Tag Archives: USA

Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015 – Mission Accomplished

Ironman Lake TahoeWhat a difference a year can make. Following the last minute disappointment of the start-line cancellation of our race due to smoke there was some sense of trepidation going into this year’s return trip to Tahoe. Would we face the same issues? Possibly, considering the fact that wildfires at this time of year are not uncommon in Northern California and there was one blaze in particular that was burning very close to the area and did end up pushing smoke in for a day or two.

Thankfully, however, fate settled in our favour and we were served up perfect conditions for what transpired to be an almost perfect race.

Film & Taper

Top of Brockway_TahoeThe two weeks I spent in Tahoe leading up to the race itself came about as a result of the realisation that had last year gone ahead there existed a very real chance that I would not have finished, or performed anywhere close to my true potential on account of not being properly acclimatised to the 6,000 feet of altitude that Lake Tahoe sits at. In spite of spending time prior to travel completing altitude-room sessions, in hindsight I know that these made little to no difference to my acclimatisation. Ultimately, the only way to guarantee proper adjustment and adaptation to altitude is to spend time actually at altitude. I realised that if I really wanted to go into the race at my best then I needed altitude to not be a significant factor, meaning that I needed to get to Tahoe a good period of time before the race.

The time not only allowed me to adjust biologically, something which I believe made much of the ultimate difference on the day, but also afforded me the opportunity to indulge in some filming with a couple of very talented film-makers in Tahoe City, Conor & Danny Toumarkine of Shreddy Times, with the result being four days of awesome fun, getting to hang out in parts of Tahoe that I would never have thought to visit, and producing a video that is about as professional and slick as anyone could wish for. The final cut of ‘What We Strive For’ is epic (all down to the talents of the boys) and got such an incredible response from friends, family and the wider triathlon community that it was a massive confidence boost for the race and an epic memory of the entire Ironman training experience. Ironman themselves even loved it, with them requesting to play it at the opening ceremony – a real honour and, I was told, a great motivation for other athletes leading into the race.

Shreddy Times_Conor Toumarkine

Spending a good period of time on location at the race site is advantageous for many reasons, one of them being that you can actually go out and swim/ bike/ run the course, or part of it at any rate. I was very glad to be able to do just that as it enabled me to adjust to and prepare for the specific conditions of each stage of the race. For example, my initial ascent up the beast of a climb that was Brockway made it starkly clear that changing my gearing on my bike before race day would be very helpful and that the climb really was to be respected! Simply knowing that I had tackled it once, even if not particularly impressively, made a huge psychological difference as the race loomed. Like most challenges in life, things usually end up being way bigger and way scarier in our minds than they ultimately prove to be in reality and getting a dose of realism in advance helps to dispel, or at least guide, the doubt-devils that would otherwise have a rave in your brain.

In addition to being able to spend more time pre-race in Tahoe, and the fact that we looked set for a smoke-free race-day, the other significant difference over last year was the presence of my parents, who had flown all the way from the UK to support me and then enjoy a post-race road-trip, a holiday that we were all very much looking forward to. If the race had gone ahead in 2014 then I would have crossed the finish line (possibly) with no familiar faces to share the experience with. In principle this would not have been an issue but in practice and now given the benefit of experience I can say with all honesty and sincerity that having friends and/ or family there to cheer you on and share directly in the rollercoaster of emotions that inevitably accompany an Ironman race, and especially the ‘first’, makes all the difference! In addition to the emotional support there is also the simple fact of the matter that having people on hand to do the little things like carry some kit and drive the car home at the end of the day is really, super helpful!

Transition & Pre-Race Preparation

Transition_Swim to Bike_Lake Tahoe IronmanTahoe was a split-transition race, with the swim to bike transition (T1) down by the lake and, this year at least, moved indoors in terms of changing areas for athletes. Our bags were all lined up along the beach, with a short run from the water up the beach and into the changing area being slightly different to what was due to happen last year. The main issue with keeping our bags outside overnight was the very real risk posed to our kit, specifically our nutrition, from bears, of which Lake Tahoe is home to many. As it turned out we did get a visit from a friendly, inquisitive and perpetually hungry Black Bear the night before actual race day and a few people did unfortunately find their food stores had been gobbled down. We all had rather comical visions of a bear racing round the woods all jacked up on a combination of gels and caffeine!

Squaw ValleyBike to run (T2) took place at Squaw Valley resort, further up the valley and out of site of the lake, with the run then taking us back out towards Tahoe City and the lake, before returning to Squaw Valley and the finish. Having had a dry (or smoky to be exact) run last year I knew what I would actually need for the race and quickly realised how over-kitted I was before, which I daresay just goes with the territory when you’re a complete newbie. One constant, however, was the need to keep warm in the morning, as the initial couple of hours on the bike were expected to be pretty chilly. A great tip that I received last year was to crack a couple of hand-warmers before the swim and keep them inside my bike shoes and other kit in order to warm them up prior to donning them. Simple but effective, especially as cold feet on the bike immediately after a cold swim does not for happy feet make. A head-torch in the run gear bag was another great little tip – obvious when you think about it but it is usually the most obvious things that do not occur until you actually need them – as there was always a good chance that I would find myself running in the dark if something, anything, went awry during the race. Stumbling around in the dark at that stage in the proceedings would not be a great addition to the woes of an already tough day. As it turned out I didn’t need it but that’s the way of the world and the nature of Sod’s Law.

With everything set up at each transition and the rest of my ‘on the morning’ kit laid out at home, there was nothing left to do but kick back, relax with a healthy dose of Netflix and enjoy a lovely pre-race dinner with the folks. No smoke in sight, a perfect forecast for the next morning and the knowledge that I was as fit and ready as I was ever going to be meant that I headed to bed feeling excited but still able to get some quality Z’s….

Race Day Itself

It was still an insanely early start and chilly to boot. One idea I had this year was to take along a bottle of warm water in order to get some fluid into the wetsuit prior to entering the swim, my logic being that if I could ensure an already warmed layer prior to the shock of entering the frigid lake then it would just make the whole swim start a little more enjoyable. It actually did work out quite well although the water was always going to be a bit of a shock to the system, and if there was any semblance of early-morning mental foggy or grogginess then a millisecond after hitting the lake everything was blasted clear and the day was brought into sharp focus.

As we were due to finish at Squaw Valley, Ironman ran buses for everyone down to the lake, which did call for an insanely early start. In spite of the obvious challenges associated with such an early start – summer sessions of cycling at Al Qudra and trips to Jebel Jais certainly proved good training for this – it always makes sense to arrive nice and early at the race, with plenty of time to beat the queues for body-marking and last minute adjustments and additions to the bike and transition bag. The other significant advantage to arriving super early is the fact that the queue for the loos is shorter, with what seemed like the entire population of Reno waiting in line by the time we got close to the race start. One particularly comical moment in the transition area came when mum sat down, very shortly being advised by one of the other male athletes that there would be “naked men” before too long, at which point mum scarpered and the guy casually followed up with “I don’t mind; I just thought she might!”

