Can I Have the Perfect Race?
We’ve compiled a few notes of the steps that an athlete might take to achieve the perfect race. We all know that this very rarely happens, so Leanne gives us an insight to what really goes on behind the scenes and how she dealt with the unexpected.
Coach Hugh says:
With races being the ‘end goal’ for a lot of us - how can we make sure they go as smoothly as a training session and perform to the limit of what is capable for yourself? There are many factors and here we will address some of them in an attempt to help those seeking the perfect race. Although this is focused around race-day, it is of course important to make sure your training puts you in the best shape possible pre-race - we won’t address all the questions here but we are assuming you are in good physical fitness and more than capable of completing the race. We could do a whole post about training and race taper, we will cover that in an upcoming blog!
From the outside, a win is a win. I won my age-group and took first amateur overall, “You smashed it!”. I was satisfied with my result on race day but it was so far from a perfect performance. I had a good build up to the race over at Tri-Topia headquarters in central France, but executing on race day is a whole different thing. I hope we can give you a small insight as to what goes in to winning a race - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Cold, wet, miserable.
Travel & Accommodation
Getting to the race can often be half the battle. For this reason ‘home’ races seem to go better than most - take all the stress out of the planning and the transport logistics and find a race that’s close to you. It may not have the best climate and flying to a tropical paradise may seem more appealing but receiving a cracked carbon bike frame from the baggage handlers in arrivals may put you off racing forever. Plan well and the problems associated with travel can be reduced. Find a good bike box, get in touch with a mechanic at your destination and make sure you’ve packed your tri-suit because a simple trip home or to the shops might be impossible. Accommodation will also be important - for this reason we would suggest staying as close to race start as is possible. Even if you’re somebody who doesn’t like the crowds and the pre-race atmosphere, you can still retreat to your room/tent knowing that in race-morning you have a simple walk down to transition. Failing that, maybe a short drive or cycle away. The last thing you want is to be stuck in traffic in the morning of your race. If you’ve been there, you know how much added stress this can bring! A secondary benefit is that the post-race shower is not so far out of reach, which can be as satisfying as crossing the finish line itself.
From the pictures, the accommodation Hugh had found looked perfect. Clean, spacious, little pool to paddle in, self-catered, and relatively close to the race start. However it’s always a surprise what you get upon arrival, the power of photography and marketing is not to be dismissed! The first problem was the parking, which we thought would be free and onsite. Actually, it was NOT free and too small and narrow for our van. Our next option was to make use of the parking area next to us. Expensive, but safe. We checked out the room and everything was okay. Enough space to keep the bikes in the room, a little kitchen with limited but sufficient utensils, and a shower with hot water. That will do! Unfortunately there were still a few party holidayers as well, and the noise during the day did get on my nerves a bit. However, my patience was really tested when they threw a party at 9pm right outside our room. Athletes trying to sleep here? The walls were thin and people stumbling in early morning were not appreciated by a light sleeper like myself.
That said, we did fall in a bit of luck when the race venue was relocated just a week before the event, which meant it was now just a 10min walk away. This turned out to be extremely useful when things didn’t quite go to plan on race day.
At the venue
Once you're at the event and completed registration there is often plenty of time to take in your surroundings. The most important being the transition area. You want to know for T1 and T2 where you need to go, what route are you going to take and what are you going to have with you. Visualising this part of the race can slash minutes off your time. It’s also necessary to have planned what items you will need with you. Where are you going to put your helmet? Where are you run shoes situated? What gels do I need? Am I wearing socks? Answer all these questions before race day. When it comes to laying out your kit in transition, keep it as simple as possible . Run stuff stays together in one pile (or one bag) and the same with the bike kit. Rules can differ depending on the race organisers, so always check beforehand what you need to do. Your final check will most often be on the morning just before swim start. Walk through the transition area, plotting your route and making sure you have all your kit ready. A PB can be gained or easily lost in the transition area.
