Challenge Henley Race Report

I woke up at 3:30am, an hour before the multiple alarms were set to wake me up, and 3 hours before the start the race. I sleepily reached over to my bedside table and grabbed a few of the Tesco Golden Syrup pancakes that I’d stacked there for the main purpose of midnight carbo-snacking.

Danesfield House

I washed them down with a half bottle of electrolyte drink and then dozed off for a further hour before my 4:30 room service arrived. A warm bowl of oats, 2 hot cross buns and a cup of strong coffee later got the engine running and I was ready to go.  I took a quick peek out of the window and was met with complete darkness.

We were staying at Danesfield house, a grand country manor built around 1750, set high above the banks of the upper Thames river on the road between Henley and Marlow.

I got dressed, put on my timing chip, grabbed my wetsuit and headed out the door, bracing myself against the icy cold air. Michelle drove me the 4 miles to Henley Business School, where I would start this long day with over 1000 other long distance triathletes. We were all here to take part in Challenge Henley, an Ironman distance triathlon (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run) set in the beautiful English countryside around the historic town of Henley-On-Thames, about 40 miles due west of London. This would be my third Ironman distance race in 9 weeks, so it felt like “business as usual” rather than like I was about to do a huge race.

ready to go

It was about 5:30 when I got to the start, the first signs of dawn only just appearing through the blanket of mist hanging over the river Thames as I headed towards the bike transition area.

Massive spotlights bathed the river in a bright white light as the safety kayakers made their final checks on the buoys that would mark the 3.8km swim course. I pulled on my wetsuit just to keep the cold out as I headed over to my bike do the final checks and to fill my water bottles.

I was racing with only 2 bottles this time; one aero drinks bottle and one mounted behind the seat. The aero bottle got the usual mix of half coke half water, while I filled the other bottle with Xtend, an amino acid drink that I use a lot in training. It was now 6am, 30 mins before the start, and I was 100% ready to go which was a slight departure  from my usual habit of arriving as the start gun goes off!


bike bags at T1

The vague light of the emerging dawn cast perfectly still reflections on the calm river. It was 5 degrees C outside, and as I jumped into the 15 deg water it actually felt warm in comparison. I spent about 10 mins warming up, the water felt fast and smooth and I was now itching to go.

swim start at dawn

I was in the first wave, which consisted of pros and everyone who planned on finishing under 12 hours. Before we knew it, everyone was gathered at the start line and the countdown began. “One minute” the starter announced over his loud speaker. I felt the butterflies start. This was it, we were almost underway. “thirty seconds”… the water was now alive with 150 people all anxiously treading water. “10 seconds”. The beeps of hundreds of stopwatches pinging through the air. We all counted down from 10 in our heads. “ok” said the voice. Then there was a kind of an awkward moment where we weren’t sure if the race had started or not. The front line of swimmers just started swimming. “no, no come back” over the loudspeaker. Realising it was futile to communicate with a bunch of people already swimming, the announcer quickly changed his tune.. .”ok, go go go , just go”… so off we went.

Safety Boat

I got a fast getaway this time,  avoiding most of the usual argy bargy and quickly finding a pair of feet to draft behind. I settled into a good rhythm and just focused on working at a steady pace. The first half was upstream towards Henley, and I tried to stick as close to the side as possible in order to minimize the impact of the current. As the river twists, this becomes a tradeoff since you actually swim further by taking the “long way around” the corner. The great thing about swimming in a river is that it’s a lot easier to sight, because you have a riverbank as a reference point along the way. I was in a good steady rhythm until about 3/4 of the way out, when the front swimmers of the second wave came through, just as we were going through a narrow part of the river. For those of you that haven’t done competitive open water swimming, let me explain what happens when you mix fast and slower swimmers. There is no time for pleasantries or manners – it’s just an unwritten rule that survival of the fittest prevails.  This means that it is not uncommon to endure kicks in the face, elbows, fists and people swimming right over you, pushing you underwater in the process. Triathlons compound this problem because a large percentage of athletes are not historically swimmers, so the spectrum of ability is pretty vast. I am somewhere in the middle, an “average” swimmer, so I need to swim over slow people in the beginning, but I also get swum over a fair amount.

final kayakers briefing 10 mins to go

It was just a minute or two of craziness, elbows and kicking as the faster swimmers caught us. It felt strange to have this happening half way through the swim, because it’s unexpected. One minute you’re in the zone, the next you’re being dunked and shoved. During this whole process I lost the feet that I was following, so I found a new pair. I followed this guy until after the turnaround, but then looked for a new pair because he was zig zagging all over the place.

