Race Report: Challenge Barcelona 2nd October 2011

Want to know what ‘going long’ is really like? Club Chairman, Level 3 Coach and multiple Iron distance competitor, Mark Harman gives his expert view of this Autumn race in Spain.

Challenge Barcelona is an Ironman distance race, 2.4km swim, 180km bike finishing with a 42km run, set in Calella on the coast of Spain just north of Barcelona.  Four Born2Tri racers travelled out to the race, the same team of Matt Shingleton, Pete Bryan, Paul Stevens and Mark Harman who successfully raced Ironman France 2009.  Here is a story of the race.

An Ironman, sitting on the plane my back hurts, my legs are tired and aching, I am fatigued and unmotivated, unfortunately this is the flight out to the race and not home.  I know this feeling well as each time I taper for a long distance race I feel progressively worse until on race morning walking to the race start is an effort.  I have to keep reminding myself as soon as the gun goes the strength and stamina built through months of training will flood back.  I know I am not alone in this feeling and in the days leading to the race athletes are swimming the swim course, riding the bike course and even running parts of the run course.  It’s all to make them feel fit when actually they should be resting and preparing their bodies for the incredible demands of a day long triathlon race.  Swim if you need to check your goggles, ride a few miles to check your bike after its rebuilt from the bike box but please never feel the need to run.

Our journey was easy and the hours’ drive to Calella took us along part of the bike course giving a good view of the terrain, apart from the first few miles of gentle hills the route was flat, the bike course would be fast.  Our hotel was just a ten minute walk from the race village; registration was easy collecting the kit bags and numbers for the race.  In normal Ironman style the racers kit is stored in numbered bags within a changing tent rather than being spread around your bike.  The race expo was as usual full of tempting goodies just crying out to the athletes to buy something new for the race.  I was prepared and the last thing I needed was some untried kit to take into such a long race.  A wander around the site soon located the swim start and exit, the changing area and bike park, all in a nice compact area.

The remainder of the Born2Tri team arrived the following day going through the routine of registration, unpacking and building bikes, and filling race bags with everything for the race.  The weather was fine and dry with a strong sun; the forecast was for high 20’s on race day, hydration and sun protection would be very important.  The Saturday before the race was taken up with kit and bike checking, attending the race briefing then delivering the bikes and kit to the race village.  With everything set we were ready to race the following day. 

Calella is a small holiday town, a bit like Clacton but with a much better beach and sunshine.  For race weekend the hotels and restaurants were filled with athletes, the few remaining tourists looking suspiciously at the shaved legs, Lycra clothing and strange tattoos.  They must have wondered what had happened when at 9pm everyone disappeared to bed. 

Race morning breakfast was a quiet and nervous affair, we ate slowly all knowing what lay ahead.  The 8.30 race start, due to the late sunrise, and proximity of the hotel gave us a lay in to 5a.m., race nerves ensured the toilets were busy.  It was still dark as we walked to the race start, groups of athletes emerging from hotels to converge on the race start.  Our support team slept soundly, their long day at the roadside would begin just that little later.  As we completed the formalities of fitting bottles and pumping tyres the sun rise at sea was providing a beautiful backdrop. 

Once ready we went to the beach and met up with our supporters, it was getting warm already but with the pro racers starting we zipped up our suits and prepared for the start.  Paul, Pete and Mark would start at 8.36, Matt the youngster would be away about 20 mins later.  A round of good luck calls and we entered the mass of wet suits and green swim hats, the gun went and we were in the water.  Separating 1000 athletes into waves cuts down the crowding but it was the usual physical battle to the first turn 100m off shore, a right turn took us a mile or so parallel to the beach, further out to sea then back to the finish just past the start.  The water was warm and calm and I set a steady but even pace, the pace I had trained for over so many hours inGosfieldLake.  The swim was uneventful, the weak tide making the return faster, I saw some swimmers from my wave, overtook some from the wave ahead then eventually faster swimmers from the wave behind came past.  Soon I was swimming for the shore, kicking hard to wake my legs then on to the sandy beach.  In the excitement I forgot to start my watch but I heard someone say 1hr 17m which was ok, I should be on my bike in the target 90 minutes.  As I entered the tent I saw Pete on his way to his bike.  I dressed and ripped open my bag of sun cream spending a minute or so covering my face, arm, legs and neck then headed to my bike.  At the bike racks I saw Paul had also gone, I was down on their excellent performances but had met my target time.

