Britain's Highest Triathlon - Preparing For The Braveheart Triathlon

Last year,  Deacon Blue band member and BBC presenter, Dougie Vipond,  was ordered by TV producers to take on the 2016 Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon. Here, Sean McFarlane details the ways in which he helped Dougie, a fairly good runner and cyclist but inexperienced open-water swimmer, to prepare for the task he had ahead of him in the midst of the Scottish Highlands…

Preparation and Training in 2016:

There’s no doubting Dougie’s continued enthusiasm for what will undoubtedly be a truly epic day as he takes part in the Ben Nevis Braveheart triathlon. Yet his training over the past few months has been infested with that word I suspect that every one of us know all too well – inconsistency. For now, we stop and look at where Dougie currently is at as he prepares for the big day. Over a latte and a not particularly well-deserved scone, we muse about how the last few months have not really been about solid progress. Instead, matters could best be described as treading water (as could Dougie’s swim stroke be similarly described). The main reason for all this? Normal life had got in the way. Sound familiar? Well, if it doesn’t you’re very much in the minority.

For vast swathes of us, we never look back and say we’ve trained enough. A host of things get in the way, from work to family, from colds to the weather. And so they should, because life after all is about so much more than training, isn’t it? The best laid training plans seem to always come unstuck. Perhaps it’s best not to lay them so well in the first place. As a very busy TV and radio broadcaster, Dougie’s work-life balance varies wildly from week-to-week, with eleventh hour rescheduling the bane of his life. Typical, in that regard, was a somewhat last minute announcement (in Dougie’s opinion – I suspect he’d actually known for months!) by his band Deacon Blue that they were to record a new album. With that, any hope of a solid training block in spring went out of the window.

However, from the outset both Dougie and I as his coach knew and fully expected this could happen. So the feeling is currently more one of frustration rather than disappointment. There’s also a good measure of excited anticipation about what we’re planning over the next couple of months. We can work very well with those emotions; and I have no doubt that the caged animal feeling can be harnessed when it comes to upping the training. I fully suspect however, that after Ben Nevis on 17th September Dougie will gladly crawl back into that cage, lock it up and throw away the key!

Looking at things positively, Dougie could do the Braveheart course tomorrow, and so I suspect could many readers. Okay, he might not make the cut-off times, particularly in the swim, even though the 45 minutes allowed for the first lap is extremely generous – yes, his swimming is really that bad! Nonetheless, the course itself is already very achievable for Dougie and that’s a great starting point. Oddly enough that has always been our starting point since we first decided he was doing the race back last August. So what we need now is progress. Not massive improvement, but just solid steps in the right direction.

The tunnel is not long and there’s certainly light at the end of it. We’ve known for several months that Dougie will have far more free time in July and August. So for now, it’s time to get more specific training done in preparation for the race. Enjoyment is at the heart of all this and we’re set for some fabulous big days in the infamous Scottish sun. For both Dougie and I, this has always been first and foremost about enjoying the journey. The destination, for now at least, may well be a date with Ben Nevis on 17th September, but we’ll be sure to have some truly wonderful stops along the way. Stops which may have previously been beyond Dougie’s fitness level but are now very much attainable. These adventures will connect him with the landscape in a way nothing else can and his excitement at the prospect is difficult to contain. It’s a personal highlight for me to see such enthusiasm from Dougie. After all, this really is what all this lark is about.

The best laid plans…

Let’s take the three disciplines in order and look at our (rough and flexible) plans for each. These are designed to make the most of the summer:

Swim

Swimming is the main concern. It always has been and frankly I suspect always will be. So we’re making a big effort to get out and enjoy the open water. Confidence for Dougie, and anyone struggling with the swim in general, is vital. Speed in the water is a distant, and I suspect forlorn hope for him. Instead the focus is to make him more comfortable in the water with the hope that he can exit Loch Linnhe in relatively good shape. He’s already becoming more efficient in the water. However, he’s still got a long way to go and escaping the pool and getting outside is important.

