QE2 sprint triathlon – my first open water tri

When the first people you see as you pitch up in the early hours of the morning to a former colliery site are your best tri buddies down from Scotland for the day, Lesley, Bob and Al, your collywobbles disappear in a mountain of hugs and you know you’re about to have a fantastic day.

I have had this event in my mind for a year. Last year I watched friends and my PT Ian taking part and I thought, “I could do that”. It was once of the first races I entered this year, knowing I wanted to move up in the world of triathlon and to do that I had to tackle the open water and my first true sprint distance event.

In other words, it’s a pretty big deal. As big as my first Great North Run, bigger than my sub 2 half. Basically the only thing that’s been on my mind all week.

And oh boy, do I realise what a step up this was. Like so may wannabe multi-sport athletes, it’s the swim that’s provided my biggest challenge. Getting over the fight or flight response, learning to breathe out under water, building up confidence and endurance and conquering my nerves.

I managed two open water swim sessions before this event and still felt unsure and very nervous.

Lesson 1: Time goes more quickly than you think when you’re setting up

I’d arrived pretty early, registered, got numbered up and set my bike up in a fairly quiet transition. But spotting my PT Ian and one of his other client’s Big Les (about to take part in his first ever triathlon, having done the Edinburgh marathon last week) and having a chat with them, it was suddenly race briefing time and my wetsuit was back at the car.

I start listening to the briefing, doing some deep breathing and roll downs to calm my nerves. But all around me, people are half in wet suits and I start to get anxious. So I have a quick warm up jog back to the car and get into my suit.

Me about to enter the lake for the open water swim
Looking a bit dubious about the swim

As I run back, the crowds are disappearing towards the lake. I tag along with Ian, grateful to see a reassuring face as I wrestle my shoulders into my suit and wriggle into my swim hat. It’s a massed swim start with over 200 competitors taking to the lake at once.

As I make my way to the water, Gary spots me and wishes me good luck. I was so happy to see him. I start training him up as my tri sherpa, passing him the aqua shoes I should have left in transition.

The colour coded caps we’re given are thin and Ian rips his to shreds trying to put it on. I have my regular red swim hat beneath my yellow one and offer it to him. But he goes without.

At the pontoon, the nerves really kick in as I sense this is all going to happen very quickly. I’m not going to have time to get in and calm myself down. Indeed, as I potter about princess-like, they call back those who have started to swim in the warm up area.

Lesson two:
Next time swim more front crawl

I spot Al who makes me feel a bit safer, so I get in and into the water quickly. It’s not cold at all, but it’s murky and dark here with a petrol like sheen on the surface. I spit in my goggles and get set, splashing water on my face, in the hope it will encourage me to get my head it and swim properly.

The hooter goes and we’re off. I’m well to the back and my mission is basically to stay out of the way as much as possible, not to get kicked, punched or pulled. I strike out with a strong heads up front crawl.

The fear quickly strikes me. Those buoys look a long way out and I’m heading for deeper water. My hands brush aside tendrils of weed  and I bump against another swimmer.

Keep the bouys to your right and just swim. I try to calm myself and swim some breast stroke to give myself a breather and make some space. It turns into quite a lot of breast stroke as I seek to calm my breathing and keep moving.

There’s another swimmer just to my left who is breathing heavily and that makes me anxious, so I try some front crawl with my head down and start to make up some ground.

Around the first buoy I allow myself a breast stroke break again and see swimmers nearer the bank who look like they are standing in the shallows and one man getting out and peeling down his wetsuit to give his number to the marshall.

I mustn’t let this get to me. I swim some more heads up front crawl, but still manage to splutter on a mouthful of water. The nearby safety canoe advises me to take a glass of gin tonight to get rid of the taste.

But in truth, the water here is somewhat clearer and less weed-ridden. I am not cold, my legs are still moving and I am keeping my head above the surface. I round the top buoy and make an effort to but my head in and swim. Long slow strokes and give myself time to breathe. I manage it for a while, then take another breast stroke breather and try again.

