Racing in the heat

Racing in the heat

Racing in the heat

What a fantastic summer, temperatures in the 70’s, blue skies normally only seen in holiday adverts, Wes getting mugged off in  Love Island and England on their way to winning the World Cup!!  All good, except maybe for those racing Ironman UK. For them the usual anxiety of how many layers to wear, which disposable gillet will keep them dry on the bike and will Sheep House lane be slippy, have been replaced with: will the moors above Rivington still be ablaze, will blue green algae plague Pennington Flash and will wetsuits be banned?  Unfortunately all of these issues are out of our hands The old adage of control the controllables springs to mind!  For IM UK one controllable which competitors can have an effect on is how to adapt race day strategy to cope with unexpected forcasted the heat.
During my career I was fortunate to race in some  hot places including Australia, Texas, Vegas, Lanzarote and Mexico. It is the latter which taught me the most about how to race well in the heat and also how to turn disappointment and failure into success.

2010
For a number of years Mexico 70.3 was held at the resort of Cancun. This was a race which I had targeted to qualify for the World Championships. The non wet suit swim, flat bike and run suited me. I knew that to win my age group I would need a 30 min swim, 2hr 20 bike and around a 1:30 half marathon. All achievable.
Race day arrived and as expected the temperature was in the 90’s with humidity of 85%. The swim went well, I managed to find some toes to tickle and came out the water under 30 minutes. The bike was uneventful (except for a 5 minute tropical torrential downpour which was surreally welcomed with a massive cheer). Onto the run and I felt good for the first couple of kilometres and had moved into first place. Already I was deciding what to wear when I went to collect my trophy at the award ceremony!
After the 10k mark my pace slowed considerably and getting to the finish line was my only thought.
By the end of the race I had slipped into third place. Having already decided that If I didn’t qualify automatically I wouldn’t accept a roll down place but would learn the lessons and return triumphant the following year
So over the next 12 months I thought long and hard how I could defeat the heat and win that coveted age group slot. The following are some of the changes that I put in place for 2011. 

Clothing Choice:
In 2010 my main concern for race kit had been how good it would look rather than how good it would perform in the heat. I made the following changes:

  • White arm coolers: These provided, not only protection from the harmful suns rays but also maintained moisture longer than skin. So during the race I made sure that I soaked them with water at every aid station. 
  • Hat: In 2010 I had worn a visor based on articles which suggested that this would keep my head cooler, however upon reflection I changed to a full running cap designed for summer. The advantage was that it kept the sun off my head and more importantly when I soaked the hat with cold water my head stayed cooler longer. (previously in hot races I have used the type of hat made famous by the Foreign Legion with a flap over the neck)
  • Tri suit: I Swapped my two piece for a one piece. The previous year when I tipped ice down the front of the two piece the ice simply fell out, with a one piece the ice stayed in place and melted slowest keeping my torso cooler for longer.

Race Strategy

  • Run the shade: the Cancun run course was much like Bolton with long straight roads offering very little shade, however where there was shade I made sure that I ran under it even if it meant running slightly longer than the more obvious route.
  • Walk the aid stations: no matter how good I felt: By following this rule I ensured that I took the time to rehydrate and take the opportunity to cool down properly.  At some point most people will walk during such a hot run. By choosing to walk the aid stations I was in control of when I walked.  I considered the aid stations a treat making an effort to build rapport with the volunteers. They in turn would remember me and give me that extra bit of encouragement when it got tough.
  • Race my own race: previously I often became concerned with what other athletes were doing often engaging in races within races. In the heat this can really destroy you, changes in pace use up energy when your body needs to work on cooling you down.
  • Its not over till its over: Particularly relevant when the elements are harsh, anything can happen as I was to find out. 

2011 Same race different result
For the swim and bike it was a case of Déjà vu. Coming into the second transition I was aware that the winner of the 2010 race was in my lead group. We headed out onto the run virtually side by side.  For the next 20k we played a game of cat and mouse, whilst I walked the aid stations and carried out my race strategy he ran straight through, pausing only briefly to grab a cup of water. I would then proceed to catch him up until the next aid station where he again would move ahead. I had to resit the temptation to abandon my strategy and get involved in his race rather than my own.  After the final aid station I couldn’t see him, he had moved too far ahead. I would have to settle with second.  Crossing the line I felt the usual relief that the pain was over and a familiar feeling of disappointment. As I sat cooling down in what can only be described as a large water butt I was approached by a race official who congratulated me on winning my age group and finishing 12th place overall. Confused I asked him if he was sure as I was certain I finished second. He assured me he was correct.

Later that day a familiar looking guy came over to me in my hotel and he told me his story and how I came to cross the finish line before him to claim first place. His name was Todd ( or something typically American) and he was from Florida, so was very used to racing and training in the heat and felt no fear for the conditions. During the race he had been aware that I was walking the aid stations and therefor he made a conscious decision to push hard at that point often missing water and the opportunity to cool down. All was going well and he could remember getting to the 800m to go sign.  The next memory he had was being on the floor surrounded by medics watching me run past to cross the finish line. 800m was the difference between glory and spending the afternoon on a drip!

Looking back this is probably the race that I am most proud of, not particularly because I ended up higher on the result sheet then the previous year, but more for the fact that I had learned the lesson that racing smart meant racing faster.