Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Ironblog - Forestman 2013

Forestman is renowned for a misty start over Ellingham lake but my day started at 2:54am, wet but clear outside.  It was the rain falling on the roof of the cabin that woke me and as suspected, I there was less than 40 minutes before my alarm went off so I got up to eat porridge and make coffee at a leisurely pace.

I never thought I’d find myself sitting on a sofa at 3:20am, dressed up to the waist in a wetsuit and actually excited enough to be wide awake.

As I walked up the path, knowing I was early for the bus, I didn’t expect to be joined by someone else.  Both of us finding our “Race new forest” swim kit bags incredibly noisy to carry in the quiet air of a campground at that time of the morning.

Other anxious souls queued for the bus already.  Strangers chatted to strangers – the topics mostly centred on how many hours’ sleep we managed and whether we were “first timers”.  Old-timers told us stories of their dying-hours of previous events.  It was a little like a ski holiday – being woken at 3am to board a bus for a plane which doesn’t leave for another 5 hours, only to sit on a coach for 30 minutes until everyone has boarded.

Last minute food bags were fitted to bikes.  I cut the ductape away from the plastic bags I’d used to keep my saddle and elbow pads dry overnight and added yet more to my overstuffed bike kit bag – fresh coffee and a bag of figs to feed on as well as the helmet which I’d kept reliably dry in the cabin overnight.
Caged Hippo!
Andrew arrived on his bike and we mooched down to the lake to take a looky.  The course didn’t look too massive and then we noticed the extra buoy, tucked away in the corner of the lake by the reeds… oh yes, it was on the course...
...even the plastic owl was surprised!
The local Baptist minister says a prayer before the Forestman.  I have to say, I would have felt less uncomfortable it if there had been a little more, “whichever god you believe in” rather than reserving it for those believing in the father, son and holy spirit but it was a pleasant enough gesture.  A man rushed past me saying, “oh shit I forgot my timing chip”.  Good job the lord reminded him.

I waited until the last minute to enter the water and swim over to the start line, always wanting to preserve my body heat as long as possible.  The water temperature was perfect though - 17 degrees – just enough to keep a hippo warm. The water was also fantastically clear with great visibility and no weeds in the deeper areas that we would be swimming in.  There were plenty of smiling faces and a lot of cheering, whooping and “good lucking” as the 15 second count was announced.

Trepid Explorer makes light work of some of the other athletes.
Unlike many shorter races, the swim start was really civilised.  I got into a groove within the pack pretty quickly and no one was swimming across anyone else.  I suppose you don’t train to swim 2.5 miles in open water, without learning to do it in a straight line.  Nothing more than a few foot tickles and the odd leg slap seem to have been directed my way (though I later discovered a bruised eyebrow).  I held on to the main group for the whole of the first lap, starting to drop off the back of the pace with a few others part way through the second. 

My little finger was starting to splay out from the others – the usual indicator that my hands are about to claw – so I applied the elastic band fix which worked just fine.

Finally I found myself on my own after half of the second lap but I was OK with that.  I’d done what I could to make the most of the presence of others and was happy to plough my own course until the rest of the field caught up with me.  There were other swimmers around but they seemed to be sticking to the edge of the lake which I had been told was weedy.  I preferred to make a bee-line between the buoys as it felt more efficient.  Eventually someone passed me swimming a little messily but, obviously, faster than me.  I decided it was timing-chip guy catching up and decided to go with him.  He was easy to follow because the bubbles that his stroke raised were easily spotted in the water.  His stroke was so perfect for me, I was even raised to fight for my line as we passed another swimmer who also wished to join the train.  I only lost contact with him within 200m of the finish and slowed down so that I could see where I was going into the rising sun, now peeping over the tops of the trees.
A traditional lake exit
1 hour 15 minutes, shouted TSK as I ran past.  Really happy with that.  

