This is a brand new event for 2014, brought to us by Total Racing International, the same team behind the popular Castles triathlon that I did last year. Being as it’s just down the road from me, and would be the shortest distance I’ve ever travelled to take part in a triathlon, I signed up early and got number 18.
Spanish City, for those of you who don’t know, is a now abandoned amusement park in Whitley Bay, famous for its building with a white dome, which still stands. It’s mentioned in the Dire Straits Song ‘Tunnel of Love’. And the lyrics “Girl it looks so pretty to me / Like it always did / Like the Spanish City to me / When we were kids, ” featured on the back of the race T-shirt.
I was a little nervous about it being a sea swim. Especially as the weather forecast was full of wind warnings. Now, I don’t mind swimming in the sea, but once it gets a little choppy, I get a bit nervous. And this year I’ve barely managed any sea swimming at all.
The original swim route had been to swim along beside the shore, entering onto the beach near it’s northerly point and exiting at the end beside a ramp and the beach cafe. But it was changed to being an out, along and back from near the ramp.
Having set up in transition, and got my wet suit on, I picked my way gingerly over the rough tarmac down to the beach. The water was clear and calm, barely a ripple of a wave. That was good. The two marker buoys didn’t look that far away. Excellent. I could do this.
I really welcomed the chance to get into the water before the race started. It was alarmingly cold. Much more so than when I’d last been in off Tynemouth Longsands on Tuesday evening. But I did my usual gasp and floated around, getting used to it. Then stuck my head under and blew bubbles and even swam a few strokes to make sure I was warmed up and ready.
We were all called out before the mass beach start. I positioned myself off to the side and at the back, with my main aim being to keep out of the worst of the thrash as we got underway. It was a good move and worked well, as I only got a couple of arms or legs brushing against me.
I started swimming well. The water was clear, although I couldn’t see much beyond the bubbles churned up by 200 other swimmers hitting the sea at the same time. I kept it nice and relaxed and just held my nerve in the dash to the first buoy.
Then something went in my head. I really don’t know what it was. But something about swimming away from land, being out of my depth and feeling the sea start to grow choppy and I felt my chest grow tight and my breathing grow shallow.
I took a moment, swam heads up breast stroke to gather myself and pushed on. As I approached the first buoy, it seemed like the wind had picked up a little, sending little wavelets out over the water and it was spattering up as though rain was falling. I swam a little more breast stroke to get round the buoy.
And then at the turn the chop grew worse, with it hitting the side of my face as the second buoy looked as far away as the first. I tried to break back into front crawl, but I’d lost my rhythm and my confidence. All I could hear was my own shallow breathing echoing back in my ears.
I’d been glad of my neoprene swim cap to keep out the worst of the cold, but covering my ears it blocked out the sound of everything else except my own, panicky sounding breathing. I kept trying to bring it under control, to lower my heart rate by taking some deep breaths, swimming breast stroke and then getting back into front crawl, but mentally I’d lost it.
And despite the fact that my feeble heads-up breast stroke meant I was getting more splashed in the face by the waves and the chop and when I did swim front crawl I moved quickly and easily through the water, I just couldn’t get it to stick.
I really wish I could get a grip on this mental aspect of swimming. So often in races, something happens and I get a rush of adrenaline and it all goes a bit awry. Today, I should have stopped, given myself a time out, floated on my back and then got on with it. But I just kept on struggling onwards, feeling like the last stretch back to shore was more about floating and surviving than swimming with any kind of style.
The white dome approached at last, and in a desperate effort to save some pride and determined not to be last out of the water with the rest of the breast stroking stragglers, I did manage a spot of decent swimming by counting my strokes and yelling at myself to do another 6 and then another.
I stumbled up among the pebbles and over the sand, totally out of breath and just pleased to have reached dry land. I could not even force myself to run up the long ramp back towards the transition area at first, my feet protesting at the rough ground and my lungs just bursting for air. I only broke into a trot once I got to the grassy section at the top and started to think about the bike.
With hardly any bikes left in transition, mine was easy to spot as I wriggled out of my wetsuit. Less obvious was my helmet, which wasn’t where I’d left it on top of my shoes. It had blown or been kicked away along on the other side of the rack and I had to duck under and run along to retrieve it. I managed to find all the rest of my kit, including my number belt and headed out to hit the bike course.
