Race Report: Challenge Almere, the Netherlands

SVB Bike

Race Report by Stephan Van Brummelen

After Ironman Maastricht ( see my previous blog ) I had a 2 week family holiday to recover and for my injuries to heal. It became apparent however though that my hip injury was not going to go away quickly. I had however already booked Challenge Almere ( another Iron distance triathlon -> 2.4 mile swim ( 3.8km ), 112 mile bike ride ( 180km ) followed by a full 26.2 mile marathon ( 42.2km )). A quick exchange with the organisers made it clear that although they were sympathetic, I would lose my full entry fee if I didn’t participated in the event. This didn’t please me at all but also effectively left me with no choice but to mentally prepare myself for another Ironman triathlon.

There were 6 weeks between Ironman Maastricht and Challenge Almere, the first two weeks whilst on holiday I managed some swimming, a bit of cycling and some strength work. Running  however was out of the question as every attempt at running made my hip injury flare up. As a result I focused on the other 2 disciplines ( swimming and cycling ) and also made an appointment with the local sports physio when I returned from holiday.

Fellow holiday goers were treated to the sight of me squeezing into my wetsuit as I set off to do some longer distances along the coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Apart from some huge jelly fishes floating disturbingly close to me, I managed to get some decent swim training in without issue.

SVB Training Swim

Training in the Mediterranean sea

The sports physio back in Banbury put me through my paces until he was certain that there was no structural damage to my hip joint or tendons. Really pleased to work with a sports physio who was focusing on what I could do and helping me get fit again for the next challenge. I got the all clear after that appointment and with 3 weeks to go I could attempt to run again.

When I went out for my first run I managed to run for an hour without pain although the discomfort was there which made me weary about how much my hip would be able to take, particularly given the demands of a full marathon as the last part of the Ironman.

Working with my coach we scheduled my training around this limitation to get some running in before the event. As a result my week leading up to the event was still a training week with some hard effort sessions rather than the traditional taper and reduction of volume. This meant I went into the days leading up to the events carrying more fatigue than previously.

The race was again in the Netherlands which meant a full day of travelling by car on the Thursday before the race. This time my trip had the added detour of going via a cycle shop ( Evers Cycling ) in Maastricht to pick up my triathlon bike which I left there to be repaired and checked over following my crash during Ironman Maastricht. They kept my bike whilst I was on holiday and this allowed them to fit it in despite the short notice.

Fortunately they managed to completely mend my bike and straighten out my wheels, excellent service; they really went above and beyond. It was nice to be given back my TT-bike by the person who did the work on it and even took it out for a test ride just to make sure there were no hidden issues. With the well-meant words from the bike shop technician “it won’t be the bike letting you down” ringing in my ears I set off to stay with family and friends.

Friday ( the day before the race ) I started the day with a 30 minute ride to ensure my bike was in working order with a few efforts at race pace to gauge what pace I could be cycling at during the race at my predicted power levels. Then it was a quick change into my running shoes ( I was wearing a Tri suit for ease of changeover ) and a 15 minute run at race pace to get a feel of what my hip injury would allow me to run at. The sight of me running in a Tri suit probably bemused ( or disturbed ) a number of locals who were up early for a walk ( Tri suits leave very little if anything to the imagination ).

Then after a quick breakfast it was off to the pool for an easy swim set to loosen up the muscles and some light active recovery.

SVB Report

At the Challenge Almere Venue

The afternoon was scheduled for race registration, race briefing, bike check in and the pre-race pasta party. The Long distance Almere triathlon ( now under the Challenge brand )  has been the longest going event after Ironman Hawaii and location wise this was obvious from the moment we arrived at the venue. The main venue was the Theatre ( Schouwburg ) in Almere, which was well laid out to cater for the athletes for the various distances and events that were held over the course of the weekend. Essentially it was a weekend of triathlons with various distances and group races catered for. There was an immediate buzz and energy when we arrived; registration was done smoothly and efficiently. Unlike Ironman events we didn’t get a backpack or similar so I was glad I had brought my Ironman Maastricht backpack with me to store the various bags and goodies we got.