On my first day off work before race day I spent the whole day estimating my times based on my previous reccees and performances so far this year.  I wrote them all down (“Realistic”) and then made an optimistic version (“Dream”) and a “Borderline” version which would get me through just inside each of the cut-offs.  I’m really glad I did this as I knew that I would be cutting it fine with an 8 hour bike ride.  Deep down I knew that I wouldn't take 8 hours but it was hard to be too confident.  My run schedule only allowed for me to slow 2 minutes per segment on each lap of the run course (each lap split into four segments so around 2 minutes per 1.5 to 2 mile segment.  As an engineer and statistician it enabled me to break down an unfathomable run into some numbers I could handle.  I said I’d take a copy (and forgot) but thankfully I left TSK a copy.

A 15 minute swim set me half way between a dream and reality.

We had the benefit of seeing the Boskman athletes, waiting to go in the water after us.  There was cheering and I reciprocated by telling them how lovely it is in there.  After a short diversion to the portaloos, I discovered the joy of Ironman racing – a chair to sit on in transition!  It’s a close one but I’m tempted to make this a regular event, just for the chair!

I asked for my bag – number 15, the full one.  “Ah, she said, the one with the tea and biscuits”.

I didn’t really need to drink my coffee.  Couldn’t believe that my fingers were still working.  The new wetsuit courtesy of La Bicicletta and the chafe vest did their job.  I looked around the room – I was in the company of a female triathlon coach.  Very happy with that.

I handed the swim bag back – just as full as I had received it, leaving arm and leg warmers and my waterproof behind.  I had a stack of optimism instead.  I even tossed the figs at TSK as I left transition because my pockets were stuffed with inner-tubes (Forestman is a notoriously puncture-prone course), a wind proof jacket, zipvit gel and high protein vegan chocolate brownie.
Just another early morning ride.
My last-minute preparations for Forestman had started with a ride around the course on Friday which was a relief.  It confirmed that I now knew almost every turn of the course.  Where I had made mistakes, I’d looked up on the map where I had gone wrong.  I knew every turn on the twisty roads that I could effectively handle on the tribars and, more importantly, all the ones that I could not.

My usual status as a slow swimmer who rips through the bike course has been shredded this year so it pretty-much felt like I was alone for a lot of the first half.  The occasional really fast bloke came by who was probably a rubbish swimmer but otherwise I saw no-one.  I was passed by my first team GB athlete after 45 minutes  This is where a course recce came in use as little landmarks I’d noticed two days earlier put paid to those little niggles which say, “have I gone the right way?”

It was the first climb – up Thorney Hill – where I started to be passed by the fastest of Boskman athletes – thankfully clearly identified by their race numbers being in the 300’s.  Otherwise it could’ve been soul destroying.  There was camaraderie amongst the field.  The half-ironman athletes were on a different loop which meant that they could have lapped us twice during our three laps of the race.

My only stomach troubles occurred on the first lap, where I’d tried to cram a bit too much chocolate brownie down me too close to the end of my swim.  I sat up for a while and allowed gravity to assist digestion for a while and then I was fine.  I stuck to eating smaller quantities.

So many separate occasions, someone shouted, “Go on Sheffield”.  Numerous people from all over the country who’ve studied at Sheffield and one lass who passed me with a “By ‘eck I didn’t think ther ware anyone else frum Sheffield ‘ere”.  Happy-making.

We stretched out across the heathland.  I heard the call from behind, “C’mon Sheffield, you can’t get beaten by a lad from Leeds!”  He promptly pulled up at the aid station, prompting the response, “the problem with you Leeds boys is you can’t pass a bar without going for a drink!”
This picture, for me, encapsulates the best of the Forestman Bike course (except for the hills)
I saw TSK for the first time as we turned onto the little loop – only included once on the course, it includes a long 12% hill which puts a bit of effort onto the radar.  It also tested the navigational skills of this rider as I trundled off on a wrong turn.  Thankfully I noticed a rider on the correct route and “pulled a Lance” by riding up a gravelly driveway to re-join the course.  Someone else narrowly avoided following my mistake.

