AJ Bell London Triathlon 2015: Race Report

AKA: Olympic distance open water swim – the return

I entered the London Triathlon back in January 2015 as part of my preparation for the Challenge Weymouth half iron distance in September. This was to be my second Olympic distance event (1500m swim, 40/42km bike, 10km run) in the run up to Weymouth, the first being the Dambuster (see my previous race report for how that went!)

It was a typical age grouper early start for me (0730am wave); so rather than travel from Bedford to London ExCeL in the morning I stayed in a Premier Inn in Dagenham the night before (salubrious surroundings – bike was firmly in my hotel room). I’d not had the best of starts to my weekend preparation as I had sliced right into my thumb the day before, cutting cheese for lunch, and so had spent the best part of £15 on waterproof dressings for it, conscious I was about to submerge it in the lovely Thames. I got up at 05:15am to get myself sorted and eat my porridge, but I had not realised how difficult strapping your own thumb was going to be so was about 10 mins behind my planned schedule when I left the hotel. 10 mins it turned out I didn’t really have.

Despite the fact I was trying to find the car parking with clearance for my roof-racked bike, by following the official signs I inevitably arrived at ExCeL at the opposite end of the venue, at the parking that had been flagged in advance as having only a 2m clearance. So after a grumpy steward pointed out I had to take it off and I stuffed it on the back seat of the car I got myself parked and went up to register. In hindsight I should have just gone up ready to go as with ExCeL being such a large venue (more on that later), it took ages to get to registration, back to the car and back to transition again to rack my bike / sort my stuff out.

After another grumpy official (bad luck or my influence on them?) had given me my timing chip I went through into the biggest transition I had ever seen. There were 25+ racks for bikes, each of which easily could take around 200 bikes, and they actually reused the early ones later in the day! This was a huge event compared to Dambuster (13,000 competitors over two days). It also turned out I was spoiled with rack space at Dambuster as there were no pre-stickered spaces for bikes, only blank bits of tape at about a foot apart along the rack. It took me a while to work out I had to move some bikes around to find a space and I was getting a bit concerned being so close to assembly time (8 mins to go). So after a guy gave me some advice I found a small space and managed to get my bike racked and my stuff out and ready.

I made it to assembly having only missed about a minute of the briefing and a nice guy there helped me into my wetsuit – remembering to actually put my ear plugs in and nose clip on this time! After whipping us up with cries of oggy oggy oggy and encouraging us to hug a neighbour we made our way to the swim start down a flight of steps. At this point I realised that one of the slight drawbacks of the venue is that the transition area is in one of the big event spaces on the first floor – meaning we would have to go up and down each time to get to the swim, bike, run, which were naturally ground / river level…

Anyway, we quickly walked out onto a pontoon on the Royal Victoria Docks next to ExCeL and jumped into the water. I was still trying to find a satellite on my Garmin, which was proving difficult as we had been inside for the whole briefing session. I was treading water with one hand in the air! No luck though and I think I actually only picked them up about a mile into the bike ride so my timing was way off. At this point the outer layer of my thumb strapping filled with water so I abandoned that and hoped the inner layer would hold! It did.

I started at the back – a deliberate strategy given my issues at Dambuster, but I got straight into my stride. A large part may have been that the water was less cold (although very murky), but I definitely think having ear plugs and nose clip massively helped. I was swimming like I normally do and not worrying about water going into my head. In fact my challenge then became that I was actually a stronger swimmer than most of my laggard chums and so I found myself boxed behind a line of them. I had to basically force my way through them; a new sensation to be overtaking in the water on a tri – not being overtaken!

I was sighting well, despite going directly into the sun, as I had found a large crane to focus on. So I dug in and started counting my strokes between sighting. About half way round I again found myself jammed between two people who were basically swimming on top of me. but I didn’t drop back or feel intimidated, I just concentrated on my stroke and actually swam ahead of them – I am getting the hang of this!

The rest of the swim was uneventful, and I soon found myself swimming onto the sunken finish pontoon with a friendly hand helping me out. 00:38:32 for the swim.

At this point we had to take off our wetsuits and put them in a big plastic bag, I though in advance that would be a faff, but actually it was dead easy – someone was there to hold the bag and you just dumped the suit, cap, goggles, etc. in there and then you were off. Although this is where the massive size of the event and venue plays against it. Again we had to run up a flight of stairs to the transition area and then around the outside of the bikes to the start of your rack. Despite me being definitely faster at getting my socks, shoes and helmet on I was over 5 mins in transition – pure size and distance to navigate. At least it was easy to find my bike as all around me had got theirs (although at least a third were still there, meaning I had gone past around 40-50 people in the water).

The bike course started on the service road around ExCeL and then went down an access ramp out onto the roads around the venue and over towards Canary Wharf. The course was two laps of fairly flat roads, at times quite technical (Westferry Circus area was full of twists and turns), but at others nice long straights such as the Limehouse link tunnel. It was difficult to judge yourself against others as you didn’t know what lap they were on so I concentrated on my own speed and cadence. I was trying to keep cadence over 80 reps per minute and then at least 19-20 miles an hour on the flat, getting north of 30 mph on the few downhill sections (mainly on / off ramps of the roads around Canary Wharf / ExCeL). The road surface was good in most places so it was a nice place to get into a rhythm, although I do think I need aero bars for Weymouth if I am to be out there for nearly 3 hours on the bike for that one.

There were no big incidents to report on the bike and soon I was back at transition and having to cycle back up that bloody ramp! 01:17:33 for the bike.

T2 was quicker than T1 at ~3 minutes, despite it being night on impossible to find my stuff amongst all the similar bags and shoes! But I quickly changed into my running shoes and visor (thank goodness for that, the sun had come out and was hot) and was out on the course. The run course is not particularly pretty, being mainly paths and car parks round ExCeL (there was a lovely effluent smell at one point on the course next to a square looking brick building). However, it is pancake flat so quite a quick one. I say pancake flat, except yet again for the access from / to the transition / finish area. And this time I had to run up that bloody ramp three times! The course is three laps, with each one starting and finishing inside ExCeL at the opposite end of the hall to transition, next to the expo. It was a nice idea to come in and out of the hall with the crowds there but that blooming ramp was a killer!

Anyway I wanted to get a sub-50 min time for the run so I was hoping to hold around 8 min/mile pace. I didn’t want to go off too quickly in case I lost my legs from the bike, but I kept finding myself creeping into the 07:30 min/mile pacing zone and having to hold back. However after the first lap I realised the legs felt good and actually I should just go for it. So I kept the pace up a bit and started to really enjoy the run.

As I came into ExCeL for the last time I wasn’t looking at the watch but I knew it was easily sub-50 mins. What I didn’t realise was that I actually had run 00:46:28 – less than a minute off my standalone 10k PB! I had a cracking run and it brought me in well below my 3 hour personal target. Dambuster had been 03:08:17.

My final time was 02:51:49. I am well happy with that – over 8 minutes in transition so on a smaller race a lot of time to claw back!

I would definitely recommend this event to any triathlete – beginner or elite. There may be thousands of people there but it’s not intimidating, its beginner friendly with a good course. it may not have the scenery of Dambuster but it’s flat and swift. I am glad to have done it and I am looking forward to my half iron distance in September.

Now then, just need to practice swimming in the sea…

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