The Scribbler

7 June 2017

Northumberland triathlon from the other side – a marshal’s point of view

Filed under: triathlon — The Scribbler @ 18:25
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Competitors at the Northumberland triathlon - photo by Sports Photography Northumberland

Northumberland triathlon run – photo by Sports Photography Northumberland

I’ve taken part in enough VO2 Max Racing Events in the north east to know that I’m guaranteed a great day, a safe race and a fantastic sense of encouragement as a triathlete. I’m happy to say that I had the same great experience as a marshal at the Northumberland triathlon.

I’ve raced this event a few times, both at sprint and standard distances, so I know it’s a great location, and with a spot of clear sunny weather forecast predicted that everyone was in for a good day.

It did feel strange with only me and a bag to load into the car for the early drive up the coast. No need to  add my bike and wetsuit and all the gear I need to take part in a triathlon. I kept thinking I’d forgotten something.

Marshals rewards

There were plenty of competitors there already as I arrived in plenty of time for the marshals briefing at 07:30.  These guys really look after everyone who races or volunteers.

When I signed up to help out, I got the option of a free entry to another one of their events. On the day, I had all the information I needed, picked up a race T-shirt and was offered snacks, drinks and given a hot meal voucher to use once my marshalling stint was over.

I had a short walk around the lake to my first spot as a swim marshal, backing up the kayak crew, keeping an eye out for any swimmers in difficulty and potentially offering an early exit point from the swim.

The swim

My stomach did a nervous flip flop as the first competitors entered the lake, as I imaged my own race nerves and adrenaline building up for the start. With the first wave off, it was amazing to see how quickly the swimmers spread out as they lapped the buoys, with the fastest cutting streamlined wakes through the water. The noise of the splashes as arms hit the water was incredible!

With the second wave off soon after, there was sometimes a bit of congestion, but from my view point everyone seed to be okay. I was surprised and encouraged by how many swimmers I saw doing what I do and taking a little time to settle or switching to breast stroke to keep out of trouble around the buoys. I could even hear a couple of guys chatting to each other and encouraging each other on the way round.

With no problems on the swim, I left the last few competitors with the kayak safety crew and walked a little further around the lake to my marshaling spot for the run. My job for the next couple of hours was generally to shout, encourage and direct runners as they completed two laps  of the lake for sprint distance and four for the standard.

The run

Competitors at the Northumberland triathlon - photo by Sports Photography Northumberland

Northumberland triathlon – photo by Sports Photography Northumberland

The sun had warmed up by now and as runners started to appear, I knew they would be finding it tough, so I did my best to be encouraging. When I could see it, I tried to check their race number against the competitors list and give them a personal shout out. With those doing the standard distance, I started to recognise who was coming up next.

As a triathlete and runner, I know how important a bit of support can be along the route. Even if marshals and spectators are saying nothing more than ‘well done, keep going’, it can be a real boost. And getting your name shouted out is always encouraging.

I got some nice shouts back from those taking part, including one guy who said he was very happy to not see me again on his last lap! I knew exactly what he meant as it’s always a relief to know you’re almost at the end of a big race. I enjoyed all the smiles and waves and thank yous.

There was a brief shower before the final runner came through on his last lap and then I was done with my marshaling for the day. The chief run marshal walked back to check on me and I collected some of the signs on my way round to the finish, where I welcomed a hot pork bun from the catering team.

I’m a big fan of triathlon, both as a competitor and as a supporter and I know that these events just couldn’t happen without willing volunteers. I’ve enjoyed their support in many, many races, so this weekend it felt great to offer something back. I thought I’d feel more disappointed not to be taking part, but I really didn’t. I had a great morning out and will look forward to my next race in July with even more excitement.

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1 May 2017

Ashington sprint triathlon 2017

Filed under: triathlon — The Scribbler @ 21:03
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The Ashington triathlon was the first triathlon I ever did back in 2011. It now has a new base at the new leisure centre for the 400m pool swim, and a lovely new trail run which I encountered for the first time this year.

I’ve done far less triathlon training than I did for that first event and I feel slower and less fit than when I tackled the course on a heavy old mountain bike. But it has the reputation of being a friendly, local and well organised event and, coming at the start of the season, no one is feeling at their sharpest.

Despite my misgivings,  I was surprisingly relaxed and nonchalant about the whole thing. I got my kit ready the day before and checked my bike over. I also spent a bit of time going through race in my mind and trying some positive visualisation of how it would feel to take part.

I slept well and woke just before the alarm. I managed half a bowl of porridge and packed the car for the short drive. I had plenty of time to register and collect my race t-shirt before setting up my bike, helmet and shoes in the transition area.

I had quite a long wait before my heat, so I opted to take some time out and went back to the car to listen to some music and avoid too much hustle and bustle. My mind was running over the last minute preparations before the race, so I headed back to the leisure centre and got ready to race.

The swim

With my tri suit on and goggles and hat in hand, I headed to the pool side. After the briefing, I stood to one side to take some deep breaths and stretch to keep my nerves under control.

There was plenty of time to get in the water and do some bubble blowing to get my breath under control. I was first off in my lane, so my first length was into clear water – a lovely way to ease in gently. I heard the whistles go for the others behind me and soon the water was churning.

When I felt a tip on my toes at the end of my 2nd length, I let the other two swimmers go past. It meant I could focus on my own swim without worrying about holding anyone up. I tried to draft off the feet of the man in front of me, but it was obvious they were faster paced swimmers. It wasn’t a fast swim for me, but I always felt in control and even kicked on a bit of pace for the last two lengths. My aim was to have a calm swim and I did.

