I only truly believed Challenge Daytona would go ahead the Tuesday before the race. With everything this year cancelled, travel restrictions and flight changes happening daily, nervous was an understatement. Even heading to the airport on Wednesday I was concerned I might be prevented from boarding for some reason.
As it turned out travelling during Covid is a great experience, it will be a shame when it returns to normal. Quiet empty airports, no queueing, empty seats either side of you, polite and orderly disembarking.
The downside was it took all day, landing at 11:35PM, but luckily my hotel was right next to the airport. The drive took me past the Daytona International Speedway. It loomed over me and with the lights I got goosebumps thinking I would be racing there.
Thursday was spent fishing. Normally I do this after a race but the PTO (Professional Triathlon Organisation) World Championships were on Sunday and that was not to be missed!! Post fishing I assembled my bike for a test ride and brief run to shake the legs out. This will be a sad race as it’s the final race on my Cervelo, I have a new bike (Canyon) for next year. It has taken me from a complete beginner to some awesome results, the highlight being 6th at the European Championships. What a race to finish on though.
Thursday evening was very chilled, I was tired and during Covid there isn’t much to do. I was feeling great though and ready to race.
Friday morning involved a quick run and a final bike test before grabbing a coffee with Billy, my coach. He was there as his girlfriend, Fenella, would be racing in the Pro race. My race plan was simple and we were both confident I would go well. With the plan sorted I spent my time celeb spotting as all the pros were staying in the same hotel. Kat Matthews and Tim O’Donnell casually joined our conversation.
In the afternoon I headed to the Speedway for the first time, to register, rack my bike and the practice swim. This took longer than usual with social distancing but everything ran smoothly. One highlight was picking up a number of signed photos from the pros. Live autographs aren’t very Covid friendly.
I needed the practice swim as hadn’t worn my wetsuit in 3 months, 5 minutes was all I needed to be comfortable though. I was however provided endless amusement by the Floridians complaining that the water was freezing!! It was 18 degrees haha!!
Post swim I timed my walk back to the hotel as in the morning I would walk to the start (30 minutes). Dinner followed, final checks and early to bed.
The one shame about the event is they have a pro-am sprint race, where you bid (for charity) to race in a relay with one of the professionals, but it’s on Friday night. I would love to have done it but not possible the night before a race.
Not an ideal start when I woke at 1am with an upset stomach and couldn’t get back to sleep. Nutrition is so important so I ate and drank what I could and hoped it would pass. I started my walk to the track not feeling 100% but coming all this there was no way I wasn’t racing. My day improved when a couple kindly offered me a lift to transition in the back of their pickup. The kindness and collective team spirit in triathlon never ceases to amaze, there are endless examples from the top pros to the absolute beginners of supporting each other to the finish line.
Given the ride I was in transition even earlier than planned so had plenty of time. First job, plug all the electrics in. First up was the Di2 battery and check the gear shifting, nothing!! Panic!!
I tried everything but the gears wouldn’t change. I asked around and turned out there was a mechanic tent outside transition. I wasn’t too worried as had well over an hour till the start and I was the first person to the tent.
They couldn’t see an easy fix so wanted to do some software updates which would take a while so I left to sort the rest of my gear. By now quite a few people had turned up so I was lucky I had got in first. I returned multiple times and still nothing. Eventually they found a work around by attaching a very expensive part and with 15 minutes to the start I was set. Not nearly enough time for my pre race routine but maybe that was for the best as couldn’t worry about anything else. (Special thanks to the mechanic team as they lent me the part rather than making me buy it. The guy admitted that his favourite part of being a bike mechanic is racing to find solutions against the clock).
Due to the delay I was running around like a headless chicken, even during the national anthem, which isn’t really the done thing in America but I had no choice. There were fireworks during the anthem, unusual for 7 in the morning but added to the awesome atmosphere. I arrived at the swim start with a minute or two to spare, giving me time for some deep breaths and to focus on the race ahead.
The cannon went and the first swimmers were away. As I dove in I got water in my goggles (this needs practice) but managed to adjust them without too much disruption. I had forgotten the chaos of group swims but before long found a good groove and was swimming nicely next to someone. I was swallowing quite a lot of water which wasn’t ideal but I was making good progress. I lost my companion around the end markers but ended up next to someone else on the way back.
She turned out not to be very friendly and kept hitting me. The final straw was an elbow to my goggles that forced my right eye shut, impressive as I was to her right! I persevered but finally decided it would be better to see. With my sight returned I put in a burst of effort and pulled in ahead of my nemesis giving her a few kicks in revenge. It’s impossible to not bump and hit people occasionally but you make an effort and she hadn’t!