The climb stuck me in my lowest gear but at this point it didn’t put too much into me.  I decided it was worth burning one of my matches on it to put distance between myself and anyone else following.
This is me telling the marshal that I never see my husband for the camera stuck to his face.
TSK was waiting at the top and let me know that his mum and dad were also on the course and that I was on course to make my realistic targets set down last night.

The hardest part of the course was yet to come.  From the tee junction where the little loop breaks off, there’s a long, open stretch of road which leads to the descent to Godshill, Sandy Balls and the end of lap one.  The flat stretch of road is not something which ever bothered me but with the wind on race day, it took on a whole new meaning.  Around 18mph wind was blowing constantly across the tops so riding on the tri bars was compulsory.  The “flat” run in suddenly became pretty hilly.  Having raced the first lap, the little kicker hillocks on the “flat” section suddenly started to bite and the bearable straights out across the heathland suddenly became an epic 3 mile slog into a gale.

as expertly demonstrated by my uncle's camera.
This is what the organiser had to say in Tri 24-7, “I can say, with a degree of confidence that it was our windiest ForestMan day and the direction of the wind could not have been less helpful to the competitors. The way in which competitors managed the conditions was astonishing to me. I had expected a higher attrition rate than usual (exhaustion, flats, cut-offs missed). Instead there were a minimal number of withdrawals.. I think maybe five across the three events out of 250 starters.”  All of those 5 were in my event.

Finally, the descent into Godshill where the marshals were shaking pom poms and had decorated the hedgerow.  A large crowd of spectators was cheering aligning the road past Sandy Balls.

I remembered to press the lap button on the Garmin.  First lap in 2hrs: 30 minutes.  A little slow on my realistic timescale but 10 minutes within the borderline which shows that I was actually saving my legs a little.

Time to start eating and test out the new burger-bag.  By now the lentil burgers had been rendered a soggy mush which ricocheted around in the bag in a mass of soggy pieces.  Still, eating something resembling dog poo didn’t seem to bother me until I actually smelt dog poo somewhere along the road and that made my stomach turn a little.

In spite of their appearance and slightly meaty, mustardy flavour, the lentil burgers worked a treat at both being digested and providing an energy source.  So long as I took a little at a time and allowed them to settle before hauling on large volumes of energy drink I was OK.  Only a few minor sicky moments which probably would’ve happened regardless of what I’d been eating.

The second lap was supposed to be easier without the little loop and I had more support to look forwards to.  More athletes continued to lap me from the Boskman but it was still very quiet along the  bottom flat stretch.  I must’ve been moving quite quickly in the tail wind.

It was the lap for pee-stops as athletes dived into the bushes left, right and centre.  I’d checked out the map in the morning and luxuriated in a stop at the Public Conveniences in Burley.  It was still 8:45 am so I left my bike leaning against the wall and picked it up again on my way out.

I was glad I’d taken the break because this time, Burley Ornamental Drive smarted.  I chewed into the bottom gear so much that I rode the derailleur over into the wheel and had to hop off to sort my gears out before continuing.

The excitable jumping up and down of my husband and my inlaws spurred me on at the top though I admit that I showed off a bit by whooshing over the cattle grid in style.  I shouldn’t have because 20 seconds later my rear tyre was feeling very flat.

Indeed, there was nothing left in there so I found a handy Volvo parked on the grass verge in the middle of the heathland and I set about replacing an inner tube as out of the wind as I could manage.  Everyone who passed asked if I was OK which was very good of them.

I did run my hands around the inside of the tyre to make sure there were no protruding flints or otherwise but I couldn’t find anything so I refitted a new inner tube and headed out again.  All was well for the rest of the lap and into lap 3.  2 hours 43minutes on the shorter lap two meaning that with taking it a little easy and 7 minutes for a tyre change, I was a little outside of my borderline schedule of 2:23 but I also had 15 minutes in the bag from my fast swim.