Swim done, and I was quickly out of the pool, and running around the side of the building into transition. I’ve suffered from cold feet on this bike ride before, so took a few extra seconds to put socks on.  My time show I wasn’t much slower than normal.

The cycle

Off out on the bike and it felt a bit chilly at first, but that encouraged me to get my legs turning over quickly. The route passes the Ashington Archer statue three times over two laps and and out and back section. I kept my gears in a relatively easy effort, only having to make a big change at the foot of Bothal Bank.

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Climbing Bothal Bank – picture courtesy of Mark Breeze

In past I have powered up this short sharp hill. Today I was out of the saddle for parts of the lower section, with my breath gasping even though my legs were turning at a very slow speed by the top.

The next section was into the wind and this soon took me round to start my second lap. My back felt a bit niggly as I turned towards the Archer, and by the time I’d climbed the steep bank again, I was trying to stretch it out.

Heading back on the final out and back section, the wind was in my face and the added resistance made this hard work. I could feel myself slowing and kept telling myself to turn my legs over faster so I could get to the end and get off the bike sooner.

The run

I stopped before the dismount line and headed back into transition to rack my bike and do a swift change into my running shoes.

The run course is new to me and follows a good trail path alongside farmers’ fields and through some trees. It takes a long straight road out, then a loop back around towards the start, followed by a shorter loop to the finish.

I felt like my feet were shuffling until I reached the trail paths, where I was able to pick up my feet and to inject a bit more pace. Throughout the whole of the race, the marshals were great, full of encouragement and positivity.

My run pace dropped off a bit as I tackled a barely there rise, but I was able to pick up again soon after. On coming round for the shorter lap I figured I had about a mile to go. Soon the finish line was in sight and with a bit of a kick and arms aloft, I made it.

The finish

A bevy of smiling marshals took my timing chip, gave me a bottle of water and presented me with a medal. I wasn’t expecting that – we don’t often get medals from triathlon races and this one was a lovely wooden one in the shape of the county of Northumberland, marked with the stripes of the county flag and featuring cut out figures swimming cycling and running.

This is still a great, friendly triathlon, and in my view has been improved by the move to the new leisure centre. The hill on the bike course makes it challenging, but it’s a great way to start the triathlon season.

Everything was very well organised by Northumberland tri club with help from VO2 Max Racing events. It was particularly well and enthusiastically marshalled by volunteers who were mainly from the club. Marshals and volunteers are so important at these events, not just for safety, but for their encouragement and support, and every one of them did a great job.

I hope to put this race back on the calendar, and return fitter and faster next year.

Race stats

Swim: 09:42
T1 01:16
Cycle: 57:16
T2 00:59
Run: 33:02
Total: 01:42:17

2 October 2016

Brownlee Tri 2016

Filed under: triathlon — The Scribbler @ 09:39
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The Brownlee tri at Harewood House is my special end of the season treat. Having done it for the first time last year, I know it’s well organised, in a good location, friendly, and a fun and challenging course. Plus, if you’re lucky, you can meet a Brownlee or two. I managed to get a snap with both Alistair and Jonny again this year.

There are two distances raced at the event – sprint and super-sprint, with waves going off in age-group order. I was doing the sprint with its slightly long bike and run with a start time of 11:50, meaning I could wake up at a reasonable time and drive down, with plenty of time to set up.

I picked up my race pack, complete with temporary number tattoos (I do like a proper race tat) and hung around registration to see my pal Tove who was racing along with her husband Roger and their friends Jon and Annabel who I had met at the Leeds triathlon.

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Meeting Alistair Brownlee – one of the day’s many high points

After racking my bike in transition and enjoying a friendly chat to the other ladies near me in the racks, I went for a look around the ‘Race Village’ and spotted Alistair over at the kids’ triathlon area. There were loads of youngsters running and cycling around a grass track, winning medals and certificates and getting them signed. Alastair was great, chatting to them all, asking how fast they’d gone, if they were having a good day etc.

I held back until there was a break in the stream of youngsters crossing the line and got a photo. I took great pride in shaking Ali’s hand and saying thanks for all the joy they have given me, watching them racing. “And disappointment too,” he deadpanned, obviously referring to Jonny’s stumble into silver in the World Series, but I shook my head. Ali – always the competitor.

After that encounter I got set for my race, wriggling into my wetsuit and walking down to get the briefing by the lake. I took some deep breaths and did some stretches, even though I wasn’t feeling particularly nervous. I really wanted to have a relaxed swim here, after a bit of a mental melt down in my last tri.

The chap doing the race briefing was brilliant. A nice young Yorkshire lad, who gave all the info we needed, with a bit of humour, a smile and loads of encouragement. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was only elite triathlete and Brownlee training partner Mark Buckingham. Just another small thing that adds up to a great event.

Anyway, onto my race. A walk along the wobbly pontoon and then a brief chance to get into the water and acclimatise before the start. The lake temperature was 15C, so I had a bit of a gasp as I went in, but I soon warmed up. The shallow silty water sucked at my feet, so that I felt like I was sinking into slimy carpet.

One hand on the pontoon and the hooter goes to start. Given the state of the water, I opt for a mix of breast stroke and heads-up crawl to reach the first buoy, but after that I knuckle down, get my head in and start counting strokes to keep going.

I manage okay on the swim. At first everyone has struck away from me, but I catch a few stragglers as I round the top of the lake and head back towards the swim exit. I don’t feel fast, but I do feel strong and reasonably calm on my swim. I even bully myself through the thick black water around the buoys and find clearer patches towards the finish.

Up the ramp and off towards transition which is up a grassy hill. I help the girl ahead of me to un-velcro her wetsuit and pull her zip down. “I’m dizzy,” she says. As I reach my bike and step completely out of one leg of my suit, I realise I am too. I stop and grab onto the racking to reset my horizon before tackling the second leg. I should have sat down, as I struggle to get it over my chip.

