The Outlaw Half 2017

Tony took part in his first middle distance race recently, The Outlaw Half. This was going to be a true test of Tony's resolve, and here is his blog from the race:

My name is Tony Brooks, I am 49 years old, married with 2 children, a self employed electrician, 6 foot 2 ½, former rugby 2nd row, overweight and too keen on food to be a typical triathlete. Not the typical profile of someone looking to complete a triathlon of any sort never mind one consisting of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run.

Triathlon is a sport I stumbled into. I was always a reasonable swimmer, did a bit of running to try to keep a bit fit and then about 8 years ago I drunkenly agreed to do a 200 mile bike ride despite having not touched a bike in about 15 years. A good friend then assured me that with that skill set there was a sport I had to try.

I spent a few years doing local sprint triathlons then 3 years ago decided to push myself and signed up to do an Olympic distance event. This was at Bewl in Kent and I spent nearly 4 hours on a scorching hot day completing the event and (once I recovered) loving it.

The following year I did 3 Olympic events and made the decision to try a middle distance event. On that subject I still find it hard to believe that any sport can sensibly consider a physical challenge covering 70.3 miles to be “middle distance” but that is just how it is!

When I discussed my decision with my brother (himself an experienced triathlete) he wanted to know WHY I wanted to do this. Unfortunately there can be a ridiculous attitude amounting to ‘if you haven't done an Ironman you are not a triathlete’. My response to this is “tell the Brownlee brothers they are not triathletes and see how far you get”. But why did I want to do this? Basically I wanted to push myself and see what I can actually do.

Asking around other members of the Tri club I tried to decide what event to go for. Events like Dubai and Dublin sounded great but the need to fly, ship my bike, stay in hotels etc made them financially unviable. The UK based event that seemed to be most popular was The Outlaw. Based in Nottingham it was not exactly on the doorstep but was easy to reach by car, they speak the same language (broadly) and doing an event with friends would provide many benefits.

So I pre registered for the event and in August sat at my computer to sign up. Having heard stories about how the event sold out in 8 minutes the previous year I was not overly hopeful. The registration process took me about 20 minutes so I fully expected to be told ‘sorry we are full’ and was more than slightly surprised when my credit card went through and I received a confirmation that I was signed up for the event.

I sat staring at my computer for about 5 minutes in disbelief. What had I done?

When it sank in properly I started to wonder ‘what have I done?’ This was going to push my less than perfectly honed physique to, or possibly beyond, the limit.

The club fortunately has a mentoring system and I was looked after by Les Nottage. This is an invaluable resource and I cannot stress enough, if you are stepping up distance then make sure you get a mentor and use them. Les provided information about nutrition, training, mental preparation and had far more information about the event that he was not taking part in than I did. He had contacted the organisers and got details about the composition and location of the feed stations, maps of the route etc. He was encouraging and enthusiastic to such a degree that he made me believe anything was possible. Thank you Les.

So, now to train!

The swim held no real fears for me. I am comfortable with swimming, on a Tuesday night our club session will usually cover over the 1900 metres target but you do get a push off every 25 metres so it is a bit different to the open water event I was aiming for. On a Saturday morning at Stubbers 2 laps is 1900 metres so when open water season rolled around I made sure I did 2 laps each time and felt happy with that.

Cycling is something I enjoy. For the last 8 or so years I have been involved in a charity bike ride each September which tends to be 200 miles in 2 days. Ok, it is not a race and we stop every 20 miles or so for fuel stops and have a decent lunch but I knew I could do the distance and it did not scare me at all.

Then there is the run. I have done 3 half marathons in my life but the last was about 18 years ago and they were done in isolation not after swimming and riding. Also they left me totally wiped out!

In recent years the runs I do have generally been about 5k extending to 10k only for the club time trials and the Olympic distance triathlons (so not often!) I started increasing my training runs towards the 10k mark.

In about February I realised that I was out of my league trying to prepare for something so outside my normal events and light years from my comfort zone.

I therefore approached Deborah Coyle. A fellow club member, experienced triathlete and personal trainer for help.

She set me on the right path of increasing my runs each week and (most painfully) insisted that any time I did a bike ride I had to immediately run afterwards even if for only a couple of kilometers in order to get used to the feeling of running after cycling. I will confess that without the adrenaline boost you get while competing I found the process of running after cycling both painful and disconcerting but it gradually became more natural as the weeks progressed, but I never got round to liking it!

Pushing my running up to 15k was not too bad but when it went to 18k I hit the wall at 16 kilometers and struggled to get home. I knew I had to do it and persevered and next time it was better. My first 20k training run gave me the feeling that I could actually do this and when I did the full distance in training I felt triumphant and rather more confident.

Unexpectedly that confidence took a knock just 2 weeks before the event. I went out to do a 50 mile bike ride that was to be followed by a 10k run. My last big training session. Towards the end of the ride my back started to seize up and was very painful by the time I got home. A quick change into my running gear and out of the door was a trial in itself. Stopping every couple of hundred yards to stretch was not helping and the pain was getting worse. In the end I mostly walked 2 ½ km and arrived home in great pain and with my confidence in tatters.