The swim, bike, run courses should be self-explanatory, i.e. it’s obvious where to go. But from experience this is not always the case. As well as unclear course markings, buoys can change on race morning as well as whole routes being re-planned due to exceptional weather. Before the race, read the course information and plan the route. Use google maps to see where you have to go, and look at the elevation profiles and the location of aid stations. Have the route in your mind before you start the race - if time allows, then recce the course. This is the best way to see what you’re up against! You don’t have to do it all on a bike. Take the car, and drive the bike course. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail!
The very day we arrived, we got our bikes out and tried to follow the map provided of the course. The course recce was extremely useful but also got me quite worried about race day. There were a few nasty potholes, cracks, and speed bumps on the way. The courses was lumpy with a few twists and and U-turns. I’m not a technical rider at all, and have become a wimp when it comes to bad roads. Once out of Ibiza town, it was quite scenic and I’m glad we got to see it in the sunshine at least once!
Bike recce done. Happy faces.
We’d gone to the race briefing to make sure we didn’t miss out on any critical information about the course, transition, and rules of the ETU Championship race. Each national federation was supposed to hold their own race briefing but I hadn’t been informed of any Dutch briefing going on, so I sneaked into the GB one. Once everyone had been packed into the briefing room, it was clear that GB would make up more than half the race entries. It felt a bit more like a British Championships than a European one. What will happen when they leave the EU after Brexit, will the ETU Champs still exist?! Anyways, the course was explained, rules were outlined, questions answered. Turns out I wasn’t listening at all though, because when we returned I was still confused by a few things from the race package. Luckily Hugh had been attentive enough and had the answer to all my questions.
What I did get from the briefing was that transition was going to be quite lengthy. And they sure were right. We went to check out T1 and T2, and from the changing tents, the blue carpet seemed to disappear into the distance. It was all a bit confusing and unclear as to where to go when. It didn’t really stress me out though - I wouldn’t be the first out of the water and there’d be plenty of men to follow once I got off the bike. I did have to consider a few things about how to transition on race day given the length and conditions of the course and weather. It was likely going to be wet. That meant I would preferably only put my socks on for the run so that they’re not soaking wet by the time I’ve got to cover 21.1km by foot. However running with socks vs barefoot can make quite a difference in transition when the surface is unsuitable, so we went to check out the carpet. It seemed soft enough for my precious little feet, so my transition bags were packed as follows:
(Shoes on bike with elastic bands)
-Arm warmers (just in case)
With the longer distances, nutrition plays a big role. Imagine having a hard training session in the afternoon, but you skipped breakfast and lunch. I think most of us would find the session difficult, if not impossible, to complete. Keeping energy levels topped up is therefore important during a race.
For sprint and Olympic distance races, the most important factor is pre-race fuelling. Taking carbohydrates during these shorter races is not so crucial, but this will depend on your physiology. Some people won’t take anything and some will need a few gels to keep going through the race. This is something you will need to practice in training. Experimenting with fuel is critical to its success and you need to find something that works for you. Is it one gel on the bike and one on the run? Carbohydrate drink? Find what gives you the edge.
For half and full distance races, you really must take more consideration to proper nutrition planning. It’s a considerable length of time to be racing, and you will be burning through your energy stores. You will likely need to be eating and drinking every 20-30 minutes during the bike and run leg to maintain a steady pace. With low energy, the first thing you notice is a drop in your mood. From being overcome with adrenaline and excitement you suddenly start hating the race and wanting to pull out. You will be surprised at the effect of taking on some calories! Once you’re feeling tired and drained it’s hard to pull yourself out of the hole, but not impossible. Avoid it by fuelling properly. If this is a new concept for you, a quick internet search will help, speak to your coach or someone experienced. Use what you learn as a start point and develop from there depending on what works for you and your stomach.
Nutrition is a big challenge for me. I had discussed with my coach what I was going to take and how much of it. He also reminded me that if it were to be a bit colder than usual, I may need a extra carb drink as you burn more fuel in low temperatures. Okay, noted. I stuck all my gels to the bike and put the rest in my run bag to stuff down my suit in T2. Yes, this time I will take ALL my gels and hydrate well.
