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Journey to The Lakesman Half Ironman 2023

Why I chose this race distance?

In July 2021, following a recurrence of a 30 year old knee injury, investigations confirmed early osteoarthritis and identified a third problem. With three problems in the knee it meant that if I wanted to carry on running I needed to offload foot miles in training to some other discipline. Whilst rehabbing the knee I caught Covid then developed long covid with symptoms of brain fog and fatigue episodes which lasted for a year until March 2023.  During this time I wasn’t able to run much but could hike and also found cycling to be easier than running. I’m a fair weather cyclist, don’t particularly enjoy it and as the fatigue improved so it was once again easier to put on a pair of trail shoes and go for a jog.

I decided I needed more commitment to protecting my knee and an appropriate challenge would provide the motivation to cycle more. Seven years ago I did a few sprint triathlons but knew that neither a sprint nor standard distance would provide sufficient potential jeopardy to force me to train for it.  I decided that a half ironman would do the trick as I simply wouldn’t be able to ‘wing it’.  My friend Dan provided the inspiration by entering and completing the full distance Lakesman in 2022 with no training – oh to be younger and supremely fit!

Preparation and Training

In mid-February I was becoming quite dispirited as my general fitness and strength seemed to have plateaued at a low level and I really wanted to reschedule some long distance running challenges that have been on hold this last two years. Being my own coach was no longer working for me and I sought out the one person I felt might be able to help.  Fortunately for me they were agreeable and also happy to incorporate the cycling and swimming within the plan. To clarify, the Lakesman tri was not intended to be a race for me, rather a motivating focus to develop and maintain muscular endurance for running while offloading miles on my knee.

The swim

2015 Swimming induced pulmonary oedema, SIPE

Swimming is difficult for me. When dabbling with sprint tri in 2016 I worked to improve my swimming, attending coached sessions, a swim squad and diligently practising three times a week. However I made no progress whatsoever so gave up the idea and have barely been in a pool since. I’m also prone to developing swimming induced pulmonary oedema, SIPE.

The first time this happened to me was while abroad in 2010 in Tunisia during an early morning leisurely swim in the hotel pool. I’d been in for over an hour and started to feel extremely tight-chested, breathless and weak. I stopped at the end of the next length and puzzled over why I felt this way. I’d never had any respiratory difficulties and suffered from no medical conditions. My breathing wasn’t improving so I got out of the pool and returned to my room.  All day I felt below par with increasing difficulty catching my breath. The history and symptoms didn’t match any pattern of sudden onset disease in someone of my age and rude good health that I had encountered in my medical career. I thought perhaps I was developing some respiratory illness and decided to see how things developed. Shortly after going to bed that night and lying down the symptoms worsened and I really struggled to breathe. Being upright was easier but I also started to cough and started producing pink frothy sputum. This I did recognise – a symptom of heart failure! The history still didn’t fit any pattern but I knew I needed a medic. The local GP whom I saw listened patiently to my story, explained that he also did not know what was going on but that he agreed that it wasn’t heart failure. He gave me a hydrocortisone injection and advised to take it easy and come back later if no improvement. The steroid took around twelve hours before I started to breathe more easily and the symptoms gradually tailed off over the next 72 hours.

The whole experience was quite frightening and upon returning to the UK I sought the advice of my respiratory and A & E colleagues. No one had an immediate answer. I was investigated and found to have reversible airways restriction – otherwise known as asthma. I’ve never had an asthma attack in my life and so was labelled with ‘exercise induced asthma’.

The next time I developed SIPE was in 2015 when I started to try and learn to swim properly for my first sprint triathlon. I went to the pool early mornings but on each of the first few occasions I found the tightness and breathless recurring and lasting for some while afterwards. The swim for the Bristol tri that I had entered was in the harbour and I needed to get a wetsuit. I went for a wetsuit fitting in Ambleside and we went into Windermere to try them out. The water temperature was 10C that day and I was unable to stay in the water for very long, partly due to the cold but most clearly because of the rapid onset of respiratory symptoms. At least a dozen other people were trialling wetsuits and none of them had the issues I had.  It was clear I had a particular problem and researched my symptoms. That’s when I came across SIPE. There were reports from the US of the condition I describe above, all of which had been noted in young fit triathletes: in fact it was suggested that around 2% of triathletes experience the condition. Speaking to my colleagues with my new-found knowledge, none of them were aware of it although it was agreed that it did appear that this was what I was suffering from.

