Whilst I did really, really mean what I said when I said “Season Over” in my last post, it probably doesn’t surprise those nearest to me that it hasn’t really turned out that way.
I thought long and hard about writing all this. Part of me is worried that you’ll read it and think I am looking for your sympathy. I’m not. Put your tiny violins away. Believe me I’m the luckiest guy in the world and this is no sob story!
The other part of me thinks it’s probably a useful exercise, for me and for anyone else who might experience the same thing and start googling about what to expect during an “athlete’s” recovery from a pulmonary embolism. It is difficult to find positive stories about PE recovery but easy to find some frightening statistics and lots of tales of relative defeat. So here is my story.
For context, in late February 2015, I was diagnosed with multiple blood clots in both lungs. My last post explains all that in more detail. Because of this I had written off 2015 from a competition perspective.
The immediate aftermath of the PEs was not pretty. I felt absolutely wretched for the first week. The real issue was that if I tried to sit or lie down I was in agony but if I got up to do anything I was out of breath before I got anywhere at all. In the choice between crippling fatigue and agony, there are no winners.
The treatment for PEs is anti-coagulation, normally administered in the form of warfarin although in my case I initially needed to combine that with self-administered injections of heparin (because the Warfarin takes a few days to start working and then a few more to have the desired effects, whilst the Heparin is immediate). One thing the PEs did for me was to remove any lingering squeamishness I had for needles.
By the end of the second week I was able to surprise myself for the first time by returning to work. Now, for context I work behind a desk all day so all I needed to make this happen was for the pain and fatigue to recede enough to enable me to walk from the car to the desk and get on with things (a good job to be honest because I was self-employed at the time). I still couldn’t do anything at all physical without very quickly turning into a coughing ball of breathlessness, and training was the absolute last thing at the very bottom of my priority list. Work was a struggle, I was fatigued, but I was there.
By far the hardest part of the first couple of weeks of recovery were the appointments. The down-side of being on Warfarin is that you need regular blood tests to check the coagubility (measured by testing your INR – the time it takes your blood to clot) of your blood. Everyone needs a different dose of Warfarin to get their blood into the desired zone (referred to as the therapeutic range), and for the first two weeks I had almost daily blood tests to check my INR until they figured out the correct dose for me. I think I counted 15 in the first three weeks. This was hard work, because the clinic was at the hospital some 8 miles from my house, and getting there so often was logistically difficult and pretty tiring. The testing itself is absolutely painless, and takes about 30 seconds, and as my INR began to stabilise in the correct zone the testing became more sporadic (it’s now monthly).
By the end of the third week my symptoms were beginning to lift, the pain had receded and whilst I was fatigued a bit I could walk around a bit. At this point proper training was still a long way away from my mind but I’m a triathlete so to be honest that’s a complete lie – even when I was still counting my blessings to still be alive I was wondering what effect all this was having on my FTP and when I’d be able to run again.
So I starting walking – a mile at first, then 1.5, then 2, then 2.5. To motivate myself (it was hard going at first) I treated those walks like training – so HR strap on, Garmin on, upload to TrainingPeaks and Strava, measure everything. Apply some stress, recover, increase the stress. At first walking a mile was difficult, but pretty quickly I started to notice that it was getting easier. I also started doing some core work – body weight exercises and some light weights.
Things started to improve surprisingly quickly and it felt like it was the activity that was helping improve my breathing and endurance. I was still out-of-breath very quickly, my heart rate was high and it was pretty clear to me that my aerobic fitness had all but disappeared, but the activity was definitely helping my recovery.
Fortunately for you guys (ha!) I am a data geek so I can share some raw facts with you about said disappearance of my fitness.
The week before I was ill I put out 760 TSS (a fairly solid but unspectacular week) and my CTL (Chronic Training Load) was 89.1. I only have the full data going back to October 2014 but this was as high as it had ever been. The day before the PE, I ran 10 miles at Aerobic Threshold at 7:15/mi (not actually that fast for me at the time, primarily because I was struggling to breathe and coughing my guts up. You have to laugh….) I was swimming better than ever and putting out over 100 miles a week on the bike.
Despite the size of the long decline becoming clearer, the success of the walking regime caused a little flame to start to flicker in the back of my mind.
I started to think that maybe I could hop on the turbo and see how it felt. So, 6 weeks out from the PE, I did just that. It was an easy session, and I noticed that my heart rate was, frankly, a bit insane (15-20 bpm higher than normal) and I noticed that under exertion there was still pain in my right lung and breathlessness. My lungs felt crunchy after the first few sessions (I can only describe it as being like breathing through a piece of paper). But I didn’t die, so I did it again a couple of days later and then at the weekend of the 6th week I went for a run. 4 miles at 8:51 per mile, with similar HR and breathing observations but again, I didn’t die. And, in a strange twist, for the first time in months I ran with no pain in my leg.
By now it was the end of March. Technically I was still entered into a local pool Sprint Triathlon at the end of April.
The little flicker started to burn brighter.
I couldn’t, right….surely? I told myself that I would try to do a bit of proper training and maybe if I felt up to it, just maybe I’d race. They wouldn’t have refunded me anyway, I said.
Deep down I already knew I’d get to that start line.
There were several people around me who were concerned about this and pushed me fairly hard to not even try and return to any form of training. There was even a question mark around whether my training was the cause of my PE in the first place. I knew at the time that this would prove to be incorrect, and people’s concern annoyed me (
When I try to rationalise the decision to go ahead in spite of other people’s opinions, I can’t. Swim/bike/run is just part of me now, it’s part of what makes me tick. It gives me pure positive energy – a belief that I can, and in a life otherwise full of hard battles, that positive mental energy was something I desperately needed.
