Some time in September last year, my good friend Sam pinged me on messenger and I think the conversation went like this:
Sam: “Fancy doing Race to the Stones with me next year?” (background, he’d run the last 10K of it with his cousin a few years back who did a very very decent 13:11!)
Me: “Uuuuuuh, maybe”
Sam: “Oh go on.”
Me: “OK then. Why not.”
2 minutes pass
Me: “The 50K or the 100k???”
Me: “Oh. The 2 day option or straight through????”
Sam: “Straight through”
Me: “OK. I’ve entered.”
Now, OBVIOUSLY I planned on doing a lot of distance training after booking it. OBVIOUSLY that didn’t happen. I did run Snowdonia Marathon in October and about 4 half marathons over winter/spring but that was about it. The week prior to race week I did 12km/day for 6 days on the bounce. Everything felt good, let’s go!
A few days before the race it dawned on me that the logistics were somewhat irritating. You know the puzzle with the river, you have one boat, a fox, a chicken and some corn? Yeah. That. It looked like it might involve public transport which made me spit my dummy out a bit. Ultimately I dumped my car at the finish the day before, got picked up by Lorna who was going to drop us off at the start and crew for us.
Start -> 10km
The registration process was pretty slick. Usual bib with integrated chip (gosh, RFID is very clever). There were a few bits and bobs on site but I was too busy looking for Susie Chan and Shaun but couldn’t see them. Suspect because I was hovering nearer the middle of the pack.
All the runners set off at 8am and the walkers at 8:45am. This seemed sensible (for now) and off we went. Nice and easy first 8km or so, sort of adjusting in the pack. At 8km though everyone just stopped. Not “Oh, this is a steep hill” bunching, but “Oh. There’s a very long British queue here” stopped. Got given a Haribo here by a very lovely stranger. After literally 10 minutes of queueing we got to the top of the hill to find a kissing gate causing the hold up. Through that and running again on nice soft grass for 200m to the next 10 minute queue for the next kissing gate. Brilliant. On this second gate, a few people tried queue jumping. After the abuse yelled at them the first bunch stopped and looked sheepish. The second bunch, all in the same running club with matching gear (M*dni*ht Runn*rs …. you silly sods) ran past the queue and climbed a fence. So technically, you guys cheated. And one of you had a backpack with a terrible stereo pumping out tunes you massively antisocial arse. Annnnnnyway. Really they need to stagger the start in waves based on estimated finish time. Having that many people just waiting was ludicrous. Split it in to 6 waves every 5 minutes or something.
10km -> 20km
At 11k was the first pitstop. Really slick actually. Water bowsers on one side, food on the other. Sam quickly taped his foot, I raided some energy bars. Really tasty stuff from http://perkier.co.uk/ . Highly recommended. I had one of each throughout the day. All nice. We saw Lorna just after pitstop one. The rest of this section was pretty uneventful other than running across a golf course, much to the annoyance of them lot. A lot of the path was very very narrow (single file really) between two sets of trees. Essentially running in the middle of a wide hedge. Not the easiest for me as I’m a bit rubbish on anything technical.
20km -> 30km
At 21.1km Sam had a little celebration of his first half marathon (yep!). At 23km was pitstop 2. There were huge queues here. People apparently had to wait 10 mins for food/water. The crew were bringing cups of water to people queuing up. I didn’t do anything apart from a little bit of foot maintenance (slapped a compeed on a bit that rubs after a while). The path then led to the Thames for a bit. My gosh there are some incredible houses on the side of the river. Time was spent dreaming and questioning my life choices. Also found a full unopened packet of PomBears in a field. SCORE!
30km -> 40km
This section starts in Streatley which seems to be entirely posh shops, Range Rovers and steep hills as you cross the Thames. Pitstop 3 at 34km I can’t honestly remember. We saw Lorna again just after too which was a welcome boost. It was then mostly quite boring hard packed path with endless fields. I know, it could be worse. I think by this stage we’d stopped running really on anything other than flat flat. I hope Sam doesn’t mind me saying but I think his running legs had entirely given up by now. Still a decent walking pace and we were still clicking off 9:10-10min kilometres. Consistent forward progress will see us to the end.
40km -> 50km
Just as the sun started to get fierce and the temps started to climb, the shade completely vanished. This was one of the main gains in elevation and it took us up on to what I’d describe as ‘plains’. I’m not sure they officially are, or even what the definition is, but there was little of anything. Really was just 10 kilometers that were completely unidentifiable from each other. At 42.2km we celebrated Sam’s first Marathon. At 42.3km we celebrated the furthest either of us had ever gone. Go us. Aid station 4 at 44km had Fudge bars, crisps and coffee. Perfect. Sam detonated a blister on his foot which made me feel a bit weird and I think Lorna a bit sick.
50km -> 60km
Right at the start of this section is the halfway basecamp. You can do the 100km as 2 x 50 with a night in a tent but for some reason in my head that seems harder. My enthusiasm to get up and run on day 2 would be exactly zero, especially as they had a bar, live music etc. There was hot food on offer but it looked fairly unappealing so I grabbed a slice of bread and a chocolate bar. Something was also up with the water there. I think they’d used some kind of cleaner in the water storage and not flushed it out. Had a hint of TCP to it. Leaving basecamp I walked into (almost literally) Sara from my swim club. I didn’t know she was doing it, and was very out of context so it was one of those ‘Let me walk in front and see if they recognise me so I don’t accost a stranger’. Her first words to me were “why the **** are we doing this in one go?”. Probably because I’d be in a beer induced slumber in my tent at 8am the next day if I tried it in two halves.
The path from the halfway stop got a bit naff over the next few km. Lots of sections where it was quite thick grass with two thin ruts on either side. I think this section was where we came across a lady who’d had a tumble and had a fair amount of blood. Some others were scrambling round for plasters. Sam pulled out a dressing big enough to mummify my 2yr old which did the trick for her.
59k was aid station 6 where Lorna was waiting along with Sam’s wife and child. Hurrah. Nothing like a completely unfussed child to lift the spirits.
10km of up and down path. Getting annoying now. Pitstop 7 I don’t remember in the slightest. I think I tried an Etixx Orange Isotonic drink and got terrible flashbacks to that one time I tried Sunny Delight. Probably old school Sunny Delight before stuff got banned. I probably washed it down with coffee as it was 8.30pm by now and I was getting a bit weary. Entirely unscientific but by now we seemed to be catching a lot of people who came running past us about midway of the race. Also a lot of people spending a lot of time in aid stations.
We caught up again with Lorna and Sam’s wife and child at the 74km mark outside what looked like a nice Indian restaurant. I think that was the closest I came to sacking it off. A nice curry, a beer and being taken home in a warm car. Mmmmm. Anyway, we didn’t. We put on our warm clothes, put our headtorches on and set off. Our support crew left us at this point so we were somewhat committed to finishing.
The next few KM were walking along a fairly busy road in the dark which was one of the least pleasant parts of the race. Beyond that it was a few KM up on to a decent sized hill. By now it was properly dark too so just a case of following the glowsticks. Still, only a half marathon to go. Seems a ‘relatively’ short way but given it’s now 11pm and we’re moving slowly along a grass track in the pitch black it was a bit soul destroying. Pitstop 8 at 78km was time for another very strong coffee, a lot of sugar and on we go.
Please make it stop. 10km of grass path and some slightly easier gravel track. Still taking 12-13mins/km here, probably due to head torches. Somewhere along this section was a dreadfully steep section of rutted 4×4 track. It looked easier to slide down than walk down. At 84.4km we had a “Double Marathon celebration”. At 89km we got to Pitstop 9, the final one at 1am. It appeared to be full of people who’d not quite managed to get home from a nightclub. Some were staggering around, some were delirious, some were asleep faceplanted in the grass.. Physically I felt fine. Legs were ok, shoulders a bit sore but fine. I was tired though. Really really tired. I don’t normally function much beyond 10pm so 1am after moving all day was a bit much. I briefly lay down on a mat to stretch my back but instantly felt my eyes closing and that strange sensation when audio frequencies get filtered out. I could hear voices but they were muffled as my brain started to remove outside influences to let me sleep. Mmmmm sleeeeeep. Argh. 10 more km and I can sleep then. I sank 2 coffees, a flat coke, some more chocolate, a seed bar and probably whatever else was lying around that looked like it’d give me a kick. I can see why various militaries use amphetamines. Probably cheaper.
All the enjoyment had gone by now. Seeing the 90km sign should have made it better. Nearly there, nearly done. On a normal lazy run that’s an hour, max. Except we were now doing 12-14 minute kilometers on what was the worst terrain of the race. I couldn’t do the maths in my head at the time but I knew it was going to take “a while”. Strava tells me that it took 2hrs20 to do this section. Let that sink in. 2hrs 20 for 10km. I don’t remember much about this at all other than trying to think of fresh topics of conversation. We passed a few people who seemed to be struggling but there’s not a lot that can be done to help when you can’t think of proper words to say. Towards the end of this section my eyes were closing as we negotiated the downhill section in to Avebury and to the finish. Not really surprising as it’s now 3:30am. Still, we’re finished.
You have got to be kidding me. At the end there’s a loop you do through Avebury stone circle and to get to it you go past the entrance to the farm where the finish line is. Argh. 2.5km sounds trivial. A jog to go get the paper. A quick run with the dog. A little warmup before Parkrun. 2.5km at 3:45am when you’ve just had enough and you’ve switched off entirely? It was hideous. 30 minutes later we cross the line to applause of the 6 lunatics waiting there and get our finishers medal. Done. Never. Ever. Again.
Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, even compare to iron distance triathlon. Physically it wasn’t too bad due to the lower pace but mentally there was no letup and I’ve not experienced exhaustion like it (even with small children in the house). Even though it wasn’t ‘running’ it still feels like an achievement and I’m glad I did it. Some good scenery (though that wore thin after a while), some quality time with Sam and a medal to hang on the wall. On that subject… I have a few issues with this race (he says, speaking as an ultra veteran).
Route markings were excellent. I can’t see how you’d miss them. Red arrows every few hundred meters even on paths with no turnings. It meant that if you’d not seen an arrow in a while you were lost. Glowsticks every 100m or so in the dark too.
Plenty of variety at the aid stations, different crisps/chocolate bars. Some had trail mix, almonds, fruit etc etc. Aid stations were decently spaced too. The 11km spacing at the end was a bit tough but I think had there been another one I’d have just slept at it anyway.
Have I mentioned the terrain was quite hard? Road shoes were fine, but the surface was way more technical than I though with ruts etc. Not their fault, but just something to think about if you do it again
They could possibly have done with a couple of volunteers on a nightshift between aid stations towards the end. There were some very exhausted people doing odd things and things could easily go a bit sour. Just maybe checking people are ok as they pass?
Leaving your car at the start or the finish was £10. That’s fine, but there was no charge for people ‘dropping off’… so they could park there free for many hours. Given that it’s just a huge field it doesn’t make any sense to me to charge for it. They’ve done exactly the same work in terms of parking everyone.
They MUST stagger the start if they keep the route via the kissing gates. Infact, stagger it anyway just for the better traffic through aid stations.
