The Scribbler

22 July 2014

Because a bike’s not just a bike

Filed under: bike — The Scribbler @ 18:06
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When I first got my shiny new road bike, I posted a picture of it with the caption ‘ Say hello to my new adventure machine’. Because that’s what it is.

Me and my friends about to head off on a bike ride

Cycles at the ready

A bike is a means to freedom and fitness. A cheap form of transport; a means to get a job; an environmentally aware decision.

A bike means rides out to the coast for fish and chips and ice cream. Rides through muddy puddles and ‘Would you look at the state of you!’

A bike is sunny days messing about with friends. Discovering tea shops and garden centres and where you can get really good home-made cake and a refill for your bottles or Camelbacks.

A bike is finally making it to the top of that hill without stopping and free-wheeling down the other side. Or taking a moment to admire the view, when all you can see is mist.

A bike is praying that your skin really is waterproof and that your toes won’t fall off. Or hoping that those weird looking tan lines will eventually join up.

It’s bruises, scrapes and chafing and a permanent chain tattoo on your calf. It’s saddle sores and Sudocrem and realising just how many layers you have to take off to go for a pee.

It’s exploring the countryside or speeding through a city. It’s about finding places you never knew existed. Rediscovering the intimate knowledge you had as a child of your local area with all its secret pathways and shortcuts.

It’s tech talk of carbon, cassettes and chain rings and ‘mine’s better than yours’. It’s le Grand Depart, le maillot jaune et, chapeau to you! It’s about being King of the Road or Queen of the Mountains, imagining you’re on the Champs Elysees or the Queen K Highway.

Chrissie Wellington, four times Ironman World Champion has had her bike stolen. The one she won her 2011 championship on. The one she calls Phoenix, because they rose together.

I’m sure Chrissie could have any bike she wanted – faster, lighter, more expensive, higher spec. But if your bike isn’t there any more, it’s not just a piece of metal that’s gone. There’s a bike shaped hole in your heart. Because a bike’s not just a bike is it? And Chrissie’s not just a World Champion. She’s a girl who wants her bike back.

I really hope you find it Chrissie.

20 July 2014

The Newcastle Woodhorn triathlon

This is a fabulous triathlon. It was a great race when it was the QE2 triathlon. But this year, when the powers that be decided that an iconic race through the centre of Newcastle was not to be, providing an alternative venue for any race with just four weeks notice was a big ask. Woodhorn Colliery Museum stepped in gracefully. And the guys from V02 Max Racing Events, already well known for their terrific, well organised events in the North East, stepped up, put the disappointment of losing so much of their hard work behind them and made it their best event to date.

When they announced there wouldn’t be a Newcastle based race – no river swim, no closed city roads, no run along the Quayside, they rightly gave competitors the option to get their money back. Or take part in the new race, in the alternative venue and get a partial refund. I think they expected many would drop out.

But we came. Triathletes like me, knowing the course from previous races. Triathletes who travelled from far away. And beginners, who were faced with a 24km bike ride rather than the original 10km. I don’t know what the turn out was compared to the numbers who had booked for the original race, but there were around 600 competitors who took part.

There were four swim starts. I was in the second sprint wave and anxious to get in the water so that I could manage my usual race nerves and calm myself before the start. Lake rules dictate that is a wetsuit compulsory swim, but the water was 18C, so not shockingly cold. I got in and floated on my back, letting water into my suit. Then I splashed my face a couple of times and tried breathing out with it in the water. I was a bit too hyped to get a good clear out breath, but I was okay and ready to get going.

Me on the run at the Newcastle Woodhorn triathlon

Me on the run at the Newcastle Woodhorn triathlon – photo by Tove Elander

The countdown started, the hooter sounded and we were off. I was determined not to be a wuss and hang back too much, but to put myself in the mix, albeit not right up the front. I had been frustrated with my last tri start where a bit of a panic meant I stopped and watched the entire field swim away from me.

I struck out into front crawl. My breathing was a bit ragged, but I knew I could live with that for a bit, until I found a more settled pace. Although there was a good wide starting area, swimmers were bunched together and I found myself swimming a good bit water polo style to avoid too many crashes. At the start, you really couldn’t see other swimmers under the water.

I’d gone maybe 200m and the water was starting to clear, so I could see the plants and weeds at the bottom of the lake and bubbles off the feet of swimmers in front. There was a swimmer to my right side, so I tried to draft a little off their hip. But I soon found myself caught in a bit of a pincer movement as another swimmer cut across me from the left.

And then I got a proper bash on the side of my head. It was a real thump, I guess from a hand, elbow, or possibly a kick. Not deliberate, I’m sure, just that my head was in the wrong pace at the wrong time. It floundered me, sent me gasping and desperately trying not to take in a gob full of water. I trod water and gathered my thoughts.

I knew it was enough to unsettle me if I let it. I knew I hadn’t really given myself enough time to calm down and relax in the water, hoping I could tough it out until the field spread out a little. I turned onto my back and floated, taking a couple of deep breaths, once again, being conscious of the field moving ahead of me.

But I gathered myself more quickly and ploughed back on into front crawl. A bit more heads up than I’d have liked, but gradually regaining confidence, getting my breathing calm and just thinking smooth and steady. The first buoy seemed far distant, but I made it and turned easily across to the second.

I was back among the other white capped swimmers now, but with more space and less jostling. I swam beside another girl who felt like she was at a similar speed for a while. But then sighting back to the bank, I thought she was swimming rather wide, so I adjusted my course.

Smooth and steady, I was in my swimming flow now and starting to overtake swimmers around me. In the last few hundred metres I kicked hard, stayed largely out of the scrum for the bank and headed up the hill to transition, conscious that I was far from the last of my wave out of the water.

I had a great position in the bike rack, near the end of the row. A girl with a beautiful Bianchi racked next to mine came through into transition just after me, so the race was on to make sure I got out ahead of her.

Off onto the bike course and I was feeling good. There’s a bit of a downhill start, so I was up through the gears quickly and out onto the main road. Sure, I always get passed on the bike, but I was able to get a fair way before I started being over taken.