So I planned a three week training block to take me into race weekend. I started out easy, with a 370 TSS target in week one (i.e. 50% of what I was doing pre-PE) rising to the mid-500s in race week. I did an FTP test on the turbo which confirmed that I’d lost 35% of my FTP and that my HR was still 10-15 BPM too high and that intensity made my lung hurt a bit, and brought on the “crunch” as I had started to call it. But I didn’t die so I persisted. All my training (bar the FTP test) was at an easy pace/low intensity and I didn’t make it to the pool until the third week (so 8 weeks off swimming).
By the end of that block my lungs felt fine and even under exertion I had no breathlessness. I don’t know if this was just a natural extension of the recovery process but I suspect the training accelerated it all.
On race day, my CTL was 55.5 – down from 89.1, despite my three weeks of “training”. The graph below says it all (the blue line represents my CTL, a basic measure of “fitness”).
I knew I would be relying on wits and experience to get me through.
As it was, I swam unbelievably well (a 6.45 for 400m) for me considering the pool time I’d had, biked strongly and even dipped under 20 minutes for the 5k run. My overall time of 1.02.13, whilst nearly 2 minutes down on the same race from last year (2 minutes is an age at this distance), was good enough for 30th place overall.
I had absolutely no right to that kind of result at all.
That is the great thing about triathlon. It constantly reminds me that if you believe it’s possible to reach a goal and are willing to work to achieve it, anything is possible.
Fast forward a few months to now and I’m sitting here at the start of my next race week. In January, before the PE, I signed up to do my local Olympic in July (see race report from last year here) and the Vitruvian, a well-known half-iron event at Rutland water at the end of August. After the relative success at the sprint distance, I decided that since the entries were live, I would return to full training and try to race these two events to the very best level I could, but in the interests of managing my ongoing recovery and the needs of family and work, I wouldn’t enter any more races. My goals right now are limited to these two races, to getting through them and to getting as close as possible to my bests over those distances.
Medically, I am recovered from the PE now completely. `It took about 3 months in total before everything (including my weird high HR and lung capacity) to return to normal. I’ve had follow-ups with a Respiratory Consultant who gave me the all clear and am now under the longer-term eye of a Haematologist. As my PE was unprovoked (i.e. there was no apparent cause, no long-haul flights, operations, pregnancies or other potential causes) it is assumed that I have a genetic or acquired clotting disorder of some description (although no tests to confirm this have been done). This does have some longer-term implications, most notably that I will require long-term, possibly lifelong anticoagulation. This in turn has some implications on my ability to ride a bike as much as I want to, so I will at the end of this season have to sit down and work out what I want to achieve and how to achieve it. But really, this feels like a small burden now, one that I can carry easily and I am totally at peace with it.
Training has gone surprisingly well. I’ve done a few TTs, and a couple of club events – and I’ve done pretty well. I’m below what I know I’m capable of, and as of today I haven’t managed to hit the fitness peak of late winter – my current CTL is around 80. I honestly don’t expect to break any records in my remaining races this year, and I don’t really care. Because I made it this far, which is already much much further than I thought I could.
It’s been a bizarre time. Since my last post I had taken some time out to recover from the rigours of 2014, had completed some good base miles, finished the 2015 Tour of Sufferlandria (crazy experience, I’ll write about that one day) and was just in the process of setting some goals and aims for 2015’s racing. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue came something I wasn’t expecting and which I don’t yet fully understand.
With hindsight, something hadn’t been quite right all winter. I had a number of niggly injury issues, most of them in left hamstring/calf. These seemed to be weird injuries, ones which didn’t behave the way I knew injuries should. I had what I was told by my doctor to be a bout of superficial thrombophlebitis (a blood clot in a surface vein which is essentially harmless, although a little painful). Shin splints. 2 hamstring niggles. An occasionally tight calf. From October to February this little list of niggles really affected my running. My numbers on the bike and in the pool (in particular) were great, but I just couldn’t get the running volume to where I wanted it without something going pop in my left leg. I kept thinking I could try through/around it. As you do.
In late February things took an interesting turn. I woke up one morning after a swim with a slight pain in my side. This sounds *ridiculous* looking back, but I remember thinking that I’d pulled something in my core. But at the same time I just felt off. I did a run session on a treadmill and was just a little off where I thought (knew) I should be. The next day I coughed up some blood, so I took myself off to the GP who gave me some antibiotics for a chest infection. Something was nagging me though – I just didn’t feel right. I was groggy, tired, almost like I had a hangover. A couple of days later, the pain in my side began to build. It gradually worsened throughout the day to the point where I started to feel quite sick. I coughed a lot more blood. I took my son swimming, as I always do on a Tuesday, and could barely keep up with him (he’s 2……). That night, the pain built and built until I felt like my ribcage was going to break open every time I took a breath. I could not take in full breaths of air and I couldn’t lie down without this spasm-like pain gripping my side and chest.
My wife phoned an ambulance who took my away to A&E. 12 hours later I was out, a battery of tests leading to the diagnosis of suspected pulmonary embolism. At this stage I didn’t really know what this was other than it sounded bad. 24 hours later, a visit to nuclear medicine for a lung scan confirmed it – I had multiple blood clots in both lungs.
I had heard the term pulmonary embolism before. I even knew that they are normally caused by a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in a leg breaking up and travelling to the lungs. But I never imagined that such a thing would or could happen to someone who was essentially fit and well. I was swimming faster than ever. I was probably leaner than I’d ever been. I mostly felt great. Reading this story back, and with the knowledge I have now, it all seems so obvious. But at the time I just didn’t put it together.