No free event T-Shirt / finishers T-Shirt, you have to buy them at £15 a pop. Even tiny local events manage a free shirt. Ultimately it’s cheap publicity for the event. Given the event was £120 I’m sure there’s wiggle room there especially with the Dixons Carphone sponsorship.
The finishers medal has no mention of the distance. They’re the same for everyone regardless if you did 50km, 50km+50km or 100km straight. They knew how many people had entered each event and could have even just have had the distance on the ribbon (so a single batch of actual medals). Feels very cheap. Their excuse afterwards was nonsense too: “We didn’t know the exact distances until the week before”. Yet the T-Shirt has them on. Uuuuuuuh.
No finish line photo. They’d outsourced the photos to Pic2Go and are saying they couldn’t have coverage at all times. Hang on, they know it’s a 24hr race and people will be arriving at all times. If Pic2Go said they couldn’t do it then you find a volunteer, give them an SLR (remember Dixons are title sponsor) and you at least get SOMETHING. Utterly shameful and even worse to just blame it on the fact they’d outsourced it.
I quite enjoyed this attempt an an ultra, but I think next time I’ll pick one that’s more ‘runnable’ for my limited ability!
**LONG POST KLAXON**. This really should be in multiple parts, or serialised in a weekly, but frankly I don’t have the enthusiasm for that. It’s a big brain dump and mostly for the benefit of Future Brian as usual.
It’s long. You’ve been warned.
About a year ago I saw that slots for Challenge Roth were going on sale in an hour or so and were expected to sell out within minutes. I’d not really got a huge desire to do an iron distance race as that distance seems totally mental to me. I’d had a tough time in May completing my first 70.3. Double that was incomprehensible. We had a two week old baby girl at the time and my head wasn’t in the game at all. Still, sometimes you just have to make a leap and leave it up to fate. If I get in, then I’ll give it a bash. 9am rolls round, I fill in a few boxes along with over 30,000 applicants for the 2000 or so general slots, and this appears in my inbox:
BOLLOCKS. I’d sort of secretly hoped it’d be a “Sorry, all sold out” notification (the slots all went within 70 seconds) but no. Oh well, a year of hard training it is then. Or at least, that’s what I told myself at the time. The reality was a lot more “busy parent of two small children”. I did Weymouth Half in September and a second crack at Mallorca 70.3 in May. The training was sort of enough to get by for both of those and Mallorca had got me in a bit of a state. It’d taken me 7:17, no real improvement on the year before and I’d need to double that distance in exactly 8 weeks. The evening after the Mallorca race I kept asking seasoned long course racers: “How? How the hell do you do double that?”. The panic had set in.
2.4 mile swim , 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run. Those distances sounds completely barking and impossible even having just done them!
So 8 weeks to go, 7 if you take off the holiday after the race (and jolly nice it was too). Make it 6 to allow for a bit of a taper and to fly out to Germany. So, 6 weeks to bump up from scraping a 70.3 to getting round 140.6. No problem you say, the cutoffs tend to be 17 hours. Easy. Except not for Roth, it’s 15 hours. PANIC. I’m going to smash these 6 weeks.
Obviously that never happened. I carried on with exactly what I was doing before. The intention was there, sure. Long rides, long runs, plenty of brick sessions etc etc, but with work, a now near one year old who does not sleep, a 3.5 year old who deserves my time and all that jazz it just never happened. Even with full support from Natalie I struggled to find / justify more time.
A quick look at trainingpeaks shows a slightly disasterous set of numbers for those 6 weeks:
So an average of 6.5ish hours a week. No more than I’d done for any of the 70.3s.
Long rides and runs were less plural and more singular. There was one 75k ride around Woburn with Amy and a cheeky early morning 25K run from home before the family woke. On the positive side a vast amount of those hours were high intensity 5-10K runs or hard turbo intervals. I’d broken my 5K, 10K and 21.1K PBs in the last few weeks and rides tended to come with a lot of gold/silver feedback from Strava.
Did I feel under prepared? Yes. Sick to my stomach scared and angry at myself. I’d emailed Challenge about deferral but it’s not an option. Even 2 weeks before the event I’d not booked flights or car as I wasn’t sure if I was ready. If it wasn’t Roth and everything that goes with it I’d have just ditched it in a heartbeat. The problem was.. it was. Reading race reports from others made it sound immense. Speaking to people who had raced it (hello Jan!) they talked about it with wide eyed excitement. Oh, ok, go on then, let’s book some flights and give this sucker a whirl, if you’re going to go on about it being “Once in a lifetime”.
(n.b. before smart arses start commenting, the bits about lack of training aren’t there to justify being slow, or any kind of perverse humble brag. I’m not proud of it at all, I don’t recommend it, but it was what it was. It was piss poor preparation I’m well aware)
Hot-diggity-damn it was hot in Germany. IM Frankfurt had been the previous weekend with a non wetsuit swim and temps nudging 40. Heading to the hotel from the Munich Airport it was 35 according to my rental Corsa (quite frankly, a dangerous liability on an unrestricted autobahn by the way). I don’t like heat and it doesn’t like me.
The next morning was registration and a wander round the expo. All other expos I’ve been to have been about 15 stalls and about 30 minutes worth. Not here. It was huge. Like, bigger than the 220 Triathlon show huge. Thousands of people from all four corners of the planet. Somewhat more global than the Pavilion at Weymouth I can assure you.
After that, back to the hotel and out for an easy 30 minute run. Turns out the hotel I’d chosen in the middle of nowhere happened to be within some kind of weird German teaching hospital complex built in a nature reserve. It was a bit odd, but beautiful.
Natalie had managed to persuade our friend Sarah to donate her husband for sherpa duties for this trip and Rob arrived about 7ish, so time for a relaxed dinner, some drinks and get bitten to death by mosquitoes.
The next day was checking out the swim course (not swimming it), bike collection from Raceforce, racking, run bag drop off (you drop it at T1 and it vanishes to T2 in a truck) followed by briefing at the rather weird time of 6pm. The Spanish briefing was at midday when the Spanish are all asleep. Anyway, big news at the briefing, it was going to be a wetsuit swim after all. The previous days had seen water temps of up to 26degC, well over the limit of 23.9 but apparently it was now 23.89999. Hurrah!
Transition closes at 6:15 and I’d need about 30 mins in there. Parking is a good 20 minute walk away. They warn of big traffic on the morning as thousands of spectators come to the swim start. They recommend arriving “by 04:50 at ze very latest”. Hotel was 20 mins away. So a 4am alarm it was. I woke at 3:57 after a really deep sleep and felt pretty good. A bit of time in the nice hotel bathroom and then we were on our way to the start. As usual, my body does NOT want food when it’s still sleep time but I managed to force down a couple of brioche, a carton of choco-milk and some nuts. Traffic to the start was pretty heavy. It was also cold so I stole Robs jumper and made him shiver instead.
Dropped my bike transition bag down, pumped my tyres up, stuck nutrition on my bike, found the only non disgusting portaloo in Germany and then came back out to the side of the canal. Only an hour and a half to kill before my wave.
Right. Half a GetBuzzing bar and a gel, time to get wetsuit on. I’m in the 8:05 start and need to be in the water at 8:00. We’re about 100m from the swim entrance, only I find you can’t actually get through. A hasty goodbye to Rob and then a couple of minutes barefoot running around the whole of transition, I made it to the start pen just as the mighty cannon went off (it wasn’t a starter pistol.. it was a mahoosive cannon that you could feel before you heard it!). Only that’s not where the start line is, that was another 80m further up. Oh well, I wasn’t the only one, there were about 20 of us who were well behind the starting pack and had to swim extra timed distance. A bit of a balls up but it probably gave me something to focus on and stopped me being jittery.
The water was swimming pool warm, no shocks. It was very still although a bit murky. Rather pleasantly it just tasted of water when I accidentally got a face full.
There’s not a whole heap to write about the swim. I took it nice and steady, simply sighting off the side of the bank which was lined with people. At the turnaround point (it’s basically 1.9km down and 1.9km back) I saw someone waving at me. Rob had come down to the far end. I made a couple of jokes, he took a couple of pictures and I carried on swimming with him walking along the bank.
The only unpleasant parts of the swim were going under the bridges. Four passes underneath and it was a slightly eerie feeling. Instead of the water being bright but murky (you could see your hands) it suddenly went pitch black. Quite an odd claustrophobic sensation and you could feel the water being cooler. I didn’t panic as such, but I did wonder how many dead German mobsters are sleeping with the fishes at the bottom of this canal.
As far as pace is concerned I have *no* idea what happens when I put my wetsuit on, but in the pool I’m a faster than average swimmer. With the wetsuit on it seems like an awful lot of work and very ‘draggy’. Weird. Anyway, out of the water in 01:34:32. Not great and 4 minutes over what I’d put down as a ‘bad day’ estimate. Still, it’s something to work on.
Ever so continental. Many many naked people, with amazing volunteers getting you out of your wetsuit and getting you dressed, applying suncream etc. Normally the helpers in a change tent drive me nuts and mess up ‘my system’ but this time it was amazing. Everything ended up laid out on the table in a sensible order as I changed in to full bike gear.
It was the bike I was most nervous about even though it’s probably my (relatively!) strongest of the three. The swim, although I knew was going to be hard would only be about an hour and a half. The ‘run’ I knew I could shuffle through. The bike however, I had no idea how I’d fare for that kind of distance. My longest ride to this point was just shy of 100km so I had no real reference points. The plan was to ride it slow and steady. Better to be 10-15mins slower than to explode on the bike? Suck it and see I guess?
The Roth bike course is 2 x 85km loops with a final 10km spur to T2. The loop starts off with a set of quite quick downhill bends. Nice opportunity to get some food and drink in. Most people (including me before this) think of Roth as flat and fast, hence it being the fastest iron distance course for many years. The reality is the bike course is very undulating with actually little in the way of flat or indeed straight. The reason it’s quick is mostly for pro’s only: The uphills are sharp and short and the descents are long and fast, but you really have to be willing to hammer the downhills at big big speed to make up the average. It flatters the higher power riders. My Garmin reckons 1550m of elevation over 180km. OK, it’s no Wales, but it’s far from flat.
Up to the 30km was just a case of taking it easier than I wanted to, keeping an eye on power output and trying not to get carried away. There were some of the very fast guys passing me on their second lap, most of the pro’s had lapped me before I got out of the swim. What was mild entertainment was the relay teams. They all started 55 mins after me but the uber-swimmers had exited the water when I did (45 min swimmers) and handed over to their uber-bikers. These guys and and girls were thundering past at a ludicrous pace and properly *racing* each other. Very amusing but best to stay well clear and plod on.
The number of people supporting on the course was amazing. Even in small villages they’d effectively created a street party for the day. People had brought tables/chairs/sofas etc outside so they could cheer on us lunatics for the day. There were also about 20 official ‘hotpoints’ in towns with DJs, beer tents etc.
