Challenge Henley 2011 Race Report

By Richard Campbell

In the beginning:

It was January 2011 and I was beginning to get my head around my new challenge. I’d always enjoyed watching tri, had fallen in love through the TV highlight show on CH4 with the course at Wimbleball and had entered for this year. Not without some challenges, such as a severe shoulder injury that wasn’t healing (ended up being a tear in the subscapularis muscle and pectoral minor) that ruled out swimming, the fact that I hadn’t ever ridden a road bike before and I was carrying a few extra pounds weighing in at 13stone 7lb. Still, I was pretty confident of physical challenges with a history of running 8 marathons so quite confident a spot of personal training would sort the shoulder out and focusing on my weakness of cycling would sort that out and my run would look after itself.

I invested in “Training for the Middle Distance” by Henry Ash, sorted out my training diary and spent the next 3 months training in the gym (rehab work) turboing on my new Pinnacle Sentinel 2.0 bike (too scared of cars and poor weather conditions) and doing my usual early year run training. The weight fell of me and by March I was now 12st 7lb.

Changing to Ironman:

My 70.3 mission made me blinkered and selfish. For 3 months I neglected my friends and most importantly my girlfriend. After a very honest conversation where I was asked if this was the end of my distance obsession I admitted that there was something called an Ironman and as I had learnt more about the sport I wanted to complete one. After talking about this we came to an uneasy compromise that whilst I was training for 12-15 hours per week, I might as well carry on and try to complete the journey and go ahead with attempting the full Ironman.

From a selfish point of view I was uneasy with this… I had still to cycle on the road, was only just getting my confidence back as a swimmer and still felt like an Ironman in my first tri season was a step too far. However, I know it wasn’t easy for my family and I had been/was being quite selfish with prioritising training over all else and this might be my only chance. I grabbed it and remain ever eternally grateful to my gorgeous girlfriend that she gave me her uneasy blessing.

Looking at the options of which race, I knew I definitely wanted to do it in the UK. It seemed to me an exciting time for Iron distance events here and I always like to ‘support local businesses’. Due to the enormity of the distances in my mind I wanted to go as late in the year as possible – ruling out Outlaw and IMUK. Ironman Wales was my number 1 choice but Challenge Henley was a similar time of year, and crucially only 60 minutes’ drive for most of my friends and family who live in London. The prospect of seeing them on the course swung it for me and I was in.

I re-did my training plan to Don Finks competitive schedule, thinking that if I was unable to commit to every schedule at least I had some leeway.

The training and build up races:

Training was fairly standard build up for the most part. Cycling was predictably a limiter and as the weather and sunlight hours improved I ventured out on the roads. Most of my rides ended up being from 5am onwards so I could take advantage of the quiet before the cars came out and my run was building up nicely. In May I completed my second tri at the Arundel Triathlon in a time of 2:19:52 which I was really pleased with.  This was followed up with a 3:35:00 time in a 52 mile sportive. I was delighted and finally felt like a ‘cyclist’.

Ironman UK 70.3 deserves its own report as it was such a special day and event. Despite finding the bike harder than I could ever imagine I finished in 7:11:09. I’m still slightly disappointed by that time. I finished comfortably and almost wish I’d pushed myself slightly more but delighted as it was a great day and fantastic confidence boost for the Challenge Henley. I weighed 11st 10lb at the start of this race and this has been my weight since.

The next 2-3 months were spent on longer distance rides and runs as every Ironman-in-waiting can attest too. This was a really gruelling period of my sporting life. Extremely hard to stay motivated and the constant battle against fatigue was hard. It was tough on my girlfriend as I was always tired, hungry and thinking about the next training session. To make matters worse, 8 weeks out from Challenge Henley, after a tough 13 mile run I was walking home and my knee clicked.. I’d torn my cartilage. I never told my family or friends the extent of the problem – the doctor said I would be 6 weeks out of all activity, heavily bandaged for 2-3 weeks and strongly advised against continuing on the challenge. My doctor is a regular marathon runner as well so knew how hard that kind of advice sounded.

After 2 weeks of soul searching and painful immobility I decided to give it my best shot. My girlfriend was wonderful and said that I could pull out and re-enter next year, but after being so pig headed and unpleasant for 8 months I felt I couldn’t do this again. It was a once in a lifetime effort and all or nothing. I decided that I could still swim. Would push my body through cycling training and then rely on muscle memory and bloody mindedness to get through the run leg. By fluke/miracle/careful management I didn’t suffer a reoccurrence and after 6 weeks fitted in 2 confidence boosting runs of 6 and 10 miles. Not the most promising of run build ups!

One other worry on my mind was that I had been planning to propose. I wanted nothing more than to have my fiancé cheering me on and meeting me at the finish line. Luckily she said yes and I was as physically and mentally ready as I was ever going to be.

The swim:

My 4am alarm clock went off and I was awake full of excitement. The perfect sleep and early night before was the perfect preparation for a calm start. Driving in the freezing dark cold down to Henley Business School was so exciting and after my new fiancé and I met up with my mum at the start it was time to get ready. The start is in the beautiful surroundings of Henley Business School and an unearthly mist was adding to the atmosphere. It was ethereal and an incredible feeling of calm and quiet and we settled down with a nervous fellow competitor to have a coffee. My mum asked if he had done this before and he mentioned this was his 8th time. This surprised my family as they probably think I was mad. I knew from his brief history that he gave that I was in the presence of a sub-10 racer and possible age-group challenger here. His advice was invaluable at that late stage for pacing and I held onto it as I slipped into the water.

I’d predicted a final finish time of just under the cut-off so was placed in the third wave. Despite this I am a strong swimmer and couldn’t wait. A last hug and kiss for my fiancé and mum who were in tears and it was time. By now all nerves were gone. I was excited and just wanted to get started. I couldn’t wait.

