Updated: Jun 12
A journey of a first-time triathlete conquering a long-distance triathlon in nine months.
All long course triathlons (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run) are challenging, some more than others, but none are easy. Challenge Almere, in The Netherlands, after Kona, is the oldest triathlon in the World, with the event being staged entirely below sea level!
As this was Chris’ first long-distance (iron-distance) triathlon, we did not know his strengths at the time of entering. However, the date of Almere (early September) and it’s location to the UK (uncomplicated travel logistics) made the event appealing.
As you would expect from The Netherlands, it’s flat. The swim is flat (a very large lake), the bike is flat (apart from a little ramp onto and off the dike) and the run is flat (around the lake).
There is a reason why The Netherlands are synonymous with windmills, it’s a windy place and Almere is no exception, with prevailing winds straight off the North Sea.
The flat course and high likelihood of wind favours a more powerful triathlete. It’s also a course that requires great mental strength, with each of the two laps on the bike traversing a 23km straight and raised dyke, and the six-lap run passing the finish line on each lap. With the goal set we commenced training.
Let Training Commence
Chris was introduced to me by his friend Dan, who I’d coached the previous year to his first long-distance finish. We met a couple of times and we both agreed there was a great match between us and that the athlete-coach relationship would be successful.
We discussed what essential equipment and setup would be needed and Chris went off with a shopping list and a few weeks later everything had a arrived and a bike fit had been completed.
Broken Bike, Broken Bones!
Now I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but ‘they’ say that you never forget how to ride a bike. That might be the case, but ‘they’ have probably never ridden with cleats. This, along with an invite from friends to join them on his first ride, resulted in a call from Chris saying ‘I’ve broken the bike and I’ve broken my elbow’.
Well that’s it I thought, but no, Chris was even more determined to complete his goal. We agreed to cease training whilst both the bike and Chris got fixed and we recommenced training in the January.
We started in a cold wet carpark with lots of cones and a bike handling session. It was clear that Chris was nervous, but by the end of the hour, apart from us both being freezing, Chris was looking relaxed and had gained confidence. Solo riding was prescribed for the coming months, and some Zwifting!
We settled into a routine for the first month of around 4.5h of workouts spread across swim, bike, run and strength & conditioning, as part of the preparatory phase (getting ready to train). Just as we finished the first training block, Covid was contracted.
We took a cautious approach back to training, and once we were confident there were no lingering symptoms, we pushed on with the next block which culminated with field tests to set swim, bike and run training zones.
The next block focussed on swim technique, in Chris’ case slowing everything down, becoming more streamlined and building fitness. With the bike we started to focus on a combination of easy time in the saddle (Zone 2) and power development sessions. Running followed a similar pattern.
Progress was great, gradually building endurance fitness and raising threshold levels. Training was shaped around work trips, family holidays and social commitments. By May running distance was up to 18km and then a niggle was felt in the lower leg. After a few days of rest from running, a test run brought back the pain. We agreed that time was not on our side and that a visit to the physio was the right course of action.
The physio confirmed it was not an injury, but that a weeks rest from running and a cautious reintroduction would be the least risky option. This was Chris’ body’s way of saying ‘I need a break’.
We cut back the intensity and focussed on the bike and swim. Good timing as the lakes opened for the summer and we went down the local lake for Chris’ first lake swim. There's always a positive to make out of a negative situation.
Open Water Swimming
Once in his wetsuit, and after a safety briefing, we ventured into the cold late spring water. The only objective of this session was to gain confidence swimming in open water and cold-water familiarisation.
Once the wetsuit was doing its job and Chris’ breathing was normal, we completed a few short swims with plenty of rest and guidance.
Not being able to see the bottom and with no lines to follow, makes swimming in a straight line a challenge and something to be mastered. We practiced sighting and gradually a straighter course was being held.
The cold got the better of me so I exited the lake, but Chris decided to stay in for another lap and it was great to watch him swim that lap solo. Mission accomplished and lake swimming could be introduced to the plan. Almere was well and truly in reaching distance now.
With all the pieces in place, it was time to focus on building the fitness required to complete the distances of the event. Building for three weeks and then a recovery week was working well and long workout sessions across each discipline grew throughout the summer.
A family holiday, a sore back (possibly from a golfing day) and work continued to raise challenges to the plan, but nothing that could not be addressed.
After a morning of transition training and a few weeks of brick sessions it was soon time for Chris’ first ever triathlon, a test event at Castle Howard (Olympic distance). The goal was to finish it in one piece and to have enjoyed it. Thankfully both were achieved.
As the training distance increased we discussed fuelling, and started to firm up a nutrition strategy for Almere. Four weeks before the event was Chris’ biggest week with his longest run and ride, however illness struck and the weekend was spent in bed (I guess this is to be expected with a young family).
We amended the plan, added a recovery week and reduced tapering by one week and the following week Chris swam 3.5km, rode 168km and ran 25km. What an amazing achievement, especially when considering eight months ago he was not doing any of these activities.
The Final Countdown
With the end of the journey insight, all that was left to do was to gradually reduce fatigue, whilst not loosing fitness over a two-week taper period.
Travel plans changed, which now meant flying to Amsterdam. Thankfully a hotel was found in the centre of Almere, close to the transition and finish areas.
We practised dismantling and packing the bike into a flight box, not the easiest of things to do, and more importantly practiced how to rebuild the bike at the other end.
A checklist was created for kit to take, along with a pre-event action plan including booking a restaurant for a suitable carb loading meal the night before.
Registration complete, event briefing attended, transition bags packed, bike racked and then it was time to sleep.
The Big Day
The alarm went off early, it was still dark outside and the weather was wet and windy. Breakfast was eaten and then it was time to get ready. Spotlights lit up the transition area and athletes started to assemble, with the usual combination of nerves and excitement.
Before long it was light, albeit dull and damp. Wetsuit on, a walk to the water's edge, a final good luck hug from Chris’ wife and chief cheerleader and into the water. Wait for the start gun, watch ready to start, bang, start swimming.
As a coach you know how much this means to your athlete’s, the time and effort they put into achieving their dream and the trust they put in you to get them there. I think Chris slept better than I did the night before. Thankfully Chris’ wife is an excellent WhatsApp user and I waited for her updates throughout the day.
First message ‘he’s off’, second message ‘he’s out of the water’ (along with video proof!), followed by ‘he’s on his bike’, ‘he’s finished the bike’, ‘he’s running’, ‘now lap 4’, ‘we’re on lap 5’ (along with a video of them both running together). By this time I was an emotional wreck!!
I tuned into the live feed (as did the whole of Chris' family) and waited for Chris to cross the line. A distant shot from another camera picked him up with 50m to go. The video feed returned to the finish line and just as Chris came into view the feed then promptly switched away from the finish line. No! How could they that! But he still finished in 12h58m02s. We finished the day with a quick congratulatory chat and agreed to catch up on his return.
It was a great result and one that Chris is sure to better with a year of training under his belt and the confidence and experience he has gained. It was an amazing journey to be part of and a privilege to have shared it with Chris.