It was evident from the registration and walking around that various athletes were showing off their athletic achievements wearing finishers T-shirts from previous events. There is the unspoken set of rules to wearing finishers t-shirts to an event below captures the sentiment, ( credit to 220 triathlons columnist Martyn Brunt )

T-Shirt What you think it says: What it really says:
Any T-shirt from a 5k, 10k or half-marathon race I am a superb runner I haven’t done a triathlon
Finisher’s T-shirt from a sprint triathlon I am a triathlete I am a novice
Marathon finisher’s race T-shirt I am an endurance athlete I am a crap swimmer and crap cyclist
Olympic tri finisher’s T-shirt I am a better triathlete than everyone wearing a sprint tri t-shirt I am either to young or to old to do anything longer than 2.5 hours
Ironman 70.3/middle distance finisher’s T-shirt I am a proper endurance athlete I haven’t done an Ironman
Something wacky or adventurous like Xterra, Channel swim, Lands’ End to John O’Groats…etc I am the real deal I haven’t done an Ironman
Non-Ironman Ironman T-shirt from Outlaw, Challenge series…etc I have definitely done an Ironman I still haven’t done an Ironman
Ironman finishers T-shirt


I AM AN IRONMAN I haven’t been to Kona
Double Ironman finishers T-shirt Ironman is for wimps I have given up trying to get to Kona
Ironman Kona world championship finisher’s t-shirt Top this you b*****ds The race cost me so much money I may have to fake my own death and move to Venezuela

Needless to say I was proudly donning my Ironman Maastricht finishers T-shirt and thereby admitting that I haven’t been to Kona ( yet… as this still remains an aspiration ), if anything it proved a good conversation starter with other triathletes there. Being Dutch meant that I could attend the race briefing in Dutch. The race briefing was thorough although a downside was that they no longer handout arm bands per lap completed on the run ( I will come back to that later on )

Nice touch was that after the race briefing the stage of the theatre had been set up for the pasta party in other words the athletes got to take to the stage, which I thought was a lovely gesture

The pasta party was well catered, lots of food and we made good use of what was there. Sharing a table with one of the Dutch triathlon clubs meant that invariably the conversation turned to previous races and predicted finishing times. I sat and listened quietly to some of the predictions being made. Given that my preparation had been less than ideal following on from my injury, I had no idea what to expect, particularly on the run so I declined to do a prediction regarding my finishing time. My general philosophy tends to be that I rather under promise and over perform than over promise and under perform. One thing I definitely learned is that an Ironman is a very long event and it has to be treated with respect.

After the pasta party it was back to my accommodation for some final hydration and nutrition prep as well as go through my race plan. Once organised, I had a quick chat with my younger brother, who would be doing the race as well. It was interesting to hear his views and expectations regarding the race, particularly given that it was his first iron distance race. In his mind this was the race where he would bench mark himself against the professional athletes and then come back and turn pro next year. Ambitious goals I thought, we would see how he would get on…

Then bed time and try to get some sleep as it always is a very early start before a long distance race. Fortunately I did manage to sleep about 5 hours so when my alarm went off at 4:00am I felt ok. I had some strong coffee and some carbs for breakfast as and made an electrolyte drink to sip on until arrival at the race venue.

The venue was about a 40 minute drive away on deserted roads which gave me time to go through my race plan in my head and play some motivational music ( I have a playlist I use when training which I play before a race ( no music players are allowed during a race ) which I find helps me “get in the zone”

Arriving at a venue on race morning is always special, the atmosphere is great and the sense of excitement and anticipation is palpable. Whilst setting up my bike and adding last minute hydration and nutrition I chatted with two other athletes then it was time to get changed into my wetsuit. Standing on the side of the lake I mentally prepared myself for the day of suffering ahead, it’s a daunting realisation knowing that for the next 10 or so hours I would be giving my all…

My brother and I met up on the side of the lake and walked to the ramp together, we gave each other a hand shake to say good luck whilst we watched the male pros and female pros start and then it was time to get into the water. We both went our separate ways in the water to line up for the starting positions.

Fortunately the water temperature wasn’t too cold and the weeds had been cut back ( I.e. I could see them but they were deep down enough as to not get caught in them )

SVB Swim

Swim exit, looking determined

The Swim 2.4 miles ( 3800metres ), ( target 1:10 actual time 1:05:41 )

07:30 Age Groupers ( us ) swim start, as the swim is a mass start, I positioned myself near the front but also tried to find a place to stay out of trouble during the first part of it. As is common with mass starts, it’s frantic and violent. My tactic was to put in more effort and swim at a higher stroke rate with the aim to draft other swimmers where I could for the first part of the swim. As soon as the gun went off the mass started and it was wild. From the start it looked like most of the athletes were swimming a 400m sprint rather than a 3800m endurance swim. What added to this was that there was a natural pinch point clearing the venue building on the edge of the lake which formed a bottle neck. More people than space equalled some water based wrestling and I think this caught some people out as there were some swimmers trying to swim breast stroke at the front. Breast stroke is a lot slower than front crawl so safe to say this experience didn’t end well for them as several hundred hyped up type A personality athletes swam over them. I did see some people getting dunked under water but fortunately managed to avoid this myself.

