Castles Challenge sprint triathlon

Another weekend and another tri. Sprint distance again, but for me, the added challenge of my first sea swim event. The venue – Bamburgh castle on the beautiful Northumberland coast. It made for one of the most scenic, testing and tough tris I’ve done so far.

Transition area in the grounds of Bamburgh Castle
Transition in the grounds of Bamburgh Castle

I’m in the middle of a roll of back to back race weekends, and in truth, I hadn’t really given this one much thought. Having set my sights on standard tris, a sprint suddenly becomes a more manageable. And I was amazingly relaxed about this one.

But everything was different. The start time for one thing – 5pm. What a great time to start a tri, I thought, a nice summer’s evening on the beach, with the promise of music and food afterwards. But it was weird, waking up at my usual early hour and not rushing to get into tri gear and go.

I didn’t really know what to do with myself for the morning, just pootled about, getting my kit ready, doing some chores around the house, going for a walk into the village – very much aware I was just killing time.

It was hot and sunny. People were out and about enjoying the sunshine, but I wanted to keep off my feet as much as possible and not be wandering aimlessly. Still I went down to my beach to check out the sea conditions, hoping they’d be similar an hour further up the coast. It was dead calm, barely a ripple of a wave.

What to eat, and when? When to leave? I decided to just go as normal with breakfast and lunch and hope for the best. The heat made me reluctant to eat much anyway, and I kept reminding myself ‘it’s only a sprint’.

In the end, as always I was a little later than I wanted to be, as my chain slipped loose as I was loading my bike into the car. And then I got slowed down by roadworks. So that as I was approaching Bamburgh, I started to see cars with bikes on circling for parking.

But I got lucky, as I was doing a 20 point turn to manoeuvre into a tight space, one of the day trippers  left and I drove straight into their spot. I unloaded my bike and gear and made my way over to registration, knowing that my buddy Lesley would be there.

It was a bit chaotic trying to get through to the cricket pavilion, with day trippers, dogs and kids circling round me and my bike and my transition bag, but I made it. I swear I get more anxious about getting to races and registering than I do about racing.

With my race number, chip and attractive pink swim hat, hugs from a rather nervous looking Lesley and my favourite race photographer Bob Marshal, we went to get set up in transition in the field below the castle.

Path down to the beach at Bamburgh
We ran up and down this path three times

Where does the time go when you’re setting up for a tri? I thought I’d been pretty quick and not faffy, getting my bike and shoes sorted, but suddenly it was 4:20pm and race briefing was only minutes away. I had a brief chat to my coach Ian, and his lovely family, there to support and enjoy the sunshine. And then I had to dash off for a last trip to the ladies before I started wriggling into my wetsuit.

Race briefing was on the green in front of the stage and the instructions were pretty straightforward. But I started to realise what a big race this was. Hundreds of people wriggling into wetsuits, standing with their friends and club mates, getting ready to race.

I went through some arm and shoulder warm ups, took some deep breaths and tried to get myself focused for the race. I finally got the message to my brain that I was about to do a race.

We’d been warned that it was a long transition up from the beach to the bikes – about 400m of sandy paths through the dunes and up a bank before hitting the grass and tarmac of the castle green. It was bad enough walking down it to get to the swim start, thinking we’d have to negotiate it 3 times more between the bike and the run.

Once on the beach, any fears about rough seas were demolished. It was about as flat calm as the sea can be. But there were no sign of the swim buoys, still being dragged into place with the race due to start.

The delay worked to my advantage as it gave me plenty of time to get in the water, to get used to the temperature, bob around and try a few strokes to relax and get my breathing sorted. In previous tris, I’ve never felt like I have enough time to settle before the start, but just relaxing in the beautiful clear sea next to Lesley made this my most relaxed swim preparation ever.

The water was a bit chilly, but I didn’t think it was too bad. It was perfectly clear, meaning you could see the sandy bottom as it was reasonably shallow too.