After an hour I’d started to get really, really annoyed with the clicking of my slightly misaligned gears. Due to a very long boring story it’d been necessary to re-cable the gears on my bike before the event. I’d tested them the day of racking and they were silky smooth but I guess the cable expanded ever so slightly being sat in the sun and it was all slightly out. I pulled over and hopped off the bike, bent down to twiddle the rear adjuster and OH MY GOD CRAMP OUCH DAMN THAT HURTS. Took about 2 minutes by the side of the road to get my left leg to listen to my brain so I could get back on the bike. Meanwhile, cyclists passing were wondering why this idiot was stood under a tree doing a one-legged rain dance.
At 35km you hit the first major climb at Greding. It was probably only 6-7% average but on the few steeper bits I was very grateful for my 32 tooth rear cog to avoid expending too much effort. There were probably a good few thousand people lining the first part of the climb. Much encouragement. Rob had somehow managed to get down there and was standing on the climb. We managed to exchange a few words, and he passed on a message from my kids. After the climb at Greding there’s a very fast downhill section but it’s punctuated with some tight hairpins. In contrast to Mallorca though, the edges are lined with haybale stacks, there are warning signs and on the sharp one there was a policeman waving a little red flag. Handy.
The next bit up until the 72km mark is through pretty but really quite tedious rolling farm land. It was all quite exposed and the wind was slowly picking up.
Aid stations at Roth are plentiful and well organised. On average they’re about every 17km and normally sensibly placed at the top of hills. The week before the race I’d bought a new bit of kit (yeah, I know!): An Xlab Torpedo bottle system. On the day it was absolutely brilliant. There was enough time at the aid stations to grab a water, empty it in to the Torpedo via the refill hole and toss the bottle. At some of the aid stations the volunteers were handing out bottles with no lid which made refilling even quicker. The ability to regularly sip on fluid rather than faff with bottles was a godsend.
At 72km you get to the defining part of Challenge Roth: Solarer Berg. You can hear it before you see it. The pictures in the media pack show it like this:
It’s described by many pro’s as “The greatest moment in Triathlon”, “The TdF is just Solarer Berg for cyclists” etc. Crowds 10 deep, music, dancing, drums, people doing arches with their arms blah blah blah. Yeah, whatever…..
IT WAS SPINE TINGLING.
Genuinely it’s a moment (well.. about 3 minutes) that’ll stay with me forever. Nobody rushed up it, it was a case of take it easy and soak it all in.
At the top I grabbed another water and tried to get back to business. An easy rolling 12km and you come back to the start point. Turn right for T2, left for the second loop. By this stage, plenty of people passing me were early wave starts on their second lap so were off to T2. (or confusingly, in German, WZ2).
The second loop was undoubtedly tougher than the first, the wind had really started to pick up and the temperature was now 32deg according to my Garmin. There were far fewer people on the course (both athletes and spectators who had gone to Roth to watch the pro’s start the run). I kept my head down and concentrated on hitting my first ever Metric Century. Mostly to see what the Garmin did… 99.9km, 100km. Ah, rather undramatically it just drops the decimal place.
Just after that personal milestone I stopped to transfer some nutrition from the bottle on the back to the bento up front. The peanut butter sarnies that worked fine in testing in the UK weren’t so great over here. The heat had turned them into something with the texture of a bathroom loofah. Sort of weetabix like and not nice to eat. I’d managed 2 but the third one was ditched. Put another sachet of SiS Energy Drink into the Torpedo bottle and stuck half an Oatmeal and Rasin Clif bar in my gob to eat while riding.
The quality of riding from other people was rapidly going downhill at this point and it became really hard to maintain the 10m anti drafting zone as other riders were quite randomly starting to coast. For about 10 minutes I upped my pace and overtook probably about 20 other riders to get some clear space. One rider from Mexico then came tanking back past only to then slow down a minute later. Couple more stupid games of this and then fortunately he stopped at the next aid station.
Speaking of aid stations again, the on course nutrition was supplied by a South African company called 32Gi. Impossible to get in the UK so I’d bought a few at the expo. Not unpleasant and basically just flavoured rice syrup so nothing horrid. The packaging was peculiar though. They’re credit card sized with a hard side and a soft side. You hold them in one hand and snap them back on themselves, then suck the gel out the middle. Looked totally ridiculous but actually very easy to do one handed on the bike with no mess at all.
Greding the second time was tough, but I looked forward to the descent afterwards. The next flat farmland section was the low point of the day. Huge headwinds and an upsetting 34degC reading on my Garmin made progress slow. Even on the flats I could see my average speed dropping yet I was pushing target power. Oh well, it was the same for everyone. I was still feeling good aside from a sore neck. Legs still had energy, heart rate was still nice and low. It was quite a nice feeling actually, it was very much an “I can finish this” feeling. If I had to do another whole loop I’d probably have cried but I knew the last 50k or so wouldn’t be an issue.
Solarer Berg the second time was far less busy but the hardcore (probably still about 10,000 people) were still there and the DJ was still pumping his tunes. The top of the climb coincided with my first Imperial Century, so that was nice. Also passed a woman on a hand cycle which made me feel like an idiot for being a bit grumpy, and a woman riding along with a huge pair of fairy wings strapped to her. Not hugely aerodynamic and she was struggling (not sure she finished).
Turn right at the junction towards WZ2 and it was all mostly downhill for the next 10k. Aim the bike at a volunteer, stop, hop off and hand the bike over, no need to rack it yourself. Chuckle worthy (for me, not him) sight: there was a chap who had stopped on his bike, unclipped and stood up but his legs had cramped. The volunteers were trying to lift him over the saddle to get him off the bike.
Bike section had taken a whopping 6h55m. Again, a touch over my target but respectable.
Again, very continental, very naked and very efficient. The volunteers laid everything out for me in a sensible fashion, helped me unbuckle my bike shoes, did the sunscreen etc. Less stressful than most transitions despite me accidentally grabbing back 3410 not 3401 which wasted a minute or so while I looked at the somewhat unfamiliar run kit.
According my super high tech £10 Casio watch that I wear throughout (and as a backup to Edge 500 on bike and 910XT on run), I’d got out of T2 with 8:50 elapsed time leaving me 6:10 to do the marathon. So long as nothing went completely and utterly pear shaped this was in the bag. I’d heard many horror stories about Iron distance racing such as “The halfway point of the day is halfway through the run” and obviously there’s many anecdotes about people pushing too hard and ‘exploding’ (sometimes literally out of either end) on the run. Had I drunk enough? Had I eaten enough? What about salts?
Well.. whatever. I saw Rob again at the exit of T2, we had a little chat while I devoured some watermelon from the aid station. He showed me a video that my kids had sent me which perked me up a bit mentally.
I felt good on the first few km of the run, although I took the first two aid stations very slowly to get some fluid down me. The first 4km out of Roth to the canal was quite nice with plenty of support. I could see the faster runners coming back in on their final few km towards the finish. Some of them looked like (fast moving) zombies.
Just before the canal was a slightly peculiar section through an industrial estate. You ran through the car park of one company, ”Speck Pumpen Systemtechnik” who had massive branded tables out and presumably, their staff all sat around drinking beer and cheering people on. Weird.
Once at the canal the surface was quite hard to run on imho. It’s dusty compacted hardcore rather than small gravel. It’s possibly easier on the legs than tarmac but I kept having issues with stones getting in my shoes and occasionally a sharp stone would batter my heel through my shoe. Oh well, only 30km or so of this left!
The first 10k I felt good, but I was incredibly conscious of not pushing too hard. I had no idea if I had the endurance to run it properly so I was doing an easy run/walk. I was running at about 5:45-6:00/km and then walking at 8:30/km. Doing this was giving me km splits between about 6:45 and 7:15/km on average and felt very comfortable. I tried a slow jog behind someone but it actually hurt more than running at my usual pace and felt more tiring. Better to walk/run and the proof in the pudding was overtaking them.
Near the turnaround point you run over the canal on of the locks. This isn’t your English countryside lock with a cider serving pub next to it. Nope. Giant German shipping canal lock. It was *huge* and frankly a bit foreboding with enormous amounts of water thundering out the bottom.
At the 17km mark I started to get hungry and each aid station was a bit of a buffet. I power walked the next few km to let the food settle, so a couple of 8-9min/km which still seemed to be faster than some people who were ‘running’. After that, I popped my headphones on and busted out my playlist. I’d been saving that for about this point on the run. Roth is peculiar in allowing headphones on the run course so I wanted to make the most of it. The previous night in bed I’d put together a playlist with everything from the defacto “Eminem – Til I Collapse” through some classic rock (Aerosmith / ACDC) through some “reach for the lasers!” EDM, leading nicely in to some 80s hip hop, a bit of a Fleetwood Mac chillout session, the German version of 99 Luftballons and finally reaching the pinnacle with Taylor Swift (don’t judge me). Zoning out a bit and listening to the music helped pick up my pace a bit and I was back to 6:30-7:00/km’s. Slow, but sustainable.
At almost exactly the 21.1km mark you begin another out and back section. Rob was waiting here for me, we had another bit of a chat and a discussion about how much time I had left before the 15 hours were up. It probably happens to everyone but after a while I lose the ability to do simple maths. I couldn’t work out how long I had left, and if my current pace was going to cut it or not. After a minute of Rob very calmly explaining 6yr old level maths I was sure I had enough time regardless of pace and off I went for the next 14km loop. Some more monotonous canal path and then the course turns off, goes up through a forest and into another town. At the end of the town at 28km was a pretty steep hill and the ‘penalty loop’. I saw one poor sod running back from his extra 1km. That’ll teach him not to draft.
Back again up the canal and I was feeling great. Tired, but great. Oddly, my legs were feeling really strong but I was nervous of going too fast as there was still 10km left to go and again I’d heard so many horror stories about “hitting the wall” / “crawling the last few miles” etc etc. It suddenly dawned on me that this was by far the furthest I’d ever ‘run’ and guess what? The human body doesn’t liquify at a certain distance. Who knew?
At 35km I saw Rob’s silhouette looming in the twilight so I ran (apparently at 5:00/km..wtf?) over to him, making the person who’d just passed me curse in German. I swapped my sunglasses out for regular glasses so I could actually see and had a mouthful of KP Nuts that were in my rucksack from the flight over. Rob then told me he’d had to give my bottle of Coke and my Bounty to A Guy Called Gerald (maybe Graham). Poor Gerald/Graham had been looking very very shaky. Another point to note if you do Roth: *THERE’S NO SPECIAL NEEDS BAG*. On both the bike and the run you have to have a supporter have your special needs stuff within a certain distance of the aid stations.
The next few KM’s we jogged together. Technically you’re not allowed a pacer and I was slightly nervous about getting DQ’d but by this point it’d all turned a bit lawless. There were people on bikes riding with runners, entire families jogging with Dad etc. It’d also gone quite dark and it was useful to have a second set of eyes.
3km before the finish, Rob turned off towards the stadium and I began the last few km around Roth town itself. It was actually pretty dark in places and on cobbled streets. If you’re a slower finisher like myself you could do worse than to have a supporter hand you a small head torch. I met Geert from Belgium who was moving at a decent pace so we chatted for a bit. It was actually the first time I’d really spoken to someone other than quick chats with Rob and it was nice to have some company for a bit. He’d done Roth before in a much quicker time but today he’d struggled with the heat and the head wind. There were a lot of people still out cheering and it was nice to take it easy and soak up the atmosphere for a bit. Plenty of people who’d already finished were out on the streets yelling encouragement.
