When I train, I often visualise winning dream races and I'd thought of Challenge Rome many times over the past two months. It was a championship-level field. My fantasies of a happy ending were going to be a tall order, but we'd had some pretty consistent training, so who knew? My coach Mark likes to able to predict outcomes based on #science, but as we're still pretty new to each other, he couldn't call it. We had a good ballpark though.
Off to Rome we gallivanted, ready for a cultural experience and a super slick race.
Challenge 1. Course familiarisation - driving the bike route. It wasn't in Rome but in a suburb called Ostia, which has to be said, was a bit of a ghetto. I have yet to see a colosseum; will save that for another trip.
The bike route itself was flat and fast but the surface was a harsh mistress. It would be fine so long as you kept your eyes peeled. Come race day, they did fill in some of the worst of the offending holes, which was a big help.
Challenge 2. Find somewhere to do my pre-race run. Down the road by the hotel looked ok, so out I trotted only to stack it immediately in front of a rather large audience in a traffic jam. Hands, one wrist and more importantly, the shoulders took the impact. I scuttled back to the room, did a quick whinge with Darren whilst he assessed any damage, and then got the run done second time of asking - which actually felt awesome.
Challenge 3. Find the pro briefing, in the 'conference centre'. A group of other athletes had heard that this was by the 'food hall'. But where was yonder food hall? Next to the conference centre, of course. A helpful staff member pointed us in one direction, and another helpful staff member, in another. The conference centre was at last discovered (I never did find the food hall though).
It was here they announced three aid stations would be on the 90km bike course, serving water only due to 'Italian law'. With a course designed to throw you and any item of nutrition off your bike, just water was a big call, but we could carry enough in theory, so no real worries at this stage.
We were promised full aid stations on the run course which at least meant any issues with fuel on the bike could be rectified ASAP once on foot.
Challenge 4. A 1pm race start meant a lot of hanging around and even though I was quite looking forward to a normal wake up time, I've decided I definitely prefer getting up bleary-eyed and going through the motions of race prep before I've fully registered what's going on! I don't do full Ironman partly because I can get my head around being finished by lunchtime! But it's a good concept to try and some will like it.
Challenge 5. The race. Cold swim, which was fine, but once we were out into the deep water the buoys were white. Trying to spot white buoys against a cloudy white backdrop is not easy. I swam 'blind' as I always do in the first couple of races of the season - I have no awareness; can't see anything, and have no idea what's going on really. This improves race upon race through the season for me, so it's not a concern at this stage. Swimming has gone well in training, but 3 minutes down is not the news I was hoping for, or expecting!
Onto the bike. Half the road was closed and well-policed but the tape cordoning off the road was loose. Friend Mark got it caught round his neck as he was cycling. At least he enjoys cycling. If he was to go, he would at least die happy. As for me, my friends and loved ones could not console themselves with this thought should I expire on two wheels. On a bike I am not the happiest soul! Head down. Get it done. That's all I ever want.
To start with I passed the time by ticking off Lucy Gossage PB's (she usually comes past at 11 mins, so when I got to 30 that was cool, and if I got to 1 hr I decided I could die happy like Mark). I managed the whole thing so that was great, and I think I had one of the fastest bike splits, despite my usual sort of bike power. Goes to show what a better position does for you. I can't get complacent though: I'm sure Lucy will be back to crush souls imminently.
Once we'd passed the prostitutes in the bushes for the third time to signal 3 laps, it was time to head back along the seafront.
Challenge 6: Went to grab rear bottle, high carb drink. It had vanished. With what I thought was 25 miles still left to ride, having just passed the final water-only aid station, I had to quickly face up to the fact that the game had changed for me. So, what to do? Outside assistance is not allowed but inside assistance? Well I've seen pro's being handed puncture repair by other pro's etc. So I cycled past two age groupers and asked for water in my most seductive manner. "I'm desperate", basically.
It also helped at this stage that rather than a 90km course as advertised, it was going to be well short so thankfully, 76km later I was off my bike and in around 4th place: ready to show off my fancy new run speed! I bolted off, forgetting that I'd missed 40g of vital carbs (I am super ditzy), but I had two gels in hand, and at the aid stations there would be nutrition in abundance.
Challenge 7. The abundant nutrition must have got lost somewhere between the conference centre and the food hall.
As the pros scampered around the first lap of the run, it transpired the aid station had not been fully set up yet. I missed yet more water, and really needed electrolyte and gels. 5 miles later, there the aid station appeared, like a mirage in a desert. "Is it real?" The selection was water and Redbull, biscuits and bananas. Try eating a banana when you're trying to run 'full gas' or downing Redbull when your running stomach is one of your weak links. Redbull was the only choice though. Went for it. Come on stomach. Do not let me down this time!
Final stage of run. Not sure I can run another step, let alone 6km, and Lucy was shouting that I was having the best race ever and serving up a smashfest (or something like that) but I was in pieces. She was right, I was having a great race, but it wasn't done: I had to hold it together. Two girls were strong behind me but they weren't gaining. Everyone who was a threat was suffering too. I decided to just go until I dropped, basically. All in.
Coming down the chute I had no celebration left in me; my running gait had gone from a forward motion to a zig-zag affair, but I made it. In second place - a dream result - and absolutely dead to the world! That race was a real fight with my own brain.
In all, I had a fabulous weekend with some amazing people. Yes, I had to race ugly, but as a result I have qualified for The Championship in Samorin which is Challenge's World Champs, and we've already tightened up my nutrition plan, so this race only goes to strengthen our knowledge. Sarah Lewis owned the day and as she was staying in the same hotel (The Golden Tulip - better than it sounds), we got to know each other really well, and that made finishing 1-2 even more special.
What an experience!