Given the fact that I wanted to be completely dry for the bike leg in light of the fact that I knew it was going to be a cold start to the day, I opted to swim in just a pair of swimmers and my wetsuit, which made for a pretty swift preparation. I had also invested in an addition to my swim gear with a Roka neoprene cap, albeit without the chin strap. I had tested it in a lake swim a couple of days before and did find that the extra insulation was very welcome, although the water wasn’t anywhere near as tepid as previous reports would have had us believe. There was even one guy who was planning to swim without a wetsuit altogether, a move that I personally thought was a little extreme. 0615 came and it was time to get in the water for the warm-up, a great chance to actually get eyes on the swim course, which this year was two laps in a clockwise direction, remaining in the water for the entire time. The warm up was brief and it was clear that it was actually more comfortable in the water than it was out, with the sand firm and cold under our feet. Still, an obligatory rendition of the star-spangled banner later and we finally heard the sound that eluded us last year: the start horn! We were off and I couldn’t help but pass through the arch and into the water with a grin from ear to ear! Assuming we didn’t have any disasters I was set to finish the day as an Ironman at last!

Swim – Near Perfect

Swim Exit_Lake TahoeI self-seeded myself at about 1hr 15mins for the swim and so there was a little bit of a delay before I crossed through the start arch and began to wade into the lake, before plunging in and immediately starting to find a good rhythm. The water was perfect, the visibility perfect, the swim perfect. I can honestly say that it was the best race swim I have had out of all of my events, with a really nice steady effort being sustained, my line and sighting accurate and straight, and the couple of one-on-one encounters I had with other swimmers seeing me emerge with the upper hand and without getting out of breath. My confidence with open water swimming in large groups has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years, and contrary to the idea of the Ironman swim being a terrifying ordeal, fighting flailing arms and legs and trying to avoid getting pummelled in the process, I found the Tahoe swim to be almost relaxing! Apart from the tranquility of swimming in a crystal clear lake, where visibility extended to nearly 100 feet, meaning that what looked like small pebbles on the floor were more likely gigantic boulders but just at great depth, and with the sun gloriously illuminating the mountains in view, the other significant advantage of swimming in Lake Tahoe was the fact that the water is so clean that swallowing some of it was of no concern. In fact, it was great knowing that should I get a little thirsty during the swim leg, all I needed to do was take a mouthful of water mid-swim. Not something I would do on any other race!

With such a good swim I emerged from the water in a fantastic time of 1 hour 6 mins – even better than I had projected – and did myself proud by running up the transition slope, grabbing my bag and running in to transition feeling strong and knowing that I had just completed stage 1 of my Ironman.

T1 & Onto the Climbs

I knew that transition was going to take longer than I would have perhaps liked but I was adamant that I wanted to be comfortable on the bike, given how long I was due to spend in the saddle, and that any trace of dampness or sand would simply come back to wreak havoc later in the day. Remaining warm was also a priority and so I took longer to ensure that I dried and dressed properly, including applying sun screen, which was vital considering how clear the day was looking to be. Bike gear on and it was out to start the biggest part of the day and the leg that was clearly going to make or break my race, especially with all the climbing. I was nervous but also knew that I had prepared adequately, was fit enough and just needed to stick to my plan.

The course initially took us out along the west shore of the lake, to the first aid station at Carnelian Bay before hitting the first big(ish) climb of the course at Dollar Point, and through Tahoe City, where we hit the main highway – closed for the race – that took us towards Squaw Valley. This initial section had me wondering whether the layer I had donned in transition was excessive and I was concerned that I was going to overheat. I was, however, glad to have the extra layer on as soon as we entered the valley leading to Squaw where, in the shade, the early morning temperature was significantly lower. The only chance we had to dispense with extra clothing and get said items back again was at the Squaw Valley aid station meaning that I either had to ditch the thermal layer early on, during my first loop, or keep hold of it until I returned on loop two but with the risk that I would be baking by then owing to the fact that it would have been later in the day and I’d have already climbed Brockway by that stage. As such, I opted to ditch early and so had to man up to the cold for the rest of the Squaw Valley section to Truckee, where we were once again bathed in sunlight and the temperature rose.

Bike Climb up BrockwayOne of the changes to this year’s bike course was the removal of the out and back at Northstar Ski Resort and the addition of a section that took us along the Truckee Heritage track, a beautiful park that hugs the Truckee River, eventually emerging on the outskirts of town and the start of the climb up to the Brockway summit. The view out towards the start of the climb up to Northstar as you pass the Truckee Airport is an impressive, expansive one and was very different last year, being shrouded in thick smoke. What a difference a year makes! As the climb started it occurred to me that the numerous sessions on Jebel Jais had been worth it, with the initial section of the climb relatively easy going and I found myself passing a number of people, although a few more were powering past me. Many of these, I would come to realise, were in fact doing the 70.3 and so only had to make this climb once, hence why they were clearly feeling confident enough to charge up what ultimately proved to be a meaty climb indeed. The support from the assembled crowds was very welcome at this stage in the bike, with shouts of encouragement, my favourite of the day being “this is what determination feels like and sexy looks like”, helping to drive us on up the relentless incline. I punched the air and beamed as we finally hit the top, allowing my legs and lungs to enjoy the well-earned respite as we descended the long way back down to Kings Beach, where we would begin our second loop. Although loads of athletes absolutely hooned it down from Brockway, I chose to be much more cautious, having experienced the true terror of the ‘wobbles’ whilst cycling down the very same stretch earlier in the week when we filmed some of the first scenes for the video. Having sped down the slope in aero-position and at 70kmph for the first video run, my second saw me get a real bad case of the front wheel wobble that I really had to fight hard to control, and that worryingly repeated itself on the subsequent runs. It was at that stage that I decided I would sooner sacrifice some bike speed and give up some time over running the risk of leaving some of myself on the tarmac and a trip to a US hospital, or worse. I imagine that the increased stability of a road bike would have helped and given the amount of climbing that the Tahoe course entailed I would consider using one if I ever did the same course again.

With one loop down and another to go it felt good to know that I was almost halfway through the bike and closer to the finish line and the culmination of two year’s effort. One of the main challenges of racing at altitude is the fact that one dehydrates more rapidly than at sea level and keeping on top of fluid intake is, and was, important. I know that I didn’t drink quite as much as perhaps I should have done and did on a couple of occasions feel the dull thud of an impending headache. I did, however, manage to drink enough consistently to prevent real dehydration from causing any issues and coupled with a good level of salt intake I avoided cramping as well, something I was pretty anxious about having experienced awful cramps during my initial training ride in Tahoe and my first ascent of Brockway. I knew that my fluid intake wasn’t too far off as I did still find myself needing to hop off the bike midway through for a piss – no letting it go on the bike for me, a mental hurdle over which I have not yet been able to leap.

By the time I reached the Heritage Trail for the second and final time my legs were defintely feeling the miles and I took the chance to stretch a little during a water refill prior to the short but steep climb up to the trail start. The second climb up over Brockway was noticeably less populated and it was clear that those still on the course were feeling it as much as I was, some even more so as a few had clearly been beaten by the gradient, opting to push their bikes the rest of the way to the top. One thing I was determined not to do was stop whilst ascending, as getting started again would have been really tough both physically and mentally, and so I just made full use of the bike’s gearing, thankful that I had opted to change my cassette following that initial training ride, and pushed on to the top knowing full well that I would not have to climb it a third time.

