As we all know Redditch is well known for being consistently hotter than the Sahara Desert. Whilst I might have made that up, the temperature on Saturday 30 June 2018 topped out at a whopping 27 degrees C. Hot weather for sitting in the garden with a cold drink; almost unbearable weather for undertaking the Isoman long distance triathlon: 11.2km of swimming followed by 100km of biking and a 42.2km marathon just for that finishing touch.
Isoman as a concept was developed in order to ‘equalise’ an Ironman, the theory being that Ironman is incredibly heavily biased against the swim, in favour of the bike, and then the run. The distances were calculated by taking the world record marathon time (approx. 2 hours) and comparing this to how far a professional long distance swimmer could go in that time, and how far a professional time triallist would travel, giving the peak performance for each discipline in an equal time.
I’ve got a fair few Ironmans under my belt, so I was not unduly worried by the prospect of 100 km on the bike, and I have experience with marathons at the end of triathlons, so even though not fast, I know how to stagger round. An 11km swim however… I was quite frankly terrified. In training the longest swim I had done was 5.5km. I’m not a rapid swimmer, but I am at least steady, and don’t seem to be get overly tired, so long as I keep plugging away and don’t try and vary my pace. It must be said that for open water swimming I am heavily reliant on my wetsuit – being somewhat of a ‘traditional’ triathlete I have very sinky legs (no doubt caused by spending more time with my bike than I do with my wife) and there were plenty of rumours flying round in the days leading up to the race that wetsuits were going to be banned. Thankfully at the race briefing it was confirmed that they would be optional, but it still didn’t stop me from having some sleepless nights in the run up to the race.
‘Why?’ I hear you ask, is an aquatic plodder lining up on the start line of a triathlon that favours his weakest discipline and neuters his strongest discipline? Ego. When Annie (I do actually like her more than I like my bike… just… depends which bike… I’ll shut up now) announced her intention of stepping up a distance from middle distances to long course racing it made a lot of sense for her to come via a long swim; as having powered through a 14km river swim she was heard to observe ‘that was quite easy’, and regularly ticks off various 10km swims without apparent effort. Thus in the best traditions of #marriageisacompetition you find Mr Heaney further dirtying the already murky (end of nose visibility) water of Arrow Valley Country Park Lake.
Registration and race briefing was Friday evening, and a good number of Team Cherwell were going, so Annie, Manu, Geoff, John-Paul and I all piled into the car and drove off to Redditch. Transition, a few gazebos and some boards with route maps on had already been laid out, and some hay bale seating dotted around the place. It was a lovely little atmosphere – only 54 people had entered the full distance event, so talking to the few people hanging about, we had chatted to most of the field before we had started – a much more relaxed atmosphere than the disco-beat, eardrum pummelling world of branded Ironmans, which I must say I enjoyed. Isoman is very much a ‘one-man-band’ affair and race organiser Gary Jarvis had done a pretty good job, and would later be found riding around the run course on his bike individually checking that all the runners were OK. At the race briefing came the welcome news that wetsuits would be allowed despite the water being a tropical 24°C, and we would be allowed to remove them during the swim and continue if we so wished. We all took a brief stroll down to look at the lake and take a few pre-game photos and then back to Banbury for a few hours of broken sleep before the 4:00 am race day alarm.
