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Coaching Emma Clarke!

It’s no secret that Matt has been coaching several professional Iron Man athletes last year and this year, starting with the great Tim Don and his Iron Man record before his unfortunate incident in Kona last year. In fact, we make quite a big deal of it at Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching – because it is a big deal to us! However, its important not to forget that coaching amateur athletes is the core of what we do and is also a big deal, so I would like to talk about the process that one such amateur has gone through in the last 12 months to complete (with a massive PB) Ironman Austria.

I received a triathlon coaching request in July last year from Adam Clarke, who I’d already been coaching for the cycling part of triathlons for a while. He said his wife Emma and he had entered Ironman Austria in 2018 and they both needed coaching for it. It was a bit of a surprise as he hadn’t mentioned Ironman before, but I went with it and said yes, lets do it! Emma said that ‘As soon as I entered the Ironman in July 2018, I knew I wanted Gareth to coach me. The results he'd had with my husband Adam so far had been amazing and I wanted in!! What I hadn't expected was how hard it would be, how much I'd love it, and how quickly I'd see the results!’.

For Emma, the first thing to do was to get to know her and her background. All new clients are given a consultation with Matt and the assigned coach and this is the first stage in getting to know the athlete. It’s fair to say Emma wasn’t typical of the kind of people that sign up for coaching; she had only learnt to ride a bike at the age of 21 and when asked what her cycling background was she said ‘none’! We quickly put this down to modesty though and we soon discovered that Emma started competing in triathlons in 2014 with a sprint tri and then over the next couple of years stepped up the distances to half and then full ironman (with not much in between!), her biggest achievement being finishing Outlaw full in 2016. So, I knew that Emma knew what to expect from taking part in an ironman, had gained some experience and wasn’t a complete beginner. But I don’t think she knew what to expect from a MBPC training plan and coaching service!

Thankfully, there was nearly 12 months to prepare for Austria and I was confident that Emma could get fitter and faster in that time. Which she most certainly did, but I think she would agree that it was challenging and sometimes emotional process.

Training started in July and Emma got off to a really good start. The long-term goal was on building endurance for the distance to be covered but also trying to insert some speed as well.

Emma trained consistently and was positive about the sessions, feedback was good and Emma seemed to be enjoying the training. Her first race was a standard distance tri in September and I was confident Emma would have a good race after all the hard work she had put in. The numbers said she did well, but the feedback wasn’t so good as she’d struggled to hold a good position and ride with confidence on the new TT bike she had (first one). Fortunately, Emma is local to me so I popped over after the race to make a few tweaks to the position in the hope it would feel better and give Emma more confidence. I knew that eventually she’d need a thorough professional bike fit from Matt, but we were going for small steps. It seemed to work as the next race was a sprint tri and feedback read ‘whoop whoop, held TT position for most of that today and really enjoyed it, especially the fast bit down the hill!’. Job done, another step in the right direction – things were looking good. Emma’s take on things this far was also positive, ‘Within a couple of months I'd gone from being a 13mph cyclist to riding a 19.6 mile 2up TT with Adam at over 20mph on road bikes! The addition of a TT bike was an interesting addition especially as I wasn't a confident cyclist but with much help and encouragement from the MBPC team, I was soon flying and absolutely loving it. I'd pick my TT over my road bike any day now.... apart from on that bloody 90mile sportive Gareth made me do (still not forgiven him....)’.

Emma continued to work hard into the winter and competed in some more events, with improvements each time and a continuous steady build in form and fitness. Unfortunately, the first big challenge was approaching – on the run up to Christmas training pretty much stopped altogether due to the demands of the business that Emma owns. There wasn’t a lot we could do about it, sometimes these things must come first but thankfully things settled down in the new year and we were able to get things back on track.

Training progressed well and the form started to build back up. The first test was a sprint tri in March and Emma smashed her power PB in this race – more great progress! We were starting to move on from building confidence to some of the finer points of racing and I was able to start advising on pacing more so that Emma could do more efficient bike splits. April saw Emma attend a couple of training camps, which were great opportunities to work on volume.

