there was a hunger and desire to do this continually, because it gave the team an edge. We adopted video analysis very early on, before most. We started embracing datalogging tools analytically much sooner than most. And this was all for marginal gains across the board. This approach to marginal gains has always applied throughout my professional career too so it felt natural to apply this to my new sport triathlon.
So I did the usual, trawling through Google and YouTube for hints and tips on triathlon, GCN, GTN, Triathlon Taren, etc; race nutrition, aero road helmets, bike setup, tyre pressures, bike prep, swim technique and so on. Even though this was only my first triathlon I was already looking for marginal gains, I’m also fiercely competitive. With regards to motorsport there was always four elements that I considered important, the driver, the chassis, the engine and the team/coach. For the Nantwich triathlon, I wanted my bike to be in the best condition possible, I wanted a helmet that served a purpose of being fast, I wanted the only flaw on the day to be myself. I rode the course a week prior to the event so that I knew the general direction as I really wanted to maximise my bike potential on the day which I hoped would carry my poor swim and average run. My Garmin watch had now become a tool and after my training sessions I would interrogate the data like the motorsport days and try to make sense of what it was telling me. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea what it was telling me but I felt better for having some pretty graphs in front of me.
The event came and the weather was great. I got into the pool and did two lengths of front crawl. After that I settled into breast stroke for the rest of the swim. I completed my 500m swim in 11:16. I’d never swam a continuous 500m distance before, so I was happy with that. Running into transition I was a little dazed and dizzy from the effort and I hated the feeling of the tarmac under my feet too, but I got on with it.

North West Triathlon

Into T1 and I dried a little with a towel, got my cycling shoes on and finally I was ready to go on the bike, the part I had been waiting for. I pushed as hard as I could. I wanted to leave it all out on the course. The ride went perfect and I got lucky with all traffic situations and junctions. I completed this 21k ride in 37:51. I think it gave me around the 30th quickest bike time that day out of 234 people! For me this felt like winning!

In my research prior to the event I hadn’t quite taken seriously the whole ‘brick session’ importance. I was naive and thought, it can’t be that bad surely! Well I was in for a shock. That 5k was a tough run. A week or so prior to the triathlon I had improved my 5k PB to sub 21 minutes, so I was hoping to run something like that. That didn’t happen, I ended up completing the run in 23:32! Much to my disappointment at the time.

But, that was the first triathlon event completed. I finished in 61st place out of 234 in a time of 01:16:03 and I absolutely loved it! Obviously, I was pleased with this result, however, on the drive home I began to dissect and scrutinise the event. I’d gone back into motorsport mode and I was being critical over why I wasn’t faster, where could I go faster? My swim was poor because I wasn’t doing front crawl; there was time to be made up there. My bike, well I saw some pictures of myself on it and I was horrified, I looked unimpressive on the pictures compared to the faster guys! I knew a little about watts and power output and I thought, why on earth did I run with my bike pump on the side of my frame, that’s draggy and sapping power! I should have fitted wider tyres to reduce the rolling resistance to go faster, why didn’t I? The run I had no answers for really other than it was a total shock to the system and it just felt horrible.

Back to the drawing board. I need to try and improve on my times. I began to research again, and I found that a local club had swimming sessions in the pool which was a 2-minute drive away from home. I messaged St Helens Tri Club on Facebook and enquired about their sessions. And that was it, I was committed to my first swim session on a Tuesday night with them.

I got poolside in my Hollister beach shorts and was met by a member of the club. She took me through a few points, took my £3 non-members fee from me and said, try lane 1 for starters. I jumped in and began some swimming. I wasn’t too sure of the format so I did a length of front crawl. Straight away I was shattered and stopped at the other end. I then realised, out of the 3 lanes the club had, there was a real mix of abilities and my breast stroke was not too offensive or too slow for everyone. At the end of the session I was told that there was a coached session on Saturday morning and that I should give it a go.