The final section of the bike saw us follow the same course as far as Squaw Valley, where we hooked a left and followed the road into Squaw itself. After making use of my bike aid bag at the penultimate aid station, including reapplying sunscreen and guzzling down some beef jerky for a pre-run protein hit, I drove on for the last few miles to Squaw and the end of the bike section. The final couple of miles through the Squaw Valley were strange in as much as the road looked to be banking downhill and yet the effort required was clearly indicative of a slight uphill. It was frustrating to feel that progress was slower than expected, especially considering that I was so close to the finish. In spite of this I reached the dismount line, seeing my dad waving in the process, and shakily hopped off the bike, handing it off to a volunteer before grabbing my run bag and tottering over to the changing tent for T2.

Run to the Finish!

Again, my transition was longer than I perhaps would have liked but before too long I had the trusty Zoots on, had donned the Skydive Dubai cap and was off to see how the day was going to end. As I exited T2 and turned towards the village and the first of the turnarounds, it wasn’t quite clear on what my tactic for the run was going to be. I soon discovered that I could comfortably maintain a steady pace and effort at about 160bpm and so decided to stick to this as my heart rate for the marathon, obviously with a view to change the plan if I felt it needed adjustment later in the run.

Ironman Lake Tahoe_RunThe course was mildly undulating, ensuring that a close eye be kept on my heart rate as it quickly started to climb on the uphill sections. I was amazed at just how comfortable I felt straight into the run, and derived immense satisfaction from overtaking people from the outset, even drawing positive comments from people on certain sections of the course, such as the curving uphill out of the Squaw Valley Resort, which apparently very few people had actually been able to run up. There were other nice moments throughout the run, including the cute little high five I received from a young supporter and the impressed cries of “wow! No-one has run up here!” as I scaled one of the steeper sections of the course. Hearing fellow athletes saying “good job” as I passed them spurred me on even more to keep my run technique good and my pace steady, although I allowed things to heat up a little over the final six to eight kilometres, with my heart rate rising to an average of 164bpm, and eventually hitting 170 right at the end. The final turnaround, which was mere metres from the finish was an emotional one as I knew that I was only about 10km from the end of my first ever Ironman, a race that had so far gone so much better than I could even have anticipated.

One target for the day had been to finish in daylight, so that I could fully appreciate the view of the peaks as I reached the finish line, and as it dawned on me that this would indeed be the case I realised that I was going to be close to running a sub 4-hour marathon, something I thought I was capable of but had not necessarily expected to pull off. As I reached the final aid station I politely declined the offers of drinks as I gestured to the fact that I was heading to the finish and sprinted out with words of encouragement ringing in my ears. I was so close! It always amazes me that no matter how hard you have raced, or how long you have been going, there always seems to be something left in the tank for that final sprint along the finish and so it was in Tahoe. I ran with such intensity and focus up through the village that I barely had time to take things in, such was my burning desire to reach that line. And then I reached the turnaround, spun to the right and entered the finishing chute, with the finish line there in front of me, the music pumping and the words from the race announcer, Dave, reaching my ears. “You are an Ironman!” I instinctively slowed for the final meter, determined to soak up the experience of crossing the line and just smiled like a Cheshire Cat. What a feeling! To have put so much in for so long and to have finally realised my goal, one that had seemed so huge and almost insurmountable two years before was just indescribable. I had done it. I was finally an Ironman and the medal that was now being placed over my head was – unlike the one I collected the year before – physical confirmation of the fact that whatever happened from now on I could at least say with certainty that I was indeed an Ironman. You simply have to experience it for yourself to truly understand what that feels like and I can see how and why people get addicted. In fact, on the question of whether or not I will do another iron-distance race, well, never say never, right?!

Ironman Lake Tahoe finishThe Afterglow

I was shepherded over to a seat by the icing station, space blanket draped over my shoulders, and after realising that I didn’t actually need to have my legs tended to went off to find my parents, both of whom were waiting for me by the entrance to the finish pen. Hugging them both was the real clincher for me and to be able to share this moment with them was magical. Mum had brought along the Tri Dubai banner and so we got a finish photo with it before heading out to find the nicest pint of beer that I had enjoyed for a very long time! It’s amazing how the taste of something can be significantly enhanced by the state of mind and experience associated with the time of it’s consumption, and suffice to say that moments rarely got better than that!

Ironman Lake Tahoe results

After filling my folks in on some of the highs and lows of the race, and still pinching myself at the fact I had completed the toughest course in North America in under 12 hours AND run a marathon in less than four hours, we wandered off in search of food, convinced as I was that I was famished. The weird thing was that as soon as my food arrived and I took a couple of mouthfuls it dawned on me that I wasn’t actually feeling hungry at all and barely made a dent in my meal. I didn’t initially understand what was going on. Hadn’t I just been active for the past twelve hours? Surely I should be falling upon the food in front of me like a wolf on prey?! Then I thought about it and realised that given I had spent the best part of a full day fueling myself on little more than the odd cereal bar and gel, my stomach had actually contracted down and was not in the mood to suddenly accommodate a normal meal. Apparently I was not alone in experiencing this phenomenon, with the waitress advising me that lots of athletes had also requested “take out boxes” in which to take their meals home. One of the many lessons I learned on the day: paradoxically don’t expect to be able to eat much after the race!

IM Lake Tahoe discontinuedContrary to some of the stories I had heard, and footage I had seen, there was no crippling cramps or collapsing over the line, which did make me wonder, “Hmm… did I actually race hard enough? Could I have gone faster?!” That, it seems, is the eternal curse of the sport and one of the main reasons we keep coming back for more: the relentless drive for self-improvement. Any notion or fleeting thought, however, of a return to Tahoe to try and improve on my time was subsequently taken out of my hands after the organisation decided not to return next year. Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015 was officially the last one. Only the second, mind, but also now the last. As disappointing as this is at first glance, especially given how stunningly beautiful the area is, the decision does make sense. The fact is that Lake Tahoe is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, an area already notoriously dry and in the midst of a multi-year drought. The risk of fires, especially at the time of year that the race is staged, is just too high to be able to feel confident that a repeat of 2014’s crushing cancellation would not be repeated, and coupled with the unpredictability of the weather, which saw a last minute freeze in 2013 and widespread sunburn this year, just makes trying to organise and attract entries, including pros, to the race very difficult. And so there you have it: even if I had wanted to try my luck again in Tahoe, it wouldn’t be an option. I am so thankful to the stars that this year’s race went ahead, even though there were a few days when it looked as though the same smoky fate as last year was threatening the event, and to know that I have been lucky enough to be one of the 5000 or fewer athletes to actually race there is very gratifying.

The following days in Tahoe were great, with my legs certainly feeling as though they’d worked but never feeling destroyed. In fact, the Tuesday after race day I was out on the lake with mum and dad wake-boarding and wake-surfing!

Final Thoughts

A multitude of questions form in the mind as soon as you come down from the immediate high of crossing the finish line in your very first Ironman, as well as a host of different emotions. The immediate ones are naturally immense satisfaction and pride at having successfully realised a long-held dream and goal, and of seeing months, weeks, days, hours of relentless training finally bear fruit. Relief is another one, as you can finally relax and put to bed all those fears over how the race could unravel at any moment. With Tahoe, the biggest fear was of another cancellation, especially as I knew it would be highly unlikely that the race would be restaged and whether I would even be able to, or even want to, commit to a third year of training, especially through the summer in Dubai, which I swear was way more humid second time round! So there was relief that the race actually started.

