As a first timer to the 70.3 triathlon distance (half Ironman distance / middle distance) I wanted to find an event within a reasonable distance from home that was nice and flat (no point in adding any extra challenges into the mix) and with a swim in calm water as most of my open water swimming is in the sea, so a nice fresh water reservoir would be a welcome bonus. This left me with the Grafman Middle Distance triathlon in Grafham, Cambridgeshire. Although it is nowhere near Cambridge, it is a lovely little village.
With a few sprint triathlons under the belt, the middle distance really is a new discipline to train for. My first ever half marathon was just 2 weeks before the event and went without too many problems but swimming this distance and staying calm is definitely a challenge.
The registration process the day before the event was very simple and quick; the entire process only took around 4 minutes. It was nice to be able to walk into the transition area, find my number for the next day, and have a look at the swim start and course.
The swim is a mass swim entry, which means running in and plunging into the water and racing off in a pack. I decided to hang out on the left of the pack and take a wide lap to avoid being pushed and shoved too much. The swim also includes an "Australian Exit" which means after one lap you leave the water, run past the crowds of people and the waiting photographers, only to jump back in and swim another lap.
Leaving the water there is lots of support and people to help you out if needed.There are marshals pointing to the transition area and plenty of support in the bike area. It was a really nice atmosphere; very friendly and with a good buzz about it all.
The cycle section is on roads open to traffic; despite the traffic being very light, the few motorists who attempt to drive the same way as the cyclists it causes a bit of bunching. Being a non-drafting ride it is pretty hard when you can not overtake and there are several people in front. There wasn’t too much of the course like this and after 30k the riders seemed to space out.
The drink/gel stations were pretty efficient; you do not need to stop to be passed water or energy gels. Towards the end of the ride, I was worried I had made a wrong turn because I couldn't see any cyclists, but the marshalls are fantastic and I was directed the correct way and eventually saw a few cyclists in the distance.
Finally, the run. The toughest part of the run for me was the last 5 or 6km when you pass the finish line and run away from the sounds of the tannoy and music. It had been a tough race so far, but I was nearly there. Like the ride, the run is a few laps back and forth with water and gel stations at either end.
Mule Bars are produced by Fuel For Adventure Ltd which was created by Alex Smith and Jimmy Docherty back in 2002. Fuel For Adventure retail camping and adventure supplies while Mule Bars are the perfect energy snack for those heading out on their next daring experience.
Alex and Jimmy were scaling the heights of the Andes mountains when they were shocked by gastric issues. They realised that there was a lack of energy bars on the market which were made from 100% natural ingredients but still tasted amazing. That's when the Mule Bar was born! I got the chance to review lots of their lovely flavours and test them out while on my own adventures.
Folkestone - Dover Coastal Walk
This is a 15-mile out-and-back trek along the beautiful southern coast of the UK and the perfect opportunity to try out a Mule Bar and see how it fared for energy, taste, and healthiness. I fuelled this walk with the Chocolate Orange flavour bar which was delicious! The texture is sticky and dense, but it's not so sweet as to give you a sore mouth. The chocolate orange flavour isn't overpowering but is still there enough to make it super tasty. There is roughly 15g of sugar in this bar which means it is not overly unhealthy and will give you a great boost of energy after a tough outing.
I ran a 10k race in the beautiful countryside of Aylesbury and used the liquorice and coconut flavour Mule Bar to refuel afterwards. Each Mule Bar has a breakdown of the actual flavours and then a fun nickname, with this one being called Liquorice Allsports flavour. This bar has a delicious liquorice taste which is not too overpowering as well as a great texture from the coconut. The little pieces of liquorice inside were also a very nice surprise!
Cycling the Camel Trail, Cornwall
The Camel Trail is an 18-mile cycling trail which follows a disused railway line through the heart of Cornwall. I fuelled for this adventure with the apple raisin and cinnamon Mule Bar. This bar is nicknamed Apple Strudel and was launched in homage to the great Austrian pastry. This bar has a sweet and satisfying flavour with an amazing texture from the apple pieces and the raisins and a subtle cinnamon flavour. Gooey and delicious just like its namesake!
Kent Coastal Half Marathon
I fuelled for this half marathon with the Lemon Zinger Mule Bar. I was pretty excited to try this one as I was feeling quite drained after the race and the bright, attractive packaging and fun name gave me a good boost! This bar has a really authentic lemon flavour which has not been over-sweetened. The taste of ginger was light in the background and not too overpowering which it can sometimes be. Great texture with lots of rice crisps to keep it exciting. The sharp, tangy lemon flavour is great to bring you back to life after a tough adventure or draining race and it tasted fantastic!
Mule Bars are made from natural ingredients and the nutritional value for each bar is surprisingly good considering they do not claim to be high protein or low sugar. The flavours are really fun and keep things interesting; I love that Alex and Jimmy have put so much thought into this brand! It's the perfect snack to have for any event you have coming up and their range also includes energy gels and smaller bars for on-the-go energy.
