Challenge Weymouth Half – Race Report

This is the big race I’ve been working towards all year, but even when it arrived, it seemed to suddenly come from nowhere. For those unfamiliar with the event there were two triathlon distances on offer, long and middle (aka Ironman or Half Ironman depending on the organisers / brand). I’d opted for the middle / half distance for a few reasons, mainly the fact I am so new to triathlon, but also the training commitment involved in competing at a long distance, especially with a busy job and young family.

The training for the half is quite enough as you have to be ready to tackle a 1.9km (1.2m) swim, 90km (56m) bike and 23km (13.1/half marathon) run!

Getting ready

I’d had a good run up in my prep, culminating in a pleasing performance at the London Triathlon (Olympic distance) in early August, but being honest with myself I knew my training had suffered in the last month with holidays, especially my running. However, knowing how tenacious I am, and that I had done a great block of training from March to August, I was pretty confident I would finish (even if my secret desire for around 6 hours was probably unlikely).

I took the Friday before the event off work to get myself and my kit ready. I’d had some problems with the new aero tribars I had bought at the London Triathlon Expo and so had to make a decision on what to do for Weymouth. I decided in the end that, knowing the route had long sections of straight road with a lot of wind coming in off the sea, I would really appreciate having them so made a last minute purchase at my local bike shop and fixed a new set on before a quick half hour test ride. All seemed well, so on they stayed!

Having then also prepared and packed all my various swim, bike and run kit into one big bag I dropped my bike off at my fellow Harrier Bev’s house so we were not trying to pack our joint car first thing Saturday morning and got myself a reasonable night’s sleep.

The day before

Saturday was travelling, briefing and set-up day. Bev and I, along with super-supporter Lynne, set off from Bedford and made good time down to Weymouth, arriving just after lunch. First challenge was getting ourselves parked and booked into our B&Bs. The Harriers competing / observing seemed to be in most of the B&Bs in Weymouth and a lot of us were next to each other in a range of guesthouses on the beach front, Brunswick Terrace. The great news was that my B&B had parking, which all the rest did not so we were really lucky to be able to get our stuff sorted out without having to then drive to an NCP cark park somewhere. My landlady, Sue, was an absolute star from the off and really looked after us making sure we had everything we needed – more on Sue later.

Next step was registration at Weymouth Pavilion and with a free pint of Erdinger (alcohol free) in hand we hooked up with some of the other Harriers there to get our bearings. Bev was in one of two relay teams the Harriers had entered into the event and so needed to meet her swimming team member Lisette for the first time, as she had stepped in due to unforeseen circumstances. Having got our numbers, chips, transition bags, etc. we experienced one of the first small organisational “niggles”, the bags had the wrong labels on them. The idea is you pack a colour-coded bag for each leg of the event and then it’s ready for you at transition in a marked pickup area, rather than having to lay all your kit on the floor next to your bike as you do in shorter distance triathlons. It’s a good system as there tends to be more stuff at this distance (people get changed between legs) and it also means everything can be set up in transition the night before, which makes the morning of the event less stressy. One thing that was strange was that the bags were to be left outside all night, which didn’t seem great if it rained.

Anyway, having registered we decided to recce up to the transition / start area in Lodmoor Country Park – about a mile from the Pavilion. Bev and I made a rookie error here as we thought we had so much time to rack our bikes in transition that we’d come back later. When our more experienced colleagues such as Matt and Dave were taking all their stuff with them I began to suspect that we maybe should have done that too. Never mind. we decided to do a quick look round and get briefed on how transition works and then shoot back later after the official briefing.

Time ran away in the afternoon and soon Bev and I were rushing to get our transition bags packed (well me mainly as Bev didn’t need to leave hers in for one bike leg) and then we cycled back to the Pavilion for the briefing. There wasn’t much in the briefing that wasn’t in the race pack, but I felt I benefitted as a newbie from having it all explained to me.

Briefing over, bike racked, transition bags positioned, pasta consumed at a lovely pre-race Harriers meal, time for bed.

