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Race Reports 2014

Double Murska Sobota - Slovenia - Double Ultra Triathlon World Championship - Matt Winn-Smith (August 2014)

The build up

I always like to have some challenging build-up races and training sessions.  The training effect, both physical and mental , is great.  Last year my monster bank holiday weekend was a 200m ride on Saturday, hilly 27.2m trail race on Sunday and then the Milton Keynes marathon on Monday.  It was tough and lining up for the second marathon with very heavy legs led to me questioning my sanity a little.  However, it worked out well, the performances were solid and when it came to my main race of the season it was a great thing to have in the bank.

This year my main race was the Double ultra world champs (double iron distance) in Murska Sobota, Slovenia and, given its designation as my “A” race, I wanted to perform well.  The targets set from a long way out were (i) top 3 and (ii) sub-22 hours.  Tough targets but, with a fair wind, I felt they were achievable.

Given the nature of the challenge the big build-up tests were similarly tough.  First up was the Forestman but on no taper and with a decent brick the day before.  The brick ended up being about 4hrs cycling and 30mins running.  It was nothing devastatingly hard but I felt it and I went into the race tired.  Despite the tiredness and the fact that it is a pretty tough race it all worked out fine.  10.05 and 2nd on the day completed my first testing big weekend.  The second big test was three weeks out from the race. Saturday was the Anglian iron distance in Norfolk – a superfast tide assisted swim, rolling / hilly bike and a (very surprisingly) tough hilly run.  The result was 10.44 and 2nd (with a puncture on the bike).  Sunday (the next day) was the Owler iron distance in Kent – a lake swim, moderately hilly bike and flat run.  The result there was 11.31 and 7th (excluding relay teams – and this time included a more aggravating puncture on the bike and a smattering of other mechanical issues which cost a fair bit of time).  Both events were a long way from all out.  They were about getting a great training weekend in three weeks from the big one.  The training was in the bank and all that was needed was another couple of good weeks before a 6/7 day taper.

Immediately before

All the usual questions went through my mind.  I wanted comfort that I could do what I was hoping for but really did not know if it was on the cards or was too optimistic.  My double PB was 23.41 (albeit not much of a race and a long while back).  My target was almost two hours faster and I really hoped I was not overreaching.  Only one way to find out!  My coach, Steven Lord, reminded me that it was a race and that 3rd and 25hrs would be better than somewhere outside the medals and 22hrs.  Possibly true, but what did that really mean?  Should I forget about the time targets?

The Swim

Approximately 50 starters were at the edge of the water (about 20 or so entrants not making it to the start line) whilst a priest balanced in a small rowing boat blessed the race.  Not a standard start to a race but a perfectly amusing diversion.  Shortly afterwards we were off and I was instantly behind the lead two swimmers.  I had no idea how fast the lead guys might be and I was ready to adjust my race accordingly.  As it turned out, after about 1 lap (of about 400m) I decided the pace was too slow.  I moved to the front and picked the pace up.  Looking over my shoulder I could see that there was a big group and really did not want to tow anybody round so over the next two laps I attacked hard and repeatedly.  It worked and by the end of lap 3 there was just one guy on my feet.  I had a couple of 50m blasts to shake him off but it was totally ineffectual.  I have since seen his results from recent races (a 1.58 and 2.56 from a pool based double and triple) and I think it is clear that he a much stronger swimmer than me!

I resigned myself to my one companion and from that point settled down to a far more sustainable pace.  If he was taking a draft then so be it.  Fortunately he only stayed behind for a lap.  After that he moved in front and with some hand gestures he made it clear we should share the work.  And so it came to pass that alternately he took a lap and I took a lap and together the two of us put some decent time into everyone else.

We stopped after 9 ½ laps for feeding.  I took a gel and a big swig of energy drink.  I then stopped once more after a further 5 laps and then sprinted to get back on Roland’s feet.  With 1 ½ laps to go there was some heavy congestion at a buoy, Roland went one way, I went the other and he had a gap.  I was tired and conscious of the fact that the swim was nearly over so I let him go.  After 18 ½ laps it was time to come out.  The clock showed it was about 2.07.30 and Roland had about 10s or so over me.  But we had only just started our very long day . . . .

The bike

Every second counts.  With this in mind I didn’t bother with socks – I know that sounds crazy.  However, I’ve raced plenty of iron distance races without socks on the bike and I get no issues.  So rather than dry my feet after the swim I just get on with the bike with bare feet and deal with socks later when it comes to the run.

