By Katie McDonald
Outlaw Half Holkham: My Plan B
After completing just two sprint races, both in 2019, that November I signed up for Ironman Staffs 70.3. Scheduled for June 2020, it was postponed twice due to Covid; as time went on, I started getting a bit bored of talking about ‘Staffs’! So, a Plan B was proposed- Outlaw Half Holkham. Knowing my friends, coaches, and fellow club mates were going to be there, it was a perfect stand-in as my first middle distance tri.
Trust in the training- that’s what I’d read. This became my mantra as the anticipation and anxiety began to build on Saturday. We racked our bikes that afternoon, adding some rain protection to our rear wheels and derailleurs in the form of black bin liners. Once back at base camp, we attached race stickers, prepped drink bottles and packed our bags ready for a very early start on Sunday. Somehow, I managed a very solid 5 hours of sleep before the 3am alarm.
On arrival at the venue, after a quick pep talk from Coach Adam, and an exchange of hugs and “good luck” with Sarah (both of whom were also racing), I was suddenly on my own. I had plenty of time to kill (too much time), so I simply drank it all in; the people, the venue, the bikes, the music, the nerves…..it was electric. Happy with my transition set-up, and suddenly with only 10 minutes before my start time, I zipped up my wetsuit, popped an Imodium (I’d heard good things!) and made my way over to the swim start. I’d got chatting to a girl in the holding pen, and we ended up side by side facing the lake. “Go!”, I heard, so I did! An enthusiastic running dive into the lake, and I’d started my race.
Very quickly, anxiety was replaced with disgust…..the lake stank! I was not expecting that! A welcome distraction, however, from the stretch of water and swimmers and racing that lay ahead.
My target was sub-40 minutes in the water. Incredibly, I found a pair of feet with a rhythm that matched mine, so for the first time ever I swam on someone’s toes. What a feeling! I spent the next 30 minutes on various different pairs of feet, before finally going the last smelly stretch unaided, grabbing clumps of reeds and focussing on not drinking that ghastly water.
In no time at all, I was at the pontoon. Pulling myself onto semi-solid ground, I lurched into a jelly-legged run to transition, doing my best to look every bit the expert as I unzipped and pulled off the top of my wetsuit (Bodyglide around my wrists- worked a treat!). A wave of nausea hit me as I sprinted along the slight incline before descending down towards my bike. Whether it was caused by the stench of the water or the enthusiastic running, thankfully the nausea was short-lived.
‘Helmet first, helmet first, helmet first’ I kept repeating in my head. I couldn’t bear the thought of a penalty for getting that wrong. So I wrenched my ponytail out of the way and popped my helmet on before doing anything else- I think I still had my wetsuit on! Socks, shoes, race belt, Wahoo, sunglasses, nutrition…then go! As I ran down the grassy hill towards the bike start, I considered all the bikes that were still racked next to mine, and the fact all the riders had started their swim within seconds of me…..I guess I’d swum well!
Focussing on not falling over, I scrambled onto my bike (prepped in a low gear- genius!), and began the gentle climb out of Holkham Estate. It was a slow start, but looking ahead I could see everyone was looking the same. Guided by the marshals, I was suddenly on tarmac and heading west along a coastal road. Knowing I was riding into a head wind for the first half of the ride, I had already decided not to fight against it. My power meter and heart rate would dictate my pace, then I could look forward to the second half with a tailwind.
There were a mixture of bikes on the course- TT, road, and road with TT bars. Having discovered late that it was an undulating course with few, if any, big climbs, I was very pleased to be on my aero road bike. She’s comfortable, she’s fast, and she descends like a dream, all of which I made the most of.
The first familiar face was about 40 minutes in- a runner on the other side of the road looked straight at me…it was Dan! Not racing, but supporting. Spotting each other simultaneously, we roared our recognition, each throwing a fist in the air, and he sent me off with a buzz of adrenaline and a big smile on my face. About 30 minutes later, Matt Buttery came whizzing past in a very neat aero position. “Go OxfordTri” was our exchange. I so love wearing and seeing our club kit, especially in a race. It helped the Thorndyke support crew recognise me too, so another supportive cheer came my way a while later into the ride.
I started to suffer from back ache after about 90minutes, which told me I’d lost form in all the excitement. For the rest of the ride I just focussed on relaxing my back and engaging those glutes- one of the best pieces of advice delivered by Coach Charlotte; simple, but effective! My powermeter failed me, again, so it was now all about the heart rate. I was overtaken by a female rider bearing TRISudbury kit. She was on a road bike and looked a similar age to me, and seemed comfortable on her drops. A short while later, I passed her slowly on a gentle climb. “Well done Katie!”, I heard as I passed- do I know her? I glanced back in confusion, which she must have noticed because she followed up with “I don’t know you but you’re riding really well!”. It was such a boost, especially coming from someone who I’d clocked minutes earlier and who I thought looked like she knew what she was doing! We passed each other twice more, smiling and exchanging encouragement. Her name was Jessie, and her open-backed tri suit was very cool (just saying, Chris Hickman).