I soon found a great “pair of feet” who was also a magnificent navigator.  I just dropped in behind him and followed all the way to the end, only sighting every few minutes to make sure he was doing a good job! I still felt really good by the time I saw the ramps going up out of the water. For me, the swim is just a formality that has to be dealt with. I see it as purely a way to get me to my bike, where the real work begins. I’m never going to be one of those guys that can do the swim in 48 minutes (I took 1:06) so I just conserve my energy and take it at a steady pace. I got out of the water and picked up my red bike bag which contained my helmet, oakleys and a warm top (no socks for me on the bike), before heading into the changing tent.

I’m not a fan of long transitions. There were about 30 people in the tent when I got there, most changing outfits completely and taking their time to get their cycling kit on. I was already wearing my tri suit under my wetsuit, so it was a matter of quickly (thanks to baby oil on ankles and wrists) pulling off the wetsuit, putting on my helmet and running to the bike. You basically leave your wetsuit etc. in the bike bag and the volunteers just take care of it… awesome stuff. I had a super quick transition of 2 minutes 43 seconds which was the 8th fastest of the day. I feel some level of satisfaction knowing that I got changed faster than many of the pros… and I “passed” about 20 people in the changing tent. However, this is not a dressing competition so let’s not get ahead of ourselves, ok? I was pretty warm when I came out of the swim, so I opted not to take my extra bike jersey with me. Little did I know what a bad mistake that would be…

I got onto the bike and felt super strong as I accelerated out of the business school grounds and onto the main road. My new Vittoria tyres felt super smooth and I was steadily cranking in my big gear at around 250 watts, around 40kph. It was still really cold and the artificial wind chill from the bike speed didn’t help much. About 3km in, I turned out onto the main course and started pushing harder. Suddenly I seemed to lose traction and my bike wobbled a bit… this familiar feeling filled me with dread. I knew what this meant: a flat tyre…

After sharing my feelings with my new tyre in no uncertain terms, I pulled over and started the process of fixing it. I’m one of those obsessive types that spends time in my lounge at night practicing my tire changes, so I knew that I could get this done in about 3 minutes, maybe 5 if I took my time. What I didn’t bank on was that my fingers were still numb from the cold water, and I couldn’t even remove my wheel. Fortunately a kind marshall was right there and he helped me get my wheel off. About 20 people had passed me already, and this just added to the pressure of getting back as fast as possible I quickly changed the tube but then couldn’t use my fingers to get the tire back on again. Again Mr marshal helped out a bit and finally we got it sorted.  By this stage about 40 riders had passed me and I had lost 10 minutes, more than double what I should have.  I felt really angry with myself a) for letting this happen in the first place and b) for not fixing it fast enough. This 10 minute break had also caused my core temperature to plummet and I was now shivering uncontrollably. I channeled this anger into wattage as I got back on my bike and started powering up the hill. My original plan was to take it easy in the beginning, but I now felt like I needed to make up the time and get warm in the process. I made quick progress, passing about 15 riders in the next 2km. As I was nearing the top of the first uphill section, an ambulance came screaming past, knocking one of the cones flying straight towards us. It missed the guy in front of me by no more than a few inches. I hate to think what would have happened if he had been one second slower!

The downhills were fast, but very challenging due to the uncontrollable shivering that was still plaguing me. I now wished that I had taken that extra bike top at T1. The weather wasn’t playing ball either. The forecast sun wasn’t appearing, instead replaced by cold rain. I tried to get warm by riding harder, but it just wasn’t working that well. The only option was to wait it out. Living in California has been great for training, but it’s probably made me a bit soft where cold weather is concerned. Give me the heat any day.

About 2.5 hours into the ride, the sun finally showed its face. I soaked up the warm rays, letting it slowly defrost my frozen skin and muscles, priming them to do some real work. The rest of the bike leg went pretty much according to plan. I got my nutrition right this time – no solid foods just a gel every 20 mins. The aid stations were very well run, so massive kudos to the volunteers who ran them so well. I found that I actually never used my second bottle. I just filled the aero bottle with water at each station and that was sufficient. If you have frequent aid stations, you really don’t need to carry 3 bottles with you – one is more than sufficient.

I was now nearing the end of the 180km bike leg. The last 11km is some downhill and then flat, so it’s a good opportunity to coast along, rest the legs and prepare for the run. It is, however, also tempting to crank out the speed on the flats and make up some time which I desperately needed to do.  I settled on a compromise and held a steady 210 watts for the last 15 mins, averaging an acceptable 43kph. I finished the bike leg in 5:27 which if you take off the 10 mins from the flat tire was pretty much what I had planned (5:17 vs 5:19 planned).