Writing this now, a couple of weeks later, I am only starting to realise how lucky I was. Pulmonary Embolisms (PEs) kill a lot of people (I read somewhere that in 25% of PEs, the first symptom is death. I don’t know how true that is but there is plenty else out there to suggest that this isn’t something to be messed with). I am exceptionally grateful that my body was able to carry me through the experience. I still feel shitty. I have plenty of pain in my side, chest and shoulder, and I have only little bursts of energy before being overwhelmed by this crushing fatigue. I’ve been back to the hospital about five hundred times, primarily to enable them to monitor my body’s response to the blood thinning drugs I’m now on (Warfarin) for at least the next 3 months.
The net result of this is that my 2015 season is *probably* over. (Look at me, refusing to remove the word probably…) No-one seems to know how long it will take for my lungs to heal to the point where proper aerobic exercise is possible (right now even walking very far is difficult). Assuming I reach that point, getting on a bike will take some thought and consideration, primarily due to the risk of crashing whilst taking blood thinners. I have had days of feeling reasonably OK, and others of feeling completely terrible. But I have to focus on recovering properly so training hard and thinking about racing is quite a long way down my list of things to getting on with.
So, fellow middle-aged-onset triathletes, I’ll see you all in a few months. Run a few miles for me, OK? Eyeballs out, please.
There is not a lot of information out there about what recovery from a PE looks like. So over the next few weeks I’ll do my best to chronicle the whole experience, in case anyone else finds themselves in this situation.
When I was at middle school, I had the misfortune of being the resident 1500m runner for the athletics team. I say misfortune because as far as I was concerned at the time, whilst the 1500m is classed a “Middle Distance” in the athletics world, I thought it was a bloody long way. 3 and 3 quarter laps of a track? You must be mental, mate.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve realised that athletics is in fact far less mental than the triathlon world. The Wild Boar was to be my first experience of a “Middle Distance” triathlon, which is made up of a 1.9K swim, a 56 mile bike and then a half-marathon. There doesn’t seem to be much middle about that to me. It’s just a bloody long way.
I should add that I don’t really like the Middle Distance moniker. Not only does it not really reflect the bloody long way-ness of it all, but it also suggest that it is half-way towards a “full distance” race and therefore that anything less than an iron-distance race isn’t a real triathlon, which is stupid and completely devalues the entire sport. It’s like suggesting that anything less than a marathon isn’t a proper running race and doesn’t really count. So instead let’s refer to it as half-iron distance (AKA half ironman, AKA HIM).
Anyway, enough of that. I entered this race relatively late in the year. My racing season in 2014 kind of dissipated a bit into nothingness, partly out of poor planning and mostly out of poor logistical execution. I’ve trained really well but my original plan to target East Midlands Adult Series races went awry because I realised that you need to get to the right races to get into a position where winning it is possible, and that I couldn’t get to those races. So I tore up the plan half way through the year and decided for no particular reason to try my hand at the half-iron distance.
The Wild Boar is a small race, run by Full Boar events, a small, athlete-run company. It takes place at Bosworth Water Park next Market Bosworth, which is also the venue for the Bosworth Triathlon I’ve raced in previously, so I know the area fairly well. To be honest I don’t particularly care for the location – the lake is decent, but the bike course (which is a well used route) is pretty dull and the run courses that I’d seen used in other events generally involved cones and large numbers of laps, which has the effect of not knowing who you’re racing and who you’re not.
To be honest my first victory was won by getting to the start line. In the run up I added some pretty serious volume to my training, and 2 weeks out picked up some flu-like virus that had me in bed for two days, before recovering in time to pick up a stomach bug a week out. At the time I cursed my poor luck but looking back I can see that my volume increase was too quick (a symptom of entering a longer-distance race late in the day without prior planning I guess) which will have been a contributing factor. The extra volume though had me in confident mood (i’d run a 1:32 half marathon – technically a PB – in training, at a relatively easy pace and had a few 80+ mile tempo-level rides under my belt too). When it came to my fitness, even though my taper had been decimated by illness I was at least feeling very fresh.
Race day was perfect in terms of weather. A fresh September morning greeted me at registration, with the promise of some sun later in the day. No sign of any wind. A day made for swim-bike-run. My strategy was to be conservative on the swim and bike and to leave plenty in the tank for a decent run. My recent run volume meant I felt I could judge the half-marathon pretty well. I had heard that the run route was fairly hilly so with half a mind on that I set out at an easy pace on the swim. The swim was two and a half laps of the lake which felt a little longer than 1.9K to me but I wasn’t focussing on that, just on keeping the stroke easy and trying to swim in a straight line. The low sun made sighting down one half of the lake quite tricky but other that there was little of note on the swim. Due to the race’s small field of 75 people it was a pretty nice swim. In fact as I approached the exit I deiced I was pretty pleased with it, I felt very fresh. I was little disappointed to see 39:00 tick over on my watch as I exited because in my mind I had thought 35:00 would be possible, even at an easy pace. I decided not to worry about that and to focus on how fresh I was feeling, which was a real positive. There were still a lot of bikes in transition too so I was able to concentrate on the bike despite my slight disappointment.
My Garmin clocked the swim at 2.1K but I found out later that others had it at 2.4K. It had looked like a long swim at the outset so that cheered me up a bit.
Out on the bike course and my tactics were to use the first mile to get the heart rate under control and then settle in to a steady effort level of in and around heart rate Z2 whilst staying on the TT bars for as long as my back would allow. The course was 4 laps of a course I had previously described as “possibly the dullest bike course in any triathlon ever” in a previous race report which on reflection is perhaps a little harsh. There is one slight climb as you come out of transition and then a series of relatively flat relatively quiet A roads leading you back into Market Bosworth before a downhill run to the end of the lap.