One of the camps was the MBPC one and thankfully triathlon coach Chris Hine attended this and was able to provide Emma with some practical skills coaching. It was a really good training block and it was good for Emma to test the legs with other athletes in the group. She was certainly one of the less experienced cyclists there, but she held her own and worked hard. It was so impressive to hear the feedback from Chris about how focused and determined she was on the camp. She even got to meet Tim Don!

After a short rest to recover from the camps it was time to start to sharpen up for Outlaw Half – the first B race in the plan. Emma had a really strong race and posted a good time for the event, with a massive half IM PB. This was closely followed by a 90-mile sportive, that I encouraged Emma to take part in as it was a good chance to get another long session in on the TT bike. I got some abuse for this as it was hot, windy day but we both knew it was worth doing (I think!). Emma had found things hard up to this point this year, but she remained positive, ‘The last year has had its challenges- an injured foot, a crazy work episode, a twisted pelvis, a bereavement and then river gate but throughout it all Gareth has been nothing but supportive and maintained his belief in me. I joke that I'm more high maintenance for G as my coach than I am for Adam as my Husband..... I'll let them decide the truth of that between them!’.

It was around this time that the pre-race nerves started to kick in and there was a small confidence crisis. It was understandable given the scale of the undertaking ahead, but Emma came over for a coffee and we talked through the race plan and the training that she had been doing so that she could see how much fitter and faster she had become over the months, despite some tough setbacks along the way. We decided it was a good time to go and the bike position properly dialled in so Emma booked to see Matt and George and they helped get her more aerodynamic and resolve some comfort issues that had come up on longer rides. It took some getting used to the new position but hopefully Emma would agree it was worth the effort.

Things were all looking really good until four weeks from race day when Emma did the infamous Deva tri where sewage had been released into the river before the event and lots of competitors were quite ill after. Emma suffered quite badly so the final couple of weeks race prep were really impacted by this. We just had to remind ourselves that the hardest work had already been done and it was most important for Emma to get well before the big day. Her health steadily improved and she managed to get some of the remaining key sessions in.

The weeks before was course recce and taper/sharpening up the race – this all went pretty well and the final bit of feedback said, ‘Felt good, like a coiled spring, ready to go!’. Thank goodness, I was starting to worry!

Race day came around, I couldn’t believe it was a year since we started the process that led to this day. I was watching Emma (and Adam) on the athlete tracker throughout the race and was so pleased when I saw that she had knocked over an hour off her previous Ironman time to finish in 13:41:13. Well done Emma!

In the post-race debrief Emma was pleased to have done a massive PB but was disappointed that her bike time wasn’t quicker. Spoken like a true athlete! I think the run up to the race was far from ideal with the illness that Emma suffered and conditions on the day made it tough for everyone. Small consolation I know if you are feeling a bit disappointed, but I have pointed out the many positives from the race and I think Emma is slowly coming around to feeling good about her achievement and giving herself the credit she deserves. There has already been talk of another Ironman so I’m already thinking about the next steps in getting Emma even stronger and faster.

Personally, I’m really proud of all that Emma has overcome and achieved, she has true grit and determination and I’d love to see her triathlon journey continue (there was also talk of just time trialling!). I think she feels she is a pain in the a@se to me but getting through the challenges, insecurities and general life issues is what its all about and is one of the most rewarding parts of the job for me. So well done Em, you nailed it! But as usual, I will leave her with the final word – ‘Finally race day came at Ironman Austria in 1st July, and as I stood on the start line raring to go I knew all I had to do was believe in the training I'd done. I'm not completely happy with my time, but I'll take it. I could have done more justice to Gareth’s cycling coaching by having a quicker bike time, but all things considered I think I did ok. I'll have to do another Ironman next year just to prove I can get the time I wanted won't I, and there's no one I can think of better than Gareth to make sure I do it. In the mean-time, I fancy a few time trials 😉’.

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