Race Report: Kenilworth Half Marathon

I’ve eyed up the Kenilworth Half Marathon for a couple of years, but I’ve never got round to signing up in time. I usually find locally run running events, particularly those run by actual running clubs by actual runners, are often far better organised and can cost considerably less than their more commercial counterparts. As Kenilworth Half Marathon has also been recognised as one of the top UK half marathons and gets a high rating on Runners World, it was safe to say that it was probably going to be a pretty good race. I also especially like races which are held nearby – I value my lie ins!

The race was scheduled to begin at 10am, so at 9am I took the short drive over to Kenilworth and parked in a local (free all day!) car park. I left everything in the car to minimise the hassle of baggage reclaim at the race, and jogged a mile through Abbey Fields to the start at Castle Farm. I had a slight detour on the way (navigation is not my strong point!) but soon turned back and sheepishly followed the steady stream of walkers dressed in running gear. Run number and chip collection was running like a well oiled machine so by 9:30am I was ready and raring to race!

After a short run briefing (watch out for speed humps, no headphones, thanks to marshals, etc etc), we self seeded into predicted run time pens and in no time at all we were off! The course is a single lap on-road route which heads out West from Kenilworth towards Beausale. It was fairly undulating and there wasn’t much in the way of views, but the roads were largely smooth and there were very regular water stations. There were more marshals than I think I’ve ever seen on a course (with the exception perhaps of the Outlaw triathlons) so we were very well looked after!

My target was a mix of trying to get a PB, and also to see what kind of pace I might be able to hold at marathon distance. It was about 18 months since I last did a proper half marathon race, so a PB was a fairly low bar. I aimed to hold a breathing rate which felt achievable for ~2 hours, which seemed to be around 8 minute miles (5 minute kilometres) average. I held this for about 11 miles and then just opened it up to see what else I could do. I didn’t have much left in the end (in hindsight a few jelly babies might’ve helped!), but anything around 5min/km at this point was good so anything faster was just a bonus! I managed to finish in 1:44.27, absolutely smashing my previous PB of 1:51:57 from Reading Half Marathon 2015! I was super chuffed 🙂

At the end of the race we got bottles of water (very welcome!), a long-sleeved technical t-shirt, and a bag of goodies including chocolate, crisps and a banana. One of the ladies from Kenilworth Runners came to speak to me afterwards, saying my time was really good (cue big head) and wondered if I was looking for a running club. I’ve let my Bracknell Forest Runners club membership lapse since I moved, and as I spend more time in Warwickshire, joining a club up here doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. She especially lured me in with talk of a cross country league (muddy running – sounds amazing!) which starts up soon and she’s looking for ‘fast women like me’ – flattery is most definitely the best persuasion! So who knows, maybe I’ll end up with more than a PB out of Kenilworth Half Marathon.

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My Ironman Journey: Year 3

Ever since I started doing triathlon, I got the asked the same question again and again – “Have you done an Ironman?” Those who are vaguely aware of triathlon as a sport know that Ironman is a triathlon, but many don’t know the distances involved, nor that there are many other challenging distances/terrains before you get to Ironman! So I don’t think people realise quite what they’re asking. And for me, until this year, the answer was no. No, I hadn’t done an Ironman. I always said I would absolutely never do one. I didn’t get on very well with my first marathon, I didn’t enjoy my first 100 mile bike ride and, until this year, my open water swims had always been half breastroke. But once I’d done the half Ironman, something inside me was nagging away. And logically, if I was ever going to do an Ironman distance race, now was as a good time as any. So on a rainy day in September I signed up to the full distance version of the half Ironman triathlon I’d already done – the Outlaw Triathlon.

While I was exercising through the winter to keep my fitness up, my training didn’t really kick properly until February. The first thing I did, while it was still cold outside, was to embark on a swim training program. I had to kick my nasty breastroke habit and really work on my front crawl! So I bought the swimsmooth training program to give me motivation, structure and progression in the pool, and off I went. I focussed on swimming until the weather improved a little more, and then in April I really started to ramp up my run and bike distances. I got more used to eating on the go (nutella wraps and flapjacks on the bike, and jelly babies on the run [I hate gels!]). I also went back to swimming at the lake once a week to get over my hatred of cold open water swimming (one swim was around 13-14℃ – I lasted one 750m lap and practically turned blue!). In the end, my longest swim distance was 4km (all front crawl!), run was 32km and bike was 200km. Considering the Ironman distance is 3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run, I felt as prepared as I ever could be going into the race.

24th July 2016. D-Day!

