Matt Leeman is an outstanding triathlete and has won some fantastic full iron distance races this year. He tells us about his experience competing as a pro for the first time.
This whole year has been about me gearing up to be able to race at an international professional level. That meant no corners could be cut and I had to get the most out of every day. Ironman Wales was chosen to be my first professional start at full iron distance. Me and my coach Perry Agass had chosen this race as it played to my strengths with a hilly bike and run. There was a strong start list of 22 including Ironman champions and World championship qualifiers. I had a rough aim in my head with regards to position but was mainly focused on the process of having a solid race and making a good account of myself at the level I want to race at.
Tenby is a seaside town on the Pembrokeshire coast. The sea swim is fairly straightforward with an Australian exit (run out of the water and back in again), which in this case was around a massive rock on the beach. This is great for spectators and competitors as it enables you to see your position in the race. It was a beach start which is a favourite of mine as it's pretty exhilarating charging towards the water without any regard for the race being over 9 hours, it’s all about the sprint and getting yourself to the front of the field.
My first lap was pretty quick and I was sitting at the back of the lead group of six or seven. I made the effort during the Aussie exit to ensure I started the next lap with the front pack; the sand saps your energy but if the elastic breaks and you’re not there, you won’t be catching up again. I put the effort in and dived in on the feet of the group. I then found the swim feeling pretty comfortable, maybe because the spike in heart rate from the run around the rock warmed me up or the confidence gained from being at the front of the race. I worked my way nearer to the front and settled in. We passed the back end of the age group field and got to the last buoy. I took an aggressive line from the buoy and into shore and found myself at the front of the pack. I decided to capitalise on this and kept the tempo high to dissuade anyone else from coming around me. However, Harry Wiltshire had jumped on my feet and sprinted me on the last few meters and began charging up the beach. The run into transition is around 1km uphill through the town. Once I got running I overtook Harry and lead the race into transition. I couldn’t believe that me, a humble lad from Essex, was leading an international field from the swim in my first pro Ironman.
Once I had negotiated the Ironman transition I started the bike leg in third place. I knew I was going to have to ride my own race to get the best performance out of myself. The bike is an area of mine I need to work on to balance myself out across the three disciplines, but I knew it was hilly and drew from my experience of the Castle Series Bastion and how hard that felt 80-90 miles in and paced myself accordingly. I remembered being told by George Gandy, running distance coach when I was at Loughborough University, ‘Don’t fight the hills, or you’ll lose’. Great advice for this type of course. The first loop took us out to Angle, a narrow peninsula at the tip of South-West Wales. Strong winds were forecast and they were in full swing by the time I’d reached this area, making for a good test of bike handling skills. Once this area and the sand dunes had been negotiated, it was back inland where it had began to rain quite heavily and the roads were now very wet. I had taken a tumble from my bike two weeks previously in a race so was still a little cautious on the wet roads. There had also been some oil put on the corners of some country roads which made it even sketchier. I was very happy to be heading back into Tenby on my bike having stayed on two wheels for 112 miles. I had caught a few athletes who had gone up the road earlier on the race so knew I was still in a decent position in the race.
I started the run in 8th place and just focused on getting the first of four laps done, by breaking the marathon down into quarters. There are a few turn around points on the run on Ironman Wales, therefore plenty of opportunity to work out how everyone is getting on around you. I knew I was putting time into the athletes behind me, bar one, Andrej Vištica who was absolutely flying when he passed me. And fortunately some of the athletes ahead began flagging so it very much became a war of attrition. I had worked my way up to 5th place, which was a massive boost, as I had not expected to place this high and although the race wasn’t done I was determined to keep it. I had put 90 seconds into the athlete I had overtaken quite quickly, but he seemed to be maintaining this gap and although I was pretty certain he wouldn’t make that time up in the last 3 miles, I got my head down to put as much time into him going into the last few turn around points to make sure he didn’t want to try and fight back. I learnt this lesson the hard way when I was younger.
I pushed on till the end and crossed the finish line in 5th place. I took a huge gamble this year by not pursuing a full time job and deciding to go pro instead. Winning prize money at this race justifies this decision and the sacrifices that come with it. It’s been a long season, I have surpassed my expectations and am now enjoying some down time freshening up physically and mentally to get working ready for next season.
Date: Sunday the 10th of September 2017
Location: Lake 62, Ashton Keynes, Wiltshire
Event Type and Distance: Standard Distance Triathlon 1500m swim - 41km bike - 9km run
Entry Price: From £52
What better way to experience the beauty of the Cotswolds than with a swim in the lake and a bike and run around the surrounding grounds? Lake 62 is privately owned and the swim starts in deep water with all competitors starting in one wave. The bike course is 2 laps around the beautiful scenery and only features a few gentle inclines. There is free parking available and the course is very spectator-friendly. This really is a unique event and will allow you to enjoy this stunning area of natural beauty while racing.