As we passed the last buoy I pushed on feeling I had more in the tank and finished strong. There was a reason for this, I don’t record my swim, but I found out after the race it was very short, 2-300m short. Not complaining but probably why I felt so good.
No time to dawdle though and out on to the bike.
From transition we were straight on to the track for 2 1/2 laps before the course took us off through the streets of Daytona for a long out and back. Riding on the track was epic and hard not to imagine what it would be like racing cars at 200mph with 110,000 people.
I went off a little too hard but was having too much fun overtaking people on the 4km laps. It was flat and fast!
I finished the laps and exited on to the roads and began to realise how hard this was going to be. The course was flat the whole way. This means speed (aerodynamics) is everything so you have to stay as small as as possible while pushing the power. It wasn’t long before I got a reality check as some people came flying past, doing well over 40km/hr. (Side note: I don’t like racing with Aquabike races – they don’t have to run so give everything on the bike so you feel you are losing but when they get to transition they stop!)
Outside the stadium the wind picked up as well which started to make things challenging.
I was feeling OK but starting to overtake less people, on the plus side however less people were overtaking me. Approaching 30 miles the leader came past in the other direction and was so far ahead. I was riding with a guy and we took turns on the front. We had to avoid a draft zone of 3 bike lengths but on a flat course there is so much benefit at that distance. It’s a hard balance of thinking am I pushing hard enough or should I save energy and sit in. When you know you are playing catch up you have to keep pushing.
On the way back I started to struggle. The guys I was riding with began to pull off and once you are dropped you fall away quickly. I knew I had about 10 miles to go so I tried to push as I was below my target but my legs were leaving me. Something wasn’t quite right, my left leg was having to work harder even though my left quad and glute were hurting. It wasn’t an injury but I just couldn’t find the power I was looking for.
As I turned in to the stadium I was tired, sore and not feeling great. I was so distracted thinking about how hard the run was going to be I forgot to do a flying dismount and was very slow in T2. You have to be clear in your mind to do these things well when tired.
With my shoes on I grabbed my running bundle (gels, watch, visor) and set off. The first few 100m’s felt sluggish even though I was pushing but then my body loosened up. I was quickly up at race pace and feeling great, hopefully things were starting to go my way. Well on track for a very low 1hr 20’s half marathon. (my unrealistic goal this year had been 1:25)
The added motivational bonus of a fast run is you fly past all the cyclists who can’t run. There were plenty as it’s a cyclists race! Most were very supportive, commented on my pace and wished me good luck.
Every mile I would lap my watch to make sure each lap was on pace and it was going swimmingly until about mile 5. Without anything really changing my pace started to slip and I couldn’t find it again. Nutrition didn’t help and similar to the bike my legs just weren’t quite there. I was still running fast and overtaking people but not where I knew I should be.
It was a two lap run course and each lap ended with the final bend of the track. This felt like running the bend on an athletics track before you realise the bend is 1km long not 100m which is a bit demoralizing!!
At the start of the second lap I was still slowing but Billy appeared at the crucial moment and his support was just what I needed to push me to the finish. Once you are in the last few miles motivation isn’t hard.
It was hot and hard work but flat and quick. I did have one funny anecdote to help me pass the time. I race for a team called TriForce and on two separate occasions as I passed people they thanked me for my service. The first time I was very confused and wondered if we had biked together. But he had emphasised how seriously he meant it. Obviously they thought I was part of the US armed forces tri team and were probably quite surprised when I said thanks in an English accent!
On the second lap I held a steady pace albeit below my target pace. I tried to push for the last two miles but I just couldn’t find that next level. As I entered the stadium for the final time Billy was there again and I gave it what I could round the last bend. I was catching people but it’s demoralising thinking you are so close to the finish and realising you still have a mile to go!!
I came under the finish clock at 4 19 as my name was announced. An awesome time but I was already disappointed as I knew I hadn’t gone that deep, I just wasn’t able to go in to the red.
Transition wasn’t open for a while so I waited with some other athletes discussing the race and realised it had been a super strong field. Kat Matthews walked by post the pro swim warm up and asked how it went which was nice of her.
I collected my stuff and retreated back to my hotel to rest and debrief. It turned out I finished in 4:16:38 (Swim 28 – it was very short – Bike 2:20 – Run 1:25). 12th in Age Group, 36th Man, 37th Overall.
As I reflected on these results, with a very sore left glute and quad, I had mixed feelings. PB’s across all 3 sports and overall is not to be sniffed at. Plus at the start of the year set myself an ambitious, borderline unrealistic, goal of a 1:25 half (a 4 minute improvement). So why was I feeling disappointed.
