World Championships Chattanooga

Ironman 70.3 World Championships – September 2017

Where do I start with this one? It’s been a far tougher 2017 than I was expecting when I finished last year’s season, now I’ve raced my final race I thought I’d do a season review and race report from America – so get the kettle on and a couple of biscuits and enjoy the read.

The Ironman 70.3 World Championships were definitely the highlight of my triathlon career so far. After last year’s 3rd place I really wanted to do better at this year’s Championships but after such a struggle with injury in the first part of 2017 I went into the race with the mindset of ‘let’s just use this for experience and next year I’ll smash the race in South Africa’. This took a lot of pressure off me and think it’s been the most relaxed I’ve ever been lining up on a World Championship start line. In 2016 when I got back from Australia I went straight into surgery for a hernia operation, this led to 6 weeks recovery during October and early November. I thought I took it steady when I started training again and thought my body would have really appreciated the 6 weeks off, if anything it had the opposite effect and it struggled to get back into the triathlete routine. The main problem was the way I was running – even though my operation had healed I wasn’t running naturally or smoothly as I’d spent so much time bent over protecting my right side (where I had the key hole surgery). This led to massive ITB and out knee problems around the Christmas period and I missed another massive block of running getting physio treatment and spending a lot of time in the gym to try and sort it.

The build up at the beginning of 2017 was slow as I struggled on and off with my ITB and knee problems. In January I literally managed to only run a couple of times so focused heavily on swimming and cycling. In February and March I finally managed to put in a good block of running and built it up slowly. I felt I was finally hitting some good sessions when a week before I was heading out to Cyprus on a training camp I hurt my achilles, this was another massive set back as it stopped me from running at all during the camp and it wasn’t till May when I could properly start up again but a pulled muscle in my back forced me to have a week off work and training. This led to me pulling out of my first two races of the season. By the time I could start putting any good training in again I only had 4 weeks till the Ironman 70.3 European Championships in Denmark. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out and race, which initially was one of my two ‘A’ races but as the flights and accommodation etc was all sorted my parents and I decided to still go and enjoy the long weekend away I decided to use the race as a training block to get back into the swing of things. Luckily Denmark was a turning point in the season where I got 2nd in the 25-29 age group, 2nd amateur overall and picked up my slot for the World Championships, which beforehand I had written off due to the fact in was my first race of 2017 and all my injury woes. From here my season got underway and I travelled to the Outlaw Holkham Half two weeks later picking up 3rd overall in the Elite Age Group wave. After another solid block of training through July and August I flew to Dublin to race in the Ironman 70.3, winning my age group and securing my spot at the Ironman World 70.3 Championships next year in South Africa. This race gave me confidence that all my training over the summer months had gone well and before America I raced in my local triathlon for one final hard session coming 2nd to my unstoppable giant Helston team mate Neil Eddy. With Perranporth triathlon over and enjoyed I was waking up on the Monday before the World Champs ready for a busy week.


Living down in Cornwall you always have to travel a few hours just to reach the airport for the big International flights. That’s why I travelled to London Heathrow on the Monday afternoon, got a hotel by the airport and flew to America on the Tuesday morning. Because the time difference wasn’t as extreme as Australia last year, I knew I could get away with arriving just a few days before the race. I landed in Atlanta on the Tuesday afternoon, picked up my rental car and made the 2 hour drive across to Chattanooga. I was nervous when arriving at my air b n b hosts house but I had nothing to worry about, Marissa was very welcoming and made me feel at home straight away.

Wednesday was a nice chilled day, I spent the morning relaxing and building my bike before taking it for an hours spin before lunch. In the afternoon I drove to the race venue where I was able to sign in, pick up my race pack and start checking the transitions etc out. I got talking to the guys at the local running shop Fast Break Athletics and they were super friendly. They virtually game me my own car space for the week which saved me a lot of money and was only a mile walk across the river to the race. Wednesday evening I headed down to Brewhaus with Marissa where she introduced me to a group of runners who all meet up for a social 5k run followed by food and a pint at the pub.

Thursday I headed down to the swim recce. As the river was a busy shipping river we couldn’t swim the actual course which would be out on race day, but I managed to still get an idea of what the water flow would be like, and as the water temperature was so warm it gave me a chance to have a non-wetsuit swim as the rumours floating around were that wetsuits would be banned. Thursday evening I attended the opening ceremony where a nice buffet was supplied and this was followed by the race briefing. Nothing exciting to report, it was just like any other Ironman 70.3 race (just with a lot more athletes taking to the start line!). Friday was a nice relaxing chilled day and I even managed to head to Chattanooga Aquarium for a couple of hours to help pass the time but stay away from the triathlon bubble.

Saturday is when I started getting into racing mode. In the morning, Julian and I had decided that I should try and stay off my feet as much as possible, and even though I really wanted to go down and support the women (this was the first time in the history of Ironman that the age group and professional men/women would be competing on different days) we decided it would be better for me to stay at the house and watch the race live online. After the women’s race was over I headed down in the afternoon to drop off my bike, transition bags and go through my pre-race routine like any other event. I had one final check of the swim exit, transition in and outs and just made sure I was totally happy with the course and number of laps etc. Marissa even kindly helped me carry all my kit across the bridge, and even went out with friends in the evening so I could relax in the evening, cook my pre-race meal dinner and switch off watching Netflix.