Choosing a triathlon can be tough if it's your first time. Open water or pool swim? Sprint or standard distance? There are lots of things to consider. Follow our step-by-step guide to get you to the starting line of your first event.
1. Choose a distance
There are levels for everyone of every ability in triathlon. From super sprint to full Iron distance, the distance you choose can make a big difference to your success. The distance you choose will depend largely on your current level of fitness and also whether you prefer short, fast events or longer endurance events. Going for a full Iron distance triathlon for your first ever event is probably not advisable as there are serious risks involved if you do not execute it properly.
Race Swim Bike Run Super Sprint 400m 10km 2.5km Sprint 750m 20km 5km Standard (Olympic) 1500m 40km 10km Middle (Half Iron/70.3) 1900m 90km 20km Full (Full Iron/140.6) 3860m 180km 40km
2. Choose a location
For your first ever triathlon, you'll probably want to stay quite close to home. There's nothing worse than being exhausted and sweaty and having to then drive for hours to get home. You'll also want to make sure the location you choose has the right hills for your level. Some events are a lot tougher than others simply because of the gradients you face, so for your first event, it may be an idea to choose a location by the coast as they are less likely to have a lot of tough hills involved.
With that said, some triathlons offer incredible locations for their races with views and scenery that you would not otherwise be able to enjoy. There is a Castle triathlon series which sees triathletes race around famous castles in the UK, while the London Triathlon allows you to enjoy the landmarks of London while you race. Some routes use disused railways and some use private grounds, so check out some of the more interesting routes to make the most of your experience.
3. Indoor or outdoor?
An indoor triathlon can be a great way to ease yourself into your first triathlon as it removes the element of the open water swim, which can often be the most daunting discipline for newcomers. This allows you to practice performing the three sports and perfecting your transition before you tackle a sea swim, which comes with the worry of battling the tide, getting into and out of a wetsuit, and being hit by other swimmers.
4. Choose your price
Triathlon can be an expensive pursuit, and some events cost a lot more than others. Decide on your budget and then choose a race accordingly. Entry prices can range anywhere from around £30 to over £100.
5. Get your entry in early!
Races tend to sell out very quickly, especially the popular ones, so make sure once you have decided which event you're going to do that you get your entry in quickly to secure your place.
Kerry has always been a horse rider, but after a spate of bad luck and horses getting injured, she discovered the world of triathlon.
Have you always been into sport?
My main sport has always been horse riding. I show-jumped for many years, qualifying and competing at various championships. I never really saw myself as a swimmer, runner or cyclist but now I'm hooked.
What made you decide to enter the world of triathlon?
My main horse retired and I had a run of bad luck with young horses getting injured. I got fed up with waiting on the sidelines so decided to try another sport (or three).
Being a rider with only one or two horses is fantastic when things go to plan but unfortunately they didn’t. My amazing show jumper that had a heart of gold had to retire and within the space of two weeks my promising young horse was at Newmarket having surgery to repair her torn tendon sheath, plans halted!
Horse riding is like no other sport as you cannot do it on your own. I get a real buzz from competing and was missing it so I learnt to swim, bought a bike, started running and entered my first triathlon.
What’s been your favourite race to date and why?
Definitely Cardiff Triathlon.
And your proudest achievement?
Qualifying for the European Championships in my first year of stepping up to standard distance.
Have you ever had any racing disasters/your toughest race yet?
My first triathlon; attempting a pool-based triathlon in a swimsuit, shorts and t-shirt. I realised while stood poolside I had never run in my swimming costume and looked around at other ladies with sports bras on underneath, something I had failed to do. Thankfully it was a super sprint so I didn't have far to go with little support!
How do you overcome setbacks?
Always try to remember how far you've come. Goalposts can be moved and there are challenges to be found so don't stand still waiting for something to happen.
What is the best bit of advice you wish someone had told you before you started competing?
Practise drinking water on the bike before actually entering the competition. I hadn't tried drinking while cycling, I would usually have a sip at a rest stop. So, at my first triathlon I reached down and grabbed my water bottle then realised I couldn't put it back without wobbling all over the road. Yes I really was a true novice!
What are your goals for 2019?
My A race will be the European Championships in May, I'm training hard all winter as it will only be my second year at this distance.
What do you like about Sundried and what’s your favourite bit of our kit?
You spend hours training so finding clothes that are stylish and comfortable is a must, Sundried does just that. Gym vests are my favourite as they are so versatile and can be used for most sports, layered under a hoodie or on their own.