Before the decimation of my taper I felt I could go under 4:45 overall here. I had no idea whether this would be at all competitive, being a HIM n00b and all, but my target was roughly based on a 35 minute swim, a 2:30 bike and a 1:35 half marathon (with a few minutes spare for transitions). I knew by the time we got to race day that my poor taper would likely put this beyond me but I’m nothing if not plucky so despite being 4 minutes outside this out of T1, I wanted to keep a 2:30 bike split in the crosshairs. This meant lapping in around 37:30. Lap 1 was bang on 37:30 and I was doing pretty well in my game of bike golf (a birdie when you overtake someone, a bogey when overtaken) – I was 5 under by the end of the first lap. However I had this feeling that I was pushing just a bit too hard. I knew that the run was where the damage would be done here and was constantly thinking about that so I decided to drop the effort a little to keep just the right side of my perceived aerobic threshold. Looking back at this now, I think a fully fit me would have ignored that little voice and got the hell on with it. Maybe next time.
By lap 4, with my average speed firmly in the 20s the boredom did become something of an issue but again the positive was that I was still feeling pretty fresh. I was also aware that I’d moved up through the field, although I wasn’t exactly sure how far. My golf game got confused by the 2nd lap when I started overtaking people who were still on the first lap (I actually went from 23rd to 11th on the bike) but I arrived into T2 still feeling optimistic. My split of 2:33 meant I’d slipped a further 3 minutes back from my original aim and by this point I was starting to realise I’d been a bit ambitious.
The run course was 4 laps, and each lap essentially involved running up a hill and then back down it again. To be honest, despite the vague mention of “the hill” in the race information, I hadn’t really considered what this meant. I’d raced at Bosworth before and hadn’t seen any hill, plus I figured these triathlon organisers can never measure a course right, it’s always short so as I headed out I could see no reason why 1:35 wasn’t possible. Run up the hill, pick up a coloured band, run down the hill and through transition and then back up the hill another 3 times. How hard can it be?
Turns out the hill was fecking massive, about a mile long at a constant 2-3% (my definition of “fecking massive” varies according to how knackered I am at the point of discovery). This wouldn’t be a problem on a one-off basis but I quickly started to ruminate on the consequences of having to run up the bloody thing four times and again found myself chuckling at my early optimism.
Whilst I’ve moaned about multi-lap courses before, it actually worked really well here. Because it was an out and back, the band system meant that you could work out who was on the same lap as you and how quickly you were catching them (or not, ha). It very quickly became clear to me that some people’s strategy on the bike had been a little more aggressive than mine, because as I started up the hill, I could see the 10 people in front of me and realised that some of them were moving slower than me (and some were looking decidedly worse for wear). I was able to work out where I was in the field, and felt pretty confident I could take a few places during the run.
Pace-wise I was hoping to run 7:00ish/mile, but I quickly realised that the hill would put that beyond reach. So I watched my heart rate and wanted to keep it at a max level of zone 3. The first couple of laps were good fun as I was passed by one guy I vowed to reel back in (he was shifting at the time) and started to pick off the first couple of people. By the third lap things were starting to get tough. By this point my wife and kids had turned up to cheer me which was a nice distraction, as was the ever-worsening form of the guy who had passed me on lap 1, who I was now catching.
The run is where half-iron becomes a different sport to Olympic or shorter-distance triathlon. In the shorter forms strategy on the run is really quite simple, use whatever you’ve got left, all of it, from the off. That’s why it pays to be a strong runner in sprint or Olympic distance races. At half-iron distance the art of pacing a run really comes into it. You simply have to respect the distance involved in a half-marathon because if you don’t it will destroy you. I had done my best to do that throughout the day, but even so the last lap was a complete mess. I did have the pleasure of re-passing the guy who had come past earlier on and I had a vague idea that I was in either 6th or 7th place as I approached the finish. As with the other two elements my rough aim of running 1:35 turned out to be too ambitious but the 1:38 I ran was very pleasing considering I’d never run that far off the bike before, the hill involved and the fact that my Garmin had it at 13.4 miles. Those damn triathlon organisers and their short run courses, eh.
I crossed the line in 4:54, good enough for 6th place, and wrapped up my 2014 season.
Despite feeling a bit battered and very sore, my initial feeling was that I really could have gone quicker….on the bike in particular. Maybe that’s something for next year.
As for the event, well it was very well organised, and well delivered. I’m still not a huge fan of the bike course, there’s nothing that helps to mix it up, but I guess you could class it as quite an honest TT effort that has the potential to be fast if you can balance that and the hilly run properly. The water at Bosworth is fine, it really is and the run they used for this event had enough about it to make it a challenge. The Wild Boar is a small event which is seemingly ignored by a lot of athletes which is a shame. It’s cheap too (about half the price of some other half-irons) so whilst it may lack the “big day” feel or any truly iconic features it’s well thought-out and well delivered. In a market full of similar events, I’m surprised that the location, timing and cost doesn’t attract a bigger field.
There are lots of things I *don’t* like about many triathlon venues. These include:
– Swims in filthy lakes
– Boring bike courses devoid of hills, descents and nice views
– Short, multi-lap bike courses where you spend the whole time trying not to draft people who may or may not be on the same lap as you
– A course where any leg is *really* badly measured
– Run courses which involve cones and turn around points
– Run courses with more than two laps (I did a 10K once which was 10 x 1K laps round a field….seriously)
– Run courses which feature any of the following: car parks, school fields, knee-high grass, mud (unless that’s the point), complex navigational signs
– Courses where T1 is more than 400 metres from the swim exit.
The problem this leaves me with is that this list covers pretty much every standard or sprint distance triathlon I’ve ever done (and pretty much every venue used at the Elite level, too).
