Borris Viaduct

Borris Viaduct
Borris ViaDuct

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Skerries, the Rás, the surprise triathlon & a new element to my training.

From January onwards I had been going to Skerries quite regularly at the weekends. 1st and foremost, this was because my aunt Mary had who lived out there had bought a cottage on the coast and had asked my to first design an attic conversion and then an extension for it. This was a great opportunity for me - it would be my first built work and would keep my foot in the door of my qualified profession. Her son, my cousin Billy is also one of my closest friends, so this was also a good reason to go hang out there at the weekends, a nice escape from the claustrophobic suburbia of Lucan (particularly when the attic was complete and they had moved into the house by April). Also the money I got from this job helped enormously with all this kit I was getting throughout the year.

So anyways, between the completion of the attic and waiting on planning permission for the extension my visits during the summer were purely social, just relaxing weekends out on the coast. I had even went on a few runs with Billy up along the beach promenade and back, about 5km. Then on the weekend of the 27th of May, we found out that the Rás, Ireland's national cycling race, would be finishing in Skerries. I don't really follow cycling and had never heard of this race before now, but was intrigued to see it, partially as a spectator of an event in the town, partially as someone who was getting into cycling.

On the day, me and Billy wandered into Skerries town and along the beach as had become a habit, not really aware of when things would be happening. On our way back it seemed like things subtly started happening around us - without being aware of the transition the roads were all of a sudden closed and people were now standing around waiting. The Peloton (I think I only learnt what this word meant today) was on it's way! The anticipation was something else - there seemed to be an endless parade of official motorbikes and cares flying through the place and then silence. And then they arrived, and what a sight!

We were parked on the outside of a hard right bend and this massive tight group of (20?30?40? Maybe a hell of a lot more?!) cyclists flew through it, faster than I could take any straight, tighter to the surrounding bikes than I would generally be to my own! It was amazing to see it, and yet so hard to gauge just how fast they were going and how hard it was to do what they were doing while making it look so easy. Within a minute they were gone, another parade of cars passed, then a smaller peloton of stragglers  and then it was over, all within 5 minutes. It was crazy to think about it - I had only seen a snapshot of the intensity that these guys had been cycling the last week or so, it was hard to get my head around it.

It had captured my imagination and had me on a bit of a buzz. We went into the shop we had been standing outside to get some refreshments. Fuelled by my buzz I started chatting to the guy at the till about the Rás, and mentioned I was training for a Triathlon in a months time. Much to my surprise, he mentioned that there would be a triathlon on in Skerries in about 2 weeks and maybe I should try that...

A triathlon in Skerries! Now I was excited. It seemed ideal - I would have a place to stay and it would be a good test run for TriAthlone, the main event, at the end of the month.

That week in work, I looked up the Skerries Triathlon, and found out it would be on the 17th June, just under 3 weeks away, 2 weeks before TriAthlone. The site was very informative with maps of the routes etc and it all looked very straightforward: A 750m sea swim on a triangular route starting with a run off the beach, a 20km cycle loop  into the countryside and back, and a 5km run along the beach promenade and back, which I thought would be nice. (there was also a warning about the jellyfish in the area on the swim briefing, but I chose not to think about this too much.)

There was a moment of hesitancy though. I was only back running (quite tentatively), and wondered was it such a good idea to be entering an event so close to TriAthlone – maybe the Achilles injury would flare up again, maybe worse?! In the end I decided I was just going to go for it. After all, it was just a test run – if the run didn’t feel good I would just stop, like in my training. So I was committed now, in 2 and a half weeks I would be doing my 1st triathlon!

The following Saturday, Billy picked me up in Lucan, so I could bring the Sensa with me to Skerries. 1st thing we did, with me as the navigator, race briefing in hand, was to drive around the course for familiarisation – this was a really handy way of doing this, to avoid me stopping a dozen times on my 1st test cycle! Then when we got to the house, I immediately got changed to try the course myself on the bike!

Writing this post now, almost exactly 2 years on, it’s funny to think that I actually found the prospect of this quite daunting! Remember I had only been cycling on a road bike for the 1st time ever the last two weeks, getting used to the balance and everything, and this was only in a car free zone, in a straight line on the canal! I wasn’t even sure I could corner yet! As it happens, this was more apprehension and hesitation, once I was on the road I was actually grand… for the most part.