Likewise, I kept my tri kit on which I had under my wetsuit whereas Roland changed into cycling kit.  This meant that I was first out of T1 and onto the bike course with 2hr10 on the clock.  I followed a motorbike onto Lap 1 (which was cool), drank my energy drink, took a bite of a bar and kept everything easy.  I also noted that I did not feel particularly good.  Perhaps this was hardly surprising.  I had just swam 7.6km pretty hard and I needed my body to settle down into the rhythm of a very long bike ride.

Within the first lap (the laps being about 5km) Roland passed me and looked strong and comfortable.  I put it out of my mind and rationalised that my strength is running, not cycling, and I had to follow my own race, not his.  As the time passed more and more competitors came out onto the bike course.  I tried to keep tabs on who looked fast and who were my main rivals.  The first rival to identify was easy, it was Kamil Suran.  I knew he was a problem because he passed me.  The other chap was Richard Widmer – I knew his name because he won the world champs race last year in 20.44 and he had recently won the world champs triple in a frightening mid-34hr time.

The first 20m were steady.  After that I began to find my bike legs and my mind zoned out to focus on the minutiae of race feedback.  I was always looking at power, speed, where Roland, Kamil and Richard were and noting how I felt.  Did I need to drink, to eat, to pull myself together and press on the pedals a little harder?  Whilst constantly being involved in making those assessments the time just seemed to fly past.  The hours and the miles just melted away.  More importantly whilst this was going on and the hours were slipping by no one else had passed me.

My average speed was always more than 20mph.  I figured this was the magic number.  20mph average for 224m is 11hrs12.  With stops and interruptions then 11 ½ would be on and that would fit with my sub-22hr target.  This average speed also meant that the laps were taking under 9mins.  My long suffering and saintly wife, Jo, was on crewing duty.  She would listen out for any instructions given as I passed.  Normally I would request another bottle of energy drank every 8 laps or so.  She kept them coming and by passing up bottles I did not need to stop my bike at all for the first 130m or so.

After about 100m the High 5 energy power I brought with me ran out.  I had assumed there would be some form of energy drink provided by the race organisers and this would be fine (I’m not fussy when it comes to nutrition in races).  In a sense my assumption was true, but it was not the full story.  Jo started filling my bottles with the drink provided by the race organisers – and it turned out that this was the Slovenian equivalent of Red Bull.  Fortunately she had the sense to water it down a bit.  Nevertheless, I took the bottle she handed up to me and drank it and, BOOM, it was like rocket fuel.  I suddenly felt indestructible.  My power jumped up and my lap times came down!  From this moment onwards caffeine would be a big part of my race.  Once you start you cannot really stop without a corresponding crash.

The halfway point on the bike (112m) was achieved in about 5hr20.  And this was at the beginning of my purple patch.  It was also sometime around now that whilst slowing to pick up another bottle Roland passed me once more – he had taken a lap out of me.  I immediately responded and put in a long and sustained effort to get back in front of him (i.e. merely less than one lap behind) and then I just seemed to keep it going.  I made a particular effort to ride well whilst it was still light as my experience from several races is that one’s pace always drops in the dark and picks up with the rising sun.

On this occasion my previous experience was not matched.  Although it was harder to see it was not like trail running – the road was very easy to follow and we also had the bonus that what little wind was around in the day dropped so that it was a very still night.  My average pace actually increased!  I didn’t care and I was not worried about overcooking it.  Perhaps I was wrong to make that assessment.  However, at the time I wanted to capitalize on feeling so good.  I carried on riding strongly and there was virtually no let up.  I stopped only twice.  The first time was to attach my front light and grab a few slices of pizza.  The second time was at the road side for a pee.

In the closing stages (the last 50m or so) I re-passed Kamil (so he remained a full two laps behind), I passed Richard again and I ate into Roland’s lead.  In the last few laps the timing checks I was getting told me that I was taking 30s out of Roland per lap.  I passed him with two laps to go and (as I had been very briefly a little over 10hrs earlier) I was back in front.

The second half of the bike was faster than the first, a shade under 5hr15 and I had completed the 224m in 10.34 with an average speed of about 21.2mph.

The run

Socks and shoes went on.  Cap and head torch in place.  Gel placed in pocket.  Race number shifted round to the front and then I was off.  Iron distance is different.  I normally find that the tiredness from the bike is momentarily forgotten and, if unchecked, it is possible to run far too fast at first.

I have never had such an experience in a double.  Instead there is a very definite feeling of pain and heavy legged-ness which makes running at any kind of respectable speed pretty near impossible.  Maybe I just need to toughen up – but I doubt it.  I suspect there are some things the body will just never forgive you for, no matter how much training you do!

The first lap (a shade under a mile) was behind a cyclist – he didn’t need to pedal much.  When I got in from that lap Roland was just starting out.  After another lap Kamil was off.  Finally Richard was on the course six laps behind.  These guys were my threat and I watched them all carefully.

