Two words. "Focus. Execute" was the instruction from all the beings in my Circle of Trust.
In other words, "Do not mess it up again, you foolish buffoon".
We have had a rather wobbly previous couple of races. Poor nutrition at Luxembourg caused a costly blow up of painful proportions, followed by a badly-timed experience in Budapest that was no reflection of the work put in.
Rather than react to this, I decided not to race for a few weeks to make sure I ticked off training sessions that ironed out any weaknesses. And although people always reassure me I'm a good weight and there seems to be a belief that diet doesn't have to be controlled so much for long course racing, I have realised that for me, racing heavy is not my winning formula. I am not super strong and I am pretty tall, so I must be light and fast. I knew to run well again I had to address my extra 4kgs that have lingered about my person for quite some time. No half stone would be left unturned. It was time to get real and choose - chocolate or medals?
My diet changed and my sugar addiction addressed. I cheated with 10 calorie jelly pots and still a fair amount of chocolate, but only the boring dark stuff, and timed any sweet things well (either just before training or straight after). On evenings that I drank wine, I had one glass not two. I ate a lot, but no rubbish and no evening snacks unless actually hungry. I was always full up (plenty of foliage does that, and I even had tuna and rice for breakfast twice much to my disgust) but the weight came off quickly. I did brick session after brick session to make sure I could run off the bike at pace. My swimming got better with a little-and-often approach rather than big 5k sets every other day. I raced locally with very promising results.
Throughout this period, my younger sister who has battled and overcome a multitude of health problems over the years, suffered a stroke. I went up to Scotland to visit her. Despite temporary partial paralysis, she was cheerful and progressing miraculously quickly, just as she always does. It drummed it home. If she can fight something as big as that, I can step up and do whatever is required to win these little things. We have one chance and it is what you make it.
So 5 weeks after Budapest I re-emerged, armed with some more fitness, a fresh head and a body my boyfriend said was "starting to look a bit weird" (that's when you know you're getting to race weight - a compliment!) So off I truntled to Germany, a race picked simply because it was a course that suited me on paper. I was accompanied by my physio Alex and his wife Gill (of Drummond Clinic fame), who upgraded me to 'princess' status for the weekend and helped the whole race experience run seamlessly. It's not an individual sport, that's for sure.
The race itself was the most uneventful I've had, and that is perhaps the key to success. It was a very controlled swim, where I simply sat in and let others do the work. Work in this case being clearing the path through dense swarms of 'friendly' freaky jellyfish. One slopped right onto my face! At one point I had a globule attached to each limb. Luckily, we were in wetsuits and I had been in the water in the two days preceding, to say hello and build trust, so my heart stopped spasming into my mouth at least.
Here we have my race-prep... 'Learning to love the jellyfish'. What a pro...
The swim was easy to navigate and the seawater hardly salty at all. Out 1 second down on the leader was perfect, and a relatively quick, relaxed transition saw me onto the bike in first. I was winning!
Now comes the tricky bit. Not getting excited. Letting a girl ride past at over 320 watts up a hill, and biding my time whilst her power dropped to 180. This is why riding to power is so important. I used to be that girl. Perceived effort goes totally wonky on undulating courses, and the moment you start spiking, you're burning precious energy that will leave you dead on your feet before the run even begins. If you ride at bursts of 320 watts in long course racing and your threshold is 230 watts, then 180 will also eventually feel difficult. So I decided not to hang around too long, and started to wind it up and ride my own pace. I lead for the rest of the bike. Who'd have thought I'd lead a bike section last year? And still more to come aero-position-wise. A work in progress.
The two girls I knew would be my competition were closing, but despite my last two 70.3 half marathon meltdowns, I had some trust in my run, and stuck to my controlled bike power. After all, my previous bad runs perhaps played into my hands, as maybe the girls didn't feel the need to gap me on the bike. They had both been in the previous races to witness my demise. I doubt I'd have really registered as a threat.
I biked a new power PB. It was actually enjoyable (I used to really not enjoy the bike). The roads of Ruegen are silky smooth and the undulations make it interesting. The roads were clear so we could enjoy an honest race without congestion. Also with stronger legs and now being able to hold my own, it changes the game. This was the mission for this year, to bike better. Job done. Thanks team!
Leading into T2, I started the run just in front. "Hold back for 5km" was my strict instruction. So I did, I thought. Through 5k in 18.37. Oopsie. That wasn't the plan.
Alex was at the start of the first hill. He gave me 'a look'. "I know. I will slow down" said I, but by relaxing more I think it sped me up a bit. And when we went through the musical bits with the huge crowds, my pace went down to 3.25 k pace. And here we have my problem. I can be a terrible match-burner without realising. I am still that girl. I forced myself to reign it in. Control, relax, control. And that was it. The gap built without me forcing anything. There was no massive pain or torture, no real battle in my mind or with others. Apart from the last 5k which got a little grizzly, it was largely a rather pleasant experience.
It was as if it was meant to be. Thanks to my underfuelling in races past, there was no way that that was going to be a problem again. So I got through far too large a picnic on the bike, and with 5km to go on the run my tummy protested a bit. No worries, I had plenty of time on second place, but I was going to have to stop. As if hearing my inner plea, a solitary, clean portaloo appeared in a vision in front of me. It was almost floating. Welcoming me inside with its sumptuous supplies of cotton-fresh tissue paper. I was in and out in 10 secs. The mysterious appearance of the miracle powder room was the sign that this race was written in the stars. Everything lined up*.
Crossing the line ahead of some strong competition was a dream come true but there was no major high, just a good dose of contentment. As I said straight away, I was too tired to really have it sink in. I just wanted a nice lie down in a quiet, dark place.
But lying down and feeling a bit crap for a couple of hours post-race, when the job is done, is rather satisfying. I delivered. It was calculated and controlled; not like me at all! This is where I can't thank my day-to-day team enough. Dazballs the strategist and long-suffering BF, Hywel Davies the coach, physiologist and philosopher, Alex and Arran the physiotherapists and mentors, and Gill the biochemist and chief cheerleader. What a team.
Big thanks to my sponsors too. I have given them clues to believe in me but now we are starting to get where we want to go, and I hope we can raise each other's profiles even further in the future.
*I have a history of lucky portaloos but that's a secret joke that only one reader will understand, Sean!
** Race photos courtesy of Marcel Hilger.