The route worked a little something like this - Once out of the transition area near the beach, you cycle out through Skerries town centre and then onto the coastal road to Balbriggan for a couple of kilometres, then the take a left under the railway bridge and start climbing a long steep hill known as the Black Hill. When you eventually get to the top of this, the road becomes a lot more enjoyable with a lot of winding descents and rolling hills. There were still other little climbs where you had to work your way down the gears but everything seemed fine after doing the Black Hill! Before returning to the main road back to Skerries, you take a left, only to go a couple of kilometres down the road and turn back on yourself to get back to the road you were on (this was clearly to bring the distance up to the required 20km). The main road back to Skerries is great fun, gradually descending back down to sea level over a 5km stretch, making it quite pacey. Then you go around the outskirts of the suburbs before returning to the coastal road and back to Skerries, the route back to the transition area was a bit convoluted, having the weave left and right through a number of tertiary laneways (some of which the road surface was in terrible condition) and back.

I must say I enjoyed the route with a couple of exceptions:
  • The Balbriggan Road, though scenic, was in pretty rough condition (no exactly that there was any potholes, but the surface was in no way smooth) and therefore pretty draggy, which was pretty frustrating on the flat.
  • My chain came off just before I started the climb up the Black Hill, which obviously took away all my useful momentum! This was a bit of a concern, but didn’t think too much of it
  • The Black hill was definitely a task and quite long – I just had to go right down the gears and be patient that my 9km/h would get me to the top of something!! It really but my bike fitness into perspective, something that I never really felt I had to work on.
  • My cornering was a bit apprehensive at times, noting to myself that I definitely slowed down way more than I had to.
  • Braking felt funny!! I had to get on the drops to get proper purchase on the brake levers, and in this position I felt quite front heavy while cornering downhill – this just added to my apprehension on corners!!
  • My balance still left a lot to be desired – I felt really wobbly indicating right when going back into Skerries and I had to slow right down to almost nothing to manage the tight corners through the laneways.

All in all though, it was great fun, and a relief to be on the road for the first time on my road bike. I could see the importance in cycling at least the distance of the cycle leg in training though, and so did the route again the next week, and again the following week the day before raceday. Also during these weekends, on I went on a light run with Billy along the beach promenade which was pretty the running route, and as for swimming, well, I finally got into the sea with my wetsuit the weekend before raceday – I wouldn’t really have called it training, probably swam about 100 strokes, then got out (I’m not a huge fan of swimming in the sea on my own), and tried to get out of my wetsuit  as quickly as I could (this was the total extent of my swim transition practise!!).

I really enjoyed these weekends, and started to realise that there was a whole element to my training that I had not even tapped into yet, and started to get more of a feel for what triathlon training actually was. The prospect of doing this triathlon started to feel a lot less daunting over this weekends (i.e. it went from incredibly daunting down to just very daunting), and finally I felt I was kind of ready to do this!

Bring it on!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Triathlons - an Expensive Hobby!

The arrival of my bike on the 17th of May, marked the completion of my accumulation of gear in the build up to my triathlon. This process was spread out over 7 months, but it was amazing to see just how much I had invested in this. At the start it didn't seem like I needed that much (I am using the word 'need' loosely here - I could have completed a triathlon with less - better to assume 'to complete my goals' as an extension of 'needed' in this case), but as time went on, I found I always 'needed' something else!

1st, I needed need a tri-suit. This is like a one piece lycra get-up that has the appearance of swimming knee-length jammers, but a full body version that zips up over the shoulders. You wear this throughout the race, under your wetsuit, it has light padding for the cycle, but the padding is light enough for you to run with without feeling like you're running around wearing a nappy! These should have back pockets stitched in to carry energy gels (or whatever race day nutrition you need) - unfortunatley, weary of all the expenses I would have to make, I opted for the 'cheapest' trisuit, with no back-pockets. Needless to say I would recommend investing that little bit extra for the backpockets - i used the back pocket of my cycle jersey but everything bobbed around like crazy in there when I ran!
I also opted to invest in a decent cycle jersey, I had a few lidl ones but wanted something better quality and more breathable and invested in one that was so good at wicking moisture from the body, that it would help dry me quicker as I cycled after my swim. (also tri-suits are not the most flattering pieces of kit in the world, so wearing a jersey made me feel a little less self conscious!).

