Encouraged by my coach and feeling great about finishing my first Olympic or standard distance triathlon in July, I entered another to test my training and see if I could improve on my time.
The venue was Allerthorpe near York, a good hour and 45 min drive away. Unfamiliar surroundings, no one I knew doing it or supporting and a lengthy drive there and back. So yes, I was a bit nervous.
But I’ve been training hard, enjoying this year’s triathlon focus and I did want to see what I could do. Volunteering at parkrun on a sunny Saturday morning, I would have loved to have run it. I took that as a good sign, that after a couple of days easing down the training, I was sharp and ready to race.
It was a early start, but I’d got everything ready and all I had to do was cart my kit downstairs, pack up the car and hit the road. It was overcast and a bit rainy as I set off around 5am to make my way to Allerthorpe lake, but the roads were deserted and I made good time.
The lake looked lovely as I drove into the car park, relatively small, surrounded by trees, with a cafe and caravan park nearby. As I got out of the car, I overheard a man say to his friend, “It’s warm enough to be a non wetsuit swim.”
My tummy flipped. I hadn’t really thought about that. None of my open water swimming has been without a wetsuit, even though arguably it was warm enough at the last couple of QE2 training sessions. I had a 1500m swim to tackle and it’s the part of the tri that makes me most nervous.
Oh well, I was here now, better go and find out what the score is. I lugged my bike and kit over to registration, where I picked up my timing chip, numbers and a nice tech T-shirt. There I learned the lake temperature was 22C, so it was to be a wetsuit optional swim. Another 0.5 degrees and it would have been non-wetsuit.
I set up in transition, hearing voices around me calling to their friends asking how they had got on in other races. There were a lot of Outlaw race T-shirts and some serious looking carbon fibre TT bikes on the racks. I felt like a real tiddler and racked up near some other road bikes.
It was a really good set up, with plenty of marshals around, a great big start/finish gantry and a simple but clear race briefing. I wriggled into my wetsuit, did a bit of warming up and deep breathing, then took the opportunity to get into the lake for a warm up swim before the starts.
The water was pleasantly warm the smooth sides sloped in gradually, so it never felt very deep. I bobbed around, got my face in and blew bubbles, then swam a few strokes back and forth. You couldn’t see anything below the surface as the water was cloudy, but it felt relatively clean. I stopped when I collided with another swimmer and we both apologised, laughing nervously about our sighting skills.
I actually felt quite relaxed and chatted to a nice girl as we waited on the bank watching the first swim wave do three laps round the circular course. Most had finished as we got back in the water, ready to start our swim. I placed myself off to the side at the back as we started, but it was still a bit of a bundle and I started out swimming head up water polo style to try and avoid crashing into other swimmers.
This was soon pretty tiring and I tried to get into front crawl. But I was constantly biffed and harried, having my goggles knocked a couple of times and another kick in the chest from a breast-stroker. No one means to get in your way or hit you, but it really doesn’t help me keep calm or find my swim rhythm. Out came the breast stroke to try and regain my composure and calm my pounding heart.
There were fewer swimmers than last week at Bamburgh, but I found it hard to find my place and drifted well back to the end of the field having breaststroked and part crawled round the first lap. It felt endless. And quite honestly, there was a big part of my brain that was all for chucking it in and getting out.
But I started to find clear water and began counting my strokes. Slow and steady, 12 strokes then sight, then another 12 and keep going. I found something approaching a rhythm and was making progress. And then behind me came the hooter and the crashing sound of the third wave of swimmers piling into the water. Cue another frantic scramble, more kicks, bashes and a real whack in my face. I mullered on through, doggy paddle, breast stroke, anything to keep moving forward.
Once the initial rush was over, they calmed down a little and once again I found clearer water and began counting strokes to get round the second lap. I was well to the back of my swim wave now, a few straggling yellow caps drifting well off course through erratic sighting or breast stroking their way round.
I told myself it would be over quicker if I actually swam properly, kicked my legs and pulled through the water in something like a decent front crawl. My last lap was definitely my best and having conserved my breath and energy a little when I was struggling, I found I could finish strong, kicking out to over take a couple of yellow caps before hitting the shallows and running up out of the water.
I glanced at my watch which showed 29 mins as I stripped off my wetsuit and found my bike. That gave me a boost and I headed out thinking I was already about 15 mins up on my last standard experience.
Out of the park and onto the main road and almost immediately my bike sounded and felt wrong. There was a metallic sort of squeaking, a whine that hadn’t been there as I’d ridden a couple of minutes round the car park before racking. I sort of convinced myself that one of the brake pads was misaligned and scraping along the wheel.
Stop and sort it, it’s early on the ride I thought. I stopped, looked at front and back wheels and couldn’t see anything obvious, so I hopped back on. But the noise was even worse, and now it was combined with a chain click. I managed to reach down and run my hand over the derailleur, again, nothing obvious. When I saw a marshal at a junction, I stopped again, turned the bike upside down to check it over and promptly dropped the chain off. He didn’t help me, but just having him there was a reassuring presence as I talked to myself and tried to get myself to calm down and deal with whatever problem I had.
Chain back on, no obvious problems, I determined just to go with the grating noise and hope for the best. My panicked brain was not helped by the realisation that I’d just lost those hard fought for swim places as a handful of other competitors went speeding past. The squeaking noise continued, but lessened and after about 10 minutes of me thinking I was going to have to ignore it for the whole of the ride, it stopped.
Still I smiled to myself as I looked down at my hands, forearm and legs which I’d managed to cover in chain oil. I never manage to touch my bike without getting a chain tattoo, but I really outdid myself. If there was going to be a prize for muckiest triathlete, I was a cert.