Before I knew it, Geert said “So this is it, you go ahead, enjoy it” and pointed to a big red arch. The final 200m. I’d done it. It was quite hard not to be emotional as I jogged down the funnel lined with people either side high fiving them. As the funnel turned the corner the noise began to grow and grow and suddenly I was in the stadium (it’s not a sports venue, it’s erected every year for this). People everywhere, bright lights, music.
It was hard not to feel like a superstar regardless of performance with that many people there. To paraphrase Vinnie Jones, “It was emotional”. I’d done it, I’d bloody done it. I’d somehow managed to string together an iron distance race with no real dramas, almost everything went to plan and I’d loved almost every single second of it.
Over the line I went in 14:10:52. Marathon done in 5:20, probably about what I was hoping for but it was a lot less painful that I was anticipating. One of the pro’s (no idea who) shook my hand and strung the medal around my neck. Geert and I had a high five, I found Rob for a well needed cuddle and then went off to get my finishers shirt, big glass of alkoholfrei and a welcome salami roll.
Once I’d found Rob again it was time for more food and to phone my super proud wife. That phone call and the utterly wonderful Twitter comments I’d had from people who were tracking me didn’t help my somewhat emotional state. You lot rock. Thank you so much.
It was an odd feeling having done it. It’s a super long day obviously but it goes in a flash. One minute you’re pulling your wetsuit on, the next minute you’re crossing that finish line.
Looking back, I wish I’d faffed around a little less and pushed a little harder as there was certainly a 13:59:59 up for grabs but that’s just vanity really. A finish is a finish!
If you’re still there after 5000 words, to summarise then: This is a bucket list race. The course isn’t hard but it’s not easy either. If it wasn’t for the 250,000 spectators it’d probably be quite unremarkable. But they’re there and it is something else. The tagline for this year was “RACE THE LEGEND” and they couldn’t be more right.
As always, huge thanks to my family for being so supportive. Massively grateful to Rob for taking the time to come out to Germany with me and to Sarah for his release. Also, the support from everyone on Twitter and my swim club has been amazing. So much advice, encouragement and when needed a huge kick up the backside (yeah, you!)
This was supposed to be really really brief. I failed. Sorry.
The Week Before
I wanted to try the Mallorca 70.3 again as last year was a bit… bumpy. It’s also a great excuse for a holiday in what I think is a very underrated place. Not sure why but some people seem to look down their nose at Mallorca as a holiday destination. I can only assume they’ve only seen down town Magaluf rather than the spectacular mountains, coastline and crystal clear seas.
Anyway, this year there was a lot less faffing pre race and zero nerves. I knew what I was doing I guess. In the week leading up to the race I swam in the sea every day which was useful. On the Thursday I went for a quick ride down the coast with Amy and James to check my rear skewer had stopped slipping under power and causing the rear wheel to rub on the frame (thanks Loz for the loan of the turbo skewer which sorted it!).
During the week I also did a couple of trips up the big hill in the car, first to let Amy and Loz ride the descent and then next time round so that Andrew and I could ride it. The descent seemed easier this year than last year which was reassuring as last year was on a stable cyclocross bike, this year on a TT bike. I was amazed at how well the Magura hydraulic brakes scrub off speed and how easy they are to modulate. Confidence inspiring. Heck of an adrenaline rush though, flying down that hill. Garmin data shows an average of 40kph for 13 minutes. Strava reckons the quickest are doing it at 60kph average which strikes me as utterly psychotic.
Driving back from the descent attempt with Andrew we drove the whole course (something I’d managed to avoid with Amy/Lozza). Going past the scene of my crash felt very odd. I could pinpoint the exact location and I swore I could still see the marks on the road. My mouth went dry, my heart started racing and I was bloody glad to turn off that bit of road. Perhaps I wasn’t quite as comfortable as I thought. The next 20km of driving I spoke about the blustery conditions with Andrew as we watched the palm trees blow from side to side. Lunch, briefing and an iced coffee with friends was a welcome distraction in the afternoon.
Anyway, the rest of the week was filled with messing around on the beach, splashing in the sea with the kids, eating too much and coffee with friends before packing bags with Andrew and Loz and then bag drop and bike racking.
For the first time ever I slept completely soundly the night before and my body clock woke me up exactly a minute before my alarm went off. Skillz. Tried to consume some cereal, gave up and had a brioche and a tea instead. Our apartment was on the beachfront between the swim start and transition so at about 6.30am Andrew (who was staying with us) and I went down to stick our nutrition and bottles on our bikes. By 6:45 we were back in the apartment for another cuppa and try for some more food.About 8am it was time to put wetsuits on and walk the few hundred yards to the swimstart. My very fetching orange swimhat on, I went for a warm up in the sea to get over that “cold water in odd places” sensation, then it was time to line up in the start pen.
Some Ellie Goulding at high volumes over the PA and it was ready to go. Starter pistol went bang exactly on time and we walked/jogged in to the water. Within about 10 seconds I was in to a nice rhythm in the relatively calm water. For the first time in a race I managed to do the whole damn thing front crawl and had no need to catch my breath. It felt easy and comfortable. Nothing really to note other than I was astonished at how quick the quickest swimmers in the next start wave were as they passed me. The rest of the swim was sent looking at fish below me and the occasional swim hat on the sea floor. I exited the water according to my Casio in about 38 minutes I think. The official times reckons 40 mins but I have a suspicion the timing mat was at the start of T1, a good few hundred meters from the edge of the sea. I walked that bit whereas others charged round. Ah well. All in all though, I’d describe the swim as ‘blissful’. It really was very enjoyable. A big difference to last year where I was just glad to get out.
Some chap was telling anyone who would listen that the swim was “quite salty”. Yeah, it’s the sea dude. I assume he was talking about the sea anyway.
Last year the start waves were much much bigger and I was in a much earlier wave. A bit crowded for the first part of the ride. This year though there were fewer people around once I got to the bike course which was nice.
The run up to Port de Pollença is pancake flat along the coast but a bit blustery. Still, it’s smooth and chance to have some drink and a bite to eat. Turn left towards proper Pollença and start to up the pace a bit to 30kph or so. The fast riders from the waves behind were thundering past but I was overtaking a decent selection. Through the first aid station, collect some water and half a banana and carry on. At this point I remembered that it’s not that easy to peel a banana when on the aerobars at speed, so I sort of made a little tear in the side and mashed it into my face. Attractive.
The first part of the climb (only about a 3% gradient) seemed to confuse a few people who must have seen the ‘climb ahead’ road signs and immediately switched in to a lower gear. It was easy enough to cruise along it at a decent speed though. I’m in the zone now and quite happy, but then get a weird piercing sensation in my left quad. That’s not good. Doesn’t feel muscular though, feels like a burning hot needle. Slow down enough to look down and I can see a tiny little black thing poking out. Oh good, my first ever bee sting (managed 35 years without a bee or wasp sting… good timing). Turns out they’re quite bloody painful aren’t they?
Get to the climb proper and settle in trying to ignore the fact my leg is on fire. My TT bike seems a lot easier to climb on than my old bike. Or I’m fitter. Probably the bike. Here I start passing quite a lot of people but also sometimes end up stuck in a queue. There wasn’t really room to go three abreast and with the line of traffic ahead it’d mean a mammoth effort for me to pass the required ‘train’ and keep out of the way of the fast boys coming past. Easier to take it a bit easier than I wanted to and think of all the energy I was saving.
At this point I was starting to get quite unpleasant stomach cramps which didn’t really help with the whole nutrition thing which went to hell in a handbasket. Got to the water station on the climb, jettisoned my bottles and then look up to see the volunteers just standing around. One guy shouts to me “Sorry, no agua”. Errr, you what? I stop, unclip and he tells me he’s just sorting it. He dives into the back of the van, gets a couple of empty bottles. Goes back in the van, grabs some water, decants it, presses the lid on and hands it over. He offers me another bottle but I decline, this one will do fine for the descent. I ride along and take a few sips, then pop it in the horizontal cage on my aerobars. At which point, the lid he’d gently pressed on stopped being a lid and the precious agua just ended up wetting the front of my bike and the tarmac. DAMMIT! Oh well, no liquid for a while. Somewhere around here I passed Lu Telford who seemed very cheery despite the climb and the now climbing heat. Get to the top of the hill eventually and feel fresh. Felt much easier than last year and looking at the Garmin data afterwards tells me I was 5 mins quicker too (on roughly an hours worth of climbing). I’ll take that.
The descent was fine for me personally although I passed 8 people in various states of ouch by the side of the road. At one point towards the end I heard the unmistakable sound of rubber just starting to break into a skid and something moving out of the corner of my eye. Quarter a second later, George from the USA slid past the front of my bike as I was slowing down. Mostly on his arse with the bike following. He stood up, shouted he was ok and we all carried on (including George who I saw at the finish). Good on you George, but FYI, your bike doesn’t have ABS.
The next part of the ride goes over some really terrible road surface, much worse than last year. Ended up having to stick to the aerobars as I was getting whitefinger through the basebar. When the pros got there first thing, and the first few waves it must have looked like a normal road with some really crappy potholes etc. By the time I got there, it looked like someone had taken the returned Wiggle orders for a day and just dropped them from an helicopter. All along the road were bottles, multitools, saddlebags, tubes, CO2 carts, folded up tyres, Speedfils, Garmins and all manner of nutrition that’d been shaken from previous bikes.
Past the Wiggle Wastelands the road becomes flatter and smoother. Up the ridiculously steep but short hill in Muro and snigger to myself as one guy neglects to change gear (he was still in the big ring), stops dead and falls off sideways.
Final stretch now, all completely flat and smooth. I get comfy on the aerobars and plug away into the relatively strong headwind. There’s nobody coming past me now and I’m picking off people with ease as they’re all mostly sitting up doing their best parachute impression. I know I’m coming up on my crash spot from last year and I tell myself not to be a chicken. The temptation is to sit up and cruise but I persuaded myself to keep tucked down and push the pace up a bit. i.e, show it who is boss and that I’m not afraid.
Come round the corner before the long straight and I see blue lights a long way ahead. Couple of minutes later I arrive at the scene of last years accident and there’s an ambulance parked up, I kid you not, about 5 meters from where I stood bleeding last year trying to repair my bike. There’s a woman being loaded on a stretcher with what looks like a head injury. Two male riders stand and watch. I can only assume it was another almost identical collision as there’s literally nothing to hit at that spot. It’s flat, straight and sighted. Weird. Well, that didn’t do my inner demons any favours and I’m not going to lie, they won and I backed off a bit. The few slight downhill sections around Sa Pobla were taken with more caution than required and every time the speed started to creep up there was a comforting scrub of speed from the brakes.
Final run into Alcudia and I spot a rider ahead who I think might be Lozza. Yep, get a bit closer and it is. Gunned it off the last roundabout before transition and caught Loz up so I can let her know where I am and we can both have a bit of company for the run.
