Guest Blog – Miia Amara

As promised to you all a few weeks ago, here is the guest blog from Miia Amara. For those who follow the blog, you may remember that Miia is the lady I have been coaching this season. She had agreed to write a final piece to this 3 part series and here it is!

If you didn’t catch the first two blogs, you can find Coaching Project Part 1 by clicking here. Part 2 is also available here. I have thoroughly enjoyed coaching Miia this season and it has been pleasing for me to trial my own coaching practices and adapt these to someone else. I’ve been asked by people in the past to help and have always been hesitant due to the time it takes. Coaching to this level requires time – time to analyse, time to plan, time to schedule, time to spend with your athlete. I was only going to do this with someone who was committed and wanting to achieve. Miia was certainly that, and I couldn’t have asked for a better student! Anyway, enough of me…enjoy her blog! It’s been one great first season and I’m looking forward to seeing what she achieves next year.

Hello all! I’m Miia and I want to share my experience and story of my debut season competing in triathlon this year. I do hope you enjoy reading my blog as much as I have enjoyed my first year racing and training.

I got into triathlon racing last summer, when my triathlete friend from Finland entered me into an Olympic distance relay.  As I have been running for a couple of years, I contributed to the running section of the race.  During the race and after observing the other competitors, I wondered how they managed do all three disciplines together, when I was struggling with just the running stage.

When I got back home, I supported my running friends in one of London’s Triathlon events and I was hooked!! The atmosphere alone got me. I decided there and then – next year I WILL BE HERE!

Soon after, I started to look for races for the following year.  After signing up to a few, I started to learn how to swim freestyle, which was new for me.  I actually looked at a few tutoring videos from YouTube, and bit-by-bit I learnt to swim freestyle. How well I was doing this was another question!

I knew Danny from our running club and his heavy involvement participating in triathlon.  He approached me and asked if I wanted to train for a triathlon.  Everything about triathlon was completely new to me. How would I ever swim in a wetsuit in open water?

We first met at the local swimming pool.  I showed him what I had learned and he worked with me teaching me the right technique with freestyle swimming.  This made a massive difference to what I thought was the correct form.  Over the months, I worked on my swimming and slowly improved. Not only did my technique improve, but also my speed. Soon after, I bought my very first road bike and I was ready to go.

Danny tested my swim, bike and run times first in December, and soon after that I was on a full training program that he had designed for me.  I had my first race in my sights for early May – a sprint distance over in Dorney.  Luckily, Danny had signed up himself for this one so he would be there to support me at the race.

When I started the training, it was completely different to what I had done before. It was pretty much two work outs daily four to five times a week around my work timetable. That sounds quite a lot, but actually it was very manageable.  It worked for me very well. After six weeks of training, he tested me again and I could already see how much I had improved. I very much liked the training program part.  My social life was getting shortened certainly, but I didn’t mind because the only thing in my mind was on those finish lines and medals from those races that I had signed up to. Triathlon can be a scary sport, with much to master, so being prepared and training well helps with any fears.

I had so many questions for Danny, especially in the beginning, but he always had an answer ready for me.  I learned how my body worked when it was fatigued and also how much rest was needed.  Plus – eating crap food made you feel crap!  Nutrition was so important. One thing I quickly realised was that there is a big difference between what training and exercise is. Training = structure and doing the correct workouts at the correct time. This is where the coaching part was so important and having someone to guide me through this process made life easy.

Learning about my heart rate zones and running in your prescribed zones was challenging.  It took me around two months to get use to it. You learn a lot about your body and what running feels like at an easy or racing pace.  This is important as looking at a watch all the time is not the most enjoyable thing! Patience is key though! Things do not happen over night.  Most Sundays when I was off from work, we started to ride outside. I was lucky because this seemed to be my strongest discipline. I could keep up with his pace and it pushed me to make improvements. We had many good rides up to 60 miles. Rainy Sundays we knocked on the head though and the stationary turbo that I bought on Danny’s recommendation came into its own. You can’t train effectively without one of these!

The first time going into open water was a bit scary for me.  I took open water training sessions as recommended by Danny.  I seemed to have a problem with dark water.  I don’t know where it came from.  I’m Finnish and I grew up next to lakes, but after a couple of times going into open water, the fear disappeared and I could swim normally.