I was surprisingly calm about the race. I think the years of doing races now and having the ‘if it all goes wrong it doesn’t matter’ talk with myself each time has really helped dissipate any pre-race nerves. We set off on the hour journey to Nottingham at 4am (UGH), having already dropped my bike off and set up my transition area the day before. Arrival at 5am gave me ample time to slither into my wetsuit ready for the 6am start. The water was a tropical 20-something degrees so it felt a bit like a weirdly warm murky bath. So much for all my cold open water training! Still, as the swim got started, I was glad of all the training I did in my wetsuit and in getting better at sighting buoys.

I exited the swim in 1h30, bang on my target time! As I staggered to my feet I realised there were volunteers all around me unzipping my wetsuit and helping me pull it down to my waist. And then further on someone helped me pull it off over my feet. This is why I love the Outlaw! I tottered over to transition, wetsuit in hand, to find my swim-to-bike bag on its peg. I disappeared behind the changing tent, stripped off my swimsuit and put on all my bike clothes – including a comfy pair of bib shorts I’d got from my parents for Christmas. The chamoix was so squishy it was like sitting on a sofa! I’m so glad I chose to change my clothes for each discipline – how my backside would’ve ended up if I’d stayed in my hard, unforgiving trisuit the whole time for the sake of saving a few minutes doesn’t bear thinking about!

I set off on the bike and prepared myself for what I estimated to be 8 hours of mindnumbing cycling boredom. There was certainly some mental strength required, but the sights and sounds of the race – especially the spectators! – really helped egg me on. I was on track for a 6h30 bike time (yay!) when I felt a familiar squidgy feeling in my rear tyre. Puncture!! I was dreading a puncture, as while I had all the kit and was perfectly competent at changing the inner tube, I completely lack the hand strength required to get my stiff road tyre back on the wheel. So when two kindly cyclists came along in the opposite direction, I eagerly flagged them down. After a lot of straining we finally got the tyre back on the rim and I was on my way! The puncture cost me 30mins, so in the end my total bike time was 7 hours. As transition loomed again I was so relieved – even if I had to walk, I would make the final cut off time and I was definitely going to complete an Ironman! Woo-hoo!

Nearly 9 hours after I started (which, by the way, is when the first female finished!), I was finally running a marathon. I’d loaded a pair of heavily pocketed running shorts with 50 jelly babies before the race and I focussed on eating at least one every kilometre. At every food station I let myself walk so I could drink a cup of water without choking! And then I would run again. At about halfway I started adding orange slices to my food station trips – sweet sweet liquid, they went down a treat! I didn’t realise before I did an Ironman quite how many people walk the whole way. So I was feeling really good when I was still running at halfway (and *spoiler alert* I managed to run the whole course!). I had finally been joined by own personal spectators which was awesome as it gave me something to look forward to on each lap. The first time I passed them, I bounded along beside them while they flip flopped along for ~300m. I wasn’t quite so boundy and eager after I’d passed them for the fourth and final time! 

The nature of running laps at the Outlaw, meant every 10km or so I would pass by the finishing line. I was seeing people finished as I still had 30, 20, 10km to go. When it was finally my turn to finish, I turned into the finish chute (red carpet, natch) and found a smidge of speed that had been saving itself for the crowds and deliriously grinned my way Cheshire cat-style to the finish banner. I raised my hands and passed under the gantry and I finished! I had finished an Ironman! I WAS AN OUTLAW!

The only downside of the Outlaw Half was the stairs you have to walk up at the end. “I’ve just done a half Ironman and you want me to climb stairs?!” Thankfully this time a ramp had been installed and, after handing back my lap wristbands and collecting my medal and T-shirt, I slowly walked up the ramp and got funnelled into the food tent. There was so much on offer – lasagne, chilli, curry, stew, cake…but I couldn’t stomach any of it. The weird thing about exercise and especially racing, is how it suppresses your appetite just when you need to eat most! I saw my spectators through a window in the food tent and they pointed at the food and their mouths. My hungry spectators needed feeding! I grabbed some chilli and a few naan breads and met them outside. We sat on the grass for a while and then realised that it was actually quite late in the day and a school night so everybody should probably go home. I need a bit of crowbarring to get up from the grass and hobble back to the car!

After my initial reluctance to do an Ironman distance race, I am SO glad I finally did. It was my favourite race I’ve ever done. Yes it was long, yes it was hard, but the race organisation at the Outlaw and the enthusiasm from the volunteers made it so much fun. I’m now having to remind myself of all the long dull training I did to be able to complete the race to stop me from signing up to another!!