The swim

After a reasonable sleep I was still up early the next morning, despite a relatively late start time of 0830 and only a 10 minute walk to the start. I like plenty of time to get myself ready for these events so I was up at 6am.. The main thing on my mind was the swim – the newest and potentially weakest part of my triathlon, having the added danger of it being a sea swim had played on my mind for months. But at 6am, Weymouth Bay looked like a rippling pond, and having done some sea swim training whilst on holiday in Croatia, where the waves were pretty aggressive, I  actually found that I wasn’t anywhere near as nervous as I expected to be. I ate my porridge pot and pastry, got my kit on, put some wetsuit lube on the back of my neck where it sometimes rubs and met the Harriers to walk up to the start.

The start was on the beach, rather than in the water, so there were hundreds of people milling about and getting into the pens as we walked up. The long distance athletes had started an hour earlier and were out in the sea already. It all looked quite doable at this point!

Dumping my last bag, donning my wetsuit and saying ‘tara’ to the others, I lined up in my wave. At this point the group nature of the event fell away for me, as with earplugs in, outdoor swim cap over them, I was in my own mind. With the booming classical music blaring out onto the cobble beach, I lined up next to my fellow “green” wave and waited for the klaxon. And then we were off.

I started really, really slowly as, after my panic attack at Dambuster earlier in the year, I did not want to run out of breath by going off too fast. The first things I noticed were that the sea was warmer than I expected, less salty than I remembered in Croatia, and the earlier calmness seemed to have developed quite a swell to it! But strangely I was quite enjoying myself. There seemed to be fewer competitors around me than at London or Dambuster and so I just needed to focus on my own strokes and sighting. Sighting was actually really tough as the waves started to seem pretty choppy to me and you really had to time it to see the buoys – especially without my glasses on!

In no time though I made it to the first turn-around point; the course was three sides of a wonky rectangle – 700m out, 500 across, 700 back. The 500 metres parallel to the beach were the toughest bit as, with the waves coming side on, I was worried about being pushed off course and also I could not for the life of me see the next turn buoy. Turns out I was over-compensating as after a few minutes a friendly marshal in a kayak pointed out I was heading away from the beach out into the bay! I turned onto my back to talk to him and joked that it wasn’t hard enough so I thought I’d add a bit on. He laughed and wished me luck as I went on my way.

The last 700 metres were much easier as I had the waves behind me, although that had its own challenge as the swell had really started to pick up now. There was no “millpond” about this sea now, it was proper waves. But 55:02 mins after starting I was climbing onto the beach with a smile on my face. I had done it – the worst bit was over and even better I had enjoyed myself. I think in hindsight I had built it up so much I actually had over expected the toughness, meaning I found it a bit easier. The benefit of being a novice I guess as other, more experienced, Harriers afterwards told me that it was a really hard sea swim and the waves had been really difficult compared to a lot of the continental races. In fact two of the other Harriers taking part had to be taken out of the water as they had got into trouble – both being extremely experienced. This really brought it home that on the day even the best can find they struggle, but I was really pleased to hear they were safe and well.

I ran from the beach across the road towards transition (T1) and picked up my red bag with my bike kit in it. Unlike my Olympic distance events I decided to put extra clothing on for this as I was going to be out on the bike for quite a few hours. This was really common and in the male changing area most were putting on dry bike clothes. I had my one-piece trisuit on anyway under my wetsuit so I quickly dried off and pulled cycling shorts and top over it. As I was doing this event to raise money for Parkinson’s UK I wore one of their branded tops. I did notice at this point my neck was really sore – I’d lubed the back but had not realised the salt water would irritate all the way round, meaning I had sore red marks all round the sides and front. Luckily it didn’t affect me for the rest of the race but again another rookie learning point.

The bike

Collecting my bike I ran out of transition to start the 56 mile bike course. Sam, my very experienced triathlete friend who was waiting to start her run leg as part of a relay team, shouted “what are YOU still doing here?!” at me as I ran out and later I realised why – nearly 12 minutes spent in T1! I really need to tighten up my transitions!

Out onto the bike I settled in for what I hoped would be between 3hrs 15m and 3hrs 30m to cover the 56 miles. Not a blistering time, but I was very conscious I had a half marathon to do afterwards. I also knew the first 18 miles were quite hilly with a lot of ascent. Only 5-6% average, but up to 13% in parts. In fact on one of those first climbs I came across a couple of mountain bikers out for the day and had to politely ask them to move over as if they stayed right in front of me I’d be penalised for drafting! I did notice a clicking  coming from the rear set of gears when in the lowest gear, which worried me a bit, but there wasn’t much I could do so I carried on. It happened every time I went into that gear but it didn’t pan out as a critical problem.