Into the water which was actually warmer than the freezing cold air and we were off! Head down and find some feet time. The first 10 minutes I felt out of breath but being confident in the water I knew this would pass if I focussed on technique and heading on. The water was clear enough and navigation easy (just follow feet) despite the thick mist still covering the river. After no time at all I was pleased to spot swimmers going the other side down the river. The first wave was getting near the end of the swim.

The turnaround came quickly and without incident and I just carried on. There is enough space for everyone here and as usual, I got distracted and enjoyed watching a few mini-dramas unfold in front of me (like someone going of course into the swimmers still going up river). After gaining some refocus I ploughed on and got to the end of the swim. It was over before I knew it and a volunteer was pulling me out. I was cold and crampy as I went into T1 but very happy and bang on target time.


The bike:

My weakest discipline but I went into it in good spirits. It was really difficult to get going as it was so cold but after getting onto Fairmile I started to warm up and having started to consider myself a ‘climber’, enjoyed the long drag up there even overtaking a few people. The bike route is quite beautiful in places and it was a joy to have no cars on the route so I just kept spinning and kept smiling.

There was great support at the Shepherds Green turnaround and extremely smiley marshals to keep morale high. Heading up the hill again into ‘the fastest part of the course’ allowed for a nice downhill stretch and for all those aero cyclists who were braver than I to thrash me and make a mockery of those climbing points I’d scored in my head. The turn at the bottom meant I knew I was heading for Pishil, which was regarded as the toughest climb on the forums and had led to a feeling of fear in my mind. Well, turns out on Lap 1 I didn’t think it was too bad! Nothing like as difficult as the hills I’d trained on in Sussex so after 1 lap I felt I had this course licked and confidently finished.

Lap 2 passed much the same, except everything felt slightly more tiring. I made sure I kept to my strict nutrition plan of a gel every 45 minutes and drink every 10 minutes – with a snickers bar in my pocket as a mid-ride treat to myself. I kept my mind occupied by spotting Tri-talk forummers such as TC and The Prawn, wishing them well in my head as they pushed on out of sight and onto greater times. After 60-odd miles my back started to feel stiff for the first time ever and heeding all the reports I’d read I decided to tackle this now before it started to become a problem. I pulled over and chugged some Ibroprufen and off I went again. Pishil was slightly tougher and I remember thinking ‘yeah, maybe people were right, this is a bit of a bitch’ but it was over quick enough and I was off again onto the last ‘easy’ 15 miles of the lap.

Lap 3 started and I couldn’t believe it had come round so quick. I knew I was well within bike cut-off at this point and still feeling OK. Tired, but OK. Fairmile was tough but I ground it out and I was on the ride to PIshil again. As soon as it started I knew I was finding it difficult. Here is the signature hill I had been worried about, I just needed 90 miles in my legs before I realised it was a beast! I ground it out, proud to still be overtaking people on the climb and before I knew it I was done. I was finished now. Bored of cycling, tired and a bit grumpy. I just wanted to run more for a change of activity than anything. The roads were quiet now as it was just us slow coaches left on the roads. The final turnaround was great and a relief – a tri club that had been there all day was still cheering wildly and gave a real boost. I grabbed a drink, stopped to thank them and off I went. By this time my shoulder injury was killing me from being on a bike for so long and as I hit 100 miles for just the 2nd time I just hung on grateful that the climbing was over and I could spin/descend back to T2.

Rolling into T2 was a great feeling as I was around people again and could see my fiancé and mum who gave me a big cheer. Gingerly I stiffly hobbled into T2 to get some nutrition and warm clothes before heading out.


The run:

Off I went, full of trepidation about my knee. I felt that it would probably ‘go’ at some point, more of when than if. I just wanted to get as many miles in as possible so set off at 5 hour pace. This was quite comfortable for me as I am a confident runner and let me work some of the stiffness out.

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd laps were great. I chatted to those who would, high fived kids and just enjoyed myself. I’d always avoided lap and city based marathons, instead enjoying difficult cross country courses and really loved the scenery and atmosphere around Henley. The back end of the course was quiet but this is my usual favoured atmosphere at running events so was quite happy to dip my head and plough on. The lap format made it easier to tick of laps rather than miles and passed time quicker. Each lap completed meant a new band to wear and a chance to high-5 and kiss my family who were waiting at the finish line.

Going into lap 4 I felt euphoric. I felt OK, no gastro problems, no serious energy or morale dips like I’d had at the end of the bike and I KNEW with 10k to go I would finish this thing. I kept fantasising about the finish line and was welling up.

With a head torch on as it was getting dark off I went. 1 mile into the lap I started to suffer my first effects of exhaustion. I was getting confused and disorientated by lights and the effect of the torch shining on the road. I was giddily happy with anyone who talked to me – I think as a psychological weapon to blank out the fatigue. I also had to really concentrate on what was real as I went round the quiet parts around the back as I felt that I might just wander off-course.

By the time I was at the back end of the course (about 4 miles to go) it started to rain. I didn’t care. It felt amazing. I was fit, strong and would be an Ironman. In my tired state I loved the way the rain felt and the lights from the floodlights were bouncing off it.

As I reached the towpath I recognised the figure in front of me. It was one of my heroes, Rosie Swale-Pope. We exchanged words and I told her what an inspiration she was to me. She is so humble, told me we were her heroes and that she would be doing all 3 legs next year. I look forward to that!

Going into the finishing chute was amazing. All fatigue was gone and I prepared for a signature sprint finish. As I went around a corner my leg slipped in the wet mud and I decided against a sprint finish. I didn’t want to risk falling over and not being able to get up again with 200 metres to go! After finding my mum and fiancé on the chute I went over to thank them and took the line. It was great and surreal and over.



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