triathlon bike

S4F Tri Squad – 2015 Season’s Review

First a quick recap of how it all started:

After 26 years of amateur racing at a fairly high level and coaching in the life changing sport of Triathlon, I decided to transition out of my life as a qualified accountant and start a Triathlon Squad. Why, Why Why and “you’re too old for a mid-life crisis!!”were the cries I heard all around me. Simple answer – it’s a passion and I thought lets try to follow my passion and see what adventure awaits. Hopefully it will see me to my retirement age and beyond if not it will be a great adventure while it lasts.

Ok that explains dropping out of the “exciting(!)”world of Accountancy but why start a Triathlon squad? I believe Triathlon is a life-changer and not just a sport. It will fascinate, excite, and satisfy that life ”itch you can’t scratch”like nothing else. Having come from a background of zero sport once I discovered Triathlon it kept me hooked and I eventually achieved performances I never dreamed possible. I can’t exaggerate enough how impossible a sub-3 hour marathon would have seemed to my student or adolescent self; I still remember the feeling of “how did you do that”when I hit the finish line of the London Marathon with the clock saying 2:55. It wasn’t the time that made it so magical it was the years of training and adventure that went into that performance and how far I had come that still amazes me today. I feel the same way about my 2:08 Olympic Tri PB and numerous other achievements. So if my Triathlon Squad can pass that feeling on to at least one other person then it would have achieved my dream and my goal for it.

Our first year as a Squad has turned out to be every bit of the amazing adventure I had hoped it to be with lots of fantastic achievements and shared memories to last a life time.

We have been very fortunate to work with some amazing sponsors and none of our adventures and achievements would have been possible without them, so big thanks to the following awesome companies:

Social Starts

We started the year getting down to “serious business”with a couple of great social events around Christmas 2014 so that everyone could meet each other and it set us up perfectly for a tough year of training and racing.

Spring Bike Camp

Our first Training Camp was a weekend of road cycling in the glorious mountains of South Wales in April 2015. We were lucky that summer made a surprise appearance with glorious sunshine all over the weekend. For some members of the Squad about to start on their first season in Triathlon it was a baptism of fire with some very challenging mountains to contend with. I was well aware that it may have felt like a challenge too far for some, but in my opinion that’s what a training camp is supposed to do; test our limits and expose them for what they are – self-imposed limits of our own creation that we can all free ourselves of given the right supportive environment and a group of fellow squad members there to help each other explore those limits together. Everyone had a great time and the squad vibe was starting to come together just as I had hoped. My fondest memory involves our awesome Squad Member, Eugene Doherty.  When I was racing and training hard I would often think how tough it was trying to cope with a young family and a demanding job while training for Triathlon. But I now know that was a walk in the park compared with the challenges Eugene has to overcome each day as a Type 1 Diabetic. Our last day on the Camp involved climbing the highest tarmac road in Wales – Gospel Pass. An hour into the ride it became obvious Eugene was struggling to hold the pace of the group; everyone was happy to slowdown but with the temperature being pretty low, going too slow meant others in the group getting dangerously cold. As I had taken a break from racing I had built up some useful Coach’s blubber so I sent the Squad on and I dropped back to help pace Eugene to our scheduled lunch stop. I encouraged him to take on board some fuel and we rode together letting the rest of the Squad ride off into the distance. Eugene offered(?) to stop a few times and said he was completely done but I kept him pedaling just long enough for his energy to start returning and gradually our speed picked up. Before we knew it we could make out the Squad just ahead of us and inch by inch we clawed our way back to them. For the rest of the ride Eugene had found some new energy and was able to stay with the rest of the Squad for what turned out to be the best ride of the weekend – it seemed a miraculous turn around. I’m sure that ride will be a useful reference point for Eugene in future races and challenges.

National Sprint Championships

Our first squad race was at the National Sprint Championships; well you may as well jump right in at the deep end! I was very proud of everyone’s performances. It was a tough place to open the season’s racing as the competition was the best in the Country, and the May date made for a very chilly swim. A few squad members had major problems in the swim and so times were slow but everyone persevered and finished.

We did have an outstanding performance from Allie Park who with a build up of only Ironman specific training managed a super 10th in her age group against the Country’s best Sprint specialists. It was a calculated risk starting our season at such a tough race and I expected us to get hauled through the mangler but I think I know my Squad very well and my plan was to present them with a massive challenge from the start which in the short term might damage a few egos but in the long term would quickly and effectively start turning them into focused Triathlete RACERS. Would that work or would it leave people in pieces and a desire to quite?