Anything can happen before race day, especially when you’re travelling, from adjustments to different water and available nutrition, to injuries and the bigger issue of the elements and weather. Ultimately, all you can do is prepare as best you can, look after yourself, mentally prepare yourself for changes on the day and then just go with whatever happens come race day. Then there is just the relief of ticking off each stage, even down to individual sub-stages, throughout the day, knowing that with each minor victory you are that one step closer to the finish and the incredible glow that comes with being crowned an Ironman for the first time.

Will I do another? I had imagined prior to the race starting that this was likely going to be my first and only Ironman, especially given how all-consuming training is and has been, and the fact I have other interests outside of triathlon (cue some shocked gasps from the triathlon community!) that I now want to spend a bit more time on, such as skydiving. Training for such a big race, however, becomes much more than just working athletically towards one, single day. It requires such dedication to improvement in all aspects of one’s life, from ensuring a healthy diet, moderation when it comes to such things as alcohol, and the need to develop efficiency with time, meaning that training for an Ironman just results in betterment across the board. There is also the matter of addiction. I have never felt fitter and stronger than when I was at the peak of my training, and that feeling becomes hugely addictive. Settling back to anything less than that whole body feeling of being at my prime may be difficult to deal with mentally. Then there is the community. Triathletes, and indeed everyone connected through sport, are part of a big supportive, encouraging community; a tribe if you will. It’s hard to step back from that and if you don’t take a little bit of a step-back then it means you are still as engaged as before, which surely means that you continue to be as inspired and challenged by those around you to push higher, further, faster than before. Which is when races get entered! So, I guess what I am saying is that it almost feels like somewhat of an inevitability that I shall do another long-distance race in the future, and certainly intend to continue triathlon. Never say never indeed!


Top Tips for First-Time Ironman Athletes:

These are a few of the gems of information and advice that I have gleaned over the past two years training and preparing for my own race and that I figure might be of use to anyone considering taking the plunge into iron-distance triathlon.

Don't Make an Ironman The First TriathlonWe all know the stories of people who had never done triathlon before, dived straight into a full Ironman and came out the other end. Bravo to them but I reckon the sane person’s path is ideally via some shorter distance races, at the very least an Olympic distance event, so that you can at least be sure you even enjoy stringing the three activities together. If you don’t enjoy the experience over 2.5 hours then I doubt you’ll be loving it 12 hours into a race.

Pick a Race Location That Truly Inspires YouPick a race or location that truly inspires you – you’re going to be dedicating a lot of time, sweat and mental energy preparing adequately for your first iron-distance race so make the subject of your toil one that will truly keep you focused, motivated and inspired to push hard and reach the finish. I chose Lake Tahoe first and foremost on account of hearing so many amazing accounts of the natural beauty of the area, way before I knew anything about the race. In fact, if I had read up on the race and seen how tough the course was before signing up I am not sure I’d have even hit the ‘pay’ button!

Get CoachedYou might be able to do a decent job of motivating yourself and cobbling together a semi-decent training programme to get round an Olympic or maybe even half-iron race but to really get the most out of your first Ironman, and to establish good habits and training targets from the start, look into coaching, whether it be in person or remote. Having someone you know is skilled and experienced at guiding athletes through the trials and tribulations of training for Ironman in your corner makes a huge difference. I personally knew that having a coach to answer to would really make that fine line difference between going through the motions and really pushing myself when it was called for. I also found myself part of a wider team as a result, which provided additional motivation and camaraderie during the training process.

Embrace Early Mornings & Late NightsWith the volume of training that is called for to prepare well for an Ironman, get used to early starts and, depending on your own schedule, some late finishes. Much of my training took place throughout the Dubai summer months, meaning much of my outdoor training took place in the very hours of the morning, before the real heat kicked in and forced me indoors.

RestYou will get tired and you will need to have rest days. It is, after all, during such times of rest that the body truly remodels and grows stronger, fitter, more adapted to the task being asked of it. You do not have to be actively training all of the time. In fact, that is one of the key benefits of having a great coach: they will actually tell you when to rest and take it easy. Sorted!

Get a Proper Bike FittingYou are going to spend an insane amount of time in the saddle so ensuring that you have the perfect bike fit will not only ensure that you get the most out of your trusty steed but will also significantly reduce the risk of injury. If you plan to invest in a new bike, especially of the TT variety, then its a good idea to get a fitting with an experienced bike fitter first as they will then be able to advise you on the best bike, including make, for your individual fit.

Talk to OthersEspecially those who have already done an Ironman and maybe even your chosen race. They will have a wealth of experience and top tips to impart. It is often the little tidbits of wisdom that come with going through a race yourself that can really help newbies come race day. Race reports are a great place to start and there is no substitute for just speaking with an athlete directly. Most will jump at the chance to relive their Ironman moments and will be happy to pass on their knowledge.

Have Fun & Enjoy YourselfRemember that this is NOT your job. You are doing this because you WANT to and ENJOY the sport. Of course some of the training will get hard, unpleasant even, and you may have moments when you seriously question what on earth it is that you’ve let yourself in for but ultimately you should do this because you find it fun and enjoy the challenge. I am a great believer in the idea that those things in life that are truly worth striving for are rarely easy. Embrace and enjoy the journey – in many ways its ultimately the best part of the whole crazy endeavour! As for the actual race, just soak up the experience, all of it and keep smiling :)

Three Times The Challenge…. Nearly

Three Times The Challenge…Nearly

Fire Ends Ironman Challenge…For Now

I should be writing this as a newly anointed Ironman, a member of a group of insane individuals who think nothing of putting themselves through a day of hell with a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and topped off with a marathon for good measure. Alas, in spite of being as prepared as it is possible to be, it ultimately came down to an idiot with a match to bring the whole dream crashing down. Or should that be, somewhat ironically, extinguished?!

Taper Time

Talise, Madinat, Altitude As the race approached training reduced in overall volume and intensity but in a bid to better prepare for the high altitude of Lake Tahoe, and the even higher parts of the bike course, I worked with the team over at Talise Fitness, Madinat to make use of their altitude room. This meant that I was able to train on both the turbo trainer and treadmill at the equivalent of 3500 metres above sea level, significantly higher than any part of the Ironman course I would be racing. Although the evidence I could find questioned the real physiological impact of such training on truly enhancing performance at real altitude, the psychological boost of knowing that I had experienced more than I would be facing in the real race, and that I was easily able to cope and even excel made all the difference and more than justified the exercise. I came to really enjoy the routine of arriving at the Madinat, greeting the friendly valet team, before receiving puzzled looks from hotel guests as I wheeled my road bike over to Talise, where I signed in, becoming known as “that Chris Queen!” before diving into the low oxygen atmosphere of the room where I’d remain for the session, in the company of my own thoughts and the various artists of MTV. I was genuinely saddened when my sessions had run their course and it was time to bid farewell to the team, and know that I would no longer be able to start or end my days making use of the luxurious facilities on offer.

The Final Countdown

Race countdown
Chompy gets the countdown to race day going…

The final week is incredibly nerve-wracking before any big race, especially one for which so much preparation has been poured into. As such, it is normal to become somewhat anxious and even paranoid about anything that could pose a risk to your race. People getting ill at work, to reports of possible Icelandic volcanic eruptions, to simple traffic near misses – a regular, normal occurrence in Dubai – they all serve to heighten the sense of countdown as you will the date that you finally board the plane for the race closer. In addition, it seemed as though every patient I saw that last week was excessively aggressive, with a dog bite and a cat mauling to add to the pre-race trials. Needless to say I survived this anxious period, upping my vitamin C intake and being even more eagle eyed on the roads than usual. The fact that packing nearly killed me is normal. I loathe packing for any trip and when the luggage also includes a race-ready bike to be dismantled, wrapped and packed, then my stress levels do tend to peak. I think for future races I shall incorporate ‘packing training’ into my programme!

