Challenge Henley Race Report – Sunday 8th September 2013

Tony and I arrived in Henley late Saturday morning to have some lunch before walking to Phylis Court to register and drop off my T2 run transition bag, containing trainers, socks, cap and 3 SIS gels. They use separate transitions at Challenge Henley so we had to rack my bike and drop off my bike transition bag next to the swim exit in T1 at the Henley Business School 3kms away from T2 at Phylis Court. My T1 bag contained tri shoes, sunglasses, helmet and race belt. I had planned to leave my helmet on the bike (the only piece of kit allowed in the bike racking area other than shoes if fitted on the bike) but on consultation with my team manager (aka Tony) it was deemed better to put it in my transition bag so I could put it on while running to the bike. The weather was uncertain, a week ago it was forecast to be 28 degC and sunny, latest forecast was 11-15 degC and potential for rain, especially overnight. I discovered the transition bags would be left outside overnight and were only shower proof so decided to pack my kit in an extra internal bag with the plan to remove it in the morning before the race, as well as bringing extra options to potentially add in the morning.

I was lucky with my bike racking spot, I could run straight down the racking aisle immediately in front of the entrance and just keep going until I got to the end - my bike was about 10th from the end of about 200 bikes. Even better, the people on either side of my bike didn't register so I had plenty of room to spot the speed weapon and unrack!  My T1 kit bag was also in an ideal spot, at the base of the small tree right in the middle of the bag area - all I had to do was run down the aisle to the right of the tree and pick my bag up with my left hand and run straight into the change tent.

Back at home I finished checking over my remaining kit and prepared my nutrition for the race before having our traditional pre race meal of tuna pasta, which we changed slightly to use white pasta instead of our usual wholemeal. We were in bed by 9:30 with the alarm set to get us up at 04:30 on race day. Nerves kicked in so I didn't get much sleep!

Race morning arrived far too early! I slapped on the p20 sunscreen (always optimistic) and squeezed into my tri suit while Tony prepared porridge with banana for the long day ahead.  As usual I could only manage about half of my breakfast but, based on previous experience, I was happy that it was enough to set me up for the race. With my kit ready to go and check lists checked a couple of times it was time to head back to Henley. Team Loris (Tony's parents) arrived just before 5am and we set off in convey through the early morning mist.

By 6am I was in bike transition with my check list - pump up tyres, select easy gear, right pedal forward, reset power meter, add water bottles and nutrition and fit elbow pads back on (taken off the day before to avoid them getting wet overnight - no bike covers allowed). Then it was over to my T1 kit bag to remove the extra waterproofing layer and make final decisions based on the latest weather forecast. Following a slightly heated debate with Tony (he won) I decided to add my toe warmers to my shoes - they were a bit big and I hadn't used them before so was worried they might cause problems - but warm feet would definitely be worth the risk. I also changed my sunglasses lens to persimmon rather than dark as I knew the steep descent on the course was tree covered and might be quite dark.  A quick rehearsal through transition then it was off to the swim start to watch the pros doing the full distance to see which line they took up the river (would they stay near the buoys in the middle or hug the bank?!).

The first full distance swim wave was delayed by 10mins due to mist over the river, you could barely see the second buoy! Once they were off the pros disappeared into the mist so who knows what route they took. My swim expert (Tony) suggested keeping left to the buoys, taking the shorter route as the river curved left would make sense.  As I was in the first wave for the half distance, with the fast boys, we agreed the best spot was to the left of the main group and a couple of "rows" back from the front. This would hopefully avoid anybody coming across me from left to right if they wanted to swim closer to the bank where there would be less current.

After a short delay to the start of my wave I was in the water, peering through the mist and clearing my tinted goggles regularly (not a good time to realise you don't own any clear goggles). I could see Tony and his parents on the bank waving and blowing kisses, which was a great send off and had me grinning. I had also decided not to wear my Garmin 910 in the water so I could concentrate on the start and not worry about starting my watch or losing signal while treading water. I got a good start but the group was tightly packed and I was careful to avoid the arms and feet flying all around. The mist had really descended so it was almost impossible to see the next buoy until you were almost on top of it. I had to rely on the swimmers in front that they were going in the right direction. I stayed in a group for the first leg of the swim but that thinned out after the turn buoy and we headed back downstream with the current. I found myself swimming alone for the last few hundred meters and gradually catching the group in front that I was using to sight, which was lucky as there was a good chance I could swim past the swim exit! Overall an enjoyable 34 min swim and an improvement of 2mins over last year.

T1 was slick, with both arms out of my wetsuit before I got to my kit bag, straight into the change tent, wetsuit off, bag emptied, shoes and sunglasses on, grabbed helmet and race belt and
headed out to pick up my bike. The bike racks were close together but a couple of high pitched "'scuse meee's!" to my fellow dithering racers got me through to the end of the rack, collect my bike and out on the road with Tony and Team Loris's cheers ringing in my ears. Exactly 2mins faster than last year and fastest female through T1, in fact I had such a good transition I was 7th fastest through T1 overall (out of 621) !!!