Whether it was because I was further up the swim, or it’s just the nature of this course, but I was never out of sight of other bikes on this course. That’s really nice for a slower cyclist like me. Within ten minutes I was overtaken by my pal Ged from work, another one I recruited to the dark side, taking part in his first open water event.

I managed a few overtakes myself, most likely from the beginners race, but still giving me the impetus to keep the pace up. At Cresswell, the course turns alongside a beautiful stretch of sand dunes, with the sea just metres away. In the last couple of years, it’s been stunning – bright blues and golds. Today, everything was grey and shrouded in a fine sea mist. Still, at least the forecast thunderstorms and torrential down pours had held off.

The girl on the Bianchi passed me just beside the caravan park. But by now I was holding my own and managed to make it through Lynemouth before the first of the speedy standard competitors came roaring past on their carbon and solid wheels.

Michelle NicolI’d been drinking High 5 juice throughout the bike, but hadn’t taken anything to eat, thinking ‘it’s just a sprint’. But actually it’s a long sprint, with a 24km bike and a 6.05km run. I got a sudden rush of cramp in my right leg at one point, totally out of the blue. Just the one crippling jolt and then it was gone, but leaving me wondering if it was going to happen again. I made sure I kept drinking for the rest of the course.

I was starting to fade towards the end. There may have been a little uphill gradient, or it may just have been me getting fed up with it, but it felt like I dropped my cadence and began to pootle a little. Fortunately, it wasn’t far to the final left turn into the museum grounds and along a long road to the dismount point.

No real issues in transition and I was off and away on the run around the paths beside the lake. My legs felt good, not too stiff or wobbly. I went off a bit too fast and had to ease it back a bit to find my rhythm.

I concentrated on my form, counted steps, thought about, feet, knees, hips and shoulders. And I waved and smiled to my parkrun friends who were out on the course marshaling or supporting. Claire was out on the run course, practising for her important role helping out at the triathlon in the Commonwealth Games next week. And my lovely friends Tove and Jules from parkrun were out round by the end of the lap where we run across a small gauge railway line.

Two laps round the lake, up a small slope around the back of the museum buildings, down a grassy slope and sprint to the finish line. I’d finished with a flourish and felt fantastic :-) I do love my triathlons.

I cleared my bike and stuff from transition as some of the standard competitors were coming through to start their run. And I was very grateful I wasn’t doing the standard distance. The long sprint was enough for me and my training this time.

There was a massive, well-attended prize giving. I’ve never known so many cups and awards at an event, with lots of age category prizes, as well as a corporate challenge, team challenge and relay races. There were also some amazing spot prizes including tri suits, wet suits and one guy walked away with a brand new Merida bike.

I had such a good race on this course last time I did it, that I hadn’t expected much from my performance. I haven’t done anything like the number of bike miles this year and my running’s not on form either. But I ended up only a minute slower overall than last year, taking 2 mins 30 off my swim, shaving 9 seconds off my bike time and only losing out on transitions and about 3 mins on the run. So I was pretty surprised and pleased about that. I think it shows I can still improve and have something to ficus on next year.

I’d still love this city to have an iconic race – one that would look great against the background of the river and its bridges. But there’s something quite special about a tribe of triathletes descending on a visitor attraction in a country park and taking it over with our carnival for the day. Woodhorn Colliery Museum did a great job of hosting at short notice and ensuring there was an event we could all enjoy. Three cheers, bravo to everyone who made it happen.

Swim: 18:38
T1: 01:47
Bike: 54:41
T2: 1:17
Run: 39:51
Total: 1:56:14

Results

Photos

14 July 2014

Barcelona dreaming

Filed under: words — The Scribbler @ 20:04
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I have been away to Barcelona. A few days’ welcome holiday, a break from the usual routine, a chance to enjoy warm sunshine and discover a new part of the world.

Chimney pots at La Pedrera

Chimney pots at La Pedrera

I took my notebook, but for once I did not keep a travel journal.  It will be a place not easily forgotten. And though the fine detail of what and where and when may slip over time, I did not want to be distracted from the sheer experience of absorbing all I could.

We walked for miles. Used the metro and our feet to find our way around, venturing as far as the shoreline of La Barceloneta and up the mountainside to Montjuic.

We ate spectacularly well. From multi-course tasting menus, to simple chicken and vegetable skewers, we sampled plenty of the local cuisine, fish, fruit, pastries, jamon, tapas, rice, ice cream…

My memories are already a heady salsa of sensations. Sunshine and city streets steaming after a morning thunderstorm. Sunburned legs climbing metro steps and fruit juices all the colours of the rainbow in the market.

Friendly greetings and an international array of accents, French, American, Arabic, Australian. The language of Catalonia itself a beguiling mix of French and Spanish, that I could begin to read but had not the ear to catch more than a few common phrases.

Days spent exploring the sights, the architecture, galleries, museums, parks, squares and twisting streets. We explored the creations of Antoni Gaudi, learning more and more about his masterpiece architecture as we explored the buildings he designed.

I’ve come to a new appreciation of this man’s work; his genius. I had previously thought it was all about the showy facade, using shapes and forms to strike a pose on the city’s streets. But as we looked inside and found out more, it became clear that the design was functional as well as beautiful. The inspiration of nature’s form can be found in every small detail, from the wood carvings and tile designs to the lights and chimney pots.

Rooftop at Casa Batllo

Rooftop at Casa Batllo

Barcelona is a place of dreams. Where the chimneys of Casa Mila, or La Pedrera become guardian knights on watch in their roof top battlements. The gingerbread gatehouse of Park Guell becomes an elephant with its trunk raised to the sky.

The cathedral of stone looks like melting candle wax under the city’s heat. Turn a corner and the forms become angular and cubist. Open the door and you’re in the heart of the Tardis.

In Casa Batllo, a trick of the light seen through a dappled glass screen pitches you up through an underwater world to the roof, where a dragon rests, its skin a shimmer of green and browns, while its backbone winds down through the snaking stairwell.

These surreal and dreamlike landscapes make perfect sense when you walk among them. But once out of the sun, my senses shift back to black and white, to the linear realities of basic geometry.

So my Barcelona journal is like the trencardis – the mosaic ceramic fragments Gaudi used to decorate his buildings. Old materials recycled and brought to life as something new. A kaleidoscope of broken pieces, slotted together to fit natural curves and contours.

