Higgins x 2 in Staffordshire

We set out from Portsmouth 1050 Friday morning aiming to register mid-afternoon, hit the expo, rack our red bags in T2, and attend the race brief, getting all the Stafford pre-race admin out of the way.

The weather and traffic were foul and the ETA on the satnav was creeping up all the time. I was becoming tense and irritable, but traffic improved and we managed to get our admin completed with a bit of time to spare – stage one complete.

We were using the same campsite as last year and everything was straight forward as we settled in for the night. Unfortunately the weather worsened and I’d had a poor night’s sleep with the wind whistling as the rain battered off the van.

With the continuing downpour making the prospect of drying any kit for the following day unrealistic and conditions at the lake pretty miserable we reluctantly decided to skip the test swim.  This was the only aspect of the lead up that I was disappointed with; the previous year’s swim had been a bit of a mess and I wanted to just get a bit of time in the lake ahead of the race.  The rest of day passed sweetly.  Racking completed we had lunch with friends, rested, had our standard pre-race meal of pizza with a beer, race tattoos on, and settled in for the usual broken night’s sleep.

0350 alarm! Oh my god, it’s early, but it’s race day – game face on.  Quick cup of tea, pack van up, ablutions done, and we were on our way to the shuttle bus car park ahead of the traffic.  After a couple of minutes to take stock we grab our white bags and munching on a banana, head for the bus, finding a seat on the upper deck.  The bus swiftly started to fill up and we were surprised to be joined on the adjacent seat by Lucy Charles, happily slumming it with the other bus wankers.

It was 25 mins into the 45 min journey that my wife dropped her bombshell and announced that she had left her wetsuit in the van! We worked the problem, trying to understand how the logistics would work to return for the wetsuit and get back for the start, but the variables around the time the bus would take, availability of taxis, phones left in the van, and potentially being stuck with the van key at the swim start meant that we had faced the inevitable conclusion that Carla’s race was ended before it got going.  Then as we exited the bus there were 2 guys getting out of a taxi and I told her to grab it.  A quick chat with Steve, the befuddled taxi driver, and Carla had transferred her bike nutrition to me to sort for her and she was on her way north again while I walked down to the race village and transition area.

It was now almost 0530 and the rising sun had firmly taken charge of what was turning into a bright and still morning.  I went to Carla’s bike first, filled bottles, fitted nutrition bag, and checked tyres before heading to my bike to do the same – all completed smoothly without incident. It was time to tuck into part two of my breakfast, a tub of rice pudding.

With nothing else to do at that point I got into a queue for the portaloo; I didn’t need to go at that point, but you get to know with Ironman races that on race morning you get into the thunder boxes when they are reasonably fresh and the length of the queues mean you probably will need it when you get to the front anyway.

With that evolution complete I found a spot where I could watch the track from the road, deciding that I’d wait until 0630 before heading over to the swim area. I didn’t need to wait too long. Carla appeared in plenty of time. Hugs, kisses and all was right with the world.   With a final look over her bike we both headed down to the start area, sorted white bags, part 3 of breakfast (another tub of rice pudding) consumed and we were ready to self-seed for the swim start.

As the pro race got underway and Lucy Charles was powering her way around the course like a human Shkval we were huddled together like nervous penguins, shuffling forward to the sounds of Thunderstruck, waiting for the off.

The start at Staffs involves heading along a jetty, onto a floating pontoon before plunging into the dirty green water – I don’t like it.

Still faint heart never…., so in I went and tried to find some rhythm in my stroke. Despite the seeded start it felt congested and there was almost constant contact for the first 100m towards the first turn buoy.  With a bit of open water I started to find my rhythm and was quickly onto the second leg.  For quite a bit of this leg I was alongside Carla and I was keeping a decent line down this stretch before the final left hand turn.  After this turn it got crowded again and I got frustrated as I was repeatedly forced off line.  It looked like the intermediate buoys were out of line and I had a good track direct to the next turn but some people seemed eager to take the long way and kept cutting across to force me right and a couple of times it was almost Hands to Punching Stations.  Eventually I was through it and on the way to the finish ramp and out of the swim – 46:23.  Nowhere near my best swim, but better than last year and acceptable in a lake that I’ve come to take a significant dislike to.

I trotted along the few hundred metres to the transition tent, grabbed my blue bag, spotted my wife at the other end got into the business of transitioning.  I decided against the gilet, shoes on, helmet on, number belt on and rotated to the rear, chamois cream (nuff said).  Wetsuit, goggles, hat back in the bag, knotted and out the tent passing the bag to one of the amazing volunteers on the way.  After a final wee stop I grabbed my bike and headed for the exit alongside Carla – 7:55 – content.