2nd, I needed a wetsuit! Most triathlons in Ireland make it compulsory to have one so this is very important! (Also if you are a weak swimmer, this helps enormously with your floatation in the water). And not just any wetsuit you may have previously got for surfing - you need a special sea swimming or triathlon wetsuit, with thin neoprene and designed for ease of leg and arm movement (the more you spend, the more panels and therefore flexibility you get in the design). This needs to be as body hugging as possible, as any airbubbles in wetsuits can fill substantially with water and cause drag or even get weak swimmers into a lot of difficulty. I would recommend going into a triathlon shop and trying on anything before buying.
Ideally with this you get tri-slide and body glide. The first is a lubricant spray that you apply to your wrists and ankles before putting on your wetsuit, this helps you slip out of the wetsuit easier in transition as opposed to battling with it! Body glide is an anti-chafe roll-on that you apply to your neck to prevent some pretty nasty friction burns! Being really short-sighted (literally, not figuratively), I also decided I needed to invest in some prescription goggles. Contacts were an option, but I could see potential problems with me blinking them out mid-race, and I needed to be able to see for sighting my destination during the swim and finding my bike in transition!

3rdly, I needed a bike! I already had the hybrid which in fairness was pretty fast, and nobody will stop you from cycling a mountain bike or whatever as long as the bike, brakes and gears and deemed to be safe by the race marshalls, but I wanted to do this right (by my own personal standards) and have all my hard trained energy used as efficiently as possible, and a road bike would be a lot lighter and have the much more aerodynamic drop bars. Long story short, I was always going to get a road bike!

Other things I got were a new pair of swimming jammers (knee-length speedos) at the start of my training and a new pair of runners (bought at the start of my training also, so they were well broken in), lock laces for the runners (these are elasticated laces, locked in a tied position, so you can easily slip in and out of them in transition), a race belt (so you're not using safety pins to stick your race number to yourself, and you can also freely rotate your race number from your back on the cycle to your front on the run), and ankle strap for the timing chip (turns out I didn't need to get this - they are pretty much provided in most race goody bags), a running cap (mainly realised I needed this during training, but used it in my race too), a sweat band (because sweat getting into your eyes behind your glasses while cycling or running literally is a pain in the face!). a new toolbag and spare tube for 'just-in-case', and a transition bag (something for keeping all my various race gear in on race day)

Now these costs were spread out over the year (particularly the smaller things, with one big expense every month or so) as I found out new things i needed, but needless to say this all added up!
Tri-suit:                                                €50
Decent Cycle Jersey:                           €40
Westuit:                                               €250
Tri-Slide:                                             €15
Tri-Glide:                                            €10
Racebelt & Racechip strap:                 €15
Sweat Band:                                       €10
Running Cap:                                      €15
Iphone armband (training):                 €10
Sports Headphones (training):            €10
Sensa Road Bike:                                €600 (worth €1200 - I got a good deal on this through a work contact!)
Asics Runners:                                    €85
Lock-Laces:                                        €10
Swimming Jammers:                           €25
Prescription Goggles:                          €60
Prescription Sunglasses:                      €180 (yup, that stung)
Maintenance Bag & Spare Tube:        €20
Transition Bag:                                    €65
Grand Total:                                     €1470

Now don't get me wrong, you can turn up on race day with swimming togs under a standard wetsuit, battle through the swim, change at your own pace with a towel in transition area into standard t-shirt and shorts and do your cycle on that raleigh activator mountain you had since you were 12, and be all set for your run and nobody will laugh at you - plenty of people do it that way and are all running their own race. I'm just not wired that way - aerodynamics aside, I wanted to get all the right stuff to ensure I flowed from one discipline to another, and I wanted to do a good time. Obviously I also got completely sucked in too. I rationalised it as I would do tri-Athlone once a year, so this was an investment and I would not have to spend this money again! I never realised just how much my spending would continue! ie this does not include my purchases since of €150 on tribars, €30 on aero drinks bottle for tribars, €120 for combination of tri-cycling shoes and clip-in pedals, €90 on new club tri-suit and jersey, my current wishlist includes a €120 aero helmet and a €350 multi-sport gps training watch, and god help me if I decide to upgrade my bike or even parts of my bike! And when you have your gear, you still have your race fees, which range from €45 for a sprint distance triathlon right up to €400 for a full Ironman (or more if you start going to the big international events, like Kona).  Pick a figure, you can spend all you want on triathlons!