The bike course was on closed roads, out through the town past our hotel and on to the coast road.  There we had two long laps of about 70km each and a final loop of 40km.  The wind was light and with the day warming it would be a great ride.  The first few miles were up and down hills, some slower swimmers and the fast riders from the waves behind roared past but I resisted the temptation to race them, I knew the effort to set.  ‘If you think it’s too fast it’s definitely too fast, if you think it’s about right it’s still too fast!’  The lapped out and back course gave a chance to see the other racers, first the pro’s then the fast age groupers where I was pleased to see Matt; he must have passed me in transition and was going well.  I saw Pete and a while later Paul, I timed the gap to the turn around, I was about fifteen minutes and eight minutes down respectively.  I was pleased to see they were going so well but resisted the temptation to try to close the gap.  Every 30 mins I drank half a bottle of water, on the hour a gel or energy bar.  I carefully made my drinks with bottled water but could only carry two; I would have to collect more from the aid stations which would impact my race later. 

At the second turn I saw Matt was storming on through the field, we were all riding carefully to avoid drafting as many penalties were being given out, even so there were many small packs forming.  Pete and Paul had pulled further ahead at 20mins and 10mins and I began to doubt my strategy.  I don’t use a hrm, gps, power or even a computer to race, but felt my pace was on target.  My watch showed the first 56miles passed in three hours, I had not trained to go this fast but it felt easy and I kept going thinking about the marathon ahead.  At the third turn the gap between Pete, Paul and me had stabilised which gave me a confidence boost, particularly as the wind had picked up.  I was starting to pass racers who had gone out too fast in the early stages, there is little more satisfying than cruising up to and past a Cervelo P3 complete with disc and aero helmet, it’s not about the bike it’s the engine.  The final ride out to the turn was harder due to the wind, having to drop down a gear but at the turn I pushed for home.  Within a few miles I was with Paul almost a repeat of our ride at Nice in 2009 and we entered T2 together.  In transition I realised I had matched my pace of the first half with a six hour bike split, about an hour up on target but I felt good and ready to run.  I racked the bike and collected my run bag when it all started to go a little wrong.

As I changed I felt my gut begin to cramp and an extended visit to the portaloo was required before I could get into my run.  I had not felt bad on the bike, my performance was good, I was hydrated and well fed and had never suffered like this on a long race before.  I lost about ten minutes before I could begin my run.  I soon realised how hot it was, I had applied plenty of sun cream, a desert hat and was drinking bottled water as I ran.  My heart rate was elevated and I knew another visit to the portaloo was required as my gut was still cramping.  I continued to hydrate and kept my pace down to an easy run to lower my heart rate.  With the first 10k requiring four long portaloo stops I started to worry about dehydration as diarrhoea accelerates dehydration but fortunately I was not being sick so could still ingest fluids.  As the second lap progressed my gut stabilised and I could begin to run properly.  The run was the usual out and back ‘Ironman’ run, I saw Matt, Paul and Pete each lap.  I passed Paul first who shouted encouragement but looked to be heading for a good finish.  On lap three I came up behind Pete and ran with him for a while, then pushed on.  I also saw Matt who after a bit of a bad patch on the run was now flying towards the finish line while I still had a lap to do. 

As I started the last 10km I felt good, it was getting dark and I was still running a steady pace, passing dozens of athletes who had reduced to walking.  It was clear a good personal best was there to be had if I could continue my pace.  On the last lap Paul, Pete and I were running well with Matt already celebrating his second and fastest Ironman finish.  The knowledge we could all post personal bests gave a boost to the last miles producing strong finishes.  I had run the whole run course apart from the enforced loo stops and entering the finish shoot I ran with my wife and coach Teresa across the finish line recording 12hrs 28m a whole hour and 15m personal best.  Pete was next home in 12hr 37m beating his personal best set in South Africa earlier this year and Paul at 13hrs 12min more than an hour faster than his previous best. 

The organisers offered great support for athletes post race, food, drink, massage and medical if required.  Paul took advantage of a drip to help hydrate.  The team performance was so good we were able to celebrate with a late meal and a beer at a bar near the hotel while athletes continued to finish until midnight.  A fantastic performance from all the Born2Tri team and an excellent race to be part of.

My year’s training had brought me to this point, all built on a strong aerobic base.  I was able to maintain my pace through twelve and a half hours, executed the race plan and achieved a massive reduction in my personal best.  The gut issues are still not explained and cost me some time, others seemed to have suffered in the same way and there may have been a problem with water at a bike aid station, it’s not advised to drink the tap water inSpain.

I would certainly recommend this race to those wanting ‘long distance’ events, it’s well organised, a nice scenic traffic free course and plenty of reasonably priced accommodation near the start.  The flights can be picked up cheaply so I suspect the overall cost is not much more than aUKbased event.  Oh and of course you are not going to spend all day in the wind and rain………………

Mark