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.

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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.

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

The Newcastle Woodhorn triathlon

This is a fabulous triathlon. It was a great race when it was the QE2 triathlon. But this year, when the powers that be decided that an iconic race through the centre of Newcastle was not to be, providing an alternative venue for any race with just four weeks notice was a big ask. Woodhorn Colliery Museum stepped in gracefully. And the guys from V02 Max Racing Events, already well known for their terrific, well organised events in the North East, stepped up, put the disappointment of losing so much of their hard work behind them and made it their best event to date.

When they announced there wouldn’t be a Newcastle based race – no river swim, no closed city roads, no run along the Quayside, they rightly gave competitors the option to get their money back. Or take part in the new race, in the alternative venue and get a partial refund. I think they expected many would drop out.

But we came. Triathletes like me, knowing the course from previous races. Triathletes who travelled from far away. And beginners, who were faced with a 24km bike ride rather than the original 10km. I don’t know what the turn out was compared to the numbers who had booked for the original race, but there were around 600 competitors who took part.

There were four swim starts. I was in the second sprint wave and anxious to get in the water so that I could manage my usual race nerves and calm myself before the start. Lake rules dictate that is a wetsuit compulsory swim, but the water was 18C, so not shockingly cold. I got in and floated on my back, letting water into my suit. Then I splashed my face a couple of times and tried breathing out with it in the water. I was a bit too hyped to get a good clear out breath, but I was okay and ready to get going.

Me on the run at the Newcastle Woodhorn triathlon
Me on the run at the Newcastle Woodhorn triathlon – photo by Tove Elander

The countdown started, the hooter sounded and we were off. I was determined not to be a wuss and hang back too much, but to put myself in the mix, albeit not right up the front. I had been frustrated with my last tri start where a bit of a panic meant I stopped and watched the entire field swim away from me.

I struck out into front crawl. My breathing was a bit ragged, but I knew I could live with that for a bit, until I found a more settled pace. Although there was a good wide starting area, swimmers were bunched together and I found myself swimming a good bit water polo style to avoid too many crashes. At the start, you really couldn’t see other swimmers under the water.

I’d gone maybe 200m and the water was starting to clear, so I could see the plants and weeds at the bottom of the lake and bubbles off the feet of swimmers in front. There was a swimmer to my right side, so I tried to draft a little off their hip. But I soon found myself caught in a bit of a pincer movement as another swimmer cut across me from the left.

And then I got a proper bash on the side of my head. It was a real thump, I guess from a hand, elbow, or possibly a kick. Not deliberate, I’m sure, just that my head was in the wrong pace at the wrong time. It floundered me, sent me gasping and desperately trying not to take in a gob full of water. I trod water and gathered my thoughts.

I knew it was enough to unsettle me if I let it. I knew I hadn’t really given myself enough time to calm down and relax in the water, hoping I could tough it out until the field spread out a little. I turned onto my back and floated, taking a couple of deep breaths, once again, being conscious of the field moving ahead of me.

But I gathered myself more quickly and ploughed back on into front crawl. A bit more heads up than I’d have liked, but gradually regaining confidence, getting my breathing calm and just thinking smooth and steady. The first buoy seemed far distant, but I made it and turned easily across to the second.

I was back among the other white capped swimmers now, but with more space and less jostling. I swam beside another girl who felt like she was at a similar speed for a while. But then sighting back to the bank, I thought she was swimming rather wide, so I adjusted my course.

Smooth and steady, I was in my swimming flow now and starting to overtake swimmers around me. In the last few hundred metres I kicked hard, stayed largely out of the scrum for the bank and headed up the hill to transition, conscious that I was far from the last of my wave out of the water.

I had a great position in the bike rack, near the end of the row. A girl with a beautiful Bianchi racked next to mine came through into transition just after me, so the race was on to make sure I got out ahead of her.

Off onto the bike course and I was feeling good. There’s a bit of a downhill start, so I was up through the gears quickly and out onto the main road. Sure, I always get passed on the bike, but I was able to get a fair way before I started being over taken.

Whether it was because I was further up the swim, or it’s just the nature of this course, but I was never out of sight of other bikes on this course. That’s really nice for a slower cyclist like me. Within ten minutes I was overtaken by my pal Ged from work, another one I recruited to the dark side, taking part in his first open water event.

I managed a few overtakes myself, most likely from the beginners race, but still giving me the impetus to keep the pace up. At Cresswell, the course turns alongside a beautiful stretch of sand dunes, with the sea just metres away. In the last couple of years, it’s been stunning – bright blues and golds. Today, everything was grey and shrouded in a fine sea mist. Still, at least the forecast thunderstorms and torrential down pours had held off.

The girl on the Bianchi passed me just beside the caravan park. But by now I was holding my own and managed to make it through Lynemouth before the first of the speedy standard competitors came roaring past on their carbon and solid wheels.

Michelle NicolI’d been drinking High 5 juice throughout the bike, but hadn’t taken anything to eat, thinking ‘it’s just a sprint’. But actually it’s a long sprint, with a 24km bike and a 6.05km run. I got a sudden rush of cramp in my right leg at one point, totally out of the blue. Just the one crippling jolt and then it was gone, but leaving me wondering if it was going to happen again. I made sure I kept drinking for the rest of the course.

I was starting to fade towards the end. There may have been a little uphill gradient, or it may just have been me getting fed up with it, but it felt like I dropped my cadence and began to pootle a little. Fortunately, it wasn’t far to the final left turn into the museum grounds and along a long road to the dismount point.

No real issues in transition and I was off and away on the run around the paths beside the lake. My legs felt good, not too stiff or wobbly. I went off a bit too fast and had to ease it back a bit to find my rhythm.