Ride over in 3:27. Not dreadful given the headwind but I was secretly hoping for a lot faster. Probably lost a couple of minutes down to waiting at the aid station and me generally being a bit of a wuss on the sweepers, but not what I was aiming for still. Some work to be done then! On the plus side, I felt great coming off the bike, bags of energy and felt like I could do it all over again.
Some guy asked a volunteer for a tissue to blow his nose with. Official picks up (I don’t know why!) a pair of used bibshorts off the floor and offers them as a tissue. Guy declines.
I pee in the weird open air urinals next to the spectators (how very Euro) and overhear someone shriek in a Geordie accent: “Holy crap, not sure my pee should look that radioactive!”. It smelt like bleach.
I left T2 looking for Loz and saw her about 200m ahead. The stomach cramps I had on the bike turned into a horrendous side stitch / trapped wind feeling which with hindsight was probably trapped wind. What I probably needed was a massive fart but I didn’t think of it at the time. A few km of painful jogging and it sort of loosened up a bit and I started to run a bit better. Andy Lavelle then came steaming past on his final lap with a cheery hello. I eventually caught Lozza up at the harbour. We ran/walked/talked together for about a lap and a half which made my day. We saw Jo and Tarsh at various points who were both going a fair bit quicker than us. Doesn’t matter, it’s not a race is it? Ah damn, it is. We start pushing each other to go a bit quicker and especially when we saw various supporters. It was great to see the wife and kids so often due to the layout of the run course and the location of our apartment. By the 2nd lap, they were on the beach side of the apartment with the (rather nice) bikini clad American & German girls from the apartment downstairs. That made that part of the run go a bit better. We also saw Anne, Helen and Rae at various points around the course. It’s obvious, but it does need saying, it really does lift the spirits when someone you know is shouting encouragement, so thank you all so much.
After another pee stop (I’d drunk a LOT) I somehow managed to lose Loz so ran off on my own on the third and final lap. I caught a very friendly Californian fellow who had almost literally stuck a pin in a map to choose this race. The hill on the bike had surprised the heck out of him and he was in a world of hurt. I kept him running for a little bit but eventually he slowed down. On the last bit with about 3km to go, I was following a girl who was looking a bit unsteady on her feet. As I approached she sort of stopped on the spot, whirled round and clattered into a big wheelie bin. I managed to catch her as she fell. A man rushed over who turned out to be her husband and between us we lifted her out of the blazing sun (it was about 35deg by this point). I ran into the restaurant to get some water/ice and ask them to phone an ambulance (yeah, ok, so I technically left the course, DQ me). She was asking what her time was and appeared lucid but her eyes were tracking all over the place. I spent a couple of minutes waiting there until he said he was ok on his own and I started the last 3k. Having had a little break the final run was actually really easy and were the fastest km splits of the race. Ooops. Got cheered on by the bikini clad girls from downstairs on the last run past, turned right and into the finish chute.
Run time: 2:46. Bit of a shambles really and nothing I can really put my finger on as to why.
One of the reasons for doing this race was that it’s 8 weeks before Challenge Roth, my first iron distance so it was a bit of a practice really.
1) My nutrition in general sucked and it was mostly my fault. I had 2 half bananas on the bike, loads of water but no electrolytes. I had a mix of water and coke on the run and one revolting gel. It was way, way off. Could ‘get by’ for a 70.3 but that’d end my race in Roth.
2) Just bloody run. I dilly-dallied far too much on the run section.
3) Carry an antihistamine on the bike just in case. My left leg was like a balloon by the end.
It was supposed to give me confidence before Roth but in some ways it’s done the opposite. The reality of just how damn far a full is (particularly the run) is far too apparent. Also, with the cut off at Roth being 15 hours, I’ve realised there’s no real wiggle room for me.
I’ll probably be back in Mallorca the same time next year, but more than likely just to watch, and to get some good quality cycling, eating and drinking done….
First thing’s first, I failed at my run streak. The intention was to run at least a mile every day but for a few reasons it never happened. I missed a run on the 14th due to my legs being plain tired and having the Silverstone Half the next day. The following week was also a write off due to being on holiday. I’d planned to run every evening on hols, but frankly a glass of wine and relaxing felt like the better option.
All that said, although it wasn’t a ‘streak’, it was the shot in the arm that my running needed. Although it’s not a huge amount of distance for some people, in March I clocked up 130.73km of running and managed to get out there 20 days out of 31. Not terrible. It was also a huge monthly increase in distance which was a gamble that fortunately paid off.
So my previous ‘best’ as it were was July with a whopping 45km or so in a month. So what’s that about the ‘10% / week’ rule?
So what have I managed to gain from it?
Firstly, I’ve not broken. That’s a massive for me. Last year I was plagued by knee pain, ITB pain and a weird sciatica that wouldn’t bugger off. This time round, fingers crossed it’s been fine. Other than just exhausted legs now and again I’ve had no pain at all. The Silverstone Half hurt a bit but mostly sore feet.
Secondly, it’s become way, way easier and I’ve become quicker. The 5km on the 10th March was a 5K PB, but a not insignificant 90 seconds (ish). Then 5 days later I beat my 1/2 Marathon PB (set this time last year) by 30 minutes. Oh, and the first 10K of the 21.1KM? A 10K PB by 3 whole minutes. An easy-ish pace is now 5:10/km, around a minute quicker than this time last year. If nothing else it’s a good boost in confidence.
Overall, it was well worth doing but as someone aiming for a full distance IM, trying to run every day was rather predictably restricting other training. When my legs were tired and I ‘had’ to fit another run in, bike and swim went out the window entirely. I might have another crack at it over winter though, it’s strangely addictive.
Got busy with the aluminium strip again last night and knocked up a bit of bracketry to take a bottle cage and a Garmin mount. You can buy them, but I have a few issues with them:
The Garmin mount is often to the rear bottle so impossible to see
If it’s in front of the bottle, the bottle still tends to be in the way.
£££££££ Damn, they’re pricey
Didn’t bother with a huge set of photos of it ‘under construction’ as quite frankly, it’s simple enough to make.
Cut a small bit of plastic away on the Garmin mount so it slots nicely on to the alu strip..
The finished bracket. It looks pretty industrial, but it weighs 90g (excluding the cage). Difficult to see, but I cut a small notch on the left hand side and put a small cable tie around it to stop the Garmin sliding off
Installed on the bars with some honking great big cable ties and some sticky back neoprene between bracket and bars.
One thing that’s bugged the hell out of me about my Tri bike is the frame bottle cage placement. Either it’s designed for people with tiny arms so they need to have it high to reach, or they just didn’t think it through properly.
As you can see in the pics below, the bottle it quite high on the downtube, meaning that when you remove it from the cage there’s not that much room. Also, the downtube is nice and fat at the bottom so would shield the bottle from the wind. The standard position just seems a bit odd.
Interestingly, Cervelo have bothered to put a mounting rivnut above the bottom bracket. It’s allegedly for a forthcoming storage kit, but that doesn’t appear to be happening. Could be useful for relocating the water bottle though..
So, being a bit of a bodger tinkerer, I’ve modified the Elite cage with some aluminium strip. First of all, I used a dremel to cut a slot in either end of the base of the case and slotted the ally strip through. Bend it gently into the required shape and then measure and drill the 5mm holes.
Trim the ends up, cover in some carbon effect vinyl and bolt it back on with 3 bolts. It sits much lower and is far easier to get out the cage. It’s not a long reach at all and feels very natural. Job jobbed.
The opposite to most people really, instead of “wow, where did the year go?”, 2014 seems to have gone on forever. In a good way. Here’s my mega lazy summary of what went on:
Mild weather, get massively over excited by running for some weird reason. Run about 4 times a week. Manage a 5K in 23:55 out of nowhere. Find that actually 10K isn’t that bad either. I like running.
Arrive at Feb utterly broken by an over enthusiastic January. Everything south of my ribs makes an alarming clicking noise when moved. Like an Action Man with gravel in the joints. Spend Feb doing a bit of light turbo trainer and learning how to swim.
Somehow forget that I’d entered a Half Marathon. Realise that with a grand total of 12km running since January, and double the distance I’d ever run this was going to hurt. It did. A lot. For 2hrs 25. I hate running.
Spend April seeing every physio in the south of the UK trying to unbreak myself and stressing about Mallorca 70.3 coming up in May, feeling woefully underprepared.
For some reason, I then stupidly attempted a 100km sportive the next weekend. Nope, still broken.
Old bike pretty tatty after crash. This little bundle of joy arrives.
This little bundle of joy arrives
I occupy Ben by taking him out on the back of my bike a lot. He finds it all a bit much.
Took 2 week old baby to a wet and muddy Carfest, which was fun. Ate the worlds largest Scotch Egg . It’s birthday month in my family and August vanishes in a whirlwind of toys, party food and cake.
I hadn’t forgotten about about Challenge Weymouth Half Distance on the 14th, so much as not stress about it and put family first. A little panic week of training at the start of September and I’m good to go. I’ve not bothered to blog about it, but the race can be summarised by these pictures:
Quite a lot less blood loss than previous race, so a win.
Not a whole heap. A lot of well needed family time.
Some more, muddier family time.
Right towards the end of November had one of the best bike rides I’ve ever had. Crisp weather, no rush to be anywhere, the lad on the back of my bike, coffee at Twenty3C and a surprise winter fete in Stony Stratford. A glorious 40KM.
This is my first race report. It’s huge (like medium sized novel huge). I’ve gone into far too much detail, but that’s entirely for my own benefit so I can remember it all in years to come, so apologies in advance.
2014 Training and preamble
I’d booked Mallorca almost a year ago after having just completed a ‘novice’ super sprint triathlon. I wanted something to work towards, something hard but achievable with the right work. Make no mistake, for me, a 70.3 distance (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run if you happen to be one of the 3 non tri people reading) is no joke for me. Some will knock that out as a tough training day, but for myself, with no real athletic background, it had sat on my wall planner like an ever nearing panic attack. I’d done a sort of Olympic distance race before (swim was cancelled and replaced with a 5km run) and that wasn’t too bad, but this was going to be an entirely different ball game.
Training wise, 2014 was mixed. A lovely mild January meant I could actually go outside and learn how to run. I ran 3 times a week for about 5-7km at a time which for me was quite big volume. Between the start of Jan and the end of Feb my 5km tumbled from 27.50 to 23.55, which was incredibly encouraging. Running felt easy, everything was good. Bike time was still limited, but I quite enjoy the turbo trainer anyway and was making good progress on TrainerRoad working through the sessions.
Towards the end of February though, I think my body had had enough and decided to throw various leg/hip injuries at me. I had a complete week off and shelved the running entirely, concentrating on turbo and a lot of strength training. Late March I did the MK half marathon which was double the distance I’d ever run. Encouragingly it felt great and was on track for a respectable 2 hours until the last few miles when I started to get knee pain. Hobbled to a 2:25 finish, but job done. Every run for the next month though was plagued with knee and hip pain. I could manage about 5km but beyond that, no chance.
Swimming has come on leaps and bounds too thanks to Keith Lewis at the Swim Shed, transforming my stroke from salmon in fishing net into something resembling an efficient swimmer. With a somewhat varied block of training I boarded the plane to Mallorca with the sole aims of having a nice time and walking away with a medal.