Airport Dramas

Fellow Tri Pirate, Taka, and me at the airport ready to race
Fellow Tri Pirate, Taka, and me at the airport ready to race

Flight day finally arrived and the issue of how to lug my considerably sized bike box to the airport was solved by a good friend of mine who sacrificed sleep to ensure I made it to the airport for stupid o’clock. Check-in was anything but simple, initially due to the fact that I was acting as a chaperone for two rescue Salukis who were being relocated to new homes in the US by a local rescue group. The real drama, however, was when the friendly check-in assistant asked me if I had applied to “Esther.” “Sorry, who?” was my swift, puzzled response. “Who is Esther?!” Apparently a special visa known as an ESTA is required for entry into the US, something that I had completely overlooked in preparing for my trip. Visions of missing my flight, homeless dogs and the entire IronVet challenge crashing down in an instant formed in my mind and my response was to hastily enquire, with clear panic in my voice, whether I was able to apply for this visa now, as in right now?! Thankfully it was possible, although I had only fifty minutes in which to do it and had to somehow get access to the website. With my phone choosing the worst possible time to ignore any available internet connections I desperately wracked my brains for options, ultimately plumping to inconvenience the same friend yet again in the same morning. Thanks to her exceptionally good humour, speedy typing and credit card I had my application in, confirmation back and clearance to enter the US within thirty minutes. Phew!

My two travel buddies: rescued Salukis off to their new homes in the US
My two travel buddies: rescued Salukis off to their new homes in the US

With disaster averted we rejoined the check-in queue, by now significantly longer, and were soon ushered through ahead of others due to the fact that our particular flight was due to leave soon. It should have been plain sailing from there but we chose the new team member who also happened to have a clear dislike of dogs and no idea of what to do about checking them in. Further delay and by now some very anxious foot-tapping and thoughts again of missed flights and ruined trips. In the true spirit of the morning so far, however, we were finally checked in, bike, bags and dogs whisked away and I raced through security and on to my gate.

The US of A

A good fifteen hours, two and a half movies, some passable food and even less convincing amounts of sleep later and we touched down in California, where I collected the two dogs, looking relatively relaxed after what I suspect was a way more stressful trip than mine, and ventured out to meet the contacts for the pooches, leaving them to their new homes as I went off in search of a car. Fast forward 30 minutes and with my new Jeep fully loaded, Tahoe programmed in and a sense of real excitement, headed off over the Bay bridge, leaving downtown San Francisco behind, as Oakland and then Berkeley beckoned. One major issue with the bay area, I soon discovered, was the traffic. So much traffic! The first two hours of the trip were simply spent in crawling traffic, meaning that the chances of making it to Tahoe in daylight were zero, and with jet lag very much setting in I made the executive decision to stop for the night, before then making a super early start for the mountains.

Fire & Arsonists

I had heard reports shortly before leaving Dubai of issues with wildfires in Northern California, and one in particular that was raging a short distance away from Tahoe and that was apparently threatening the race itself. The facts became clearer as I neared Tahoe, with thick smoke present, being blown into the area by prevailing winds, and shrouding the entire region in thick, noxious smoke for the past few days. The day I actually arrived the winds had settled and it was relatively clear for the first two days, although it was still clear that the air was not what it should be, and the ever present smell of barbecue was evident. Still, if things stayed as they were then the race would still be able to proceed. Wildfires are unfortunately a difficult fact of life for those living in Northern California, with conditions this year apparently even worse due to the very dry summer, but the fact is that the fire affecting Tahoe was set intentionally. The idiot in question is, at the time of writing, in prison and deservedly so, with the disruption, damage, danger and loss at so many levels being staggeringly huge.

Sign In & Final Preparations

My home for the week in Tahoe
My home for the week in Tahoe

Once I was settled into my super sweet home for the week – a three bedroom alpine chalet with views out over Lake Tahoe, towards the Eastern shoreline and Nevada – it was time to head on over to Squaw Valley, host of the 1960 Winter Olympics and the site of the bike to run transition and finishing chute for the race. As I drove along the valley to the actual village it was clear to see why Ironman had chosen this particular site for the finish – breathtaking beauty and a truly stunning backdrop, an outstanding display on this particular day without the smoke to obscure the views. If conditions stayed clear then the finish promised to be a truly spectacular experience.

Race registration, Tahoe IMThe first stop was the bike wheel hire stand, where my wheels were swapped over to a pair of Zipps – 404 on the front and 808 on the rear – which if anything did give my bike a race-ready makeover and helped to really get me into a race frame of mind. Registering was a straightforward affair and with my race number secured, chip, swim cap and various transition and special needs bags in hand, I was able to really start mentally and physically preparing for the challenge ahead.

The Course

Kings Beach, the site of IM Tahoe's swim
Kings Beach, the site of IM Tahoe’s swim

It is one thing reading about and viewing a race course online, either in race documentation or on You Tube, but to see it and experience it first hand is the true test. The swim stage of this particular race was to be a 2 lap loop in the cool, crystal clear waters of the lake, just off King’s Beach, a gently sloping and popular public swimming area a few kilometres up the shore from Tahoe City, a beautiful little town nestled on the shore of the lake and my base for the week. Once out of the water, the bike leg of the race was to be a two and a third loop route initially heading along the shore to Tahoe City, before snaking along Olympic Valley, past Squaw Valley and over to the town of Truckee, a small town nestled within the valley and framed by the Truckee river, the only outflow from the mighty Lake Tahoe. Once through the town, the cycle route opens up onto a beautiful plain with the imposing climb of Brockway, with the alpine village of Northstar as the first target, rising in both a majestic and intimidating fashion ahead. The long, steady climb to the summit of Brockway, at an elevation of 7,200 feet (a vertical climb from the shoreline of 1000 feet), would really have tested the climbing stamina of athletes before the reward of several kilometres of exhilarating descent to return to Kings Beach and the start of the next loop. Once athletes had summited Brockway twice, the third loop was to take them left at Squaw Valley and into transition for the final big test of the day: the marathon. Running out of Squaw and out towards Tahoe City along the bike path tracing the Truckee river, athletes were to complete two laps, turning on the outskirts of town, keeping eyes peeled for the plethora of wildlife species for whom the area is home, including bears and coyotes. With the sun setting (assuming that the finish was in sight within the twelve to thirteen hour range) the finish line would have come into sight, the towering peaks overlooking Squaw Valley being the backdrop to a truly memorable and epic feat. The Ironman Lake Tahoe course is revered for being one of the toughest on the circuit, and with good reason. If the high altitude doesn’t sap the energy of athletes then the two loops up and over Brockway is sure to test anyone’s endurance before the run. Anyone completing this race can truly claim bragging rights and feel worthy of the title ‘Ironman.’