To the right of the last buoy and just striking for the lakeside now, two sighting markers ahead and I’m finally starting to think I can make it. I’m aiming for the right hand side of these markers just in case, but I see swimmers heading through on either side. One has a very familiar pair of goggles on and I realise it’s Lesley.

I suddenly think I must be having an amazing swim to have caught her up and strike out in full front crawl again, hoping to make it all the way to the shallows. Only the dirty water forces me into a safer stroke as I find my feet and stumble zombie like up the bank.

Helping hands out of the water, finding my legs rather jelly like, and a push and a shove in the right direction. Up the bank and a good long run into transition. I peel down my wetsuit and remove my hat and goggles. My feet are covered in dirt and bits of weeds. Off the grass and into the car park area, they protest at the hard ground.

Lesson 3:
Don’t hang about in transition

Me on the bike course at QE2 sprint triathlon
Heading out on the bike course

I take my usual ‘I don’t care how long I take’ approach to transition, peeling off my suit easily and giving my feet a quick wipe and dry on the corner of my towel. Then it’s a bottom up approach to getting my kit on. Shoes, number belt, helmet, a quick swig of water and a faff to put my Garmin on. Lesley has already gone, by the time I’m finally off clicking over the concrete in my bike shoes.

I don’t even bother with a fancy mount, just get on and go, happy to have swum the swim and feeling right at home on my bike. More water from my bottle as I click up through the gears over the smooth road out of the museum entrance.

And then it’s just me and my bike and the road. I’m feeling good, feeling strong, elated at conquering the swim. I start to turn over quickly and make the most of the adrenaline rush. I am in buoyant mood, imagining I’m Chrissie Wellington out ahead on the bike at Kona.

This really is a lovely bike course on wide flat roads through the former pit and mining areas, where now you’re more likely to see fields of vibrant yellow oil seed rape. I try to keep up a decent cadence, but also enjoy the landscape around me.

We pass through Cresswell, a seaside village with a famous ice-cream shop. A string of pretty coastal cottages where a wagtail flits across my flight path. And to the right a bomber squadron of geese in perfect V formation.  A small hill and you’re out over the top of the cliffs. Black cows on green grass farmed by the blue sea and below and on the road, yellow sand.

Just before the factory at Lynemouth, I’m startled by a noise and a movement in the trees as a huge tethered shire horse comes charging out from the trees beside the main road. I’m glad here’s no traffic here as I instinctively move out of its way.

My scenic admiration is cut short as soon after another small rise, I’m passed by another rider. It’s not the first time I’ve been passed on this course, but the others have had the decency to look like skinny whippet triathletes, and this bloke doesn’t. I wake up and put some effort in, catching and passing him just as another bloke goes by.

In transition, I’d noticed some tasty looking bikes. This really wasn’t a tri for the shopper or the mountain bike. But this guy’s bike looks like it’s just come out of the lake with him. It’s either been stripped back for a respray or is as old and rusty as your favourite park bench. I resolve to try and keep him in my sights and his blue shirt is a marker for the rest of the ride.

A couple of speedy straights and a chance to dip down onto the drops. A couple of nifty corners at roundabouts and I am feeling so at home on my bike. My feet are still a little cramped or cold and I try at times to curl my toes to get some life into them. It proves a useful distraction on any small rises, but really there’s nothing you can’t ride on the big ring here.

I’m back round and heading into the museum again, bumping over the speed reminders in the road and spinning to get the blood flowing into my legs.  And I’m off the bike before the dismount line, running clipped and wobbly legged over the grass and then concrete into transition. Quicker this time to slip out of bike and into running shoes, lose the helmet and go.

Legs and feet protest as I try to shake the bike off. Just keep moving and the feeling will fade I tell myself. Up ahead on the path is Mr Rusty Bike in the blue shirt. Bye, bye fella – you just got chicked on the run!