Race Lead Up
Sunday – nice recce of the course from our rental van (don’t ask). The climb on the course seemed absurd but the rest of it seemed fine. Quite a long way, 50 odd miles on winding roads. Built my bike up in the evening and then went for a nice meal out
Monday – good play on the beach with Ben. We made some sandcastles and I walked out into the sea carrying him. Couldn’t get him to splash around though as he said the sea was scary. Later in the day, friend and amazing athlete Amy Kilpin asked if I wanted a bit of hand holding with my first sea swim. Yes please! The sea doesn’t “freak me out” as such but it did seem a bit vast to just go in on my own. We both also needed to test our bikes out so we did an easy (for her, not for me) ride up to Port de Pollenca and back. Riding on Mallorcan roads just felt faster for some reason. It was also the first test of the deep aero front wheel and rear disk cover with some serious side winds. Other than a tiny wobble now and again it felt fine.
Back home, to the beach and wetsuits on it was time to man up and get in the water. The calm millpond water from the morning was replaced by some relative chop and the odd occasional proper wave. Swimming out left me feeling totally breathless, I couldn’t get the timing right and I was really struggling. All the pool swimming I’d done had gone out of the window. Half an hour more swimming and some pointers from Amy, I was feeling a bit better. 1900m though was going to be tough. Best moment of the day though was walking out of the sea to see Ben up to his elbows in the water having a great time splashing around.
Tuesday – had an hours swimming on my own while Ben and Nat built sandcastles and played in the sea. Much much better than Monday. The water was still and I found the rhythm I’d been missing.
Wednesday – another morning sea swim, this one felt great. Managed to keep pace with a chap who turned out to be an OW coach from the UK. He gave me a couple more tips, watched me swim and said it looked good. Confidence restored! In the afternoon we picked Amy up and put the bikes in the van to do the descent. It was the one part of the ride I was worried about. It’s mega fast in places and incredibly technical along switchbacks in others. Turns out it was hilarious fun. Years of driving quick cars on track meant it came quite naturally. Brake late and if needed all the way in to the apex to keep the weight on the nose, use the full width of the road, let the brake off as you come out the corner and I made pretty good pace. Natalie followed us down and picked us up at the bottom. The drive home was a 2 hour adventure of diversions that involved driving through an olive grove and a car blocking the road with a sign that said “I’m here with the asphalt machine” as the locals were frantically resurfacing before Sunday.
Thursday – quick splash in the sea followed by event registration and collecting my transition bags. Holding the race number in my hand it all started to feel a bit real. Nerves starting to kick in now so spent the day playing with Ben to try to take my mind off it. Once he’d gone to bed I packed, repacked and triple packed my transition bags before an early night. Couldn’t sleep at all.
Friday – easy morning, another play on the beach with Ben, followed by bike racking. Had met up with Amy before bag drop to have someone sanity check my bags as I was convinced I’d forgotten something. Bike racked, bags dropped and a few technical issues sorted and was good to go to the briefing. Seeing hundreds of amazing looking athletes in one place did nothing to calm my nerves and feelings of being utterly out of my depth but the briefing itself was good. After a few hours of slow boiling in the sun though we were both starting to feel the effects of the heat. I always notice my speech starts slurring a touch if I’m overheating and it was just creeping in, so we went on a hunt for some ice cream (nutritional and medicinal, honest) and some shade. Nerves still at full tilt, I went home to try and eat some dinner and get some sleep.
5.15am wake up, try to eat some breakfast. I managed a small coffee and a tiny bowl of Cheerios (quite plain, easy to eat). Amy picked me up to save me a mile walk. I made my way to my bike to put my spare inner tubes in the saddlebag and fill my bottles. Then to the beach. By 7.30 the nerves had vanished for some reason and replaced with a sense of calm. I had various comments from people floating round my head, one of which was from my wise Scottish friend @IronPugsley: “Take the time to have a look around, take it all in and enjoy it.“. I did just that and looked at the faces of people. Most were looking nervous, some completely stone cold. A few smiling, so I exchanged smiles. Kept reminding myself I wanted to do this and it was an adventure. 7.45 and it was time for Amy to go into her holding area for her wave start. Good lucks exchanged and I’m on my own. I watched the pros start and then the next few waves. Then it was my turn. Wetsuit on, I got sort of in the middle of the pack and waited…
After an eternity of waiting the gun went off. At my point of the pack it wasn’t a run into the water, it was too busy for that, it was more like a crowd boarding a train, moving with conviction but without any pace. Found myself a space to swim and went for it. The water was opaque with kicked up silt and I could feel the bubbles of the person in front. 200m or so in, I’m not quite sure what happened but during a breath my goggles got removed from my face along with my cap. I stopped to find them a few yards back but whilst trying to put them back on someone swum over me and I took a lungful of sea water. Confidence knocked entirely I started to breaststroke my way after the pack which shot off into the distance. At the halfway marker I looked at my stopwatch which was showing about 19mins, so plenty of time left. It was very clear that I just needed to take it at my own pace. Pretty much on my own apart from a few others I alternated between 30secs of crawl and some breaststroke. I kept panicking with the crawl and I couldn’t find any rhythm. 45 minutes after the gun went, I left the water feeling annoyed at myself but ready for the bike and pleased I made the cut off (which last year looked a bit tight).
Into T1, get bike gear on, grab bike and jog along the world’s longest transition (500m apparently). Mount the bike and off we go. Up into Alcudia old town where Matt Fisher blasted past me saying “come on Brian, mate!”. Sorry Matt, that was me actually pedalling quite hard. I literally have no idea how the fast bikers do it. It really is incredible. The pace I can maintain for a minute sprint, they’ll do for 90km. Amazing. The bike course is a single loop that follows the coast, takes in a 600 metre climb, then drops back down to undulating farmland for another 50km. I was starting to get into a zone on the bike, passing a few people that left the water ahead of me. Gentle cruise up the coastal road to Port de Pollenca gave me time to eat a 9Bar and have some fluid. Got to the first aid station at Pollenca having drunk most of my bottles so grabbed a water, an isotonic (yuck), and a half banana. The gentle climb from Pollenca up to the start of the main climb was only really noticeable by looking at the Grade reading on my Garmin.
Then passed a sign warning of a steep climb for the next 9km. Here we go, rattle through the gears one by one as speed drops and keep the legs spinning. The climb was never impossible, just long with very little rest. Although my bike is a heavy lump (it’s a pimped cyclocross bike) it does have the advantage of a triple chainring up front and a huge 32T gear on the back. I never used all the gears, but some people could have done with some extra options. At one point I was following a huge Russian guy called Ivan. He must have been about 6ft5, 18 stone and for some reason, on a small frame bike. He looked like Donkey Kong and I was pretty sure he could just push his bike along with his hands. Unfortunately, he was getting slower and slower as the hill got steeper. I waited for a small gap in the passing bikes, clicked up a few gears and did a small sprint effort standing in the pedals. Other than that, the climb was just a case of looking at the reading from my Powertap and keeping it as smooth as possible between about 130W and 180W depending on traffic etc.
Once at the top of the climb (there’s a few false summits on the way!) I shifted into the big ring, zipped round the first corner and promptly found the chain had jammed in the front mech. Back pedalling made it worse so had to leap off the bike next to someone changing a puncture, pop the chain back on and away again. About 30 seconds wasted and more of an annoyance than anything else. Onto the descent proper and some of the riding standards were dreadful. I passed about 50-60 people on the switchbacks and didn’t get passed at all. There were some almost coming to a standstill, wobbling round the corner and pedalling like fury again for the downhills. Odd. Off the main descent, through Caimari village and hook a left onto the worst road surface you can imagine. Potholes, gravel, dust. Even cruising at 20kph felt too fast and the bike felt like it was being shaken to bits. Fortunately it didn’t last long until we got to section that was resurfaced on the Wednesday.
Along to Campanet and the second aid station. The gap between aid station 1 and 2 is a whopping 40km and included the 600m climb. It really felt like about 20km too far. They could have done with a water station (rather than a full aid station) at the top of the climb IMHO given it was starting to head towards 26-28degC by this point. Another banana, a Powerbar (yuck) and some more waters down me, the stretch from Campanet to the final aid station was only 15km along some half reasonable roads…. after seemingly barely enough time to finish what I was eating it was time to grab some more water and click off the final 25km back to Alcudia. Not sure if there was a tailwind or what, but down in the aero position along the flat smooth roads I was maintaining an easy 40-45kph with barely 130W of output. Lovely cruise and I’m feeling great. This’ll be over in no time.
Another cyclist pulls alongside me, shouting something at me in German that I don’t understand. Flustered, I stare at him as he’s looking back at me, about a metre in front and a metre to my left. I carry on at a cruise as I’m aware there’s someone about draft legal distance behind me and I don’t want to slow them up too. I wait for him to pull the regulation 10m distance away. He has all the time in the world, this road is arrow straight, massively wide and empty infront of me. He turns away from me and all of a sudden moves over. Not a fast move, maybe two seconds or so. I’ve removed one hand from a tri bar moving it to the brake but it’s too late. His rear wheel just kisses my front and *BANG*. I’m down. 45kph according to the Garmin, and I have no bike underneath me.
I don’t remember a vast amount from the tumble itself, it was probably too quick, but I do remember landing on my feet whilst watching my bike bounce through a field off the road. I then remember catching something out the corner of my eye and watching my two Powerbar water bottles come down from the sky like tiny yellow laser guided bombs onto the road, exploding in a shower of cold water. He didn’t stop. Nobody stopped. I’m standing up, shaking, blood dripping from all my fingers like a horror film poster.
I’m screaming at passing riders: “Someone call the next medic! Someone call the next medic!”. Silence. They all carried on. To the left and right, all I could see was heat haze from the tarmac, dusty fields to either side and a smattering of riders trying to ignore me. It reminded me of the film Rango where he falls from his tank onto the desert road.
I checked my limbs and everything seemed intact. Although incredibly painful I had movement in my arms. My left elbow though had swollen massively. It looked like someone had rammed something about the size, shape and texture of a Mr Kipling cake slice under the skin. My legs seem sort of ok other than the skin. I walked over to the field to fetch my bike and get it back to the road. Lifting it was painful so it was more of a drag. It looked intact apart from the front tyre which was flat. Ah, that explained the enormous bang and hiss I heard as I was airborne.
It took ages to get my hands onto the zips of my saddlebag as they were shaking so much, but once I calmed down I managed to get the tyre levers and an inner tube out of my saddle bag. As I was fiddling with the levers trying to find a way to get the tyre off using my remaining working fingers (quite a lot of road rash) a course motorbike arrived. It was a Police rider with a bike mechanic on the back. The Policeman asked if I was ok while the mechanic fixed my front tyre in silent Spanish. Once the bike was found to be sort of working (all ok other than broken front derailleur which he managed to bodge into the middle ring) the Policeman ask if I needed a medic or if I was ok. I sort of took it as a good sign that they weren’t calling for an ambulance. I must have at least looked ok. I had a quick look at my Garmin which reckoned I’d travelled 70km, so I decided to try to ride the remaining 20km back to Alcudia. Worst case I could stop at the next point where there’s a course marshal. Beyond that, I could maybe ride to the next town. Maybe if I made that, I could just ride gently into Alcudia where the main event medical tent was. Yes, I’d do that. I’d ride to the med tent and let them sort me out.