My Ironman Journey: Year 2

After a really fun first year of triathlon, the bug had truly hit and in the Autumn of 2015 I signed up to my first half Ironman distance race – The Outlaw Half. I’d heard great things about this race, and the fact that it sells out the day it goes on sale speaks for itself! So I signed up and spent the winter wondering and worrying, and itching to get back to proper training. A half Ironman felt like a proper serious distance, and it was one I’d really have to think about and plan for, especially making sure my distances were up to scratch and my race nutrition was all planned and well rehearsed.

A winter of itching to get back to training led me to book onto another big first race – a marathon! I chose Manchester Marathon partly due to its proximity to my parents’ house, and partly because the race info insisted it was a flat PB course so it was sure to be easy, right?? Through the winter and spring, the marathon training really gave me something to focus on. I was running most of my long runs with my new run club, and I was loving the social aspect and camaraderie. The weather soon improved though, and by March I was probably doing more cycling than running! I was back loving my bike again and running had become a chore. My training dropped off before the marathon, though I still managed to complete the race. It was someway short of my target 4h time at 4:27. I hated the last half of the run and the spectator support ran out just when I need it most – mile 15 to 21. Once I could sense the finish line though I picked up the pace and bounded across the finish line! It was the first big race my parents and siblings had been to watch, so it was awesome having then cheer me along and ply me with food and drink at the end! Plus I got another free ‘isotonic recovery drink’ (beer) so my Dad and brother didn’t do too badly!

With the improving weather, my love of cycling returned with a vengeance and I was cycling most evenings and weekends. My run training dropped off, but thankfully I still had miles in my legs from the marathon. I was still swimming a couple of times a week, now with a local triathlon club which helped improve my swim fitness and technique no end. Not long after the marathon in April, the May half Ironman rolled around and once more I was driving up to a race venue after a night of minimal sleep ready to throw myself in a cold lake!

At 7am, as the sun rose over Nottingham, we gingerly entered into the cold cold water and waited for the start horn to sound. And we were off! The swim went similarly to London Triathlon – I managed to draft for a while until I got bored and switched to breastroke. This was something I needed to get over! Still, I was happy with my 1.9km swim time of 47 minutes. The cycle ride was smooth and flat. OK, yes, there was one hill, but everyone I had spoken to had immensely exaggerated the scale of this hill. I was up and over it nice and quick, and began the gentle descent back to the T2. I averaged 28kph over the 90km, which I was super happy with. I guess not having to stop at junctions or slowing for traffic/pedestrians makes a big difference! Onto the run, and I paced it well and with only a small amount of walking I finished the 21.1km flat route in 2:10. Another red carpet finish chute (I could get used to this!) and I was done! 

I loved loved loved the Outlaw Half! It was the most well organised, well supported (spectators and volunteers) race I’d ever done. After a summer of saying “I think I’ll just do cycling from now on”, it totally reinvigorated my love for triathlon. In fact I loved it so much, and loved the race so much, that come Autumn 2015 I was signing up for the big one – the full Ironman distance Outlaw!

My Ironman Journey: Year 1

I took three years of progressing through triathlon distances before I did my first Ironman distance race, so I’ll chronicle each of those years in this mini blog post series…

At the end of 2013, I decided that my first year of triathlon should culminate in an Olympic distance triathlon. Typically this is a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike and then a 10km run. I booked onto the London Triathlon, an annual race with huge range of distances and waves running over two days. I booked onto the Olympic distance race and crossed my fingers that I would be fit enough to finish by the time August rolled around!

So with this in mind, at the start of 2014 I booked onto a number of multisport races in order to progress my skills and improve my fitness through the year. My first multisport race was a chilly early March duathlon at Eton Dorney, run by Votwo. I’d run a 10km there earlier in the year and knew it was pan flat – so I was all set for an easy start to multisport racing! The newest part to me was the so called ‘transition’, where you switch from running to cycling and later back to running again. Apart from running out with my helmet on (oops!) the race went smoothly. The biggest surprise to me was how my legs felt trying to run again after cycling – everyone describes the feeling as jelly-like, but to me my legs felt stiff as wood! And although my watch said I was running a good pace, it felt like I was going really slowly. I guess that’s the effect of having just cycled at a much a faster rate and having to get used to the surroundings going past much more slowly!

My first triathlon was a pool-based sprint distance race; a sprint race is typically half the distance of Olympic. This was the Lutterworth Flashman, a small race run by the local triathlon club. It was a 400m swim, 18km bike and 5km run, so slightly shorter than half Olympic. I remember quizzing the poor race director to death about all the logistics of my kit – where to leave my swim kit and how to lay my bike kit out and whether I’d need my race belt etc etc. She was very patient with me, even though I’m sure she had much better things to be getting on with, like managing a race! The race went smoothly (again), although I ran out from transition with my helmet (again!). The Flashman was such a friendly and well organised race so after a couple of years on hiatus, I’m glad to see it’s now back running at a new venue.

