Elaine Garvican: When is a race not a race?

In my book, pretty much never. If I pin on a number, I want to perform as well as I can on that day, with whatever fitness I have. Personally, I don’t see much point in a “training race” where I purposely hold back. That’s not to say there isn’t a benefit for some people – but I think when you reach a certain level of experience, you don’t necessarily need a race in order to test nutrition, or equipment. I can do those things in training, or in a sportif if the requirement is for a longer ride. For me, a race provides things a training session does not; competition and a level of intensity it is extremely difficult to replicate on your own. Removing these aspects would negate the point of coughing up an entry fee.

The problem is that there actually are things you can’t learn or test in training, and this mindset can lead to reluctance to race under less than perfect conditions. If a race falls in the middle of a training block with no taper, you’ll probably be tired and may lack that little bit of speed needed for a sprint finish. If a race doesn’t suit what you perceive to be your strengths, you may find yourself out of your comfort zone, or forced to try and chase to make up lost ground. But as I found out this season, neither scenario means your day is doomed, and in fact both can lead to greater confidence as well as boosted fitness. In addition, despite my aforementioned experience, some decidedly rookie errors (not charging my Di2, leaving my bike nutrition at home, realising only at the last minute that there were no aid stations at all in the race) meant several more opportunities for racing in sub-optimal circumstances!

For several reasons, 2016 wasn’t a year in which I raced very much. When I did race, things went well, but I was keen to line up a bit more frequently in 2017. However, more biomechanical changes to my run form (more about this in a later blog) over the winter meant I didn’t start run training again until April which limited the opportunity for many early season races. I didn’t race until a local 10k in May, which given the total lack of any run intensity prior to that, didn’t go too badly! My first triathlon of the year was Ironman 70.3 at Wimbleball and we then squeezed a further 3 middle distance triathlons, 1 Olympic, 1 half marathon, a 50mile TT and another 10k into 10 weeks during the build up to my A race at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in a few weeks’ time.

Such frequency meant there was rarely any taper going into these races – at most I got a couple of easy days beforehand. Races came at the end of big weeks and were usually followed by big weeks; in one instance this meant racing a middle distance triathlon the day after a 165km bike, to round off a 29 hour training week! Racing with the accumulated fatigue of Ironman training is tough and my coach knows that when the gun goes, however tired I am, I will do my best to cross the line in front of all the other girls. The races needed to be managed carefully so that I didn’t end up in a hole, or injured – honest, communication about how I was feeling being the key factor here. It also meant that sometimes I simply didn’t have the leg speed I would usually have expected and that I had to work much harder than I might have otherwise done with a taper – which meant better training! If you’re an Ironman athlete, racing a 70.3, or an Olympic tri can require a speed or intensity you’re not all that familiar with, but the adrenaline of a head-to-head battle can often help you pull more out of yourself. 

Several of this season’s races have also taken me out of my comfort zone by means of the courses themselves. The Wensleydale Full Cheese is technically not quite a middle distance, since the bike is only 64km, but with 1430m of climbing, it takes about the same time. Similarly, the run is only 19km, but once again the 500m elevation as you run straight up to the top of a fell and back down doesn’t leave you feeling short-changed! Hilly bikes are my strength, but I’d never done any sort of fell running before so that was a new adventure. The swim though, was where it really pushed the boundaries of what I was comfortable with; I’m not good in the cold and Semer Water is a glacial lake. It was absolutely freezing. I wore every extra item of thermal swim clothing you can imagine – boots, gloves, hat, vest –under my wetsuit but with the course being long I was still horribly cold when I stumbled into T1 a long way behind the leading girls. I had to work hard to close an even bigger gap than I normally encounter at the start of the bike (although at least this helped me warm up!) but being able to do so – and then to put in a strong run too – gave me confidence that even under what I wouldn’t describe as ideal conditions for me, I can be competitive. It was also fun (once I could feel my fingers again that is!)

Entering races which don’t necessarily play to your strengths can mean you have to redefine your definition of success or set a different type of goal, but can also mean that what you previously termed weaknesses no longer seem quite so race-defining. At the end of this month, I fly to Hawaii with a string of results I am proud of, and a really solid year of training under my belt. In an Ironman, things rarely go perfectly all day and the ability to react to an unexpected mid-race event, or even just the normal ebb and flow of energy and emotion on the day can make or break your race. Training yourself to race “well” – to follow the plan, and to keep trying even when things aren’t going perfectly – takes practice, but is a skill well worth honing throughout the season.

2017 Results:

Beverley 10k: 9th female

Ironman 70.3 Wimbleball: 1st AG, 2nd female (fastest female run split)

Walkington 10k: 2nd female

Castle Howard Gauntlet: 1st (fastest female bike and run splits)

Wensleydale Full Cheese: 1st (fastest female bike and run splits)

50 mile Time Trial: 1st female

Allerthorpe Olympic: 1st (fastest female bike and run splits)

Lockington Half marathon: 2nd female

The Vitruvian (British Middle Distance Championships): 1st AG, 2nd female (fastest female run split)