St Neots Olympic distance triathlon – race report

Getting there

I wasn’t sure about taking my place up on this event as I was laid up with an Achilles problem for most of the first three months of this year (off the back of a lackadaisical pre-Christmas training regime). With an expanded waistline and a general lack of fitness I’ve only been starting to train again since late March, and I had already decided to pull out of the Grafman half iron distance later this month. I only noticed about three weeks ago I had booked this in (having forgotten since I signed up in the autumn), and my initial thinking was I would just have to forgo the entry fee for this one too.

But with a couple of morale-boosting sessions in the last 10 days (54 mins for a 10k and a 1km swim in the lake a few days ago), I decided to just turn up and enjoy it. I may be some way off my best, especially running-wise, but with the new confidence I wouldn’t drown in the swim I thought I’d give it a go.

The event had been moved from being a river swim in St Neots to a lake swim at Grafham Water a couple of weeks ago, due to a water-logged event field at the original venue. This was also a bit of a boost as I have not swum in a river yet, but am used to lakes / reservoirs.

On the day

Being an event close to home it only took me 25 mins to drive to the venue and I was soon making my way to transition to load up my bike and set out my kit. I kept an eye out for the only other Bedford Harrier competing today, George, but I failed to see him amongst the more than 600 competitors. Transition was an easy set-up, with named / numbered racking positions for our bikes (not like the London Triathlon where it was a bun fight). I sorted myself out, got in my wetsuit and made my way to race briefing.

The briefing was efficient, with enough information to ensure you knew what you were doing, but not so much that you forgot it all. The slight wobble was when the British Triathlon technical official told us it would be the full 1500m swim, even though the temperature was only just warm enough to allow it without shortening the route. The minimum temperature for a 1500m swim is 12.5 degrees so it was going to be a cold one. As it was my Garmin tells me it was 10 degrees out there, which is below the minimum for swimming at all, but I’ll take the official’s word for it 🙂

The swim

Anyway, once the briefing was over, we were pretty swiftly in the water, which was as flat as a mill-pond. I was in the second wave, the 35-49 male age group, and they were sending us off in 5 minute intervals. The water was bloody Baltic, but I had time to acclimatise by letting water into my suit and immersing my face a number of times. (I also warmed myself up a bit but I won’t dwell on that).

Once the klaxon went I concentrated on just getting into a rhythm, I know from experience now that I tend to struggle with my breathing at the start, basically over-thinking it. But I didn’t struggle too much and starting at the back I was out of the main turbulence. I soon found myself making my way past a lot of breast-strokers and slower competitors and was getting into it. My main problem is always sighting. The buoys are big but I still struggle to make them out as I am short-sighted and I don’t wear prescription goggles. The added problem was that we were all wearing red caps in our wave and the buoys were red as well – as Father Ted might say, these swimming caps are very small, but the red buoys are far away…

Once I managed to make out the first buoy I did realise I had been a bit wonky on the run-in, but hoped I hadn’t added too much onto the distance. Round the first buoy I really was in my stride, although the next wave was already on us and so we started to have the faster swimmers go past us. At one point I think a boat must have gone past as we had quite a few waves, but I just remembered Weymouth and laughed it off!

Round the second buoy and the longest stretch ahead, meaning more guesswork on where the buoy was. Looking at my Garmin map afterwards I seemed to do OK on this leg, but we also had the final wave on us, again the faster ones swimming past and into us.

The final buoy came and I was feeling pretty happy with my swim, but this is where I had a bit of a problem. The sighting was the gantry at the edge of the water – blue, with the sponsor logo on it. However, as there was a backdrop  of trees I could not for the life of me make it out. But I remembered there being some big red flags at the exit area and I could make out two of them so I sighted on them. I carried on, but found the faster swimmers really started to swim right over me. I was a bit confused – why was this happening so frequently? I was really put off my stroke as I couldn’t get into a rhythm and kept having to look up to adjust my direction to head for those flags. After about five mins however I realised that the faster swimmers had not been swimming over me – rather I had been swimming under them! As I was nearer the shore I could now see the gantry over the exit and it was clearly about 20 metres to the left of the flags I was heading for! Basically I was swimming across the competitors at about 45 degree angle! Bloody eejit.

Once I adjusted myself and headed in I found I wasn’t getting anywhere near as much over-swimming going on. I even remember that as I came out of the water I felt a little disappointed to have to stop swimming as I was enjoying it!

Well, I actually swam 1700 meters, not 1500, because of my wonky sighting, so I was quite pleased with 37:31.

Transition 1

I am determined to get faster at my transitions so I made a concerted effort to make this as simple as possible. I had proper road cleats now on my bike (last year I had been using MTB ones), so I could attach my shoes directly to the pedals and put my feet in them when I got on the bike. I had also bought some tri-specific shoes so they had no fastenings to fiddle with, just one big velcro strap. I also decided to not put socks on for the bike, so I didn’t have to worry about wet feet.