However, Pitsford Reservoir, set in the hear of rural Northants (and, ahem, one mile from my front door), was made for triathlon. It’s a reservoir, so the water is clean (and deep and probably full of critters, too). The track around the reservoir is exactly 6.41 miles (I should know, I’ve run it ten gazillion times), a single lap with zero traffic and lots of interesting features (trees, a dam, a causeway, some nifty switchbacks), and Pitsford is known likely as the epicentre of Northamptonshire’s cycling heartland. The local roads are quiet, quaint and full of little surprises. The reservoir even has its own high-end bike shop! What’s not to like?
When a race was finally announced for Pitsford, my name must have been first on the start-list.
2014 has been a strange one for me. I had originally planned to have a stab at winning the East Midlands Adult Series, but a series of off-field events limited my ability to actually enter the right events, so after not enjoying an appearance failing to defend my only age-group title at Bosworth I changed strategy for the rest of the year and entered a Middle Distance race for September, and planned to use Pitsford as a chance to practice my physical preparation. So after a heavy 3 week training block where I’d changed my approach a little, I tapered for two weeks in order to get myself fresh. I hit race morning feeling ready, if a little under-raced (I hadn’t raced at all for over 6 weeks).
The plan for the swim was to try something different – I wanted to go out hard, find some feet and cling on. This is a change from my usual conservative approach, brought about by some decent work in the pool (new PB T-Pace of 01:41, if that means anything to any of you). Initially this went pretty well. The swim was a single lap with three turns, and I found some excellent feet and hit the first turn in no time at all. However, somehow during the turn I lost the feet and things unravelled pretty quickly.
The biggest problem I had is I couldn’t see anything. With only three turns the the buoys were quite far apart and as usual I haven’t spent enough time training in open water. I was finding sighting so difficult that I lost my rhythm. Then I realised that the pace I had been carrying to the first turn was much higher than I could sustain on my own and started to go backward. Eventually someone came alongside and I deliberately tucked in behind, primarily so I didn’t have to sight any more. After a short while I lost those feet too and the rest of it was just a scrap.
With that in mind I was delighted with my time of 27:27 (although this was measured at the entrance to T1, my watch had it at 26:51 to swim exit). I was 22nd out of the water (from 110 starters). I was fucked, but that was sort-of the plan.
I had a good transition, including flying bike mount which I’m now pretty good at. I did my usual strategy of using the first mile of the bike to get my HR under control and in doing so lost maybe 4 places but with the first short climb out of the way I settled in and put the hammer down. I know the course at Pitsford very well and the first five miles are pretty quick, and I made some decent headway.
Northamptonshire is a bit of a cycling unkwown. We have hardly any real climbs to speak of but to be honest you’re doing well if you can find any extended periods of flat roads anywhere in the county and the course at Pitsford encapsulates that pretty well. There are a number of short, sharp inclines and some sections of tough false flat but nothing too disruptive (the hill at Lamport is a bit tasty though). I was moving well, was upwardly mobile and had my eye on two guys who were also moving pretty well. I christened one of them “Orange Guy” and the other “Blue Guy”. You won’t be able to work out why.
I realised pretty quickly that both Orange guy and Blue guy were my equals on the flat, but that I was catching them any time the road went up AND on the way back down, so I used this to my advantage, finally moving past Orange guy at about halfway and then waiting for the aforementioned Lamport hill to dispatch Blue guy. The run-in back to T2 is actually quite good fun, being the only section of prolonged gentle downhill that triathletes seem to love on the course. To my delight there was a small crowd lining the road into T2, they all saw my spectacular flying dismount and I was in and out of T2 quickly (I noticed Orange guys stopped to put socks on. Sucker.)
My split of 1:07:44 was the 9th fastest of the day and moved me from 22nd to 9th overall.
The run at Pitsford is sold as being flat, and if you looked at the course profile you’d be forgiven for believing that. However, I knew from experience that it’s actually made up of a series of tiny undulations and switchbacks which is tough on the legs and the mind. Despite the good views across the lake the finish is hidden behind the sailing club and you don’t get a view of it until you’re right on top of it and the constant changes of direction and the gravelly surface make this a very honest run.
My plan was to get my HR into zone 3 and run the first 4 miles at that pace before opening the taps at the end. I quickly made up one place before Orange guy and then Blue guy came past me, both at a pace I wasn’t able to get close to. I did make up another position passing a guy who had destroyed the bike course but who wasn’t enjoying the run but other than that it was a fairly lonely affair.
I had enough in the tank at the end to finish reasonably strongly in a run split of 42:19 (NB the course was 6.55 miles by my Garmin) for an overall 02:19:13, good enough for 9th overall and 2nd in my age group (behind Orange guy. Told you he was a sucker). Beforehand I’d felt that 2:20 would be a decent time on a tough course so I was pretty happy. The most important thing to me is that I felt good physically the whole way round, I wasn’t fighting a battle as I’d felt earlier in the season. I felt racy. The two week taper had worked to that extent.
Stuff I was pleased with: My transitions were both decent, my swim time is actually a PB for an open-water event and I felt racy on the bike.
Stuff to get better at: Needed to stay on these feet in the swim and have more faith in my stroke. Still didn’t really feel like the runner I used to be a couple of years ago. Perhaps could have been braver on the run tactically.
As a single distance inaugural event the organisers should be pleased with the turn-out. Pitsford has the potential to rival any location for Triathlon that I’ve been to. When you consider that the Dambuster & The Vitruvian at Rutland Water sell out c 1000 entires in about 2 minutes flat and Pitsford is a much better course all-round, they should have reason for optimism. Hopefully this is one event that will get firmly established in the calendar, perhaps attracting a bigger field next year.
