A somewhat delayed post about my last three races of the 2016 summer season. I kept putting it off, because it’s hard to know what to write when disappointed without sounding horribly negative. Please read right to the end to avoid that...
The Olympic road race on 7th August was good in terms of a job well done. Not successful in terms of a result, personally - I came in 53rd and in fact the last finisher within the time cut! But my job in the race was not to chase my own result, rather to work for the team to help Lizzie do as well as possible. I put everything into pulling back breaks on the two laps of the Grumari circuit, as ordered, so I was pretty spent by the time we reached the final climb (Vista Chinesa) and I wasn’t able to follow the front group - only to be expected after a fairly hefty amount of work. I sat up once I was dropped (as ordered) to save as much energy as possible for the TT just three days later. By the time I got to the descent, the crash had been cleared, but even not knowing about it at the time, I was relieved to be able to take my time and descend cautiously on that treacherous surface in the damp.
I was disappointing in, and disappointed with, the time trial on 10th August: 14th and way off the pace that I needed to be even close to the kind of position I was targeting. I’m still gutted. I wanted to get a decent result, not just for my own satisfaction but also to redeem the belief and support of coaches, sponsors, teammates, friends, and family. There were plenty of things that went wrong - the crash at Thüringen that I wasn’t entirely healed up from and which impacted on training in the weeks before the race certainly didn’t help. Nor the strong gusty winds - with that weather, it wasn’t a day for small riders in the end. But I simply wasn’t good enough, and for that I can only apologise. Looking back at how hard the return to the pace of road racing felt, I wonder whether I was still suffering the effects of over-racing at long distances last year. In retrospect, I did far too many long-distance triathlon races last year, and the fatigue and physiological effects of conditioning for that distance might have lasted longer than I could have imagined. I won’t make the mistake of planning a season like that again, but it’s too late to go back and undo my failure in the 2016 Olympics. I can only apologise to those who encouraged and supported me: sorry.
On a positive note about Rio: it was a spectacular Olympic Games, in a stunningly beautiful place, and the Brazilian people I met were without fail friendly and welcoming and enthusiastic. Whatever the criticisms of the organisation, I believe Rio de Janeiro did a fantastic job with very constrained resources, and especially the thousands of local and international volunteers are to be commended. A period of reflection has helped to put the disappointment in perspective: I’m glad I had the courage to get out there, throw myself 100% into the training and racing, and take the knocks when they came. Yes, I wanted to race to win - but I also have to be satisfied that I did absolutely everything within my power to reach that goal. My rivals were simply faster, and I congratulate them for that.
From Brazil I dashed back to Europe to start at the Embrunman triathlon on 15th August. What with overnight flight, packing, and driving there wasn’t a single full night’s sleep between the two races. Having not run or swum at all for over 2 months, I knew a decent result was almost impossible, but the Embrunman organisation had kindly invited me back to the race after my win last year, and it was such an amazing atmosphere at the event that I wanted to have another crack at it. The 4km swim was a question of survival, but with the jetlag and travel fatigue I felt below average on the bike too. On the run I was getting shooting pains through my left glute and lower back - still from the crash in Thüringen and fractured sacrum. I shuffled through 15km of the marathon, but reason won out and I stopped to avoid further aggravating the injury. I’m glad I had a go, because I still appreciated the crowds of supporters, the stunning course, the lovely atmosphere at that race, and catching up with some triathlon buddies. I’ll be back!
After Embrunman, I took a proper break in the quiet of the mountains, to return to the simplicity of riding a bike and enjoying it. I tried a few more tentative runs, to see how my back would hold up. It felt like running with lead weights round each ankle. I had forgotten how wretched running feels when one hasn’t done it at all for a few months... I was enjoying riding but felt exhausted, and slow. My heart rate simply wouldn’t go above the easiest aerobic zone. I was convinced that I must be sick, or have low iron levels. So once home, I went to my GP for a whole battery of blood tests - nothing! Training & Diagnostics helpfully agreed to put me through a dreaded ramp test - maybe that would identify what was wrong.