Conscious of my fluid and fuel consumption, I spaced out my gels and bottles far better than in practice (I’m useless at eating and drinking on the move). As I neared the 90km mark, I was feeling strong in spite of the back ache…..which had now evolved into arm ache and shoulder ache and butt ache. Not one to complain (cough cough), I focussed on maintaining my average speed. It was going so well until the last 3 or 4km, where I was met with the most horrific road surface, gentle incline and beastly headwind. It was like riding on wet sand, and my pace was pitiful. My legs suddenly felt empty and my heart sank. So I just sat there and maintained a consistent cadence without grinding away at the pedals. Up ahead, everyone was struggling, and I wasn’t being overtaken, so at least it wasn’t just me.
Finally, a scenic descent back towards transition. A sporadic line of cones separated the downhill cyclists from the uphill runners, making it a hair-raising sprint finish. Overtaking was virtually impossible without taking out a cone, a runner, or myself, so I just coasted down the hill and enjoyed the speed. A flash of blue caught my eye- Sarah running towards me. I screamed and cheered and noted her position on the course; definitely wouldn’t be catching her! The crowd became more dense as I neared transition, so I was able to soak in the excitement. It felt soooo good to get off the bike, and my back eased immediately. I charged up the grass bank towards my space in transition, swiftly swapped footwear, grabbed my gels and my peak, and fixed my hair up as I ran through ‘Run Out’. Finally, I was on the run.
A group of lads cheered my name near the start, and I found myself raising a fist and bearing my teeth in response (don’t ask!). They mirrored this and we all laughed! That was to be the last laugh of this leg of the race….
Warned of the hill early in the run, I found a rhythm and just kept moving forward. It was immediately apparent that my target pace, or any kind of PB, was out of the question; this was going to be a hard run! With over 260m of climbing, I was grateful for all the training runs around Shotover. I grabbed a cup of water at every other aid station, spilling most of it, sipping some of it, and chucking the rest directly onto my face. I felt hot and parched, so the cold water provided momentary relief.
As I completed the first lap, I was met with the most almighty scream of “There she is! There’s Auntie Katie!” somewhere to my left. It was Charlotte, Adam and Rosen Sue! A wave of emotion as my best friend, my coaches, spurred me onward with their excitement and a high five as I passed. Yes, I cried a bit, but that’s to be expected.
The surface was changeable- hard, gravel, dirt, tarmac. I learned to love the gravelly bits as this was a sign of downhill ahead. Half way around lap 2 of 3, I was aware of a guy who seemed to have kept pace with me for the last few kilometres. Assuming it was a coincidence, I asked him how many laps he had left. I learned we were both half way through the run, then he admitted to using me as a pacer. I was flattered! We were both hoping for the same overall time, and he congratulated me for seemingly being bang on target, or possibly under it (I’d started the swim 10minutes after him). I had no idea of the time of day, so I took his word on that. He took a planned break at the end of lap 2, so we bid farewell and lots of luck, and on I went.
Lap 3. The make or break lap, as I later found out. Glancing at my watch, I knew my average pace was slowly slipping. Having already given up on any target time, I just wanted to do my absolute best. I continued to conserve energy on the torturous climbs and make the most of the gentle descents. My feet hurt. My legs hurt. My arms hurt. Deciding I owed it to myself, I slowed to a walk at one of the aid stations, positioned approximately half way around the lap. This was only to take on water, because it had become rather apparent that I’m just no good at drinking on the move. Three or four refreshing gulps, a splash over my face, and off I went again. All my energy went into keeping some sort of running form, and landing one foot in front of the other. For the first time in the whole race, I felt the need for a Portaloo (just a number one, thanks to that Imodium). As I wasn’t desperate, I decided it could wait. Only 20minutes to go, I told myself. Just 20minutes and then it’s all over. Months of training has led to this day, so whatever you do, leave everything out there. I fought the urge to walk, stop, stretch. The mental strength, I realised, is what the training really prepares you for. Thos grim runs and rides that you just didn’t enjoy. It’s those sessions that count in moments like this.
So I just kept going. Now only 10minutes to go. I pictured the finish line, and being able to stop, sit, eat, drink, wee! I hit the last short stretch of tarmac and couldn’t believe I was here. The crowd was loud now. I heard “Go Katie!” as I passed spectators who had already chanted my name on the two previous laps. Strangers who were now familiar. Then one very familiar face, screaming the instruction “Take Peppa! Take Peppa!”. I grabbed Peppa Pig from Charlotte and continued towards that glorious orange carpet.
As I finally rounded the barriers I’d run past twice before, Dan bellowed at me to enjoy it, to soak it in. Terrified of tripping, I found myself exaggerating my stride to avoid catching my foot on the carpet (honestly, the things that go through your mind!). The orange carpet experience passed in a blur of emotion and exhaustion. I raised my arms as high as they would allow, Peppa clutched in my right hand, and I was across the line.
After a swim that went better than expected, a bike ride bang on target, and one of the hardest runs of my life, I crossed the line with over 10 minutes of my target time to spare.
I was an Outlaw.