I’m left clutching slivers of heady sensations. The tapas taste of Barcelona as a tango in a cobbled square, the swirl of arabic poetry and a sharp, minty mojito in a small dark bar, that we enter as strangers and leave as friends.

We visited:
La Pedrera

Casa Batllo

La Sagrada Familia

Park Guell

Our favourite place to spend the evening, with the best mojito in Barcelona is:
Ziryab

9 July 2014

Bridges of the Tyne 5 mile race 2014

I’d forgotten I’d signed up to this race way back in March, but it’s a popular event and places are soon snapped up, so I guess I must have got caught up in the enthusiasm and put my name down. I’m very glad I did.

After a morning of thundery downpours, runners may have been expecting a wet race, but by the evening, the sun was out and the air was warm as we gathered at the Tyne bar to pick up our race packs.

Running along beside the Tyne Bridge

Running along beside the Tyne Bridge – photo by George Routledge

Along with race number and timing chip, there was an excellent race goodie bag with a nicely designed tech T-shirt , Natural Hero goodies and money off vouchers for Sweatshop. I’m already a fan of Natural Hero’s hot ginger muscle rub and soak, so it was nice to try their cool peppermint spray – very welcome on hot and tired legs after the race.

I caught up with a few runners I know from parkrun and club members from Durham’s Elvet Striders before the start, but with so many people waiting to pick up their numbers and a good walk to the start line, there really wasn’t too much time to chat.

I found a place towards the back of around 400 runners for the start on the Newcastle Quayside, and soon bounded off at quite a lick, excited to be racing.

I had no expectations or targets for this run. I really didn’t know how I would go after a week of holiday and little training. And for the first few hundred metres I felt good, bouncy and fast.

But it was hot. The air felt thick and I was soon breathing hard to suck in oxygen, feeling like I was chewing on it like a mouthful of marshmallows.  I consciously eased up a little, looking for a more reasonable pace that I could sustain.

Me running along beside the Tyne

Enjoying the Tyne Bridge 5 miler in the sunshine – photo by Sue H

With marshals at every jink in the out and back route and a chance to spot the faster runners on the return leg, I soon found myself shouting encouragement. I was very happy to spot local running star Aly Dixon, easily first lady and mixing it up with the fast lads and give her a good shout.

And then a little further on, just before the turn around point, I spotted a teddy bear wearing a familiar running vest and then saw my friend Sue poised with camera in hand. Cue a spot of showboating from me, proving I really was relaxed and enjoying the run.

Back along the river, getting encouragement at every marshal point helped keep my legs turning over as the effort began to take its toll. I started to try and chase down runners ahead, reeling in the gap between us, hoping that by easing off a little to find my rhythm at first, I could finish strong.

A little way ahead I spotted Malcolm who volunteers to hold the gate open at Newcastle parkrun almost every week and he became my target to chase down in the last mile and a half. Keeping my focus on the small distance ahead, trying to reduce it, and not letting it increase, was a great way to keep my mind of how hot, tired and achy my legs were, as i could feel my calf muscles tightening.

Just as I was within a couple of strides of my quarry, an encouraging shout from another parkrunner, Sumanth, meant Malcolm knew I was approaching. So, I had to make it stick and I pushed on a little to move past. Encouragingly he shouted that I could make 45 mins if I pushed on.

Me running

Race face on for a sprint finish – photo by Lee Cuthbertson

Now I hadn’t paid much attention to my watch, and felt like I was running way slower than that kind of pace, so it really spurred me on to give it a try. With the finish arch approaching along the quayside, I’d already increased my effort and with a couple of hundred metres to go, really kicked into sprint mode.

With a small crowd of purple clad Elvet striders giving me a good shout in the dying metres, I kept on pushing, found yet another gear and crossed the line in 46:21.

It’s a measure of the quality of the field, that it wasn’t a particularly fast time, and I have run the course faster than that a couple of years ago, but I was really pleased with my efforts.

After a bit of banter and more cheering of the Elvet crew, who were very well represented at this race, I walked back down the course a little way to see my fellow Fetchie Sarah coming in to finish.

Getting a return shout of encouragement from Aly Dixon as we approached the line, and she was completing her warm down, was a really nice bonus. Aly’s a class runner and will be representing team GB n the marathon at the Commonwealth Games. I’ve seen her at a few local races and follow her progress on her blog and she’s always really generous with her support and insights into her training. So good luck Aly – I’ll be cheering for you and all our team GB athletes.

Bridges of the Tyne 5m results

23 June 2014

Triathlon from the other side

Last weekend I had great fun helping out my friend Peter who was race director at the Weardale triathlon. A sprint distance event, it took place in Stanhope, starting in the heated outdoor pool where I was one of the lane counters.

It meant an early start, but that’s typical for a triathlon weekend, and it was great to see the event and help out as a volunteer. I’m always really grateful to the organisers and marshals who give their time so that I can enjoy a fantastic race, and I know that triathlon in particular takes a ready crew on hand to get things organised and make sure things run smoothly.

Marshal at Weardale tri

At the poolside for the Weardale tri – photo by Jason Allison

A smile, or a friendly face can help calm nerves and an encouraging comment or ripple of applause can really help lift you in a race. Marshals are most likely there earlier and staying out on the course later than most of the competitors, so next time you’re out racing, give them a thumbs up or a thank you, if you have any breath left!

Anyway, I really enjoyed my stint as a length counter, despite apprehensions that I’d mess it up and miscount. I find it hard enough to keep track of my own lengths when swimming, let alone being responsible for other people’s. But there was a good system with a check sheet to tick off every two lengths, and with only a maximum of four in the lane at one time, it went very smoothly.

It was good to see all the different swim styles and to hear people nervously admitting this was their first tri as they were getting their poolside briefing. Seeing the first swimmers in reminded me of my first events where I spluttered through with a mixture of front crawl and breast stroke and held on for dear life to catch my breath every time I got to the side. Thankfully, these swimmers were somewhat better prepared.