French Alps Bike Camp

We then moved onto our Training Camp in the French Alps, which for me was probably the highlight of the season. It was a small group of 6 and we managed to climb a number of epic Tour de France Cols including: Mont Ventoux, l’Alpe d’Huez, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Glandon, Col d’Ornon and a few others. We were mainly based at the foot of Alpe d’Huez in amazing accommodation provided by More Than 21 Bends (highly recommended) and the social vibe and group meals (boy did we eat and drink a lot!) was fantastic. Each day would consist of a tough day of cycling followed by an awesome group meal. Our most memorable day was our longest day in the saddle – over 8 hours. We started with the 30km climb of the Col de la Croix der Fer my favourite alpine climb of all. I had explained to the Squad that it was a really long climb with a couple of heartbreaking descents and it felt like you were cycling into an Alpine wilderness with no hope of rescue if things went wrong. After climbing to the top and stopping for a sandwich and coffee we backtracked a little and went over the top of the Col du Glandon and descended to our next climb. We were going to tackle the Lacets de Montvernier, which were about to feature in the Tour de France for the first time. As we approached the first ramp up we saw a “Road Closed”sign; there were a couple of whispers of shall we turn back and “what do we do now”but in the spirit of my approach to racing and setting up the Squad I said “let’s give it a try and see what happens”. We climbed up the amazing switchbacks until two thirds up we encountered a team of French road builders blocking up the whole road with lorries and all manner of vehicles – would they send us all the way back down? In France cyclists get quite a bit more respect and they all shifted out of our way and in a friendly manner urged us to continue up weaving through narrow gaps of lorries and patches of wet tar.

When we reached the top we stopped for a drink at a village water fountain; the temperature had climbed above 35c by this time, we had been cycling for 5 hours in extreme heat and we still had a 10km descent, a 30 km ascent up one of the toughest Tour climbs and then a 40 km descent still to go to get home! I sensed a little bit of fear and trepidation in the group as it dawned on everyone how far we still had to go. This was the first alarm bell that starting ringing in our heads that we may have bitten off more than we can chew.

As we started up the ascent of the Col de La Croix de Fer (a climb described by Simon Warren in his 100 Greatest Tour Climbs as a “climb he wouldn’t wish on anyone”) the second alarm bell went off. We cycled past a group of Aussie cyclists who had obviously just descended the opposite way and were packing up their bikes into vans and enjoying an end of ride cold drink and some food. The sky in the distant horizon looked absolutely black (could there be rain ahead!!) and as we passed one of the Aussies shouted out ‘don’t worry its only looking bad………….where you are heading ha, ha, ha”. His Dark Aussie humour created a mini panic in my mind had I led our group into a disaster, was my insurance adequate for losing a group of cyclists in the French wilderness and would we ever make it back home and more importantly was there room in those Aussie vans for our group?

So we cycled on!

We climbed and we climbed and we descended and we climbed and we climbed still in extreme heat but with the threatening black sky ahead of us. Before the final set of switchbacks we stopped for some pizza, chips and coffee and as we sat under a baking sun we started to feel the taste of home – just 60 minutes of climbing to go and then a 40km descent to go.

The final set of switchbacks are pretty demoralising the view is pretty limited, the roads deserted and steep. As we neared the summit we felt a few drops of rain and as we crossed the summit we were greeted with that black sky, light rain and flashes of lightening. A quick stop to don our rain jackets and we were off. As we descended it started to rain and then rain harder and then it was torrential and just as I thought “well at least it can’t rain any harder than this”- it did!

The first 15kms of descending involved riding down roads that had become rivers, a lot of shivering and worry. We were in the wilderness if something happened now we would be in trouble. We picked up a couple of other crazy riders and we all descended together with Allie at the front doing a great job of guiding us down safely. Descending in torrential rain under black skies meant we got very, very cold very quickly to the point where it was a struggle to focus on controlling our bikes. Luckily just as we got as cold as we could we hit the short 1 km climb which punctuates the long descent. It was time to ride up hard to warm up before starting the last 10km of descending. As we started descending again we saw a glimmer of lighter skies and a few sun rays ahead in the valley we were heading to; the feeling of fear started to subside and a feeling of joy and achievement started to take hold instead.

We reached the bottom and in front of the most impressive reservoir and dam we had a big group hug to celebrate the fact that we had made it! It was a joyous feeling – we had reached a point in our minds that felt like we had pushed our luck way too far, a point from which we couldn’t manage to get back, but somehow we had stuck together supported each other and made it back. What seemed to have been our limit prior to the ride had been pushed far back ready for us to test again on a future adventure. At some point we would reach that same feeling in a race and the memory of today’s ride should give everyone the ability to keep going and break through that limit.