So, it was a bit of a delayed start as we made our way back out of the water to the start flags, ready to run back in off the beach – another first for me. A quick round of good lucks, the hooter sounded and we were off, plodging back into the water and then swimming out towards the first buoy.

Swim start at Castles Challenge sprint tri - photo Bob Marshal
Swim start at Castles Challenge sprint tri – photo Bob Marshal

It was a bit of a scrum, with 300 swimmers taking to the water at once – my biggest mass start to date. I ploughed straight in, high on adrenaline, wanting to attack all my fears and for once to have a good swim.

It was like swimming in a soda stream. I the cool clear waters of the warm up churned into millions of tiny white bubbles as feet and arms and black rubber clad bodies bounced off each other, looking for space. Somehow I managed to survive the worst of it, with just a few knocks and only a kick to my chest that sent me spluttering to the surface for air.

I was breathing every stroke, trying to get a sense of where I was, keeping my head up and trying to stay out of trouble. I tried to get into my full stroke, but struggled with a lack of clear water and my brain starting to take over after the mad rush of the start. There was a lot of head up, water polo style crawl which was tiring me out quickly.

As I approached the first buoy, I was stuck in a mass of bobbing pink heads, no space to strike out into full stroke. I resorted to a mix of breast stroke and treading water to negotiate the melee and gave myself a bit of time out to gather my senses.

Once round the buoy there was something like clear water, but I could hear myself hyperventilating, even with my head above the water, no doubt due to the jumble of the mass start and my subconscious swim fears. So I gave myself some time, broke out the head up breast stroke, keeping moving, but giving myself chance to get my breathing under control.

I settled and calmed and looked ahead. The second buoy was a long way away. Time to get moving. And I broke into front crawl, trying to keep it slow, steady, pull through every stroke and give myself chance to breathe.

I counted strokes again to make myself battle through the temptation just to do breathe easy breast stroke. 15 strokes front crawl, then a breather, 21, then 30. After that I stopped counting and just swam as much front crawl as I could.

Beach and Bamburgh castle
Beach and Bamburgh castle

The second buoy seemed like it was moving further and further away. How could this feel so hard after I’d swum such a ridiculously long leg in the standard? I banished negative thoughts with Chrissie Wellington’s tweet to all weekend racers “Race with all your heart and soul, remember your motivation and smile always!”

Head down and more front crawl. Pulling away from the girl swimming alongside me. In clearer water, swimming my own race, starting to relax and enjoy the feel of the beautiful clear water. Still short breathing a little, but keeping it controllable.

I breast stroked round the second buoy and began the home stretch. With shallower waters and the certainty that it would soon be over, this was the most comfortable and consistent portion of my swim. A couple of times I drew level and passed other swimmers. I even tried latching onto some fast feet for a bit of a pull, but quickly decided I’d rather strike out in clear water, than face the turbulent bubbles.

Round the last buoy and swim for the shore. The shallows came quickly and I was unsteadily onto my feet and ploshing up onto the shore. Another hit of adrenaline and my breathing was quick and heavy. I just kept looking a few feet ahead ploughing through the soft sand, moving relentlessly forward. I walked up the steepest parts of the dunes, giving myself chance to drawn in oxygen and settle my breathing, moving my wetsuit down over my hips.

Once at the top I broke into a rough trot over the grass to my bike. Wetsuit came off quite easily, with a bit of a wrestle to get it over my chip. Then helmet, shoes, bike – off I go running with the bike towards the road.

I stay in a low gear to get my legs turning over and give myself chance to catch my breath. My hands are sandy from taking off my wetsuit, and I can feel bits of grit and sand stuck to my wet feet in my bike shoes.

Me on my bike with Bamburgh castle in the background
Heading off on the bike – photo Bob Marshal

I take a slurp of my drink and change up through the gears, but soon the road starts to climb and I drop back, negotiating the hill. The turnover is slow but steady. I’m trying not to burn too much effort yet, still settling from the swim.

