Sunday, December 5, 2021

A reflective Blog, the seasons that didn’t seem to end.

A Reflective Blog

I don't usually reflect on a season or in this case seasons. In light of the uneventful end to of my 2021 competitive year, & the need to obviously look & plan ahead, in this case, I felt the urge to do so. For me this season started all the way in January 2020 when I unexpectedly found myself back in Cyclings World Tour with non other than Team Ineos, formally Team Sky, which later that season became The Ineos Grenadiers. The 2020 season didn't finish for me until the middle off November with the conclusion of the Vuelta Espana. Having not raced a Triathlon at all in 2020 the season to me at least, didn't feel complete. 

Instead, following the Vuelta's conclusion, I immediately set my attention to 2021. I got back into serious swimming & running full off optimism for a "normal" season, ideally culminating in Kona in October. Alas, that wasn't to be & two years on from my last trip to Hawaii, there's still been no Kona, & I've once again got that feeling that this season hasn't really ended either. Obviously as far as the colander goes its well & truly finished & tomorrow I'll head to Majorca with my Ineos Grenadiers Teammates & Staff for the annual pre season training camp to begin preparations for the 2022 season. My 21st year competing internationally. 

I look back over all those years I don't have a lot of significant results to hang my hat on. An Under 23 World Championship in Rowing, an Olympics appearance, some participation's in the Giro d'italia & Vuelta Espana, a few podiums in lower level professional bike races, a few Ironman Victories. Probably a good argument at multiple times over all those years to give up on sport & do something more constructive with my life, however, every time i ask myself that very question I'd be thrown back in the ring by those that believe in me or achieve some significant performance that indicated to that one day just maby I'd nail that major victory. 

And that brings to the hear and now. I'm finally very settled in Andorra, married, child, dog, & coming off what i feel to be the best season of my sporting life. At the beginning of 2021 i had two specific goals, one for my cycling career, & one for my Triathlon Career. The goal was to be apart of One Victory with the Grenadiers, & win one Ironman. In 2020 I didn't compete in a single Triathlon & was a team member for a number of 2nd places with the Grenadiers, most notably Richard Carapaz's 2nd place at the Vuelta Espana. To me these goals where simple to set & would show me that I'm still improving as an athlete & reaffirm my decision to continue pursuing bigger goal in my chosen sports. 

I didn't need to wait long into this season to tick off the first of my goals. Dylan Van Barle won the Semi Classic Dwars Door Vlandarin in early April which was a really special feeling to be apart off. Dylan decided the day after Gent Wavelgem, another semi classic of 250km some 3 days prior to Dwars, that's he'd like to do some recon for the upcoming race. Everyone was pretty exhausted as you can imagine from the 250km we'd just raced, & where looking forward to a day laying in bed watching TV & perhaps an easy coffee shop ride. 

When Dylan asked if anyone would join him on this 3hr expedition of cobbles & Flanders climbs there obviously wasn't many volunteers to join him. As the fill in guy known love training everyone looked to me to take one for the team so to speak & give Dylan some company. I joked at the time I'd do that is was confident the recon ride & my presence talking his ear off would be crucial in his quest for victory. Low and behold he won & consequently we all had a good laugh about my crucial sacrificial lamb role. The boys really made me feel special acknowledging my contribution to Dylans preparation & our teams execution of the plan on race day. 

I'd barely had the chance to stop celebrating achieving my first season goal when Tom Pidcock went & won the first Road cycling race of his Professional career, I had a call a few days earlier asking if I'd like to do the race & i told our sports director (the guy driving the car dictating tactics over the radio) Brett Lancaster, absolutely as i was confident Tom would win. Sure enough he did & that was 2 races in a row that I'd ridden & a team mate had won. If something happens once it'll probably never happen again. If it happens twice they say it'll happen a 3rd time. So when Brett called again a couple of weeks later to go to the Vuelta Algarve in Portugal I didn't hesitate to predict Ethan Hayter will win a stage & I definitely want to be there for that. Sure enough he did & that was 3 races on the bounce I'd been apart of some wins, a perfect start to the season for me. 