Saturday came and there I was in my Hollister beach shorts again. This time a coach was dictating the session and looking at my swimming technique. Again I was getting tired doing front crawl but I battled through and completed the session. We used a pull buoy which I had never seen before, as well as hand paddles and fins.
I was also informed about the clubs midweek run sessions on a Wednesday night. These were led by head coach Terry Bates. I thought, yeah let’s give this a try. So I joined in on these sessions which were jointly under the St Helens Tri and Rainford Runners banner. All of a sudden, I was running with this group on a weekly basis covering, hill repeats, fartlek sessions, sprint sessions etc.
The swim coaching sessions were going great and I had begun to move up into the next lanes from lane 1. On a Saturday the club has 6 lanes, with lane 6 being for fishes and lane 1 for beginners. During my time watching various YouTube videos I had also seen that buoyancy shorts were a great tool to help improve your swimming. I’d also came to the conclusion that I had to get some jammers as they would be faster and I was finally comfortable to sport some tight shorts in front of people that I didn’t know!

I never actually wore my jammers on their own, I went straight for the double and put my jammers and ‘floaty pants’ on. Straight away I seemed to feel the difference, my hips started to lift in the water and my times on the Garmin watch were tumbling. My pace was actually becoming quite good! I was racing through the lanes on the weekly sessions too.

Running wise I was feeling great too. My pace was constantly improving, and I was keeping with the faster people in the sessions. I also decided to join the triathlon club on some of their chain gang sessions. I only did a handful of these, but they were great fun and I was always in the front group. I remember getting fatigued at the end of those sessions but overall, they were just my cup of tea. I was still doing a little cycling over winter but my main focus was the swimming and running. The club started a Monday night recovery run which I also joined in. I didn’t start their track sessions until later in 2018. I wish I had started those sooner however as my leg speed greatly improved. They were always tough but super rewarding sessions.

I was now at a crossroads however because I had a bike that was fit for purpose, but I was running standard tyres, standard wheels, 105 10 speed groupset and I still had my draggy pump fitted onto my downtube. I began looking into datalogging and quickly realised that I needed more than just my Garmin watch. The Wahoo Element Bolt was most suited to my requirements as I knew I would probably buy a turbo trainer at some stage and it was more ‘aero’ than other computers too! It also came with a heart rate monitor strap as well as a cadence and wheel speed sensor, so I was opening up my rides to much more data analysis.

Back to the motorsport days, I always tried to limit my failures due to my equipment choices although this was easier said than done. I had ideals of doing the same with my cycling. So again, I entered into the world of competitive cycling and how to put a fast bike underneath me. Very quickly I realised that a time trial bike was what I wanted. It was then a case of building a bike of best fit for me and seeing what my budget could stretch to. So I did the sensible thing and took my wife Gem with me to Thatto Cycles. Straight away I was welcomed like a returning existing customer. They listened to the requirements I thought I had as well as guided me on what they thought I could do with. I spent the next few days discussing this with Gem. She was super supportive and had seen how committed I had been to the sport in terms of training; she was keen to push me. I went back to Thatto Cycles, thrashed out a superb deal and I was all set. Everything was on order apart from the power meter which they had in stock and let me take away there and then. I fitted the pedals to my road bike and off I was. Straight away I felt like I wanted to get onto Zwift so I also got a turbo trainer. This opened up all sorts of possibilities to my training!
Meanwhile my swimming was ever improving. I tried a couple of sessions without my ‘floaty pants’ and my pace fell away, so I always reverted back to the safety of their pace improvements. I’d done a few cross-country races and slowly but surely, I was climbing up the competitive field.

Just over a month later the bike arrived, and I was invited for a fitting. The difference on the TT bike was like going from a mountain bike to a road bike. When I uploaded my data to Strava, straight away I was setting fast times on segments and smashing my previous times on the Cannondale road bike. A few weeks later I had my first event on the bike which was a club duathlon. The first run went well, and I paced myself. I think I was top 8 by the end of the run. I then got on the bike and all of a sudden, I was catching, passing and leaving my club mates. I rode hard and got into transition in 2nd. I had no idea though and actually ended up in the lead of the race out of transition. Two club mates who are much more accomplished runners passed me, but I held on for 3rd. This was my first event since the first triathlon outside of the cross-country events. It was quite overwhelming because I had no expectations at all and I had no idea of my position during the final run.

Bike fit getting more dialled in

Knowing that I had done the fastest bike split, it was back to the shop to see what goodies they had to make me faster! This time it was a helmet. I was put on the bike and we tried a few different options for my position. The Giro Aerohead worked best after some changes to my saddle position.