I woke up just before my alarm on the Sunday morning at 5am and lay in bed visualizing everything I had to go through. My race time start was at 09:04am but because there were so many age group waves I had to be out of transition by 07:30am. This was slightly annoying as I had to leave Marissa’s at 6am (the time ideally I would be getting up and having breakfast) so I decided to have a slightly bigger breakfast than usual 3 and a half hours before the race, then top up with some flapjack an hour before the start like I normally do. Leaving the house there was a slight chill in the air as it was still dark, but knew it would be a hot day ahead. Upon arrival at transition the site was buzzing with athletes and music and the sun was just starting to shine over the Tennessee river. I headed to my bike, pumped the tyres and sorted my race day nutrition out. I was then out at 07:30am and found a patch on the grass overlooking the starting pontoon and watched the professional men finish their warm up and start their day. I was jealous of them being able to start so early and knew that they would be finished before I even get off the bike. Luckily the hour and a half passed quickly and I was in the starting pen ready to go.

The swim start was a rolling start with our respective age group based on our swim times, with 8 athletes starting every 15 seconds. Knowing I would be one of the stronger swimmers in my age group I made sure I pushed myself right to the front as didn’t want to be swimming over people. I had a good start to the swim and it was awesome being allowed to dive in off the pontoon rather than a deep-water start. However the three age group waves before us were the 60-64, 55-59 and 50-54 and it seemed that within the first 300m I was starting to catch some of the slower athletes up. It then became a game of swimming between them all and hoping I was taking the shortest line possible. The water temperature was just below the wetsuit cut-off so everyone had their wetsuits on, it just became very warm and by 2/3rds of the way through I was over heating and ready to exit. I was pleased to make the final left hand buoy turn and crossed the timing chip in 26 minutes and 48 seconds. I ran up the steep ramp, grabbed my T1 bag where I put on my helmet and sunglasses and packed my wetsuit away. Finding my bike was easier than expected with over 2000 other bikes in transition and was out on the road in no time.

The bike course took us 5 miles south of the town which was nice and flat, with the big hill coming up I focused on getting my heart rate down and started drinking to keep on top of hydration. The route then began the 3.5 mile climb up Lookout Mountain where I felt strong (apart from my chain coming off as I changed down from the top to bottom chain ring, after a quick 20 second stop I was back rolling again) and started over taking a lot of athletes in the previous waves, with a couple of guys walking up the steep part (I guess that’s why they call them push bikes!). The views from the top were incredible, not that we got to enjoy them before the massive decent down the other side. As we were coming down and hitting speeds of 40mph, a rider next to me blew his rear tyre but luckily managed to stay upright and in control of his bike otherwise it could have been a nasty crash. When we reached the bottom we headed back north through Chickamauga before the final flat fast section to Chattanooga. I kept to my power and heart rate zones throughout the race and made sure that I kept on top of nutrition and hydration as the day was starting to get very warm and knew the decisions I made on the bike when it came to food and drink would affect how well (or not) the run would go. I completed the bike in 2 hours, 23 minutes and 11 seconds.

The run was a two-loop course and the first thing I thought when leaving transition was ‘it’s going to be a hot 13 miles!’. I started off controlled and decided to try and run within myself for the first loop, and if I had anything left, pick it up for loop two. As it was a rolling start, and with so many other athletes from the other age groups around I didn’t know what position I was in. The first part of the run went onto the Tennessee Riverwalk then onto the Riverfront Parkway. I felt strong and was over taking a lot of runners. We headed across the bridge onto the other side of the river for a small loop before heading back over to complete lap two. There were some nasty hills but I knew this played to my advantage being a strong runner so pushed these hard and hoped I could recover enough on the downhill. The second lap I felt good and tried to pick up the pace, and in the final 3 miles decided to not even slow down at the aid stations as the 5-10 seconds per station could be the difference between a podium or not. I didn’t want to make the same mistake as Dublin and get beaten by a small margin so I sprinted the final 200m and crossed the line in 1 hour, 17 minutes and 17 seconds knowing I couldn’t of given anymore.

I was so happy to have crossed the line knowing I had given it 100% and not had any major dramas. I went through the recovery area and then grabbed my clothes to get changed into. I walked back to the car to grab my phone and then found a café with Wi-Fi to grab a coffee and try and find some results. As soon as I connected I had a lot of ‘congratulations’ messages come through and knew straight away I had done well. I managed to call my dad over the Wi-Fi where he gave me the good news I had won my age group and was a World champion. It had taken 10 years to get there but I had finally done it! I really wish my parents could have been there to see me race but luckily they tracked the entire race online. The awards evening was amazing and I felt very proud standing up on stage with my trophy and World Age Group Champion cycling jersey.

Even sat on the plane 48 hours later and it still hadn’t sunk in what I had achieved. Racing the Ironman 70.3 World Championships last year I had the 5 year plan of winning my age group, now I’ve achieved this I’ve got to decide a new path and can’t wait to begin aiming towards new targets and goals.

I raced one final race at the end of the season at the Votwo events Eton Dorney Standard triathlon, where I finished the season with a win. It was a challenging season but turned out so much better than I thought 6 months ago injured and unable to train. This season would not have been possible with coach Julian Wills, I trusted him every step of the way and he made me a World Champion. Laura at Verve Fitness and Therapy who had a tough job ahead of her with so many injures to help manage. The continued kit support from Giant-Helston, Snugg Wetsuits, Asics GB, Endura Sports, Torq Nutrition and Fizik Saddles. Without any of these the season would have been even tougher. I’m enjoying some downtime now before the hard work for 2018 begins!


Michael Birchmore

Training hard is what I do

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