– My third-fastest Olympic distance ever, and my second-best ever result in terms of %age finish through the field.
– Fastest ever full-distance (not shortened) open water swim
– Orange guy turned out to be the same guy I watched win the Northampton Half Marathon last year. He ran from 10th to 5th on the run leg. I don’t blame him for putting socks on.
– This was my 10th Olympic Distance triathlon
Next up I’m making my middle distance (although Half-Iron sounds better) debut at the Wild Boar, in Market Bosworth, in September. I am going in with intention of racing as hard as I can over the distance, but with no specific time goal in mind, which is actually pretty nice.
My interest was piqued earlier this year by an intriguing article written by Dr John Sullivan, entitled The End of Sourcing is Near….the Remaining Recruiting Challenge is Selling. It’s a well written and in places quite convincing article whose main arguments are that:
- Now that most people have an on-line presence of some description, sourcing is easy
- In the future, more people will have on-line presences and sourcing will get even easier
- Soon, sourcing will be automated and at that point it will just be a commodity
- Because of this, great recruiting should be defined by the quality of the sales pitch delivered to prospective candidates (or, in the words of a former colleague of mine – “hide and seek” has now become “kiss chase”).
Now, the ironic thing about all this is that sourcing has always been viewed by the recruiting community as “the easy part” of recruiting. It’s the reason why most recruiters start their career, having had zero training, as sourcers, earning their keep doing the “easy bit” until they’ve “progressed enough” (read: done enough placements) to move into the hallowed turf of Consultancy. And that’s not just true of agency recruiters either: joining an internal recruiting team at the bottom? Guess what you’ll be doing? Yep, sourcing.
That was, until recently. After years of being considered worthy only of the least experienced recruiters, sourcing has recently begun to emerge into a fully-blown, complex profession of its own. For instance, like many other established trades, we now have certification programs and on-line communities dedicated to sourcing. Sourcing has become a key topic at recruiting conferences as people trade ideas about best practice and new tools. New technology aimed purely at sourcing disrupts the landscape. The emergence of internationally-known, highly skilled and very well regarded sourcers (who I won’t name as I don’t know them personally) has only happened because of a general recognition of the fact that sourcing is becoming a difficult, demanding activity.
And yet it seems, according to some – no sooner has sourcing established itself fully as an advanced skill-based profession, it is dead, over; yesterday’s problem.
Well, I’m sorry but I don’t agree. Sourcing is alive, kicking, and getting a whole load harder. And here is why:
1 More Data does not mean easier
If I gave you a book containing 50 mugshots and asked you to find the one who looks the most like John Smith, it’s not going to take you long, is it? So what about if I gave you a book with 200 mugshots? Or how about 10,000? You will most likely find a much better match in the book of 10,000, but is finding that match going to be easier, or harder?
I have been banging on about the opening up of the web for years. When I first started recruiting (as a sourcer, naturally) – for what was at the time a small recruiting company – we could access and search through maybe 250,000 CVs. Now that might seem like quite a lot, but when you consider that LinkedIn has 11 millions users in the UK alone, hindsight suggests that it really wasn’t very many at all. I can’t even guess the overall size of the candidate pool I can tap into now, but it’s in the many tens of millions. The sourcer in 2013 has a significant amount of data to play with.
It is hardly surprising that other commentators are latching on to the potential ramifications that the continued opening up of personal information has for the recruiting professional. There is no question that all this additional data enables us to do better sourcing, to find better matches to requirements. But the conclusion that having more data makes sourcing easier is very surprising indeed. More data means more searching. It means more time. It means more technique. More data makes sourcing harder!
It is more data, taking more time to process and more technique to navigate that has driven the professionalisation of the sourcing function. And as the amount of data increases, quality sourcing will get a lot, lot harder.
2 More Data means less quality
In the beginning there were databases. 10 years ago, the only data that recruiters had was held in either their own database or in an external, pay-to-search database. All of their sourcing activities started there. Whilst that meant that we had access to a lot less data than we have now, the data we did have was both in a usable format, and contained within a framework that allowed for easy searching.
CVs are the purest form of recruiting data because they are rich in all the information needed to make a judgement on a candidate’s suitability. Additionally, whilst I’m no fan of most CV database technology, even the most basic system normally offers a search-focussed interface and a variety of search options. The classic CV database represents the perfect sourcing tool in terms of ease of use.
The reason that sourcing used to be considered the “easy” part of recruiting was because it was – it was the acquisition of the data that was difficult (Job-boards and agencies paid many millions of pounds and poured in many years of blood, sweat and tears to acquire the data that is now increasingly available for anyone to buy). Searching through that small amount of really good data using a tool designed specifically for that purpose was the easy bit.
The thing is though, classic CV databases have not been the cause of recent recruiting data growth: it is social data that has driven it (and to a lesser extent, platform-independent data such as that found on personal websites and blogs). And the thing with this data is that, from a recruiter’s perspective, some of it is useful, some of it is noisy, and a lot of it is just rubbish.
Let’s consider LinkedIn for a minute. Absolutely fundamental to the growth in recruiting data availability, LinkedIn changed the way that sourcing worked. It quickly turned professional information from largely private to emminently public. It opened out the kind of data that recruiters relied on for competitive advantage (and had spent years collecting) to everyone. LinkedIn made it possible for anyone to find anyone.
The reality is that the data LinkedIn offers – in the vast majority of cases – is nowhere near as rich and as nice as you would find in a stack of CVs. I don’t have the stats, but what percentage of profiles are fully complete? Whatever the answer is, it’s the vast minority. The vast majority of profiles are shells, containing piecemeal, basic information.
