Ironman 70.3 Edinburgh Race Report

Before the race I explained the four reasons why it would become a classic.

Now I'm sure of it.

Ironman 70.3 Edinburgh will earn the reputation as one of the hardest 70.3 races.  That will be both an attraction for some and for others a definite reason not to attempt it.  Not hard per se, but hard compared to others of its kind.

I spoke to an fellow competitor afterwards, one who qualified for the world championships and has raced all the UK events including full Ironman, who told me, "that was harder than any of them".  Objectively, the half-iron event could not be harder than a full Ironman.  By any objective measure, the distances involved do NOT make this a hard event compared to others in Scotland such as Celtman or the Kindrochit Quadrathlon.  However, yesterday's conditions prompted a subjective response.

Well worth reading - once you've finished this - is a blog by top pro Lucy Gossage who writes "The run course is immense and it made the Staffs-course, which is hard enough, look like a walk in the park!"  

I'll go through the race elements, then go back and give some "how to" logistic suggestions which might help folk in future years.

First, some numbers.  1573 athletes were registered.

Of them 322 either did not start or did not post a swim time so are classed as Did Not Finish.  The results don't separate DNS from DNF the swim, nor does it indicate how many completed the swim but missed the cut off.

Organiser Paul McGreal told me "more than thirty" were pulled from the water.  On Facebook, the last guy out of the water reports being told that 50 started the swim but did not continue, and naturally, he was very upset to miss the cut-off after spending an hour and eight minutes battling that sea!

There are others who were told the swim cut-off was 35mins so voluntarily pulled out of the race when their swim took them longer than that, while others were allowed to continue.  Something of a controversy there.

Personally, I'd play to the whistle.  Unless someone says "you're out", I keep going, but I completely understand the point.

46 people posted a swim time but DNF the bike.  40 did the swim and bike but DNF'd the run, among them Harry Wiltshire.  There were five DQs.  So that's about 40 people DNF each discipline which, I'm told, is a heck of an attrition rate.  So what was each bit actually like?

Note to self - fiddling with cap doesn't look cool, whereas heroically peeling off a wetsuit does
The swim was shortened from 1.9km to 950m, half distance for all competitors due to the roughness of the sea.  If you look at what I wrote two days before the race, you'll see why I felt a shortened swim was entirely likely.

We got a hint of this Saturday evening when an email alerted us to a Potentially Shortened Swim - the Pros would do two laps of a shortened 0.6mile course, the Age Groupers would do one lap.

Some people took to social media to complain, others to rant about Ironman being a money grabbing company.

Some top Age Groupers made the point that they need to swim the same distance as the Pros to help them step up to their pro ticket.   I suspect that call was heard because everyone ended up swimming the same distance of 950m.

However, in the few minutes between the pros and the age group starts the sea changed.

While the Pros swam, we waited.  It was a rolling start, self seeded according to predicted time (for a regular 1.9 swim), the times being posted on boards in a holding funnel which led the corridor of rubber-clad humanity into the North Sea.

I wanted to watch the Pros but suddenly realised, if I did, I wouldn't get into the correct pen.  I ended up in a pen predicting a 40min finish, slower than I'd have liked but not that far off.

Short swim course was calm at first - but note, no big turn buoys
We shuffled forward, eventually splitting into a a line of four.  The countdown timer went beep, and I ran into the sea at 7:35.  By which time the wind was stronger, the tide was the same and the waves had jacked up even more.

Mass Ironman starts, all flailing arms and legs, are called 'the washing machine'.  This wave start felt more like Spin Cycle.  My GPS track is remarkably straight given the conditions.  The waves were coming from the top left corner of the map below, and the place where most people struggled was the first leg, the outward swim to the first buoy.  There were a few cries for "help", quite a lot of panic, and at times it was tricky to avoid swimming into rescue boats and kayaks.

It took me until the first turn to work out how to breath.  Normally for me it's bilateral on a three count, or if waves are coming from one side, single sided four count.  No chance here.  I ended up rotating more than normal to get my mouth higher and attempting to breath on a one count.  I say 'attempting', because many, many breaths were missed, usually because a breaking wave dumped sea water in my mouth.  You had to feel comfortable in the sea or this lack of air would be panic inducing.
Photo credit: John Young
The wind was so great they couldn't mark the course with the usual big, branded turn buoys (Arena this year).  So we had to sight on the much smaller, course marker buoys (see photo above).  Forget fancy 'crocodile eyes' sighting.  I dropped into breast stroke to hit the top of the next wave to get my head high out of the water.  The longest leg was the easiest for me.  Breathing each stroke to the left away from the waves, I got into a rhythm and enjoyed myself, counting off the buoys that I'd previously counted from the shore (there's a wee tip).  I'm not sure if I really took that last buoy as wide as the track suggests...