After Algarve in late May i switched focus to winning that IM. I didn't pick a race as i needed to do some decent training first. I raced a local event in Girona to ensure I hadn't forgotten how to swim & run. Next i had the local Half Ironman event here in Andorra where i finished 3rd & finally felt like a triathlete again. I then had 6 weeks of training at home which meant Copenhagen fitted perfectly as a reference check & first objective of the season in in the build up to Kona. Boyd from achieving my cycling goal for the season, I was beaming with confidence ahead of Copenhagen & won the race quite comfortably. Obviously at the time i was excited to have won but had my eyes on the bigger prize of Kona in October. Unfortunately just one week later Kona was postponed & later canceled all together for the 2nd year running & that was that.           

Never one too Dwell on misfortune i quickly looked to some new objectives to finish the season. I'd been taken out of the rotation for bike racing in late august to allow me to focus on Kona. When that was canceled I obviously went back onto the rotation of available riders for the end kid season races. Once a series of One Day races was scheduled for me in late September, early October, this presented the opportunity to not only be the best teammate i could be but also race another Ironman in Majorca just One week after my final cycling race for the season. 

Obviously post Copenhagen to swimming & running had become what'd best be described as a maintenance routine to ensure i was as fresh & sharp as possible for the bike races. This was more important to me during this period as seven teammates where relying on me at each race & i wanted to be the best i possibly could be for them. Adding Majorca onto the end of the cycling season was really an ego trip to try & show myself i could compete in both sports one weekend after another at the highest level. In the case of the Ironman, rely on the years of work I'd done to get me through it, as opposed to any type of specific preparation as was the case for Copenhagen in the summer. 

The bike races went reasonably well. A third for Ben Swift in northern France kicked things off & a second for Adam Yates finished things off for my block of racing in Italy. No wins during this block. That would also be the case in Majorca. Despite a extremely low volume for swimming for a couple of months, i started the race with all the confidence in world in my cycling racing fitness. In turn i had an awesome swim which basically came about because i was most certainly very fit & being a wetsuit swim was able to through my arms over nice and fast & have a great swim. Unfortunately this enthusiasm & self belief bit me on the backside. I was absolutely exhausted from this brilliant swim & struggled to drag myself up the beach & into Transition to start the ride. 

On the bike I obviously feel rather confident & convinced myself I'd have a 2nd wind. That wind never really came & it was all i could do to keep myself at the front of the race with a couple of guys hot on my rear wheel. I didn't worry about them or trying to distance them as i knew I didn't have the legs to do so without completely running out of gas & with a marathon to come that's never a good strategy on the bike. I instead focused on keeping the rest of the field as far back as possible so i could potentially salvage a spot on the podium. The podium is always an important result for me as it means Champaign but more importantly Flowers. My wife Fallon always reminds before the start to have a great race & that she'd love some flowers. Consequently on those difficult days when I realise  winning is not in my capabilities I refocus on winning some flowers. As a result of this I've got a lot more 3rd's than 2nd's as i tend to race very defensively for the flowers, & subconsciously seem to prefer to safety of 3rd & getting flowers, than risking fighting for 2nd & ending up 4th & not getting the flowers. I know its stupid. 

In the case of Majorca I didn't have to worry about fighting for 2nd as Florian Angert was absolutely motoring from behind. He ran past me so quickly while i was grabbing a drink at an aid station that I didn't even realise he'd gone past. It wasn't until i saw him at a turnaround where we crossed paths that i realised I'd already dropped to 3rd. Leon Chevalier had long since bolted up the road & was on his way to an emphatic first Ironman victory for him, I'm certain it wont be his last. I left now to fend off the rest for the final flower earning position on the podium which I managed to do. For me, realising how well the guys ahead of me had performed, & the caliber of athletes whom finished behind me, I couldn't help but be satisfied that I'd proven to myself i could compete at the highest level in both sports within the space off a week. 

Obviously I'd have loved nothing more than to win in Majorca & I definitely started the swim with that intention. I learnt that I'm pretty good but no means exceptional & if i want to win under that type of preparation I'll need to do a few things differently during the bike racing phase to be ready. Covid has obviously been a rather limiting factor in many aspects for all of us, obviously that's a massive understatement. One positive for me as we come out of this pandemic & restrictions lift I'll be able to execute managing both sports much better as I'm able to do the training i want to do when i want to do no matter where in the world i am, particularly in relation to swimming. Leaving the team bubble during bike racing blocks just hasn't been an option to ensure everyone within the team stays as protected as possible. I'm really excited for the upcoming season where i feel I'll be able to put a lot of lessons I've learnt from the last 2 years into practice & become a better athlete in both sports. 

