Sunday, 15 December 2013

Rotorua Half Ironman Race Report - An Enjoyable Morning Learning More About Fatigue and Performance


Yes another blog post from hot and sunny New Zealand.

Yesterday at 6:25 am I sprinted into the Blue Lake at Rotorua and commenced my first triathlon in over 14 years.  Although it had been quite a while since my most recent triathlon, in many ways it seemed like only one or two years had past.  I'll go straight to the results and then expand a little on what I learnt during the race.

The 2013 Rotorua Half Ironman was the 15th edition of the race, and if you visit the website you will notice their 'catch phrase', "Making Triathletes Suffer Since 1999"!  As you can imagine, with my focus being on enjoyment and positivity, their theme of suffering, which I see as a rather negative term, didn't really resonate with me, but apart from that, the race organisation was superb, and the overall event was 'a great morning out'!

Standing next to me on the shores of the Blue Lake, were I guess around 300 - 350 male triathletes, with around 50 - 100 women triathletes and around 50 - 60 relay teams standing a little further back, waiting for their start, five minutes later at 6:30 am.  Opps, I was going to go straight to the result!  So 5 hours 12 minutes and 32 seconds later I crossed the finish line in a sprint finish in 27th place overall.  So what happened during those five or so hours?

As I struggled into a borrowed wetsuit, stretched on an old swim cap, and splashed my swim goggles in the lake.  During the last minute or two waiting for the start I was taken back to March 1993 as I was similarly lined up on the beach, but back then it was at the 1993 New Zealand Ironman.  On that occasion I was searching out fellow triathlete from Christchurch (I lived in Christchurch at the start of 1993 for a few months racing and preparing for the Ironman) George Hilgeholt.  George was that little bit quicker than me in the swim, so he was a good person to follow as drafting is allowed in the swim leg of triathlon.  Here today, apart from my brother in law Ken Maclaren, who is far too much faster swimmer for me to follow,  I don't know anyway else, so it doesn't really matter where I stand on the lake shore.

There is simply a shout of GO and we are off, sprinting into the lake and then straight into flat out swimming.  For the first minute or so I am really going for it, just like the 'olden days' really blasting it hard at the start of the swim to get further up the field than my swimming ability and training should allow me to be, and then simply try to 'hang on' to as many feet as I can for the remainder of the swim leg. Actually that race strategy seems quite familiar to my ultra trail running tactics.  So now I know where I developed the "race as fast as you can, while you can" approach from!  Then after around a minute I have a 'panic attack'.  The mega pace, combined with the tight wetsuit, the coolness of the water, and the frequent collisions with the other swimmers, results in me finding it really difficult to breath.  I simply have to stop swimming and just try to relax and regain my breath.  For a brief moment I thought my race was over.  The negative thoughts were immediately trying to take over "You foolish idiot trying to race a Half Ironman with two swim training sessions"!  The thought of the race turning to disaster was beginning to get hold.  Fortunately I just told myself, relax, relax, relax!  I know I can swim, I swam 1600 metres in the pool just the other day.  Forget racing, just switch to training mode and all will be fine.  So I guess after around 30 seconds tof telling myself to relax, I finally get swimming again, but by now having lost all of the quick feet to draft behind.

The swim route is two 1000 metre laps, so a total distance of 2000 metres rather than the standard half Ironman distance of 1900 metres.  I had swam 1500 metres in 29:40 at the pool on Wednesday, so was expecting a little bit quicker pace come race day, and with the aid of the wetsuit.  I therefore had scheduled 40 minutes for the swim plus transition, so around 37 - 38 minutes would count has a good swim.

As I completed the first lap and headed back out to the faraway buoy, I was tempted to look at my watch to see if I was on schedule for a sub 38 minute swim.  Since my small 'hiccup' at the start of the swim, I had settled into a good rhythm.  A smooth controlled pace without over exerting myself by trying too hard.  I therefore decide that there was nothing to gain by knowing my half-way swim split time.  It felt that I was swimming okay, and as I often say to my run coaching athletes nowadays, simply focus on the moment, during the moment, and let the finish time 'look after itself''.  I did exactly that.  I reminding myself just how great it was to be able to swim in such an amazing fresh and scenic lake.  I reminded myself how great it was that I was able to swim at a good smooth pace, after only two swim sessions.  I simply reminded myself to enjoy the moment!