By the time I’d got to Bolderwood Ornamental drive again I started to worry about what had happened to the Halman clan as I knew they were planning to come and see me.  Then, sure enough, I saw the familiar lanky figure of my cousin Johnathon skulking around in the undergrowth by the side of the road.  His family were with him and it was a really pleasant surprise as I had thought he was working / at football that day.  At the top of the hill, my aunty and uncle were waiting with cameras at the cattle grid.  Although I was careful this time, I did get yet another puncture.  Gah!

Having gone from the total elation of seeing my family, I was back in doldrums.  I tried to ride it out for a while and then stopped to pump some air in, vainly hoping that it was a slow puncture I could nurse to the finish line. 3 minutes down the toilet  Time was ticking on and I had a deadline to meet.  By the time I’d reached the turning onto the heathland and the last marshal station before the evil ride across the moors, I realised there was no way it was a good idea to ride a flat tyre in to the headwind and hope to make it down the descent to sandy balls in one piece. 

“This puncture is not as slow as I thought it was” I said.  This time I had company to sit by me whilst I changed the inner tube out.  He tried to say reassuring words like, “only 5.5 miles and you’ve 45 minutes to do it in” but I knew how tired I was and I knew how heavy the wind was.  Freshly re-inflated I made a dash for it, just in case there was something else stuck inside my inner tube.  That is, I made a dash for it once I’d stopped to pick up the bottle that I dropped off my bike.  This puncture stop was a 9 minute glory sinker.  Along the heathland I dropped right to the back of my saddle, pushed my elbows off the edge of the pads and stretched my arms out in front of me as far as I could.  I even tucked my shoulder blades in… and there were the Halmans again.  All of them standing by the side of the road screaming and cheering.  They gave me one more whoop and a wave as they drove down to transition in the car.

Finally I was there.  The last lap completed in 2 hours : 34 minutes. – on the realistic schedule and faster than lap 2, despite two tyre stops this time.

I crossed the line into transition with 16 minutes to go before the cut off time – too busy telling my families to go and say hello to each other to notice the dismount line and if it hadn’t been for the marshals being loud and directing I might’ve been disqualified for riding in transition.

I disposed of my bike with vigour.  JUST remembering to take the Garmin with me and sat down in transition to, “Oof, that was all a bit too exciting”.

A quick turnaround involved consuming an entire Lychee juice and a change of top and shoes – nothing more.  I ran in my 112 mile bike shorts.  I took my bumbag with me in case I needed my windproof and drugs, glorious drugs (vitamin I).

I bounded off out of transition with a spring in my step and then halted up short before I passed the portaloos.
"Feeling much better now"

Slightly emptier and with a cleaner face, I sprang past the rellies and out onto the run course.

Having reminded myself not to fret about the running distance after last year’s experiences, I wasn't at all phased about heading out for a 20 mile run (which I’ve done) but I was mildly phased about running the last 6 miles after Becky Loftus told me that she struggled with them in her marathon.
Like Winnie the Pooh!
After my uncle took his stunning photo of my rear disappearing down the road, I actually had to calm myself down and remember to pace myself up the hill out of Sandy Balls.  With so many tired athletes coming in (including the winner of my event who had already finished his marathon), I was getting a dose of how I’d look in a bit.

It helped lighten the mood that the marshal's decorations at the cattle grid on the edge of Godshill included two plastic ducks, quietly enjoying their afternoon on a puddle by the roadside.

I enjoy the new forest so much, it really was difficult to regulate my speed so I took to running up the hill until I got out of breath and then walking until I’d got my breath back.  Repeat.  I was pretty thirsty, despite having just downed fruit juice in transition so I drenched myself with two glasses of water before hitting the off-road.