Like almost everyone training for something new, I did not feel that I had done enough. I was taking a step into the unknown and would have liked a couple more months to be ready for it but the deadline was here and nothing I felt was going to change that.

The event weekend!

On Saturday 20th May I set off for Nottingham and the unknown.

On Saturday afternoon I headed over to the Water sports centre for registration and the race briefing. It took longer than expected to get there and I missed the start of the briefing that the Havering Tri participants had agreed to attend. So I had about 75 minutes to kill by myself. I wandered round the expo and brought myself an Outlaw t-shirt. Unfortunately most of the clothing was not aimed at the fuller figured gentleman and the only other thing that would fit was an umbrella! I was feeling a bit nervous now and hated being there by myself, it felt wrong. When the briefing finished it was great to see my fellow club members and friends and it relaxed me considerably. The briefing was light hearted and useful in that it made me see this event was not really any different to any other I had done.

Then the heavens absolutely opened. Driving rain was not what any of us wanted. I am sure there were a few prayers said that tomorrow would be fine.

Back to the hotel, dinner and bed by about 10:30.

With my alarm set for 4am I was glad to be tired and got to sleep quickly. A good start.

Race day dawned for me at 2:40 when I unfortunately came wide awake and had absolutely no chance of getting back to sleep. At 4 I started on the sandwiches I had prepared before leaving home. Everyone had told me that I needed to eat (not something I have any trouble with!) When the sun finally made an appearance the day was bright and clear. A good start.

Having been to the venue on Saturday I knew where it was and how long it would take to get there so was relatively relaxed about getting there. Walking towards transition I had to say goodbye to my wife and realise that this was all very real now.

Seeing other club members in transition and having a chat helped to keep me from dwelling on the event too much and soon I was prising myself into my wetsuit and getting ready for the off.

The race!

The outlaw starts in a rowing lake. The swim is up one side, across then back down the other. 4 waves but with 1700 entrants each wave is still pretty big.

I did not want to get caught in the washing machine environment at the front so positioned myself in section 2 at the back of the front group. And there is the horn. Stopwatch on and GO!

My positioning was about right, a few swimmers in the area dropped back quickly but for the most part I was among people swimming at the same speed. I settled quite quickly into my rhythm. I had no intention of pushing my pace, there was a long way to go today and with my target being to cross the finishing line I wanted to be as comfortable as possible at this stage. Sighting is an interesting skill and it is abundantly clear that some people do not take the time to acquire it. Suddenly a swimmer came across in front of me at about 40 degrees to the desired direction. I am a great believer in not wasting effort so was doing my best to swim in a straight lie as were most others but there were a couple of slalom swimmers to be wary of.

The outbound leg of the swim seemed to take forever. A straight edge on the lake made sighting easier but it is not an interesting view. After what seemed like hours we came to the first turn. Ok that should be about half way. Across the lake and then back towards the stand and exit still seemed to take forever but finally I reached the out ramp. Excellent stewards helped pull me out and one had to work hard to free my wetsuit. Whoever had zipped me into it had wrapped the cord round and round the top tab. This kept it very safe but I am glad I was not doing it behind my neck as it took the steward who could see it about 15 seconds to free. Then it was about 300 yards to transition. The professionals get a nice soft blue carpet. We had tarmac and as I am no lightweight I found the walk to my bike a bit painful. The swim couldn't have been too bad if I was thinking about sore feet.

In transition I pulled on cycling shorts over my Tri suit – another tip from Les, the few seconds it took to put them on would be well rewarded by a more comfortable ride. I also put on a cycling jacket. This was a decision I had made that morning. It was not that warm and cycling for close to 4 hours while feeling cold was not my idea of fun. If I got hot I could unzip it and I had put my nutrition in the pockets.

2 pain killers to hopefully hold off back pain. Helmet, gloves, glasses and we were off.

The bike course starts off around the lake and 50 yards after leaving Transition there was a group of Havering Tri supporters giving me a real boost. Before the far end of the lake I passed a competitor walking his bike back towards Transition. Some poor soul had got less than a mile into the bike ride and his race was over. By the time 3 miles had gone I had passed 5 cyclists off their bikes. One was fixing a puncture but at least 3 looked to be out.

The map of the ride looks like 3 lollipops stuck together by the end of the stick, you go out and back on 3 separate loops. This means that you are passing other competitors going in the opposite direction on 3 separate stretches. Again seeing fellow club members and shouting encouragement to each other certainly helps.

After about 23 miles came the first feed station. As planned, I stopped here and used the toilet - not essential but as I planned to stop I might as well use it - and stretched my back. Hopefully a change in position would keep me mobile.

Back on the bike again and quickly back into my rhythm. The bike ride takes in some lovely countryside and great views. I know the purist will say that I should have had my head down and been pushing on but I was out on the bike for nearly 4 hours and with the sole aim of finishing I wanted something to look at as well.