I expected the tide to push me left on the third, short leg, which is why I swam out right a little, but the track suggests I went too far.

Good job I didn't follow feet because, with sun-in-eyes, the crowd of swimmers in front of me headed towards the shore.

My newly-invented breast-stroke sighting technique helped me to clearly spot the final Orange buoy - the only big one on the course.

I headed for that.

Breathing had to switch sides here, breathing still on a one count but on the right side now, still away from the waves, still pounding in from the left.

Around the orange buoy I aimed just right of the finish to allow for the slight drift.  I came out of the water in 23' 56" and think I yelled "that was fun!"

Then I started fiddling with my cap and goggles, mucking up the expensive FinisherPix photos.  Ah well.  Next time I'll dash manly from the water peeling off my wetsuit.  Yeah, next time.

I've embedded someone's cameraphone footage so I hope it stays 'live'.  It's not great quality, but for an idea what it was like out there, watch the RIB and the kayak pitch over the incoming waves. 

Nevertheless, these were the roughest conditions in which I've swam.  I completely agree with the decision to shorten it.  It wasn't that people were "softies" and "couldn't cope" as some have suggested online.  It was entirely about the conditions in which the safety team can operate.

There were a fleet of kayaks and five power-boats patrolling the swim, all of which would find it difficult to manoeuvre through a pack of struggling, bobbing heads to a swimmer in difficulty.  There would be a real risk of kayakers capsizing or propellers turning swimmers to chum.  I spoke afterwards to organiser Paul McGreal and told him he called it right.

"More than thirty people didn't finish the swim, which is much higher than I'd expect", he told me.  "I know the decision to shorten wasn't popular with some, and it's not ideal for a first event.  But I didn't make the decision to be popular, I made it for safety".  It was the right decision.

One personal swim tip - use ear plugs.  Without them, rough water makes me feel slightly sea sick, something to do with my inner-ear I suppose.  

Oh, and take part in our charity swims to get really comfy in the sea.

A week later I swam solo around the island off the south end of Eigg, the waves tossing me about as they prepared to crash into the reef.

Look at the GPS track and you'll see how wide I took the south coast.  That's because the waves were coming from the south west and the reef extends a long way out.  I needed to see exactly how to get through the waves, so part of the reason for going wide was to sight around the 'corner'.  A year ago I would never have attempted this, or would have panicked part way around.

So obviously don't try this if you're new to open water swimming!  But venturing out in 'rough' conditions makes you comfortable and relaxed in the sea, much able to cope if the race turns gnarly.

Back to the Edinburgh swim.  Initially the organisers had hoped to hold the swim further along the coast at Gosford.
Original swim course
It was changed because the water at Gosford is much shallower and, although the tide would have been deep enough for this race, future years might coincide with low tide.  I suspect yesterday that shallow water would have produced even bigger waves.

The exposure of the swim to wind is clearly the weakest link in the future success of this event.  If a stiff wind blows from anywhere it could create issues.  We saw what a westerly could do.  A N or NE wind could be even worse due to the fetch - it picks up force as it travels further across the sea.  A southerly might even blow folk out to sea.  I wonder if this swim will move again?  To where?

So to the bike course.  It's on lovely rural roads, many of which had been repaired since my recce in May, so mostly in good condition.  There are no big hills yet somehow 1000m of ascent sneaks in. with lots of twisty, turny bits.  

It means surging, short, leg sapping climbs and places where you slow, then need to get back up to speed quickly.  There are two, well marked dangerous bits on the 'Gosford Loop', the eastern extremity.

I saw one chap caught by the scramble netting when he over cooked it on a tight left hairpin, breaking his bike in the process.

There should have been marshals on this section - big mistake.

Perhaps they had been moved to warn folk on the next wet, slippery, loose descent.

There were several folk there wearing high-vis, two of the moto referees I think, but wasn't looking at them, because bikes in front were skidding all over the place!

The wind which bedevilled the swim, plagued the bike course, relentlessly pushing back against all efforts.  Because the route is predominantly east-to-west those 31mph gusts had quite an effect.  I chose my light road bike over my tri bike and I still don't know whether that was a good call.  I appreciated it on those short, surging climbs which I could spin up while others ground out big gears, but in that wind the aero effect would have been helpful. 

I chose road rather than tri bike and still don't know if that was a good call
I was surprised to see so many deep section wheels being used in that wind, yet everyone seems to have coped safely.  That said, in the video below you'll see some top end riders getting blown about quite a lot.  

Again embedded someone's video, and you'll see even the pro's wobbling in the wind as they come through the village, so going up onto the horns.