I flew past the first feed station as I was carrying a lot of what I needed and started to work out what time I’d probably finish the bike leg. Apparently fate wasn’t happy with this assumptive approach and I suddenly heard a regular, pulsing ‘phhhtt’ noise from the front tyre. Yes I had a puncture. 8 miles into a 56 mile course. Arse.

This was where my relative luck in not getting many punctures before (only one in three years on my bike) played against me as I don’t have lots of practice at changing tyres. I didn’t by any means panic, as I knew I had everything I needed to fix it, but I certainly wasn’t F1 slick. First mistake was doing the classic kid thing of turning my bike upside down – well done Mark you just scratched your brand new aero bars. Laying the bike on its side, second mistake occurred when I nearly accepted the kind help of a lady who was jogging by. I said yes to her offer and then suddenly remembered the rules on outside assistance! I had to quickly backtrack and explain if she helped me I would be penalised. She was a bit puzzled but off she went.

You are allowed assistance from other competitors however and a friendly lady did stop and offer me one of her CO2 gas canisters. Sadly she realised she only had one and quite understandably she needed that in case she had a flat, so that help was short lived! Anyway I managed to change the tyre relatively easily, but then realised why the pros use gas and not hand pumps. After nearly 5 mins of pumping, my front tyre was up, but by no means solid to a race pressure. But I had to get back on, so I accepted a slightly spongy front tyre – shame I had 48 miles to go…

The rest of the ride was relatively incident free, although the time lost on changing the tyre (at least 10 mins) and the lack of front tyre pressure was going to affect my time. The course never really got flat and just undulated throughout. I was using my aero bars where I could, but realised I needed a lot more practice as the experienced time triallers from the long course wave on their second lap powered past me using them on both the ups and downs. I even got passed by the race leader about 80 miles into his 112, with a motorbike and cameraman in his face!

As usual I went through periods of feeling great and not so great but I persevered and found myself in the last 10 miles. At this point it was a long straight drag into Weymouth on the A roads, as opposed to the relative fun of the B roads and single tracks we’d had earlier. It may have been faster but it brought home the loneliness I had been feeling a bit out on the course. As you are not allowed to draft, competitors don’t form groups and so unlike the Tour of Cambridgeshire, which I did with some friends earlier in the year, you are out there on your own. Also by now I was finding it difficult to find a comfortable position on the bike –  the fact I’d needed a wee for two hours compounded the uncomfortableness! Finally about three miles out the road changed, but unfortunately it went upwards. There was a good three quarters of a mile of what seemed by now to be almost vertical ascent (I know it wasn’t). I went up there at about 6 mph, and was passed by a lady from club Serpentine, who I had seen earlier on.

However at the top there was a welcome sight – downhill into Weymouth! About two miles of descent, I bombed it down. Sadly for the Serpentine lady, my significant weight advantage played in (fat men do have their day) and I flew past her. After another half a mile down the beach front I made it to T2. The bike was 03:46:10, dissappointingly slow, but at least I had done it.

The marshals were great and took my bike off me to rack it, meaning I could concentrate on getting my bag and changed. After a mandatory journey to the portaloos I got into my run shoes, stripped off my running top and got ready for the run. Slightly better – only 7 mins in transition this time!

The run

I set off and within half a mile I noticed two things. Firstly and less of a problem, I had left my bike shorts on (eejit). It meant running was a bit strange but I knew there were Harriers out there I could hand them to. The second thing was more worrying. I had chronic back pain across my lower back. Clearly the product of all that time crouched on the bike it was in danger of derailing my challenge. After about a mile I stopped to stretch it as I could not go on further. A really helpful woman from Bustinskin Tri Club gave me some advice on what kind of stretch to do and it helped a little. I hoped I was going to be able to run as the sun was bearing down and I didn’t fancy walking the half marathon in the heat.

About half a mile later I realised something that did cheer me up – the run route went straight past the B&Bs down Brunswick Terrace. Excellent timing for ditching those pesky cycling shorts! I did a very small detour and rang the doorbell of the guesthouse. Sue answered and was somewhat surprised to see me there – even more so when I said I just needed to take my shorts off! But as she was so lovely she took it in her stride and even offered to wash them – a kind offer I of course declined.

