I had been thinking for some time about doing something “big” during 2018 as I would be turning 50 in January and wanted to embrace hitting my half century! However the latter half of 2017 turned out to be a frustrating time, starting with cutting my knee badly on holiday and getting a significant infection which took time to heal and resulted in a long lay off from regular exercise. I ended up pulling out of several races and lost my mojo to the point all ideas of big races went out the window.....
At this point I realised I needed some help to get my focus back and some basic routines and goals. Confidence was definitely low at this point! I decided to contact Graham and look at some coaching support. I already knew Graham and felt he was the right person to get me back to where I wanted to be. I was thinking at that point about scaling my ambitions down and going back and doing a standard distance I’d done before in France but aiming to improve my time. Yes you could do that said Graham, but would it really be a challenge given I already knew I could do one? Left me to think about it and realised after a day mulling it over that if I was going to something it needed to be something that was a significant challenge and before long found myself looking through 70.3 races....Vichy 70.3 in central France was entered and a whole 2 week summer holiday planned !
And so the hard work began in November 2017 and with some proper structure from Graham, I started to enjoy my sport again and see my fitness coming back. We agreed Vichy was my A race and I would do a sprint and standard as build up races. Training was going well, I started to feel stronger and then I went on holiday for a week, fell over running and damaged my other knee. I was devastated! Although a trip to the physio confirmed no ligament damage, it was swollen and inflamed and all I could think of was “ here we go again’ .....another season’s goals at risk....
Training was curtailed slightly but managed to get through my first warm up race and practice racing again. My second warm up was a standard and felt better in this with a 28 minute improvement on my last standard so that gave me a lift. But two weeks before race day my knee started getting really sore again after my last long road run so nothing was guaranteed....
We headed off to France a week before the race and the location could not have been more perfect. A secluded Airbnb in the middle of nowhere complete with a jacuzzi was the perfect chillin’ place with instructions to keep off my feet as much as possible! Having rested my leg the week before a couple of short runs confirmed my knee was feeling much better. I also had a chance to swim without a wetsuit a couple of times in a local lake - again a good confidence booster in case Vichy was no wetsuit which it had been for the last two years. I was feeling ready.
We headed to Vichy on the Thursday arriving in an outrageous rain storm which had the desired effect of dropping the air temperature by 12 degrees. By some stroke of luck the forecast was to stay lower until after the race instead of the usual 30 plus degrees. Anxuety mixed with excitement started kicking in when we arrived at the race venue to register. First look at the swim course which suddenly looked a long way! Friday involved a lot of relaxing and time off my feet and getting bags ready for transition before a gentle cycle from the hotel to drop our kit off. No announcement about wetsuit but a quick word at the help desk and unofficially the water was 22 degrees and with a cool night ahead unlikely to change. Hoorah!
Unfortunately I have always suffered from pretty bad nerves which manifests itself in an inability to get enough food inside me. Dinner was a struggle but was hoping that I’d had enough throughout the week. This also meant I could barely sleep, not helped by discovering just before I went to bed that I’d booked the race transfer for the Ironman rather than the 70.3 so we would have to walk - panic panic!
After an awful night, up bright and early and time for pre race food...except every time I smelled my porridge I retched and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t eat. I started thinking shit I’m not even going to make it to the start! Tried a different tactic and went for a bite of banana and slowly nibble by nibble I had something in my stomach. The walk ended up being a blessing as I gingerly took baby spoonfuls of the porridge as we walked and by the time we arrived at the race I’d eaten most if it. Huge relief!
Was also great to see everyone walking about in wetsuits so once I’d done a final check on the bike and final reminder of the reference points for finding my bike again - time to get a final loo stop in before getting in my wetsuit. Will and I said our farewells and headed to our respective swim starting spots. It was cloudy and pretty cool so feet n hands were chilly - not what I’d been expecting! Gradually I inched my way towards the rolling start gantry chatting to another newbie helped as realised I wasn’t the most nervous person there after all. And suddenly we were there and 7 in a row we were let through for our rolling start whereupon I sort of slid unceremoniously in to the water! Once in the water it felt so much better as it was a perfect temperature. Graham in his final pre race message has said “ keep calm in the water “ and now I knew why as the number of people in there, meant it was like being in a washing machine with lots of people swimming in to and over each other! Physical! Felt confident though in my lovely wetsuit ( not sure I would have been without) and gave as good as I got. Decided to just keep steady and see how I felt after the first half. Had noted a few landmarks during the recce so that helped break it down. First bouy was nice and quick but second seem to take forever! Gradually the exit point got closer and closer and then I was out and jogging along to transition. Swim done!
My T1 was my slowest ever. Wetsuit came off like a dream but then I faffed a bit with my bag and then as it was unexpectedly cold decided to get gloves on and arm warmers. Arm warmers didn’t want to go on with clammy arms which was a blessing in the end as I would have overheated but had wasted time. Lesson learned – keep it simple.
Out on the bike and time to get focused again. Had bought a new bike computer to check my cadence except I couldn’t get it to work! Arghh! Abandoned and decided to rely on my Garmin. Second bit of advice from Graham, don’t let my concentration drop for a minute…..
With 2000 riders out on the bike course and a 12 metre drafting rule in France, concentration was key. So I made every manoeuvre really obvious and when I heard the dreaded bike of the “arbitre” was extra careful. This did play havoc with my rhythm however, so had to make it count when I got a good stretch to get on the aero bars. More retching as I took on food but made sure I kept taking on the fuel and hydration. Bike ran like a dream though. All the hills seem to come at the end so I could feel my pace dropping off but the arrival of signs in to Vichy were very welcome but still needed to concentrate as a fast down hill with speed bumps could have ended badly!
The relief coming off the bike was massive as I knew then it was just me and my shoes – no punctures or mechanicals to worry about. As I started out on the run I could feel myself welling up as I began to realise I’m going to do this. But quickly stopped myself as I had 13.1 miles to run and needed to get back in the moment. Felt good to start for first couple of km but then pace started to slow and knees started to ache and realised I needed to concentrate on getting in to a rhythm and not allowing myself to think too far ahead. I also had to have a wee stop! Took on water every couple of km and all sorts of food inc tuck biscuits as gels were tasting unpalatable at this stage and I needed savoury flavours! Couldn’t face energy drink either so just took water until lap two when I needed something stronger. There was great support on the run and it was lovely hearing your name called out. The two saltires being waved gave me a real lift! Heard Will before I spotted him – “You’re looking great Ali”. I wasn’t (!) but it’s what I needed to hear before I passed the finish area and collected my band to start lap two – only 10k to go! Had wanted to pick up the pace on lap two but just couldn’t find another gear. Both knees were aching and didn’t want to risk inflaming either or both – objective was to finish so just tried to keep moving forward. Lap two I just kept saying to myself every time I went past a landmark “ that is the last time you have to run past there” and then focused on the last bridge I’d have to cross before dropping down to the expo and ultimately the finish. It was a way in the distance but gradually it got closer and closer…..
And then I could start to hear the DJ and the two commentators and this gave me a lift and when I could start to see the red carpet getting closer and closer it felt amazing! Finally in to the finish zone and this time towards the finish gantry with my eyes welling up at this point. 6hrs 40 minutes and 28 seconds and I’d done it.
I was ecstatic! Such an amazing feeling to finish and all the sweeter after the hiccups along the way. There is no doubt Graham’s support made a huge difference. I didn’t have to plan my training – it was done for me tailored to my level, goals and progress. But most importantly he gave me belief that I could do this.
I had thought this was my one and only 70.3 but I’ve now got the bug and looking forward to 70.3 no 2 in 2019!