Helmet on, and away with the bike up to the top of the grass and then a run towards the mount line, which I know, and have been warned, is at the bottom of a hill. It’s a tough push on the first lap, only made slightly easier on subsequent laps because you know it’s coming and can carry a bit of momentum through it. The couple cheering at the Macmillan stand behind Harewood house are a welcome sight to mark the top of the hill on each lap.

I take it easy around the first lap, reminding myself of the route which includes a nice mix of sweeping downhills and some sharp turns together with a couple of straights and a steep climb before you come round to the start and another hill. I am either braver or heavier on the downhill sections, as I close the gaps on some of the women in front of me. But I’m still cautious, not wanting to overtake on some of the sharp bends.

Some walk the steep hill, marked by a gate with a sign saying “It’s Yorkshire. Dig in.” I drop to the lowest gear and take it section by section each time. Push on to the lighter coloured patch of tarmac. Push on under the bridge. Push on again to the top, where Tove and Annabel are cheering me on.

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Me, Roger, Tove and Jon at the Brownlee Tri

On the second lap my lower back is niggling on the right hand side around hip level. Thankfully with a mix of uphills out of the saddle and downhill cruising I manage it, but it has me gritting my teeth at times on the flatter sections. Then I spot a para-triathlete cycling with a prosthetic leg, and I shut myself up.

Still I’m relieved to climb the steep hill for the last time and enjoy the cowbells and crowds as I peel off back towards transition. I take the dismount gingerly, coming to a stop before dismounting, but once off the bike the pain in my lower back eases off.

Just the run to do now and I’m soon off down the grassy tracks and into the woods. Encouraged by the smiles and shouts of the triathletes heading back saying what a lovely course it is, I try to get my legs moving. My plan had been to run hard, but my legs don’t really want to know, and as there’s a good bit of uphill in the first section, it’s more of a shuffle.

Still, I keep moving forwards, keeping a lady in my sights who I have seen stop and stretch a couple of times. It is a lovely course on trails through the trees with a couple of sharp descents and a ford that I splash through laughing.

On a steep and long uphill, I catch up with the lady I’ve been tracking, who I learn is called Christine and who doesn’t want to be caught by her husband who set off in the wave after hers. We chat and run together a bit, and realising we were in the same wave, I tell her she has to beat me.

But at a steep downhill, I turn off my brain and run down putting a gap between us. My legs finally get the message and from here to the end I feel like I pick up a bit more of my usual pace.

With shouts of encouragement to the other runners heading out as I pass back along towards the race village, I remind myself to enjoy the moment as I surge for the line arms aloft. With medal, water, T-shirt and goody bag swiftly collected from the team of enthusiastic volunteers, I hang on to see Christine finish and offer my congratulations.

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Finally managed to catch up with Jonny Brownlee

Another triathlon completed, and after a funny old year in terms of not really training and feeling the fire in my belly for any events, it’s some satisfaction to be able to do that. I’d been out and active for just under 2 hours and 30 minutes. I hadn’t looked at my times to compare, but when I did, I was slower in every aspect than last year, but I don’t mind. I turned up, did it and enjoyed the whole event – the atmosphere, the race in a lovely location, meeting two sporting legends.

I stayed at the finish and got a massage to ease my back before meeting up with my pals. We all agreed we’d be back again next year. I had a good chat with a guy who had been in Cozumel, supporting his brother in the age group race and watching the thrilling emotional finish of the world series with Alistair helping Jonny over the line. Towards the end of the day, I finally spotted Jonny and managed a stupid grin for a photo just before he was whisked away to present the prizes.

Those boys have been responsible for three of my best days in 2016 – racing on the same course at the Leeds triathlon and then cheering them on to first and second place in the elite race; watching the Olympic triathlon with my best tri buddy after a sunny day cycling at the coast, and today, getting to meet them and say thank you, while taking part in a brilliant race.

 

As I finally got home and hoiked all my kit back up three flights of stairs, I was still buzzing. I sent a thank you message to my PT who got me started on this road, first to running and then triathlon. Even slow and steady, I’m happy to be part of it and so, so very grateful for the amazing experiences it’s brought me. As I said to Christine as we were running together, I hope I can still do this when I’m 80.

30 July 2016

QE2 Sprint triathlon 2016

Filed under: triathlon — The Scribbler @ 17:58
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The QE2 triathlon is my most local event – only about 30 mins drive away on a quiet Sunday morning and starting in the lake where I’ve been swimming almost every Thursday evening since the middle of May. It’s the first open water event I did back in 2012, on a memorable day, meeting my best buddy Lesley and family, and finishing with with some of my favourite ever triathlon photos. So, yes, I like this triathlon and its happy associations.

When I first got back to open water swimming at the QE2 lake with the Vo2 Max Racing  crew in May this year, the water temperature was about 11C and I didn’t really enjoy my first few swims. I struggled to catch my breath and bullied myself around a couple of laps of the course, doing a lot of self talking and deals about how long I’d stay in or how many laps I’d do.

The most dangerous thought that I had early on in my open water swimming season was ‘I don’t have to do this’. I persisted because I knew I needed the practice and I wanted to be as prepared as possible for the Leeds triathlon.

I wanted to enjoy it. I knew at some level that I have enjoyed open water swims here, and elsewhere, but it felt like a sensation I could no longer grasp.

And then, a few weeks ago, the water had warmed up a little and I spent one session swimming with a new open water swimmer who had plunged in and found herself in a bit of a tizzy with her breathing and confidence, despite being very at home in a pool.