My next race was a step up again – this time progressing from a pool-based swim to open water. Eek! Like I mentioned in a previous post, the thought of what’s beneath me in a lake doesn’t bother me. The thing I worried about most was the cold. I hate that first time you get into an indoor heated pool – and that’s usually somewhere between 25 and 30℃. So the thought of plopping myself into cold 15℃ water, wetsuit or not, was rather off-putting! Still, I managed it, and after a very slow totter into the water, I began my first open water sprint triathlon (courtesy of Votwo again). This time the distances were truly half Olympic, so 750m swim, 20km bike and 10km run. It was an evening triathlon and because of work commitments I had opted to be in the last wave. Which meant that when I finished it was getting dark and they’d already started packing away the finish line! Slightly embarrassing, but the race still went well for me, I was just slow!

Eventually August rolled around, and with that came my season’s A’ race. I didn’t sleep much the night before because I was worried about how it would go. Looking back this seems silly – if it all goes wrong, it doesn’t matter! You just drop out of the race and come back another day. Anyway, the newbie triathlete in me was pooing her pants. The drive there was odd, as they’d signposted most of the route but not all, and finding the entrance to the Excel was a nightmare! After a stressful half an hour circling the venue and getting totally lost, we eventually found the car park entrance. Thankfully we’d left buckets of time, so we still had an hour to get me registered, set up transition and squish myself into my wetsuit. After an incoherent briefing, my fellow triathlon ladies and me all piled into the water and then a horn sounded and we were off! I managed to draft someone for a long way, until I got bored of front crawl and began to breastroke instead. It was only in my third year of triathlon that I stopped breastroking in triathlon events. It takes a lot of mental strength to keep your face firmly in the water for the entire time! I felt good about my swim and when I got out my time was 33 minutes – far faster than the 45 I was expecting! I know I was drafting but even now this seems fast, so I have my suspicions about the accuracy of the swim course. Anyway, swim done and I was onto the bike! This was the bit I was looking forward to most, after a summer of cycling with my new group I was loving the bike! Unfortunately I hadn’t thought to read the race manual in much detail, nor listen closely to the briefing, and I went the wrong way. The wrong way!! Rather than doing one and a half laps to make the 40km, I managed to do two full laps, making my total bike distance 55km. I was mortified! Still, I managed to finish and came off the bike with my target total race time of 3 hours in tatters. Oh well, all I could do now was run. And run I did. Three laps of a curvy turny route which didn’t give much chance to get a good pace going. But the best bit was the finish – RED CARPET! I bounded down the finish chute like I hadn’t just done my longest triathlon to date with the biggest grin across my face! I was met at the end with a medal and a cold beer (alcohol free, apparently this can be justified as an ‘isotonic recovery drink’!). I finished the race in about 3:30, so half an hour longer than my target 3h, but I put that down to my extra long bike. With a successful race behind me and a post-race burger inside me, suffice to say I was pretty happy!

After a great event, we unfortunately got stuck in the traffic trying to get around the road closures for the triathlon bike route (ironic) and it took us 3 hours to get home. It took the shine off things a bit. But still, I was so happy to have trained well up to the distance and successfully completed the race. And the fact that I’d actually done a much longer bike gave me confidence that next year maybe I could another distance which was brewing in my head – half Ironman!

My Ironman Journey: Back in the Saddle

Once I’d decided I wanted to try triathlon, the discipline which I was most excited about was the bike. I used to love tearing around campsites when I was little and cycling to friends’ houses, so the thought of getting a bike was pretty exciting. Through the winter of 2013/14 I was going to more and more spin classes at the gym, which really helped with my general fitness as well as getting me ready for cycling. In January 2014, I bought myself a snazz new bike through the cycle to work scheme. It was a road bike – I’d previously only had mountain bikes – called a ‘Scott Speedster 15’ and it was black and purple and very shiny. I imaginatively named it ‘Bikey’. For a few months, ‘Bikey’ lay relatively unused, partly due to the cold weather and partly because I just didn’t know where to take it; I worried about getting lost. Everything changed in June when I found a local cycling group and started cycling with them. I built up group riding confidence, discovered some great roads for cycling (and some not so great roads!), and dramatically improved my bike handling skills.

I’d rediscovered cycling and rediscovered that sense of pure freedom that only cycling brings. I love exploring the UK countryside and admiring the incredible scenery. I also love that cycling and cake are so intricately interwoven that I soon knew of every bike friendly cafe within a 50km radius of my house!