Apart from a few knocks and having to reposition myself I got off fairly lightly until the first turning buoy where everyone came together again. This caused a repeat of the aforementioned water wrestling and again I did see a few people being dunked under by over excited other swimmers. After the turning buoy it opened up and I chose to swim a wider line to the outside of the swim course ( this would add to the overall distance but I much rather swim at my own pace in my own space then get caught up in water based wrestling ). You can’t win the event in the swim but you can certainly lose it if you use up too much energy during the swim.

At this time the sun was coming up and the sunlight was in our eyes which made navigating the swim course a bit tricky. Fortunately I spotted a large electricity pylon in line with the far end of the course turning buoys which gave me a better marker to aim for.

Swimming in some space allowed me to focus on form and body position and before long I settled into a nice and sustainable rhythm and started to enjoy the swim. The first lap went by relatively quickly, I had my watch set to alarm every 5 minutes as a means of keeping time and track of my swim and during the first lap I counted 6 alarms. This meant that I swam the first lap of 1900m in around 30 minutes and ahead of my target time. So far so good, the second lap was definitely more spread out and less of the previous water based wrestling around the turning buoys.

3/4 around the second lap I upped the pace a bit as well as using my legs more to get the blood circulation going again and avoid having the jelly legs feeling coming out of the water.

The volunteers at the swim exit pulled us out of the water which was very welcome, quick glance down at my watch when I pressed the transition button showed a swim time of 1:05. That put me slightly ahead of schedule and it had felt sustainable.

Transition covers a large area with the bags racked inside an underground changing space. Running into transition I quickly located my bag and set about going for a full change into cycling clothes. As a result I probably lost about 5 minutes over some of the others but I didn’t fancy a 112 mile ride with minimal padding to protect my nether regions. My aero helmet visor wouldn’t attach properly so after a few frustrating attempts I discarded the visor lid and ran out of transition with my bike.

SVB Bike

In the zone on the bike

The Bike, 112 miles / 180km ( planned 5:00, actual 4:54:32 )

Leaving transition 1, the bike course started off on cycle paths along the lake we had just swam in and into a slight headwind. The sun was continuing to rise and as a result it felt crisp but not too cold. I ensured to drink from my build in hydration system as well as take on some solid nutrition. Rather unusually my heart rate wasn’t as high as normal coming out of the swim ( nerves and adrenaline must be starting to abate I thought ) and I felt good knowing that this was my strongest discipline of the three.

A glance down at my power meter showed that despite being at my race goal power I didn’t quite ride at my goal pace. Given that it was still early in the race I chose to stick at my power level and just settle into the bike leg and play the long game.

The cycle path fed us out onto the main bank along the IJsselmeer ( large lake ) and seeing the sunshine reflect off the water was nice. The course headed north west which meant that gradually the wind became a rear crosswind. As a result my pace picked up and at my goal power I was riding easily well over 25mph and catching up other cyclists.

Following my crash at Ironman Maastricht it was safe to say that staying on two wheels was my main priority this time around ( as obvious as that sounds ). As much as my competitive red mist descended I rode more conservatively ensuring I had sufficient room to pass the others cyclists on the course.

The section along the lake is a near arrow straight road and as a result I could see the other athletes in front of me strung out, this became a game of picking them off one by one ( the things I think of to keep myself entertained… )

This game kept me entertained whilst I continued to drink and eat on the bike, arriving at the first aid station still having more than enough liquids on the bike. Mental note to self, the sun was well and truly over the horizon and the temperature was climbing, focus on drinking more. ( I typically under hydrate on the bike which tends to become a problem for me later on in the day ).

Then the course turned into the wind for the second half of the lap; all of a sudden I understood why there were so many wind turbines mounted in the area, as the wind was relentless. Even though the wind speed probably wasn’t that great, the fact that the area was completely flat without any obstacles meant the wind speed would just continue to build.

I also realised another consequence of a completely flat course that there is no break or let up from having to put out constant power in the same position. As we don’t have completely flat sections where I live, this was something I hadn’t trained for in full race trim.