How to deal with it? First, understand the risk factors: being in water, especially cold water, wearing a wet suit and being over-hydrated are all factors which increase the risk of developing SIPE.

At the time it was my custom to have two large cups of coffee, approximately one litre, before heading to the pool in the morning so I stopped this and swam ‘dry’. Immediately, the symptoms resolved only to be replaced with cramp – however that was preferable.

I had also joined an open water swimming group once a week and advised the instructor, a triathlete herself, of my propensity to SIPE and what they needed to do if it happened. They had never heard of it. I was surprised but the more people I mentioned it to the more I realised this dangerous, potentially life-threatening condition simply wasn’t recognised at the time by those in the community it affected. NB Fortunately, there is more awareness now but if any readers identify with my experience then please make sure you let your medical practitioners know so they can at least explore the possibility of this for you. If you have had one episode, you are more at risk of experiencing another.

Swim 2023

I started going to the local pool once a week in October last year to acclimatise to water to reduce my risk of SIPE. At that point I loathed swimming, had to talk myself into going and had a visceral response to each session. In February I increased my swimming to twice a week but I still wasn’t making much progress and my head continued to produce a recoil reaction every time I slowly forced myself to take each step down the little ladder into the pool. Something needed to change. Some weeks later a friend suggested I take a different approach and re-learn to swim with a friend of hers. Somewhat sceptical of anyone being able to turn me into a swimmer and it being rather late in the day with fewer than eight weeks before the event, I decided I couldn’t be any worse than I already was and signed up for a Learn to Swim course and some open water instruction.  At that point there was zero chance that I would make the cutoff time allowed to complete the Lakesman swim so I had nothing to lose.

After speaking at length to the instructor I signed up for the five week learn to swim course and four 1:1 open water sessions in the River Lune.

Three friends each came out into a lake with me to allow me to practise, one of them on two occasions.  This was an enormous act of generosity as each knew that with my history of SIPE a social swim could very quickly and unpredictably turn into a medical emergency.  I also did one sprint tri eleven days prior to the Lakesman, the sole focus being to practise getting my wetsuit off under race conditions. These sprints are just too fast for me plus the race is over before I’ve warmed up. So, I managed a total of nine open water experiences before race day.

The bike

After putting my bike away in November, inclement weather plus apathy prevented me riding again until mid-February when I joined Kerry and Ali from tri club for a ride. I then rode once a week until the end of April increasing to twice a week from May. My average pace rose from 11.5 mph in February to around 14 mph on a couple of rides depending on how much elevation in the route. The cutoff for the Lakesman for the ride was 4 hours after the cutoff for the swim. Given the state of my swim I felt the pressure of a certain amount of jeopardy with these timings as the ride is 56 miles and my current maximum was going to be on the bar. No matter, it’s not a challenge if you know you can do it.

The Run

The strongest of the three disciplines for me and I had no concerns about completing 13.1 miles. However, I have no experiencing of doing so after swimming and cycling My coach added sessions to my plan combining rides followed by a run to get the legs used to running off the bike, known as ‘brick’ sessions. Coinciding with the extreme temperatures through May and early June provided the unexpected benefit of heat acclimatisation.

The Lakesman

I arrived in Keswick the day before the race and after parking my van at a friend’s house I walked to race hub at the rugby club to register. Smiling, helpful marshals checked we had the necessary information at the ready and pointed us to the correct queue to register and get our race packs and three large kit bags for the transitions and post run kit. Then it was back and forth a couple more times. Firstly to add labels to bike and helmet and put my carefully organised kit into their respective bags then take my bike and bags to the transition area and then later to the rugby club for the race briefing. A surprising amount of walking about and I clocked up a total of 20,000 steps before settling down for an early night.

Race day

I didn’t sleep very well and was awake from around 2:30am. I simply lay quietly until the alarm went off at which point I made porridge for breakfast and generally fettled with pre-swim preparations including the gymnastics of fighting into the bottom half of my wetsuit.

Exiting the van my sleepy state evaporated. Early morning really is a magical time of day to appreciate the beauty of nature and a time to connect with your senses. The air was still and mostly silent with the occasional birdsong. It felt fresh, clean and cool on my skin, a welcome contrast from the heat of recent days and a light breeze wafted the gentle fragrance of something like honeysuckle from a nearby hedge.