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Already I’ve seen a marked difference in Dougie’s face between arriving at the poolside and a loch carpark. The grimaces and winces now been replaced with wry smiles and wide open eyes. The pool will still play an important role for some technique work but the priority will be to try to enjoy the whole experience. So for that, we’re heading outdoors and into some spectacular and safe lochs. He’ll connect with the landscape by simply charging into it. So far, our first few open water sessions have been with me in the kayak alongside Dougie. I’ll shortly get in the water with him and begin to push the boundaries, slowly. He needs to work at being as comfortable as possible in the open water. The plan for now is to have him able to swim 2km (he can stop as much as he likes) by the end of August. I also want him to be able to do that in water that is a similar temperature to what can be expected come race day. This might mean heading out after a decent spell of rain to allow a loch to cool down, or heading into the sea.

Cycle

We’ve already decided on Dougie’s race bike. It’s an aero road bike with tri bars. Riding it now means he will have plenty of time to get used to it, which is crucial. Riding with tri bars for the first time can be tricky – remember the first time you used clip-in pedals and promptly fell over at traffic lights? Riding on the tri bars significantly changes your riding position and with a course like the Braveheart where you could spend much time on the tri bars, it’s essential to be comfortable and confident in doing so. I’m glad to report Dougie already looks comfortable so that is encouraging.

I have no great concerns about his ability to do the bike course. I do want to ride the actual course with him, it’s actually pretty flat for a ride in the Highlands so it may well not be what he is expecting – we’ll do that in the next few months.

As Dougie’s fitness increases, it’s important to “reward” him for that by taking him on a few adventures which his new fitness level means he can now manage. So we’ll do some epic Scottish one-day rides. These will be well over the race distance but that doesn’t matter. These will be a real celebration of fitness. We’ll plan by blocking out say three days and go when the weather looks its best. It makes all the difference.

Run

Dougie currently has the ability to run the distance (undoubtedly slowly) but unsurprisingly the ascent, descent and terrain are a problem! So we’re getting off-road and up the hills. We have a couple of challenging and fun point-to-point runs, which we initially planned on doing back in November. Best laid plans and all that.

Nice pubs are conveniently located at the finishes to provide a suitable target. We’ll start these in our local hills which are mainly grass covered, but later on we’ll go for some bigger hills and Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft) with more challenging terrain. We have a couple of Munro runs in mind that start and finish at carparks conveniently located at a decent height. It’s important to give Dougie a sense of being able to do some seriously awesome adventures which in reality are very achievable. When we talk of Munro runs, he often says to me “I’d love to do be able to do that run.”

Well, now he can, just about. One thing worth mentioning to readers not used to hill “runs”: when we talk of hill and particularly Munro runs – there will be lots and lots of walking involved. For Dougie, I’d expect at least 50% of a Munro run to be walking. But we’ll still call it a run, as it sounds much better!

That’s our rough plan for the three disciplines over the next couple of months. In the main we’ll try and do most of these in decent weather but we can’t pre-order the weather on 17th September so we’ll also get out in less favourable conditions. Solid progress is the aim with a great deal of fun and enjoyment added in.

The other key issue which spans the whole race is of course nutrition. By upping the volume on training, Dougie will be able to effectively experiment with his nutrition, both in terms of what he takes and how he is to carry and access it. For far too many people, race day nutrition is something very different to what they take on board in training. Their bodies haven’t experienced it before and that leads to a host of problems. On top of that, the extra amounts required need carrying systems on the bike and run that without a doubt require practice.

So in very simply terms Dougie needs to work on practicing what he is putting in his mouth on 17th September and how it is going to get there! Real food will likely form a decent part of his race day nutrition, or at least I will be advising him to experiment with that over the next few months during our bigger days. Of course, if after practising with it he finds he prefers sports nutrition products, then that’s fine. The important thing is to go with what is tried and tested for you. One very common mistake most of us make is that come race day we need something but can’t stomach what we have. That’s a huge mistake and, although very commonly made, is easily avoided. Practice with what works for you.

We’re steadily getting to the business end of things. There’s no great cause for concern, for now. We do need solid progress, we have a plan and I’m confident we’ll get most of it done. Motivation can be a major problem at this stage, particularly for a race like this that comes at the end of the season yet, Dougie’s enthusiasm remains steadfast, and as his coach that makes things so much easier. So, while for others having a race in September can be a challenge, I for one am very glad it isn’t in July!