Triathlon trouble


In some ways, this post is has been one of the most difficult ones to write. Why? because in some respects it represents a personal failure, and would have been easier just to not write about. But having said that, it also represents a moment in my life which I will never forget and one that I want to remember.

It all started in June 2015 when having finished the Four Peaks Mountain Bike race in Austria, my friends and I were discussing what to do next?  After mulling around various ideas we finally agreed on doing a triathlon together.  At that point, which triathlon? and where? had not been decided.

Over the next few months, my best friend of 25 years Mursel Rexhepi, suggested that we should do the Mallorca Olympic Triathlon. In his words ‘the water would be warm and clear, the scenery would be spectacular and it gave us plenty of time to train as it was in April 2016’.  The thought sounded appealing and despite some concerns over my swimming ability, I signed up and set about preparing myself for the challenge.

The swimming

Having been a lifeguard for some 20 years my swimming was OK but easily my weakest event, I knew I wouldn’t be confident swimming in the sea and was unsure I could cover the Olympic distance of 1500m. I joined the local pool and worked my way up gradually so that I was doing 1500m once a week.  My times gradually came down from 48 minutes to 36 minutes for the distance, so things seemed to be going to plan. Until one night after an intense session in the pool, I was having difficulty breathing. After struggling all night to breathe, next day I booked myself in to see a physio.  He advised me that I was suffering from costochondritis, a condition which had most likely been caused by the repeated pulling action, and over-breathing.  This did knock my confidence but fortunately with a few weeks rest and some exercises, I was able to build up the swimming again to 1500m.

The cycling

For the last ten years my primary sport has been cycling, so for this part of the event, I just carried on doing my normal training which averaged about 70 miles per week.  As it would turn out, the biggest challenge for the cycle leg would be to get my bike in competition shape. I noticed one week before the race, that the bottom bracket was seizing, after two bike shops had told me that they couldn’t replace it, as they didn’t have the tools, I was beginning to think I was going to have to hire a bike to race.  After talking to some people ‘in the know’ my last chance was to take the bike to ‘Lifecycles Lowestoft’, who assured me that they could change the bottom bracket before Sunday when I was due to fly out.

After ordering a special tool on an overnight carrier it took the force of four men to free the bottom bracket, which was ceramic and had been in place for about 10 years. When it finally broke free I was told it sounded like a gun going off and they thought they had cracked the frame.  They hadn’t.  I got my bike back the day before my flight and was starting to feel ready to race.

The run

I had a long history of achilles tendinitus  so I knew that this leg was also going to be a challenge.  For months, I did physio exercises to strengthen my right achilles, then I tried to run.  Good news, I was pain-free. Over the next few weeks, I built up to ten miles on the beach.  In hindsight, this was probably too much too soon and the tendinitis appeared in my left leg.  It was so painful I was hobbling for a whole week afterward.  I persevered for a few weeks, but quickly decided the only way I was going to race was if I stopped running and did the physio exercises on the left leg too.

Unfortunately, this just made it worse, causing me to rest it completely and ice it every night for the six weeks leading up to the race. I could at least start the race pain-free, even if afterwards I would be in pain and limping for a week.  Oh to be young again!

Mallorca

Mallorca is a beautiful island off the Spanish coast.  To arrive ready to race with all my body parts working and a bike ready to race was a big relief.

Collonia Sant Jordi

Pictured: The salt lakes in Collonia Sant Jordi, on the first night.

Race preparation

I had already decided not to run in the week before the race because of my delicate Achilles, so the key things to do were to familiarise myself with the bike course and get used to swimming in the sea.  The bike course was a dream.  Long straight roads, through old Spanish towns and with a surface to die for.  A puncture in the first 20 minutes didn’t amuse me but was fixed with the help of friends and we were soon off again.

The swimming was a different matter.  Having not really swum in the sea and never in a wetsuit, it was a new experience for me.  It was windy during the week so quite choppy in the sea.  I practiced swimming up and down the beach with my friends, trying to get used to the salt water, waves, and fish.  I was finding it difficult.  The fear of swimming out into the unknown was quite overwhelming.

I desperately needed a confidence boost. I needed to convince myself I could swim 1500m in a wetsuit. So next day I visited the ‘Best Swim Centre’ an elite 50m swim centre just down the road from the hotel, which had been set up by two former Olympians.  I’d never swum in a 50m pool and even with the added buoyancy of my wetsuit, I was making hard work of it.  My arms and shoulders ached like never before and I stopped swimming after 900m.  I later worked out that the wetsuit wasn’t fully pulled up and consequently was restricting my shoulder movement and making it difficult to swim.  I must take the time to make sure the wetsuit was fitted properly I kept saying to myself.