All good things come to an end, and unfortunately that included my original Huub Archimedes wetsuit. Well to be fair, I could have used it for another year or maybe even longer but it was Christmas and I thought "time to treat myself". My original Archimedes has been through half a dozen triathlons but mostly a fair amount of sea swimming. And to get to the sea where I live you need to squeeze through brambles. And brambles and neoprene are not friends.
Climbing through brambles is one way to shorten the life expectancy of your wetsuit.
Being an early adopter I treated myself to the original Archimedes when they were first out. Especially when I learnt I was going to be wearing the same size as the Brownlee brothers. But that is where the similarities between the Brownlees and myself end. Huub wetsuits come in all sorts of size variations so you can really get the best fit for your frame.
When I first put my leg into the suit I thought, "Uh oh, wrong size" but there is purposely a lot more size in the foot/ankle which is a big welcome. It is especially hard putting on a wetsuit when you are standing in the cold at the side of a lake balancing on one leg. I personally wear my wetsuit fairly high up the leg and so the extra space in the leg of this wetsuit is a definite improvement. I haven’t tested the time it takes to remove the wetsuit yet but I am sure this will help kick the wetsuit off when in a hurry. I have seen the Brownlee brothers removing the lower half of the wetsuit with just their legs, kicking it off at the end whiles simultaneously putting their helmet on. And I am sure that comes with plenty of practice. But when you are spending a big chunk of cash on a second skin kicking it off may not be for you. When I remove my wetsuit it is more of a slow peel rather than a big kick. But I have never won a triathlon and my T1 creeps close to 5 minutes.
Where I typically swim it is in the Thames Estuary. If you are lucky the water is as calm as a lake. Very strong current in one direction. But when it is nice and calm the jet skis are out and since last year when a jet ski towing a water skier almost took my head off I swim with a bright orange swim buoy. I couldn’t recommend one of these enough. You can put valuables inside. They will let people spot you when there is no chance of seeing you.
For example, the following photo I am about half a kilometre away. All you can see is the swim buoy. If it is wavy then there is even less chance of spotting a swimmer. Not to mention the swim buoy will actually keep you afloat if required.
Anyway, back to the Huub Review.
As I have only swum once in the new wetsuit I haven’t had the time to practice speedy exits out of the water making the most of the quick release zip. The zipper at the back if you didn’t know uses their breakaway technology. So you can pull up with the cord and the entire back opens. This is great for getting it off in a hurry. When it is not great is when you are solo putting on your wetsuit and you pull the cord up too hard and have to take everything off to re-thread the zip and start again. A bit of practice will teach you just how far you need to do things up.
My first swim in the Archimedes II was amazing. This truly is like a second skin in the water. Apart from a little hit of cold down my spine, the fit, comfort, and flexibility are perfect. It is not too tight around the shoulders which is very important for good swimming performance.
There is definitely an improvement in flexibility and reading on Huub there are reasons behind it. Some of the updates from the original Archimedes include:
The Archimedes // has a 25% reduction in the neoprene thickness of the panels around the side, the back and shoulders, utilising 1mm Chloroprene foam and the most flexible lining materials available delivering less effort for more stretch.
The X-O Skeleton delivers structure and control to reduce snaking, power loss and directional waste by gripping and holding the pelvis and hips.
Calf Release and Bicep Release
The Calf Release has been increased in volume by 25%, giving the calf more coverage of the lower modulus with non-restrictive super thin nylon. The thickness was reduced to below 1mm to ensure natural calf movement; this improves kick by lack of restriction and significantly reduces the risk of cramping during swim and transition.
The Bicep Release has an improved modulus to further enhance the panel’s ability to create a natural flexed recovery arm and efficient arm flex for the catch.
Low Neck Line
Changes in stitching patterns and the reduction in neoprene thickness of not only the back but the shoulder and side panels from 2mm to 1.5mm and a complete redesign in the underarm gusset.
Garmin's new Forerunner 935 is a top-of-the-line triathlon watch designed for serious athletes and people who deeply care about using training statistics to improve their racing performance when it counts.
The Forerunner 935 is designed for elite athletes who are at the top of their game, and this is reflected in the calibre of technology that this watch boasts. It features a built-in barometer and altimeter to provide elevation changes and monitors your performance so that you are alerted if you are undertraining or overdoing it. Very technical features such as ground contact time balance, stride length, vertical ratio, and even more truly set this watch apart from its competitors and show how it would make the perfect companion to a dedicated athlete.
This watch, like other watches in the Forerunner series, features wrist-based heart rate monitoring and all-day activity tracking such as step count so that you can track your progress all day and even all night. It's waterproof so that you can wear it swimming, and offers both indoor and outdoor options for all three disciplines- swimming, cycling, and running. The multisport features mean you can switch sports at the touch of a button and use it for brick workouts as well as triathlon races.
