Today I have been sunburned, cramped in both of my legs simultaneously (more than once), swallowed at least 5 bugs of varying species, nearly been thrown over the handlebars of my bike at 60kph (twice within 10 seconds of each other) and cycled for over 6 hours, climbing 1800m and covering the magical 100 mile distance for the first time. I’m now doing what I have done previously when completing endurance races – I’m watching House of Cards and eating garbage food on the couch. I’m sans Lady tonight, as she is at a party – but I’m not much good to anyone at the moment I think. I’m tired and sore – rarely a good combination that equals a lovely Tin Man.
Going back to the start of the day, I was up at just before 6am for a quick breakfast, threw everything I needed in the car, and drove the 45 minutes or so west to High Wycombe, and the football club ground where the sportive was based. Compared to previous races, I felt much less insecure about myself this time, possibly because I was carting around my lovely new Cervelo. I registered, checked my kit, and at about 8am rolled out on to the road for a full day of cycling. During the race briefing, which was no longer than 1 minute in duration, I specifically noted that we were told to keep to single file on narrow lanes. This would become important all of about 15 minutes later.
Heading out of Wycombe, we hit our first descent of the day, and it was a doozy. We were flying down this single lane, country road – I was up at the 60kph mark, keeping a safe distance from the wheel in front of me in case I needed to stop. I felt a presence on my right shoulder, and looked over to see a group of half a dozen VSC’s (very serious cyclists) crouching to maximise speed on the adjacent set of wheel tracks in the road. They were putting my 60kph to shame, flying down the road. Then the call came out – “car!!”, and looking up I noticed a car at a standstill on the road, as cyclists made their way by it slowly on their left hand side. For me, what this meant was that my previous safe closing distance shrunk almost immediately, and I was forced to hit the brakes to avoid hitting the VSCs who had appeared in front of me to avoid the car in front of them. Hitting the brakes while going down hill at 60kph and leaning forward has some drawbacks however. I had to take one hand of my bike to catch my heart flying out of my mouth, as I hit the brakes to avoid the VSCs, but then the rear of my bike rose in the air – perilously close to toppling me over. I was sure I was about to go over the handlebars, and being locked into the pedals, my head would have borne the brunt of the impact. Adrenaline pumping, my rear wheel back on the ground, I commenced rolling again – only for the same thing to happen seconds later when groups of VSCs (I think) came from behind me and merged suddenly. For experienced cyclists, they were mental. I wasn’t impressed with their conduct, nor how close I had come to an impromptu trip to A&E, so I took it easy for a while – and was surely one of the most cautious on descents for the remainder of the day.
In fact, I cruised for quite a bit of the initial part of the race, expecting a big climb that never came. I had looked at the course profile a number of times prior to the race – and figured one was due at around 20km in, but it was a blip. So I cruised into the first aid station, relaxed and well paced. Coming out of that aid station, we switched on to the ‘Epic’ (ie. long) part of the course, which made me feel, well, epic.
What this also meant was that the course was populated mainly by club level riders, working in groups with friendly banter between them. I joined one of these groups, and hung off the back – clinging for dear life as we flew through the Oxfordshire countryside at between 30-33kph. To put this in context, my usual pace is around 26kph – so the fact that I felt rather effortless (relatively speaking) was fantastic. It was just lovely, we looked after each other and chatted a bit, just a really nice way to spend a Saturday morning. Little did I know however, how much energy I had expended, and how flat that part of the course actually was. Pulling out of the second aid station, I was half way through the race, and didn’t feel fatigued. That was all to change.
First of all, I was back on my own again, which was disappointing. The group I had ridden with between aid stations 1 and 2 had split (some going on, some stopping), so I hoped to pick up a group along the way. When one didn’t materialise, I reminded myself that drafting is illegal in Ironman, so I needed to get used to cycling 100 miles (+) by myself anyway. Secondly, my quadriceps started to go, and I knew this because a) they were burning, and b) I started making a whimpering noise like a dog at the pain of it. I kept reminding myself of that fantastic quote “Pain is necessary, but suffering is optional.” I couldn’t do it, I was suffering. Then we had a nice, big, long hill to climb – and I nearly broke. Others did, as there were more cyclists walking up the hill than cycling. I was so, so proud of myself for sticking at it, and making it to the top (it’s not a bloody summit, it was just a hill). My legs were toast, but I had made it. And I only had 25 miles to go to the end at the last aid station.
I desperately wanted to sit down a stretch at the last aid station, however there was no space, and no phone reception to let The Lady know that I was ok. I did get some water however, which was a valuable lesson I learned today. Sports drinks are great, but sometimes you just need some water. Powerbar wafers are amazing though – I learned that today too. Anyway, I rolled out whimpering for the last section home, knowing that there were three more hills to go before the finish line. I knew this because a couple of riders mentioned that they were pulling out because of them, when I overheard them talking at the last aid station. Ominous.
In truth, they were bad, but mainly because we had already cycled 120km prior to that. The last section of the race for me was more about preservation than pushing on, and I’m not going to lie – it really hurt. I mentioned to the Lady at home that the pain from today was comparable to that of a marathon. My legs were constantly hurting, both of my legs were cramping, my back and neck were strained – it was just not a great, fun experience. I mean, now it is because I finished it. But at the time – all I could think of was how the hell I was expected to run a marathon after this in an Ironman. And I was also trying to remember the words to the North Melbourne Football Club theme song for some strange reason.
After much cursing (I get very sweary when I get tired on the bike), and after hauling my sorry arse for over 6 hours, it was a relieved Tin Man who crossed the finish line at High Wycombe, having completed my first ever century ride! A quick phone call to the Lady, and a change of clothes, and was off back home – first race of the year in the bag. I even got a ‘gold standard’ time from Wiggle – which, I don’t know, I guess is good? It’s not bad, that’s for sure.
So what did I learn today? Well, cycling can be scary, but it can be a ton of fun too. I learned that water is more important than I thought, and that hills suck (I didn’t learn that, I already knew it). I learned that I need to find a flat Ironman course if I want to complete one, and that Powerbar do amazing energy wafers. I also learned that I have the inner strength and willpower to push through physical adversity if need be; and I learned that I am capable of long distance (ish) cycling. There are a ton of positives to take out of today, which is handy – because I’m doing it again in a months time.
Listening To: myself singing the North Melbourne Football Club theme song