That afternoon I decided that to swim right out to sea was beyond my capability.  I’d made up my mind. I wasn’t going to race.  I got on my bike and went to find my friends Mursel and Kathy to tell them of my decision.  Of course, they tried to persuade me that I could do it, but I was frightened and had made up my mind. That afternoon I punished myself for my lack of bottle. I rode out on the bike like a man possessed.  Thirty minutes later  I was at a lighthouse called Cap de Ses Salines.  It was a lonely thought provoking place.  A place where over many years people like me had remembered the dead by piling rocks into little towers.

Cap des Ses Salines

Pictured: My bike at the Cap de Ses Salines Lighthouse

I was very emotional.  I thought of my late father and built a little pile of rocks in his memory.  I looked at the waves crashing all around me and looked deep into my soul to ask myself whether I could do the swim.  During the ride back I decided that I should wait until Friday afternoon at the technical briefing before making my decision.

During the next two days, I thought about all the obstacles and challenges I had overcome previously.  There were many.  I thought about my nephews, and about how scared they were each time they went to a big competition, and about how they looked up to me for an example.  How I always encouraged them to do their best, to have a go.  If I didn’t start this race, could I really say that I had done those things?  No was the answer I came up with.  I must face my fears.

At the technical briefing, I asked one of the former Olympic swimmers for his advice to me as a very  nervous first-time sea swimmer. He said to me,”Wait until everyone else has run into the water, look up every ten strokes so you can pick out the buoys, stay calm and take your time.  Swim near someone if you can.  There are rescue boats, and if you get into trouble just put your hand up.”

This sounded like sound advice and I decided to do the race.  My friends were pleased that I had decided to join them.

Race day

With 1 hr sleep that night, race day had come.  I must have swum the channel and back in my head that night, and now I just wanted to get on the start line.  After breakfast, I met my friends on the beach, and we arranged our kit in the transition area, put on our wetsuits and waited for the ten-minute call.

Men were to go off first with women 7 minutes later. I remembered the swimmers’ advice, and on the hooter I waited for everyone to run into the sea.  I followed slowly and tried to relax into a slow rhythmic  pace.  I was near my friend Mursel, who encouraged me with regular shouts.  The water got deeper and deeper, the shore got further and further away and the buoys gradually came closer and closer. We had to negotiate 5 buoys in a semicircle clockwise around the bay.  Up until buoy three, I was feeling fine.  My confidence wavered as a wave hit me and knocked me off my rhythm, I switched to breast stroke for a while, to catch my breath.  Breaststroke, crawl, breaststroke, crawl.  I was going to get round one way or another.

The rescue

Suddenly I felt something hit me on the back of the head.  I quickly realised it was the elite women. The lead group swam right over me.  I coughed and spluttered a bit and carried on, but I was starting to feel weaker and the buoys weren’t getting any closer.  Soon I was alone, no swimmers were near me and the waves were getting bigger.  I started to panic and decided that NOW would be a good time to put my hand up.  But nobody saw me.  I rolled over onto my back to try and get my breath but waves were coming over me. I kicked my legs and raised my arm again.  Still nobody.  I could see a lighthouse, I thought it was  on the shore where I needed to swim to, and starting swimming crawl again towards it.  More waves came over me, I put my hand up again.  This time, a lifeguard in a kayak paddled over to me and told me to hold on.

I was breathless and panting like a dog, he tried to pull me on board but the kayak nearly turned over, so we waited for the rescue boat. Four Spanish men hauled me on board, I sat coughing and wheezing, just looking at the floor of the boat and trying to gather my thoughts.  Yes, I was relieved I had been rescued, but at the same time felt such a feeling of failure.

My friends

Once I’d got back on dry land, I went to cheer on my friends Mursel and Kathy.  Both first-time triathletes they were going well, and not known for giving up on anything.  My sadness became joy as I saw them coming round lap after lap of the run, they were going to finish and in excellent time (Mursel 2.33 & Kathy 2.54).  I was so pleased for them and so proud.

M_K_1

Pictured: Mursel and Kathleen Rexhepi

What did I learn?

I learned that especially in a sea swim it’s important that your competence is equal to your bottle.  An Olympic Triathlon is not to be taken lightly.  My intention for the future will be to improve my swimming, practice open water swimming, build up with shorter distances and be very sure of myself before doing another 1500m swim at sea.