Less than 2 mins later I was back out there and felt a lot easier to run with just my trisuit on. My back was still very sore but I felt it was manageable. With less on my mind I started to look about me and noticed that the sea was very different to how it had been 4-5 hours earlier. It was a rough, angry looking sea, one I would not have swam in for all the tea in China. What good timing. The wind coming off it was quite strong too, but I didn’t mind that as the sun was hot so it gave a breeze.

The run was 2.5 laps up and down Weymouth front. I ordinarily don’t like repetitive courses but I didn’t mind this one as it meant the support was concentrated and the people of Weymouth had come out in force. Sadly so had the ignorant ones as the course wasn’t completely barriered off and they just kept wandering in front of you. I had to shout “watch out” quite a few times. The other good thing was seeing the other competing Harriers on the differing parts of the course as they did their laps. It meant you always had someone to look for – special mention to Paula, Steve and Eva who were my high five buddies!

Eventually I was on my last lap – the pain in my back having gone about 5 miles into the run. Indeed the end came sooner than I expected as it turned out the run course was a bit short. But there I was, running down the finish funnel, with the PA system calling out my name! I was over the moon and to be honest a little bit emotional. I was so overcome that I had achieved something that, even when I signed up for it a year ago, I thought was potentially unachievable; raising over £1000 for Parkinson’s as well – that was just the icing on the cake.

06:57:16 in the end. Not the fastest time on the day, but to be honest it was the best I could do and so I was extremely proud to have finished.

In summary

What an amazing weekend, one I will never forget. Doing something that challenged me to my limits and succeeding. And special mention to the Harriers that came to compete and support, I was privileged to be part of the team – Mark, Bev, Sam, Paul, Paula, Lynne, Steve, Jutta, Matt, Jason, Mel, Justin, Dave, Lorena, Gary, Alison, Jeff, Kevin, Zoe, Christine, Tony, Lisette, Eva, Elise and all the ones I have missed off – sorry!

Extra special mention goes to Ian and Juliet. They did the long course and were out there for a long, long time. Juliet especially had to battle the increasingly bad weather as high winds and driving rain took over from the baking sun of the day. The Harriers as ever rallied round though and a big group of us stayed out on the course until after 10pm to support, cheer, run next to and rally Juliet in. Taking nothing away from anyone else on the course that day, but those guys out in the dark, still going while soaked to the bone and being battered off the sea get maximum respect.

I’d recommend Weymouth as I do think it’s a good, challenging course. I think the organisers need to tighten up a few things, especially the transition bags that were all damp after an early morning shower, but nothing that would put me off doing it again.

All in all my year of triathlon has been what you would expect, incredible highs (the finish line at Weymouth being up there), some hard lows (the swim at Dambuster) but I’m definitely hooked. I have a few more run challenges I am eying up, but I’m already thinking about the triathlon races for next year. One thing I did cement this weekend was that a full, long distance ironman is beyond me for the foreseeable. Seeing those poor souls out there, after 9, 10, 11 hours I just don’t have the time in my life to get fit enough to be able to do it. I know I can run for that long, having done a few ultramarathons, but that’s not the same level of training as required for a 2.5 mile swim, 112 miles on the bike and then a marathon. Hard-core!

This race was all about raising money to support Parkinson’s UK, who do so much to look after my dad. If you are able to spare a few pounds all the money I raise will go to my dad’s local support branch in Stockton-on-Tees. You can sponsor me here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/tags

Stockton River Rat Race – Race Report

  Nearly a year ago I signed up for this race for a few reasons. Firstly my brother was going to do it with me, secondly I quite enjoy the random fun of these obstacle course races (OCR) and thirdly because I grew up in Stockton-on-Tees and it just appealed to me to go back and race there.

The idea behind the event is to maximise the challenge of navigating the river and the surrounding waterways in Teeside, which have significantly rejuvenated since the days of heavy steel industry when I was growing up there in the late 70s and 80s. I thought it would be a bit of fun, although I was a  bit concerned as subsequently to signing up I had decided to do the Weymouth half iron triathlon and that was only two weeks away. I am trying to raise a £1000 towards my ongoing total for Parkinson’s UK at Weymouth so injury would be more worrying than just missing the race. And injury is a real possibility at these events!