I know that feeling very well, and so I swam my laps in a mixture of breast stroke and very slow front crawl, keeping an eye on her, offering reassurance and open water swimming tips. That was a good swim for me as I forgot about my own swim anxieties and had no expectations of how far or how long I would swim for.

I watched out for her at subsequent sessions but didn’t see her again until she passed me on the bike on Sunday’s triathlon (her first event). I was thrilled to see her as I went to collect my bike after the race and share her joy at becoming a triathlete.

I’ve been less focused on training for any events this year. I figure I’m having a year of just enjoying my sports and taking the pressure off. I appreciate the fact that I have the experience, confidence and fitness to rock up and take on a sprint tri. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before 2009. And I hope I never take that for granted. It’s still a tough ask – even if you’re not racing flat out or in any danger of threatening the sharp end.

Which is all a very long preamble to my race. The only thing I really wanted from it was a good swim. Good being one in which I didn’t stress out and have a mini meltdown and have to do lots of talking to myself to get through it.

I had an excellent swim.

I must have had one or two of these before, but I more easily remember the ones where I’ve really had to battle with my head and felt like I had to take time out to settle down.

I got into the water as soon as I could, and had what felt like a good 10 minutes floating around, getting relaxed and comfortable and doing a few practice strokes. I even lay right back and floated with my eyes closed before positioning myself at the back and out wide of the starting buoys.

I went on the hooter – striking out with a few strokes of heads-up, and then quickly moving into head-down front crawl. It was a bit congested, but I managed to avoid any serious bashing and just struck out towards the first marker. The mass start made the water brownish, silty and churned up for the first few metres, but it soon cleared, although the chop continued for a while.

Shortly before the first buoy I could feel myself starting to thrash my arms a little and boost my heart rate with shallow breathing, so I took a time out, just a few seconds to tread water and reset. While it was hard seeing swimmers pass me, it was the right thing to do, as I struck back out into calmer, clearer water and found a new, more comfortable rhythm in my stroke.

That continued around the rest of the course, momentarily easing up at each turn to sight the next buoy and actually think to myself how much I was enjoying the feel of the water and swimming in the lake.

Towards the finish, as I approached the shallows, I got closer to some feet and legs and almost got swum over by someone striking out for the jetty, but that only slowed me for a fraction of a second and I got up to my feet and out of the water feeling calm but elated with my swim.

During the long run up towards transition, I sneaked a peek at my watch. I’d deliberately avoided checking my overall time for this event, but I knew my best swim time was 18 mins something. So I couldn’t believe it when I saw 15:52 on my watch. Official time, including the run into transition was 17:47, so easily almost a minute faster than I have been before.

Most importantly I felt great. I had enjoyed the swim, hadn’t stressed out and was ready to tackle the bike course.

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Picture by Sports Photography Northumberland

 

The terrain makes this a slightly long sprint course with a 24k bike and just under a 6k run. It was warm, but cloudy on Sunday morning, and there had been an early morning shower that left the road damp. The immediate ride out of the park is a nice downhill, so time to settle in and get my legs turning over.

Out onto the road and the cross wind became more apparent. Not enough of a breeze to disturb my balance on the bike, but maybe enough to make me work a bit harder.

I haven’t done enough cycling. I really struggle to fit it in at any other time other than the weekend. And going out on my own, I tend to do the same routes and don’t really get enough mileage in. But I started off enjoying the cycle, even as, as always, I was quickly and speedily passed and after 10k rarely saw another competitor except when they overtook.

I had a couple of mouthfuls of juice and ticked off the sights as I rolled along beside the coastline at Cresswell. There’s a slight inland turn near Lynemouth towards the end of the route. My back was starting to niggle as I cycled along beside the dunes and as I approached a slight long incline, I felt like I had no power in my legs.

I’d tried to keep up my cadence throughout, but from just before 20k onwards, I was definitely dropping, and as I approached Lynemouth I had a distinct loss of energy and power and a bit of a mental dip. I dropped through the gears, moved around to try and stretch out my back and had a gel. It was probably all a bit too late to make any difference, as my back was still a bit troublesome but eased by a bit of coasting downhill.

I managed to get a bit of speed back as I turned into the park, but was soundly overtaken by two or three more riders before I came to a stop. I was worried about jarring my back, so didn’t even attempt a rolling dismount at the line. But as soon as I was out of my cycling position, it felt better. I have had a proper bike fit for this bike, but I would have been considerably lighter at the time. Would that have made a difference?

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Picture by Sports Photography Northumberland

Onto the run, and my legs weren’t too wobbly as I struck out on the paths around the lake. With two laps for the sprint and three for the standard distance event, I was frequently passing or being passed by runners on my way round.

I was well supported with parkrun buddies Jules and Claire marshalling near transition and the start of each lap, and just before a little climb around the back of Woodhorn Museum buildings towards the end. I made sure I was relaxed and picking my feet up each time I saw them, but generally I felt I ran okay throughout.

My hamstrings felt tight at the start of the run, but oddly not my quads, and the sensation soon eased off. I knew I wasn’t fast and I wasn’t pushing hard, but felt like my efforts were just a notch down from a fast parkrun.

I ran every step, thanked the marshals and gave a high five to two little girls standing in high viz at the bottom of the lake. I managed to pick up a bit of speed down the last bank and raised my arms for another finish with a smile.

So, another really enjoyable race from VO2 Max Racing. Their swim sessions at the QE2 lake have really helped me this year and they always put on a great race for competitors and Woodhorn Colliery Museum grounds provide a great venue for a top event.

Swim 750m: 17:47
T1: 1:41
Bike 24km: 1:00:51
T2: 1:10
Run 6k: 41:29
TOTAL 2:02:58

15 June 2016

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

13 June 2016

World Triathlon Leeds – my race story

Filed under: triathlon — The Scribbler @ 21:28
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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.