I exit the water and run up the sand passing over the computer chip mat.  About two seconds later I hear my name being called out over the loud speakers.  I glance at my watch it is just over 35 and a half minutes, excellent, (official split time 35:38) two to two and a half minutes up on schedule.  The positivity is growing, I sense that feeling that today is going to be a good day!

I make my way to my bike, and have what is a pretty slow transition.  It takes me ages to take off the wetsuit, then I put on some socks as I always run with socks on, and then finally I put on a cycle jersey.  Not because it is cool, no it's actually quite warm even at 7:00am in the morning, but the cycle jersey has pockets in the back to carry a spare tube, puncture repair kit, and most important some TORQ energy bars and gels to fuel me during the next 4 - 5 hours.

The bike route immediately starts with a pretty solid climb.  As my swimming has always been the weakest of the three disciplines, my natural triathlon instinct is to absolutely attack the moment I get on the bike, and to regain the lost time and to try to move myself up the field closer to the position I feel that I should be in, not way back in the field after a weak swim.  The provisional results are available on the following web link, however it appears that quite a few people are missing from the results, including my brother-in law Ken.  However, I pasted the top 100 results into excel and did some sorting.  Out of the top 100 recorded finishers in the provisional results, I was 76th quickest.  So as you can see compared to my overall provisional finishing place of 27th, I needed to get a move on, and gain some places back.

I climb the first hill with no idea of what intensity I should be cycling at.  All I know is that I should be blasting past the other triathletes as that was what I always did when I previously raced triathlons!  I get up and over the hill and down a quick decent and start the long flat stretch past the airport.  After a few kilometres on the flat as I continue to pass many other riders, I am slowly overtaken by an old looking guy.  I guess in his early 50's.  He looks pretty fit, his bike looks the part, although to be honest, EVERYONE'S bike looked like it cost many thousands of pounds!  Instantly I revert back to my old triathlon racing days.  If anyone ever past me, no matter what speed they were doing I would latch onto them.  I immediately up the intensity and stick to his pace, maintaining the 10 metre required gap behind him.  I am loving it.  He sets the pace, I sense that I am possibly over extending myself a wee bit, but hey, this is what racing is all about.  Being within the moment, and loving it as we continually overtake loads of riders.  What will happen an hour or two later, no need to worry now.  Sort that out when I need to!  So a simple pacing strategy just keep to his pace!

We head off the main road, onto a closed ride that runs along the north edge of Lake Rotorua.  Just by coincidence, this is the same stretch of road that I have strong memories off, whilst racing my first ever road marathon as a seventeen year old, way back in 1980! (Click here to read my reflections on my first marathon).  The bike route does an out and back along this stretch, so as we (me and my pacer) are heading out, we see the leaders making their way back.  I spot one of my main competitors for the day, Ken, making his way back, and then quite some time later I spot one of my other target competitors, friend and former partner of Ken, former GB International triathlete from the early nineties Ali Hollington.  Although Ali was one of Britain's top Olympic distance women triathletes in the early to mid nineties, she is still competing at a high level as evidenced by her 9:40 finish time at this year's Challenge Roth Ironman.  (Ali had however been taking it easy since the Roth race back in July, so she was not in the same race shape yesterday.)  As Ali passes me going in the other direction, I see the turnaround point just up the road, so I am not that far behind her (although she did start five minutes after me in the women's start!)

As we start making our way back along the north edge of Lake Rotorua, including some pretty good undulations, the rate at which my pacer and I pass the other riders is slowing down.  On many occasions as we pass riders, they tend to pick up the pace and latch onto us, and then as we make our way over the undulating climbs each rider has different strengths and so the order of the pace line tend to swap.  I find that I am getting pretty excited by the way I am riding and therefore decide to leave my pacer behind and go it alone over the next set of undulations.  I shortly catch up to Ali, say a quick hello and go straight past. I wasn't expecting to overtake Ali until some time during the run.  So overtaking her so early on, I guess at around half way through the 90 km (56 mile) bike ride is a really bonus, a real boost to the already positive occasion I am experiencing.