Lesson four:
Your friends are always there for you

Here I am at home, running in lovely surroundings on a path beneath the trees around a lake. But still it is hard to keep moving as my feet and calves feel stiff and I feel the force of every step.

I had some great messages last night and this morning from my friends, so as my mind starts to fret over the thought there are two laps of this to get through, I draw strength from their support.

‘Relax and enjoy.’ Scotty’s mantra is truly one I am taking to heart for this race. It soothes my fretfulness and reminds me that today, the result really does not matter. It is about the experience and meeting the challenge.

Another Scottish Fetch pal , Katy  said ‘you rock’ and you’d have to be braver than me to let Katy down. So I run for her and her determination to face things head on.

I’m all smiles as I pass by Gary and see Al, finished already as I approach the end of the last lap. A naughty little rise up the tarmac and then a down over some grass and back round towards the colliery museum.  I hear Barry, who ran the  tri training I did earlier this year calling out my name as I pass through and nearly take the turn for the finish instead of heading through for another lap.

A quick dose of support and it’s off along the lonely lanes again. More runners though and I try to offer some encouragement as I pass. I feel like I’ve found my legs a little and can stretch out and run freely, but it’s still hard work. How will I ever be able to face a 10k run for a standard after double that swim and bike?  I’ll just have to get hellish fit for next year won’t I?

me crossing the finish line at the QE2 sprint triathlon
The moment I felt like Chrissie Wellington. Thanks to Bob Marshall for the best finish photo I’ve ever had.

The sun is making an appearance and I am actually starting to enjoy this. It is a lovely place to run, flat and easy underfoot. Back round to my support crew again and the smiles are on, even though I know there’s that ugly little hill and back of the buildings bit to go.

In my head I’ve been saying there’ll be no sprint finish today. My legs have worked hard. But as I hit the last few hundred metres of pale, clean, hard surface, they rocket into action. Race face on, arms working like the pumping pistons. I don’t know where it comes from.

I hear Barry calling my name and Tyne tri club as I cross the line and fall into Lesley and a big hug from her and Al. I could not be happier.

I have barely looked at my watch. Mrs pace and stats took a break today and just went with the flow. No targets, no expectations, just relax and enjoy. And I did. Oh how I did.

But you want to know don’t you? Here are the provisional timings:

Swim 750m (and a decent transition run) 21:27
T1: 03:03
Bike 26k: 1:01:15
T2: 01:14
Run 6k: 38:20
Total 2:05:19

Post tri cake score = 2

I finished 194 out of 201 finishers and 13 out of 15 in my category. Full race results from V02 Max Racing who did a fantastic job of organising, marshalling and supporting this great event.

And I got the best ever race finish photo thanks to Bob Marshall. There’s a full set of race pictures on his Picasa site: https://picasaweb.google.com/113562417702657933373/QE2TRI2012

Triathlon is an amazing challenge and an incredible buzz. I’d encourage anyone to give it a go. It’s friendly and helpful and encouraging. All the marshalls had a ‘well done’ or a ‘looking strong’ or a name check for us. Competitors shared wry groans and encouragement as they went by. And that’s what it’s always like.

Today I was proud to represent Tyne tri club who have helped me improve my swimming a lot. And also to be part of the more informal Team Inspire. My PT, Ian and four of his clients took part in today’s event. It’s thanks to him that I even thought about doing triathlons and also thanks to Ian that I’m fit and ready to give them my best shot. I may be at the back of the field, but that doesn’t dent my enthusiasm or love of triathlon and how I feel to be this fit and healthy and blessed with friends.

So that’s me, fully converted to triathlon. I have a lot of work to do to get to where I’d like to be. But I shall relish that. Just as I relish days like that spent in the best company of the best friends.


Author: The Scribbler

I'm a writer, based in the North East of England. In my working life I give a human voice to business communications. As well as writing, reading and language, I enjoy running and triathlons and I often write about races and events in the North East

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