I guess, to counter that, all I can say is that it became my passion and my life after work. It gave me a spare time occupation when my social life was dwindling due to friends leaving the country during the recession, and it was my weekly motivation booster when I was not working in my qualified profession for a long,long time. When you compare it to the annual expense of just running a car or looked at the avg man in his 20s' annual spending on beer or even gym memberships, it puts things in a better perspective!

All in all, personally I think it was worth the expense, and still just about is!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Apps, Investments & Crash Courses - Preparing for a Triathlon - October '11 To May '12

In October 2011 I had the wonderful double whammy of finally getting paid full time after working full time for my Dad the past year, and getting Iphone 4 as he had just upgraded. The pay was going to come in handy early next year as I found out about all the bloody things I needed to get to actually do a triathlon, the Iphone was going to have a much more immediate effect - it was going to get me training!!

I had just recently discovered in summer boot camps that I could run again after nearly 3 years of resting a dodgy knee, and was eager to start proper running training. A lengthy lazy holiday in Spain towards the end of summer had somewhat halted the momentum of my boot camp training, but either way being able to run very fast at short bursts didn't by any means translate to being able to run for any length of time at all and 5km of running (at the end of a swim and a cycle) seemed pretty daunting!

Just to be clear on distances, the triathlon I was training for in Athlone was a 'Sprint Distance' triathlon of which the distances are as follows:
750m Swim
20km Cycle
5km Run

The 1st app I got on the Iphone was something called 'Couch to 5k', which is aimed at doing exactly what it says on the tin - getting someone from a sedentary lifestyle to running a 5k in 8 weeks by going through a progressive programme of interval training 3 times a week. The app itself worked like this: Preferably having headphones , you press 'Start' at the beginning of your workout and then a voice tells you to 'Start Warm-up'. After 5 minutes the voice tells you when to run and walk on set intervals depending on where in your programme you are. The first session is about 20 minutes of mostly walking broken up by short 45 second runs, by the last session it has built up to about 40 minutes of just running. Another handy thing about this app, is it tells you when you are halfway, so if you are running a set route away from your start point, you know when to turn back. This was pretty meaningless on the 1st run I did around a park after work but really came into play when I decided to do my runs at lunchtime on the canal. This was great as I could see very clearly that I was getting further with every session. Doing the running within my work routine meant I pretty much always did it, so this app and my running training became the staple of my triathlon training. This app has changed names a few times, and there are quite a lot of similar or identical ones, but would highly recommend any of them as a tool for building up your running in a steady incremental fashion (there is a 'couch to 10k version too).

The other app I got was 'Cyclometer'. This allowed me to record cycles to work and back (6km each way). Because they were short distances, I really did sprint them most of the time, and this app really helped in comparing attempts at a route, showing a green upward triangle for pb, half green for above average,  orange for average, half red for lower than average and the dreaded full red for worst (not sure I ever got this, unless it was a particularly windy day). So cycling intensely for a short distance to work and back was what I figured to be enough for my cycling training (funny to think that now, but in fairness it served me well!). Either way, having cycled Dublin to Kilkenny twice before, and having experience of regularly speeding 14km into college, I was not too worried about the cycle.

And the swimming... well I really didn't treat this with too much importance! I had high hopes and good intentions of getting back into training regularly but it was always the 1st thing the gave way if I was too tired (I would only go lane swimming in the morning when the pool was quiet) or too busy. Either way I wasn't too bothered about it, as I had a background of being in a swimming club for 10 years and even in the sessions I did now, my warm-up alone was 1000m. So 750m? Not a worry!

And for a bit of resistance training, I had the '100 push-ups' and '20 chin-ups' apps, both incremental interval apps that I used Monday Wednesday and Friday as soon as I came back from work.