A few weeks later I had my first triathlon event of the season. This was the Clitheroe Tri. This is a typically hilly event. My idea was to push myself out of my comfort zone. I realised fairly quickly that climbing was not my strength. Strava segments provided this evidence for me. I figured that this triathlon would force me to tackle some hills and see how I got on. I finished the event in 34th place which was a great feeling. The swim was ok but I felt the fatigue of not having my floaty pants. The ride was super tough, but I put in the 35th fastest time which I was happy with. It was really windy in parts and I struggled with confidence in the aero bars. The run was a surprise and I averaged 4:20 per km. It was a vast improvement overall based on my first triathlon.

I put the next few months focus into running because I had the Manchester Half Marathon coming up which was paid for by my work. That event went better than I could have ever expected. I completed the run in 01:33:39 and finished in 161st place. I’d done estimates and thought that 1:30 to 1:40 was achievable potentially, so I had a pace plan and I ended up below that for much of the race until the last 5k which was a case of just getting to the finish. Had my training taken me onto greater distances, I believe I had a chance of going sub 1:30. Although I was pleased, I knew I could have done better with more preparation.

Earlier in the year I ordered a new club colours triathlon suit through the club and I had researched into which was best. I opted for the more ‘aero’ sleeved version as I wanted to always optimise my bike. When I was karting, the look of your equipment was always worth 2 tenths per lap; painted helmets, sticker kits, flashy bodywork, fancy race suits etc etc. When I operated DSG Motorsport, I always made sure my drivers looked the part which ensured they felt the part as confidence is a huge factor. Wearing this triathlon suit gave me so much confidence over my starter suit. I felt like a fast triathlete now. Whether I was or not was another matter!

Now for the big one, Chester Diva Middle Distance, my third triathlon. I had entered this event months earlier and I knew it was going to push me out of my comfort zone again. I had only started open water swimming in May so it was going to be tough. I knew that my open water swimming pace was nowhere near as strong as my pool pace. The swim went reasonably well, and I was onto the bike for around 86k of effort. I absolutely loved this ride! I was nailing my nutrition plan, which I had researched into lots although never executed before. The bike finished superbly and I posted something like the 25th fastest bike split. The run, what a disaster, the month previously I ran a half marathon in 1:33. This time around I felt terrible, my stomach was all over the place, sore, achy, I needed to pee, I didn’t want to drink, and it was super hot. I did one lap and my pace was terrible. I was having to walk at times and I generally felt rough. I found a port-a-loo and you can imagine the scenes without me describing it. Once I was back down to race weight I carried on and struggled to the finish. Afterwards it took me a good 20 – 30 minutes to get my head to stop spinning and finally find the energy to discuss the race with my family. They saw the pain in my face that I had completely pushed myself out of that comfort zone and into a dark place that nobody wants to go. They all agreed I was stupid doing that event and distance, even though I still finished in a respectable 97th place in a time of 05:06:26. I was left feeling really frustrated that either my nutrition hadn’t worked or the water conditions in the river had caused the problems.

During the football World Cup I decided to take advantage of the quiet roads during an England match and do a local time trial race. I’d done one before and done ok. It was a 10 mile race on the D10/1 course. I ended up finishing in 22:32 with an average power of 283 Watts! I was astonished! To top it off I’d taken a minute off my PB which put me in 7th position. What really gave me confidence was I hardly did any bike training! So now in my head I was thinking, what could be possible if I applied myself to this fully?

At this stage my training weeks were fairly regular and consistent. Monday evening was the low heart rate run which lasted an hour and a half. Tuesday was an hours structured swim with the club. Wednesday was the run group session lead by Terry. Thursday was tennis match night, another of my hobbies, and Friday was the track session. I then did a coached swim session on a Saturday morning. Cycling was fit in where I could, sometimes a ride on a Tuesday and sometimes over the weekend.

A couple of weeks later I attended the Ironman UK event as a spectator. My first event as just a spectator. I was absolutely in awe of the event, the atmosphere and the competitors, but flashbacks to Deva firmly put any hopes of competing anytime soon straight to the back of my mind. I rode home and jumped on the Trinity to head over to Hunters Hill to support my fellow club members. During this ride I did a descent down Ashurst Beacon and posted one of the fastest times on Strava. Now I was doing this quite often on Strava, and I know it is meaningless, but it doesn’t half give you confidence in your abilities. During this event I noticed a few triathletes clad in team wear that wasn’t related to a club. Who were these top guys representing? They looked fast, they looked pro and I thought, I’d love a piece of that.