Come race morning, we ate as planned - a lighter breakfast and then a good early lunch 2-3hrs before race start consisting of simple carbs and some fructose. This meant a boiled egg with some bread followed by a big bowl of porridge with some peanut butter and fruit. We didn’t feel overly full but I felt confident that this would take me through with a race start of 13:30.
However, this plan slowly fell apart as our race was postponed by 30mins, an hour, and then eventually 2 hours. What do we do now? Eat some more? We had some more simple carbs, which resulted in me then feeling too full an hour out from race start. Crap, why did I do that?! How can I now digest my food in time? It’s a constant battle in your head; did I do it wrong, can I still race at my best, how is this going to play out?
When I then stood on the beach in my wetsuit, I still felt the same but there was nothing I could do about it now. Once I started swimming my mind drifted off to other issues so I quickly forgot about it. The next problem was swallowing a bit more salt water then planned - the start was a washing machine of bodies with arms and legs flinging in all directions, water splashing and waves crashing. I think I could feel the effect of that a bit later into the bike, when things didn’t feel quite right and I didn’t think I could stomach any gels. It was cold as well, which meant I wasn’t tempted to drink even though I was still sweating and losing fluids. I then justified not taking on anything by the shortened bike course - ‘only’ 45km, so I can get away with it! *Please do not try this in your own race.
I got off the bike after a cautious ride, and was happy with how my legs were feeling on the first few kilometres on the run. I had told myself I definitely needed to take my gels now or I would crash in the second half. So, after I had settled in to my pace, I took my first gel and washed it down with water. That went down okay and I was running well. I had tucked the gels into my sports bra as I had no pockets in my trisuit. They had been shuffling about a bit and I was having to readjust every so often. At the end of the first lap, I suddenly feel one jump out and land on the ground. I was in a good rhythm, on the chase for the lead, and now had to decide - turn around and grab it, or carry on with one less gel? I decided to take the easy way out and carried on running. This was not the plan. When should I take my remaining gel? Wait until I fade a bit? I ended up taking it about 45min into the run, which left me with about 40 minutes. Coke was not an option and I’d never tried the on course gels available at the aidstations. Which risk is bigger - using something I’ve never tried before or running without fuel? Again, I chose the latter, even when I see my gel lying on the ground the next time I pass by. For all those reading, please take the extra 30 seconds to run back to your dropped nutrition. It could save you minutes. For myself though, I think I managed to get away with it as I didn’t fade too much and had a pretty good run. But it does leave you wondering what could have been if I had raced the 3.5hrs on more than just two gels.
Leanne's bike post-race with gels still attached...
Having a good race is all about preparation - being ready for anything the race might throw at you. Preparation starts months before the race in training by including race specific sessions, testing nutrition and practising transitions. Make sure nothing new is deployed during the event, all too often people leave everything until race day. There are many competitors who use new kit, new foods and run paces they never have in training. Even up to pro level - you would be surprised! It’s possible to ‘wing it’ and have a good race, but make it a great race by staying in control the whole way through the event. Decrease your stress levels by having everything ready well in advance of the race weekend and you’ll set yourself up to be in the best mindset for extracting the perfect performance.
You can be as mentally and physically prepared as possible, but the weekend of the race you might have multiple things thrown at you. We planned out the timing of the day, my nutrition, and target paces. I was looking forward to racing hard, but once the weather promised to be far from ideal, this all just got thrown out the window. I didn’t really want to rack my bike - the course seemed scary and dangerous. Do I really want to race? I told Hugh I was not going to get on my bike if they decided to continue on with it. But come 15:00 and my bike was racked and ready to go. Once the gun went off I managed to control my mind for the most part. So although I am not satisfied with my overall race (having under performed in the swim and bike), I am happy to have overcome my fear and negativity of that day. Any race I show up to, I am there to take the win. I am coming to realise, however, that I am more driven by executing the perfect race. And that race doesn’t have to be a win. It’s a race where I know I left everything out on the course, controlled what I could, and executed to the best of my ability. Luckily I have another chance to fight for that result to finish off the 2018 season. IM Bahrain 70.3, here I come!