And that brings me to the ill fated attempted final month of the season. Halfway through the run in Majorca when i realised I wasn't good enough to win the race & i switched to salvaging the flowers for my wife, i decided I'd race the following weekend in Sacramento. The race ended up being canceled due to flash flooding in California, however, i was never making it regardless as we missed our flight from Europe to the USA. Under the entry rules for the US at the time Europe was still shut out & i was only able to enter as I'm married to Fallon who's American. I'd received pre approval & consequently didn't realise i needed to still carry our original marriage certificate to board the flight. Long story short they wouldn't let me board. I'd left the travel till as late as possible & when the following day wasn't an option it left no chance of making it to California in time. ,in the end it didn't matter as the race never happened. 

Ironman officials gave the athletes from Sacramento the option to race the Ironman in Florida 2 weeks later. The race wasn't scheduled to be a men's race however following Sacramento they made an exemption for a pro men's field for those on the start list for Sacramento. Morally i should never have accepted this opportunity as i never would've made the start line in Sacramento if the race had gone ahead. Selfishly i rocked up in Florida after gallivanting around California for 2 weeks pretending to train expecting to go out there & smash the field. 

Karma well & truly came back to bit me on the bottom & i made it as far as 70km into the bike before winding up on the side of the road completely emptying everything inside my body. I'd woken that morning feeling a little off but figured some extra paracetamol would get me through the day. It seemed to work for a little while as i swam at the front of the race & was in the leading group on the bike when i had the sudden desperation to pull over. Once i gathered myself a number of minutes later & stood up straight, I realised how weak i felt & how far there was to go. If I'd have happened in the run I would've definitely soldiered on as i have in the past as many of my readers are aware. In this case however I knew that the best option was to ride back to hotel with my tail between my legs & accept I had no business being at the race in the first place. Life has its ways of putting you in your place & that day was most certainly one of them.

Once again not wanting to dwell on a negative I quickly found a new focus in the Sacramento Marathon. I felt i could "somewhat" prepare for this properly. I say "somewhat" as i had only 4 weeks until the Sacramento Marathon. My decision was based in the fact i felt i owed it to myself to set some sort of target, do 3 weeks of structured training with an objective, & go & execute to the best of my ability to finish off the season on a relative high. Obviously I wasn't harbouring any ambitions of winning the event instead setting the target of finishing within 30 minutes off the winner. Along with my amazing coach at Nike Brett Kirby, we set a plan which went perhaps better than expected. The basics of the Plan where some longer sustained time on the legs runs, & some over speed work. 

The final form check was the annual thanksgiving 5k turkey trot race in Fallon's home region of Garret County Maryland. The event obviously attracts all ends of the exercise spectrum from elite college runners to mothers pushing prams. For me the elite college runners was a great opportunity to race against & learn some running race craft from seasoned competitors in that sport, obviously a bunch of youngsters half my age. In the end i found myself in a ding dong battle for the win with Evan Pyles which i was truly appreciative off. Digging deep in the final 50m's or so to win by the narrowest of margins over a competitive College X County & Track & Field athlete was a massive satisfying moment for me as i also ran much quicker than ever expected i could over that distance. A time of 16:03 on a course with 100m of climbing was a big shock & as a side note a course record. I certainly left the 5k full off confidence & enthusiasm to line up in another running race the following weekend in Sacramento for the marathon. 

Sure enough there was one more curve ball to come my way. The word fluid has been used more often in the past two years than I've heard during the rest of my life & yet again this fluidly changed our plans in a flash. A message from the Team Doctor a few days ago asking me to return to Europe ASAP to minimise the risk of being subjected to any potential travel ban changes due to this new Variant detected in South Africa. Off course considering the latest bombshell in the fight against COVID, running alongside 20 thousand people, flying halfway around the world immediately afterwards directly to team camp, is far from the most responsible thing to do. 

Team camp is obviously a time that keeping the team bubble as safe as possible is the top priority. As a result I'm already back in Andorra ensuring doing all i can to not take this dreaded virus to the camp. With no Marathon to cap off the year I'll end the season with the thrill of victory instead. Certainly the way the last couple have moths have panned out I'm absolutely chomping at the bit to get to team camp & start planning for 2022. I've learnt an incredible amount these past 2 years & cannot wait to use those lessons to continue my evolution as an athlete.

This blog ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated however it was more for personally to write it all down & move on. No time to dwell on what did or didn't happen, onwards. 


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