It was a 20 minute walk to the race start at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick and I wandered along slowly musing that Keswick was surprisingly busy for 5:15am although as we’d been informed there were 900 people apparently about to start the half ironman, 150 in the full distance and a further 400 volunteer marshals to look after us, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

There were two waves of participants in the Lakesman half and my start time was 6:10. We got in the water just after the 6am wave swimmers started their race. My friend Jumpy James was taking the official photos and gave me a quick hug and wished me good luck. The water was foul, total murky blackness, smelled earthy and had loads of weed swilling around. The lake was particularly shallow and walking out to depth meant much of the bottom had been churned up by the 450 swimmers in the first wave. Frankly it’s a testimony to the effectiveness of our immune systems that we’re not all in ICU fighting for our lives after being exposed to so many million pathogens.

I had the usual faff with my goggles trying to get them into a position where they would not leak and waited for the start. Once we started swimming it was like a fight to the death. I got kicked in the face multiple times, swum over, swam into others and bizarrely found myself apologising as if anyone were interested or could hear me. I had positioned myself towards the back of the crowd too to try and avoid this. Anyway, I did manage to relax a bit but the full distance folk were only five minutes behind our wave so before long I was being swum over again. The murkiness cleared around 100 metres or so which helped. At about the 1500 metre point I felt I’d had enough. I injured my shoulder last November and it’s still weak and was becoming quite uncomfortable but the real problem was simply that with my limited experience, swimming 1900 metres in an event was one hell of a stretch. Shortly after this I started to get cramp in my right calf.  I’ve learned to manage it as it happens regularly but by the time I got to the jetty to get out of the water I needed the help of two of the lovely marshals to stand onto the mat. I had completed the swim in 53 minutes which was amazing.

One of the things that long covid has left me with is Covid toes which I’ll leave you to google. A cruel blow for a runner, it affects most of my toes and forefoot and is very painful, worse when wet and cold.

I got into transition, tipped out the contents of my bag, took a couple of paracetamol as this helps a bit with the toe pain which will get worse as the event goes on, managed to get my wetsuit off, drank a half litre of hydration fluid, applied some suncream and ate an energy bar. All good until I came to put my socks on but they had vanished. They were definitely there the day before, two pairs. I checked through everything again, not fallen on the floor or rolled away. Went to check my bike to run bag in case I had put them in the wrong place – not there. The idea of cycling, let alone running without socks was unthinkable for me, even if I didn’t have the toe issue. I felt this was the end of my event. A lady from a relay team changing next to me wanted to help and asked her team mate who checked through his own kit and very kindly donated his own spare pair to me. I’m so very grateful for the generosity and kindness of strangers. I’ve since tried unsuccessfully to identify him to thank him again.

After this lengthy transition time my bike was easy to spot as it was all alone in the transition racking. Heading out of Keswick there were no bikes to be seen but within a few miles of leaving the town I was being overtaken by the first of the full distance competitors.

The route was along the A66, the road surface is good and I managed to set myself a good pace along there. I had sufficient Voom hydration and fuel with me and was focused on eating and drinking every 15 minutes throughout the ride. A bit further along whilst watching the full distance chaps disappear into the blue yonder I spotted them overtaking someone else. Thinking this might be a fellow halfer, I set about seeing if I could catch them up which I did. Over the next twenty miles I probably overtook around twenty others, greeting them as I passed. The route heads south on the A595 and takes a nine mile loop around quieter lanes but as I passed only a few people in this section I thought I might have exhausted that game.

Back on the A595, we go south for a couple of roundabouts then turn back for Keswick. Fairly shortly after this I started to come across even more halfers for some reason in batches of twos and threes that I was able to overtake. I don’t know what that was about, whether they had set off too fast or were even slower than me. All were clearly better swimmers and had been out on the road longer. Whatever the reason, they gave me something to aim for and I overtook many more on my way back.

I was aware my pace was faster than usual, my glutes told me a couple of times they were working too hard and I backed off to ease them off but I also had a niggle around my left knee which I recognised as IT band tightness, and the threat of more cramp in that right calf. I was enjoying myself too much with reeling in all these fellow competitors to take too much notice of it all although I hoped it wouldn’t be an issue for the run.

