Challenge Henley – Ironman Relay

So I have spent the summer reminding myself that Triathlon is a multi-discipline sport and not just a cycle event. And to finish off my sporting season I took part in an Ironman distance event on the 16th September – doing the 42k  run leg as part of my triathlon club relay team. And quite a day it was too…..

We are very lucky that the Thames Valley is home to a number of iconic triathlon event venues. My very first triathlon some 7 years ago was taking part in a Sprint event on the closed roads at Eton Dorney; next moving up to an Olympic Distance event at Windsor; but until now the region has lacked a focus for longer distance events. I have had to travel to Europe to experience competing over a closed road course Middle Distance event.

But not anymore.  Last year saw the inaugural Challenge Henley event, offering Half Ironman and Full Ironman distances, which suffice to say caused a fair degree of controversy with many “NIMBY” locals trying to get the event banned. The local paper even ran a poll to canvas public opinion. The organisers conceded a few changes, and the 2012 event was back on.

My TVT triathlon club had good representation across both participation and support, this year having some individual Half Ironman competitors and a Full Ironman Relay team.  We also had a volunteer team manning a feedstation; and a club member providing post event recovery massages.

The weather this summer has caused its fair share of headaches for triathlon race participants – the cancelled swim at Windsor; running through a bog at the Marlow event in June, and a shortened run course  at the Cotswold 113 to avoid slippery footpaths.  At the Saturday pre race briefing, we found out that Challenge Henley also had to cope with a last minute run course change. But not because of the weather, this time because of pheasant breeding taking place on an adjacent farmers land!

So race day brought an early start, with competitors making last minute preparations at Henley Business Centre before dawn. The daylight showed clear and cool conditions with light breezes and a minor Thames river swell. In fact, perfect for racing. First to set off was Katie Hopkins at 7.10am – shaking off her cold – to complete the 3.8km swim relay leg in a very respectable 1h 21m.

By the time she was out of the water, the Half Ironman competitors were also underway meaning that everyone would be out on the bike course together.

The bike route was on closed roads, with a figure of eight loop that took riders up Bix Hill to a turnpoint near Nettlebed, then the long drag up Pishill, out past Christmas Common with a turnpoint just past the M40. The full distance was three full loops, the Half riders doing a one and half loop distance.

The riding machine that is Barry Hopkins was doing the relay full distance bike leg for team TVT1, competing the 180km course in under 6 hours. Heroic riding to cover the 112 undulating miles at an average pace of over 18mph.

 

By the time that Barry completed the bike course, the Half Ironman race was all done and dusted.  Sharkie Jaggard was first home for TVT; with a very close contest between Steve Wilson and Alistair Weir spurring both triathletes to break the 5 ½ hour barrier for the first time.  Top dog performances from all.

That left the run relay leg for the full distance event still to complete – and the big question in my mind in the event planning was whether the daylight would hold sufficiently for me to complete the run. That gave our team a self imposed target time to beat of 12 hours.

And to spice things up there was another TVT battle going to take place on the run course. Mike Williams was also doing the marathon with some mates in a relay team raising funds for the Sue Ryder Homes charity.  Waiting for the changeover it looked like Katie and Barry were giving me a decent lead to hold onto – but then Mike was 20 years my junior and welcomed chasing down a gap.

So I set off full of excitement to cover four laps of an out and back course that hugged the river Thames. Pancake flat and with high level cloud and a pleasant temperature, the half way point was soon covered in a shade over 1h 40m, which is pretty decent for me doing a HM. But I still had the second half to cover!

So even without doing the swim and bike legs, I began to experience what it felt like to be running fatigued. The last 15k was a case of digging in, staying focused, and relishing the crowd participation as the sight and sounds of Henley grew larger on the horizon.

Turning into the Phyllis Court complex for the last time, there was one last surprise. I spotted Katie and Barry in the atheletes pen, ready and waiting so that we could cross the line together. And we had one extra team member for the glory moment – my two year grand-daughter Lara. I swept her up in my arms and the cheering crowd showed their appreciation. What an incredible feeling!

And for the record, as a relay team we had smashed our expectations by finishing well inside 11 hours. On a par with Steve and Alistair’s combined time from earlier in the day. As we have all ridden and trained together over several winters – another very satisfying feeling.

And the run contest? Well Mike had chased me down out on the course, but making up a whole lap was never going to be practical. Despite slowing on the final lap, his team also broke the 12 hour barrier and happily finished in daylight. And best of all – he spurred me to a new Marathon PB, beating my previous best by over 3 minutes.

Now what’s my age group qualifying time for the Virgin London Marathon?

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