Heading into spring I had one goal in mind for the 2017 season: to earn a spot at either the European or World Duathlon Championships and get to represent Great Britain at an age group level. Having not been entirely prepared for the European qualifier the previous autumn I had to endure a long wait hoping for a roll down spot while trying to focus on getting ready to try and qualify for the Worlds in Canada.
It actually came as a massive surprise when I received an email late in February saying that I had picked up a spot to go and race in Spain in May, and the excitement of knowing I had already achieved my goal to wear GB kit took the pressure off racing in Bedford to qualify for worlds. I think largely because of that I raced one of my most complete duathlons, and knew within minutes of crossing the finish line that I would be able to fly across the world and race the World Duathlon Championships that summer.
European Duathlon Championships
The European Duathlon championships in Soria, Spain, were always going to be a memorable experience purely as it was my first international competition and the first time I could represent GB. From that perspective I felt less nervous about the race, which was going to be tough given the climate, altitude, and terrain, and tried as much as possible to enjoy the experience.
Arriving in Spain I knew I wasn’t going to be pushing for any medals as my winter training had been pretty lax and my only goal was not to be last. I managed to achieve that, finishing 33rd, but it wasn’t without its struggles. The altitude made the run feel far harder than any 5k I had run before and the bike became a brutal struggle through gale force winds and up never ending slopes. Combined with a frustrating drafting penalty on the bike I was surprised I was able to finish in the position I did and overall happy with the race as a learning experience.
Getting fit for summer
Soria was a real turning point for me with my multisport racing. I had always enjoyed triathlon and duathlon, but that was the race when I no longer wanted to take part and finish but compete to the best of my ability and to win. So rather than taking a break from training, I quickly started to put together a training plan which, for the first time ever, included consistent and structured swim sessions. I then set about targeting some key triathlons before heading to Canada for the World Duathlon championships.
Going from about 3-4 hours training a week to 8-10 was tough and my body took a while to adjust, but quickly I began to feel the benefits and that drive to compete kept me going through the early mornings and long sets in the pool.
To see if it was all worth it, I entered two triathlons I had completed previously: the Bedfordshire county championships and the London triathlon (coincidentally my first ever race), but this time with the aim of finishing on the podium for my age group for both.
Both times I was impressed by how much my swim had come on compared to previous seasons and I was able to take full advantage of my strong biking to continue to move up positions. In Bedford I was able to hit out on the run course in 1st place for my age group but unfortunately couldn’t hold on when I was caught from behind and had to accept second position. In complete contrast, due to the size of the event and the wave format, it was impossible to work out how I was doing in London but I had strong legs going into the run and was able to complete a personal best for the final leg of a tri. Even though I knew I had put in a strong performance I was still shocked to take home bronze in my age group, and that event was probably the biggest boost to my confidence with Worlds coming just a month later.
The World Duathlon Championships, Penticton, Canada
Unlike Soria, I wanted to compete in Penticton and really push my body as hard as possible to see what it could do. Going into the race I knew that, being draft legal, the opening run was key as getting into a good bike group would make a huge difference for before a sprint finish over the final 2.5k run.
Although I got no sleep the night before, I got up feeling pretty energetic, and despite stories of tyres exploding in transition due to the heat (we had to rack the day before), I was relieved to find everything still in tact and could get on with my usual routine. It was then that I realised the first run was going to be tough. I knew from Soria how fast the pace would be for the first kilometre and as I went through my warm-ups my legs felt heavy and tired and putting in the power was a real struggle.
Despite pushing it hard from the start and holding onto a fast group for the first kilometre or so I knew my legs didn’t have it to hold for the rest of the first run and I had to switch to thinking about saving my legs for the bike and seeing what I could do on an undulating course that would suit my riding. On the bike I was instantly able to start reeling in those in front of me as we took on some early climbs, the only downside being that they were unable to stick on my wheel and so when it came to the flat sections I was isolated until being mopped up by a large group from behind.
Overall, my bike performance was strong as I was able to drive on the group I ended up in, but once back out on the run course my legs were really suffering and I had to force my way around, losing places, and falling out of the top 10. In the end I took 13th but finished as the fastest Brit. This secured my pre-qualification for next year’s championships and despite a somewhat frustrating performance, I couldn’t have been happier with the result!
Ending the season on a high and looking to 2018
Coming back from Canada I just wanted to continue racing, and for the first time I took on not 1 but 2 Olympic distance triathlons. With no real finish time in mind I was amazed to finish top 10 in both, and wrapped up the season looking forward to a strong period of winter training and to see what I can achieve next season.
Goals for 2018:
- Compete at the Elite Duathlon championships in March
- Race the British Standard Triathlon Championships in June
- Qualify for European Sprint Triathlon Championships in September
- Finish top 10 at the World Duathlon Championships in July
- Maybe do a middle distance triathlon?