With motorsport you always looked up to teams and saw their branding, their image and thought, I’d love to be a part of that. But cost was always an inhibiting factor. I was always of the mind set that there were 4 important elements as I mentioned earlier. I wondered though, in triathlon, is there a coach or team that could help take me forward? The St Helens Tri sessions had given me so much, but they weren’t tailored to my requirements and I could never expect that to be the case.

During the search I found three different triathlon coaching companies. I didn’t really discuss this with anyone in the club as I wanted to form my own opinions based on my impressions. Total Tri Training was one of the team colours I had seen during my Ironman UK day. I sent a Facebook message and pretty quickly they got back to me. Within a few hours I was speaking to Chris Standidge. I had no experience of this type of coaching before, so I went back to what I knew well, motorsport. What was the cutting edge for DSG in motorsport? And it was everything, the data, the video work, the embracing of technology and analytics. I saw similarities between DSG and TTT right there. The fact that Chris would seemingly be like my own personal coach was perfect as I didn’t want to be on a generic scheme with lots of others. I took some time to consider and finally opted to sign up with TTT.

Chris hit me with a professional plan via Training Peaks. Christ it was a shock to the system initially, I was asking myself, have I got this in me? I went with it though and thought, he is the expert. I was putting my trust in his abilities as a coach. I did however question whether he might think I was too amateur for his coaching scheme but quickly thoughts like that went away. He took me seriously as I was, an amateur beginner triathlete.
When I joined TTT I also made the decision to ditch the floaty pants. It was time to go without training nappies. I knew my pace would suffer initially but if I was to improve, I needed to make this step. Since being on the TTT scheme I’m happy to report I haven’t used them again!
Focus was now purely on the National Relays with St Helens Tri as well as the West Lancs Triathlon. These would be events number 4 & 5 for me. Come the day of the relays and the swim was 500m open water. I still had a slight apprehension towards my open water capabilities because I just hadn’t converted any pace into this discipline. The swim went well and I did a reasonable time! Onto the bike I was super excited for this as the course was mega flat. I started with my first flying mount which seemed to go ok, if a little slow and clunky but I knew if I ever wanted to tidy up my transitions, this was a necessity. On the course and I knew I was going well because I was passing so many people. I think out of the 4th leg competitors on the bike I posted the 6th fastest time which was superb. I ran a sub 21 minute 5k which for me was great going. The legs felt fantastic. Sadly little time to enjoy the evening as I was straight onto the rollers preparing for the next days event in Ormskirk.

I woke up and the legs felt good however the weather was shocking. I’d avoided riding the Trinity in wet conditions because I knew the carbon rims wouldn’t have given the best braking performance, so I’d never actually experienced it. The swim was awesome, I think I hit a 400m PB or close enough to it. The wind was strong and cold along with the rain sandblasting my face. My race time on the bike in this event was quite disappointing. It was still a good time, but compared to the leaders it was really quite far off! I analysed the data and I just wasn’t able to put any power out at all. For example the day before I was averaging 260 watts, today I was only hitting 230 watts! My run felt good anyway, I was building the pace and by the last 1k I was feeling great. I finished in 11th place in a time of 1:04:10. The drive home was a strange one because on one hand I was happy that 11th was a superb result with a strong swim and run, but I’d left too much out there on the bike course, maybe 1-2 minutes!

Attention now turned to the final triathlon event of the season for me, which saw a return to Nantwich for the North West Triathlon. It would be 13 months since my triathlon journey had begun.

I prepped the bike like it was a race kart. Stripped it down, cleaned and checked all of the components. Torqued everything back down correctly and looked for any marginal gains I could. I always remove my chain and ultrasonic clean it prior to a race event. As I wouldn’t be taking any gels on the bike I utilised my bento box for my CO2 can, puncture patches and levers. I couldn’t fit my inner tube inside there, so I came up with a way of securing it under the seat.

On the morning of the event which was my 6th ever race my father turned up. I’d spoken to Chris the day before, and the brief was to just go maximum effort and see what happened. So, there was no race plan other than to give it beans! I setup my transition to optimise everything. Trainers and hat together for the run and a little Vaseline in my trainers for the run as I was going sockless, something I tried in the last triathlon and found no ill effects to. Last year at the North West Tri I went sockless and got blisters, however I knew this time I had to again go sockless if I wanted a fast transition.