The long up has a correspondingly comforting down. A chance to freewheel, find the drops and actually start enjoying this ride on a beautiful sunny evening on country roads lined with hedgerows and further beyond the blue of the sea.

For once, I’m riding with other racers. They are in front and behind and I’m never really out of sight of any. It makes for interesting racing as I start to catch some on the small inclines only to become aware of faster riders coming from behind.

This is a no drafting race, so I do my best to steer clear, riding out as I pass, but it’s not easy when the faster bikes also come by, especially when road and cycle traffic starts to come the opposite direction on the out and back course.

I keep drinking throughout the ride, with the goal of finishing my bottle as it’s a hot day. I keep the effort steady, but not stupid, feeling strong and enjoying the ride in the sunshine.

There’s a rough bit of road and a bumpy patch that catches my breath about a mile or so before the turn around point. I’ve opted just to wear a simple stop watch for this race, so I have no real idea about time or distance, other than how it feels.

Through a fairly scrappy u-turn and back along the same road in the opposite direction. I tell myself to keep up the effort and put a bit more work in on the return leg. The cyclists ahead of me make it easy as I start to chase them down – not something I usually get chance to do in a race.

Soon after the turn around, a vision in red approaches and waves at me smiling. It’s Lesley, looking fast and furious on the bike. But if she hadn’t spotted me and waved, I’d have missed her.

My legs feel good and strong and I surprise myself overtaking a couple of girls on the slight inclines on the return leg. There’s one in a distinctive red and yellow Northumberland tri suit, number 305 who I pass, and then who overtakes me a couple of times and shouts encouragement as she does.

I seem to catch her on the hills and then she catches me napping on the straights. But the friendly banter really does help me stay focused and I’m grateful, even if I am surprised to find myself climbing so strongly. I cycle pretty flat routes in training and never think of myself as much of a climber.

My lower back is starting to niggle a little as it sometimes does on longer rides (I really do need to get myself a proper bike fit). But it’s manageable and I know it will go once I’m off the bike onto the run. I take advantage of a bit of downhill to drop as flat as I can to stretch it out and whizz past another rider – result!

One last climb and one last descent and the castle approaches swiftly. In fact so swiftly that I forget to change down and spin my gears, but still I manage some sort of dismount and run back to transition. I overshoot my bike place at first, but soon sort myself out, ditching the helmet and slipping into my trainers.

Running on the beach at Bamburgh - photo Bob Marshal
Running on the beach at Bamburgh – photo Bob Marshal

I’ve decided to go sockless for this one. It’s a bit of a risk as the run’s on sand. But I’ve been doing so much more barefoot stuff recently and having run in London on horribly blistered feet, I figure I can just get on with it and save myself a few valuable seconds in transition.

Out across the green and back towards the sand dunes, my legs feel good, quite bouncy and I have to cling onto the fence to round the corner to stop myself going flying down the bank. The soft sand down and up over the sand dunes is a leg sapper though, but I push through it onto the beach, heading for the edge of the sea in the hope of getting the hard packed sand we’d been promised.

It isn’t there. It’s just soft sand. The kind that melts each footfall and sends you slipping and reeling.

My run is a shuffle. Little steps, just moving forward, with no bounce, no spring, no hard fought for forefoot form. Just keep moving I tell myself. It doesn’t matter that your steps are small, you’re still making them. Keep on going with the relentless forward motion.

I spot Bob on the beach and being such a photo tart, smile and pick my feet up into something approaching good form. It doesn’t last much beyond the camera shutter click. Onwards, onwards – it’s only a 5k.

But it’s a hard 5k. As I come to terms with the soft sand and stop looking for firmer ground, settling with myself that this is as good as it gets, it does begin t firm up a little and finally I can start to pick up my feet and try to bounce off my forefoot. But the impact of the shuffle on my hips and my knees is making itself felt.