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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!

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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.

 

 

5 June 2016

Northumberland Sprint Triathlon 2016

Filed under: triathlon — The Scribbler @ 18:56
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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 :-) :-) :-)

29 September 2015

Brownlee triathlon 2015, Harewood house

It’s 8am on a Saturday morning and I’m on my way to my last triathlon of the year. I’ve never been so undertrained, and under prepared for an event, and yet it’s the one I’ve most been looking forward to.

It’s the Brownlee triathlon, in the grand setting of the grounds of Harewood house, near Leeds. I have wanted to do this event for the past 3 years, but have always been put off by the cost, travel and timing. This year it was the first event I booked on my racing calendar back in January.

Me and Jonny Brownlee at the Brownlee tri

First Brownlee bagged

I love the Brownlees and the excitement and success they’ve brought to this utterly brilliant sport. I have yelled and screamed at them in races on TV and was glued to the Olympic coverage.

And now I was heading to compete on their Yorkshire turf, to tackle hills and trails like those they train on, in the biggest triathlon event I’ve ever taken part in.

I had to take a break from triathlon training from the beginning of July, making long runs for the half marathon my priority. I barely managed a bike ride in six weeks, let alone a swim. And as the day of the tri got closer, I was trying desperately to shake off a cold. Even as I travelled down, I was throwing back throat sweets and trying desperately not to cough, for fear of being told I wasn’t fit enough to be there.

But I made it to the glorious grounds of Harewood house and the biggest triathlon set up I’ve ever seen. The music was pumping and the announcer commentating as I arrived, racing already underway from about 9am, and I wouldn’t get my chance until almost 1pm.

I made my way to registration to pick up my race pack, number stickers for bike and helmet and proper race number tattoos. Then off to rack my bike in transition, well ahead of time.

As I was faffing about laying out my shoes and helmet ready for the bike and run, the commentator was yelling about Jonny Brownlee leaving everyone behind as he took part in the swim. And then suddenly, there was a slim figure in a wet suit running up the grass, towards the rows of bikes racked at the top of the hill.

I ran to see Jonny pass his chip onto his relay team member who was going to do the bike leg. There were plenty of shouts from the gathered spectators and a few photos, and then, after he changed out of his wetsuit into some warm dry gear, he seemed happy enough to hang around and chat to the competitors and I bagged myself my first Brownlee picture of the day. Brilliant!

Me and Alastair Brownlee at Harewood house

Second Brownlee of the day.

Not long afterwards I got the chance to say hello and shake Alistair’s hand too, as he posed for a picture too. They were both lovely, unassuming and not making a big fuss about being the centre of attention. Alistair is currently recovering from an operation on his foot and was wearing a boot on his left leg. I got the sense that, for all that he’s a World, Olympic and Commonwealth champion, he’d probably have swapped places with an over 40s, slow, but uninjured triathlete so that he could take part today. I wished him well for his recovery.

In the world of British triathlon, Alistair and Jonny are legends. And they’d probably be the first to try and deny that label. But they are champions. Determined, fast, hard-training and more importantly, cracking Yorkshire lads. I was honoured and delighted to shake their hands. It was the best start to a fantastic day.

And so to my race. It was good really that the pressure was off, and I had no expectations other than to enjoy the experience. But still I couldn’t help wishing I was in the same form I was in earlier in the year and that I’d managed to keep up cycling and swimming alongside my running.

The swim

I wriggled into my wetsuit and took one last look at my transition set up, before heading down towards the lake. On registration they’d said the water temperature that morning was 12C. I hoped it had warmed up a little, but was prepared for it to be chilly.

The nerves started to kick in as my time grew closer. I watched some of the swimmers from the previous waves looking decidedly tired and wobbly as they made their way back to the swim exit. I wasn’t close enough to see them emerging with silt covered faces, which was probably just as well.

Race briefing took place by the swim start. Nervous rubber wet-suited ladies gathered beneath their green caps and tried to decide whether to go with the first group or the second. I opted to get it over with.

I turned to look at the water before heading to the pontoon, and there, standing right beside me was Alistair Brownlee. I took that as a good omen, smiled and said hello again, before he was surrounded by the remaining group and posing for photos.

I walked out along the pontoon. A flock of geese flew overhead and the water looked calm. We were invited to get in but hold onto the pontoon. I dunked my head under and gasped. It was cold and silty. I felt like I could almost stand up on the mud that clung round my ankles like weeds. I didn’t have time to catch my breath before the hooter sounded and we were off.

I struck out with front crawl, but knew I was in no state to get my breathing under control, so switched to breast-stroke while I got used to the water temperature. As the rest of the group swam away from me I fought to control my breathing. A couple of times I stuck my head under, only to come up gasping at the pitch black siltiness of the water.

Me at the swim exit of Brownlee triathlon 2015

Happy to be out of the water

I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I don’t always swim in perfectly clear water, but this was the darkest I’ve been in and it really unsettled me. It felt like swimming in a flooded coal mine. The water, thick and soupy, clinging to my face. Each time it was a mental battle to put my head back under the surface.

Eventually, last in my group, I struck clearer water, found a clearer head and began to really swim properly. I made it round the top buoy and saw the next wave of swimmers approaching. Never mind, I know I’m a slow swimmer anyway. At least I’d overcome my initial nerves and was swimming front crawl, trying to relax and enjoy the views of the trees.

I made my way back down the lake much faster thanks to the company of the second wave of swimmers. I even managed to stay out of arms way until I began to approach the pontoon where the water turned murky again and I got bashed by a swimmer alongside me. At this point there was a drone flying very low overhead too, so I carried on as best as I could and kicked out towards the exit ramp. Once again the water was thick and black, but I was close enough to shore to push on.

