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.
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.
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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!