The Drama Climaxes

I arrived in Tahoe on Friday, with the race scheduled for the Sunday. According to locals and athletes who had been present since early in the week, the preceding two days had been truly awful, with thick smoke shrouding the entire area, making visibility atrocious and breathing laboured and unpleasant. Racing in anything close to such conditions would have been an impossibility. It was with a deep sense of relief and renewed optimism then that the winds shifted direction on Friday and Saturday, keeping the smoke at bay and offering a glimpse of what could have been, albeit with a lingering scent of charred wood still clinging stubborning to the air. Still, if the smell of barbecue was the most we had to contend with on race day then we could certainly live with that; anything as long as the race went ahead as planned.

The fresh, cool waters of Lake TahoeI took the opportunity in the two days leading up to the race to test out the still waters of the lake, bracing myself for what I had been assuming for the past year would be truly icy and biting conditions. I was, therefore, very pleasantly surprised to discover that far from being freezing, the water was refreshingly cool, almost unbelievably clean and crystal clear, allowing a rapid appreciation of how precipitously the shoreline suddenly drops to incredible depths. I followed a short swim past moored boats and a packed shoreline restaurant with a relaxed and pleasant run along part of the bike path that circumnavigates the entire lake, appreciating the sights, sounds and smells of the forest and mentally recapping the past year of preparation that had brought me from a mere idea and a dream to be physically present in Northern California about to put myself through the single day for which so much had been invested.

It was with a sense of sudden foreboding then that we felt another shift in the wind and, much like a dementor scene from Harry Potter, the hazy smoke started its creeping reinvasion of the area. With kit prepared, bike in transition and special needs bags sitting ready and waiting to be dropped off in the morning, I enjoyed a pre-race dinner with a visiting friend, all the while quietly praying to Mother Nature to shift the winds once more and allow the race to proceed. It looked less and less likely that this was to be the case, however, as I woke several times during the night, both due to normal pre-race nerves but also due to smoke which had managed to pervade even my room. The race organisers had announced that they would be making their decision on whether the race would be staged by Saturday evening so with no word to the contrary it appeared as though we were still set to test ourselves as Ironmen. Waking up on race morning and driving to Squaw Valley, from where we were all scheduled to catch buses to the swim start, it seemed even worse than anyone had imagined, with choking smoke enveloping the entire valley. Still, no one was even contemplating not racing and, again, with no official announcement to suggest otherwise we all bristled with excited energy as we chatted en route to Kings Beach and the start of the day.

The calm before the (smokey) storm...
The calm before the (smokey) storm…

I felt surprisingly calm during the final couple of hours, safe in the knowledge I think of having fully prepared my kit, including a very well stocked nutrition stockpile and special needs provisions that had been curated with the trusted advice of both my coach and friend, a seasoned long distance runner and champion in her discipline. Aware of the fact that there was no more athletic training to do I simply switched my thoughts to executing my plan for each stage, focusing on each individual discipline in turn and reminding myself that no matter what was to happen, this day was above all else a fun experience and one to be cherished, pain and all. As such, I stepped out onto the beach, goggles in hand, with a sudden surge of real genuine excitement at hearing the starting pistol….

…then disaster. The race, it was announced, had been called off. Cancelled. The reason given was, as anticipated, the unhealthy levels of smoke in the air making the conditions hazardous to human health. In spite of hearing the words and knowing at gut level that the decision was the only sensible one to be made, the sense of disbelief was palpable. So much so that most of us, myself included, simply ambled back towards transition almost expecting a second announcement to be made telling us that a terrible error had been made and that the race was to go ahead after all. No such follow-up came and so as quickly as excitement had peaked, a crushing sense of anticlimax washed through the crowd. We had come as close to starting the race as was possible, with some athletes already in the water and the pros literally under starter’s orders, and yet it had been snatched away. That was it. Our race was over before it had started and a year of preparation, it suddenly seemed, had amounted to nothing. Some athletes, whether through a sense of not wishing to accept that which had been stated or, more likely, on account of needing an immediate outlet for the caffeine induced energy about to burst out of them, completed the swim course and I later saw people out on bikes and running, in spite of the choking smoke that gradually crept as far as Tahoe City itself. In hindsight I wish I had at least dived in and completed even one lap of the swim loop, but in my sense of numb disbelief I simply did what most did and collected my things before boarding the buses for a return to Squaw Valley, by then almost invisible on account of the noxious smoke blown in from King County. A return trip with my bike to take back the wheels, an expensive 24 hours of mere decoration as it transpired, and I turned my back on Squaw Valley for the last time during my trip, left to wonder what if and contemplate whether or not I would be returning the next year to legitimately claim my finishers medal. Talking of medals, the ones that we were due to receive at the finish were left out for us to pick up, an exercise that had carried a sad sense of fraud about it. I collected one, more out of simply following the herd than actually wanting one, and even now I look at it with a deep sense of sadness, anger and disentitlement at being in possession of it. Why had Ironman even made them available?! It seemed wrong that there were two thousand medals out there, awarded for a race that was never staged and owned now by people for whom they simply serve as painful reminders of a shattered dream.

The Aftermath

That's not mist in Squaw Valley :(
That’s not mist in Squaw Valley :(

As everyone came to terms with the reality that the selfish actions of one single grown man with an unhealthy obsession with fire had ultimately led to not only the cancellation of the biggest event in our collective calendars, but had also decimated local peoples’ lives, thoughts turned to the response of the WTC, the owners of the Ironman brand, and what they would do about the cancellation. I, like most other athletes I had spoken with, naturally assumed that the most obvious and likely reaction of the organisers would be to automatically guarantee each and every one of us free entry to the following year’s race. Alternatively, offering the option to register for another race, especially those that were being staged shortly, seemed obvious, especially considering that everyone in Tahoe was fit, race ready and raring to go. It had been suggested to me that I could look at the options of either entering Ironman Malaysia, due to run the next weekend, or, staying in the US, Ironman Chattanooga, Tennessee. I did look into both options, the former being ruled out first and foremost on account of the obscenely expensive cost of flights from the US, but I had already told myself that I still wanted to race Tahoe, meaning that a focus on the upcoming half distance races I had already booked and then resuming training for 2015 was my preferred course of action.

Disappointed then is what I would describe my feelings at seeing the response of the WTC to the cancellation of our race. We were indeed being given the option of either registering for next year’s Tahoe race or a select alternative race (available slots dependent) but there would be a charge of $100 for the pleasure. A charge?! I am not naive and realise that there would have been costs associated with organising and staging the race even though it was subsequently cancelled but I also firmly believe that an organisation the size of the WTC will a) have insurance in place to hedge against the chance, even remote as it is, of a cancellation, and b) consider the potential goodwill it would generate in the face of such universal disappointment by making a grand gesture of the kind that waiving any sort of fee would clearly have created. The fact that they decided to impose a charge, even a relatively low charge of $100, suggests a misunderstanding of their market. The very fact that the fee was relatively low further suggests to me that they could easily have extended a generous branch to their athletes, especially given how profitable the brand is overall. I, like many others who turned up eager to race this year, have subsequently paid the requisite fee (including an additional credit card handling fee, to add a small insult to injury) and thus registered for next year’s race, something that I expect Ironman knew we would ultimately do, such is the strength of the desire to complete a target race. I have been in touch with them, have had my say and in the end have coughed up the readies, so the focus is now on moving on and preparing for next year’s race. With ice the first year and now fire this year, it will be interesting to see what happens next. My sincere hopes are for a calm Mother Nature, a wet winter and ultimately an epic race two years in the making!