My PB for the half-ironman run is 1:56:13 (including transition) last June at Arran where the course was pan flat. The Edinburgh run has over 900feet of climbing.  After that swim and that bike, there was no way I would attempt to beat my PB on that run.  

Those white stains are sea-salt from the swim - not sweat!
Let me put that into context.  

Go to a thirty storey building, an office or block of flats.

Run up the stairs, then run down again.  

Now do it again.  

And again.  

That's what 900ft of ascent feels like.  

Holyrood Park is a superb setting in which to run, and the organisers have made the most of it.

The tents inside the walls were not T2, they're for the Queen's parties next week at the Royal Palace of Holyrood House.

The run took us up the long road that circuits the base of Arthur's Seat, the extinct volcano stub around which Edinburgh is built.  

There's an out-and-back to above Duddingston Reservoir, then a rather special out-and back in an old tunnel which had been part of the Innocent Railway.  Take your sunglasses off for this bit.  
The tunnel.  Obviously.
There's a gradual climb within the tunnel, and it's great coming back downhill.  However, the climb back out of the tunnel to the main running area is abrupt and hard on the legs, as is running down the main road.  
On the second of the three laps it was actually on this descent, rather than the climb, that my hamstrings and quads threatened to cramp up.

Don't think you can walk the climbs and power down the descents, it doesn't work that way.

The crowds by T2 in Holyrood Park and up the long road climb were good but some naturally drifted away by the time the likes of me arrived.

That was helpful, because it meant there was space to run on the softer grass verge rather than tarmac.

Eventually, it was all over.

I was down the red carpet and, although I knew I hadn't clocked a great time, I was delighted with the day.

You can probably tell in that photo below.  Nowhere near as long or tough as my Ironman last year, but still a good day out.

The volunteers who manned the transitions and aid stations had been great fun to chat with and did a superb job looking after us all, staying in place until the last weary runner had completed the course before cut-off.  You guys made the day.

The post race non-meat food was not to my taste - a pie in an individually sealed packages like you might find at a garage.  The veggie option, spinach and sweet potato I think, was too dry for me, but since at least two people have told me I'm wrong ("Hey, don't dis the pies!") then I'm willing to believe dehydration was messing with my taste buds.  I had swallowed considerable quantities of salty north sea and was wearing the rest of it in salt stains down the front of my tri-suit.

Despite the finishing arch being purposefully set up with a superb view of Arthur's Seat, the view we all snapped pre-race, the FinisherPix photographers were sat to one side, or zoomed in so tight, they missed that backdrop in every single finish line shot.  That said, after a bit of Lightroom tweaking they are decent shots and are scattered throughout this blog.

Arthur's Seat is... behind the arch
Superb, friendly help from volunteers in transitions, finish and of course the aid stations. Many of those teams had actually trained for their roles which shows huge commitment.  I tried to thank as many people as I could.

I haven't mentioned one of the best bits of the entire experience and that's Edinburgh itself.  
A great Capital city to visit
It's a great city to visit, a compact walkable Capital that drips with history.  Make sure you allow time to enjoy all that Edinburgh has to offer.

The Scottish Parliament
Logistics and tips
So that's the race report, now a few thoughts on logistics for anyone tackling this event in future.  bear in mind, this was the 2017 set up and things change.

1. Check Facebook.  There was an active, friendly and extremely helpful Facebook group run by locals for competitors.  I got lots of useful information here and visitors had last minute problems solved.  Check if there's one and sign up.

2. Accommodation.  I think I chose well with Pollock Halls student halls of residence which is just 50m off the run course.  I got two nights in a single room for £78 on  Buffet breakfast included and, since I'd miss it on race day, I made up for it on the Saturday by stuffing my face. 

It's campus accommodation behind a wall with a security guard.  There's a bar that serves food all day, and in the evenings an all-you-can-eat buffet for £16.  Although the booking does not guarantee parking, I had no problem finding a space.  There were fewer other competitors than I expected, but one of them was Harry Wiltshire.  

3. Registration / Transition Set Up.  Split transitions can be a pain and cause a lot of stress, but I found this remarkably simple, despite the best efforts of Edinburgh City Council who seem intent on winning the 'most road works at one time' competition.

Registration and the (rather poor) Expo are at Meadowbank Sports Centre which you enter from the main A1 London Road.

Forget stuff about the stadium etc, it's the sports centre entrance you want (although the Ironman entrance is on a lower level it's obvious when you're there).  Entrance to the car park is directly in front of the front door of the stadium, although once you park you might have a long, muddy walk back across some pitches to get to the registration.    

It was relatively quiet Friday morning, which meant I could register, attend the first briefing, then head back to sort my kit.

