Steve Ridley - "I only went and won the bronze"

Challenge Herning - ETU Middle Distance Championships - 10th June 2017

Where to start…

I only went and won the bronze!

And because of that, I should really start in earnest with a few thanks: 

  • to my coach, Steve Mott of Streamline Coaching, for giving me the structure and guidance that I definitely needed;
  • to all of the coaches and members of Tri2o, for spurring me on, and helping to improve some of the many flaws in my swim stroke;
  • to my work for the flexibility that they allow me to fit my training in; and
  • Last, but by no means least, my friends and family for their constant and unwavering support, encouragement, and understanding (particularly when I get hangry!)

This weekend has been an absolute whirlwind. This is the race that I have been aiming all of my training towards for the last 6 months, and was without doubt my 'A race for the year. It wasn’t quite a case of all of my eggs being in this basket, but it was pretty close.

The first couple of days in Herning were pretty quiet - the place, surprisingly, lacked some of the atmosphere that I’ve normally found at Ironman / Challenge events. The organisers had done their best to foster it, with a 5k fun run and concert on the Thursday evening, but the weather didn’t really play ball. It chucked it down for most of Thursday and Friday.

Although I found it all a bit flat, I think that helped to keep me relaxed - I wasn’t getting over-hyped, and the adrenaline wasn’t firing too much. I just had a relaxing couple of days, managing to recce at least part of each of the swim, bike and run courses - probably for the first time ever at a race.

Race morning arrived, and with things not kicking off until 10am, there was plenty of time to get up, have breakfast and make my way to T1 and the start line. It was at this point that the excitement started to ratchet up a bit. The sun came out, there was a real buzz around transition - helped by a live band playing - and loads of spectators down to watch. I had everything sorted with close to an hour to go until my start time, so took the time soak it all in.

The start was ultra-efficient, with the waves being lined up in pre-start ‘pens’ then allowed in to the water as soon as the previous wave had set off. The males pros were the first to go, at 10am on the nose, with the other waves following at 5 minute intervals. It did feel like a long time waiting for the deep water start, but I tried to keep myself positioned where I wanted to be - close to the middle, but a couple of rows back, hoping to catch some decent feet, rather than being swum over!

Eventually we were let loose, and I swam hard for the first few seconds to get up to speed. I was expecting there to be a bit of carnage, especially with it being a Championship race, but it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. I did cop a kick to the face fairly early on, which knocked me a bit, and sent my heart rate and breathing through the roof, but I focused on calming myself back down and getting in to a rhythm, which ended up getting disrupted slightly as I got sandwiched between two guys, so missed a couple of strokes.

Everything had well and truly settled down by the time we made it round the first buoy though, which was only a couple of hundred metres from the start, and wasn’t too much of a washing machine. The rest of the swim was pretty plain sailing. I managed to keep on course really well (which is unusual for me!), and kept both my stroke rate and speed consistent throughout. In the final stretch, as I was sighting I couldn’t really see many blue caps in front of me - I wasn’t sure if that meant I wasn’t too far off the front, or if I was miles down. In reality, I think it was that I was close to the front of the second main pack, as I exited the water very happy with a 70.3 PB of 31.22 (official time - my watch had 31.19)

T1 was probably the sloppiest part of my race. I picked up my bag from the racking without any issues and made my way in to the changing tent and emptied it on the floor to get to everything easier. The wetsuit came off easy enough, but I could have done it a tad more efficiently.

I’m yet to master mounting my bike with my shoes already attached to the pedals, so I leave my shoes in the bag, and I also put socks on for the bike, as I figure I’m going to need them for the run anyway, so may as well get them on for extra comfort on the bike as well. I reached for my socks, and realised that I hadn’t properly prepared them…they were still folded together, and were inside out, so I spent a good amount of time getting them the right way around and working out which feet they needed to go on - they are specific L/R ones, I’m not that OCD!

On went the shoes and helmet, and out from the tent I went. It was quite a long run from the tent to my bike, to bike exit, and it was across mixed, but carpeted surface. The carpet was nice, but it masked what was underneath, so I took it very steady, as it was pretty slippy when it was concrete, and I was worried about catching my cleats when it was grass. I made it, however, to the mount line with no dramas, but I could definitely shave a hefty amount of time from T1 if I learn some of those additional skills.

Out on to the bike, I was keen to start strong again. They were running a 20m draft zone at this race, and from the pre-race briefing it sounded like they were going to be policing it fairly officiously. I didn’t want to get caught out, so tried to make my way past as many people as quickly as possible, without burning too many matches. For the first 5 or 6 minutes or so I averaged 290W, which is much higher than I wanted to be averaging over the whole course, but I didn't think it would cost me too much.