Once the pool had cleared, I stepped over to the transition area where competitors were still heading out on the bike and run and cheered a few over the finish line. The people who run the pool had put on a fantastic spread of cakes and had been frying up bacon and sausage butties all morning, so I was well fed for all my hard work, sitting and counting.

I still think of myself as a tri tiddler, and know there are many more worthy of interest achieving great things in this multi-sport event. But I guess my enthusiasm comes through. So it was great, and long overdue to be able to give a little something back and to help out at a fantastic and tiddler friendly event.

With my enthusiasm for triathlon, I was very disappointed to learn that my next event, the Newcastle triathlon, has had to be moved. Originally conceived as a new city centre tri with a swim in our iconic river, closed bike route and flat course, it had attracted a lot of interest and was set to be a real highlight of the season. But, after two years’ hard work, securing permissions and negotiating with all the relevant authorities, it seems that permission for the river swim was rescinded.

The organisers, V02 Max Racing Events are massively disappointed too. They put on fantastic local events (including the Northumberland tri which I last raced at), all as well as holding down full time jobs. But they have found a way to offer a great alternative and are focused on making it the best event it can be.

I know it will be a fantastic event , as the alternative course is at the QE2 lake, beside Woodhorn Colliery Museum, where I took part in my first open water event in 2012. I’m working on building up my run mileage in training now to give myself a good shot at the Great North Run in September, but I really feel like I want to give this triathlon my best too, as a way of recognising the effort that goes into organising the events I enjoy.

11 June 2014

‘Twas on the ninth of Joon…

Filed under: run — The Scribbler @ 21:25
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The Blaydon Race is the North East runner’s carnival. In a world of corporate mass participation events and health and safety overkill, it retains a sense of anarchy and craziness.

It sticks to its traditions. Always on the same day, no matter when that falls. Starting from a pub in an area where you might expect to find the real-life inspiration for a couple of Viz characters, it follows the route described in an ancient music hall song.

Feth Everyone runners

Fetch girls gather for pre- race photo-shoot

Or follows it as as near as anyone can make out, given that most of the landmarks are now long gone. Some still remain, like Armstrong’s factory, only it’s not called that anymore. And others have dropped out of memory all together.

But still we gather, the north east running community, from the fast lads and lasses to those happy to party at the back. For one evening, we fill the streets with colour and the smell of deep heat. Stilettoes and leopard print give way to rubber soles and club vests, packed into cobbled streets more traditionally drowning in beer and curry sauce.

We stop the traffic. Call out the Lord Mayor to ring an ancient bell. We take over the high way. And we run.

We run. We shuffle. We walk. We limp. We bound over pavements and kerbstones and watch out for sign posts. Catching elbows, tripping over feet, seeking a space, a way through the throng.

We follow the white lines. Feet pounding concrete. We think ‘Scotswood Road is a very long way’. We give thumbs up to the band playing by the car showroom and then fall into watching the endless pattern of coloured shirts and slogans down the grey slipway into the sun.

We issue a collective groan as we turn left, up and over the bridge then filter down to the shade of the riverside. We pass each other side by side, high fiving, shouting out to fellow friends; dodging the cups of water strewn on the grass and tarmac.

With more than half the distance run, we twist and turn onto yet more concrete. Round the back of an industrial estate. In and out of units. Not a place you’d chose to run.

But we’ve taken over. We rule the road tonight. So clear out. Keep out of our way! Or get swept along in the mad jamboree.

Just as we start to think about the finish, there’s another crest to rise and another series of corners, taunting us with an ending we can hear but cannot see. Crowds now, hanging over barriers, caught behind fences like caged animals, shouting sounds we cannot comprehend because all we can hear is the roar of our heartbeat in our ears, yelling just a few more steps…

And suddenly with a last mad gasp death or glory sprint it’s over for another year. And although we’re hot and tired and legs are weary, we’re smiling and thinking ‘when can I do that again?’

Me and Tony the Fridge - Blaydon Race 2014

Me and Tony the Fridge at Blaydon 2014

We collect our rewards, beer and sandwiches and inspect our race t-shirts hoping this is one of the years where they look decent and we can wear them proudly. And we gather on the grassy bank to spot friends, family and fellow runners to toast their success.

For this runner, this year’s run was a crazy ask, coming as it did on the back of a long, hard event. But I bounced. Far more than I expected to.

I set off too fast, as I always do. I sang and blew kisses to Tony the Fridge en route. I flew up the flyover and was genuinely chuffed to see the girl who’d been struggling a few moments earlier come past me before the finish. And even though I was expecting them to give up on me at some point, my legs kept bouncing right to the end.

It may have been my slowest time over this course, but it was still faster than I expected or had any right to run. It’s a silly distance and it’s not an attractive route. But the Blaydon race is the only event I’d even consider doing after a standard tri the day before.

From gathering with the Fetch crew at the start; to spotting parkrunners and work colleagues in the race; to hearing my name called from the sidelines. From its traditions and connections to the roots of this area, to its crazy anarchy and celebration of life as a runner, it retains a very special and unique place in my heart.

Blaydon Race results

Pictures from Ian Williamson on Flickr

8 June 2014

Northumberland Standard triathlon

I hang out with a great bunch of people. The kind of people who do marathons, half and full iron distance triathlons, ultras and more. The kind of people who make you think that doing a standard distance tri on not really enough training will be okay. They are dangerous people, but they do inspire me to dream big and challenge what I think is possible.

I have dithered and debated doing this event. As late as Thursday, I was considering getting in touch with the organisers to see if I could drop back to do the sprint distance over the same course. I have not cycled enough. I have not really swum enough, or not enough in open water. And I’ve had a stressful week and a niggly shoulder.

Bike at Northumberland triathlon

On the bike course. Photo by Bob Marshall

But the weather forecast was fair, the sky was blue and the trip to Druridge Bay was uneventful. I bumped into my best tri buddy Lesley just after registering and then was a bit of a faff getting ready and set up and didn’t even manage to wish her luck.

The ground was sodden after yesterday’s heavy downpour, making transition a splashy, muddy mess and I realised I wouldn’t have time to warm up or do much of a calm down before the start or the race. Still I got myself sorted and headed to watch the sprint distance event start, hoping, but failing to pick out Lesley from the throng.