The battery life on other Garmin watches such as the Forerunner 735XT is a little questionable as it doesn't seem to last as long as you'd expect from a triathlon watch, however on the 935 that definitely isn't an issue. The Forerunner 935 boasts a 2-week battery life when used just as a watch, and up to 24 hours in GPS mode meaning you could complete a full ironman or ultra marathon while tracking and not have to worry about losing your progress.
Weighing in at 49g, this watch is a little heavier than some of its siblings like the 735XT, and the watch face is much larger meaning it is not quite as suitable as an everyday activity tracker or even just as a watch. It has an extra button too which means it's a little more complicated to use, however this just reflects the fact that this watch is not designed for your everyday gym goer and is meant to be used thoroughly and to its full potential by a competitive athlete or coach.
The Garmin Forerunner 935 is an exquisite piece of technology and features advanced training information which is sure to boost the performance of its wearer if used correctly. Its attractive design means it can be worn all day, and the built-in heart rate monitor and step tracker means it even covers the all-day activity tracker market that is so popular at the moment. It's definitely not for the faint hearted and is better suited for serious athletes and prolific competitors in the sport of running, cycling, and triathlon. It loses a few marks from me as it's a little too big to be comfortable all day, and the rubber strap meant I got a sweat rash from continuing to wear it for long periods of time after training. However, the technical information remains unbeatable and very impressive.
Battery Life: 9
Technical Information: 10
Value for money: 10
Overall Score: 46/50
l'Étape du Tour is an opportunity for amateur cyclists to ride the same route segments as the pros on the Tour De France and is a fantastic event.
My ride profile looked like this for the entire event:
Like most people in the UK, I find the hardest thing to train for are long, sustained climbs as they just do not exist in the south of England. Cycling up and down your local hills is great, but they are not as long and you miss out on that constant pressure of a long uphill climb. If you have not cycled up a mountain before, then imagine alternate one-legged squats for an hour. That is very close to how it feels!
If nothing else, completing this year’s Étape has given me a new level of respect for the pros out there. Not only are they racing the stages and powering up the climbs, they do it for over 3 weeks in a row.
Cycling The Étape
Like the previous year, when I set off I rode fast and hard, but this year this stage was straight into a mountain and so I managed to put down my biggest ever sustained Watts for 20 minutes. So it that the best strategy? Ride the hardest you ever have straight out the gate? Probably not, but it felt great overtaking so many riders, especially as I was in the second pen that set-off that day. Riders are put in groups of about 1000 and typically the lower number pens are for riders who have previously proved themselves. So there I am thinking, "well this is great. Look how fast I am.”
At the top of that first mountain, there were people there clapping and cheering in true French style. Then it was time for a descent. When it comes to descending you can certainly say I’m an amateur. I did see a few accidents on the way downhill, but it’s mostly people being careless, and I made sure to be courteous and careful while cycling down the mountain. The downhill was manageable and mostly very fun and leads right into the flat section of the course.
Col de Glandon was an epic mountain by all proportions. It went on, and on, and on. No thought about racing up this, and every few minutes I was checking to see if there were any more cogs left that I could drop down to. Unfortunately, no more easy gears are left. I found myself running low on water and because of that I took the opportunity to stop 5 or 10km from the peak for a quick water refill. The food and drink stations are fine; not too overcrowded, the drinking water was not too hot, and there was plenty of food to go round. Some of the riders who started near the back said that there were so many people queuing it took quite a while to get drinks; I guess that is the benefit starting nearer the front. For my quick drink refill I didn’t even get off the bike; there is plenty of staff to help give you water and various other energy-based gels and drinks.
At the top of the mountain there were so many people clapping and cheering, but I really did feel that if the race had ended at this point I would have been very happy for it to end there.
The ride went on, the temperature picked up, and it got hotter and hotter. But this is where a Sportif in the United Kingdom and one in France differ. The spectators are amazing, and you will find people getting bottles of river water to throw over your back, non-official drink stations with lines of people handing out ice cold water, and kids singing and dancing with big clapping hands.
The last 10 km of this ride was the toughest riding I have ever done. The temperature, the tired legs, and the pure amount of altitude covered. But it levels off for the last few kilometres and it was great to have a sprint finish. Through the finish line there are people there to hand out medals, give you your finish T-shirt, and then it’s time for the pasta party.
I’m sure many times during that day I was telling myself never again; it really is a tough challenge. But once you get back to the UK and everyone is exchanging their war stories you find yourself keeping an eye on the official website for next year's tour. I would definitely recommend signing up for this event, but if you do, train hard!
This is a very well-run event with plenty of marshals, plenty of support, more food and drink stations than you’ll need and everyone will end up with their own story to tell.
Top Tips To Survive l'Étape du Tour
- Do not underestimate this event. If you are a weekend warrior and haven’t been training in the week it is going to be tough.
- Psychologically carrying any extra weight will play mind games with you, but don’t empty your water bottle out too early
- Try to get accommodation close to the start but even better near the finish.
- Pay attention to the weather, prepare yourself with appropriate apparel, but also be prepared for it to be the exact opposite of what you expect.