Despite this I did my first lap in 2:24 ( in other words 6 minutes ahead of my goal pace ) which was a nice motivational boost. The wind picked up strength in the second lap and knowing that the second half of the lap was against the wind I decided to ride the first half a bit more conservatively so I could push on the second half of the lap without taking too much out of my legs ( it’s always an intimidating prospect that a full marathon still awaits after the bike ).

Despite having trained with high5 ISO drink without any issues, my stomach didn’t feel quite right on lap 2. Therefore at an aid station I decided to pick up a water bottle to see if that would make me feel better ( this is always a risk as I firmly believe in the concept of only racing with what I have trained with ). After a few sips though, it literally felt like nectar from the Gods and instantly I felt much better which meant I was probably de-hydrated. That definitely is the deceptive part, working hard on the bike, however the wind whisked sweat away and kept me cool so I probably didn’t realise how much liquid I was losing. Lesson learned and water it was for the rest of the lap ensuring I drank a full bottle in between aid stations. As my bike has an integrated hydration system this means emptying the content of a bottle into the hydration system before picking up a new one at an aid station. To accomplish this, I slowed down well before the aid station to ensure I stayed on two wheels and could pick up a new bottle. Thought post-race -> practice this activity over the winter whilst being on the turbo to work on my balance and dexterity.

On the last section of the lap I had slowly been catching a German guy called Joachim; to avoid being caught under the no drafting rule ( which dictates a gap of over 12 metres between cyclists and a 20 second passing window ) I accelerated hard out of the saddle to get past before settling back into a rhythm.

As much as I enjoy being on a bike, it was a relief to see the end of the lap and the turn into the transition area. Even with the added padding of wearing cycling shorts over my compression triathlon shorts, my nether regions were starting to get quite sore after 112 miles in the sadle.

Just as I got of the bike before the dismount line ( crossing the line incurs a penalty ) I spotted my friends on the side cheering me on which was another great moral boost. A glance down on my bike computer showed I had done the bike in 4:54:32 which was ahead of my target pace.

Transition 2 was a change from cycling clothing into running apparel, again choosing comfort over speed. Since my crash at Ironman Maastricht I had picked up an injury which meant that I had only done 2 runs of about one hour each in the run up to Challenge Almere. As a result the marathon was a big unknown to me and sitting down in Transition 2 I had to mentally psych myself up for the 26.2 miles of running that were ahead of me with the associated suffering…


Starting to suffer towards the end of the run

The Run, ( target 3:30, actual 3:31:38 )

Coming out of the transition area, my friends were there cheering me on again which immediately put me in a positive and determined mood. I suppose that once I start the marathon part of the iron distance triathlon mentally I know I will finish it one way or another.

The first few kilometres of a run in a triathlon never feel great for me and this was no exemption, as my body protested against the change in use of my lower limbs. Despite doing regular transition sessions ( bike to run ) I know that the first 3km of the run are always unpleasant before I find a rhythm (I know I use this word a lot, however it’s how I cope with the distances involved ). The run was made up of 6 no laps of 7.1km around the lake we swam in, which made it more spectator friendly however at the same time more monotonous for the athletes.

My Dutch family were positioned on the other side of the lake and as I ran past they ran alongside me for a bit shouting encouragements. This was another nice motivational boost for me, it really helps having people encourage me and it adds to the determination for me to not only finish but finish well. My family and friends back in England were using the excellent Challenge App tracker so keeping this in mind was something that added to my determination.

At this time the temperature was about 28C and ironically virtually no wind on the run course which made it a very hot run. My aid station routine ( there were 4 aid stations on each lap ) became as follows; slow down and walk, 2 water cups, one to drink and one to put over my head, one cup of ISO to drink, energy gel every other aid station, 2 no water sponges to squeeze out over my head and then run again. In between aid stations I was aiming for 4:30-4:45 /km which meant that with the walking through the aid stations my time averaged at around 5 mins /km ( 8 minute miles ) which kept me on my target of 3:30 for the marathon.

During lap two I ran alongside another athlete and we ended up chatting for a bit which broke up the run for me. He decided to take on less hydration then me and ran through the aid stations. Fine I thought, I’m letting him run his race as I would have to run faster to catch him up again which I didn’t want to do.

Tortoise and hare came to mind and I was curious to see if the race would turn out like that, after all 26.2 miles is a long way to go and it was getting very hot. ( As it happened I caught and passed him at the start of the last lap of the run. So another realisation that an iron distance triathlon is all about pacing and patience.

