The nature of my beast is that I love to learn and over the last 6-months I’ve certainly done that. That’s because IM 70.3 came to town and it gave me a great opportunity to engage with some wonderful people and learn more about a sport that I’m pretty expert in already.
In this blog, I’ll share my observations and reflections as an active observer of a truly world-class event. You may even gain a few top-tips to help you for next time.
Changing Perceptions: The Ironman Brand
We’ve all got our perceptions of different brands and I am no different with the IM one. But perceptions shift. I’ve gotta say that in terms of Pro athletes, the brand could do way better in gender equality and athlete welfare. The Pro’s help sell product and the epic battles they’ve had in Kona have certainly added to the IM global brand. However, to qualify for Hawaii with a Pro’ licence, most have to over-race and have little opportunity to earn a decent living unless they are top of the tree. It wouldn’t take much for the brand to make their careers more sustainable and their lives a little easier by ring-fencing a small proportion of their mammoth profits to support those who inspire us. It’s no joke that most Pro’s use equipment that is not up to the same standard of many age-groupers and that’s because some are struggling to make ends meet.
However, what I failed to recognise is how the brand motivates and engages with so many people in a way that local races cannot. IM quality assurance processes are second to none because they have a ‘machine’ which ensures a wonderful experience for A-G athletes. To justify the cost , quality must be amazing and customer satisfaction high. They manage to achieve this and its convinced me not to be overly critical, but to look for ways to work with the brand to enhance race experiences for everyone.
The sense of community amongst athletes has been like ParkRun on steroids (lets not mention A-G athletes on HRT).
Are you up to the challenge?: Athlete naivety
Edinburgh and East Lothian has experienced quite challenging sea conditions and high-winds in the run up to the event and on the race day itself. Whilst they were atypical conditions, they were not entirely unusual or unpredictable.
I was out swimming in the Forth in the run up to the event and conditions were as tough as I’ve ever swam in here. Rather than be put off, I’ve emerged from the water with a huge smile because swimming in waves is so much fun. I’m not a great swimmer (repeating 100m’s on 1:40 to 2:00 mins depending on fitness). I’m not doing any swim training at all just now but would have happily completed the full race distance without too much difficulty.
However, I was genuinely shocked and astounded to chat to numerous athletes who had done minimal or no open-water practice in the run up to the event. This resulted in high levels of trepidation and a lack in confidence from some. I believe this was a factor in many athletes being plucked out the sea or failing to make the cut-off time. Confidence is everything when swimming in open-water. Admittedly, I feel safer in the sea because I am less suceptible to being attacked by a man (always a man) with lane rage and I’d rather be stung by a jelly fish than drink baby pish. However, without confidence in rough sea conditions, the environment can be risky for the underprepared. Whilst IM wishes to encourage first-timers (which is great), individual athletes must take responsibility and prepare for all types of sea conditions. Doing otherwise is not treating IM racing with the respect it deserves and it is tempting failure. Part of the attraction of endurance sport is that it allows us to escape from ‘real life’. Reducing risk must therefore be balanced with not over-sanitising the sport. I think that balance was right and it was entirely appropriate for the race distance to be shortened because of the weather. Saying that, it also lost those who had prepared for the conditions their competitive advantage, which was a little unfair.
I also heard many reports of the race being the hardest many athletes had experienced, including over the 180-km race distance. These people need to understand Rule Number 5 in cycling. One cannot argue with individual perceptions. However, I’ve ridden the bike course around 5-times and despite me being overweight and far from race-fitness, I can confirm it isn’t too hard. I lived in the Peak District for many years and have done tougher rides to buy a vanilla slice in the patisserie in Marple! Yes, the wind blew, but it nearly always does in East Lothian. Those who thought the course was overly tough had obviously failed to prepare for the demands of the event and/or got their pacing wrong.
During the run up to the event, I found the unofficial IM 70.3 Edinburgh Facebook page engaging, supportive and highly entertaining. The entertainment came from the number of utterly daft questions that many people were asking and it gave those of us in the know the opportunity to demonstrate how clever we were to each other.
The page told me that many 1st time competitors were completely naive, lacking an adequate understanding of the sport and knowledge of how they should be preparing for the race. Whilst colleague Alister McCormick has qualified the psychological demands of endurance sports in this paper I’m not sure he captured the magnitude of stress and anxiety many athletes suffered as a result of their inexperience…which transferred into the race experience for some. Being adequately prepared and knowledgable brings with it confidence. However, that cannot be gained by training alone, getting advice on an internet forum or on the pages of 220 Magazine. It comes with building a greater triathlon community with training groups, clubs and high-quality coaching.
As a coach and deliver of education for athletes, this gave me a wonderful insight into ‘the market’, and potential gaps that could be filled through coaching interventions. Watch this space… Which brings me on to Silent Wolf Coaching.
My Experiences with Silent Wolf Coaching
John, Grace and Paul were responsible for the IM 70.3 Facebook page and setting a positive and inclusive vide within it. They did a wonderful job. What many of you will not have seen is how they helped so many athletes in their journey to the start line.
I was privileged to be invited by John to deliver the swim coaching at two preparation weekends for the event and it was an amazing experience. I don’t think I’m overstating it by saying the weekends were a highlight in my coaching career. The main reason is that over the course of a few coached sessions, we saw the confidence and technique of the athletes grow rapidly. Many had never attended a triathlon club session, let alone experienced triathlon coaching… even within a few sessions we saw a marked improvement in athlete performance. Seeing the smiles and ‘glow’ in athletes who have rapidly grown in confidence is why I do my job.
What does this tell us? Well…that coaching is worth far more than buying a fancy aero-bike. Paul and I were standing at the bike mounting area at T1… I jest not when I say that some athletes lost more time in getting their leg over their bike and clipped in than could have been gained through using a £2000 set of wheels over a 40km TT. Indeed, some of the people who had obviously never practiced mounting a bike in a race situation were riding Pro level bikes. Not cool.
The fact is that paying for a coach for 6 months would cost a 10th of what some athletes spent on their bikes! I’ve helped an already rapid athlete go 15-mins quicker over the 70.3 distance through expert guidance. I believe the benefits of good coaching to an average A-G athlete could far exceed this time gain.
The team at Silent Wolf did an outstanding job of supporting so many athletes and I think I’ve made some pretty good friends in them too.
Triathlon isn’t an easy sport. Despite what the marketing may say, there are no shortcuts to achieving your potential. A expensive bike or the latest nutritional products at very best will result in marginal gains. The fundamentals of the sport include consistently in training, technically appropriate practice, being highly disciplined and patient. Expert guidance from a good coach will speed up the learning process but there’s no substitute for experience either. If you wanna do a one-off 70.3 then that is fine, but for longevity and to truly enjoy the sport means that the fundamentals must be embraced.
Finally, the organisers, Paul and Richard, did an awesome job. They’ll be first to admit that everything did not go perfectly, but this is normal for a new event of this magnitude. More toilets and hot pies will probably be in place for next year.
There have been other criticisms of the event, but they’ve typically been the result of inexperience, idiocy or general cockwomblery. The course was tough but fair. The finishing rate wasn’t high relative to other events, but that’s no reflection on the organisers. Those who didn’t achieve their goals need to learn from their experiences and come back fighting next year. For the resilient, the sport offers an amazing challenge because it has a habit of catching even the very best athletes out.
For those of you who achieved your goals, very well done and an even bigger pat-on-the-back for those who helped make IM 70.3 Edinburgh such a wonderful experience. If my bloody foot recovers, maybe I’ll be joining you on the 1st of July 2018 to experience the joys and pains of a world-class event in my home city.