The bike was 2 laps of a flat route, along some main roads and through a couple of pretty villages. I noticed fields of corn, a windmill and heard the strange metallic singing of the overhead cables as I passed under the electricity pylons. It should have been lovely, but I found it a bit dull.
The roads were straight and endless. I was rather warm and I made sure I drank plenty of my juice. But the only time I saw anyone else was when they passed me and cycled into the distance. With no hills, there was no variation in pace, nothing to work at, and then enjoy some free speed on the way down. If I hadn’t been in the swim league I was miles off the bike pace.
I held onto the thought that I was only racing my own race and just kept reminding myself to keep pushing, to be the best I could. I’d taken time off my last race on the swim, I just needed to hold on, stick with the bike and then I’d be running.
On my second lap, I started to see runners coming out on the same road and raised my spirits by giving the odd one a shout of encouragement. It took my mind off the lonely road and the pains I was starting to get in my lower back. It was demoralising when the only other cyclists I saw came past me. I started to wonder how many of the next swim wave had gone by and was glad I wasn’t counting.
I kept drinking, snacked on my malt loaf and not giving in to the mental demons. I’d abandoned my posh Garmin on the basis that it can add to the pressure and I start getting fixated on the numbers. It did mean I had no idea of how far I’d gone, or what my cadence was, but I was wearing a basic stop watch and knew I would be happy if I got the ride done in 90 mins or less.
There, at least I succeeded as I came back round to transition with 01:59 on the watch. But I’ve never been so happy to get off my bike.
With a really spectacular or short 10k, I had a slim chance of going under 3 hours – which would be amazing. As I ran with the bike round towards the racks, I heard a runner yell out, “where’s the finish?” He was less than 200 metres away from the line so I stood aside and let him through.
I had a slow T2 as bikes were racked anywhere and the person next to me had racked theirs facing forward, rather than in reverse as it had been when we started. It meant there was a bit of a battle between the handle bars and I knocked their bike off the rack (sorry). I did re-rack it before dealing with my own T2.
Right out onto the run, and my legs felt okay, strong, not too wobbly. With no electronic guide to pace, I just kept it steady, focusing on my form, keeping bouncing off my feet. Out along the road with traffic passing by, I didn’t like that much, even though it was a smooth flat surface.
Not knowing how far I’d gone, I broke it down into sections, 20 minutes would be about 4k and there was a promised water station just after that. Spot on, a marshal directed me down the path and there was a guy giving out cups of water. It was a hot day, though clouded over, and although I felt good having drunk about 750ml on the bike, I walked 60m or so and took a couple of gulps before picking up my feet and moving again.
I made an effort to pick up the pace, lift through my hips and push on as the route turned onto a narrower country lane, cutting a corner off the bike route. But even here there was the odd car squeezing past.
At 30 mins I told myself that was a parkrun down and just another parkrun to go. Not knowing the course or the area, it was all I had to go on. Again there was barely ever another runner in sight. Just after the second water station at about 7k I was passed again and I held the male runner in my sights for a good long time, but I could not gain on him.
I started counting down minutes – 50 minutes would be about 5 miles, just one more and a bit to go, push on. My form started to break down a little, less bounce off the forefoot and more roll through the foot as I tired, but I fought to keep it, lifting through the knees, using my arms.
By now I was totally confused about landmarks. The whip like song of the wires that marked about ¾ of a bike lap rang out overhead and I wondered how much longer I had to run. Once again the road seemed endless. Where was the major junction that would bring me back round to within striking distance of the park? I knew sub 3 hours was a distant dream, but how much could I take out of my last standard event?
I started to think there was a good chance I was flat last. But who cared? I was still on for PB and in triathlon you’re only really racing yourself. Just be the best you can be, I kept telling myself. Even though the speed wasn’t there, i knew my endurance would carry me through.
At last there was the end of the road, and the marshal who’d been a reassuring presence when I flipped my bike. I gave him a thumbs up and a round of applause and pushed on, knowing the finish couldn’t be far away.
As I approached the entrance of the park, I finally saw a runner I could chase down, a guy in a Leeds Bradford tri-suit. As we turned into the caravan park I knew I had the legs to beat him. And even though the twisty turny finish didn’t really lend itself to a Scribbler sprint, there was a brief burst of speed up to the line.
Clock stopped at 3:06:12 and I was done.
My first standard was 3:20:xx – and admittedly had a very long swim and a long run, but I reckon the run at Allerthorpe was longer than 10k too. After a bit of a mental frazzle on the bike, I was happy I kept the focus and kept going. There are couple of easy free minutes to take off that without bike issues or T2 faffing.
I cleaned up the bike oil with wet wipes and packed my gear away, chatting to the Leeds Bradford guy as we laughed at how few bikes were left.
I took advantage of a sports massage before I drove home. A good chance to chill out, and reflect positively on the race as the guy dug into my right soleus (note to self, get this loosened up) and hit my quads and lower back. Quads need more stretching and flexibility.
But I was beat. Really. I drove home, hauled the kit upstairs and was wiped out for the afternoon- capable of nothing more than a bit of social media and TV.
I’m pleased to have two standards under my belt and as ever I learned a lot from this race. Probably the most important thing is to respect the distance. Even with all the training I do, even with all the advances I’ve made this year, it’s still a tough ask.
On my run I’d been thinking of those racing Ironman, and of Tony, running a marathon with a fridge on his back. You remain an inspiration and through my own smaller efforts I do start to understand how much it takes. Respect to you all.
Swim 1500m 29:59
Bike 40k 1:28:28
Run 10k 1:04:01