The exit was a bit crowded with people all trying to jump on their bikes immediately at the mount line.  I pushed on past into clear space, hopped on and was on my way, happy with my starting gear selection.  The first section of the course takes you across the reservoir dam and it is heavily rutted with severe speed bumps so it is neutralised and you have to stay on the bar ends until you are across.  It’s a proper kit sale, with bits of bike, hydration kit, nutrition scattered from poorly secured bikes.

Once I was across and onto the main road I took on a gel and settled in, keeping an eye on HR and cadence, but feeling good and building the pace.

After a couple of miles the course moves onto the country roads which this year were in much better condition than previous years, although covered in loose chipping to make sure you stayed concentrated.  Carla and I were staying legal, but exchanging places on a regular basis.  I came past her on this section and she announced that something was rattling.  We came upon a lay-by and we stopped to reseat her front wheel that she suspected was the cause and were back on the way in about 2 mins.  Rattle apparently still there, but not causing any issue.  I opened the gap a bit so that I couldn’t hear it and considered the problem solved.

After the initial optimism on the road surface the next section of lanes returned to its pockmarked best and I feared for my wheels and tyres as I tried to keep some pace on, clinging onto the bars for fear of being bounced off.

Once back onto the main roads the surface improved a bit and it was easier to stay in position and keep the power on.  I took water to refill my bar mounted bottle at the first feed station and quickly went past the point I was stopped at the side of the road with a split tyre the first time I did this race without a sideways glance.

I usually take a gel every 30 mins, but didn’t feel the need at this point and was so comfy on the bars that I was happy to push that out to about 40 mins until it was convenient.  With the routine set the next 14 miles passed nicely.  As we went through the second station at 28 miles I went past Carla announcing “Halfway!”  The return look I received wasn’t exactly filled with joy!  I continued on, feeling good and really enjoying the bike leg.  In fact I was enjoying it so much that when someone was waving a flag at me shouting “Slow!” it did take me a couple of seconds to register that there was a line approaching that I was supposed to dismount before – 3:06:27 – A PB for this course, generally content, but I think I was possibly too conservative on the early sections and had more to give.

T2 was straightforward enough, although I had lost contact with Carla and was wondering where she was. – 5:39 – could have been a bit swifter.

Out onto the run.  As I came back on the small loop that passes the bike in I saw Carla approaching the dismount line and was content to see that she’d safely made it in.   The run course is a 2 mile point-to-point, before heading onto 2 laps of a 5.5 mile loop.  I’d made my mind up that aim for this was to run the whole thing; steady pace, but no walking the feed stations.  The crowds were brilliant and I focused on form, repeating my cues to myself to keep things in line, “Head, shoulders, knees & toes.”  “Stay tall.” “Relax.”

I took gels when I needed them, sipped water from the feed stations and took 2 salt tabs whilst on the run.  It was steady work and I was careful not to drink too much and then waste time in the now overly ripe portaloos.  The support in the town was magnificent and the long outbound leg took you toward Stafford Castle.  Obviously the castle is located on top of Mount Everest, but I managed to keep moving forward, albeit at much reduced pace beyond the steep section and onto the easier gradient.  Again the support was superb and there were a group of Stafford Tri guys dressed as Knights cheering people on and providing much needed encouragement to reach the top. A loop around the castle and I was on the way back down, brakes off, brain off and I was hurtling downhill and back onto the road back into town where I saw Carla to exchange high-fives.  It was straight forward one foot in front of the other for the remainder of the loop and then knew I was on the way round for the final time; last time past I try to make sure I thank all the marshals and volunteer for the awesome support.  Second time to the top of Mount Everest was no easier, but it was sweeter, as it was all downhill and less than a parkrun to go from there.  The finish is located in the town square and it was packed.  I paced the last few hundred metres so that I had a decent gap in front and behind so as not to foul anyone else’s finisher photos and have space for mine and coasted over the line feeling content and happily accepted my medal- 2:14:54 A PB in Stafford.

I went into the finisher tent, got some pizza and slices of fruit and sat down to wait for my wife, which is a new experience for me!  I’d collected my white bag and got some more pizza for Carla when she appeared, elated to have finished.  We sat/flopped/folded as we tried to take on some food and get our senses together for the effort of gathering our stuff together and heading back to Pompey.

As the first major race of the season for me I feel happy with the way it went, but it’s important to take lessons away.  Nutrition and hydration worked well.  The swim didn’t go as well as I’d liked and was nowhere near how I’m going in training, but it was improved enough on last year for me not to get hung up on it – maybe some work to do on plunge/jump entries.  Bike performed excellently, but I realise that I need more time out in the real world on it ahead of Vichy and Wales.  My run training to this point has built a magnificent base and I have bags of endurance, but I feel pace is lacking – work to be done here.  The new trisuit was fantastic, comfortable throughout.

Alex Higgins