Final thoughts

In the end, you are the only one who can make the decision to do it, or not do it.  You are the only one who can motivate yourself to train.  But having the support and encouragement of friends makes it easier and much more fun.  I am looking forward to the next challenge.

Race winner was Rickard Carlsson in 1.50.52, overall second and first woman was Emma Pallant (GBR) in 1.52.03.  Full results.

Event website.

 

Protective Four Peaks – Austria

Ian Wakefield

What is the Four Peaks?

OK, I agree it’s a rubbish name for a bike race, however, what used to be the Trans Germany has now become the Four Peaks and is rapidly becoming the best-known European mountain bike stage race.  One thousand participants ride more than 270 kilometers and climb more than 8,860 altitude in meters.  The event is estimated to attract more than 10,000 spectators at the stage locations.

Preparations

I was one of those 1000 competitors, and over the preceding 9 months had prepared myself for the challenges to come.  Or so I thought. Preparing to race across the Alps and training for it in the flat lands of Norfolk is far from ideal and being accident prone didn’t help either, six weeks before the start I hit the deck on a wet slippery road in Macedonia and broke my little finger in two places.  Big deal I hear you say, but would I really be able to hold onto the handlebars tight enough with a broken finger on descents? to cap it all, on a rainy ride to Beccles three days before the start, I once again hit the deck, and now had road rash all down the right side of my body and left, with big bruises across my left thigh, and a broken finger.

Excuses over then, I flew out to Salzburg on Monday 15th June 2015 where I met my long time friends Mursel and Kathleen Rexhepi who had just completed three weeks training in the Swiss Alps.  We drove to the starting location of the race, a beautiful town called Bad Kleinkirchheim.  I couldn’t pronounce it either so it became “Bad Clench and Climb” which amused my friends.

The Tuesday was spent preparing the bikes and familiarising ourselves with the routines, locations and arrangements for race day.

That night was a sleepless night, I was very nervous about what was to come. I had so many doubts.  Had I trained hard enough? Had I trained long enough? Would I be able to cope with all the climbing? Would I be able to manage the descents? What if I fell off and bashed my broken finger again? the questions were endless.

Stage 1 (49 km climbing 2349 m)

Billed as the “Hardest day” this was the one that scared me the most it was over 49.36 km and up two major climbs, giving a total elevation of 2349 m.  Each day included an enduro challenge, ranking riders in terms of their speed down the most technical sections.

The first climb went well and I rode within myself to reach the first summit “Wollaner Nock” in good time.  It was at least 4 years since I had ridden down a steep ski slope so had to get off an walk on occasions.  Into the woods half way down and we were onto the enduro section.

In the rain it was very difficult to manoeuvre across the wet roots, sharp rocks, drops and ledges without coming off and I did so on several occasions.  Finding out later that I was roughly three times slower than the leading rider Juri Ragnoli (ITA) over the same section.

Soon enough we came to the second climb up to “Kolmnock Gipfeltrail”, at 10 – 12% for most of the way, until the top which was 31% and required the rider to carry their bike, in most cases it was too steep even to push.  It seemed to take forever to climb this last few hundred meters. Shortly after this I punctured, and with tubeless tires this really was a pain, the tire wall had a sharp cut which was too big to be sealed by the sealant, it took about twenty minutes of messing around to put an inner tube in and get going again.

Once over the top we were on the Franz Klammer World Cup Downhill Ski slope, which varied between -20 and -27% , the track was wet and slippery and with fingers and forearms aching from braking I was relieved to finish Stage 1.

Ian Wakefield

Ian Wakefield – Four Peaks – Stage 1

Stage 2 (91 km climbing 1969 m)

Although stage 2 was the longest stage at 91 km, it was one I was looking forward to as I knew I’d be able to take advantage of my flat speed, one of my only strengths.  Our opening descent out of Bad Kleinkircheim was neutralised, thankfully traffic police had stopped traffic and the 1000 strong peloton snaked it’s way down the winding road to the riverside in Radentheim.  My favourite part of this stage was drafting in large groups through the flat sections, I especially enjoyed leading some of the small groups although really I knew I should be saving my energy.  Riding in a group was proving to be highly effective as we sped past lone riders and small groups who didn’t have enough energy or motivation to jump on the back.

