The Dambuster triathlon was my first proper triathlon. I’ve concentrated on ultrarunning for the last couple of years and I decided to really have a go at triathlon in 2015. I’d done a sprint triathlon at the pool in Bedford a couple of years ago but never anything like this. The Dambuster is an ITU world championship qualifier, 1500m of open water swim in Rutland Water, 40km of hilly road biking and an out-and-back 10km along the dam.
I’d done a fair bit of training for the event – 2/3 swims a week split between the pool (530am starts weekdays) and weekend swims round Box End lake; along with 3/4 bike rides and runs each week. I knew I could have done more, especially over the last two weeks because of work, but I was confident I had done enough to get round.
My coach and friend Bev picked me up at 430am, a nice early start for us. We were both newbies at the event so it was good to travel together and talk though our plans and thoughts for the day. We made great time up to Rutland and were onsite parking up by 545am along with a steady stream of cars behind us. As it was a world champs qualifier it soon became clear there were a lot of very professional looking people competing. One young whippet of a lad was even on his turbo trainer warming up on his bike! My entry-level Giant aluminium road bike which does me well and got me round the Tour of Cambridgeshire two weeks ago was almost blushing in the company of the carbon spaceships around us!
Registration was a quick, well-oiled affair and after a bit of faffing around at the car we were on our way to transition with our bikes and plastic boxes! The majority of the 12 or so Bedford Harriers were in a separate transition to me as they were either in the male 45+ age categories, or the female categories, which all started together. I was in the transition area with all the young pups! Won’t last long…
I found my rack area really easily, it was well signposted and each bike had a sticker on the racks. I took a little while getting my stuff sorted out, I was a bit worried as they said we could not keep boxes by the bikes and it was due to rain, but I found a spare plastic bag so managed to get everything covered. I pulled my wetsuit on over my new swanky Bedford Harriers tri-suit, up to my waist and went off to the briefing. 10 mins later briefing was over, I was zipped up in my wetsuit and we were all ready for the off.
At this point I made the first of a few small, but poor decisions that I would regret. Sadly I had put my swimming ear plugs and nose clip into my tri-suit back pocket and only realised when zipped into my wetsuit. I decided I couldn’t be bothered to get undressed and I would do without – wouldn’t make much difference would it? The second poor decision was to not wear two swim caps as not many other people seemed to be doing that. Peer pressure I guess. I was used to swimming in the lake with my neoprene chin strap cap, and was initially planning to put the blue latex one I had been given (I was in the blue wave) over it. But I decided just to wear the blue one.
I was chatting to Dave, one of the other Harriers in my wave as we waited to start. I was feeling quite excited actually and not particularly nervous. I had my wetsuit, I was used to swimming in the lake, I’d done the distance and as it was a beach start I was planning to hang back to not get involved in the mass start activity. The wave before us went off and Dave and I went down to the beach with the rest of the blue wave. The good thing was we had 10 mins to “warm up” so we all walked into the reservoir and got ourselves acclimated. It didn’t feel overly cold, and I did my usual plan of getting water into my suit and splashing my face to get my body used to the cold and minimise the reaction when I started. I did a bit of swimming, but had a problem with my goggles which meant I spent most of the time adjusting them.
Soon it was time to get out and line up on the beach. I was firmly at the back and ready with my Garmin to get on. Suddenly there was a count down from 10 and we were off!
I strode into the reservoir and started front crawl swimming at what I thought was my own pace, behind most of the pack so not too much in the way of legs and arms to contend with. I found it tricky getting into my “stride” but assumed I would start to settle into it over the next 50 metres or so. But I didn’t seem to be getting any better. I noticed the water was much colder than I expected as we got further out and the water up my nose and in my ears was a bit off-putting. I was sighting a lot to make sure I was on track to the first buoy about 500m out into the middle of the lake so wasn’t really breathing much in the water. It started to get a bit tricky actually to even my breathing up, and I started to tell myself to calm down, regroup and get into a rhythm. I didn’t listen to myself though and was starting to really struggle to swim smoothly. It occurred to me that if this was tough, what was the sea in Weymouth going to be like? (I am entered into the Challenge Weymouth half ironman in September). Also, if I couldn’t swim smoothly how was I going to make it round 1500m? Also breast stroke (which I was doing a lot of by this point) was going to wear me out. Also, this was a deep reservoir, not a shallow lake like Box End. Also if I did not hurry up then I’d be stuck in the middle of the next fast wave swimmers behind me. Also, also, also…
I was panicking now. I suddenly realised I wasn’t breathing right, I was spiralling in self doubt and I was not going to make it if I carried on like this. But if I didn’t get going I’d have to DNF (Did Not Finish) as you can’t just slow down in a lake – you drown. I was now moving from fear to anger. I was absolutely livid with myself for getting myself into this state. I was actually shouting “come on” at myself out loud and thinking about how I was letting myself down. How could I look my friends in the eye if I gave up after 250-300 metres? But mentally I was gone. With a heavy heart and a lot of swearing at myself I remembered the safety instructions and I lay on my back with my arm in the air, asking to be taken out of the water.
A woman rowed over to me in her canoe and let me hold on. She told me to lie on my back, take deep breaths in through the nose (well at least I could with no nose clip) and out through my mouth. She was calm and focused, at no point did she display any concern for my welfare – which was good thing as she kept me focussed on the moment and my breathing. She radioed the safety boat and he came over to get me out. However he stopped about 10 foot away and I thought I needed to swim over to him to make the ride of shame back to the beach. But he had other plans:
“Do you really want to do this mate?” “No – I can swim this distance. I am annoyed with myself”
“I bet you have done loads of training haven’t you?” “Yes”
“Costs a lot doesn’t it?” “Yes”
“Do you think you could swim a bit further?” “I guess”
“Why don’t you just see if you can get to the buoy?”