My friends gave me updates on where I was relative to my brother and it soon became clear that he wasn’t having a great run. As a result I lapped him during my third lap of the run and it was evident that he was suffering from cramps. I wished him good luck and ran off, settling back into my running pace. At the aid stations some people had set up music and there even was a DJ at one of the aid stations playing some excellent tunes. It’s amazing how much that adds to the atmosphere and that definitely spurred me on. At the same time as the full distance event they also ran a half distance events which meant that there were even more people spectating which all added to the atmosphere.

Normally during the run we have an irrational envy of arm bands as you normally get one for each lap you complete so mentally when you see someone with more arm bands it creates envy. It is also a nice conversation starter, however as they abandoned this system I never knew what lap the people around me were on.

On lap 4 I started to really feel the effects of not having done the running mileage in between Ironman Maastricht and Challenge Almere. My leg muscles started to feel sore and heavy and I had to start digging deep mentally to keep running at my goal pace. This adds to the overall feeling of suffering as my body started to protest against the strain I was putting on it. This was however where my conservative approach to the bike section paid off as I had enough energy reserves left to continue.

Finally it was lap 6 and the final 7.1km. The downside of this many laps is that you run past the finish chute 6 times before you can turn left and run into the finish chute. As I passed my family I told them to make their way over to the finish line. Halfway round the last lap I caught up with my brother again ( lapping him twice ), this time I had worked out that I could finish under 10 hours on the main clock. The pros started 10 minutes ahead of us therefore 10 hours on the main clock actually equalled 9:50 hours for me. So I shouted some encouragement to him saying I’m on track to finish sub 10 and wished him good luck. ( going sub 10 hours for an ironman distance is a bit of a holy grail in triathlon which added to the occasion )

The last 2km I dug as deep as I could giving it everything I had left whilst savouring the experience of knowing that it was the end. Turning into the finish area I pointed at the clock and with immense elation I crossed the finish line in a time of 9:47:52. ( clock time 9:57:52 so I achieved my new goal of sub 10 hours on the main clock )

SVB Finish

Finished, my face says it all, this one meant a lot…

In the finishers area was one of the female pros who had finished top three in her category in a time of 9:52 so I congratulated her and we swapped stories about the race.

This is a great feature about triathlons in that we as amateurs get to race alongside the professionals at the same time. This to me adds to the respect I have for professional athletes, seeing them in action shows just how quick they are and the effort they can sustain. Very humbling…

My time put me 46th overall ( inclusive of the pros ) and 4th in my Age Group, a result I’m very content with especially going under 10 hours for my second ever Iron distance triathlon.

My family and friends were at the finish line and after a brief celebration with them I went to collect my post-race bag so I could have a shower and a massage.

As the venue is held at the theatre, there are plenty of dressing rooms each with their own shower and it was nice to shower off the sweat, gels and who knows what else from the race. The post-race massage room was quiet as I arrived and I got seen to straight away by a friendly massage therapist who looked after me.

My legs felt much better after that, so I went to find my friends for a catch up after picking up some food en route. It always surprises me that despite burning off so many calories ( I burned 7000 kcals in the event ) I’m never hungry straight after the event. Perhaps the metabolic stress I have put myself through mentally takes that away.


The car parking was right next to the race venue and after consulting the tracker App, it looked like my brother was at least another hour away from finishing. So this gave me time to collect my bike, get everything in my car, get organised and then join the family at the finish line whilst waiting for him to arrive.

Eventually he turned up in a time of 11:45, still a good effort for his first iron distance and it was nice to be there to celebrate with him at the finish line.

After the celebration I drove to my friend’s house for some beers and pizza to celebrate the event as well as having a good catch up. This turned out to be a great evening and we had a great time until the early hours.

The next morning I woke up with a sense of achievement. Thinking about the race, everything went to plan, I raced within myself and managed to do my fitness and training justice. Arguably my transitions could have been quicker with more practice, however overall it felt like a great way to finish my triathlon season.

Quite expectedly, everything ached the next morning although funny enough unlike the day after Ironman Maastricht it was in proportion to the physical effort from the day before. Bring on 2017!

Added fact:

I received a letter from the Challenge Triathlon Orgnisation advising me that my finish time at Challenge Almere meant I had qualified for the qualification only World Championships in Slovakia in 2017. Incredibly humbling and special to be able to partake in a championship so this now means that I have a full winter of training ahead of me. More about that in my next blogs…