The Final Days Stateside

Friends reunited in TahoeWith the race cancelled, there was at least the silver lining of being able to enjoy an unexpected breakfast with my friend, Alicia, who had made the trip up from San Francisco for the previous day but would not have been able to stay for the race. It did seem, on reflection, as though the entire project had been carrying bad omens from the start, with the first stroke of bad luck being that a good friend of mine, who had been due to travel up from San Diego with his girlfriend to spend the week in Tahoe with me, was taken suddenly very ill and was thus unable to travel. As such, I was set to finish the race solo and then spend the rest of the week on my todd, in hindsight not the best experience. Secondly there was the fire. Seriously! What were the chances of there being one deranged idiot choosing to set a fire in that exact area of California at that exact time of the year, and for the winds to then be in that specific direction meaning that smoke was to blow in?!

Fun on the water in Lake Tahoe
Fun on the water in Lake Tahoe

The rest of the week went by relatively swiftly and in spite of still having fun, as determined as I was to not let the race fiasco totally ruin my trip, including an epic morning wake boarding and wake surfing on a perfectly flat lake, the smoke remained and did certainly hinder much in the way of serious activity, including an aborted attempt to ride the Ironman cycle route. I drove it instead and was soon glad I called time on the attempt, with thick smoke across the Truckee valley. I also decided to call short my entire trip, as I had initially been due to spend three weeks in the US. Due to various factors, the race being the final one, I decided to rather save my holiday, with the intention of regrouping and focusing on a repeat attempt next year. A brief stop in San Francisco, where the air was noticeably fresher, and it was back on a plane, barely a full week after I initially arrived. Certainly hadn’t seen that one coming! Life has a weird way of testing each and every one of us and it seemed that I was to be tested this year, with this and subsequent trials yet to be thrown my way being life’s apparent plan for me. Roll on 2015 is all I can say :)

If you would like to continue following the training and racing exploits of Chris as he prepares for his new challenge of racing Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015, then you can do so via the website www.ironvet.net or via the Facebook page, Ironvet 2014. Similarly, if you would like to donate to the WVS and support Chris’ chosen charity in this challenge, then you can do so at www.justgiving.com/ironvet.

Everyday is Different

WANTED: Vet to spend their days undertaking awesome work with some of the most interesting animals on the planet in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, at one of – if not the – premier zoos in in the world.

San Diego Zoo, Dr Meg Sutherland-Smith & Chris Queen
Dr Meg Sutherland Smith & ‘Nerdy Vet’ Chris outside the San Diego Zoo Hospital

Sound like the kind of job you are aiming to get one day? Well, this is the job description that Dr Meg Sutherland-Smith, Veterinarian at San Diego Zoo, gets to live every day of her working life, ensuring that the myriad species that call the zoo home are kept happy and healthy. I was extremely fortunate enough to be able to accept an offer to take an afternoon tour of the main zoo hospital during my recent trip to California, and it was an opportunity that I was happy to stay grounded for, cutting short my skydive training in order to head into Balboa Park to meet with Dr Sutherland-Smith and take a peek behind the scenes at a truly wonderful institution.

The zoo’s hospital sits at the west edge of San Diego Zoo, between the main enclosures and Balboa Park as it continues toward Downtown San Diego, and the drive past many of the park’s stunning sights, such as The Globe Theatre, is a treat in itself. I met Dr Sutherland-Smith at the main gates and was warmly welcomed in to see what it takes to keep so many amazing creatures fit, healthy and happy. Despite literally arriving looking as though I had crawled off the beach, following a dash into the city from Skydive San Diego’s dropzone, I was welcomed as a fellow veterinarian and made to feel like one of the team from the outset. It was instantly clear how passionate Dr Sutherland-Smith is about the work her and her team do at the zoo and I got the distinct impression that she finds every tour she gives as enjoyable as those whom she is showing around, which is impressive considering I must have been the thousandth eager young vet looking to nose behind the scenes.

Our tour took in the entire facility, including the main prep and surgical areas, all impressively kitted out with some state of the art equipment, such as a mammography machine, used a lot to radiograph (xray) birds in exquisite detail. Much of the kit employed in the hospital finds its way there through the very generous support of a number of dedicated individuals and groups, with the standard of care that the zoo’s animals can expect rising all of the time. San Diego Zoo is clearly committed to furthering the education of it’s visitors and veterinarians, with the ability to be able to watch procedures being undertaken from the library or even via a state-of-the-art video link, which I got to see in action.

San Diego Zoo, CCTV
Dr Sutherland-Smith using the hospital’s amazing CCTV system

A tour of the enclosures saw me blessed with being able to see a number of fascinating animals, including a fishing cat which was recovering from recent spinal surgery, and he certainly let us know what he thought of us staring at him! One of the most useful bits of new equipment, and one that makes a huge difference on a daily basis at the zoo is a sophisticated closed-circuit video system, enabling keepers and vets to keep a very close eye on their patients without needing to even be anywhere near the pens. The ability to survey and then zoom in on even the smallest of species makes the camera system indispensible as a monitoring tool. Having the ability, for example, to be able to monitor recovering birds, who will often mask illness or abnormal behaviour if they sense the presence of humans, has really enabled the team to progress the standard of care offered to their patients. Aside from its obvious uses it’s also just a very cool bit of kit to use!

San Diego Zoo is home to over 3,700 rare and endangered animals, housed in more than 100-acres and representing some 650 species and subspecies. The zoo also boasts an impressive botanical collection, with over 700,000 exotic plants growing in its Balboa Park site. If you would like to know more about internship opportunities at San Diego Zoo, including veterinary externship programmes, then check out the website. My sincerest thanks go out to Dr Sutherland-Smith, Donna Vader and the entire team at San Diego Zoo for making my visit a reality.

I want to be an overseas vet

planet earthYou know how you keep being told that a career in veterinary is a passport to the world? Well, it is true and the fact is that for many of you the idea of working outside of the UK, even if only for a short period of time, will become an increasingly attractive idea, for a range of reasons. I know fellow vets who have opted to work in Australia and New Zealand on a short-term, ‘working holiday’ visa, to those who have navigated the gauntlet of the North American registration system on account of a) wanting to work in what is without dispute the most advanced veterinary market in the world, and/ or b) personal reasons, such as a partner being based over there. Whatever your reasons may end up being, it is important to know what you need to do in advance, especially as the process for being allowed to work as a vet in some countries is not at all straightforward and can take a decent amount of time to complete.

So why would you want to work overseas? Well, I think the answer should really be, “why wouldn’t you?” Life is short, the world is big and yet more accessible than it ever has been before, and we are members of a profession that can, in theory at least, ply our trade and leverage our skills in many locations around the globe. The main reasons I can personally identify for considering even a short foreign period of employment overseas are:

  1. Travel & immersion in different cultures. Working, and by extension, living somewhere is often vastly different to the experience you get when simply visiting somewhere as a tourist. An extended period of stay in one location enables you to fully immerse yourself in the local culture and to really get to know ‘the locals,’ from whom many new and lifelong friends are likely to be made. Travel really does open your eyes and enable you to see things differently, including from a professional perspective, and is reason enough to take the plunge.
  2. A new life. Just because you were born in, grew up in and studied and graduated in the UK doesn’t necessarily mean that you are meant to remain in the UK. I know many friends who went travelling, with every intention of returning permanently to the UK, only to find that they found their true home, the place they felt they belonged, during their trip and subsequently stayed.
  3. Improved salary & other lifestyle considerations. Vet salaries are ok in the UK but they’re better in places such as the US, with the added advantage of pet owners knowing and fully appreciating the full cost of healthcare. Friends of mine who moved to the US make more as vets there than they would have done here in the UK, and claim to enjoy a much higher standard of living in the process. Oh yeah, plus they have the cool additional perk of being referred to as ‘Doctor!’