So having rambled on for near on a thousand words I’m finally at the water’s edge, observing the brown murk that we will shortly be plunging into. A final few words came from race director Gary, telling us the water had been measured in the middle of the lake and was a warm, but manageable 22 degrees. Down the ramp and into the water and the nerves seemed to calm a bit. I didn’t bother with too much of a warm up as I wasn’t planning on setting off like a rocket and would have plenty of time over the eight 1400m laps to ease into the stroke. I made sure I was comfortable with my face in the water, floated on my back for a moment so that the Garmin could pick up the heartrate strap and get a good GPS fix, exchanged some friendly chat with the other starters and waited for the countdown. The hooter went and off we went. I had gone fairly near the back, just to be out of the way, but as there was rather a long way to go there was not the usual swim start punch up and everyone generally kept out of everyone else’s way. As I was never going to be near the front, navigation was not difficult, and most of my concentration was focussed on not getting carried away and going too hard in the early stages. As it was reasonably warm I had decided to stop at the feed jetty every lap to hydrate, and also take on coke, which hopefully would keep some of the things lurking in the lakewater at bay. I arrived at the jetty at the same time as Annie, having been vaguely near her all lap, and after a swig of coke we set off again. Second time around we came in together again, so we suggested just swimming together, as it is nice to have some company, even if there was not a lot of scope for chat. Rather surprisingly laps three, four, five and six passed rather pleasantly. Friends from Team Cherwell, Helen and Mike, appeared as support, easy to spot even from the water in the red and yellow club colours, and it was nice to exchange a few words before heading off under the timing arch again. The pacing was fine, a couple of times Annie drew a few meters ahead of me, so I would put in a few strokes harder effort to catch up, but rather than tiring me it actually provided some much-needed variation. At the beginning of the seventh lap my shoulder began to twinge, right in the place where I had had an impinged nerve the year before. Annie began to pull ahead, but not by much, so I told her to get on and leave me behind for the final lap, as my shoulder meant that my pace was dropping considerably. I exited the water only a few minutes behind the wife, having covered 11km in 3:59.23 (under the magic 4 hours ithankyew) and headed off to transition.
Coach Brian and I had gone through a race strategy beforehand, which I was actually managing to follow – for now. The basics were take the swim steady – focus on not smashing out of the gates too fast on the bike, as we thought some might try and ‘overcompensate’ for the long, slow swim, but keep a nice, even power output, a bit above my Ironman pace, as it is a much shorter distance, but not so high that the run was unmanageable.
The course was fairly lumpy, but nothing extreme. The image shows the elevation (grey) my heart rate (red) and my power (purple). Ideally the purple and red lines want to be as flat as possible, although uneven terrain makes this difficult.
Despite feeling like I was not riding particularly well, I soon caught up with Annie, and then Manu and Geoff, who had beaten me out of the swim. J-P had stopped in the swim to take his wetsuit off, due to the heat, and later told me that he had been losing 7 minutes a lap because of this, and a further 10 trying to get it back on. Just as I began my second lap my bike threw its chain, caused by me mashing the wrong buttons on the Di2 too quickly, and I had to get off to un-jam it. I only lost 30 seconds however, so it did not put me off too much. Despite this, I was consistently passing people, and no one, not even anyone from any of the distances, came past me (until my last lap where one bloke on his third lap of a bike only event toiled by) so I knew I was not doing too badly.
I got back into T2 having posted the fastest bike split of the day with 3:12.36(this is bragging), a full 11 minutes faster than the next competitor, without having drained the tank too much and my legs still feeling surprisingly fresh. I dawdled my way through transition, putting on tape, socks, shoes, tying laces!, and absolutely lathering on suncream. Hat and sunglasses on, as I had been wearing an aero helmet with a visor on the bike, tipped a cup of cold water over myself in a desperate attempt to keep cool, and set off on the first of the four lap marathon.
Team Cherwell had an excellent showing – J-P had almost run me down, coming in just three minutes after me, for eighth place, having had a stellar (in those conditions) run. Manu, stepping up to a longer distance, and in preparation for Ironman next year, came next of our little band, in eleventh place, with Geoff, who had been plagued by injury, finishing well for nineteenth position. Annie too had a stonking race, not only did she have a solid swim, but she put down the fastest ladies bike split as well (apparently the Heaneys should stick to biking) and had secured second place overall among the ladies, at her first long distance event. It is a mark of how brutal the condition were that out of the 55 people who started the Isoman, only 33 finished – a colossal rate of attrition. The 2018 Full Isoman Finisher's Tshirt and medal is a rare thing indeed.
Brian's coaching strategy had me doing a large amount of base fitness building in the weeks running up to the race, and taking an 'all meters are good meters' for the swimming. This was the best preparation I could have had, as although conditions had scuppered the race strategy for the run part I had that base level of ability to 'just keep going' garnered from what, at the time, seemed like interminable 'MAF' runs. I've never had much of a problem finding motivation to get out on the bike, and the weekly time trials and regular commuting had taken care of that aspect of the training. So thanks, as ever, go to Natural Ability Performance Coaching's very own Coach BB, the other Team Cherwell members competing, and the various Team Cherwell members, friends, fellow competitors, associated hangers on and the incredibly enthusiastic marshals who offered such fantastic support throughout the race.