And yet LinkedIn is easily the best social platform in terms of data quality. Twitter bios are virtually useless. Facebook is so concerned with privacy that it too, is almost hopeless as a place to find usable recruiting data. To use either effectively for sourcing requires a level of skill and experience that most people will never develop. *Some* social profiles offer obvious links to user’s contact details, allowing an unskilled user to reach out to a potential candidate, but the overwhelming majority are – to an inexperienced sourcer – complete dead ends: partially usable indicators of shadow candidates.
The point I’m making here is that whilst we have a lot more data in 2013 than we had in 2005, the vast majority of that data is of a relatively low quality. We’ve gone from having a small amount of high quality data to absolutely loads of mostly low quality data. And that low quality data requires more experience, more skill and a lot more time to navigate and interpret.
It’s true that technology like (the really rather brilliant) Talentbin can be built to help us overcome some of the issues with data quality, but the truth is that as the amount of data grows and the number of platforms on which that data sits proliferates, the more diluted the quality becomes and the harder it becomes to use to any decent standard for recruiting.
Before we go on, let’s just summarize this:
|Sourcing in 2005||Sourcing in 2013|
So, please, tell me: was sourcing easier then, or now? I heard one commentator this week say something along the lines of “now sourcing is solved, it’s all about selling.” Solved?!?! In a world where data is everywhere, sourcing has never been more unsolved. Social data is not the solution to the sourcing problem, it’s the cause of the sourcing problem!
Experienced, skilled and professional sourcers are the only solution.
3 Automation is not just a tech problem
I wasn’t going to talk about Dr Sullivan’s third major point, but doing that feels like copping out now. Hysteria about automation is not a new thing, but the idea that sourcing is something that can be conducted by software any time soon is – at best – very optimistic. And that’s because in sourcing’s case automation is not just a tech problem.
Even if the technology to parse and accurately interpret the meaning of a personal profile or CV to anything close to the level human accuracy existed (it doesn’t), the technical challenge represented by accessing enough data to make a 24/7, cross-platform, all-web sourcing bot possible is solvable by maybe one or two companies in the world. And even if THAT could be overcome, an even bigger issue is that whilst the growth in the availability of personal information is being driven by open data, that data is still owned by someone. And that someone isn’t you or me.
If you don’t believe that’s an issue, I double dare you to write a web crawler that scrapes profile information from LinkedIn. Go see how far you get.
Then there’s the issue of privacy. I’m not going there today, but how the web deals with privacy will have a very interesting impact on the sourcing and recruiting profession, and will throw a constants swerving curveball at any attempts to perfect automation (as will the behaviour of the users of social networks, which is completely undpredictable).
Glen Cathey – in his much better researched and far more articulate riposte to Dr Sullivan than this, entitled The End of Sourcing 1.0 is Near. Sourcing 2.0 Just Beginning – talks at length about the current state of AI technology and the various barriers that exist to full automation. His article is great and deserves your attention.
There is some fantastic technology emerging that makes it possible to do some great things with the data available on the web. But that technology is emerging to serve the sourcing profession, not to replace it. It is because sourcing has emerged as a stand-alone, serious profession that people are trying to solve some of the challenges that come with making sense of a proliferation of mostly rubbish data.
Dr Sullivan is definitely right about one thing: the ability to sell an opportunity to a potential candidate is an absolute defining quality of great recruiting. Knowing how to convert information into a prospective candidate, and how to convert a prospective candidate into a potential hire is probably the defining quality of a great recruiter. But you can sell an opportunity to the wrong people all day long if you like and the net result will never be great recruitment.
I am not surprised that sourcing has developed from the afterthought of the recruiting industry – the turf of the untrained novice – into a fully-blown profession in its own right. As those professionals find themselves using more complex tools to navigate greater volumes of much more fragmented and lower quality information to find the value-generating information, that profession will continue to grown in stature and complexity.
Selling has always been key to great recruiting. But one day, the sourcer will be king.
Ever been offered a job, only to have your current employer come up with a counteroffer out of the blue? You’re not alone.
As nice as it is to be in demand, being at the centre of a counter-offer situation is a pretty stressful thing. You have different loyalties to different parties, and everyone involved in the process will have different aims and objectives during that process. None of those objectives are really focussed on what is best for you (other than your own, of course).
Whatever you end up doing with a counteroffer, whether you accept it or reject it, someone somewhere is going to be disappointed, angry, confused and/or annoyed with you. Your current boss has quite a lot at stake, as does the company trying to hire you. And your recruiter…well, they’ll be particularly keen to “steer” you, and will most likely help out by sending you an article (or links to multiple articles) all suggesting some seemingly very valid reasons why you SHOULDN’T take the counter-offer. They are, of course, indelibly biased towards that outcome.
You may find yourself being pulled in several directions, in this swirling vortex of competing egos and agendas. And it’s in the eye of this storm that you’ll find yourself most exposed to Recruitment’s favourite made-up statistic:
80% of candidates who accept a counter-offer leave their current company voluntarily within a year.
Part of a fairly widely-acknowledged group of counter-offer truisms, this fact is going to be presented to you by someone (possibly be multiple parties) at some point during your mind-spinning counter-offer experience. When combined with the other facts you’ll be presented with – including things like “if you accept that counteroffer, next time your boss is considering who to promote/fire/blame he or she will remember just how loyal you were” and “it’s much cheaper for your boss to give you that £10K extra than it is for him or her to hire someone else, but you can bet they’ll start looking for your replacement now” – it’s a very compelling argument for taking the new job.
Except we made it up.
Yeah, that’s right. We made it up.
Who’s “we”? The recruiting industry, that’s who. That’s all the third-party/agency recruiters, all the in-house “talent acquisition” people and all the the hiring managers out there…collectively, we made it up. We made it up because it sounds like it could be right and it’s our necks on the line if we don’t fill this job and if you don’t take it, we’re back to square one.