Riding was ‘interesting’ to say the least. With my swollen (and very bloody) elbow I couldn’t put that one on the tribar armrest. The other hand had a whole bunch of missing skin from the palm so it was a weird riding technique with left hand grabbing the brake hood, right hand sort of holding the extension bar. Incredibly thirsty after standing in the sun and from the shock I went to grab a bottle, but remembered they’d both jettisoned in the crash. It was a long, hot ride back to Alcudia with zero fluid. Oddly though I still was passing people and maintaining a decent pace. Riding back to transition I started looking for the medical tent. I hopped off at the dismount line and ran (walked) over to a marshall to ask them. They said to ask the people in the tent at the exit of transition. So walk/jog the 500m to the other end and oddly felt fine. OK, screw this, let’s at least start the run so I can say I tried even if I can’t finish.
I grab my run bag, ditch my bloodied and shredded bike gear, put my run clothes on (apart from calf guards which look like they’d hurt my road rash) and trot out of the change tent. Ah, there’s the tent with the officials. I ask if I can just get a dressing/wash the blood off. They say I can do so in the medical tent at the finish line, but I need to go the other way to the 3 lap course to get there. She takes my race number and starts radioing through. I ask what she’s doing. She says I wanted to exit the race. No.. well.. I do. Desperately. But I really want to finish. I tell her I’ll run half a lap, if I struggle I’ll exit to the finish line area (and the medical tent) at that point. She radios something again which I hope is “Cancel that, the idiot is still running” rather than “Security, I need you to extract someone from the course”. Off I go.
The run is a 3 lap course of the promenade, a couple of town streets and a main road out of town. It’s lined with spectators and feels like running in a carnival. I jog the 500m to the first aid station, down a ton of water/coke and whatever other fluid I can find. I last drank before the 3rd bike aid station at 65km and I’m parched. I take a gel on too and off I go to see how running feels.
It feels fine. Easy fine. I’m ticking along at sub 6min km’s and it feels effortless. In fact, more effortless than it normally feels. I check my heart rate and it’s 175. It can sometimes get above 180 on a run if I’m pushing but I feel like I’m putting in no effort, just gliding. I carry on for a few minutes longer and start to look around. People are really suffering in the heat. There are people dripping in cold water from sponges. There’s a couple of people lying on the floor. There’s one guy being sick. I normally suffer badly in the heat. Even lying around at home I feel odd in this kind of heat. Hmmm. I take a walk break to cool off and gather myself. My heart rate doesn’t drop below 150 after a few minutes. A few minutes more walk and it’s still 150. Lots of people are pointing at me from the side of the road. Ah yeah, that’ll be the fact I’m dripping blood onto my white running top and down my leg. Sorry about that. At the pace I was going I must have looked a bit like a zombie.
Another aid station, another weird feeling run and I managed to let my sensible head take over. I was never going to set a time to be proud of, I’d had quite a tumble, and potentially I wasn’t quite 100% myself. I realised the adrenaline could be masking all sorts of messages my body was trying to send me and my heart rate still wasn’t dropping below 150. I was probably very dehydrated from the bike, and potentially had some big injuries. I thought of Natalie and Ben, I realised I was potentially pushing myself into a unhealthy situation. I really shouldn’t do this run. I did a slow walk (always keep moving) and flipped through my Garmin to do some mental maths. Normally I find it easy to do that kind of thing in my head, but it was getting to the point where I had to ask another walking stranger for help. That was a pretty good sign all was not ok with me. As it transpired, at my quick walking pace (8:15/km) I was easily going to beat the cut off, so my run became a walk. A very social walk where I chatted to other non runners. An amusing walk where I was catching and passing people who were running/stopping. After a lap and a half I finally saw Nat and Ben waiting for me. I’d been slightly concerned that perhaps in the confusion they’d somehow been told that I was out of the race after a crash and were looking for me. I assured Nat I was fine, gave Ben a kiss and carried on my walk. An hour and a half more of chatting to strangers and it was time for the finish chute (where I ran, obviously).
Total time for the worlds slowest half marathon: 02:58:23
On one hand, I’m pleased I finished a 70.3. It’s something I thought I couldn’t do and really my aim was to just finish it. On the other hand, I’m gutted I made a bit of a hash job of it. I can’t really say I gave it my all in terms of physical performance. Yes, I ‘gave it spirit’ like an underdog high school team in an American movie, but that’s not what I’d trained for.
Swim wasn’t what I was hoping for at all, more to come there certainly and it’s all mental rather than physical.
Bike, looking at the Garmin data, removing the 10 min crash stop would bring the bike split to 3:30 putting me about 20th from last in my age group. I’d probably have ridden a harder last 20km sans crash so would have gained a few more places. In hindsight I reckon I totally undercooked the bike. I could have upped my target watts and still felt fine. I think I was a bit cautious there.
Run, no idea. I’ve not run in so long, but I reckon with a bit more walking than running I’d get an easy 2:30 run, putting me again about 20th from last.
On the plus side, I finished the race feeling fine. Grabbed my medal and made my way to the med tent where I saw 6 bodies with IV fluids, 2 with oxygen masks. Screw that. I prefer my way. Death or glory isn’t really my style. Once they had room for me, a very pretty Spanish girl cleaned me up with iodine (YOUCH), popped a few stitches in my elbow and sent me on my way. Nat picked me up, took me home and helped me clean myself up. I hugged my family and nearly burst into tears. It could have gone horribly wrong. It didn’t, but it could have. Later in the evening I met up with Amy, Roland and James for a well deserved pizza, a couple of beers and a wonderfully girly cocktail. I did the uncool thing and wore my medal to dinner.No sleep at all that night as just couldn’t get comfortable and my head was full of “what if”s”
The next few days were understandably slower than usual but managed to meet up with Pete and his lovely wife who were out for the weekend to recce the course and watch the race. Would I do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat. I think I’m going to enter for the 2015 race as a warm up for a full distance IM later in the year. It’s an easy location, stunning course, relatively sensible weather and a good atmosphere. Anyone else fancy it? I promise the 2015 report will be snappier……
Thanks to Natalie. Thank you for putting up with my never ending stream of stupid ideas that demand your energy as well as mine. Dragging yourself to Mallorca at 30 weeks pregnant with a 2.5yr old and a relatively useless husband is the work of an angel.
Thanks to Ben. Sorry buddy, I know you hate it when you watch me race and I always seem to run away from you. You’re always in my thoughts and one day we’ll do this silly kind of nonsense together ok ?
Thanks to Amy for your help during the week. Having someone around who knows what they’re doing helped settle my nerves loads. You’re a superstar and it was a total pleasure. Your race result was fantastic and well deserved (Amy finished in 5:32:35, some 2hrs 10 mins quicker than me!). Dead proud of you.
Thanks to all those who supported me on Twitter/Facebook before, during and after the race. I could genuinely recall the lovely things you all said the day leading up to the race and it really did help me get my head straight. It’s funny the voices that go through your head. Sometimes it’s people you barely know because they’ve said just the right thing.
The words any software developer dreads hearing are “Can you just change this one thing for this one user/client/company”. The requests usually have perfectly valid reasons, but it’s sometimes hard to explain to the person asking for the feature why it’s more work than just the code. Most of the time it’s not the coding that’s terribly hard, it’s making it just so for that particular user, testing it, maintaining it and then you have the nightmare two years down the line when you have to change code that touches it.
Much has been written about system complexity but it tends to read like this:
Great for your PhD but terrible as a demonstration/case study.
Hopefully, the following little story can serve as a way of visualising the pitfalls when a system ends up in an ever increasing cycle of complexity.
In The Beginning: A Village Fete Tea Stand
Agnes, Beatrice, Clive and Doris decide to run a small tea stand at the village fete in their home village of Systemton in the Yorkshire Dales. They do a quick run to Costco for a giant box of Yorkshire Tea and some huge cartons of milk, Agnes borrows a tea urn from the village hall, Clive pops into IKEA for 50 cheap tea cups and a handful of teapots and they’re all set. They decide on a nice round 20p per cup to make charging customers very simple. Doris will brew the tea, Beatrice will take the cash, Clive will collect the used cups and Agnes will wash them up. They knock up a quick sign that says “Tea, 20p” and hang it outside.
Very soon, they’re running flat out and things aren’t running smoothly. To cut down on the wait they’re pre making the tea, but it’s hard to keep track of how long each pot has been brewing. Some customers are complaining it’s stewed and some are having lightly coloured water. Also, some customers are complaining it’s too milky. It seems that milk is being added to make the colour the same, but that means lightly brewed tea is only getting a splash, whereas over brewed tea is getting far too much milk.
Being an ex RAF engineer, Clive decides it’s time for a system. He labels the teapots A, B, C, D and E and knocks up a chart. Using his watch he carefully notes the time each pot is filled and removes the teabags after exactly 5 minutes. They can adapt to demand by having between 1 and 5 pots on the go at once meaning the tea stays hot. He also finds a measuring cup that looks about right and milk is poured into that first before going into the cup, so each cup has exactly the same amount.
After 30 minutes or so Agnes overhears some friends say it was a nice refreshing cuppa, but perhaps a bit on the strong side. She feeds this back to Doris who adjusts the brewing time down to 4 minutes. Feedback seems to be much better from everyone and they settle on 4 minutes as the ideal brew time. They now have a system for the perfect cup of Yorkshire, word gets around about how good the tea is, and they collect 20p per cup from happy customers all day long. In fact most customers not only have 20p ready, most of them pop it in the box themselves making life very easy indeed for Beatrice so she can help Doris with the tea making.
Take what you do and systemize it
Refine the system with feedback and improve your product
Year 2: More Options
It’s fete time again, and this year Beatrice accompanies Clive on the Costco run. As well as the many jugs of semi-skimmed and the box of Yorkshire Tea bags, Beatrice puts a box of her preferred PG Tips in the trolley. “Good idea” says Clive.
Fete day comes, the stall is running like clockwork with Doris using Clive’s system from last year. She also had a brainwave and brought along 5 kitchen timers and she sets them off when each pot is filled. When the timer beeps, she takes the teabag out of the relevant pot and bingo, the perfect cup of tea.
Except there’s a snag. They have both boxes of tea on display behind the stall, and both are being offered to customers. Doris tries to adapt to the new option by having pots of Yorkshire and a pot of PG Tips on the go, she just makes pots A, B, C and D Yorkshire and E is brewed with the less popular PG Tips. Everything goes fine until Beatrice has a cup of tea herself and chooses her favourite PG. Yuck.. over brewed. She feeds back to Doris that PG Tips only takes 3 minutes to brew. Doris adjusts her countdown timer for pot E to 3 minutes and they now have perfect cups of tea in two flavours. 20p’s are collected all afternoon and word gets out about the perfect cuppas.