With a bit of a leg wobble, but a relieved smile, I plodged out of the lake and up the exit ramp, then onto the grass for a long run into transition. Wetsuit off, helmet, shoes and number on and I ran with my bike up the grassy hill, with the longest ever run to the mount line.

The bike

Even with my bike in a low gear, it was a hard push uphill from the start. Tough going when you’re still recovering from an adrenaline busting swim, but I made it and started to settle in and try to enjoy the bike.

It certainly was scenic, and undulating, with a couple of smaller rises and then one long steep climb towards the end of the lap that had a few people off and walking. The ups were suitably compensated for by some spectacular downhills, although these ended in sharp turns, so I needed to take care. I’ve never used my brakes so often in a triathlon, but got braver at each turn.

Me on the bike at the Brownlee triathlon 2015

Passing behind Harewood house on the Brownlee triathlon bike route

The marshals on the route were brilliant, shouting encouragement or instructions at every key point. They must have been a bit bored being out for so long, but no one showed it and they really helped add to the friendly atmosphere. As did the competitors who were good at shouting when they were about to overtake. I even got a ‘well done’ as I pushed up the steep climb, standing in my pedals. Sadly I didn’t have the breath to acknowledge it, but thanks, whoever you were!

I ticked off key landmarks – the field of corn, the black sheep, the steep down hill with the right turn, the bit through the estate buildings, the marshal with the hat, and four laps went by quickly (although not as quickly as I’d estimated based on my time over a similar distance on the flat).

Soon it was up the hill for the last time and round to the right to the sound of cow bells and back to the long run into transition. By now the sun had come out and as always, I knew I could cope with the run.

The run

My legs felt strange as I set off over the grass, but with half marathon miles in my legs I was in no doubts they’d carry me. The run route soon dipped into woodland, with muddy patches underfoot and then soft trails, but for a while I still felt like I was running in bike shoes. I must have been pushing hard on those pedals.

It really was a beautiful run route on quiet trails through the trees. There was a steady climb from about a mile in and then a steep drop round to the right and alongside the river. There was even a ford to cross.

Me at the finish of the Brownlee triathlon 2015

Skipping over the finish line

As the route began to climb back round towards the house, I ran alongside a lady with a soft Scottish accent who had walked a bit of a hilly section, but who I judged to be a faster runner than me. We had a bit of a chat and ended up keeping each other going right back round to the finish.

I could hear the race commentator and the noise of the entertainment village from a long way back, but with a sign saying 500m to go and some more enthusiastic cheering marshals, I really began to smile. Onto the grass and a bit of a spring into something like a sprint finish, arms aloft and a daft grin for the camera.

Time to shake hands with my companion for the last mile or so and then catch up with Tove who had just finished her first triathlon in the super-sprint event. Proudly sporting medals and T-shirts we compared races and Brownlee spotting. And all agreed, we’ll be back again next year.

I’ve done quite a few triathlons now, and enjoyed everyone, but I really wanted this one to be something special, and it didn’t disappoint. Even with the big numbers, the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. The route was scenic and challenging and the organisation absolutely spot on. The fact that I got to meet a couple of my sporting heroes, who were just as lovely and down to earth as you’d imagine, was the absolute highlight of a fantastic day, enjoying this sport that I love.

7 June 2015

Northumberland standard triathlon 2015

This is my biggest distance event of the year. A challenge, that, if all goes well will take me around 3 hours of swimming, cycling and running in the beautiful countryside setting of Druridge Bay Country park.

Unlike previous year, it’s my first triathlon of the season. I’ve done no warm ups at Sprint Distance. I’m just throwing myself into the only standard distance event I’m planning to do this year. I really ought to feel more nervous.

But I’m surprisingly calm. I’ve done this event twice before. I know the course. The organisers V02 Max Racing Events always put on a great event and although I’d always like to have done a bit more training, things have been going well with my running and swimming recently, so I feel ready to go.

Me Running at the Northumberland Standard triathlon in 2014

Running at the Northumberland Standard triathlon in 2014

The only dark cloud on the horizon is that my best tri buddy, Lesley, who normally races the Sprint distance here, can’t make it this year as she’s injured. I’m sad that I won’t get the benefit of her cheering me on and having her husband Bob take some great race photos, but I know she won’t want it to spoil my race, so I try to put it out of my mind.

I’m up early before my alarm goes off, quickly dressed in my kit and making porridge. Outside I can hear the wind whistling. Not so good for a bike ride. On a positive note, it’s bright, sunny and not too cold as I load up the car and head north to Druridge Bay Country Park.

I think through the race as I drive, going through each section and the transitions in my head. I’m surprised at how relaxed I feel. I’m normally a bit more anxious about my first race of the season, and going straight into the big one, I’d expected to get the jitters.

Arriving early scores me a good spot in the car park, close to transition and a speedy registration. My only mistake is to forget my Tri England membership card, which means I have to pay for a day’s racing license. It’s no big deal, but a useful reminder for my next race.

Jane Shearer, who I know from parkrun is on duty in transition and it’s great to be greeted with a friendly smile. I rack my bike and set up my helmet, bike and run shoes. The lady racking her smart carbon fibre bike opposite mine asks politely if I’ll squish up a bit. I have rather spread out and transition is filling up. She’s wearing a team GB tracksuit top and tri suit, so more likely to be at the pointy end than I am. Then she says ‘Oh,’ and it’s obvious something’s not right. I look up and she says, “I’ve forgotten my water bottle.”