I took some deep breaths and made sure I got into the water quickly, to give myself as much chance as possible to relax before the swim start. It was warm, and once I’d done the usual gasp of getting it down the back of my neck, I floated around a bit and splashed my face.

I was still catching strands of weed in my fingers as I was treading water, and couldn’t get my face in without spluttering, so I just floated and hoped I’d get my adrenaline surge under control. I’d positioned myself at the back, out of the way, but the start was wide enough to manage the number of swimmers without too much of a bash fest anyway.

The countdown completed and the horns sounded. We were off!

I wish I could say that I got hit, or kicked or splashed, or that something unsettled me for what happened next, but I can’t. It was just my own stupid, adrenaline fuelled nerves that kicked in and let my swim demon say “You’ll never make it”. I stopped in the water and watched everyone swim away from me.

I trod water for a moment and thought, “Now what?” I had a little conversation with myself. “Are you going to turn round and get out?” “Or are you going to carry on?” All the while I had my eyes closed, trying not to cry.

The kayak safety crew shouted over to see if I was okay. I couldn’t answer for a second as I was still trying to get myself under control. “Just having a moment,” I eventually replied and then started to strike out into front crawl. I was at least going to try.

With a clear lake before me, I just focused on swimming smooth and slow. Surprisingly, the breathing rhythm came quickly and I took advantage of the extra buoyancy of the wetsuit to roll to the side to breathe and catch a glimpse of the blue sky.

“Just swim your own race”, I said to myself as I headed for the first marker. There was a bit of a sticky moment when I struck some weeds with my hands and had a few panicky breaths and did some breast stroke, but actually, after that initial upset, I was calm and swam well and consistently.

My sole goal pre-race was not to be last out of the swim. I thought I’d blown that by placing myself well behind the pack. But, as I closed in on the first buoy, I spotted a few other swimmers nearby. I kept my space from them so as not to disturb my swim, but I was able to catch and over take them. By the time I was back round to the start of the second lap, I was confident and happy in the water, swimming in nice straight lines between the buoys.

On the second lap I had company, a girl swimming beside me and then a guy coming up on the other side. Again I tried to keep out of their way, but managed to get past the girl and then get brave and swim in the bubble stream of the guy, hoping to get a bit of a tow. But he kept veering off course, so I let him go.

Remembering to kick when there were only a few hundred metres to go, I swam right into the shallows and was grateful of a hand out. I ran up over the grass into transition, where it was easy to spot my bike among the largely empty racks. I allowed myself an easy transition. I didn’t rush, but didn’t faff either, just got my kit sorted and rolled the bike out to the start line.

Run at Northumberland triathlon

On the run beside Ladyburn Lake – Photo by Bob Marshall

A standing mount well past the line and over the speed hump, low gear, spin the legs and away. The bike leg was my biggest concern for this event. I have not done enough distance on the bike or as many brick sessions as I did to prepare for this race last year when it was my first standard distance. So, as I headed out of the country park onto the road, I told myself I was out for a ride, that it would help dry me out after the swim and give me a chance to drink my juice as it was a sunny day and I still had a run to do.

I probably daisied round most of the two laps. I found myself in my usual position of being passed by the speeding solid wheel brigade and just about everyone else. I just didn’t have the confidence to hammer the bike – 40k is a long way to me.

Still, a couple of girls kept it interesting, passing me and then me re-passing them when I decided to put a bit of a spurt on. They were on their her second lap as I was on my first, so it wasn’t really a place battle, but I was grateful for the a boost.

By my second lap I was in my usual bike zone, out on my own, seeing barely any other riders. I’d counted those behind me as I turned at the roundabout – 4, with only one I thought was close enough to possibly catch me. So I wasn’t last, could I keep it that way?

I had good and bad patches on this part of the ride. I got stomach cramps and aches in my lower back. I wasn’t sure if it was the juice I was drinking (I usually only have water, but I have been okay with High 5 before) or it was just me. I couldn’t seem to get comfortable on the saddle. I’m a bit heavier than I was last year, you would think that would give me extra padding!

Worryingly, I also felt the niggle in my right shoulder. I’ve had it all week. A result of too much time sitting at a keyboard and too much stress. I had an intensive sports massage on it on Tuesday night, which really loosened it off, but there it was again, and I worried it would bite me on the run.

The first rider came past me on the downhill just after the turn. I was really struggling on the bike now, just wanting it to be over. I glanced at my watch – 35k done, just 5 more to go. That was a cheering prospect and helped me keep cheerful as the second rider passed me. I knew as I turned back into the park, there was a good chance I’d be the last to finish this.

Off the bike and out onto the run without too much fuss and not too much of the jelly legs. Still I kept it easy, just focusing on moving forward on the first lap. It was something of a dead man’s shuffle in truth and I could feel my feet hitting the trails hard.

On the first lap there were runners galore, just up ahead and passing me at regular intervals. Once again, I opted to just run my own race, keep my focus. My goal, just to finish, to enjoy this.

Finish at Northumberland triathlon

Heading for a big finish and a course PB – Photo by Bob Marshall

My favourite bit of the course was a shady, leafy path between the trees, where the ground was soft and you couldn’t hear the noise of the tannoy across the water. The shade was very welcome and you could be alone with your thoughts. I tried to pick up the pace a little here, but each time I felt like I was forcing it, so I settled back and just decided to let it come if it would and not fret if it didn’t.

At the end of the path there was a lovely, smiley lady marshalling. All the marshals round the course were great, shouting and clapping and saying well done, but she really lifted my spirits each time.

As you come round towards the start/finish there’s a little rise and then another bit of uphill along the trail. I ran the steep bit and then let myself walk the longer slope, pumping my arms to keep myself moving, not dawdling. It was probably a mistake to walk it on the first lap, as that set a precedent. But it was my little treat to myself and it helped me stick to my goal of relax and enjoy.

First lap done almost done and I spot Bob Marshal taking photographs and then there’s fabLesley, running a little way with me, telling me about her brilliant race.

It’s like my own wee cheering squad as I come round each lap, with Barry from V02 Max Racing Events announcing every lap on the microphone and then Jules and Lottie the dog from parkrun giving me a shout out.

