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Amy Kilpin Race reports from Challenge Almere
A-Race. We all know what that means. The BIG one, the one that counts.
When I found out I had qualified to compete for GBR at the European Long Distance Championships, it was an amazing feeling. I didn’t even realise it was possible at the time. As the year progressed, I soon discovered that many people get this opportunity and there is a divided opinion about whether it is considered an achievement or not, but whatever, I don’t care, I’ll take that opportunity and bank it as a pretty unique experience.
I guess I got a bit excited signing up for races this year, and putting 100% into all of them has seen me get some decent results (for me), so my A-Race had almost shrunk in terms of significance. In fact, to the point which it didn’t really feel like it was my A-Race anymore… and that’s not necessarily a good thing!
It was kind of weird. Last year, my whole life revolved around Ironman. It was all I talked about, all I thought about, all I dreamed about, and was the centre of my universe. This year, this iron distance race was almost “just another race”.
After Budapest 70.3 only three weeks before, my training mainly consisted of ‘ticking over’, keeping things moving with a little intensity and not much endurance stuff (guess that’s all in the bank by this point!), and the week before the race I was away on a little excursion around the UK for a semi-holiday, so I certainly felt relaxed about the whole thing! To the point, in fact, of feeling rather lazy and unfit.
This is normal though right? Every taper makes me feel like this. I was plagued by people on Twitter declaring how “great” they felt during their taper, and I was sat there feeling sluggish, tired and even when I did train, I didn’t feel particularly good. Not bad either, just mediocre. Uh oh, this could be a case of end of season burnout. I might just struggle with this long distance malarkey, I’m not really feeling ready for it….
After speaking to a friend before the big day, he messaged me saying I was “flat”. Yep, that pretty much summed it up. I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t excited. I was just nothing. This was weird for me as I usually experience one or the other before a race. I wasn’t even that interested in talking about the race, I was enjoying distractions in the countryside! I did have a fleeting moment of unsureness and emailed my coach expressing it, but after reassuring me that it was normal and I had done a ton of training, I let go of that and went back to being flat.
I was staying right out of the way in a rural forest 30 minutes from the race venue so it was great not to be caught up in all the pre-race hype and swapping notes with other athletes – something I always try to avoid. The day before was the usual pre-race prep and always takes longer than desired, but I felt strangely calm going through all the processed of registering, briefing and racking. Time to carb load then.
Race day dawned at 4am and after the usual necessities, it was off to the start. There was an unusually short turnaround time between transition opening (6am) and race start (7am) so it was all about efficiency and less about faffing! Again, I felt strangely calm. This was NOT normal for me Maybe because I have done so much racing this year? Who knows, but I liked it.
We entered the water and despite the mass of athletes congregating near the water entry point, I swam right over to the far right hand side (ready for a direct line to the first right hand buoy turn). It was a strategy I had. The first buoy turn was right, then for the rest of the course, they were left hand turns. This meant either keep wide on the first turn and get mashed up on the following buoys (or try to cross over to the right, which would be challenging at best), or get mashed up on the first buoy and have a clear wide run for the rest. I opted for the latter.
Most athletes were gunning for a diagonal (and longer) route to the first buoy so my far-right position was looking great. The canon was fired, we were off.
This was, unequivocally, the smoothest race swim I have ever had. My strategic positioning was genius! I had a nice clear smooth run to the first buoy and because of my proximity and direct line, it was smooth around the first buoy. Then I had a nice clear position on the outer edge of the pack to get into a rhythm. I very quickly realised I was swimming neck and neck pace with another female so quickly decided to drop onto her feet to save myself the energy. And relax. I sat on her feet for the entire first 1.9k lap, relaxed, smooth, easy swimming.
After the first lap, she started to tire so I looked for someone else’s feet to draft on. I found a guy who had an awful kick and a weaving swim so after some time struggling on his feet, I looked around for a smoother swimmer! I finished the swim drafting on a few other people but maintaining my relaxed, steady pace, exiting the water in 1:05. Not too shabby!
Transition was a long run into a basement to change before an even longer run out of transition and onto the bike.
Flat course is gonna be easy, right? Wrong. I was out on the first part of the course realising quickly that the series of turns and narrow sections on bike paths wasn’t going to result in the fastest bike split. However, I was averaging a nice steady pace of 31kph so my plan was to maintain this. Easier said than done. After around 20k, we hit a stretch of coastal road which ran right next to the sea for 35k, and an absolutely brutal headwind. My time was dropping. Head down, pedal on.