So all this got me on a great start, training throughout the winter and into the new year. Through January/February, I started to find out through acquaintances who had done the triathlon before and other sources how this triathlon actually worked, and what I needed for it. Wheelworx Triathlon Shop had a great 'Introduction to Tri' workshop, and a friend of a friend who was pretty serious about triathlons also helped de-mystify the gear I needed, so I went about accumulating all I needed between February and June.

I'll go into more detail on the gear and what happens on raceday in other posts, but needless to say I was starting to get my head around the logistics of doing 3 events in one. That said, I still had certain doubts and questions right up to raceday- it was a lot of information to take on!

So on I went, being pretty consistent with my running 3 times a week, and short high intensity to cycles to work and back etc, swimming inconsistently thrown in from time to time. Your are advised generally to work on your weakest discipline the most, so I was pretty with this hierarchy of training.  My program had been broken up by Christmas, so I repeated the previous 2 weeks of the programme when I started back in the new year. I did this each time there was a break of some sort, so the 8 week programme became staggered somewhat into a 3 or 4 month programme! When I finally finished it, I started the programme again, this time jogging when it said 'walk' and sprinting when it said 'run'. Like I said before, this was really the staple of my training. When rain stopped me cycling and eh, laziness stopped my early morning swims, my lunch time runs where always pretty reliably done, unless the weather was really awful!

One thing I started to realise as I continued with my training was that I had never been through such a long spell of training so consistently, not since I had left the swimming club when I was 18,  12 years previously! As time went on, I really started to embrace this training as a very healthy way of life, and it was becoming more than just a means to an end to complete some race in June - this was a nice realisation, but at this stage I still did not know where I was going with it!

My training was not without it's hiccups, however.

I ordered my road bike in early March, with the hopes of getting it by the end of the month (I was given a two week lead time), so I would have 3 months of preparations on it before the TriAthlone which was on the 30th June. This, however, did not pan out so conveniently and through various delays and mishaps I did not get the bike until the 17th May, only 6 weeks before the event! Ordinarily I would have cancelled this order, but it was through a contact in work, and I was getting a good deal on a good bike (about half the price), so the inconvenience was undone by the fact he was doing me a favour!

When it did arrive it was well worth it though, what a beauty! I had never owned a bike like it before, for a while I couldn't believe it was mine! (my bank balance could...)

My beautiful Sensa Romagna Special, on day of Arrival!
So I had to get used to this bike, and quickly. Despite having cycled a lot the past 4 years, it had only been on a hybrid (my previous experience being my Raleigh Activator II in my teens). I had never been on a frame this light, wheels this narrow, had never used drop handlebars, or paddle gears (took me ages to figure out how to change down a gear!!) . In short, I felt hopelessly imbalanced!

Also in early May, a week before I finally received my bike I had suffered a major setback in my running. On one of my canal runs I started to feel intense pain in my Achilles tendon. I stopped immediately and walked back - not the time to be a hero about it! There was no major damage, but it was really tight and tender (hard to describe, but it felt fibrous or strandy to touch). So as a precautionary measure I stopped running completely until it felt good again - this turned out to be about 3 weeks which was pretty frustrating, coming to within a month of raceday! It didn't seem to effect my cycling however so at least I got to continue with that!

I still cycled to work and back with the hybrid, as I always had my change of gear in my panniers, but at lunch time on Tuesdays and Thursdays (the days between my now very tentative run days) I took to the canal  and cycled 20km. Sometimes I also cycled on my run days - I was trying to be as efficient with time as possible - it's one of the great things about triathlon training: when one of the disciplines has a set-back (or if you simply get sick of it) you still have two other disciplines to pick up the slack!

Anyways these cycles were great fun, and unsettling at the same time! Despite there being plenty of obstacles in the way of people and their dogs enjoying the sunshine on the canal path, and the fact I had to stop and turn around 7 times (I did my 20km on a 2.5km stretch between two canal gates!), I was still achieving average speeds of 28 to 30km/h - this was promising! Imagine what I would do on the closed roads!!

In any case May was a bit of a month of mixed feelings, but I came out starting to feel positive again. My first triathlon was going happen in the next month, but there were a few more surprises in store for me!