Lap one done and I’m feeling more confident. I know I can do this, my legs are strong and I’ve won my mental battles on the bike and swim. The other runners thin out on lap two and I’m taunted hearing finishers announced as I pass by the opposite side of the lake. Still half way done and I grab a cup of water and walk a couple of steps to make sure I drink it.

Lap three, I’m on my own, and getting the distinct feeling I may be the last runner on the course. But I don’t care. It’s a sunny day and I’m running round a lake in beautiful Northumberland. Still it’s a bit of a mentally tough one and I’m glad to see my cheering crew as I come round for that last lap.

As I come through the shady wood and out onto the lake path, the marshal picks up his sign and starts walking.’Ah, that’s me, last then,’ I think. But I’m still in fair spirits. I have little idea of my time or my pace. I deliberately didn’t look at how well I’d done last year when this was my first event, but I know it was well over 3 hours.

On the last time up the little rise, I pump my arms and ask myself ‘Why do you do this?’ The answer, loud and clear is ‘Because I can.’ And in that moment I think of three people who would love to be here on this day, running in the sunshine round a lake, but who have been taken by cancer. So at the top of the rise, as I pick up my feet and start to run again, I say out loud: “This is for you, Zoe and Alastair and Sue.”

And you know, my heart lifts and my feet lift and I feel every inch of how fortunate I am to be able to do this. And so, those thoughts carry me back round to the finish for the final time.

I’ve picked my spot, the puddle on the path where I’ll sprint from, but I push on even before that. And even though my legs have been complaining, and I’ve been hot and tired and sweaty for over 3 hours now, I power through with a smile and my arms aloft.

I am dead last. And the organisers can finally get on with the prize giving :-)

Met and congratulated by Lesley and Bob, I grab some water and an orange slice as we listen for the prizes. I’m afraid I barely pay them much attention as it takes me a little while to recover.

I go to rescue my bike and gear from the muddy transition area as they grab a table and we eventually have a bit of a picnic. And lovely, lovely Lesley buys me an ice cream. I sit in the sunshine with my fab friends and reflect on a challenging but terrific race.

Just don’t tell my legs we’re running again tomorrow night at my favourite race- it’s Blaydon!

Swim: 31:36
T1: 2:00
Bike: 1:34:57
T2: 01:21
Run: 1:10:22
TOTAL 3:20:13

 

25 May 2014

Edinburgh 10k

It’s thanks to online running site Fetch Everyone that I saw a message offering a free place in the Edinburgh 10k. The same site that introduced me to my great friend Lesley who hosted me for the evening, got me to the start and looked after my bag. And it’s thanks to Fetch that I got hugs and smiles and a local’s low down on the route from the fabulous JaneyM and my old pal Scotty.

I have lot to thank Fetch for, but running this amazing route with views out over one of my favourite cities in the world is definitely among the highlights. I’d go back and run that route in a heartbeat, even with the hills.

I’d taken a half day off work on Friday, rattled through what I needed to do, desperate to get out of the door and on the road north. It pelted it down with rain. I grabbed a sandwich on the go and tried to dissolve the feeling of stress that sits in my chest when the pressure’s on and I feel like I have no time to think and reflect.

Scotty, Janey and me at Edinburgh 10k

Scotty Janey and me at the start of the Edinburgh 10k

The skies had cleared, but were still grey and chilly when I arrived at Lesley’s place, still wired and tired from rushing through my day to get there. She said ‘You’re on holiday now,’ and I was.

We talked ten to the dozen, went for a bit of a drive, ate cake, and hung out. Stress gone. Later I met Danni, a crazy bundle of enthusiastic energy, also taking advantage of Lesley’s hospitality before a mental sounding mountain bike race. Fuelled up for our exploits, it was an early night for all before alarms were set for racing.

I really had no expectations for this 10k. I kept saying I just wanted to go and enjoy it, and I meant it, but sometimes the best made plans get lost in the heat of the moment, chasing for a time. But really I had no excuse not to be relaxed. Lesley drove us up to Edinburgh, knew exactly where to park for a short walk into Holyrood Park.

Walking in was wonderful, getting a close up view of the crags of Arthur’s seat and the yellow gorse on the hills.  Did I draw strength from the volcanic rocks, the tough organic heart of this majestic city? Or from my friends, the amazing Janey fresh from ultra marathon glory, or Scotty who fooled around and made me laugh before the start? A bit of both, I’d say.

Scotty and me fooling about before the start

Having a ‘guns off’ with Scotty

I felt bouncy and fresh as I warmed up. It was overcast and cool, but not windy – perfect running conditions. So when our time came, I bounded off picking through the crowds trying to find space, heading out much too fast for the hill that was to come.

Scotty came through past me as I started to bring my enthusiasm into check just before the 1km marker and the turn to mark the start of the climb. His local knowledge and talking me through the course really helped as I reckon that’s the longest uphill drag I’ve ever run. I knew there was a false top, and then another steep bit and then that would be it as good as over.

I dropped my pace, but tried to keep up the effort. Small steps, breathing easy, not looking too far ahead, just keeping moving, not pushing too hard. There were people walking already. I told myself I was a long way off that and kept going. The steeper section almost got me, but I took some deep breaths and kept on moving, determined to run every step of this one if I could.

The blessed relief of an enthusiastic cheering point at the top and then a good stretch of downhill where I let go and picked off runners by the dozen as I descended, trusting to my feet and my core muscles to keep me upright.

And the views? What views! Even on a grey day, to see the city laid out beneath you, climbing the crags, feeling like you can touch the sky, gave me a very special sense of being connected to the elements of rock, earth, water and air. It was well worth the effort of climbing. As I ran there, I sensed this would be a place I’ll return to in my dreams.

I was running to feel, enjoying the cool air on my skin, pushing on when I felt good, easing back and giving myself space to breathe when it got harder. At 5k I glanced to see 30 minutes on my watch and felt that was fair, given the terrain.

I had a dip in energy levels just after that, feeling the effort in my legs and for a few seconds trying to force more pace from them as a crowd of runners surged past. But then I let it go and just cruised until the feeling came back again and I felt free to run, stretch out and enjoy. Along the flat path of the innocent railway shaded by the trees, I began to play reel them in, latching onto the back of one runner and drawing myself past them, then spotting another and going again. 