I was struggling to keep my heart rate low but I knew if I dropped off, my times would be compromised massively. Ok, just risk it then. I was getting plenty of nutrition and hydration on board without feeling any negative effects, which was great. After what felt like a very long time, we dropped out of the headwind and into a tailwind. Yep, this is more like it!
Cruising along blissfully, I was making good time. After endless featureless flat fields and about a million wind turbines, we were back at the start and commencing the second loop. A few cheers from my family and boyfriend spurred me on, but underneath my strong façade I was starting to weaken. I knew my endurance on the bike was a weak point for me, and only now was it really starting to show as I got overtaken. Again. And again. And again.
On hitting the second loop of 35k headwind, I hit a really low point. Just keep going, I can do this. It was no good, my feather-like positive thoughts were completely obliterated by the wind and got blown away into the nothingness. I struggled to keep pedalling, I was struggling to stay aero as my back was aching.
This is when a few tears came out, something that has never happened to me during a race. Where was the flatness? I preferred that. I was struggling to breathe as my chest tightened and the emotions took hold. I allowed it, embraced it, for a few minutes, and then decided it was making things harder and that I just needed to keep going.
Damn it was tough. Really, really tough, but after quite some time, as I rounded that corner and the tailwind pushed me along, I felt better. The last 30km of the bike was still really hard as everything ached, and all I could think was that even when this pain was over, I still have to run a marathon. Oh dear god.
My times had slipped and I got off the bike at 6:28. Slower than I had hoped for but a whole hour faster than my last iron distance bike split, I can live with that.
After a quick transition (well it felt quick anyway), I was running. Wow. This felt AMAZING. Is that even possible? I was so relieved to be running, to be off that bike, and I felt super strong, relaxed, and in absolutely great form. Phew. I could do this.
My first lap (of six) was immense, I cruised along at sub 5:20 min/km aiming to hold that pace. I started taking in gels every 25 minutes (as instructed by my nutritionist fit naturally). Usually, I can’t take them this regularly due to stomach discomfort, which is never considerable, but enough to make me wait longer until it has settled a bit. This time, I was smashing them back, water at every single aid station, and I was feeling epic.
The second lap was much the same, but around halfway my pace started dropping a little. Ok, I can hold it here, that’s fine. The third lap was a struggle. I realised at the end of this lap that I was only half way and I was starting to feel the pain. On the fourth lap, I hit a dark place again. Even at the end of this lap, with the realisation that I still had two more 7k loops to go, I was despairing quite a bit and the tears threatened to rise again. My face was screwed up as the pain seeped into every corner of my body. My knees ached so much that I thought I may have to walk, maybe not even finish. My pace had slipped badly to 6:30 min/km.
My mini support crew shouted at me, cheered me, told me to make them proud. I powered on.
My fifth lap improved somewhat as I knew that with every step I was getting closer to that finish line. As I hit the crowd ready to take on my last lap, I was feeling amazing again. I had that euphoria back from my very first lap, and suddenly, I didn’t really notice the pain anymore. I smiled and engaged with all the supporters, and my pace was held at sub 6 min/km for the whole last loop. That’s better. I cruised across to a comfortable sprint finish with a 4:06 marathon time and a total of 11:48. Sub-12, in the bag. Brilliant.
I was third in my age group (hello bronze medal) but only three people were represented in my age group at the European Champs! (The open race was running in parallel). I was reassured by the fact that I was only 9 minutes off second place and only 29 minutes behind first place, so this was not a bad achievement. I was 18th female overall and was top 10 in the 25-39 category (they bunched three categories together for the open race). My swim time was only 4 minutes off the elite women. And I achieved sub-12. I was happy. Very happy with my A-Race, and a far cry from my “just need to finish it” Ironman last year.
I realised a few things on completing an iron distance race for the second time. I experienced every single emotion imaginable during that race and I hit low places that I have never been to before. I also felt euphoria and anger, and all of this came after a period of flatness. It really is an exploration into the self. My lows were non-coincidentally coincided with negative thoughts. This really is a mental game, and psychology plays such a strong part in performance.
But you know what? It was worth it. Every single bit of pain, tears, doubt and the vast loneliness of nothingness. Sharing this experience with my amazing parents and boyfriend who supported me all day long was incredible. This is what actually made the experience really special, other people’s belief in me when mine was temporarily absent. So thank you, to all of you.