Fortunately, I filled a spare before I set off, to sip in the car, in case pre race nerves made my mouth dry. It’s no trouble for me to pop and get it. I’m pleased I can help out a fellow triathlete. I just wonder how my freebie plastic bottle is going to fit on her futuristic bike. But it does.

By now, I’m ready to get into my wetsuit. I want to be set and ready for the race briefing at 07:35. Always listen to the race briefing. Even though I know this course, have looked at the instructions and maps, there’s always something you might have missed. Today I realise I’ve been given the wrong colour swim cap, and pop back into the registration centre to swap it. Probably not a big problem in the grand scheme of things, but I like to get things right.

I do a bit of an upper body warm up, loosening off my arms and stretching as I watch the start of the sprint race and chat to a couple of women from Blairgowrie in Scotland who are in starting in my wave.

Shortly after the mass sprint start, we can get in the water. I take full advantage of the warm up time, to get in, acclimatise and swim a few gentle strokes of front crawl. The water is cold at first. That first icy shock as it trickles down the back of my neck in my wetsuit always makes me gasp. But I acclimatise quickly, thinking how much warmer it is than my first open water swims this year.

The swim

I place myself out wide from the start, hoping to avoid the worst of the hubbub, and as the hooter sounds, I strike out confidently, avoiding the worst of the melee. This is good. I feel fine. For once I’m happy swimming at the start, and don’t even mind the odd brush of an arm or view of a goggled face close to mine.

But as we strike out towards the first buoy, away from the sheltered bank, the wind whips up across the water, pounding it into little wavelets. I can feel my body being tossed around. I get a splash of water as I turn my head to breathe.Bubbles up my nose. Breath starts to come in short snatches.

I think I’ve gone off too quickly and stuck myself in the washing machine spin cycle that’s the pack of fast swimmers. I slow down, do a bit of pathetic breast stroke and try to get my bearings.There are a couple of men swimming close by, but I’m by no means in the thick of the pack.

I’ve had mental meltdowns on the swim before. I can deal with this. It’s not a crisis, even though one part of my brain is screaming at me to stop, turn onto my back and give up. I have a word with myself. Work out that it’s just the wind making the lake feel more like the sea. And I get my head down and keep moving.

It’s still a little patchy. The choppy conditions make me nervous, combined with cloudy water, where you can’t see a swimmer’s feet or body in front of you still a bit nervous. But with a couple more breathers, I make it to the first buoy and turn left around it.

I have space now and as I turn at the second buoy and head back towards the swim entry, the water is calmer. I swim more smoothly, remind myself to enjoy the glimpses of blue sky as I turn to breathe and I push on, passing a few swimmers as I go. I may not be the best of swimmers, but I do seem to have the knack of being able to maintain a straight line. This gives me confidence as I glimpse other coloured caps veering away from me. I take sightings every few strokes, but I know I’m on track.

Round the buoys again for lap two and back into the choppy waters. Once again, the waves steal my breath, make it feel like I’m fighting the water, using up my energy and making the buoy seem just as far away as ever. I tell myself to get my head in, cut through the chop and try to breathe to the side where I’m less likely to get splashed in the face, but that disrupts my stroke, so I just plough on.

Back round the top of the course and the calmer water is a welcome relief from the stress of the waves. But my battles with them have dropped me way back down the field. On the one hand this is nice, as I have clear water all around me, but on the other, it’s demoralising as I’d built up a lot of confidence in my practice sessions at the QE2 lake, and thought I’d be more comfortable swimming with others. Something to keep working on.

I strike out for the bank, sighting on the flags, feeling for the soft ground under my feet as I approach the exit point. There’s a definite wobble as I find my land legs again and I’m grateful to the marshals’ hands to help me out of the water, up the grassy slope and into transition.

Wetsuit off my shoulders and straight to my bike rack. I get my right leg out, but struggle with my left as I get a shot of cramp through my calf. I sit down and ease it over my ankle and timing chip. Not my fastest transition then, but no matter. Bike shoes, sunglasses and hemet on and I’m off wheeling my bike to the mount line before I can even think about it.

The bike

I’m surprised to see the Team GB lady in transition at the same time. Maybe my swim wasn’t so bad after all. We’re side by side on the bike mount line, but she’s soon away ahead on her carbon machine as we leave the park.

Me on the bike at Northumberland Standard triathlon

Heading out on the bike course – picture from Sports Photography Northumberland


I allow myself to settle on the bike. Easy gear, letting the legs spin a little. Then as I turn onto the main road I start to focus on getting the power down. I take a drink and remind myself to do that at regular intervals, even if I don’t feel like I need it.

There’s a small, gradual climb and a cross wind that feels like a head wind as I head out. I’m grateful for it, as it helps dry me and my tri suit out quickly. It’s less fun when a gust feels like it will blow my bike into the kerb.

As competitors pass on the opposite side of the road, they look like they’re working hard too. No chance of the wind at my back then.

Up towards Widdrington, watching for the little church and the roundabout that’s the first turning point. A marshal shouts that the road is clear behind so I cruise on round and back in the direction I’ve just come. It’s now a long straight road with a nice spot of downhill and a long slog to the next turnaround.

At times the wind gusts and it’s hard work, but I keep pushing and trying to keep the cyclists in front in my sights. The bike section is probably my weakest and it’s easy to drift off the pace when I think there’s no one around me. I remind myself this is a race and I need to go hard.

The first time I did this event, the hawthorn or may blossom was blowing across the road like confetti. No such razzmatazz today, but as I pass through the green Northumberland countryside, I ask myself ‘Are you having fun?” And remember to smile. I train hard to do this. It takes time and commitment. But ultimately it’s about enjoying the experience as well as challenging myself.

I ride the drops on a couple of sections, feeling the thrill of speed. This year I have a cycle computer that shows me my cadence and it’s good to see it at the 95-100 mark. I take a couple of gels and drink from my bottle about every 20 mins or so. It feels like a lot, but I’ve really struggled on this event before when I didn’t drink enough.

My back niggles a bit from being crouched over my bike. I move my hands and shift my weight a little to stretch it out. Through the winter months I’ve been doing some indoor training on a static bike, using Audio Fuel podcasts to add some variety to my workouts. There’s an interval session that I do, which has World Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington providing motivation and tips throughout. Her words ring through my head as I check through my bike form.

Yes, I’m pushing down and pulling up on the pedal strokes. My toes are relaxed and spread. I have a light grip on the handlebars and my shoulders are relaxed. Thanks Chrissie… I may not be as fast as you on a bike, but you’re helping me get faster and more confident every time I ride.

That helps me through the second lap of the course. And having the cycle computer means it’s easier to stay motivated, counting down the minutes I anticipate I have left to ride.

At last comes the sign post and the left turn back into the Country Park. I’ve tried counting the riders behind me, and I’m satisfied that there are enough to mean I won’t be flat last on the course as I was last year. There’s a bit of an uphill and then a fast downhill to the dismount line. I slow down and dismount just behind another competitor and we run over the grass into transition.

There are bikes all over the place now, including one in my rack space. I shout out to a marshal and am told to rack just a bit further left where there’s a space. I scrabble to take off my bike shoes and slip into my running shoes. But in transition, there’s no time to think, you just act and go. I high five Jane on the way out.

The run

In talking about this race, I’ve said “It’s all about getting to the run”. I’m not the fastest runner out there, but running is where I have the most experience, the bit I know that I can tackle. And now I’m on the run and in no doubt I’ll finish this race.

But I can’t feel my feet. It’s like running on iron railings at the bottom of my ankles. My hamstrings and calf muscles are tight as violin strings. Why do I always forget how painful to is to run off the bike? In recent training it’s been a lot easier than this. I just trust to experience and tell myself ‘this too will pass’.

I focus on my legs. Think about all the weight and resistance training I do and how strong they are. I try to place my feet lightly, even though I can’t feel them, trusting to muscle memory to keep them running in good form; thinking about picking up my heels and bounding between each brief touch of the ground. ‘Be Alastair Brownlee’ I tell myself. If only.

Supporters at a triathlon

Durham tri crew – picture courtesy of Anne Wilson


About halfway round the first lap the feeling returns to my feet. I rather wish it hadn’t as I’m gripped with pins and needles. I guess they were cold from the swim and never really got chance to warm up on the bike. By the end of the first lap, I start to feel like I’m running as I should, with no more pain.

There’s a small crowd of spectators lining the path and I draw on their shouts. One shouts ‘Come on Michelle,’ but I don’t recognise them. I realise they are shouting for the runner behind me, coming through for the last lap and a fast finish in the sprint race. But I take heart from their cheers.

I get another shout as I pass by the visitor centre. I’m not looking, so don’t recognise who it belongs to. But on subsequent laps I see Peter Brooks, Anne Wilson and their club mates from Durham tri. They give me a shout and cheer on every lap and really lift my spirits.

The run route for the standard distance is four laps round the lake. To help me keep track, I make a point of thanking the marshals and saying which lap I’m on at key points. They really have great volunteers at this event. They have to be out for a long time, and it must get pretty boring, but every single one is smiley and encouraging. It’s a great boost for anyone competing.

Laps two and three I feel like I’m running well. Not fast, but steady. There’s a little rise around halfway round and in previous events I’ve allowed myself a walk break, but not today. I’ll run every step of this. On one lap a girl I see a girl in a turquoise tri suit take the wrong turn at the top. I manage to find enough breath to shout ‘Left’ and she gets the message and says thank you.

Last lap and round to my Durham tri cheering crew with a smile. But my legs are feeling really hammered now, and I pull on more mental resources to keep plugging away. Just half a parkrun to go. I can do that.

And then, there it is. The last thank you to all the marshals. The last time through the pine scented track at the back of the lake. The last time over the bridge and up the slope. And finally the turn into the finish. I push on into a bit of a sprint, but it’s a fairly poor effort and there’s no one close enough to catch. Still, I’m through the archway and finish with a smile. Biggest challenge of the year done!

A marshal snips off my timing chip. Another passes me a bottle of water. I stand to one side and remember to stop my watch – 3:14:26. I realise I have no idea how that compares to my previous times for this course. I know I’ve done a faster swim and bike time in the past, so think I’ve probably gone faster before. But given the windy conditions today, I tell myself that a PB would be a big ask.

I celebrate with an ice cream and appreciate the free massage even as I yelp at expert hands finding the pressure points in my tight calf muscles. It’s only later, back at home, showered, fed and stretching out my aches and pains that I look through my previous race times. My previous best on this course was in 2013 when I completed it in 3:20:16 – which would make 3:14:anything a pretty big best.

I’m only hesitating in declaring it because, at the moment, I only have my own watch for race timing, and I’ll always defer to the official results. Unfortunately I’m not listed on the provisional results yet. So I’ll wait and see.

In the meantime, I’ll recover, stretch and hope to ease my aching muscles. I have another race to prepare for this week. My favourite road race – the Blaydon Race on Tuesday 9 June.

17 August 2014

Spanish City Triathlon

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.

Triathletes enter the water

Warm up before the swim start. Photo by Claire Wynarczyk

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.

Swim start at Spanish City triathlon

The swim start at the spanish City triathlon. Photo by Claire Wynarczyk

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.

My results:

Swim: 26:41
Bike: 49:42
Run: 30:57

Race results

Race photos by Derek Grant

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