NEW COACH, NEW LEARNING, NEW RACING AND MANY NEW ADVENTURES TO COME
A little reflection on my first season coached by Jon
It was back in May in a Pub in central Oxford, the night after a victorious Oxford-Cambridge varsity triathlon when my little coaching fairy-tale began. With my friends from the Oxford tri club, we laughing about the guy who left transition with his helmet on, were celebrating our successes as a team and the contemplating the necessary and not so necessary (like that extra bike you always need…) steps to make us better triathletes. I mentioned that I needed some more structure in my training and more strategic coaching to fulfil my triathlon ambitions of racing for my country, and this was when my friend David recommended that I reach out to see whether Jon Cowell would take me on as one of his athletes. ‘Jon is top of the coaching league with more than 20 years of experience’ David said, and only a week later I found myself on a video call with JC, outlining how after 10 years of National-Team level rowing, and a rather unstructured but successful first year in Triathlon I wanted to take my performance to the next level. JC seemed very excited about my plans and suggested I come up to his coaching base for an assessment day, which to me really proved that his approach to coaching was highly personalized and professional.
A day of testing and aquathlon adventures at Spring Lakes
Early on a Tuesday morning the following week I took the 6am train up towards Nottingham. Jon kindly picked me up at the station and after a quick coffee trip to Costa’s to get some caffeine in for the day we got to the Spring Lakes Aquapark. First up, was an open water session with coaching from the kayak, one hour in the water with lots of sighting and breathing practice to hone my open water skills and give Jon an idea of how to better put my strength to use in the water. Next up, the good old step test on the bike – my chance to shine as an ex-rower with strong legs and a big aerobic base – but also an opportunity for JC and me to see black on white that I need to improve my top-end speed to ‘push back the lactate curve’. After a quick lunch, we headed out to the trails around the lake for a run video analysis. A couple of videos later we got what we needed: a video proof that my running needed to be significantly improved, and JC showed me three key drills that instantly improved my running form. ‘Lean forward’ and ‘kick’ became the mantra of my run legs in the following triathlons.
The testing day at Jon’s coaching base ended with an ad-hoc participation at the Spring lakes aquathlon, preceded by a fun last minute set up action for the event, including rolling out blue transition mats and fighting against the wind to anchor the big red HUUB buoys for the swim course. I got home at after midnight, tired and satisfied with an exciting day with plenty of new data, a clear idea for the way forward and the knowledge that I had made an excellent choice reaching out to JC.
My first draft-legal race in the German Bundesliga
The first time JC coached me for a race was for my first start in the 2nd Bundesliga in Germany – a draft-legal national sprint distance racing league where athletes start for their clubs – in my case Team Berlin. After three weeks of training abroad and getting to grips with Training Peaks and with a way of training that was more intensity than volume-focused, I felt physically well primed for the race. A great video call with JC about bike strategy and where and how to place myself during the technical bike leg made me confident and excited for the race. On race day I managed to stick with my teammates in the second pack on the swim, took charge on the bike leading the chasing pack and by half the bike course we had chased down the leaders. I dismounted in the front of the group, almost slipping at the downhill dismount line, and kept the high pace up into the 400m (!) long run into transition. Ultimately it came down to the run and after 1km with the lead pack I had the beans left to steadily stride away, increasing my pace kilometre by kilometre in the ‘progression run’ manner JC and I had agreed on. I came away with a great learning experience and my first victory on German triathlon ground and we managed to secure a Team win too
BUCS standard distance triathlon
Only one week later, a standard distance race was on the programme. It was time for the last British University Championships race of the season – a meet up of all the top university triathletes from across the country. Going into the week with race fatigue, JC managed to write me a training programme that got me primed but fresh to the start line. I had a brilliant swim in the front pack, catching people on the hilly bike course and trail running to a second place with my first sub 39min 10k run during a triathlon. Another clear sign that the training was suiting me well. Now it was time to properly focus on the goal of the season – a podium finish at European Age Group Championships in Munich in my home country.
A month of ups and downs
The season so far was like a fairy tale, with each race better than the previous and I was having an absolute blast, waking up in the morning eager for a day of tough but rewarding training. As part of our mission to work on my top-end speed, JC and I decided to enter the Super Series event in Mallory Park, a super sprint with a qualifier and a final on the same day and JC came down to watch me race. After stressful weeks of PhD life and a house move, my lower back was starting to cause me troubles, with pinching pain and tight hip flexors. On race day, I did my best to mobilize my back and to warm up, but my body seemed to work against me. In the qualifier I came out of the water in the back of the pack, worked my way forwards on the bike, and then experienced a lower back spasm as I was dismounting from the bike into the run. I pushed through the run and finished 7th in the qualifier, enough to make the A-Final. However, JC and I decided to not line up in the final and to instead focus on recovery to give my body the best chances for Munich. JC helped me to make this informed decision and in hindsight I highly appreciate that we were able to act sensibly and keep the bigger goal in mind despite my race hunger..
Medal day in Munich
We put in a month of targeted training, a mix of race pace swims, brick sessions and fast short interval runs, to prepare for my first international triathlon competition. Arrived in Munich my back was aching again from the long travels in cars and trains and the pinching sensation flared up again. For a few days I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to race as I could barely tie my shoes. But a mix of stretching, long warm ups and the all-encompassing Munich spectator hype got me to the start line
What an amazing event it proved to be – a swim in a beautiful blue lake, followed by a point to point cycle on winding small roads into the city and a scenic hilly run in the historic Olympic Park. The day before the race JC and I made a race plan: go out aggressively on the swim, push hard and break away on the bike and give it all on the run. As often with plans, they don’t always work out… My body felt very inhibited on the swim, I took some bad drafting decisions and I got out of the water in the middle of the group but found an excellent group of girls working together on the bike to hunt down the leaders in the front. On the last 2km of the bike I managed to break away, and all the gruelling personalized turbo sessions and the threshold were work paying off. I moved quickly through transition and then gave everything my tired body had left on the run, pushing up the hills where JC cheered me on and closing the gap to the two leading girls down to 30 seconds.
In the end it was a bronze medal, a medal that almost felt like gold to me after not knowing whether I would be able to race and after literally moving like an old grandma for weeks. A medal that I largely credit to JC, thanks to the way he helped me navigate through the ups and downs, helped me make informed decisions in racing and training, always receptive and willing to adapt the training and who was looking out for the whole human and not only the athlete.
Now, after an off season with a focus on recovering my back and putting a physiotherapy system in place to strengthen and release my body, I am looking forward to the next adventures, maybe a little trip into long distance racing and for sure many more fun triathlon moments to come!