The flat sections were lovely and the hilly sections like home. 

The first big surprise of the day came at the Fritham aid station and turn-around point.  Instead of it being at the car park at the top of a 45m hill, it was at the bottom of the hill.  Yes!  Totally made my day, knowing that I wouldn’t have to run up that hill 3 times.

Back to the central aid station and I continued my campaign of taking on water then down to Abbotts Wells where I’d sheltered from the ponies last time I was in the new forest and limped back to Sandy Balls after the end of my 15 mile run.

There was no sign of the family so I turned on my heels and headed back up the steep rocky climb to the moors.  Finally, the tail wind struck me and I could enjoy the free ride to Fritham.  Suddenly the family appeared again so I stopped for a sticky kiss for TSK and sent them off to Abbotts Wells to wait for me on the next two loops.

Concentrating hard here on trying to get speed where I could.
Arriving at the central aid station for the second time, the munchies kicked in and I began raping the aid stations for crisps.  Eventually I became such a crisp-a-holic they started offering me packets so I didn’t drop any crisps on the course, though they were being effectively hovered up by some very lucky dogs.

More crisps back at Fritham and then starting to waver a bit on the run along the tops with the head wind blowing in our faces.  A chap still running in his cycling jersey and I both bemoaned being cyclists in a runners world although he continued at the same pace as I started to slow down.

I started doing maths again to figure out how fast I needed to go to avoid missing the cut off time.  My race plan was too complicated to follow so I calculated that so long as my average stayed above 6kph I’d be fine.  I was running at about 8 but averaging 7.8 and falling what with all the walking I was doing.

The gang were down at Abbotts wells and I explained to these guys that I was going to need to make an effort to look the part.

A crew of spectators in chairs were nervously laughing as a herd of cows stared at them from the other side of the stream and the path.  As I pondered that they had acquired their own audience, their daughter was nervously trying to hide behind a tree.  Thankfully on my return, the cows were happily grazing alongside and the spectators were still there.

I ran/walked back up the hill and tried my best to quickly ride the tail wind although walks on the flat were inevitable giving the pace I was squeezing out when I did run.  By the time I hit Fritham for the last time, my fellow competitors were enticing me on with tales of wine gums on offer and the fact that we’d never have to go down there again!

The wine gums were indeed awesome and so was standing by the 18 miles sign saying, “I’ve never run this far before” as I ran off again to Central Aid to move off the crisps and onto biscuits (for desert of course).

That wind was really harrowing and the sun was also now out meaning that most athletes were starting to plough the same furrow – next to what little undergrowth there was to offer shade.  I felt thankful that it wasn’t scortchingly hot (the spectators were all in coats and hats) as I really don’t think I could’ve got through.  I was drinking at every aid station as it was. 

On the last lap I had a chat with the volunteer I’d been swimming with on Saturday.  Then, “Yes thank you Mr Astley” I did take a glass of the blue stuff and proudly ran around the 21mile banner.  Andrew sneaked up on me for a kiss as I tackled “that” hill one more time.
Last band
Back at the central aid station it was time for a celebratory airplane manoeuvre as I enjoyed my final passage on the out and back 3-lap course that (beautiful though it is), I was starting to get bored of.  The run home to the finish line was all the more enjoyable because of it.  I’d never reversed the run route from this direction as my last reccee I ran back down the road to cut it short.  As a result the run home was really enjoyable.  I looked behind me when I reached the stream and no one was around.  I still carefully picked my way around as I didn’t want cramp or blisters at this late stage.  By the time I got to the top of the hill on the other side, another competitor was approaching and I was walking.  Rather than setting up for a sprint finish I decided it would be more enjoyable to wait my time and we started to run together down the last valley descent before reaching the road.  It was time to start saying a massive thank you to all the marshals still out there for us.

It’s amazing what a balm good company can be.  As Karen Thacker and I ran down the hill to the finish line we did nothing but chatter away and I soon realised that I hadn’t done any walking for some time, though I was running slower than I would have on my own.