I was an early starter as I put a fast swim time down. The North West Triathlon swim is held in an outdoor brine pool which makes it quite unique. I was suited, heart rate monitor on, long sleeve tri-suit on, race numbers applied, goggles prepared so they didn’t fog. I’m still working on my swim pace but in the heat of the event I do feel like I push a little harder. I found my rhythm quickly and settled down. I got so lucky with traffic and every time I passed someone it was at the most convenient of times. I passed 2 or 3 guys on the run to transition and that was me, favourite bike time. My shoes were elastic banded and sat in position ready for my feet to slip in. In reality they didn’t slip in and I had a wobbly few moments getting my feet onto the shoes and then finally into them. It wasn’t perfect but seemed effective enough.

I gave it everything and I knew things were going well as I was seeing over 300watts showing up on my Wahoo regularly. When my power dropped below 240-250 I would try and increase my cadence to raise the power. On the road heading out of town I was catching and passing a lot of people. I stayed in the aero bars for the duration, even on the hills. An old karting friend of mine who is now a TT machine gave me some advice; “never ever get out of the aero bars, even on a climb”. So whenever I feel like I want to, Alex Jones’ voice appears in my head and tells me not to!

Around ¾ into the ride, I started to feel a little fatigue in my legs, my power dropped a tad and I was starting to think the standing at the wedding the previous day was beginning to take it toll. I made a marked effort to raise my power, take some PH1000 onboard and say a few swear words to myself. It seemed to have the desired effect and although I was down a little on power, I wasn’t too concerned. Off the bike and I was running to my trainers. Last year I lost my trainers in T2 and tried to put someone elses on (which were the same trainers but about 3 sizes smaller). This year I was adamant that I was going to get my trainers without fail. I ran out of transition and I have to admit the first 500m was tough. After that it was head down all the way. The support from the other competitors as well as the spectators was superb. I had quite a few friends watching me run as I had drafted them into the triathlon and they had later start times. I got to the finish and I had a nice sprint to the line. Over the line and I was done. I posed over the line for the camera which is becoming a tradition and collected my medal.

That was it, 13 months after the first time when I felt pretty shattered I was done again. This time though I felt superb. No pain, no aches, no blisters, no out of breath panting or struggling to lower my heart rate. I felt like I could have run another 10k at that pace no problem. I checked my times and to my surprise I was sat in 5th place. My splits weren’t published but I’d finished officially in 1:03:37 and my swim was 08:41. I collected my prize at the end and immediately felt like I was karting again, collecting trophies. Karting was very good to me and I won lots of trophies. When I stopped I lost that competitive satisfaction that the sport always gave me. Suddenly, I had found it again! And my dad was there to see it all. It was quite a special moment!

On the way home Chris called me and we discussed the event. It was great to hear his thoughts and get the praise from him. The day after the event I managed to get my splits and began to dissect the numbers. I’d taken 2 minutes 35 seconds off my swim time, 46 seconds off my T1 time, 5 minutes 40 seconds off my bike time, 30 seconds off my T2 time and 2 minutes 55 seconds off my run time. Overall I saw an improvement of 12 minutes and 26 seconds, jumping 56 places from 61st to 5th.

The last two months with TTT were super focused on me gaining as much as possible in as short a period as possible. I think the last two months has helped a lot with my bike abilities. I’m feeling like my run pace has improved and my swim has greatly improved again since ditching the floaty pants. Its been a significant change to my lifestyle but its one I needed and its one I wanted to make.

13 months ago I weighed over 82kg. I’m now hovering around 76kg. My recovery rates are so much better, and I’ve never felt stronger too in terms of endurance. The strength and conditioning is now starting to have an effect and my body is starting to see some signs of definition which is always important for us guys. I’ve never been confident in my appearance, but this improvement is a side effect of training that I am happy with!

The cool thing about all of this is, it is the beginning of the journey! I’ve joined an amazing club; St Helens Tri are like a close-knit family and everyone cares and supports. I’ve met some amazing new friends which I enjoy training with, but I also enjoy seeing their journeys progress. I’ve also got some amazing family, friends and colleagues who give me so much encouragement with this sport. Finally, the relationship with TTT and Chris is building all the time. I’ve no idea what 2019 will bring, but one things for sure, I’ll be stronger and faster!

%d bloggers like this: