World Triathlon Leeds – watching the elites

I found a spot on the kerb of the Headrow to watch the start of the women’s race on the big screen. I was still sipping my water and recovering from my own race as they dived in off the pontoon.

It’s never easy to keep track of athletes in the swim but it was clear that team GB’s Jessica Learmouth and Lucy Hall were in the leading pack with Bermuda’s Flora Duffy. As they emerged from the second lap of the lake, USA’s Gwen Jorgensen and GB’s Vicky Holland were in the mix for the run to transition and the bike leg.

Gwen Jorgensen passes Flora Duffy on the run, right in front of me. Picture by Roger Loxley

At this point I went off to see if my bag with my dry clothes had arrived, and tried to meet up with my friends, but with the course being live for racing, it was impossible to cross from one side to the other. It was obvious that my bag wouldn’t arrive for a while, so I made my way to a spot close to Millennium Square to watch the race. By sheer coincidence my friends from Newcastle were across the road, so I could see them, but couldn’t reach them.

Soon I heard a cheer from the bottom of the street and the bikes emerged with two team GB girls in the leading pack. It took until they’d passed to identify Jessica Learmouth and Lucy Hall mixing it up with Flora Duffy up front, but they earned their cheers anyway.

Then there was a pause. It seemed a long gap before the following pack came through with Vicky Holland and Jodie Stimpson getting the yells and cheers for this one. The crowd continued to yell, cheer and clap as the racers came round each time and we soon lost track of the laps, but nothing much changed, with the lead group maintaining around a 1 min 40 second lead.

We knew it was the last lap when they started slipping out of their shoes to approach the dismount line. The pros do this at high speed and make it look really easy. As they turned into transition, they were out of sight.

It was exciting to watch the race in this way, without the benefit of a big screen to show what was going on around the rest of the course, anticipating who would approach the bottom of the street from the roar of the crowds and squinting to see who it would be.

I was really pleased to be able to identify the tall, rangy figure of Gwen Jorgensen as she appeared, like the Terminator at the bottom of the hill. Flora and the team GB girls kept her at bay for a couple of laps, and we wondered if the gap was too much for even this phenomenal runner to close.

But she did, and we saw it coming from the bottom of the road. Gwen had pushed closer and closer to Flora Duffy who had worked so hard to break away on the bike and she eventually overtook her right where I was standing in the crowd.

Gwen is a superb athlete and it was a thrill to see her powerful running style up close. I cheered her on, even though I’d have loved to have seen a GB girl up front.

My heart was with Jodie Stimpson, who had so narrowly missed out on a place in the Olympic team, but I was proud to cheer on any one of them. In the end it was Vicky Holland who took third place on the podium alongside Flora and Gwen and gave the Leeds crowd a home champion.

In the break between the women’s and men’s races I took the opportunity to move around and grab a bite to eat. By chance my pal Jules had found me and fed me a flapjack – the first thing I’d eaten apart from a slice of orange and a piece of banana, since the end of my race.

We watched part of the men’s swim and saw Richard Varga come out of the lake first, swiftly followed by Jonny and then Alistair Brownlee a few places behind. The Leeds lads are always out to do their best, but with a true home race they’d want to win more than ever. The question was, which brother would have the upper hand?

They were soon on their bikes and on their way into the city. I found my way back to my spot ready to spot them as they came into the highly technical, twisting city centre loops.

Jonny Brownlee getting plenty of crowd support. Picture by Roger Loxley

It seemed no time at all before we heard the cheers and saw the leading group of hometown heroes Jonny and Alistair, with Australian triathlete Aaron Royle and France’s Aurelien Raphael.

There was a gap before the chasing group came through – not so big as that in the women’s race, but enough to make you think that the winners would come from the lead group. We were surprised not to see Mola of Spain racing alongside Gomez, who was in the second group.

Of course, the crowd were pleased that the Brownlee boys were in a great position to dominate this race. With such a technical course through the city there was little change up at the front and as the lead pack came round the last turn for the dismount, it was still a race between the Brownlee boys and Aaron Royle.

The crowd was vocal for the women’s race, but the noise increased on every lap of the men’s. As they were into the run, we heard a surge at the bottom of the hill and looked down to see a lone runner streaking ahead in a team GB tri suit. But which Brownlee was it?

I spotted the distinctive floating running style of Alastair Brownlee and declared it to be him before I could really be sure. And I was right. He bounced past seemingly effortlessly, and sorry Ali, but I couldn’t take my eyes off your legs. How do you run so beautifully?

Alistair Brownlee acknowledging the crowds on his way to a win. Picture by Roger Loxley

In such commanding form, there’s no betting against Ali, and he continued to pull away from his hard chasing brother on every lap.

We kept our eyes on Gomez among the chasers and cheered every runner through. Some were obviously working hard, the set of their jaw or the look in their eyes showing the effort they were putting in.

They ran unbelievably close to the barriers, with the crowds hanging over with cameras, clapping, cheering and screaming encouragement. You could see every bead of sweat, every nuance of expression. You don’t get that close to world champions at any other event that I know of.

Again we miscounted the laps and were cheering on Ali like he’d won on the penultimate lap. It’s a good job we weren’t running ourselves as we’d have been one short! But there were no such mistakes from the pros and had there been a roof over Leeds City centre. we’d have raised it with our shouts as the brothers came through for the last time, with Alastair taking an unassailable lead.

He smiled and held his arms out, drinking in the crowd support with a thumbs up and a high five or two along the last few metres. The white rose of Yorkshire flags were out as we cheered him home to a gold medal, with brother Jonny taking silver for a very proud Leeds 1,2. Aussie Royle took his third place after remaining strong throughout the run.

It was an incredible thrill to be so close to these superb athletes in action, to see and hear the crowds response to a fantastic race, and to appreciate the efforts of everyone who took part. On the last lap, a Japanese athlete’s legs buckled, cramped up or just ran out of juice and we spurred him on. The final athlete through got almost as big a cheer as the winner as we recognised the effort and challenge involved in taking part in a triathlon in the world series.

World Triathlon Leeds – my race story

I was too excited to get much sleep in my lovely, but slightly too warm, hotel room the night before my debut racing on a World Championship triathlon course. So I woke a little bleary eyed but just keen to get on and get going.

After porridge and a kit check, I left my hotel and shared a taxi up to Roundhay Park with a fellow triathlete, David who I met in the lobby. It was a hassle free and straightforward trip and he was a really interesting and experience age group triathlete who had raced in Lisbon the week before.

It calmed my anxieties to be at the start in plenty of time. And before I even got to transition to check on my bike I saw Stuart from Alnwick tri getting into his wetsuit preparing to race in the standard distance race. It was nice to be able to wish him luck.

I had plenty of time to get myself ready and I took it, just calmly checking my bike, putting my drink bottle on and reminding myself of my place in the massive transition area.

Sometime just after that, I heard a Scottish lilt behind me and saw my Fetch pal Susan who I’d spent so much of the day with yesterday, and was able to give her a hug and wish her well too. That was another really nice piece of luck.

On the run. Picture by Jules Briggs

My wave was off at 09:32, so my plan was wetsuit on by 9am, drop my dry clothes and post race bag off and be ready for a pre-race briefing at about 09:10. It all went smoothly, except for me forgetting to put my trainers in the bag. Luckily the volunteer marshal who I was handing my bag to pointed out my error. He said I was far from the first to make it.

Nerves about the swim were kicking in, so I took a few moments to do some deep breaths and clear my mind. My only other pontoon start was rather unpleasant and I knew I’d have very little time in the water before the off, so I wanted to be as composed as I could be.

The lake looked still and calm and the previous wave of swimmers were well ahead as my group wearing our yellow hats stepped out along the pontoon. I was reassured that there looked to be some slower swimmers amongst them.

I picked slot number 8 on the pontoon, wondering which of the elites would dive from that spot later. We all sat on the edge dangling our feet in before we were instructed to get in and keep one hand on the pontoon.

The water temperature was 19C so didn’t have that nasty cold shock as I got in. I even made myself put my face in the water and was relieved to see how clear it was. And then came the countdown and the hooter and we were off.

At last week’s tri, I deliberately held back, settled myself away from the initial thrash and struck out into clear water. I opted for the same tactics here and not long after the start, I got myself into a nice settled front crawl.

I counted strokes pretty much all the way round the course, taking the odd little breather, treading water or doing a light breast stroke when I started to feel uncomfortable. At one point a boat wake caused a bit of a wave, but other than that it was a very smooth swim and I felt quite calm and relaxed throughout.

When I’m more confident in racing mode again, I hope I can put in a bit more effort, but really it doesn’t seem to make me swim much faster, so for now I’m happy to just get through it without stressing myself to the max.

I’d just about reached the third buoy along the dam wall, ready to turn back for sure when the fast swimmers from the following wave came through. There was plenty of space, so I never felt like I was going to be knocked or swum over.

I managed to sight and swim close to all the marker buoys and as I got closer to the finish started spotting slower swimmers from the wave before and managed to overtake a few of those. Overall it felt like a nice swim and as I kicked a bit, swimming right up to the ramp I felt really good about it. I didn’t look back but I don’t think I was the last out of my wave to finish.

The run over the blue carpet to the bike transition was a long one. Plenty of time to get my wetsuit down and cap and goggles off. I jogged most of it and walked a little rise up as I felt my foot cramp up a little. I knew it would be a very slow changeover.

I found my bike easily along the emptying racks and got my shoes and helmet out of the bag provided before getting out of my wetsuit and putting it and the goggles back in. Shoes and helmet on, bike in one had, bag in the other, it was another long run over the grass and up a small steep slope out of transition, then a good long trek over the tarmac to the mount line and bag drop point.

The start was a steep hill, so I had my bike in a low gear, left myself plenty of room and started to spin up it. So far, so good. I was off and away and cycling through the green trees and out of Roundhay park.

The bike course was really interesting. There were some good downhill descents where you could pick up some speed and also some tight turns and corners where you had to be careful. With mixed abilities in the waves and Standard and Sprint competitors out on the course at the same time, there were always bikes in sight which I enjoyed.

It did mean it got crowded at times. With no drafting allowed, I did find myself having to push on a few times to overtake a rider, only to run out of steam and have them re-take me. This happened a few times, playing cat and mouse with a man in a dark blue tri suit and a girl riding a flat bar bike who was very good on the longer, slower climbs.

The speedy riders came charging through, with many shouting ‘on your right’ and it did occur to me that it must have been frustrating for them to be in the mix with such slower riders. I always made sure to check over my shoulder before overtaking and tried to give a nod when I heard a shout and keep out of their way.

I recognised some of the Headingly, Cardigan Road area of the course from my student days, but much of it passed me in a blur. I was mainly keeping my eye out for the other competitors and spotting the turn around point for the way back.

I don’t really remember the first pass into the city, but I do remember being grateful to be climbing the last bit of a hill before the turn at Headingly and thinking it’s all down hill from here.

I came zooming back into the city proper and that’s when I saw the crowds and heard the noise and for the first time I had a real moment of thinking ‘What am I doing here – racing on this World Championship course?’ I beamed a massive smile and laughed at myself. It felt fantastic and even better when my parkrun pal Jules spotted me and gave me a shout. What a buzz!

Making the run look like hard work – photo by Tove Elander

Bike course done and into transition for a quick change into running shoes. My legs didn’t feel bad as I started the run – certainly better than being as cold as they were last week, but I never really managed to pick up anything more than a move forward shuffle.

It felt like a long run out from transition and round towards Millennium Square where I ran over the blue carpet and spotted the sign that said the lap count started there, meaning I had to pass through once more before passing down the finish funnel.

It was a route full of switches, turns and ups and downs. I never realised that the Headrow was a hill in both directions! Still it gave me the chance for my parkrun friends to spot me a couple of times. I even got a ‘Go Scribbler!’ shout from a Tyne triathlon member who I later identified as Michael Downes. That was a lovely surprise and a real boost.

I envied the lovely smooth fast runners who could pick up their feet and come storming past. Try as I might I could lift mine or gain much speed. As I rounded the top of the course for the last time I spotted Stuart again, on his last lap of his run. I pulled away from him a little, but he caught me again as we shuffled up the hill to the finish.

I was torn between finishing together and putting on a token sprint on the blue carpet. In the end vanity got me and I picked my feet up for a last gasp few strides and raised my arms for a Scribbler finish.

That was a real moment, thinking that some of my sporting heroes would be doing the same in just a few hours time. It was a real honour to be able to race a similar course to the elites. There aren’t that many sports you can do that and it’s one of the things that makes triathlon special.

I’d completed another triathlon and really enjoyed the big race experience. That was partly because I set myself the goal of just getting out and enjoying it rather than pushing hard to improve my times.

It was great to be back in Leeds and enjoy the busy, buzzing atmosphere of a large race, feeding off the crowd support for family and friends. The people, everyone from the bus driver, to the hotel staff, the volunteers, marshals and just general public were so warm, welcoming and helpful. I enjoyed my time as a student and working in my first job in West Yorkshire and the people’s pride and passion for their city and county and it was there by the bucketload at this event.

Later on I joined the massive crowds for an incredibly inspiring, adrenaline thumping, shouting myself hoarse and clapping my hands raw afternoon watching the women’s and men’s elite races. Athletes ran close enough to see the effort, smiles and grimaces on their faces. You really don’t get that close to the action in any other sport that I know of and I was full of joy to see team GB put on a great performance, culminating in a Brownlee gold and silver, with Alistair beaming up the final few hundred yards and acknowledging the immense support.

After my race, there were some issues with baggage collection and communications, which meant things didn’t go as planned for the afternoon, and have left many competitors feeling disappointed. But I’ll save telling that story for another blog.

I’m still buzzing and on a high after a most memorable experience. I’d like to remember that feeling rather than let some logistical issues detract from another amazing day in triathlon.



Northumberland Sprint Triathlon 2016

And so to the start of my triathlon season, with a nearly new event for me. The Northumberland triathlon takes place around Druridge Bay country park in Northumberland – a truly lovely part of the world.

I’ve been here before, but raced the standard distance in the past. The sprintis run on the same course, just with fewer laps. It’s a VO2 Max Racing event – which means it’s brilliantly organised, great fun and they always look for improvements. This year, the run, which is on good trails around the lake, was run clockwise, which I really enjoyed.

13344789_1182027298495840_7945418781633612846_nWhile Scotland and the West coast have been enjoying the sun over the last week, it’s been more like winter on the East coast, grey, damp and temperatures around 9C, so I was delighted when we got some sunshine and warmth on Saturday and a good forecast for race day Sunday.

I was up at 5am, kitted up and on the road to pick up my parkrun pal Tove who was marshalling at this event. With traffic free roads we made good time to Druridge and I went to get set up in transition.

I hadn’t really thought much about this race. I usually like to do more mental preparation, thinking through each part of the race, but I was feeling fairly relaxed, and I really felt no pressure to do anything except enjoy it.

I swam my third session of Open Water this year on Thursday evening and really felt the cold and had a few moments with my inner chimp saying “You don’t have to do this”, which was a bit sneaky. But I tussled my way round about 1k’s worth by relaxing and swimming really slowly and counting strokes to take before I gave myself a breather.

As I racked my bike and set out my gear, I kept my eyes open for my friend Lesley on her way down from Scotland to take part in the bike leg of the relay with her friend Krista doing the rest. I got hugs and we were soon ready to start. Time just disappears when you’re getting set for a tri.

It was still chilly and overcast, and knowing that it can take me a while to settle, I got into the water early for a warm up. Temperature was approx 13.5C and it felt a lot warmer than on Thursday night, so I swam a few strokes before setting myself at the back and feeling quite calm.

Even at the back, there was a bit of a thrash and churning of water at the start, so I struck out water polo style and waited for clear water before I got my head down and started swimming properly. I used the tactics from Thursday’s session throughout, taking a quick breather if I felt anxious or like I was getting breathless and focused on counting my strokes and being relaxed in the water.

Although most of the field was far out in front of me, I gained on quite a few of the stragglers who had gone off too hard and fast and just swam my own race.

Everyone was very polite, with lots of sorries if I got an accidental kick or a bash. I just about made it to the last buoy before the fast lads from the standard pack came powering through and even they breathed sorry as they splashed through. I didn’t think it was a particularly fast swim, but it was a really enjoyable and confidence boosting one. Since I’ve looked back a previous race results in open water over the same distance, it’s actually one of my best times!

Out of the water and up the bank with the help of the marshals. And into transition, which wasn’t a particularly fast one as I always struggle to get my wetsuit over my ankles, and given how cold it was, I did opt for socks in my bike shoes. But hey – no pressure, remember. I did the right things in the right order and ran out over the grass with my bike.

Along the road out of the country park and then onto a long straight main road towards Widdrington. I always get passed on the bike, and hardly ever pass anyone, and that was the same today. But I kept pedalling, and maintained a comfortable pace.

The course is nominally flat. There are no real hills, but there a couple of deceptive inclines and I did feel the effort through my legs as my cadence dropped, but there were no real quad screamers. I kept my eyes open for Lesley and my friend Ged doing his first Standard distance and saw them both twice on the out and back bike leg.

As I approached the roundabout turn I saw a fast rider ahead and something dropped off his bike. As I came around the turn he’d gone back to collect it – only his saddle! I don’t know whether he was able to continue or not, but it did make me think of Andy Holgate who relates a similar mishap on an iron distance course in his book Can’t sleep, Can’t train, Can’t Stop.

I could probably have pushed a bit harder on the bike, but I haven’t done much at fast speeds this year and I never was the speediest cyclist anyway. Today was just about getting round and remembering why I enjoy this activity so much. I was glad to see the turn back into the Country Park and even more thankful that I wasn’t doing the Standard and going past for another lap.

A fast descent towards the dismount line and a bit of slowing down before gingerly finding my legs off the bike. As I’d been cycling I’d tried to wiggle some feeling into my toes, but it proved impossible, so I began the run willing some blood flow back into my feet.

13321782_10157121026085294_2090984188901957378_nThe run is a lovely route around the lake on good trails and as the sun started to appear I did eventually warm through. I reckon it took one of the two laps though before I could feel my toes.

Again, I just ran to feel and was spurred on by a band of marshals around the far side of the lake. Each turn or corner brought a familiar face, from parkrun friends Jules and Tove to triathlon pals I haven’t seen in ages, Peter and his wife Lyndsey. I felt like I had my own support team!

With multiple laps for the sprint and standard, there were always runners around, either passing or being passed and I just focused on keeping moving at a nice sustainable pace.

Once again I was glad I was doing the slightly long 5k over two laps, rather than the 4 lap 10k plus, especially as the new run took you past the finish line each lap. But it was great to get a shout out, and I genuinely felt like smiling as I ran in this lovely environment.

13332915_1182027308495839_8787943930879986603_nBack round towards the finish and for me the joy of running down the finish funnel and picking up the pace for a few strides over the line. Greeted by some enthusiastic young marshals who handed me a bottle of water and relieved me of my timing chip

Soon afterwards, I met up with Lesley who had finished her bike leg in a super fast time and together we cheered on Krista and others on the run.

We stayed for the presentations – lots and lots of prizes to give out! And then it was time to get back to our respective homes, but not before promising some more fun days over the summer.

I’ve trained harder and been more competitive at triathlons in previous years, but today’s was very successful in that I genuinely relaxed and enjoyed it. Getting through the swim without a massive adrenaline overload was a big achievement and having enough training in the tank to feel in control throughout made me feel good. Because, as I said to another lady after she finished her race, this is not a small thing to achieve.

I sort of knew I would, once I got racing again, but after a few doubts and nerves and uncertainties in my training and preparation this year, I can can confirm, I do still love triathlon. Even the swimming bit. And given that I’ve arguably the biggest, most complicated race I have ever done coming up next weekend in Leeds – that’s a good thing.

And before that, just the small matter of the annual craziness that is the Blaydon Race on Thursday night. Oh yes!

Stats and stuff:

Swim: 19:00
T1: 2:17
Bike: 52:29
T2: 1:17
Run: 37:35

Total: 1:52:38

Smiles :-) :-) :-)