Shortly after a decent of one of the undulations Ali re-overtakes me, and rather than immediately settling in 10 metres behind her my mind starts wandering to the big climb that is shortly coming up.  The climb is on an out and back section on the Whakatane highway.  It just so happens that friends Mitch and Foxy who lent me the bike live at the bottom of the climb.  We had stayed with them the previous weekend and I had run up the pretty step and long climb the previous weekend, so I knew that it was more demanding than the undulations we had just completed.  As if instantly the easiness of the cycling seemed to disappear.  Where as up to this point in the race, although I knew I was working at a pretty demanding intensity, it had felt easy.  My rating of perceived exertion (RPE) had been pretty high, but yet it hadn't required that much focus, what I call Race Focus Energy (RFE).  I guess if you refer to my RFE Fatigue Model, the enjoyment I was getting from racing in a triathlon again was simply rotating the RPE to RFE needle downwards.

But now whether due to no longer being within the moment, or maybe the legs were simply trying to tell me that two days of cycling training just wasn't sufficient, I don't know.  Was it a physical initiated response, or a mental initiated response.  But whatever, most likely an combination of the two, from the moment I started the long climb, the ease of riding, the enjoyment from the riding just didn't match what had taken place during the first 30 miles.  Surprisingly, this swap from cruising to beginning to struggle on the bike also coincided with cycling past Mitch and Foxy's house, where I had a very vocal support team cheering me on, including France my wife, and our two boys, Rob and Chris.  In some ways them seeing that I was performing well up to that point, as I had provided them with estimated split times and time gaps between me and Ali and Ken and I was slightly up on a pretty demanding schedule I had set, somehow meant that I could start slowing down.  I had already probably exceeded their expectations, and reflecting back now, it felt that at that moment in time I started to lower my own very high self-expectations.

Waving to my Support Team at the Start of the Big Hill Climb

The final 25 miles of the bike, to express it in a single word, would be described as a "struggle", or maybe perhaps it was getting closer to the term that the race organisers used to describe their race, I was beginning to"SUFFER".  And as it was getting more demanding, the inner voice was telling me loudly and clearly "I told you that you can't expect to perform on the bike on two training rides.  What a fool for riding so hard during the first 30 miles!"  And for the last portion of the bike leg I had to put up with this message going around in my head.  However, although the RFE - RPE needle was no longer rotated massively down, I was preventing it from rotating upwards, as my response to these negative thoughts were "No problems, it won't be long until the run leg, and then I will be in my element, trail running, and then there will be no holding back.  I will be back to blasting past everyone again"!  And so in this situation, looking ahead to the future and not staying within the present moment was a good strategy to adopt.

Nearing the End of the Cycle Leg

Just prior to the end of the bike leg, we do a little out and back, so we are able to see the runners further up the field head off for the first two kilometres before heading off-road into the Rotorua Redwoods forest.  I spot Ken probably about one and a half kilometres out from transition, and then spot Ali about 400 metres out from transition.  I complete the bike leg and as indicated by my GPS watch (GarminConnect link) that I had started the moment I got riding my bike, it had taken me around 2:53:30, so around six minutes down on my planned bike split time of 2:50 which also had to include around three minutes of lengthy transition time from the end of the bike to the start of the run. But considering the scheduled time I had given myself was a pretty tough time, considering my lack of bike preparation, my immediate response to seeing the bike split was still positive, I was quite pleased with the time, albeit the last 25 miles had been a bit of a struggle! I rack my bike, off with the helmet and cycling jersey, on with the running shoes, and I am on the way for the anticipated quick 13 mile run.

Oh no!  As I start running, the smoothness, the rhythm isn't there.  My back is sore from being down on the aerobars for loads of time during the last three hours.  My shoulders feel sore and tight, either from the awkward position on the aerobars, or from the swimming, and it is now 10:00 am and the sun has come out so it is pretty hot!  The anticipated over-taking of other triathletes isn't happening.  In fact I am overtaken my a team relay runner, who isn't running very fast, rather I am going pretty slowly.  Having learnt from my Beachy Head Marathon battle, I decide that rather than try to 'fight my way' though these negative feelings, I would do the opposite, and try to relax.  I guess a bit like what I did at the start of the swim when I had difficulty breathing a few hours earlier.  So I really focus on relaxing, but whilst trying to maintain my slowish running pace.