Eventually I settled in to a good rhythm at the 250-270W range that I wanted to be spending most of my time in, but I found that I ended up in a bit of a ‘pack’, as a couple of the locals didn’t quite seem to understand the no-drafting rule… I would make my way past them, only for them to sit on my wheel and pass me again soon after. There was even a phase when a few people were overtaking, and they were literally jumping on to the wheels of riders as they went past.

I got fed up of having to put in the big efforts to overtake them, so decided that I wasn’t going to lose much by just backing off a small amount and sticking to my 20m until the time was right to really go for it. That moment came at about 35-40 miles in, when I could see that the guy I was behind was struggling to hold the wheel of the new guy that he’d started drafting, so I knew I could make it stick. I put in a burst, made my way past and then dropped both of them.

I think that the little spell I had backing off the power slightly really helped in the long run - I felt really fresh in the final part of the bike, and was actually having to rein myself in a bit. I rode solo for most of it, but picked off maybe 10 or so other riders, heading straight past them every time. I was hoping to duck under 2:20, but just missed out, with an official 2:21:57 (I didn’t hit the lap button on my watch until I was in part way through T2)

T2 showed my slight lack of technical skills again, as I had to come to a complete stop before unclipping, handing my bike to the waiting volunteer, then making my way to the bag rack like Bambi on ice. I made a slight mistake of heading to the wrong rack to start with, but I quickly realised, and it didn’t cost me too much time. The rest of the transition was pretty straightforward, and I was quickly out on to the run course.

Again, I wanted to hit the first part hard, helped by a slight downhill over the first few hundred metres. The run was a four lap course, with a long, straight out and back, that I thought would make it easy to work out where I was, and keep tabs on who was ahead of me, followed by a technical final section with some tight turns and short but steep inclines.

After a fast first mile or so, I settled down in to a good rhythm, focussing on keeping my form perfect and turnover high. I must admit, there were more people already on the run than I had imagined there would have been, given how many I had made my way through on the bike, and how few others I had seen. But, I knew that I would be one of the strongest runners in the field, and I was quickly passing people.

I had asked Aleiah to give me timing updates on the run, so that I knew how hard to push. As I got to the end of the first lap, I spotted her and got a call that I was in 7th in my AG, 3 minutes behind 6th, but 3 minutes ahead of 8th. She was before the timing mat though, so I knew that those times were from at least 3km previously. I just put my head down and kept pushing.

On the second lap, I quickly realised that it was going to be impossible to keep tabs on where I was relative to those I was competing with on the out and back - there were too many people on the course, and trying to spot the wristbands was proving too taxing at the effort I was having to put in. So, I relied on the updates from Aleiah. At the end of lap two the update was that I was now only 90 seconds behind. Game on.

The third lap, more of the same, but by the time I reached the final, technical section, my legs were really starting to feel the exertions of the day and I was struggling to hold my pace on that one part. Thankfully on the flat, straight sections I was able to pick it back up, and the next update I got from Aleiah was that I was up to fifth, which my dad quickly updated again as the timing had just refreshed that I was actually in fourth!

That was it; it was going to be all or nothing on this final lap. I dug in as best as I could and kept pushing right to the end. This time going through the town centre was absolute torture, especially as I was suffering some rather unfortunate chafing, but I turned the penultimate bend, where it flattened out, and gave one final burst. Just as I reached the final bend, I spotted my dad dangling out a Union Flag for me to take, but it was too late; I was already past him. 

I made my way down the finishing chute, trying to soak up the atmosphere, and I could vaguely hear the announcer calling me in, but I was right on the limit by this point, so was focussing just on getting across the line. I had nothing left in the tank by the time I did cross the line, and collapsed to my knees straight away. 

One of the volunteers tried helping me to the side, so that I was out of the way of other competitors coming in, but that sent a bout of cramp shooting straight down the back of my right leg. Some of the volunteers helped stretch it out, while others brought me some water. While I was sitting on the floor, I could hear Aleiah calling me - I turned around and managed to find her amongst the crowds, and she told me that I had managed it - I had overhauled third place on the final lap, and had secured my place on the podium. 

I’d managed to put in a 1:19:05 for the run, which was probably slightly short (the median distance from what I’ve seen on Strava seems to be 12.9 miles), but it was the 2nd fastest AG split of the day, and 10th fastest including the pros.

Post race involved lots of food - including an amazing burger from The Burger Shack - and even more beer (and terrible dancing!) at the team after party in The Fox and Hounds, and an absolutely savage hangover the following day. Well worth it though.