At the end of this stretch was another tough rise, steep and unforgiving on tired legs. I started well, controlling the effort, shortening my stride, but it became a shuffle. As others walked I hunkered down, used my arms and determined not to walk a step, even if I was moving at barely more than walking pace.

My calves were tight. I got a twinge in my knee. And I swear I could have accurately placed the tibialis posterior on my right leg. I could feel it spiralling all the way up from the inside of my foot to my knee. If I’d felt like I’d been holding back a little on the run before, I was glad of it now. 

Janey, Scotty and me with our Edinburgh 10k medals

All smiles at the finish with our medals

At Raby Castle 10k last week, I’d talked myself up a stiff climb, then struggled at the top and found myself walking on the flat which was irritating. My legs had more strength or my mind had more staying power this time and I kept on moving, gathering my breath, ready for the much anticipated downhill sweep that would bring me back round towards the finish.

Swooping down and round, overtaking runners as I descended into the last kilometre, feeling my legs flying free and trying to carry that speed into the final straight. Still I was holding on, reminding myself that the finish was further on that the start line, not wanting to blow up completely before the end. Picking a spot to sprint from and going a little early, but powering on as others around me kicked for the finish. Oh how I do love a last minute sprint!

Over the line and stopped the watch. You could tell I hadn’t glanced at it since 5k. My time – 1:00:06. Six seconds over the hour. 

And there’s the real test of how much I enjoyed this run. There was a milli-second of annoyance, so close but not under the hour. And then a laugh at myself, because this was never about time, it was about the experience. 

The experience of testing legs, heart, lungs and brain over ancient rocks and trails. The experience of running in one of my favourite places in the world with some of the best people I know. The experience of being a runner, being able to do this, being alive and well and conscious of every amazing sensation. I’ll take six more seconds of that any day.

11 May 2014

Alnwick sprint triathlon – first tri of the year

It’s fair to say I was quite nervous about doing my first tri of 2014 at Alnwick. My training’s been a bit inconsistent and mainly run focused and I’ve had very little time on the bike. But, having never done this race before, I had no performance targets to compare myself against and approached it as a good Sunday training session.

I can see now why this event gets booked up so quickly. It’s well organised, very friendly, with top marshaling and a great season opener. I’d definitely do it again.

I arrived quite early, but was glad of extra time as a road closure meant I had to take a diversion to get to the Willowburn sports centre. I registered in the sports hall where there were lots of people sorting out numbers and goody bags, so it was very speedy. I checked my number and swim time on the list on the wall – last but one, in the pool at 09:11:40. That meant a long time to hang around and get nervous.

Bike rack at Alnwick tri

Personalised bike racking space – a nice touch

I knew I had to have my bike racked before the race briefing at 07:25, so collected my kit and set it all out in transition. For once there was plenty of space on the racks, and a nice little touch was having your name marked with your number.

As I made my way back into the building, Stuart, a Fetchie pal, spotted me and said hello. It was really nice to see a familiar face. Although I know quite a lot of people in North East triathlon, not being part of a club can make you feel a bit lost turning up at a race. I also bumped into a couple of people from my tri coaching course, so started to feel more at home.

The race briefing was straightforward and left me enough time to walk back through transition and get my bearings before the elite women were first off in their race at 8am. I still had loads of time for the nerves to build and to wonder what to do with myself, so I checked into social media and got some encouraging good luck messages.

I went to watch the start of the swim, to see how it worked and to familiarise myself with the pool. The first girl was off like a rocket and soon 100m ahead of the next swimmer. Starting people off at 20 second intervals and keeping them moving from one side of the pool to the other, meant there was a continuous stream of swimmers, and not too much overcrowding.

I’d been unsure what to do with my kit, especially my car keys during the race, but discovered the sports centre lockers were big enough to fit my tri bag, which just left me with one of those locker keys in a plastic holder that straps round your wrist.

My nerves were building with the wait and hearing snippets of nervous conversation from others getting ready for their turn, so I took myself off to a quiet area of the car park and ran through some warm up drills. This really helped settle me before I went to strip off my final layers and wait beside the poolside.

I took some more deep breaths and did some stretches, trying to give myself the best shot at a controlled and panic free swim. It was almost all undone when I finally got into the water and ducked below the surface to get my face wet and practice breathing out, only to come up with a splutter, realising I couldn’t touch the bottom. I didn’t think I’d got it under control when I got the 3,2,1 go!

But I was off and swimming and the adrenaline rush was under control. After a real confidence booster open water swim on Thursday night, I resolved to keep it controlled and easy, making the most of rolling to breathe in and pulling right through my stroke. I’m afraid technique gets a bit lost when I’m racing, but I did my best.

Ducking under the lane ropes after 4 lengths was a new one for me, and I thought it would give me a bit more of a breather, but as I moved into the centre lane, I took on a mouthful of water and spluttered. It gave the guy who had been last in, but who was catching me, the chance to duck in front.

With half the swim done, I was annoyed at myself for losing a place I didn’t need to lose, so I kicked on and managed to pass him in the last 100m. Up and out of the pool and round to transition with no hassle.

I was a smidge slower than the girl ahead of me and the guy behind me in transition as I’d opted for bike shoes and they just went with trainers, but it was still a decent changeover and I was off and out onto the bike and into the unknown.

I hadn’t checked out the course, other than the online maps. This was deliberate on my part, as I didn’t want to over complicate and add pressure to my preparation. I’m not the fastest cyclist anyway, so it was just about seeing how I got on. I knew, from talking to a friendly couple before my swim that there were two significant hills, but was reassured, that despite one being called ‘Heartbreak Hill’, it really wasn’t that bad.

I kept the bike in low gear through the first few twists and turns until I got a clear patch of straight road where I felt confident to hit the big ring. The course is undulating, so I was clicking through the gears nicely, trying to keep the cadence up and grateful for my bike service this week, which meant everything felt smooth and easy.