That ride will live in our memory banks for a long, long time.

The end of our camp finished with a stay in Nice and a day of riding the iconic Ironman France bike route. Pretty much every Triathlon great has cycled over those same roads: Mark Allen, Mike Pigg, Dave Scott, Simon Lessing, and Paula Newby Frazer.

Squad member Michael joined us for this part of the camp and Ross and Gerry flew back home. The Ironman France bike route is very tough with a real Mountain climb to conquer. It would be the longest ride Michael had ever attempted so it was another day of conquering self-imposed limits and although the ride pushed him further than he thought he could handle, the next day he was contemplating that perhaps one day an Ironman would be possible – another self-imposed limit successfully crushed!

Hertfordshire Club Championships

With an action packed summer we were fortunate enough to be able to field a strong team at the Hertfordshire Olympic Distance Club Championships. The Hertfordshire Club Championships were a brilliant new event organised by James Shipley at Active Training World; it’s great for my Squad to be able to support new local events like this. We had entered the Sprint champs earlier in the Summer and had come 5th which was great and my honest assessment was that we would have just as much fun as before and manage a similar placing. We did have a great team there but we were missing 2 Squad members that would probably have made for an even stronger team. Everyone raced brilliantly and we had 2 age group winners thanks to amazing performance by Allie Park and Tijl who blitzed the bike course to earn the fastest bike split in the whole field!

As the announcement for the first 3 teams was about to be made, we weren’t really listening as no one imagined this would be of any relevance for us. Everyone in the Squad was chatting and reflecting on how much fun they had and getting support from other Squad Members during the race made it even more special.  No one was really listening to the place announcements when suddenly we heard in “3rd place S4F Triathlon Squad”. I was so shocked I didn’t quite know what to do so I wandered up to the announcer to shake his hand; he looked a little embarrassed for me and said well done but there’s no prizes for third and second only for 1st so you didn’t need to come up. I just laughed and said we are so happy to have come 3rd that I want to come up and shake someone’s hand anyway; which we did to lots of laughter. Prize or no prize being announced as the 3rd team with 2 large and longstanding clubs above us was a real cause for celebration and I had no problem with embarrassing myself.

After less than a year together as a Squad this was a major achievement and the seed of “wait until next year”started germinating in my mind.

Many of the Squad members had their own races and goals to aim for throughout the season and a few of the other notable mentions include:

  • Gerry Frewin for an outstanding performance at the tough Alpe d’Huez Triathlon. It was his first season back at focused training after a number of years away from Triathlon. I know 100% that we haven’t seen anything like the real Gerry yet, so next season looks really exciting.
  • Michael Gallucci for an amazing PB at Ironman 70.3 St Polten. It’s not that long ago that Michael was a complete beginner and the improvement he has made is pretty spectacular in such a short space of time.
  • Mark Crowne for putting all the pieces together when it mattered most to race superbly at the Herts Club Champs. It was his first season of racing Triathlons and although he is a good pool swimmer he had major problems at his races all through the Summer in the open water so it was great to see him put all the pieces together at last. With that hurdle crossed next year should be pretty spectacular.
  • Kate Couchman started with the Squad then took a break from it and I’m really glad she found her way back to us. She has set some bold goals including to one day complete the Comrades Marathon, one of the most iconic and toughest running events in the world. As a beginner to endurance sport it’s a real reflection of her strength of character to set such challenging goals. I have no doubt she will achieve her goals.
  • Cameron, our Youth Squad member for being brave enough to tackle the best Triathletes in his age group at the National Duathlon Championships when he wasn’t really ready for it and having a really tough day there. He bounced back to race superbly and place in the top 10 in all his other races and should be even better next year
  • Ross Armstrong found a real talent and lovefor climbing in the French alps. His cycling knowledge was also second to none and he thrashed everyone in our Tour de France fantasy league.

As the season ends and the Squad starts planning its adventures for next season it’s really pleasing and exciting to welcome a number of new Squad members including:

  • Ali (Alice) Travers
  • Pippa Stacy
  • Lucy Guest
  • Sarah Burton
  • Darren Simpson
  • Tijl Uijtenhaak
  • Debbie Smith

Each starts from a very different place with different goals but each adds their own unique set of strengths to the Squad. I am sure I will be writing about some fantastic performances and achievements for each of them over the coming season.

Bring on 2016, I can’t wait.

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