When the first race in May came around I was nervous and excited at the same time.  Danny told me not to worry and that I was going to love it because I had put the work in through my training.  The swim went well and my overall time was quicker than I expected.   When I was on the bike, I truly enjoyed it and I knew that this was what I wanted to do.  The cycle part was faster than expected and my run was also very good, even managing to sprint in the end. I was happy for my achievement.  Now I could say that I am triathlete!

After the race and a couple of days rest I was back to training.  Training went smoothly until the Easter break until a small disaster struck! I went for a ride on my own, and had an ‘off’ from my bike. The accident was something so stupid which could have been avoided. I flew over my handlebars and landed on my shoulder and left side of my face. All because I was fiddling with my phone in its holder and grabbing my brake too hard!

I was lucky it was only bruising in my shoulder and a little crack on my cheekbone. I had to take a week off from training because my shoulder was so painful. Swimming and biking (especially outdoors) was extremely painfil. After a week, I started slowly again and it took for a while before I managed to train without pain. And eventually I was soon back to track workouts. I didn’t loose much fitness thankfully as I was following the plan fully from beginning and it gave a little enforced rest.

At the end off June I took on my first Olympic distance triathlon that I had been training for all spring.  I had a tapering week that Danny set for me and I felt so ready to race that I couldn’t wait for race day.  We went there together.  Danny’s wave was first.  It was the hottest day of the year +35c at midday when I started.  Even though it was hot and humid, I was sure I could manage.  My swim went well and I had a good bike leg. I was flying! But in the run the heat got me – I was knackered. Did I overcook the bike? I managed to the finish line and it was obvious that my run was slow. One thing I learnt though – heat affects performance so don’t be too hard on yourself.

I had another race at the end of July – The London Triathlon. I thought that this would be the one I will do a PB in.  My Training program finished at the end of June and I was on my own from then to this race.  I had the tools and workouts to do though to keep a good level of fitness.  I managed to organise my training off of those programs that Danny had planned for me.  

When the London Tri came around, the weather was not ideal. It was raining in the morning.  This was not what I wanted for race day, but the weather was a lot cooler.  By the start of my race, the rain had stopped and I was ready to go. My swim was a bit slower than in my last race, my bike was pretty much the same. The one thing I learned and took into this race was pacing better.  I managed to save energy for running and I ran faster than last time out. The cooler weather certainly helped. Overall I had PB’d by a couple minutes over 3 hours. My goal next year – sub 3 for sure!

I actually had two more races left for the season – one in Finland (Olympic distance) and The London Duathlon in Richmond.  I even changed that one from half to full distance.  Training wise, I trained less and was not as fit as earlier in the season. I have two children and they were off from school for their summer holidays. I couldn’t do my daily routines plus I started to feel mentally tired.  I finished both races, and I was happy with the timing.  Not the fastest ones but not far away.  Now I will take couple weeks rest then a couple months gym training – possibly Cross Fit for toning by body.

Before Christmas I can start to get ready for next year. I am in the ballot for the London marathon.  If I get in, that will be my first marathon – something to consider! I want to complete more endurance events and go longer, so it will be half iron man distance for me…. plus I will be in new age category turning 45 in march so hopefully I will manage to stay above 50% of the age category field. This I have managed to achieve in pretty much all my races that I completed in.  I will also take on a few shorter races but not as many as I had this year.  I didn’t mention that I did the amazing Dunamo Dunwitch (112 miles) night ride and 1500m dock to dock swim.  This on top of running PBs for half marathon and 10km in spring time. You see – a busy season! Danny says I raced too much…I have to agree!

I hope you have enjoyed my blog entry…what next season holds…let’s wait and see!

IRONMAN VICHY 70.3

Did I seriously complete a triathlon in that ridiculous heat?

Well yes…somehow I did. It was certainly the toughest triathlon I have completed, although it was by far the most beautiful.

I entered Vichy last year on the condition that it was fast and FLAT! Upon entering, a few weeks later I received an email to say that the bike and run course had been updated. What did that mean? One thing – hills! Hills to contend with on the bike course and a lumpy profile meaning a not so flat triathlon anymore. Nothing I could do about that, but to prepare and enjoy it.