The route leaves the road, and as I start running along a tree enclosed, pine needled covered path, I really remind myself just why I do these events.  I tell myself "Look around you.  Look at where you are.  You are running along a fantastic forest path, overlooking the most beautiful natural lake, on a glorious hot sunny blue sky day"  "And you have got a great competitive race on your hands, probably four minutes to catch Ali (and then need to put an additional five minutes on her due to her later start) and probably around fifteen minutes to catch Ken.  Remember 1991, your change to bring the score back to 1 -1"!  So I remind myself that it doesn't really get much better than where I am at this present moment in time.

I come across the first drink station, briefly stop for two cups of cool water, and with the next section of the run including a gentle downhill to join the scenic track along the Green Lake, I really relax and appreciate the amazing scenery and finally pick up the pace.  The GPS trace shows a 6:42 mile.  Not that quick but quicker that the two previous miles of 7:33 and 7:39.  I make my way along the edge of the Green Lake which is an out and back section, so again am able to see the runners ahead making their way back.  I am conscious that I should be running at a higher intensity, but also conscious as I don't want to 'fight' my way through this amazing run course and therefore 'miss out' on the enjoyment of the run.  So I probably am just running that little bit below my usual race focus intensity.  But I am more than happy, as even at this slowish pace I am rapidly overtaking other runners, including overtaking Ali on the outwards Green Lake section.

As I approach the turn point I pass Ken running back the other way.  Ken is no youngster, being aged 52, but he is still in pretty good shape, and combined with his Elite GB International triathlon status, albeit from the 1990 Commonwealth Games and the 1991 World Triathlon Champs, 'taking him down' wasn't going to be easy!  But as he passes, his running style isn't the most fluid, and I acknowledge that at that moment in time he is beginning to look closer to his age!  So the target is there.  The Race Focus is slightly raised, but again I simple decide to stay within the present moment, focus on the now, and let the gap between me and Ken come down as a result of running smoothly, rather than worrying/focusing on the actual time gap.  I remind myself, to focus on the enjoyment of running, and the 'result will look after itself'.

Passing Through the Start / Finish 5km from the Finish

Passing Through the Start / Finish 5km from the Finish
Photo taken by Rob, the shirtless boy in the background of the photo above.

The run route passing through the start / finish area before completing one final five kilometre loop of the Blue Lake.  There is great support as we pass the start / finish area, where the leaders have already finished.  My family and friends cheer me own, and I purposely do not ask for the time gap between me and Ken.  There isn't anything to be gained by knowing the time gap.  If I catch him in time before the finish , then so be it.  But the bonus of knowing that the longer the distance to go, the greater the chances of catching him are, results in me wishing for the race to continue.  Whereas. in most races, many runners will start to 'count down' the miles, in anticipation of the finish, in the hope that the race will soon be over.  Here I was 'wishing' for the opposite, hoping that the run course was longer, and surprisingly with that simple change in attitude, there is a swing downwards of the RPE - RFE needle, and although I am still putting in the same intensity, it just feels a lot easier.  I am therefore able to up my running pace, and apart form the third mile which contained a good downhill section, the last two miles of the half marathon are the quickest, miles of the run both being 7:14 minute miles on undulating twisty trail tracks.  Not super fast, but still not too slow after five hours of continuous racing!

With less than two kilometres to go, I finally spot Ken ahead, and move rapidly past him with a quick giddaye.  I am really enjoying the last section of the run, probably the most scenic around the Blue Lake forest track.  With the increased pace, I pass probably five or so runners during the last kilometre, although some of these are runners still with the final Blue Lake lap to complete.  Just as I am all set to relax and enjoy the final 100 metres cruising across the sand to the finish chute, one of the runners that I have just past starts sprinting past me.  Well , there was no way I was going to let him get past me without a battle.  So I am in full sprint mode for the last 50 metres, but unfortunately he is just to quick for me, and all I achieve by trying to hold him off, is that my finish photo that my son has waited to take, to sell to me for some 'bargain' price, is ruined as I finish directly behind the other guy so totally obscured!