Finally we got to the bottom of the hill where a last enthusiastic marshal was congratulating us on a fine run and we joined hands to cross the line – all hugs and celebrations and medals and things.

If this isn't the spirit of Forestman, I don't know what is.

The family gave me a hug – even my cousin’s beautiful wife Natalie, protected as she was by her coat.

There was a lot of excitement. Dunnit.

Then a lot of scrabbling for some food and a shower and a sit down as I dispatched Andrew and his dad to retrieve my bike and my bags from the finish line.

I was gloriously fed as I sat and chattered.  The cousins left and I flopped on the sofa to start to sleep (Though I wasn’t the first to doze off, his nibs having had an equally long day in the breeze).

Final Stats:
Swim: 1:15 reported. 1:29:43 by the time I'd run over T1 timing mat (79th)
Bike: 7:45:47 including the 19 minutes puncture time (85th but should've been 74th)
Run: 5:44:58. (78th)
Overall: 15:04:43 (joint 92nd & joint 4th F40 - the lanterns rouges but with three blokes behind us)

This post is, in no particular order, with credit to the following:

Steve and Natalie Halman – my cousin, (‘ickle brother) and his wife – for driving out to see me finish.

Uncle Tom and Aunty Anne and my cousin (and ‘ickle brother), John Halman and his wife Christine and the boys for giving me the inspiration to get through the bike and on to the run.  Without you, I might not have rushed so hard.

The bloke who drove past slowly on my last lap of Bolderwood Ornamental Drive shouting encouragement out of his car window.

My mother and father in law, Freda and Tony Rodgers, for coming from Guildford to cheer with vigour as the climbs got harder.  You also made it worth while me rushing to the run and your enthusiastic support at Abbots wells made collecting every wrist band a joy.  For your help in making dinner to refuel and taking us for breakfast on the morning after, I am eternally grateful.

To Andrew, for recording my day, keeping my parents up to speed on progress and entertaining twitter followers but most of all for being there, smiling, encouraging, sharing my stories throughout the day.  For bundling me up into a package afterwards and getting me where I needed to be –  the start, the finish, then shower, bed, fed and home.

To my parents for listening to me ramble on about my training more than anyone else (except maybe Andrew) and for being the combined swim and bike team that got me here in the first place.  It’s a shame you can’t have three parents because we need a runner!

To Sylvia Yates, for delivering Rother Valley swim on 15th June so that I could tame my swimming in open water.

To Jackie Robson for massaging my broken body back to health beforehand and being such a good health professional and friend, to check on my results afterwards.

To Claire Smith for your Ironman inspiration and giving me the confidence that my swim would work on the day.

Ali C.  You sewed the seed in my head that I could make it and chased me up until I did.

Becky Loftus, for deciding to do it yourself and therefore forcing me to do it first.  Also Dan Loftus and the children for making my break-the-journey stop-over so enjoyable.

Sally Smith – for giving me a few lessons in endurance psychology which helped me to ignore worrying niggles in the weeks leading up to the race.  Also for being out there, doing stuff or helping out, meaning there was always a friendly face to talk to.

To the waitress at the Sea Marge hotel in Cromer for introducing me to the chafe vest meaning that my swim stood the test of time.

Alex Gilbraith for giving me wetsuit advice and letting me run off with one of your suits to test and generally beat up.  Awesome sales technique.

A huge thank you to my last 2 miles pacer and fellow competitor – Karen Thacker - your chatter got me to the end of my race.  I hope you go on enjoying racenewforest events but also take the time to venture up North some time and enjoy some of the lovely off-road courses we have to offer.

The race organisers and marshals.  For arranging a fantastic event, being in high spirits and offering so much encouragement on what was, for spectators, a chilly chilly day.  Without you it really wouldn’t have happened or we would have all been very lost.

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