Having had such a relatively poor swim, I took a little time to settle into the cycle, focusing on composing myself, getting my breathing back into some kind of order and taking a drink to was the salt water taste from my mouth. By now the sun was out and although it was breezy, I welcomed it as a chance to dry out after the swim.
The bike course was relatively straightforward. After a well marshaled right turn onto the main road it was straight up along the coast towards St Mary’s Lighthouse, then a left turn by the caravan park and up towards Seaton Sluice.
The wind was gusting from inland to offshore, so it was mostly a cross wind, apart from that slight uphill drag by the caravan park. The route is very familiar to me and one I do quite often. I was quickly through lap one and round again, feeling stronger and more settled, so putting more effort in on this lap.
I managed to overtake a couple of people on the slight gradients heading away from transition and again moving along back up the slight drag towards Seaton Delaval Arms. But I was overtaken by many more who came screaming through with aero bars and pointy helmets at the front of the field.
At times I felt the cross wind gust and push the bike sideways and I had to pedal against it even going downhill. But I always felt in control and actually enjoyed the bike course.
Back round to the roundabout near the Rendezvous cafe for the second time and this time it was straight on to transition. I jumped off the bike early at the turn, halting a runner who wasn’t part of the race and was probably wondering where all these people were coming from.
Off the bike and even running into transition, my legs felt wobbly. I managed a fairly quick stop, though I opted to put socks on, as my feet had felt chilly on the bike, so that added a little to my time.
Finally onto the run and I did wonder whose legs I’d picked up in transition as mine felt Bambi-like beneath me. But I knew that feeling would pass. More worrying was the fact that I couldn’t actually feel my feet.
As sensation returned, it felt like I was running on sandpaper as pins and needles burned the whole sole of each foot. I wriggled my toes trying to encourage the blood to flow faster and it was agony. But I’ve been here before and the only way is to keep moving, keep the muscles moving and get that warmth back into my poor feet. I used my arms to push on, thought about my leg muscles carrying me forward, kept my head up and kept moving, helped by shouts of encouragement from the marshals, including regular parkrun volunteer Claire Wynarczyk.
The route took in the coastal paths along the sea front and twisted and turned through some of the Whitley Bay parkrun route, although we ran it in the opposite direction, before dropping down onto the lovely wide promenade along the seafront and past the Rendezvous Cafe.
The ups and downs and turns made me wince as I put more pressure on my feet. But slowly, slowly I started to get the sensation back in them, and by the time I reached the seafront , I’d finally banished the pins and needles. Just in time for the steps…
Oh yes. The course designers took us back up from the promenade towards the War memorial via two flights of steps. A loud and enthusiastic bunch of supporters stood at the turn and encouraged us up. And it was back round for lap two.
By now I was feeling much more like my usual running self, so I pushed on and made an effort to pick up my feet more, now that I could feel them. I started chasing a guy who had powered past me on the steps and we played cat and mouse, taking and then re-overtaking each other along the route. I finally made my last move to overtake him as we came back round to the promenade for the second time, feeling all the exhilaration that I normally get when sprinting this section on parkrun.
Up the steps again and this time a left turn towards the finish on the newly created plaza area in front of the Spanish City dome. I used the acceleration of the down ramp to power me up the other side and onto something like a sprint, so at least I finished strongly.
Chip removed and water thrust into my had, I sat on the steps to get my breath back and congratulated the guy who came through just behind me, thanking him for playing a key part in keeping me pushing onwards in the later part of the race.
I was just glad to have finished. To have completed my last tri of the season. And a little bit sad that this was my last multi-sport event of the year. Because for all that I find it tough, and for all that I’m frustrated that I’ve not really improved in my tris this year, I do enjoy them.
I know for many people this was their first triathlon, and for others it was their first open water, or sea swim. It is a big challenge and I hope you coped with it better than I did. The sea wasn’t really that choppy and the wind, although challenging, could have made it even more difficult. So I hoped you enjoyed it.
And if you’re reading this, thinking ‘That sounds horrible, why would you want to do that’, it really wasn’t. I finished with a big grin and a huge sense of achievement. It’s true I’ve done tris where I’ve been more relaxed, in control and raced harder. But I’ve never done one I haven’t enjoyed.
So yes, triathlon is a challenge. But it’s still a buzz and a thrill. And as I work out how I deal with all the challenges they throw at me, both mental and physical, I know they’ll help me be stronger, faster and more able to deal with anything. So I’ll keep on tri-ing.