You’ll find a few different versions of our little fib. Here’s some examples I found on a recent Google hunt…
Statistics show that if you accept a counter offer, the probability of you leaving or being asked to leave within 6-12 months is extremely high, with 80% of people leaving within six months and 50% reinitiating their job search within 90 days.
There are no “statistics”. Well, actually that’s not strictly true, there are loads of them. But we made them all up!
Recent surveys reflect that 83% of professionals who accept a counter offer either leave voluntarily or are let go of their respective companies within six months of the counter offer.
There are no “recent surveys” either. Except the ones that we made up.
A number of different studies have been conducted, to categorize workplace happiness and the long term impact of counter offers. Their results highlight that over 80% of people accepting a counter offer will leave the job within the following 6-12 months.
Nope, calling them “studies” doesn’t help either. Because there are none, except the ones we made up.
Much research has been done to measure what happens to employees who accept counter offers. The research shows that only 6 out of 100 employees are still with their company after 12 months.
No, there hasn’t. Except the stuff we made up, naturally.
Here’s the truth: No-one knows whether you should take the counter-offer or not, although YOU are easily the best-qualified person to make that decision. You will, eventually, make the decision and it will either turn out to be a good one, or it will turn out to be a bad one.
In a desperate attempt to quantify this post, a colleague of mind recently ran a LinkedIn Poll. Not wanting to make it too obvious what we were doing, we asked people this:
If you’ve ever received a counter offer when looking to leave an employer, which of the following applies:
a) you accepted the counter-offer and don’t regret doing so
b) you rejected the counter-offer and don’t regret doing so
c) you rejected the counter-offer and subsequently regretted doing so
d) you accepted the counter-offer and subsequently regretted doing so
(actually we didn’t word it that well or indeed spell the options correctly – but you can’t have everything).
Now we know that the recruiting industry made up the 80% statistic, but because it’s a relatively believable made-up statistic, we figured that we might be able to find some truth in it. What we actually found was that 63% of people who ACCEPT a counter-offer don’t regret doing so, although in a potentially interesting twist only 8% of people who reject a counter-offer regret doing so. This indicates that, as you would expect, some people took the counter-offer and were happy, some took it and were unhappy. Quelle surprise.
There is no particular reason for me to bring this up, other than the old saying my nan used to tell me…”and the truth my boy will set you free”. There are lots of good reasons why you should take the new job. There are also lots of good reasons for you to consider the counter-offer – so weigh those reasons up for yourself and make a choice. And please, don’t trust the statistics.
Sometimes, when I’m checking out job adverts on the web – which most recruiters do a fair bit – I come across stuff like this written at the bottom of “Careers” pages:
E-mails from recruiters will be deleted without being read.
Recently I got thinking…how do they know that my e-mail is a mail from a recruiter unless they read it?
So I e-mailed a few to find out.
Just knocked together a search tool to find profiles on Mendeley.com, the social network that allows academics to share journals and papers. Very useful when looking for very clever people. Enjoy.
Once you’ve hit search, you have options to look at “People – UK” and “People – Anywhere”. Play around with your keywords, but lots of people on Mendeley have mini-profiles written up, including employer names, skills and job titles. This is most effective when searching for people likely to have specific research experience, of course.
As you or may not know, my primary recruiting speciality these days is the Natural Language space. As a linguist by background, I’ve always been utterly fascinated by human language, annd the continued evolution of commercial applications of Natural Language theory means it’s now possible for me to make a living out of the industry. My interests at this stage are primarily Computational (this is where the excitement is happening, believe me), and boradly speaking covers Natural Language Processing, Computational Linguistics, Machine Learning & Sentiment Analysis.
Talent-wise, this is a really interesting space in the UK right now. Here’s a little brochure I made outlining where it’s at and where it’s going:
For more information, drop me a line to nick @ gallimore.biz, or come and join the growing NLP Careers group on LinkedIn here.
I’ve been interested in different ways of using the web to find people for as long as I can remember. Back in 2005 (before LinkedIn’s real emergence – yes, that’s before LinkedIn!) my colleagues and I would talk extensively about what resourcing would look like the in the future. Most were convinced that the “de facto” latest methods of resourcing at that point (job-boards, on-line advertising) – which, at the time, were just seriously cool and a real differentiator for those who knew how to use them effectively – would continue to be the primary candidate sourcing tools we’d use for the forseeable future.
However, some of us could see a future where the web became continually more and more open. A world where information about people and and what those people are doing would continually move from behind paywalls into the “open” web. We could see that resourcing in the future would become less about investment in specific technology and more about investment in people-sourcing time and skills.
We would spend a lot of time playing with general internet searching techniques (we used to call it “Google hacking”, primarily to make it sound cool although actually it was just Google searching), always with the aim of finding the personal websites or on-line portfolios of individuals who might fit our jobs. We were fairly successful with it too – placing a decent number of (primarily PhD-level) candidates found this way.
Eventually, I wrote this custom search engine on Google to help us. Looking back at it now, it feels fairly old hat – but for the time it was written it was brilliant, even if I do say so myself. Have a play with it and feel free to share. It should be fairly self-explanatory – just punt in some skill keywords and/or locations, hit search and then use the refinements to switch between guaranteed CVs and personal sites.
For what it’s worth by the way, I expect the shift from closed information to open information to continue and probably gather pace over the next few years. The web is becoming more open and more accessible every day. The next five years is going to be very interesting from a people sourcing perspective – as the “battle” for visiblity and brand amongst the on-line population intensifies, and as social network use plateaus and eventually falls away as sites continue to try to drive increases in profitability.