Powerman, St Wendel, Germany, 21st May 2017.
European Long Distance Elite Duathlon Championships – 15th (happy!)
I was unusually nervous. Normally I’m buzzing after 300mg of caffeine. But today, I certainly wasn’t. The Powerman race organiser was starting to rev things up over the load speaker with a few minutes to go before the start. I was standing towards the back of a single-file line of elite entrants with the current world number 1, Seppe Odeyn at the front and the rest of us in rank order behind him. The top athletes were introduced much like heavyweight boxers before a fight with a list of their duathlon achievements – the announcer getting more and more animated – before a long drawn out semi-controlled shout of their name. I was waiting for my turn – not buzzing as was hoped – but feeling rather sick. In fact, I wanted to crawl under the bushes by the side of the track and go to sleep. This was to be my first foray into elite level racing abroad and my first experience of a long distance race: and I felt the pressure. I was eventually introduced, very quickly and rather mumbled as ‘Number-25-Ben-Price’. No elaborate intro for me. Clearly the organisers wanted to get on with things once the big boys had been called out. I can understand that. I jogged forward nervously to the start line and waited for the gun.
The countdown began with the crowd clapping in time to create even more tension. I’m glad they were having such fun: clearly taking great pleasure in not having to do what we were about to! The gun went and we were off. Once we were going it was fine – the nerves disappeared and it was down to business. I was soon into my running and settled into a group with Julian Lings (one of my fellow Brits), Soren Bystrup, Anthony Le Duey, Glen Laurens and the previously mentioned reigning World Champion, Seppe Odeyn. I was pretty excited to be running in such company, and more importantly, feeling ok with the pace. We were the second group on the road, not far behind the leaders. The opening 10k consisted of two identical 5k multi-terrain loops with road sections, paths, gravel tracks and even a boggy cambered grass section. It was incredibly hilly with several parts almost forcing you to walk. It was an incredibly tough run – the steep downhills on the tarmac were the worst for me – my quads were getting smashed. I hung in there and was pleased to enter transition feeling OK alongside the big boys in 10th.
After a quick T1 on the lovely grass in the centre of the St Wendel running track we headed out on our bikes for three laps of a 21K loop. Each loop included more than 400m of vertical climbing with two significant hills on each lap and undulating roads in between. In other words, it was tough and would reveal any cracks. Odeyn and his mates headed off into the distance, never to be seen again (by me anyway) and I found myself biking with Julian. I worked pretty hard on the bike but it was a difficult one to judge. I was entering new territory in terms of race distance and knew there was a tough run off the bike waiting for me, but at the same time, I needed to work hard to stay in a decent position. I was running a disc and my new favourites on the front: the K1-80s which seemed to be really solid on the climbs despite their deep section and incredibly fast on the descents. As time went on my confidence grew because very few riders had come past me. Just as I was thinking this, several riders, including Pete Ellis (the other Brit in the race), came past me like trains. I was mentally prepared for this demoralising moment and remembered what my coach, Dave Newport, had said, ‘Just remember, the final run will be carnage. You never know what’s going to happen to the guys that come past you on the bike’. I settled into a hard but manageable rhythm, making the most of my 55 tooth ring on the descents and tucking into the most aerodynamic position I could as much as possible: I was going to need every little advantage I could get.
After 1 hour 49 minutes of hard biking I came into T2. I was seriously encouraged to see Julian, Pete and several other athletes just leaving T2 for the run – they were not as far ahead as expected: about a minute – I could catch them! After a reasonably quick transition I was out on the run and struggling to run free. The calves and quads were hurting and I was on the point of cramping in both legs in various places. This was going to be tough. Very tough. I tried lifting my heels and rolling the shoulders to loosen off and settled into a hard but manageable rhythm again. After one km I hit the first climb and wow, it hurt. There was no wind and the sun was beating down – it was hot and I had planned on a 2 hour 45 minute race not a 3 hour plus race so was thirsty and feeling dehydrated. I slowed almost to a walk up the first hard incline but was pleased to see – once at the top – that whilst I was running slowly, those ahead were running even slower. I kept pushing, seeing the runners in front coming gradually closer. Just before the 5k point I took Peter Ellis and several others – my view was narrowing down and I was only aware of what was just in-front of me – I had no idea who I had caught. A friend of mine was at the 5k turn point shouting at me but I couldn’t even raise my head to acknowledge him. However, I did know that Julian was just up the road and I was catching him. With 2k to go I passed him. For me this was a big moment because I was the first Brit on the road. This was more than I had been hoping for. I was hoping not to come last in the elite field and to be in this position gave me a huge lift. I’d also taken a few other runners and was somewhere in the top 20. I was in such pain but it was a manageable pain because I was doing well. Then with 1k to go I started cramping more, my quads were seizing up. Julian came closer and passed me. I tried to respond but I was right on the limit of my legs seizing up completely. If I pushed on I could risk losing it all and DNF-ing. I nursed myself through the final kilometre, hoping to kick at the very end and take him but I didn’t have the legs and I crossed the line an agonising (in several ways) 10 seconds behind Julian. I soon found out that I had placed 15th. What a feeling. It was crazy. The relief, euphoria of racing well, the physical emptiness, the mild heat stroke, the pain and the rush of endorphins was a heady mix at the finish. What a concoction. My over-riding emotion was one of pure elation. I exceeded my expectations with 15th and was utterly delighted. I’m writing this three days later and have only just been able to walk down the stairs forwards – my legs are wrecked! But it was worth it – what an experience.