Firstly I had wanted top 10 in age group and 20 overall. A nice target but that is more in the control of who else is racing. Mostly though I felt I hadn’t performed on the bike or the run. My watts were down on the bike even before I faded and pre race running sub 1:24 was the minimum goal with a 1:20 possible if I ran well.
Why hadn’t I been able to do this? To be honest I don’t know. It could be any number of reasons: lack of sleep, nutrition slightly off, not adjusting to heat, difficult year, unwell the night before, flat races are hard, out of race practice. All I know is on a different day I could have gone significantly quicker.
But the positives are I was lucky enough to race in 2020 and smashed my year goals with a disappointing performance, meaning I’m in an awesome place for next year.
Additionally so good to tick off a bucket list race that’s at a inconvenient time as peak training in November is miserable.
I relaxed for a few hours before getting a well deserved cheesecake with Billy and Fenella and a race debrief. Billy rated my performance as OK but agreed there was a lot more to come. Bring on 2021!! While having coffee we were joined by pro’s Ruth Astle and a certain Alistair Brownlee! I was star struck, especially when he asked how my race went!
One thing that struck me was how relaxed the pro’s are the evening before the biggest race of the year, one of the biggest ever! The pros left to do race things so I had a beer with Billy which was a nice way to finish a long stressful day and thoughts quickly turned to next year! As always it is so nice having support/familiar faces at events.
Sunday was the newly formed PTO World Championships, record prize purse and probably the most competitive triathlon field ever assembled. The distances (2km, 80km, 18km) and the invitations to the short course athletes (ITU) meant for the first time we would see a serious race of short vs long!!
The predictions were that the ITU athletes would lead out the swim. The long course athletes would dominate the bike and then the ITU athletes would be quicker runners but would they be able to survive the distance. Whatever happened it was going to be fast and furious with some explosions as athletes went too hard. With $100k to the winner no one was going to leave anything our there!
Lucy Hall (GBR) led comfortably out of the swim. Fenella well placed in third. The bike was exciting with a lot of moving, Paula Findlay (CAN) and Lisa Norden (NOR) pulled in to a comfortable lead. Fenella going will in a group of 4th-7th switching positions. Lisa Norden had to pull out on the run with an injury and Paula ran to a comprehensive victory. Anna Huag (GER) had a penalty from the bike but despite this ran through the field to second. Laura Philips (GER) ran through as well to complete the podium. Fenella came in 7th and finished with an epic celebration!! Unfortunately Kat had to pull out.
There were no stand out swimmers in the men’s race so a large group came out together with the big cyclists well back, Alistair and Jonny Brownlee right in the mix. The men’s bike wasn’t very interesting as even with the 20m draft zone it wasn’t enough to break them up. Only excitement was Lionel Saunders (CAN) and Sam Long (USA) cycling through the field. Quite a few people pulled out with injuries and towards the end some of the ITU guys started to fall back. While it was a boring bike it set it up for an exciting run as they were all so close. Vincent Luis (FRA) and the short course favourite and Jonny Brownlee were both given time penalties. What was to follow was an epic race with so many changes. Alistair Brownlee took an early strong lead (before pulling our injured). Then so many people showed to the front before fading or being caught by stronger runners. I can’t say how many people led but about half way through Gustav Iden (NOR) came storming through to take a massive lead he would never relinquish. George Goodwin (GBR) was going strong in second but was pipped by Matt Hanson (USA) on the last lap who produced an epic run. All 3 podium places had been lower than 12th coming off the bike. Luis’s penalty deprived us of a potentially epic dual as he finished 2:15 off Iden having served a 2 min penalty, what could have been!!
The pro race was brutal, 20 laps of the track on the bike, no corners no hills just staying in one position the whole way. This led to a number of withdrawals in both races. I found out that nearly all of them were carrying some sort of niggle which is a good lesson to learn. I always feel I am on the edge of an injury at races and it’s useful to know the pros are the same. If you want to win you have to push your body to limit, and maybe a little past, in the build up. I won’t worry as much in the future!
At dinner I ended up next to a guy I met at the bike technician before my race who had also been having a disaster. We had a quick beer and discovered we are both doing Ironman Coeur D’Alene in June so will be nice to have a familiar face.
That brought a close to a pretty epic weekend in Daytona and what a luxury to be able to race again!! Now it’s time for my off season and what a treat I have in store. After 2 1/2 years I am finally going home to the Isle of Wight for a decent stint where there will be a very happy dog, and hopefully family, waiting for me!!