It all went OK, apart from the fact that I had weirdly decided to put gloves on and I forgot, so as I was running out of transition I realised I still had them in my hand. I had to stop to try to get them on, but they were so fiddly I gave up and shoved them in my top-tube bag. I was fine without them – lesson for the future.

2:16 in T1, not great, but I am getting faster!

The bike

The bike didn’t start great – I got in my shoes OK, using the elastic band method to hold them on (although one was a bit long and I had to grab it to snap it off, rather than the rotation doing it for me). But as it was quite a flat start we were all quickly going up the gears and I could not get the front derailleur to shift me to the big ring. I was cursing and yanking on the shifter but it just would not go. I recently got a new chainset, chain and cranks, so I was annoyed this had happened. One for the shop to fix for me I think. I decided I’d have to just use a fast cadence for the race, but then I gave it one last go and up it went. I then thought I’d try to stay in the big ring for as long as I could, but there was a lovely steep incline at 4 miles in and I had to drop down. Bum.

Luckily, when I got back on the flat the front shifted straight away into the big ring again. Maybe just gremlins?

Anyway, I settled into a good high average speed, hitting 20-25 mph consistently on the flat. I was enjoying this, and I was finding it much easier to stay in the aero position, having had more practice. Sadly once the course got a bit more undulating and I needed to use my full gear range again, the problem came back. It took me ages each time to shift into the big ring – losing me momentum and getting on my nerves!

About 11 miles in the course doubled back on itself and as I headed back to transition I saw George from the Harriers on the other side, not that far behind me. Of course the friendly rivalry kicks in then – we were the only two Harriers there, so we were obviously racing each other (well in my head!) So I knuckled down and got some big miles in for the next 3-4, keeping in a high gear. Then disaster. I changed down to go up a hill and my chain went straight over the small ring and off the cog. Arse. I had to stop and put the chain back on, losing precious seconds and getting oil all over my hands. Plus, George sailed past.

Oh well, back on I got and chased. For the next five miles or so I trailed George, not quite making the gap any smaller. I also saw a group of Harriers at one point going the other way – on a training ride for the big Grafman in a few weeks.

After a while I caught George and went past him (drafting isn’t allowed at this distance outside the professional circuit so you have to go round someone or drop back to more than 10 metres from their front wheel). I motored on, figuring I had to put some distance between us. About a mile or so from the end he powered past me though – damn he was fast on the bike!

As we came into transition again I had another little mishap. As my shoes have big cleats on them I can’t run in them, so I need to slip my feet out with them still attached and pedal on top of them, ready to dismount and run in bare feet. The left one came out fine and I put my foot on top of the shoe. The right one however I missed the shoe as I started to pedal and the shoe went underneath, catching the road and flying off! Thankfully a lovely marshal ran after it and got it for me. I then just got off the bike and ran with it in my hand as I pushed the bike back to the rack.

1:14:55 – 30 miles

Transition 2

This transition went to plan. I racked the bike, I quickly pulled on my socks to dry feet (revelation!) and then my shoes and a visor for the sun and was off. I noticed George was still sorting himself out, having come in before me, so it really brings home the value of practising quick transitions.

OK still 1:15, but getting better!

The run

The run started much better than the bike had. I got into a rhythm and a pace I was happy with and set off across the reservoir dam. The biggest problem was the heat, boy it was hot! My Garmin tells me it got up to 30 degrees at one point – hell of a contrast to the swim! I was so glad of my visor as, although I had sunglasses on, it kept the sun off my face.

The run was pretty uneventful, apart from the phantom stone I had in my shoe. Could I find it? Not a chance. I could feel it under my right heel, but although I stopped 3 times to get it out I could not see it. Even more bizarrely after about 3 miles it just disappeared and I have no blister or any marks there! Weird.

I saw George a couple of times as we were doing an out and back each way (left and right from transition). He seemed to be struggling a bit but it was great to give each other a couple of high fives on the way!

The course was a bit undulating, but no major hills. Just a really nice run along the reservoir and back. The only issue was the heat, it was so hot and you could see people wilting.

Soon enough though, the finish line came into view and I did my 10k in 56:10. Not bad considering I did a standalone 10k in 54 mins last week, although some way off my usual mid-40s for a 10k.

Overall my time was 2:52:08 – 347th overall and 51st in my age group (lets gloss over the fact only three people were slower than me in my age group – Gill Fullen I am not!

Great day today – really recommend it as an event. Would love to see what its like in the river so I may enter again next year.

Beautiful weather, great organisation, fantastic course. Great way to spend a Sunday.

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:

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…

Dambuster Triathlon 2015 – Race Report

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…