And in that moment I thought to myself – he’s right, I just need to keep trying. I’ll know when I can’t move any further. By this point I had started to breathe properly and felt a bit better so off I went! What a fantastic bloke, I can’t thank him enough for helping me, rather than accepting my panic stricken decision to withdraw.
I set off very slowly doing breast stroke again. I tried front crawl but could only manage a few strokes before my breathing was a problem again. So I rested on my back for a few seconds then cracked on. Finally I made it to the first buoy – a third done! Probably going to be timed out (there was a 50 minute time limit on the swim), but I was still in the game. The next 500 metres were more of the same, slowly-but-surely I realised I would be able to make it round with breast stroke and a few odd front crawl moves. The next wave (yellow) mainly came and went but I stayed out of their way and I didn’t get bashed. I did get advised to move in though by another canoeist as I was going to be doing much longer if I didn’t get back on the race line. After a while I noticed I was swimming more and more front crawl, I was still having to stop to work out where I was (my sighting had gone to pot and I was weaving horribly), but I was making progress. As I came round the last buoy (a sharp turn back to shore) I was caught by the very fast red wave (the one that started 20 mins after me!) and I did experience a bit of the “dishwasher effect” I had heard about but by now I was feeling fine about being in the water and I just rode it out.
With a weave and a few stops to adjust I finally came out of the water 42 minutes after I went in. 42 minutes! However I did not know this at that point, to be honest I was convinced I was way outside 50 mins and timed out, but I carried on anyway. I was here and I was going to finish whatever.
I didn’t have time to worry as I was running to transition (T1) and taking off my wetsuit as I went. A guy in front of me dropped all of his gels he’d had in his back pocket as he removed his wetsuit so I picked them up and ran off after him to hand them back. I took quite a while composing myself, drying my feet and getting socks and shoes on in transition. Nearly 4 mins in T1 – a lot of time to make up there I think.
Anyway I was soon-ish running out with my helmet and number on and crossed the mount line to start my bike section. I was a bit self conscious about my all in one lycra tri-suit (I’m not exactly a Brownlee body) but one thing I will say is that it was very comfortable, dried quickly and meant I did not have to worry about changing for the bike and run.
The bike section was a lumpy 40km (25 miles) round Rutland water. We did a recce about 4 weeks ago though and so I knew what to expect. It was a god-send having that knowledge as most of the really steep hills are in the first 5-10 miles and without that I may have worried about keeping it up. But I knew the middle 9-10 miles were flat and fast so I put a load of effort in to the hills. I was struggling to eat and feed as I am not used to doing that while racing, but I did manage to get in the gels and energy drink I had planned.
The bike was pretty uneventful to be honest, although one thing of note was the difficulty of trying not to draft behind a rider. With the amount of competitors out on the road it was hard not to suddenly be behind a group, but we all seemed to make it work. I saw a couple of punctures but luckily my wonder tyres continued to hold out (still the same tyres and tubes I bought in 2012!) I played cat and mouse with a team GBR rider in the last 6 miles (he was about 70 and his GBR tri-suit was surely from the 1980s, but hey it all counts), and managed to beat him to the end. 1:27 for an eventual 25.3 miles at an average of 17.4 mph.
Back into transition (T2), much quicker this time as only a quick change into my running shoes and a sun visor to put on (the rain never materialised). 1:51m later I was out and on the final section – the run. My comfort zone. Although I wasn’t in comfort as by this point I needed the loo (and that tri-suit was never going to be an easy one to remove) and my back was really achey. The back-ache lasted the whole 10km – I think before my next tri I need to work on my core strength as this was the first time I’d asked so much of myself in three consecutive disciplines. I went off slower than my normal 10km pace as I wanted to not blow up, but to be honest that became my standard pace all the way round – I realised that 10km is not so easy after a swim and a bike! I saw Dave as I crossed the 1km line – he was 9km into his run and he started with me! He had an awesome day, well done Dave! He easily won the club championship on that performance.
I enjoyed the run, it was very slow for me (52 mins), but I know I can run. I can also go a long time on tired legs (see my blog on the SVP 100km race last year). One thing I enjoyed the most was that because of the out-and-back nature of the course I saw loads of Harriers – those in front and behind me! The course is a nice easy one, mostly flat with a couple of stretches across the dams. The marshals at the drinks stations were fantastically helpful and it was nice to see a few spectators at last!
As I came across the finish line I could not believe I had made it round – a couple of hours before I had mentally given up; cold, panicky and unable to move in the lake. Here I was completing my first Olympic distance triathlon! I have another one in London in less than two months – so much learned, so much more to do in training.
I hung around afterwards, catching up with the speedy ones, cheering in those behind me. That’s one of the great things about the Harriers – we are a real community, always looking out for each other. It may be the cake of course (thanks Rebecca!)
We hung around for a while, got dry, ate some food, enjoyed an alcohol free beer (really!) We all also went and got our official times – everyone was pleased for different reasons. Some celebrating a great performance, others of us just completing our first triathlon. I was the last Harrier home at 3:08:17 but hey, its better than a DNF! Loads to learn, I reckon with a good swim, stronger run (I need to train more as I neglected my running for the bike/pool) and some transition discipline I can easily crack 3 hours in London.
And then onto Weymouth – 1.9km swim (in the sea), 90km on the bike and 21km run (half marathon). That’s another level and a whole new ball game…