Pre-Race

I arrived in Vichy on Thursday with my wife and daughter and stayed just on the outside of the city. To say we had a choice of where to stay would be a lie. If you enter this event, book your hotel at the same time. I wasn’t quite as organised for this one as normal and left it a few months after booking the race meaning I was stuck with our ‘Premiere Class’ hotel. Actually it was ok just a little compact. It was clean, had air-con, a nice restaurant across the road, but nothing you wanted to stay in more than two nights. Showering was an experience in a tiny bathroom!

Vichy is a lovely place. The river running through the city (where the swim took place) is stunning. The city is sport mad and you can see why IRONMAN have brought a half and full distance event here. How many small cities can boast white water rafting, horse racing and rowing as well as all the common sports in one place? Everywhere you look, you will see some sort of facility for sport. I would certainly recommend Vichy as a place to visit. We didn’t quite get to the main Centre-Ville in our time (apart from when I ran through it), but there are many things this place has to offer for the general tourist. We were also joined by my aunt and uncle, (Rosie and Tony) who were out supporting me but also enjoying a week away celebrating a birthday.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing, taking in the views and enjoying a meal in the evening.

On Friday morning, I visited the IRONMAN site to pick up my registration documents. A quick visit to the expo to buy a visor and I was back at the hotel before 10 o’clock. I wasn’t able to rack my bike until 2pm, but that gave me enough time to sort all my gear into the various bags IRONMAN give you. The beauty of this race is that it is one transition area, meaning there is no need to take your run and bike gear to different places – something I’m not very keen on! The bike was racked, bags given in and all I had to do now was prepare the head for my race. I don’t bother with the pasta party that IRONMAN lay on. I prefer to spend this time with my family, in which we went for a lovely meal.

Race Day

My day started at 3:30am! Yes that’s right! It was going to be a long day. My usual breakfast of porridge was not to be on this event. We forgot to take the instant oats I use, although as our hotel didn’t have a kettle, I wouldn’t have been able to use them anyway. It meant a visit to a supermarket the previous day to pick up some Weetabix, nut milk and bananas which were consumed about 4:00am. I had booked myself the shuttle bus that IRONMAN provide from various parts of the city to ferry athletes in. Luckily my pick up was just across the road at 4:30am. You do wonder why you do these events and the things you have got yourself into when you’re sitting there at some stupid time in the morning.

I arrived at the event site just before 5am and set up the last few bits and pieces to my bike. Transition looks totally different at that time and it is so important to run through where your bike is. There are thousands of the things and finding it in the height of the race would be difficult. So I mentally made my mind map and noted the row and how many racks deep from both ends. I walked it a few times also to be sure.

Swim

There isn’t an awful lot to say about this. A very consistent swim as usual which resulted in 35mins for the 1.9km (1.2 miles). The course was easy to navigate as it was a straight out and back down the river. I thought I may notice the current on the way back, but I think it is so small that it didn’t feel any different. I suppose the only real thing to say here is that the Vichy swim is usually non wetsuit. The water is always too warm, however on race morning that temperature was just below the legal limit at 21.4c, meaning wetsuits were allowed. I chose to swim in it especially for this distance and the one thing I like about IRONMAN swims are the staggered swim starts. It isn’t a mass free-for-all meaning they set you off every 8 secs in groups of 8 or so. This means a lot more room to swim freely. It really was an uneventful swim. The sighting was easy and at the turn point heading back you swam with a little mist over the water. This made sighting the buoys a little more difficult but you just had to follow everyone else.

Once I exited the water, it was straight into transition to collect my bike gear bag and get everything I needed for the bike leg. All the swim equipment goes into this bag and it is given to a marshall to put back for you. You then run back into the the bike area to collect your bike and head for the bike exit.

Bike

My road bike with added race wheels!

So my trusted steed was my road bike for this leg. I opted for this over the tri-bike for a little more comfort and to climb a little better. The gearing is slightly bigger on the tri-bike as well, but there were so many other fast looking bikes around, I started to doubt myself and wondered whether I had made the right choice. All would be revealed!

The bike course was tough to say the least. I knew it would be. The profile and feet climbed showed that – over 3,400ft!

Just shy of 3,500ft of climbing!

Was the road bike a good choice? Well yes and no is the answer to that. I decided to sacrifice speed on the flats and descents for comfort. I also knew I wasn’t in the same shape I was 7 weeks ago and therefore pushing that tri-bike up a climb would be a slog! If I attempted this again, AND I was in good shape, I think I would give the tri-bike an outing. It would mean a little more training on hills with it, but there were lots of areas on the course where time was lost. Before the bike leg I had set myself a rough target of about 3hr 30mins. I wasn’t that far off!