Anyway, I still turned up on the day and using my mum’s local knowedge we were easily parked, registered and in a coffee shop for some pre-race caffeine well before my wave was due to leave. It was really nice as a lot of my races I travel to on my own or with club members who are also competing, but this time I had my small cheering support team of mum, wife and kids! My dad and BROTHER (yes, the one who was “apparently” going to do this with me) had season tickets for the annual Arsenal vs Newcastle sufferfest so weren’t able to join us. But I’m sure they had a lovely time shouting at the referee…

These events tend to attract all sorts of capabilities and quite a large field, so when I booked I tried to get as early a wave as possible. If you are in the later waves then you do tend to get a lot of congestion around the obstacles as the back markers from each wave start to stack up. So, I joined the rest of wave two and we did our obligatory group “warm up” (Bruno Mars Uptown Funk since you ask, and not as cringy as often can be) before we went off to the start line. Although I am under no illusions that I am particularly fast or have the upper body strength needed for the obstacles, I did still make sure I was at the front of the wave. As I say, it does get congested. 

Off we went and, with the exception of a few warm up objects to vault / clamber over, the first mile or so was heavy on the running – you still have to cover 10k after all! I realised early on that my wave wasn’t strong in running pedigree so I seemed to settle in towards the front of the field. With a quick wave to the support team (kids are great cheerleaders, I recommend having some at all events), I headed out towards the Newport Bridge, the furthest point away from the start. This section of about 2.5-3 miles was light on obstacles, but it did provide the first water challenge, reminding me of how cold the Tees can be even in August!

With a quick swim of about 5 metres across an access waterway we’d all been well and truly soaked through and sent off to clamber over a hilly section before the bridge turnaround. The one thing that was a little bittersweet was that in this section we were herded round a set of monkey bars as some poor soul was on the floor looking quite injured. Whilst I felt a lot of sympathy for the person with a potentially dislocated shoulder a bit of me was shamefully quite pleased not to have to attempt what’s in my top two least favourite obstacles. Number one is walls – both require upper body strength that has eluded me my whole life.

Anyway once we turned around we were on the trek back towards the riverside, with a stop at the white water rafting course on the way. Stockton has a fab facility that loads of kayakers / canoodlists travel to from all over the country and it provided a lovely set of water based obstacles. I fared pretty well and stayed upright where I could on the inflatable obstacles and dived in with gusto when I needed to. The only downside was being flipped a bit as I slid down the white water part of the course and scraping my elbow along the concrete. Sore and dripping with blood I didn’t mind too much as it’s the very definition of a flesh wound – nothing to bother my Weymouth prep.

After navigating all the obstacles in the white water centre we set off back towards town. This was my second sighting of the family support team who took some good photos of me and my latest friend. We had to do a loop in a two man kayak on the Tees so I teamed up with a guy who turned out to be not too shabby. Between us (me relying on latent school days training) we did pretty well and went past two or three kayaks ahead of us who were struggling somewhat to go in a straight line. 

Jumping out of the kayak, off we went again and headed to the final mile or so of the course – heavily back-ended with obstacles and sections of swimming in the river. We were in and out, swimming over and under inflatables and also having to balance on strapped-together rafts. We finally made it to the poster obstacle for the event – walking the plank of HM Bark Endeavour, a full-size replica of James Cook’s famous ship. Lots of people baulk at this one, and to be frank I’m not the best at heights but I knew my tactics had to be to just walk straight off, no messing. In reality it wasn’t that scary and soon I was swimming the 30 metres to the exit ramp from the river – not that easy in a life vest!

And then I was off – running the 500m or so to the finish and the final obstacle of a 10ft high ramp with rope. Over I went and I was done! My strange children wanted a hug from me with my wet clothes so I duly obliged and then promptly sanitised my hands of Tees gunk before scoffing a complimentary Clif bar.

I did OK too. 1hr 21m for a 10k – a pants time normally but not bad with the added water and stuff! Other stats:

  • 11th out of 156 in my wave
  • 100th out of 619 men
  • 107th out of 941 overall

So, really glad I did it, loads of fun. Even more glad I wasn’t injured for Weymouth!

If you have heard scary stories of pumped up meatheads at these OCR events, then they are there, but they are a minority. Most people are just there for a laugh, and not worrying about their km split times. Every now and then I say do one, they are really good fun and yes they may be a bit more expensive than a standard race but you get plenty of organisation for your money.

Now, where are those probiotics again…?