After a couple of laps my legs started to get the message that they were required now for running duties and I actually started to feel positive about the run.  For this wonderful period the running was feeling easy.  My Garmin showed an average pace of 7.55min/m and I was keen to maintain this happy light running style and tick off some miles in relative comfort.  I even started to believe that this was how the whole run might feel like.  Oh, how cruelly wrong I was about that!

Mentally things became easier when suddenly Roland was 4 laps down.  Jo told me he had been having diarrhea difficulties and then disappeared into his caravan for 10 minutes.  Likewise Kamil was not looking great and I had taken a lap out of him.  If things carried on in a similar vein then it was all about how Richard was going to run.  Nobody rapid looking had joined onto the run course yet.

And my fear came to pass.  The light tapping of feet came from behind me and Richard came running at my side.  He introduced himself, we exchanged pleasantries and he told me how he was upset about his bike split and really ought to have done better.  The whole time whilst this was going on I speed up and he matched it.  Naturally we both made out that this was easy trotting along pace.  We were probably running at about 7.30min/m.  And then the conversation ended with Richard saying, “OK.  So have a nice run.”  With that he picked up the pace and left me for dust.  He was probably running at just shy of 3 hour marathon pace.  I was somewhat mentally deflated but with him in sight (and with my realisation that it must be bluff because he wasn’t capable of running 6.20 for the run) I decided to try to hold him and stop the gap growing any more.  I had to increase my pace and it was horribly uncomfortable but he didn’t take any more time out of me.  This was not a time trial.  This was racing and I was wading deep into hurt territory in response to Richard efforts.  Somewhat amusingly it lasted for less than 10 minutes and then his paced dropped right back down to normal.  Shortly after that he peeled off to the side of the road for a pee and I passed him.  He was then behind me for some time.

I cannot remember when but at some point Richard passed me once more.  I realised that if he took the entire lap out of me then by the time he came back to me I would still be 5 laps ahead.  The run was a total of 76 laps.  So my race became devoted to tracking where Richard was.  At the furthest out point he was maybe 80% of the lap ahead of me.   However, he never completed it and over the course of the next several hours (yes, really, I know it sounds perverse) we battled it out.  I do not know what was going through his mind but I guess, like me, he was taking careful note of where I was.

The first half marathon was done in about 1hr42 and the first marathon in a little under 3hr40 I think.  During this time Kamil and Roland were repeatedly lapped by Richard and me.  Into the second marathon things started to get ugly.  I was very tired and so many things hurt.  Some parts of my body repeatedly insisted that now would be a good time to start walking.  But I didn’t walk a step.  To walk just one step is to break the seal, to admit defeat.  I ran past Jo 76 times and most of those laps I took some food or drink (and 4 Immodium instants), but I never stopped or walked when doing so.  Every step forward was a step closer to ending the misery.  And misery is how it now felt.  Total and utter!

Into the second marathon it felt like a really huge part of the race was done and therefore it was nearly over.  Regrettably that logic is not valid.  A huge part had been done but a marathon when extremely fatigued can be a very nasty undertaking.  And it is not over quickly.

The other aspect which affected my pace at this time is that Richard, too, was suffering.  My race at this stage was very much a response to his race.  If he had maintained his pace I would have turned myself inside out to try to stay with him.  However, he did not so I eased off a little and entered the phase of the race which just involved grinding it out.  It was slow, ugly and extremely painful – but it was running, just.

With 20 laps to go (a shade under 19m) I started to think I had won it.  If Richard passed me at that moment then he would need to take a lap out of me every 4 laps.  I reckoned that was impossible and with every lap that ticked by where he still had not taken out that first lap it became ever more difficult for him.

The last few hours passed in this way.  It got light, the gap stayed more or less the same, everyone slowed down and the background subsisting pain just kept increasing.  There was no enjoyment now despite the vague realisation I was likely to win and that the end was ever slowly approaching.  Moving forward just hurt an awful lot and I wanted the suffering to end.  Finally the laps got into the single digits.  With 3 laps to go I started trying a bit harder again as the prospect of the end was now truly tangible.  Two laps to go.  Last lap.  Thank f*ck.

The finish line arrived.  The double marathon had taken about 7.58 (at a comedy low average HR of 116bpm) and the race was done.


Targets demolished.  Top 3.  Check.  Sub-22.  Check, and then some!

Normally I get to lie down after a full-on iron attempt or a 100m running race.  This time I had to keep smiling for television crews for Slovenian national TV and then local interviews.  And then it was off to doping control which took a crazily long time (you try wee-ing whilst another man inspects you very closely to check it’s definitely your pee).  What an experience and what pain.  Now the question is, what next?