The stage ended fairly uneventfully in Hermagor, a pretty alpine town.  After washing my bike I decided to ride to my hotel rather than catching the bus, a distance of about 8 km.  The hotel (Strasswirt) was beautiful and the owners friendly and helpful.

Ian Wakefield - Stage 2 - Four Peaks

Ian Wakefield – Four Peaks – Stage 2

Stage 3 (59 km climbing 2421 m)

Next morning at 8 am I had an 8 km ride to the start, my friends and most of the other riders were on the bus.  It was a good opportunity to warm up and get rid of some stiffness in my legs.

Whilst waiting for the start I sat in an archway talking to some German riders who told me they were from Dortmund, I told them my dad (Now deceased) had been stationed there in the 50’s, they told me the camps were no longer there and we had a little joke, but I was thinking of my father, his life, his death and wondering whether his spirit was with me.  I had his Royal Artillery lapel badge in my bag, I touched it for good luck and swallowed to avoid being seen with tears in my eyes.

Stage 3 had the biggest single climb of 1300 m, I felt strong up it and went past many of the riders I’d been riding with or near for the last few days, it took me about 2 hrs, which meant I witnessed the two lead riders Christoph Sauser and Juri Ragnoli on their final descent, coming back down (they had completed the climb in about 1 hr roughly twice as quick as me). Before you judge, bear in mind they averaged 380 watts for the whole climb of 1 hr, I averaged about 208 watts for 2 hrs which was absolutely on my limit.

The second part of the stage became a real challenge for me having burnt too much energy on the first climb. With another very tricky technical section just before the second feed station, I was relieved to make it to the finish relatively unscathed.  When I say that, I actually had bruises all down my chest and stomach where the seat had hit me on steep descents, bruises all down the inside of my thighs where I had tried to grip the seat on rocky descents with my thighs, bruises down the front of both thighs and shins from previous crashes and a broken finger.  I realised at this point I was going to have work on my descending technique, as I felt many of the injuries were down to poor technique.

I

Ian Wakefield – Four Peaks – Stage 3

Stage 4 (71 km climbing 2122 m)

Noticing ten minutes before the start that yesterday’s crashes had caused my seat to be broken and was angled at a 45 degree angle to the side wasn’t an ideal start to the stage, but luckily the neutral service team were able to replace it before the gun went off.

The stage started in Tropolach and although it was raining, it was one I was looking forward to as once again it was flatter and longer, I was feeling stronger with the past three days riding now firmly in my legs.  Going into the mountains I rested long enough at the back of each group on the road to save enough energy to go past to the next group on the road, I did this about six times and was feeling good working my way through the field.  On some of the long climbs off road, I worked with other riders and on occasions took advantage of shelter behind stronger riders, leaving them when they ran out of energy.

The enduro on stage 4 was a pleasure and more like the trails I was used to in Thetford, unfortunately due to poor signing and marshaling I and a half dozen other riders went the wrong way, about 2 miles out of our way half way down.

As I approached 60 km in the pouring rain and mist I dared to think I was going to finish, each climb seemed to become longer, the skies became darker, I became colder but I knew I was getting closer to the end.  Eventually in the distance I could see a peak and I could see the sun shining through, this must be the final climb I kept saying to myself.  As I went over the top, the sun did indeed shine on me, a feeling of warmth came over me and I looked at the sky and said “Dad I’m going to finish”, somehow I felt he was with me.  I remembered his final bike ride to the post office before collapsing with a heart attack and it brought tears to my eyes. I wondered what he would have thought about me on this Austrian mountain, would he have been proud, maybe, maybe not, but what I did know is that I was proud to be his son.

The final descent was truly exhilarating and so close to the finish I was letting the bike run longer and longer between braking.  As I came across the finish line, an enormous sense of achievement, relief and excitement came over me.

Ian Wakefield

Ian Wakefield – Four Peaks – Stage 4

Final thoughts

I didn’t have to wait too long before my team mates Kathy and Mursel came in holding hands across the finish line, it was group hugs all round and an emotional visit to the podium for photos, it was going to take some time for it to sink in what we had all done and overcome.

Before the race I had designed some team jerseys, the motto on them was “Vincit qui se vincit” which translates as “He who conquers himself, conquers” we all conquered ourselves and I personally will treasure the memories and camaraderie from my team mates and other riders for many years to come.

Results

I finished 208 in the masters category which was won by Udo Bolts (GER) a twelve-time finisher of the Tour de France.  The overall race was won by Juri Ragnoli (ITA) who narrowly beat former world champion Christoph Sauser (SWI).