Late in the afternoon after most locals had left, a coach stops off at the fete. As they’re paying their entrance fee, Agnes has the idea to get all the teapots brewing in preparation. Four pots of Yorkshire and a pot of PG on the go. The first customers appear and order PG. As do the other 50 from the coach. Oh dear. This coach was from Lancashire and they don’t want the Yorkshire. Doris has to suspend brewing of the 4 pots of Yorkshire throw them away and restart with PG. Halfway through she remembers that the 4 timers were set for 4 mins not 3. Hastily she changes the process so they don’t stew.
Still, crisis largely averted, the coach load pay their 20p’s, our four friends collect the money and sit down for a well earned rest!
Extra requirements can sometimes require unique, or altered processes further downstream.
Even slightly more complexity makes it harder to react to small changes in the marketplace.
Choice can work against you. If only one tea was on offer they’d likely have still have sold as many cups.
Year 3: Demand Increases and Scaling is Required.
The four friends dust off their IKEA mugs and teapots, do a Costco run again, pick up the milk, the Yorkshire and the PG
Fete day arrives and they’re blessed with glorious weather, so much so that the village is overrun with visitors from the surrounding area eager to see the ever expanding Systemton Fete. Agnes, Beatrice and Clive are rushed off their feet collecting/washing cups to re-use whilst Doris makes the tea. The system of multiple teapots works well in general and they sort of adapt by having a split of 4-1 or 3-2 depending on demand, not forgetting to change the timers each time of course!
Lunchtime comes and the queue is out the door, there’s simply not enough cups or teapots to scale to the required throughput. Agnes asks her friend Edith to rustle up a load more cups from peoples houses as well as two more teapots. Brewing speeds up again and the queue decreases. However, not all is rosy. Customers from years before have come to expect the perfect cup of tea and it seems some are getting overly milky or stewed tea again. What on earth is going on? They have a quick internal management meeting and the problem is obvious. In their attempt to scale to demand they introduced different sized teapots and cups. The 4min/3min times and the measure of milk no longer work. The system is broken. Their only options now are:
Scale back down, make customers wait for the perfect cup.
Supply poor quality tea to a percentage of customers, but quickly.
Try to modify the process with some different variables for the different sized pots and cups which will require extra man power.
Clive stops collecting cups takes one of the IKEA teapots and the two ‘new’ ones (therefore massively reducing productions whilst they’re offline). He measures the volume of each and he decides that because they’re 50% and 150% the size of the IKEA ones, brew times should be:
He does a quick test with each pot using PG (as it takes less time than to test Yorkshire) and it all seems ok.
He jots the times down and hands it to Doris who rolls her eyes at him. She asks about the milk measure and the different sized cups. They look around at their customers… there’s the 50 identical cups and 50 more borrowed cups each of which a completely different size to one another. Whilst possible, the work involved to measure and test each cup would be horrendous, not to mention from an operational perspective doing different measures. Doris has more than enough to do without different milk measures for 51 different types of cup. If they choose to go down this path they’ll need a dedicated person just for milk measures (who, incidentally, won’t be needed when it gets quieter and they can drop back to the 50 original cups).
Milk measures aside, they’re now running at a huge scale, supplying at least twice as much tea as before. They’ve had to rope in Edith to help Doris of course as managing the various combinations of tea type/pot size is unmanageable for one person. In fact, it’s getting too much for the pair of them when demand changes and they need to swap to say 3 PG Tips pots, but Beatrice can help out as she doesn’t need to be looking after the payment full time as it’s simply 20p per customer and 9 out of 10 customers put a coin in the box themselves anyway.
Scaling can itself add more variables and complexity
Scaling is hard when the system is already complex
Adding more options when the system has already been scaled is just as hard
Year 4: Requirements By Committee and Homemade Cake
This year, Mavis, the head of the village committee decides she like the tea stand and it should have her input. She elects herself into the team as Tea Stand CEO, and decides that they need to be offering a few more exotic teas such as Darjeeling, Assam and Jasmine. And biscuits.
The news is broken to the rest of the group on the Friday before the fete. “Oh dear”, thinks Clive as off he goes in search of tea. He can get PG and Yorkshire (and milk and biscuits) from Costco, but the others require a search. Eventually he finds the others but at a much much higher cost. “Hmmm, not sure Mavis thought about the cost of these fancy teabags, but we’ll have to work something out”
He gets home and calls the others. In preparation for tomorrow they decide not to get caught out this time and they test the new teas beforehand and they work out what tastes right. All testing is carried out with the standard IKEA pot.
Great. Except they’ve not had any budget to increase their capacity of IKEA teapots (though fortunately, they did manage to buy 100 more cups so at least those are now standard) so there’s still this issue of the two other pots. Using the same method as last time they do some guestimates and hope the values are right.
This chart is written out, and they then turn their discussion to pricing. Working on the cost per teabag it’s decided that Yorkshire and PG are 20p/cup and the other 3 should be 30p/cup as 20p is just too low to make any money on the more expensive exotics. Of course, this is assuming the customer wants milk. 99% of PG/Yorkshire customers have milk, it’s pretty optional with Assam, but a no-no with Jasmine and Darjeeling. It’s decided that it’s unfair to charge all customers for milk, so actually the milk should be charged at 2p/measure, so the prices are adjusted to 18p and 28p with a 2p extra if you have milk.
Of course there’s also the biscuits which are charged at an easy 10p each regardless of biscuit (some will end up paying over the odds for very small biscuits from the selection box, but that’s life)
They throw away their sign from year 1 and make a new one.
Fete day arrives again, and it’s quickly apparent there’s a problem. Customers are asking lots of questions before placing the order. Some are unsure about the different tastes of the fancy teas. With Doris and Edith brewing, Beatrice on the till, Clive collecting, Agnes washing and Mavis doing…. CEO things, there’s nobody to answer customer queries, so they enlist the help of Florence who is given some training in Tea and put at the front of the stall to field questions.
Within half an hour, brewing operations has fallen apart as well. Beatrice is too busy now with the more complicated money side of things and the serving of biscuits to help out like last year, leaving Doris and Edith not only having to deal with the Yorkshire/PG in different sized pots problem, but they have the other teas. Problem is, those teas aren’t being ordered in sufficient quantity to justify a pot on the go so they’re being made in the cups. Reacting to the change and altering the process by brewing in cups means of course the well previously researched pot times are all wrong for the special teas, so they have to rapidly re-test them in cups while in full production. It also means someone has to monitor the times of each cup. Doris and Edith decide they’ll look after the pots and they draft in Edith’s husband Graham to do the individual teas using the old style chart and watch method of timing the brew according to the pre-set brew times (there’s nowhere near enough kitchen timers). The gang muddle through, each working flat out to keep the production line running.
At lunchtime, Mavis starts chatting to her friend Olive who is running a home made cake stall. Olive lets on that she’s having a slow day. Ever one to help out a friend and maybe do some business along the way, Mavis has an idea. Why not re-sell Olive’s cakes on the tea stand. They’ll take the money and give Olive a 30% cut. Everyone’s a winner baby.
Mavis brings over a tray of each of Olive’s 20 different cakes complete with the price label on each cake, along with some plates and cutlery and places them on the stand. Unfortunately, this just serves to confuse customers more with all this choice and they soon turn to Florence to ask about the cakes as well as the tea. Florence though, being diabetic knows nothing about the cakes as it’s just not her area of expertise, she’s now a tea maestro though. She answers as best she can until Mavis grabs Olive’s daughter Heather to answer cake queries.
The end of the day arrives and our exhausted team take the proceeds, calculate Olives cut by using the sales ledger, split the remaining proceeds 9 ways between them and go home exhausted.
Ever increasing complexity at the core of the business has now required dedicated sales people, increased the work in acquiring the raw materials, increased the work in billing, marketing and stock control. These are processes both upstream and downstream of the main brewing core of the business.
If you keep expanding your options, at some point, your process will have to split and you have multiple processes with different teams. You can only scale vertically so far.
Specialist products require specialist knowledge, and when it comes to scaling, you have to build each team rather than just the one. The overheads are now vastly higher than in year one.
System integration often requires more reporting than you’d imagine to make it work for both parties, without detailed reports of cake sales, Olive won’t be able to run her cake production optimally.
Can you imagine scaling this to deal with double the customers?
Year 5: The Final Chapter, The Team Go To India!
Word has finally got out about the original perfect cup of Yorkshire from year one, the product that got them their reputation. The team is invited to the World Tea Championships high up in the Indian Himalaya. The team do their shopping, buy some more standard teapots (no messing about this time) and pack their gear. The week before, they get together all 9 of them and revisit all the brewing times of the various teas, all in pots this time. After a lot of focus grouping amongst external friends and past customers they arrive at some very specific, perfect times, slightly improving on the original Yorkshire and the latter PG tips times as well as the fancy teas.
Arriving in the Indian Himalaya the intrepid tea-makers trek high up into the hills to the venue for the competition. They now have a finely honed system, perfect timings, standardised cups/teapots, a dedicated workforce, many options of tea, Fox’s biscuits and Olive’s home made cakes. There’s no way they can lose this.
The big day arrives and the scene is hectic. There’s thousands of tea lovers from all over the world and our team get brewing. The first few customers don’t seem massively impressed. Still, undeterred they continue serving from the various pots, keen to bring Yorkshire and PG Tips to the world. Except all the customers are hating it. Could it be they’re not used to it? Our team try a cup of their finest Yorkshire….. and it’s terrible. Something has broken and the brew is off. Way off. The altitude of the venue is lowering the boiling point of water to 85degC, not even close to what they’re used to.
Our crew can either try to re-engineer their processes by trialling new brew times for each of the 5 teas, buying more pots (since brewing is longer, they’ll need more pots on the go, and the extended brew time makes it even harder to react to demand as the lead time is longer) and maybe train yet another staff member in brewing to keep up with capacity now that brewing is the bottleneck.
They ditch everything apart from their beloved Yorkshire, they trial a new brew time at the lower boiling point. They use ALL their teapots for Yorkshire, they ditch the separate charge for milk and put the cup price back to 20p. They average out the price on the cakes to another 20p to simplify billing. They give away biscuits to customers who bring friends along rather than trying to charge and complicate the pricing structure. All day long, they serve the perfectof tea to hundreds of happy customers, not one of which asks them if they can have Jasmine.
A complex system makes a change in a key ingredient, or a change in market or environment a potential disaster.
Staying simple doesn’t mean not evolving. You can add more products, just do it in a streamlined way than minimizes branches in your processes.
A simplified process makes it much easier to adapt and scale. All hands moved to brewing and with almost all the team on the case they coped with demand.
Remember your core business.
Doing a simple thing very well pleases more people than lots of things done just above average.
This super efficient tea business can now be replicated to any country and with just one test brew to check for altitude and water changes the whole thing can be copied with minimal training, low overheads per outlet and a simple method of quality control. A Perfect Cup Of Yorkshire(tm) will be next to every Starbucks in the world.
Adding increasing numbers of options, features, widgets and conditions leads to an ever increasing burden of complexity not just in building a system, but in designing, testing, supporting and don’t forget operationally. It’s not always the best experience for the customer either.
Our team didn’t quite end up where they started though. They added biscuits and delicious homemade cakes. They also productionized the tea making and refined the brew time. They also learnt a lot along the way.