The second feed station somehow sneaked up on me and I was through it before I realised. Not being keen to turn back I carried on a few more miles until I came to a nice wide bit of grass by the road. I pulled up here and stretched as I didn't want to deviate too much from my race plan. While stopped another competitor did enquire if I was ok as there is a great fellowship amount both triathletes and cyclists. I was glad to say I was fine and indeed it was true. I was not too stiff and felt good.

The rest of the ride was fine until the las 2 miles. Here you come off the main road onto something more akin to a track. You meet speed humps, potholes and standing water, all lovely when you have just cycled 54 miles. Unfortunately I also encountered the cyclists bane, a Sunday driver, she pulled out about 100 yards ahead of me and then came to a virtual stop at each speed hump, proceeding at about 2 miles per hour over each one. Add to this a slalom across the road to avoid the potholes and I decided not to overtake for fear of being run off the road. When I was held up for the third time I did bellow “Oh get on with it!”. I don’t know if she heard or the road just improved but the car finally pulled away from the tired cyclist (about time). This car probably held me up by about 20 or 30 seconds which does not really matter but it was frustrating. The other frustration was my Garmin now said I had done over 56 miles, where was the end of this bike ride?

Finally after another 0.7 miles I got back to transition. Some triathletes dismount at a run hitting the ground just before the dismount line. I stopped and got off. Slower but safe!

Back into transition. Bike racked, gloves, jacket and helmet off, shoes changed and 2 more painkillers taken. Start off for a few paces then go back and remove cycling shorts! Doh!

Out of transition onto the lake edge and back past the HT support group.

The run starts by the lake then veers off, past the car park and onto a track which is an out and back leg (with a timing mat at the far end to keep everyone honest!) This path was very busy with runners on their first and second laps and travelling in both directions. Everyone kept to the left and the overtakes had to take their chances when it was clear. Some were better at judging this than others but only one lady runner actually bounced off me, obviously of the opinion I should run in a bush while she overtook someone and used my side of the path! This path was another great place to see club members and I saw a few friends down there including Iron Elmo and his supporter the Awesome Nikki Warnes, also Chantelle, Debbie and others (sorry names are not my strength).

With no idea how long the path was it seemed to go on for ever but eventually I came to the turn round point and started back toward the lake. The feed stations were plentiful on the run and my mentor Les had told me not to worry about the distance, just walk through each feed station then finish what you take before running to the next one. Still, it would have been nice to have some mile markers to give me some idea of how far I had come.

Back to the lake and round the whole of it to the finish line. Unfortunately the run is 2 laps and I had to go past the finish – getting another lot of support from the HT crew then down and through transition. Halfway there!

On the second lap I now knew how far the path went but still had to run it. Far fewer people now on the course and it could have been lonely if not for Les Nottage who obviously did not pace me as that is not allowed but simply happened to be going in the same direction and was great company and encouragement. Back on the lake side I was feeling really tired by now but the finish was, literally, in sight. Unfortunately it was on the other side of the lake and I was currently moving away from it. Also someone seemed to have stretched the lake and it felt like one of those nightmares when you run and run but the end never gets any nearer. I had passed the last point where you could be stopped from completing the event (there were various cut off points and times but this was the last one). I think my run by now was slower than most peoples normal walking pace but I was still moving forward and by alternating running and walking I knew I would get there and beat the final cut off of 9 hours.

The end of the lake finally arrived and the last feed station was at the top end of the lake. I had my final drink and, by this point heartily sick of sweetness also he a few crisps. This was a revelation, something with some texture and salt was just what was needed.

So now facing the finish in the far distance I set off on the last leg.

Being met by members of the club on that last leg was another big boost. Encouragement and a distraction from all the effort helped the last stage go and then there was the finish chute. Shouts of encouragement from the HT booster club made the final run in all the sweeter and I had done it!

After all the effort there was my medal. A t-shirt and a stagger up the ramp to see my wife and daughter. A stop in at the food tent to grab some carbs and protein and then out to be sociable with my family and friends. I was touched by how many of the club had stayed until the end. I was our last finisher by (I think) over an hour but to see so many still there to cheer me in was great.

The aftermath of any event is always the mundane walk back to the car (this time my wife drove) and back to the hotel. My daughter is a trainee physio and she spent about an hour in our hotel room massaging my legs which was at times painful but incredibly beneficial. I have never had a massage but can highly recommend it. My legs the following day felt better and less painful than they normally do the day after a 10k run.

A side effect I anticipated but still found peculiar was the weakness I was left with after the event. I had obviously completely depleted all my reserves. On the Tuesday after The Outlaw it was my wedding anniversary and down at Leigh with my wife we started out on a walk along the front. I managed about 400 yards before really wanting a sit down. My legs simply had nothing in them.

I had no energy for over a week and turned into a total eating machine.

Do I regret it? Hell no.

Did I enjoy it? Oh yes.

Will I do it again? Definitely. Now I have a PB to beat.

Thanks to Les Nottage, Deborah Coyle and all my friends at Havering Tri I can now say ‘I am an Outlaw’ and I have the shirt and medal to prove it.

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