I chose to leave my car in Pollock Halls all weekend.  On Saturday morning I put both the blue and red bags into a light rucksack and cycled the easy 9 miles to T1.

My bike got a little dirty but I felt it was easier than tangling with Edinburgh traffic again and loosing my parking spot.  I could have taken the number 26 bus back to Edinburgh from near T1 (opposite Lidl) but I chose to walk 30mins to Prestonpans Railway Station and catch the train to Edinburgh Waverly.

From here I walked to T2, deposited my red bag, bought some food, and strolled back to my accommodation which was 50m off the run course.

That's fine if you have a spare Friday.  However, if you are not arriving until Saturday morning, here's what I suggest.  

Drive through Holyrood Park heading north and, just past T1, there's a car park on the right.  Park here and walk to Registration, do your stuff, attend the mandatory briefing, then come back to the car and pack your T2 run kit in the red bag.

Walk from the car park 500m to T2 and hang the red bag on the numbered peg, check the layout of the transition and where you'll rack your bike.  Drive down to the swim course to rack your bike and hang your blue bag, then go find your accommodation.

4.  Race day.  Meadowbank car park opened at 4am and everyone, organisers included, expected a long line of vehicles waiting to enter yet there were a handful.  Parking was completely stress free for those who chose to drive to the site, having bought the £5 parking ticket (which you get at Registration).  I don't know how easy it was to leave again at the end of the race. 

Pre-dawn in Holyrood Park
I chose to walk.

At 3:45am it took me less than 40 minutes to stroll through Holyrood Park (downhill) watching the roads being closed, the barriers going up and bemused revellers heading home after a night out, wondering what the hell was going on.

This walk had another important benefit, because it got my - ahem - digestive system working and I lightened myself by about a kilo in one of the T2 port-a-loos along the way.  I had eaten a lot Saturday.  The shuttle bus system worked well and we rocked up at T1 with two hours to spare.

Some people clearly hadn't realised that a wind gusting 30mph at 5am would be cold.  While I had long trousers, a goretex jacket and wooly hat, others stood around shivering in t-shirts and shorts.  Having already been to the loo, I didn't have to endure the inevitable queues and could get into my wetsuit (bottom half) early to concentrate on warming up.  

5. Transition tip.  It has taken a few races, but I've worked out an easy way to manage all the kit before and especially after these races.  When it's all over you're going to make your way back to your car with a bike and three over-stuffed poly bags - white, red and blue - the later containing a heavy, wet wetsuit.  That's a lot of stuff to juggle.  You'd think it would be easy to just take a triathlon transition rucksack, but no.  Everything you leave at the start for later, including all your warm clothes you wore to the start, has to fit into the relatively small White bag.  Use a traditional transition rucksack, and that White bag will probably split, spilling your kit everywhere.  

I now use a thin backpack which rolls up small.  It carries all my stuff to the start (water bottles etc.) then rolls up small to fit in the White bag.  First though, I put everything inside a heavy-duty rubble bag (like a bin bag but thicker) to prevent splitting, and fasten this up with electrical tape.  That drops into the white bag so, even if someone rips the white outer bag, my stuff isn't going to spill.  If you don't have a large, thin rucksack then you could use one of the mesh swim bags with shoulder straps in which swimmers carry their pool toys.  This means that, after the event, you can drop your bags inside the rucksack, heft it on your back, and ride to your car.  

Next year's Ironman 70.3 Edinburgh race dates have already been announced - 1st July 2018.


Miguel Vieira said...

Well done Simon! I will most definitely NOT be coming back to race this event again! It was definitely one of the toughest races I've done, and I've done a few!

Well done on finishing, and good luck with the rest of the season.

Miguel Vieira

Used PC Distributor said...

Nice Blog Post !

Chris Kralich said...

Great information. Thinking about coming from Texas for 2018

Anonymous said...

Nice Post - my mind blanked 'the hardest'. Edinburgh 2018 will be my 1st 70.3 , need to get more sea swims in ... :)

Simon Willis said...

Hey - glad it was useful fellas.

Chris - it ain't going to be like Texas! Anon - what a superb choice for your first!


GĂșa said...

Wow.. thank you so much for this detailed race report.
This will be very helpful - but I have to admit i dont know what the
hell I was thinking when I registered into this!!!

Simon Willis said...

Hi Gua
I sat next to the Race Director at dinner last weekend and we had the same thoughts about the race.

People either loved (and wanted more of) or hated the swim, with no middle ground. If you practiced OW swimming, and had tackled some swims which pushed your boundaries, you were fine. At the other extreme, pool swimmers were not.

There's still no consensus on whether to ride a tri or road bike with clip-ons. A lot will depend on ability and weather forecast.

The run remains a tough bas***d!