Being Out Sprinted by a Team Relay Runner

I finish in a total time of 5:12:32, a little over 12 minutes slower than my demanding scheduled finish time of five hours, made up of a 40 minute swim (including transition), a 2:50 bike (including transition) and a 1:30 run.  My official run time is 1:35:42 which place me as 10th fastest run time from the first 100 finishers.  So easily my best performing discipline in comparison to the 76th fastest swim split, and the 57th fastest bike split.  Ken finishes around two minutes later, and Ali around twenty minutes later.

Ken Finishing

All Smiles with Ali at the Finish.  Wearing my 1992 Sponsored Triathlete Race Vest!

I sub-titled this blog post "An Enjoyable Morning Learning About Fatigue and Performance".  Firstly just a morning's learning, as I had finished my race before midday.  In relation to an ultra trail race, the race seemed to simply 'fly by'.  The changing of the disciplines, does seem to make the race that little bit less demanding in terms of race focus.  I guess, being only a Half Ironman rather than a Full Ironman, so hence a much shorter duration than say your typical 50 - 100 mile ultra trail races, also results in a much shorter time racing.  What about fatigue and performance?  Well this race experience just further reinforces to me the importance of enjoyment during the actual race, and to try not to 'battle' ones way through a race.  It has reminded me of the significance of focusing on the present moment, and the end result will simply happen.

In terms of expectations, I have for many years been well aware of how ones self expectations affect performance.  But what was probably most intriguing about this race, was the unknown involved in not having raced a triathlon for many years. I simply had very little to gauge what intensity I should be swimming or cycling at.  Especially trying to ascertain what the ideal race pace was on the bike was difficult.  The term 'running' by feel, or 'racing' by feel is often used, but what exactly are you feeling?  Is it your breathing rate, your heart rate, the strain / tension within your legs, or arms or face?  How does one 'feel' the ideal pace, the ideal intensity?  And the following question, what exactly is fatigue?  Well as Tim Noakes described within an interesting article last year; "Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion".  And with it being an emotion, fatigue is therefore highly responsive to ones state of mind, including ones self-expectations, the need/desire to perform, and the level of enjoyment / excitement at the present time.  If one gets these aspects right then ones performance can be so much closer to the overall limit of performance which is set by the physical / physiological mechanisms.

Did I get these important aspects right yesterday during the Rotorua Half Marathon?  Well not exactly.  During portions of the race, I feel really happy with how I performed, but then during other portions of the race, my mind wasn't in the ideal place, and my less than ideal thoughts distracted me from getting closer to my capable physical limit.  When I am asked why am I still racing, why do I still get the enjoyment from racing, the excitement from the competitive environment.  I guess one of the main reasons is that I am still learning.  Even after 35 years of endurance sport, I still have much to learn.  And my brief venture back into the triathlon world has reminded me of the progress I have made in terms of discovering the determinants of performance over these last 15 or so years since I was previously a triathlete.

Do I have any plans for any future triathlons?  Well not for 2014, as I have still have so much to achieve within ultra trail racing.  So big things are planned for 2014, but that is for another blog post.

Time to sign off;  "Enjoyment from racing can result from a pleasing performance, but perhaps the satisfaction gained is possibly largely a result of a greater understanding of what it is within ourselves that enables us to firstly to challenge ourselves, but then to raise up, as one strives to meet these demanding expectations."  Stuart Mills, 2013.

May you feel satisfied with your performances,



  1. I Visit lot of sites but This blog's article is very nice beacuse this site content is very nice and this is google friendly site. thanks for good articles. The way you writes reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog titled How To Break Free From Negative People In Your Life
    keep up the good work.


  2. Nice report Stu well done - I got Stu'ed but not Alli'ed which I usually do in half ironmans. That's the fasest those shorts have run and the slowest that wetsuit's swam!
    Regarding your swimming 'panic', I call them 'emotional moments' and I get calls about them most years usually from middle aged triathletes.

    Your unsmooth running brother in law

  3. Great blog Stuart. Sound like tremendous fun!