So to Training & Diagnostics I went, with my bike, for a dose of pain on the testing rig. Result: good, in fact best in >2 years. Their expert advice: rest. I fell (again) for the not-uncommon mistake of trying to ignore the fatigue from travel and mental stress. It’s perhaps interesting that a month after Rio I was still regularly waking up with a jump in the middle of the night, frightened into a cold sweat by the nightmare that I’d missed a race start.
If the last few paragraphs sound rather pathetic, that’s about right. I was pretty down around that time, mentally, and I think friends and family had to put up with a lot of whinging from me. When one of the main contributing factors to being unhappy is dissatisfaction with results, there aren’t many ways to fix apart from having a good race. And if you feel that despite training absolutely as hard as you can, you still aren’t in good form, then the prospect of racing is daunting. Even more so if you’re the defending champion and (apparently) presumed race favourite! I knew that because the focus had been on pure cycling for most of the season, I wasn’t nearly as well prepared for Zofingen as the previous years. With zero running from June to mid-August, I was desperately trying to thrash my body into some run fitness, by cramming in track sessions and hill reps in the short fortnight I had before the race. I was happy to be able to train with Beat&Julia’s group at TV Oerlikon but speed was stubbornly elusive, unsurprisingly. Let alone endurance - how on earth would I manage the 40km of total running? I hadn’t done that distance in one for 11 months! The results of the bike ramp test at Training&Diagnostics were encouraging but only really an indication of top end fitness on the bike, not the sub-aerobic endurance I’d need for the 150km bike section at Zofingen. I was full of self-doubt. Add to this the strong competition from athletes whom I highly respected. The temptation to pull out of Zofingen was strong: I felt like I had nothing to gain by racing (and surely doing badly), and everything to lose by not winning.
In the end it was the encouragement of a few close friends that persuaded me to give it a try. I’m embarrassed at the negative mindset I had developed, and relieved that I remembered that the only real failure is not to try at all. I remembered to be more hopeful of winning than scared of losing. I remembered that it’s my choice to race, and that it is fun - no matter how painful! That was undoubtedly helped by the crowds and fantastic local support.
Race day dawned bright and sunny after a sleepless night. The first run felt surprisingly easy, but then I do love that steep uphill start! After only a few kilometres Nina Brenn and I were away from the pack, with an increasing lead. I took a bit of confidence from that, but I was pretty sure the others would work together to catch us on the bike. For the first 60km or so of the bike I kept it under control, then made a move to up the pace. Coming into transition for the second time, I had no idea if the gap was 1 minute or 10 - so I put everything into setting a solid tempo on the first hill of the second run. I was suffering but trying not to show it to the other athletes, when I saw them after the turnaround. At least by then I knew the gap, and how much time I could lose per km - although Nina Brenn did look worryingly strong every time I saw her... I was feeling nauseous, thirsty but unable to eat, and therefore also dizzy. So for the final 15km lap I measured out my effort and walked up the steepest hills. I HATE doing this “walk of shame” - but one loses less time than walking on the flats or descents, because the pace is slow even running. Both runs at Powerman Zofingen are pretty tough and hilly, I should mention - the course is dreaded by everyone who’s ever raced there!
Finally crossing line was accompanied by the most immense feeling of euphoria - partly that the race and suffering were over(!), but also to have defeated my overwhelming self-doubt. The win felt so unexpected: the most wonderful and surprising way to end the summer season on a high. I’m hugely grateful to those who encouraged me to race (especially Simon...), as well as to the Powerman Zofingen organisers, my generous homestay Adrian, and my sponsors NGI, Rotor, and Training&Diagnostics for their support.
Next blog: off-season high jinks riding up big hills! Including Haute Route and Taiwan KOM Challenge… Mountain cycling aficionados: you will like this :-)
Due to popular demand, I'm in the process of writing a piece about bikes to fit small people. Feel free to contact me with your questions (and those who’ve already been in touch: thanks for the feedback guys!).