The bike leg started off a bit chilly but the sun tried to come out at times and I gradually warmed up, so I was glad for the toe warmers. Having ridden the course a couple of times in training I had a game plan for where to take on nutrition and when to change gear early for turn points and climbs/descents. The course has a long drag up to Nettlebed before forking off on three out and back sections then heading back down to Henley town centre into the crowds for the lap turn around point, as I was racing the half distance I was doing one and a half laps. The highlight of the bike was riding with the race leaders coming down the long hill into Henley at the end of the first lap, Stephen Bayliss and Rhys Davey! There were about 5 of us in a group descending at around 35-40mph for about 7/8km.  I wobbled round the hairpin turn point right behind Stephen Bayliss praying I wasn't going to fall off in front of the crowds, then a wave to Tony and Team Loris before watching the pros ride away back up the hill to Nettlebed.  My ride was mainly incident free although I did get stuck behind a car which was being escorted along the course by a motorbike but the car driver decided to stop in the middle of the bike feed station which happened to be on a corner so I couldn't see if anyone was coming the other way to get round them! The last section of the ride was hardest as I was focused on making sure I had an equally slick T2 (i.e. I had no plans for a toilet stop in transition), it took a lot of concentration but I was successful in the end (this is definitely not a glamour sport!). Bike time was 2hrs 56min - 1 min faster than last year, but last year was a shorter course by nearly 10km…

I had scoped out my plan for when to get my feet out of my shoes on the approach to T2 and executed perfectly, if not particularly stylishly, and arrived at the dismount point with feet out of shoes and all fingers intact (sorry Tony).  As agreed, Tony was waiting at the dismount point to yell "Garmin" at me to remind me to remove my 910 from the bike and put it on my watch strap for the run (something I forgot to do the last time I tried it in a race). I gave my bike to the marshall who told me I was the 5th woman on the run course (really?!) and ran through transition, grabbing my kit bag along the way.  In the change tent, socks and trainers went on, helmet and glasses put in the bag and I grabbed my cap and gels before running out the other side looking for the run course, again knocking 2mins off my 2012 T2 time (only 49
th quickest overall this time though).

Tony made it to the special needs area in time to hand me my small electrolyte bottle and told me I was leading my age group and had a 12 min lead over Kerrie, currently in second, who won my age group by over 20mins last year.  I knew she had started in wave 2 so I wasn't sure if he'd factored in the 5min head start I had and I also knew she did a 1:38 half marathon last year (compared to my 1:51) so I was completely expecting to lose the lead on the run, but I was in a good position to hang on for a top 3.

Once over the bridge (where I was told again that I was 5th woman on the course – they can’t both be wrong?) I headed out through some back lanes through to the river paths. I realised my pace was a bit higher than planned, in my pre-race chat with my coach, Will, he said he would let me have the first 1km being too fast but I'm pretty sure I wasn't going to get away with the 2nd and 3rd being faster than target pace too... Oops. This was quite a surreal time as I was completely on my own, I was running towards an aid station with no one else in sight and about 10 “aid stationers” all ready and waiting with water, gels and coke etc just for little old me?  In my previous race experiences I've always hit the run course when it was already crowded so it was very strange and totally unexpected!  The run was a 2 lap out and back course along the river and I soon discovered I had been helped along by the tail wind on the out leg when I turned around into the headwind back to Henley on my first lap.  I spotted Kerrie in her bright tri suit and tried to work out the gap but failed, she seemed very close!  The end of each lap took you onto the finish line red carpet but sent you back down past the finish chute if you had more laps to do. The stadium area was full of cheering spectators, which was great but made even better when they announced my name over the tannoy and that I was leading my age group, a very nice experience!  First lap in just over 50mins. 

Running back to the bridge, I declined my second electrolyte bottle and got an update from Tony as I ran past - 8 min lead now... hmmm.  With instructions to pace the next lap (I think most of Henley heard Tony) I headed out to the other side of the river and tried to just keep a rhythm.  At each aid station I was taking a cup of water and took one sip before chucking the rest over my head, the shock of cold water giving me a boost each time. The run course was filling up fast by now so I could use the next runner as a goal to reach to keep my pace from dropping too much. The final return to Henley was really hard, I didn't spot Kerrie this time and I had to stop imagining how cool it would be if I did win and focus on getting the next km under my belt. Then it was my second time onto the red carpet but this time all the way to the finish line with a total time of 5hrs 18mins and a 1:42 half marathon time! I was *really* hoping to get close to 1:45 but never imagined it would be under!

Tony was almost jumping up and down with excitement at the side of the finishers enclosure when he told me my time and that I had won my age group and was 4th female overall. Knowing that I had started in the first wave I didn't want to get too excited about it until it was official. After a massage in the recovery area (normally there's a big queue when I finish so I don't bother - I could get used to this!) we waited around for the presentations and during the few seconds I was on the podium, Rob Griffiths ran past during his full distance race shouting out congrats, amazing!

So it was the perfect end to a great season, my worst age group result this year was 3rd at Wimbleball!  I think I should retire now as it’s going to be hard to top 2013!