I almost took a wrong turn, despite at least three marshals pointing me to the right, because I’m dozy, and corrected it by making a wide turn behind a lady marshal. I really enjoyed the route, it had enough twists and turns and up and downs to make it interesting and most of the time I could see a rider ahead, which made me feel less lonely.

I’d opted just to ride in my tri suit, leaving my jacket in transistion, gambling that it wouldn’t rain or that any showers would be short. My shoulders were a little cold when the wind picked up, but I’m always amazed at how much warmer I am when racing than when training – must be all that adrenaline.

I managed to catch and pass the lady in front of me, after working hard up the first real incline. Then I think I must have taken my eye off the ball a bit and drifted into ‘hello trees, hello flowers…’ as she passed me a little later on the straight. But she shouted something encouraging as she went buy and I kept her in my sights.

Once again I passed her, working up a bit of an incline, and she shouted, “You know there’s a big hill coming up?” I did sort of, but it was good to know that would be it. I pushed on, dropped down through the gears and told myself I was strong. I was compensated by a really nice stretch of downhill, onto the drops and feeling quite daring, not touching the brakes through a dip and a turn. My bike was handling beautifully.

Unfortunately numpty head was on, and in trying to move the plastic wrist strap holding my locker key so that it didn’t dig into my hand, I managed to undo it. ‘Argh, don’t drop it’ I though as I made a grab for it. But of course I did. Stop the bike, turn round to see a car and cyclist fast approaching; backtrack a few yards pick it up, put it in my back pocket. Back on the bike, but having lost that place. “Bad luck,” she shouted as she passed. Nice lady.

Numpty error number two. There wasn’t going to be a number three. I knew I could catch her, so I put the effort in, gave it a bit of a sprint and pushed on. It was actually a blessing in disguise, as it stopped me drifting into easy cycle mode and made me up my game for parts of the course. Now the aim was to keep her behind me to the finish and see if I could gain ground on the rider ahead.

I never did manage to make up the distance to the one in front, but tried to make sure I put as much between me and the lady behind, before I dropped down the gears coming into the sports centre car park and got ready to dismount. Back round into transition again, bike racked and shoes changed. She was a fraction of a second ahead of me, due to her position in the racks and not changing shoes as we set off for the run.

Out across the road and into the fields. I knew this was an off road run, and was expecting it to be tough, but I hadn’t realised I really needed to do cross country training for it. The first part was pretty much all grass, round the edges of the playing fields. And after the recent rain, wet, soggy and muddy grass. And it was uphill.

Legs still in changeover mode, it was pretty brutal and ‘little steps, little steps’ went through my mind hundreds of times. As we turned onto something more of a trail like path with slightly better grip, but a steeper slope, the woman ahead started to walk. ‘Not walking. Not today’ I said to myself, even though I was barely above walking pace. She gestured me past, no doubt hearing my huffing and puffing, and I checked she was okay, not injured. “No, just shattered,” she replied good naturedly.

The up was relentless and it got steeper as we passed into a farm yard, so although the ground here was firmer, loose pebbles meant you still had to watch your step and keep your eyes upwards. I was convinced that was it, but there was a bit more, a more level path out to the turnaround point at which my running companion passed me.

I kept her in my sights, thinking it’s all downhill from here, and that if I stayed within 20 seconds of her, then that would still gain me a place. I really hadn’t enjoyed the run out and up, but the route back down made it much more bearable. Here, at last I was able to find my legs, stretch out a little and let go. It started to feel like I was running something like my current pace.

I didn’t manage to catch the lady in front, despite a Scribbler style short sprint to the line, but I had the honour of being the last competitor to cross the line and resounding cheers all the way. It felt great. And I remembered why I do this crazy sport. It does make you feel good. It is a friendly and supportive atmosphere. And it is a challenge.

I messed up the Garmin recording (again) so won’t have accurate times until they’re published by Alnwick tri. And I’m pretty confident I won’t actually be last when the results come out as they mixed in a wave of slow swimmers after the elite women. But today wasn’t about times or even feeling self conscious at the back, because I didn’t. It was about getting back into the swing of things, enjoying myself and taking on something I was a bit unsure of.

Yes I made some numpty mistakes, but it really didn’t matter. I’ll confess, I’ve had doubts recently, questioned why triathlon, why not just run? But I do still love it. It does still fill me with a much-needed buzz. And now I’m ready for the rest of my season.

Race results

My times:

Overall 01:37:28

swim +T1 12:02 (estimate 10:30 for swim)
bike + T2 57:08
run 28:18

134th out of 148 (back of the pack)
44 woman out of 56
20th in my age category

 

9 May 2014

First open water swim of the season

Filed under: swim — The Scribbler @ 12:26
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been looking forward to and been anxious about this for a while. Grey skies, rain showers and a generally chilly outlook have not inspired me to get into the water. But knowing I have a couple of open water events coming up later in the year, I need to get the practice in.

So, last night, I was back for the opening of the open water season at QE2 lake in Ashington. Run by the VO2 Max Racing guys, it’s a great way to get used to open water swimming in a safe environment with canoe support and coaching if you want it. 

Me about to enter the lake for the open water swim

I’ve been very nervous about open water swimming

I usually suffer from the shock of the cold and really struggle not to hyperventilate, so my first swim of the season has been a bit of a struggle. But I warmed up a bit on land, then took my time just getting used to the water, splashing it on my face and trying to relax before I swam and I was fine.

It was really nice to feel relaxed and not have to tell myself to calm down all the time. I swam nice controlled front crawl with my head in the water, breathing steadily and managing not to veer too far off course. Previously I’ve counted strokes, aiming for 6 then 12 and building up, but I was straight into swimming between buoys without a rest.

It did help that the air and water temperature were similar about 12C I think and a good deal warmer than my first dip last year. And I tried out my neoprene cap for the first time too.

I swam two loops of the course, roughly 400m with rests at each buoy, and was tempted to do another lap. But I’d decided that 20 minutes would be enough if I was struggling, so I thought it better to get out after 20 minutes and leave with a good experience, than push on and risk tiring myself into a bad one.

Next week, I’ll try swimming with the coached group and plan on staying in longer. But it’s the best start to open water swimming I’ve had in the past two years.

Other posts on open water swimming:
My first open water swim

Making progress with open water swimming

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