The list could go on but we have to get onto the detail of how to go about working overseas. The countries I am going to consider here are Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Much of what is included here is based on an excellent post by Zoe Belshaw, of Nottingham University, who is a member of the BVA Overseas Group.

Australian flagAustralia

If you are registered with the RCVS, which you will be if you graduate as a vet in the UK, then you’re sorted. Each state does have it’s own board, which you will need to be registered with in order to practice there, and you are likely to have to apply for a couple of additional licenses: a state radiation license, and a microchip implanter license if working in either Queensland, Victoria or New South Wales.

More info at:

Australasian Veterinary Boards Council

Australian Veterinary Association

New Zealand flagNew Zealand

As in Australia, RCVS registration counts but you do need to be registered with the Veterinary Council of New Zealand and hold a current practicing certificate.

More info at:

Veterinary Council of New Zealand

USA flag United States of America

So you want to work in the US? Sure? Really sure? Because the process is long, tough and far from cheap. My personal recommendation to anyone considering working as a vet in the US is to seriously consider applying and completing the registration process either during your final year (you’re revising hard anyway, right?!) or shortly after graduation. This is for two reasons: a) you’re examined across all of the species and disciplines, meaning that this knowledge is likely to be at its freshest in your mind at the end of vet school, before you head out and specialise as most of us do; and b) you are more likely to be focused on really nailing your application, before you become settled in practice and comfortable with a nice, regular paycheck.

If you graduate from an AVMA-accredited university (Glasgow, Dublin, Edinburgh and RVC) then lucky old you, as you have completed stage 1 and can proceed straight to applying for the NAVLE, which is the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Everyone else has to start from stage 1 and follow the whole process through.

If you apply to work in a US university (eg as part of an internship scheme) then you will not need to worry about any of this as you’ll be covered by the university. It does, however, mean that you will not be allowed to do anything of a veterinary nature outside of the university.

Ok, so the process is as follows:

Stage 1: Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates certification program

(NB: There is an alternative route, PAVE, run by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards, with the stages appearing to be similar to those below.)

This is comprised of four stages and should, in theory, take no more than 2 years to complete. The stages are:

1. Enrol, provide proof of graduation and pay the registration fee, which is approximately $1000, and is valid for 2 years.

2. Provide proof of your English language ability. This can be in the form of a letter from your secondary school, although it is worth checking regularly as this may be subject to change.

3. Basic Clinical & Scientific Knowledge. This is a 225-question, multiple choice exam (BCSE) testing everything from anatomy, to pathology knowledge, and preventative medicine. There are a number of centres in the UK at which you can apply to sit the exam, and they run at regular times during the year. The cost at the time of writing was about $80 plus an additional $40 for sitting it in the UK. This can be resat as many times as you like, but it will incur an additional charge each time.

4. Clinical Proficiency Examination (CPE). This is a test of hands-on clinical veterinary and medical skills, and is conducted over the course of about three days in the USA. This covers entry-level skills across species and disciplines and is administered at a number of sites across the US, of which you can state a preference but with no guarantee of being booked at that centre. The cost is a whopping $5000, which is non-refundable, and if you fail 4+ out of the 6 sections then you have to resit the lot, otherwise it is possible to resit the individual components at about a $1000 a pop.

Stage 2: North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). This exam consists of 360 MCQ’s and can be sat in the UK between November and December each year, or for a limited period in April, depending on the state that you’ve specifically applied to become registered with. The cost is $550 plus whatever the specific state fee is – you’ll need to check the state fees, requirements and application deadlines independently.

Stage 3: State exams. Some states may require additional exams to be sat before you can be eligible to work in them.

Stage 4: Work Visa Application. Once you have your NAVLE all sorted, your prospective employer will need to apply for a work visa on your behalf through the US Immigration Department. As such, you will need to have a job lined up in the USA and they will need to be willing to fill in several forms on your behalf.

Once all that’s done then you’re ready to hop on a plane and get working in the USA :)

There are, of course, other countries that you may wish to work in as a vet and I am sure there will be further posts on these in the future. Please feel free to make suggestions or provide info to this effect. Thanks and happy travelling.

Animal Health Care, Big Apple Style

Animal Medical Center, New YorkIs it possible to mix business and pleasure? Well, yes, I believe it is and I think I managed it during my recent trip to New York. One of the days I spent out there saw me take a break from the usual tourist efforts and instead saw me head east, to 510 East and 62nd Street, in order to visit the Animal Medical Center, one of New York’s most revered veterinary establishments and a world-renowned teaching hospital.

Arranging the visit couldn’t have been easier, with the power of Twitter as a medium for more than just pointless digital static being proven as I managed to make initial contact via the social networking tool. A simple follow-up email later and a tour of the center for the friday of my visit was booked. Simple.

Set within viewing distance of the Queensboro Bridge and the Rockefeller Island Tram, a cable-car connecting Manhattan to Roosevelt Island a short skip across the East River, the building itself doesn’t quite do justice to the state of the art work conducted inside. Still, early twentieth century architecture was what it was and the important thing is that the center has been devoted to advanced treatment, research, education and exemplary veterinary healthcare since 1910, over 100 years, and has grown impressively in that time. Covering eight entire floors of their current building, the main action happens on the second, where clients are registered, patients triaged, including 24/7 emergency provision, and many of the center’s services are provided. The Animal Medical Center has everything, from it’s own on-site pharmacy, to a dedicated emergency ward, state-of-the-art imaging equipment, with everything from echocardiography to digital radiography, to MRI and CT, and beyond. The surgical facilities alone would make any surgeon worth their salt weep with delight and feel convinced that Christmas had come early. All in all, a very impressive set-up and it is little wonder that the Animal Medical Center is the first place vets from around the world think of when planning a trip to NYC.

Animal Medical Center, New YorkEducation is one of the core focuses of the Animal Medical Center and each year they take on a number of veterinary undergraduates and graduates for externships (short placements, normally during university vacations), internships and residencies. The competition is fierce, and the fact that New York is one of the toughest states in which to become registered to work as a vet, comes as little surprise. I had the chance to meet briefly with a German undergraduate who was a week into an externship before returning to complete her studies in Germany. She was incredibly complimentary and enthusiastic about the center and cited the high standard of teaching as being a major draw, something that was exemplified by the evidence I saw of the daily seminars and tutorials that take place.

“So, how do I actually go about working in the states?” Good question. The answer is that the process is neither simple, quick or, by any means, cheap, with the total cost likely to be in the region of $10,000, assuming you pass all of the stages first time. There will be another dedicated post on this subject but in the meantime, this AVS page gives a pretty good overview of the process.

Talking of working overseas, if any students find themselves at the Animal Medical Center and have any inclination to apply to study veterinary in the UK, they now have the advantage of their very own copy of Vet School: My Foot In The Door, which I gifted to the center during my visit.