I felt great riding towards T2, I was finally warm (although my sockless feet were still frozen) and my legs felt strong. As I entered T2, I handed my bike to the volunteers, picked up my run bag and got changed. I fumbled a little with my socks since my feet were still numb but still completed T2 in an acceptable 2 mins 44 secs. I grabbed my clif shot blocks and headed out of the tent to start my marathon.

At this point I was trying to do some mental calculations regarding my target time of 10 hours. I knew that I’d had a good swim (by my standards 1:06 is ok, even though my swimmer friends would scoff at such a time), so added to my bike time of 5:27 plus the transitions, I was now at around 6:40 into the race. I needed to run a 3:20 marathon in order to reach my target, and I knew that I had the current fitness level to do that.

running in the rain

I would just need to maintain a steady pace of around 4:45 per km, which at that point felt pretty easy for me. My mistake was getting greedy… I figured that if I could run a little quicker, I could run a sub 3:20 marathon. I was feeling great at a pace of 4:30 so I foolishly stuck to that. I went through 5km in 23 mins but by 10km I had slowed down, going through in 49 min. I quickly reverted my goal to maintaining 4:45, but psychologically I was now losing the battle since I knew I was slowing down. These middle 20km I really struggled. Although the course is relatively flat, the surfaces varied a fair amount from smooth tarmac to hard packed dirt, stones and long green grass. The grass is a double edged sword – it’s easy on the body, offering much needed impact absorption, but it’s also high resistance so you need to put in a greater effort than you do on a paved road. I was just so tired, but it wasn’t the tiredness caused by lack of carbs (aka “bonking”), it was actual tiredness, as in “wanting to sleep”.  I’ve never really had that while running before, and I’m not sure what caused it. Perhaps it was something to do with the 2 hours of freezing on the bike, that may have contributed somewhat to this feeling of fatigue – I don’t know. I actually fell asleep  a few times, only realizing that I had been sleeping when I woke up. If you’ve ever fallen asleep while driving, it’s kind of the same thing. I had now slowed to below my target pace. There was no way I was going to make a sub 10 now, and I knew it. Mentally, it was very tough to stay motivated when I had no reason to push myself harder than required. I had shifted from achievement mode into survival mode. I just broke it down into segments and focused on reaching specific points along the course. The final 2km on each lap were the easiest because of all the fantastic supporters gathered in the town. My wife Michelle, and friends Steven, Alissa and their kids Luke and Natasha were there offering encouragement every lap. And there were literally thousands of supporters who were cheering throughout my entire marathon and probably well after I was done. I’d really like to thank those guys, the support makes a massive difference!

Once I had completed my third lap, with only 10km to go I picked up my pace again. Not due to some miraculous recovery but rather that I just wanted to be done. For much of that last lap I could visualize the nice warm bath that I would be in later on, surrounded by pizza.

That kept me running faster than faster towards the finish, and before I knew it I was back in Henley running down the red carpet and over the finish line in 10:28. I had missed my goal of a sub 10 but I was very pleased to be finished. They directed me to the finisher’s tent where my “street clothes” bag was already waiting for me on a chair (they have spotters who look for your number and get your bag ready for you). I scoffed down a plate of pasta, relaxed for a bit and then headed out to meet my “support crew”. At this point I really should mention how fantastic the organization was of this race, they even outdid the meticulous Swiss which is saying a lot… well done to the folks at Challenge!

I was on my way back to the car, eager to get into that warm bath, when I remembered that I needed to collect my bike! I headed back to the T2 area where my bike was waiting for me along with my run and bike transition bags, hopped on the bike and rode back to the car park. 20 minutes later I was relaxing in a lovely warm bath, content that I had completed a decent day’s work.

Before the water had even cooled, my mind was already buzzing with my plans for the next one, how I was going to cut 6 mins off my swim, 20 mins off the bike, and at least 25 mins off the run. The next one is already booked! Ironman Coeur d’Alene next June. I’ve got 9 months of hard training to get 45 mins quicker and secure that Kona slot…

But right now I’m happy to be done with my 2011 season. This was my third Ironman distance race in 9 weeks, so I’m pretty tired now and looking forward to chilling out for  a bit before the hard work begins…

Race Summary:

Total time: 10:28

Swim: 1:06:29 T1: 2:43
Bike: 5:27:50 T2: 2:44
Run: 3:48:20




Short Version of this post:

I did Challenge Henley on 18th September. Very cold. Good Swim 1:06. Fast Transition. Got a puncture, took 10 mins to fix. Froze on bike. Sun came out. finished bike 5:27. Ran. Slowed down. Fell asleep while running. Finished strong 3:48. Total time 10:28. Had a nice bath & planned next race.



3 thoughts on “Challenge Henley Race Report

  1. I enjoyed the long post but had a chuckle at the “short version” as well. You’re post has me re-thinking my Lanzarote targets… well done!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *