My jaw dropped when I recently met my colleague Gerry Ryan (2013 European Masters 10k champion) outside work en route to my evening run. Temporarily sidelined with a running injury, he declared: "That's it, I'm buying a bicycle!"
While genetics plays a huge role – if you are a fast runner, chances are that given a year or two to build up the necessary endurance and power, you will be a fast cyclist – triathlon also brings a new challenge: how to smoothly combine three different sports without falling apart.
While triathletes are often maligned as athletes who are not specifically good at any one sport, the top triathletes tend to be strikingly fast at each individual sport. Give a nod to Irish triathlete Aileen Reid, who recently placed second in the ITU Triathlon World Championships in London with a 33-minute 10k run after a 1.5k swim and 40k cycle. The top men in ITU racing routinely turn out 10k splits of 29 minutes.
I love running hard in a triathlon; it somehow encapsulates true sporting endeavour to me more than a straight road run. There is certainly an element of familiarisation to running fast after a cycle. 'Brick' sessions – bike-and-run sets – are great for getting your muscles used to that slightly awkward, fatigued feeling when you stop cycling and start to run.
Apparently it's not all about the training, either. The fastest runners on the flat are not always the fastest in a triathlon. Studies have shown that no matter how well trained you are, your run gait will change slightly after cycling in a triathlon and lose economy. How much it impacts your running differs from person to person. Of course, you slow down – just as you can't sustain a half-marathon pace for a marathon, your triathlon split will be slower than your flat road-running pace for the same distance. The question is, how much you can limit that slowdown?
The best triathlon runners typically run 5pc/6pc slower over a given distance in a triathlon than they do in a running race of the same distance. This is a useful rule of thumb: if you are running considerably slower than this compared to your standalone run pace for the same distance, then you're either misjudging the pace for the swim and bike splits, or you need more specific triathlon training – fast-paced runs off the bike, maybe – to close the gap.
Working on bike strength helps your triathlon run, as you'll be less fatigued getting off the bike. Doing some road-racing in the off-season (if you're a pure triathlete) helps too.
A few people voiced surprise at what they considered to be my unfeasibly fast marathon pace at Ironman Sweden (given my standalone marathon PB) after a very long swim and run.
An Ironman triathlon is, of course, like any other triathlon in that you should be able to run at a decent proportion of your normal pace for the marathon distance – except that after a long day, any mistakes which might slow down your running (pacing the bike too fast, riding in an aggressive position which fatigues your running muscles) will be magnified tenfold.
So I couldn't resist taking out the calculator. My marathon pace for the race was 11pc slower than my standalone marathon PB – not quite at that golden standard of 5pc but a very respectable pace.
Careful bike pacing and a nice smooth race day itself meant that after more than seven hours of swim and bike, I was able to maintain some semblance of normal marathon pace.
The lesson was that with good training and nutrition, you can outrun quite a lot of people in a triathlon by racing smart and running hard.