This was supposed to be a no-drafting race which means you need to stay at least 12 metres behind other cyclists at all times unless overtaking them and if they overtake you, you have to drop back to give them the space. Thus the only disappointment to me was to come across two cyclists who were drafting each other. I overtook them both but apparently they didn’t like this as they sat on my tail and then overtook me. I backed off but they had slowed down so I overtook them again. This happened three times. The last mile on the A66 was nose to tail traffic and extra care was needed overtaking motor vehicles and other cyclists at this time. I continued overtaking others right the way into transition which was very satisfying.

Thanks to all the marshals and road crews along the route for ensuring our safety, managing traffic and providing the aid stations.

I completed the ride in 3:14 with an average pace of 17mph, an average 3mph better pace than I have ever done so I’m absolutely delighted with this.

This event was in my training plan as an endurance training session and I really had intended to approach it this way. I certainly didn’t intend to ‘race’ it but unfortunately the ‘Chimp’ (for those who have read Steve Peter’s book) has nothing on my little 8 year old girl inside.

Back in transition, I racked my bike, changed into running shoes, drank a half bottle of hydration fluid, grabbed a bag of Voom pocket rockets and ran straight back out, legs slightly shocked at the change in movement demand but easing quickly into a steady pace.

The run route for the Lakesman is three and a bit laps of the same course and the lap includes two short out and back sections in the same mile – known as the ‘Highway to Hell’.  My preference is for low-key events and I’m not a lover of razzamatazz. The Lakesman is a fantastic event, well organised and supported by fabulous, happy, volunteers but the noise is a bit difficult for me to deal with as it winds up the tinnitus in my deaf ear and can make me feel off balance. So not the most life-enhancing part of the event for me but I knew what I’d signed up for so it was a case of ‘get your head down and get it done’.

The mercury had started to rise during the bike stage and was now quite warm. I knew I was still dry but as you pass two water stations twice on each lap I made sure to walk past these and drink some water each time and I was very disciplined about this.

At one end of the Highway to Hell was my lovely friend again, Jumpy James, taking photographs and it was a boost to see him. Towards the end of the first lap someone shouted my name and I looked up to see my friend Becky who’d wandered down to support. Just whom I hoped to see. I had worn a second pair of cycling shorts over my tri suit shorts for comfort on the bike but had omitted to take them off in transition. A quick stop here to remove the now offending article which was making it bulky and hot to run in and handed them to Becky. I can’t tell you how much better that felt. Soon after the start of the second lap my running buddy Peter was waiting to say ‘Hi’ before going on duty volunteering at transition.

By now the effort of the bike ride started to declare itself with severe pain in the back of my right hip. I couldn’t work out whether it was coming from the hip or from the short muscles deep to the glutes but it was unremitting and I couldn’t keep up a running gait and was forced to walk intermittently. I was quite cross as it had been looking as if I might do a reasonable time for the run. My covid toes were playing up as well, my left foot in particular, and I was starting to wince every time I put my foot to the floor. It was becoming difficult to mentally surmount the pain and the IT band issue in my left knee was tweaking me and the right calf cramp was also threatening to go all out. My head wanted it to end but I told myself to quit whinging and go faster to get it done. By the time I got to where Jumpy was he must have been able to see the distress I was in because he left his station and jogged alongside me for a hundred yards, giving me a running hug and gentle words of encouragement. Somehow, I got through the final mile walking and running and even managed a bit of a sprint for the finish line.

Swim: 53:32 | Bike: 3:14:01 | Run: 2:15:04          Total time including transitions: 6:42:49

All told a top day out which served its purpose of an endurance training session. One of my goals was simply to complete it as I genuinely wasn’t sure I would make the swim time and the second goal was to do it in under 7 hours so definitely a success.

Huge thanks to my coach, Kim Collison, and swimming coach, Ceri Smith as without their magic this would never have happened.

The contribution of the many volunteer marshals at this event cannot be overestimated. Their help and support was enormous and help the event run like clockwork. Many, many thanks to all of them.

Thanks also to friends and supporters in training for your encouragement, your company and kicking me in the shins when I needed it 😊

 

Courage doesn't mean you don't get afraid. Courage means you don't let fear stop you