Running on the beach at Bamburgh
Back up the beach on the home stretch – photo Bob Marshal

Day trippers on the beach shout out to the runners “Come on number 36 – well done”. I don’t know if they are here to support someone or have just stumbled into this strange world where sweaty people stumble through the sand, but I welcome their cheerful encouragement.

Eventually there’s the flag, the turn around point. Just the same run to do again. I push on over the harder packed sand, trying to make the most of it, knowing the softer ground lies ahead.

The return leg is brutal on legs and knees and hips. I jink up the beach in search of firmer footing, but realy it makes no difference and just means I run further. There’s a hot, sore spot on my right foot, where the sand is rubbing against my skin. My face is covered in sweat. I see it through my peripheral vision, dewing up my eyebrows. This is relentless, like some Dantean trial.

And there she is again. My vision in red. Smiling, bouncing and high fiving as we pass on this beautiful stretch of beach. I love racing with Lesley. We always have so much fun. It’s a small high spot that keeps me going.

On the softest sand, I allow myself a little walk on the basis that I’m barely moving any quicker than walking pace anyway. Just 30 paces and then I run, or attempt to run along the rest of the beach, looking for the gap in the dunes which marks the turn back towards the finish.

Sand dunes at Bamburgh
The sandy slope back up from the beach

It is a steepish, sandy slope. I use my arms and power up as far as I can. But I feel a jolt in my left knee which has been nigglesome for a couple of weeks. With another standard tri next weekend, I go easy on myself and walk up the steep slope. Even the encouraging shout from one of my workmates can’t summon up a run just here.

I save my energy for the final flourish at the finish. Sand bank and dunes behind me, my shoes still carry pockets of the soft sand. But my feet fall on short, dried out grass and I can run at last. One lap of the outskirts of the green, bouncing out, finally finding my form. Chasing down the last corner, breaking into a sprint for glory with 20 metres to go, arms aloft over the line, smiling!

I take off my shoes and empty out buckets of sand. I’d been longing to do that. I skirt the green, trying to decide whether to drop them back in transition or keep a look out for Lesley finishing. I spot Bob running up with his camera and he tells me she’s on her way.

And so I run the last leg with her. On the other side of the barrier, carrying my trainers, barefoot across the grass, round the last corner, yelling her on through the finish. That feels good! And even better as we pose for our post race smiley photo.

Me and Lesley - Castles Challenge Sprint triathlon 2013
Me and my best tri buddy Lesley – photo Bob Marshal

That was a hard run. Harder I think that the 10k at the end of my standard. Harder mentally as I couldn’t rely on my form or any of my usual cues. At times it just felt like a relentless slog. Normally the run is my home stretch, the easy section, the one I can rely on. Today I had to dig deep for something special.

But that’s oddly satisfying and I actually enjoy the race more for providing a real challenge, and not necessarily the one I’d expected. I expected to struggle with the swim, and while it wasn’t completely stress free, the favourable weather conditions meant it was one of my better race experiences.

The mass start was a real eye opener and has given me something to prepare for at bigger races. But I’m definitely getting better every time I do an open water event. And my bike was strong, surprising even as I managed to pass a few competitors and I enjoyed it.

This is definitely the most scenic and probably the most challenging tri I’ve done to date. And it’s a good candidate for the list for next year. Post race shower, stretch and clean sheets on the bed never felt so good. And today I ache more than I did after my standard, but it’s a good ache, a worthy one.

With another standard tri at Allerthorpe to look forward to next weekend, I reckon the Castles Challenge sprint has been great preparation.

Swim 750m: 24:42 (was out of the water in 20 mins- rest is long run into T1)

T1: 01:29
Bike 20k: 47:10
T2: 00:54
Run: 00:32:56

Total 01:47:13

My race stats

Great video that gives you an idea of how scenic this event is:


Race results
Race photos – Bob Marshall
Event website

Update: Sadly the Castles Challenge Middle Distance tri which was due to take place the day after the sprint had to be cancelled as heavy rain meant the sea swim and bike course were not safe for competitors.


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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