Fuerteventura: the clue’s in the name! I was expecting wind. Lots of wind. But at the pre-race briefing they promised a relatively calm day with just a 10 kph breeze. Excellent, I thought. Then on race morning, heading to breakfast in the dark, it was unexpectedly and worryingly gusty. A windy wavy swim was really not what I wanted.
Fuerteventura is mostly rock: rocky hills, rocky plains, rocky ancient lava fields, and rocky gravel in between. A few spiky bushes and cacti cling on stubbornly in the gaps between rocks. Even the goats (normally able to forage on the most unlikely and sparse vegetation) have to be supplied with bales of hay. I admit that I was daunted by my first impression of the island, because under the midday sun it looks like a bleak windy desert. But after a few rides I realised that it has a subtle beauty – I just had to accept, and stop being annoyed at, battling into the wind! It turns out that some of the spiky bushes have flowers, and tiny birds and lizards live among the rocks (yes, I had a lot of time to observe the wildlife, while moving very slowly into a headwind!).
Challenge Fuerteventura is hosted at the Playitas Resort, which is a pretty luxurious sports hotel set by a sandy bay in an oasis of gardens and palm trees. The race starts on the black sand of the beach, with a two laps of a triangular swim course in the bay. Beach start and Australian exit between the laps - i.e. maximum opportunity to lose the feet I so desperately needed to follow in the swim! Luckily the wind had died down somewhat by the time we lined up on the beach, and the water was looking a bit calmer. All the women started in the same wave and so I did have someone to follow for most of the swim, until the second lap when the faster age group men swimming past (they started 3 minutes behind us) confused the situation. I could feel my arms and shoulders were pretty tired in the second half, which isn’t very surprising, after not being able to swim for a few weeks.
Once I gladly reached my bike and set off up the hill away from Playitas, it was chase time. I didn’t know what the gap was to the front of the race, and none of the spectators on the course were giving out any information. So it simply had to be head down and ride hard, in the hope I could catch them. The other racers around me were mostly age-group guys who had caught me on the swim, and for the first half of the bike course I felt like I was going well: into a strong headwind, and some decent challenging hills from about 30-50km. I was more often than not catching people, especially on the steeper climbs, although playing leapfrog because they would come back past me on the descents and tailwind sections. But in the last 40km I faded badly. I’m not sure whether it was lack of concentration, or wrong bike choice, or both, but either way: mea culpa. I lost sight of the guys I’d been leapfrogging, power average dropped off alarmingly, and I rolled back to Playitas having seen Anja Beranek already at around the 2km point on the run!
By the time I’d ridden the last 2km and been through transition, I worked out the gap would be at least 15 minutes. Not good. At least because the bike course came back into transition next to the run course, I could at last see what the situation was up ahead in the podium positions. Beranek was being closely chased by Emma Bilham, and just a few minutes behind was Catherine Jameson. The gap looked impossible to bridge and I decided to just focus on my own race, not worry about position (or lack thereof). If it’s a training race, I should jolly well use it to run hard and get good training out of it.
T2 was mentally a positive turning point in the race. I was trying to look forward to the run, but expecting to feel pretty rubbish after feeling so weak on the bike. And there was the usual fear of whether my stomach might sabotage me. I was desperately hoping not: the promised portaloos were nowhere to be seen on the run course, and Fuerteventura’s barren landscape doesn’t offer much shelter! I should confess that my approach to race nutrition has previously been rather haphazard: I have tried to plan what to eat and drink, and when, but rarely stuck to it. And I was never sure if my plan was sensible anyway, as there’s so much conflicting advice on sports nutrition. Basically I’ve tried to wing it and assumed that for a half-distance triathlon at least, I could get away with a few gels and just hope I didn’t blow up on the run. I assumed that the GI problems I had were simply the inevitable result of trying to run fast and take on water at the same time. Or maybe too much salad the day before. I didn’t know what the cause of the problem was, so I didn’t know how to address it. But this time, I tried to at least get the in-race nutrition part right. I was testing the beta version of a new nutrition planning tool called Core. It’s been developed by Asker Jeukendrup (that’s the only reference you need when it comes to sports nutrition).
The day before I had logged in, filled in my vital statistics and answered a few questions, and the app generated a detailed plan for me of what and when to eat and drink, based on my answers and the race details (already available in the app). I played around with the plan a bit to make it more to my liking, and wrote it all down on a sticker (because it was too complicated to remember) which I stuck to my top tube. And I stuck to it, as well as I could. That meant far more regular (and more) to drink and eat on the bike. And the result was great: I felt fine starting the run (uphill for 1km out of transition), and actually felt better as it went on. I didn’t get thirsty, which is usually a torment at hot races as I find it hard to drink much while running. Best of all: no GI issues. Nada! The feeling of relief at being able to run properly, unhindered by a treacherous stomach, was wonderful.
The run course in Fuerteventura is two laps, and includes a long out-and-back section up the rather bleak bike path away from the resort. I was dreading that section (sun-baked and windy, no scenery to amuse the eyes) but it did allow precise calculation of the gaps in front and behind. In front seemed impossibly far. But I did actually feel, for once, that I was running ok, and I thought at least I could try to nail a good run split to take away something positive from the race. By the second lap I could see from the reduction in gap at the turnaround that I was catching Jameson. The gap had gone from 10 mins on lap 1, to 3.5 mins on lap 2. I did the maths. With only 6km to go, if we both stuck to the same pace, it might just be possible but it was going to be very close. I sped up. Please stomach, don’t fail me now. With what should have been 2km to go, I realised the finish was only 1km away – the course was short. But she was in sight. I don’t really have a sprint but the last kilometre of the run was the fastest I could run. I caught Jameson in sight of the finish line with about 800m to go, and because she’s a lovely person and a great sport, she held out her hand for a high five as I passed her. I felt for her, but racing is racing. She’ll do it to me one day, I’m sure!
So I just made it onto the podium, although miles behind Beranek and Bilham who comprehensively smashed me on the bike as well as the swim. I’m certainly disappointed at that, but a few positives to take away from the race: nutrition, and a solid run. I believe there were several contributing factors to running well – no GI problems being an obvious one. But crucially, also training: since taking advice from Star Physio I’ve made my weekly running schedule more consistent and included regular and specific strength training in the gym. I feel that’s improved my stride efficiency and helped me to keep form even when fatigued. So a big thank you to Merv Travers and James Debenham of Star Physio :-)
Huge thanks also to Tempo Sport - bikespeed.ch and NGI, for their support towards this race.
Tour de Yorkshire
Seven days later, I started at the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire, racing for the GB team. This was a super race – both the concept (same day, same distance as the corresponding men’s stage of the TdY) and the reality: great organisation and amazing crowds. As a first race back in cycling after nearly two years away from the sport, it was a fantastic one to do!
As a first race back, it was also pretty tough. To make it even more interesting, my bike took a bit of a bashing on the flight over to the UK and suffered a broken chainstay. Thus I was on an unfamiliar bike, though the team mechanic had kindly set it up as closely as possible to my poor injured Argon18 Gallium. The first bike race of the season is always a shock to the system, but even more so when you’re used to the more steady pace of triathlon – and the rest of the field has been racing for months already! It was a good reminder that bike racing is the best training there is, for bike racing...