The descents were lovely although quite technical in places. Out of 10, the road surface was a 8 for me. I think when you ride at home and compare to the roads in France, there is no comparison. The French look after their roads a lot better than us. It is really nice to do a triathlon and not have to worry about the condition of the roads. You can be confident that the descents are not going to throw up some horrible surface and possibly send you hurtling into a bush or off the side of a cliff! I did see a few accidents however. These were from the crazy few wanting to eek out a few more miles and then overcooking the corners. It’s just not worth the risk in my opinion and then ruining your whole race. I was also really surprised to see the judges marshalling the drafting on course. There were lots of whistles going off and people being warned. I saw one given a penalty.

The crowds were the best I have seen on a triathlon bike leg. The French supported us well! Lots of shouts of ‘Allez Allez!!’ The feed stations were well stocked and organised. I followed my nutrition plan mainly although I certainly undercooked it. Halfway through the leg I felt hungry. Not usual for me, but I think the climbing was certainly burning more calories so I decided to take on a full banana and rather than eat one piece of my food, take on two and quash the hunger. I also had 4 gels throughout. Overall I think this worked and I was pleased how I managed my nutrition on the bike. I also took an extra salt tablet (3 in total) as well as nearly two litres of fluid – also with salt hydration mix. The heat didn’t affect me on the bike; you get the breeze and the cycling is mostly shaded especially in the pine forests in the hills.

When I got back to Vichy I really started to notice the heat. Again, we headed into transition to rack the bike and then collect the run gear bag. Overall I felt ok, although only time would tell to see how that bike leg affected my legs.

Run

So off I went into the crazy 34c heat. The crowds were great along the run course, particularly at the start and Ironman finish areas. It was also great to finally see some familiar faces and get the shouts from my family. As soon as I started running I knew this was going to be tough.

I set off at 5:40km pace and thought that was quite achievable throughout. I managed to get into a rhythm and the first 6km flew by. I got to the 8k mark and then felt my first ‘oh this is getting hard’ feeling. IRONMAN runs at the end are tough physically. I mean you are running on an already fatigued body, but mentally they are something else. They are meant to be tough. IRONMAN isn’t named IRONMAN for nothing! It was at the 11km part that things got really tough and I hit the wall. ‘One foot in front of the other, keep tapping it out’ I told myself. One thing I know about myself is that I can suffer and I’m strong mentally when it comes to these situations.

I managed to get to the feed station and for the first time I did something I have never done before. I took on coke. Yes coke. And do you know what? It was a life saver! Water and coke and I don’t know what it did but it revived me. My strategy was simple. Run to every feed station, walk through it and take on water and coke. There were people with hoses at every station and getting drenched was part of my tactic of staying cool.

The KMs ticked by (slowly) and that finish line was becoming closer. The fishing chute is always an experience and there is no other like it when it comes to Ironman. The razzmatazz is just great.

I had made it! I was pleased it was over at the end. By far the hardest race (triathlon) I have completed. I saved the best to last this season and it truly was a great experience. IRONMAN Vichy is a great event and I would certainly recommend it to anyone. You can see why this is one of the best races in the world.

After finishing I went into the meal area. If there is one criticism of this race, it is the food that IRONMAN lay on afterwards. It is horrible. Cold spongy pizza, defrosted quiche that is soggy in the middle, doughnuts and all sorts of strange foods. You can appreciate the quality of food at events like the Outlaw when you experience IRONMAN food. I quickly got my gear bags and bike and made my way to meet my family. We spent some time taking some photos after and then making our way back to our car.

A finish time of 6hrs 22mins and 34secs. No way near a best time for me, but on that course I will take that. There were some seriously good athletes here and I would hope to return one day and try this course again. The problem is that it is just the wrong time of year what with my summer holidays, training and eating consistently.

And that concludes my season! 6 races in total including two half irons. I will write a concluding season post looking back over it, but I know I can confidently say it has been a success.

I want to say a big thank you to my wife and daughter for their support and also Rosie and Tony for supporting also. For them, they get to spend the rest of the week in Vichy and we head back for our last week in France in our property.

IRONMAN Vichy – You’ve been a blast!