Now that I’d embarked on all three of the triathlon disciplines, there was only one thing left to do: Enter A Triathlon!

My Ironman Journey: Tackling the Swim

Not long after I took up running, the seed of triathlon planted itself in my head. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, although I do remember one of my friends talking about a super sprint race they did around this time, so possibly I was inspired by that. I always loved cycling and swimming when I was younger, so adding those into my new run program seemed to make sense. I read lots of information on the internet about triathlon and how the format works, and discovered that front crawl is the triathlete stroke of choice. I had swum sporadically during my adult life, mostly a few lengths of breastroke (I remember once thinking 24 lengths was my limit!) but it was a long time since I’d attempted front crawl. Time to learn!

I signed up to adult front crawl lessons at my local leisure centre and began (re-)learning the stroke. We slowly progressed through swimming widths to lengths, and then at the end of term we had a swim test where I officially ‘qualified’ to enrol on the intermediate class starting next term. In the end I did adult front crawl lessons for about a year and finally wasn’t swallowing the entire pool every lesson! I was even bilaterally breathing and at my final swim test, I managed to swim about 50 lengths in 30 mins. Success!

During this first year of swimming, I tried open water swimming for the first time. I went along to a ‘first timers’ course run by British Triathlon at Shepperton Lake, which is a lovely beach-entry lake West of London. They gave us some classroom teaching and then let us slowly (very slowly!) enter the water and start swimming around. It was cold and weirdly restrictive to wear a wetsuit, but I didn’t find it creepy or worried about things touching you like others. I always loved water and playing in seas/rivers on holiday when I was little, so maybe that helped. After getting used to the water, we did some exercises in sighting then course (turns out I naturally swim in circles!) and drafting other swimmers to save energy. It was a really great course and incredibly useful for a total open water noob like me!

So now that I was regularly running and swimming, there was just one last triathlon discipline to try: the bike!

My Ironman Journey: Couch to 5k

Three years ago almost to the day I started the Couch to 5k program. From never ever running before in my entire life, I had at some point during Summer 2013 decided that I should figure out what this ‘going for a run’ lark is all about. I searched the internet for beginners running and up came the Couch to 5k program – a 9 week walk/run training plan for complete beginners aiming to run 5 kilometres (3.1 miles). I know now a slow build like this is most definitely the best approach to running, allowing your body to adapt to both the physical exertion and the greater impact on the knees/joints. So on the 19th of August 2013, I downloaded a Couch to 5k app to my phone, popped my headphones in and off I went. That first run was 20 minutes of 60 seconds jogging, 90 seconds of walking. The app allowed me to listen to music while a very nice lady gently encouraged me to start or stop running. That first walk/run felt kinda easy, probably owing to the fact that the program plans for a slow build and also that, while I was pretty much a couch potato, I still had youth and the occasional hill walk and zumba class on my side.

Through August and September I continued on the program at a slightly faster than planned rate – at 3 sessions per week I instead probably averaged 4 or 5, turning a 9 week program into six. As I progressed, I planned my finale run (and first 5k non-stop run) to take place at Leamington Parkrun. Parkrun is a free weekly timed 5k run taking place every Saturday morning in parks across the UK. It’s an amazing creation, and has significantly contributed to the wealth of new runners like me taking up the sport in the last decade. It’s a great place to do your first 5k; the atmosphere is so supportive; whether you run, walk or plod, everyone is made to feel welcome and included, all ages, shapes and sizes. I remember giving it my all, forcing myself not to walk at all (even though I really wanted to) and feeling so happy when I finished (I finished!!) in a time of 30:23.

Credit: David Hawtin

After parkrun I continued running round about 3 times a week, starting to progress slowly through the distance to my new goal of running 10k. A fortnight’s holiday to Vietnam didn’t help my cause – the jetlag and 2 weeks off my newfound sport made the first few runs back feel horrendous! But nevertheless by November 2013 I was ready to sign up to my first 10k – the Coventry 10k.

Looking back now, having done so many other running/multisport races, Coventry 10k is a fairly poorly organised affair with an inaccurate course, insufficient toilets and a manual ‘hope they spot you’ timing system. Still, it was good enough for my first attempt at a longer distance race. It was a nice crisp November morning and as far as I remember, the race went well. I was more than a little surprised by my finishing time of 55:41, but I largely put that down to the slightly short course and perhaps being fitter than I initially thought.

Now that running was becoming a triweekly occurance and I’d completed my first 10k run, I felt I could officially call myself a runner! I rewarded myself with a pair of snazz new trainers specially designed for running and signed up to the local running club. I didn’t know it yet, but my journey to Ironman had begun!