I concentrated on my form, counted steps, thought about, feet, knees, hips and shoulders. And I waved and smiled to my parkrun friends who were out on the course marshaling or supporting. Claire was out on the run course, practising for her important role helping out at the triathlon in the Commonwealth Games next week. And my lovely friends Tove and Jules from parkrun were out round by the end of the lap where we run across a small gauge railway line.

Two laps round the lake, up a small slope around the back of the museum buildings, down a grassy slope and sprint to the finish line. I’d finished with a flourish and felt fantastic 🙂 I do love my triathlons.

I cleared my bike and stuff from transition as some of the standard competitors were coming through to start their run. And I was very grateful I wasn’t doing the standard distance. The long sprint was enough for me and my training this time.

There was a massive, well-attended prize giving. I’ve never known so many cups and awards at an event, with lots of age category prizes, as well as a corporate challenge, team challenge and relay races. There were also some amazing spot prizes including tri suits, wet suits and one guy walked away with a brand new Merida bike.

I had such a good race on this course last time I did it, that I hadn’t expected much from my performance. I haven’t done anything like the number of bike miles this year and my running’s not on form either. But I ended up only a minute slower overall than last year, taking 2 mins 30 off my swim, shaving 9 seconds off my bike time and only losing out on transitions and about 3 mins on the run. So I was pretty surprised and pleased about that. I think it shows I can still improve and have something to ficus on next year.

I’d still love this city to have an iconic race – one that would look great against the background of the river and its bridges. But there’s something quite special about a tribe of triathletes descending on a visitor attraction in a country park and taking it over with our carnival for the day. Woodhorn Colliery Museum did a great job of hosting at short notice and ensuring there was an event we could all enjoy. Three cheers, bravo to everyone who made it happen.

Swim: 18:38
T1: 01:47
Bike: 54:41
T2: 1:17
Run: 39:51
Total: 1:56:14

Results

Photos

Triathlon from the other side

Last weekend I had great fun helping out my friend Peter who was race director at the Weardale triathlon. A sprint distance event, it took place in Stanhope, starting in the heated outdoor pool where I was one of the lane counters.

It meant an early start, but that’s typical for a triathlon weekend, and it was great to see the event and help out as a volunteer. I’m always really grateful to the organisers and marshals who give their time so that I can enjoy a fantastic race, and I know that triathlon in particular takes a ready crew on hand to get things organised and make sure things run smoothly.

Marshal at Weardale tri
At the poolside for the Weardale tri – photo by Jason Allison

A smile, or a friendly face can help calm nerves and an encouraging comment or ripple of applause can really help lift you in a race. Marshals are most likely there earlier and staying out on the course later than most of the competitors, so next time you’re out racing, give them a thumbs up or a thank you, if you have any breath left!

Anyway, I really enjoyed my stint as a length counter, despite apprehensions that I’d mess it up and miscount. I find it hard enough to keep track of my own lengths when swimming, let alone being responsible for other people’s. But there was a good system with a check sheet to tick off every two lengths, and with only a maximum of four in the lane at one time, it went very smoothly.

It was good to see all the different swim styles and to hear people nervously admitting this was their first tri as they were getting their poolside briefing. Seeing the first swimmers in reminded me of my first events where I spluttered through with a mixture of front crawl and breast stroke and held on for dear life to catch my breath every time I got to the side. Thankfully, these swimmers were somewhat better prepared.

Once the pool had cleared, I stepped over to the transition area where competitors were still heading out on the bike and run and cheered a few over the finish line. The people who run the pool had put on a fantastic spread of cakes and had been frying up bacon and sausage butties all morning, so I was well fed for all my hard work, sitting and counting.

I still think of myself as a tri tiddler, and know there are many more worthy of interest achieving great things in this multi-sport event. But I guess my enthusiasm comes through. So it was great, and long overdue to be able to give a little something back and to help out at a fantastic and tiddler friendly event.

With my enthusiasm for triathlon, I was very disappointed to learn that my next event, the Newcastle triathlon, has had to be moved. Originally conceived as a new city centre tri with a swim in our iconic river, closed bike route and flat course, it had attracted a lot of interest and was set to be a real highlight of the season. But, after two years’ hard work, securing permissions and negotiating with all the relevant authorities, it seems that permission for the river swim was rescinded.

The organisers, V02 Max Racing Events are massively disappointed too. They put on fantastic local events (including the Northumberland tri which I last raced at), all as well as holding down full time jobs. But they have found a way to offer a great alternative and are focused on making it the best event it can be.

I know it will be a fantastic event , as the alternative course is at the QE2 lake, beside Woodhorn Colliery Museum, where I took part in my first open water event in 2012. I’m working on building up my run mileage in training now to give myself a good shot at the Great North Run in September, but I really feel like I want to give this triathlon my best too, as a way of recognising the effort that goes into organising the events I enjoy.

Northumberland Standard triathlon

I hang out with a great bunch of people. The kind of people who do marathons, half and full iron distance triathlons, ultras and more. The kind of people who make you think that doing a standard distance tri on not really enough training will be okay. They are dangerous people, but they do inspire me to dream big and challenge what I think is possible.

I have dithered and debated doing this event. As late as Thursday, I was considering getting in touch with the organisers to see if I could drop back to do the sprint distance over the same course. I have not cycled enough. I have not really swum enough, or not enough in open water. And I’ve had a stressful week and a niggly shoulder.

Bike at Northumberland triathlon
On the bike course. Photo by Bob Marshall

But the weather forecast was fair, the sky was blue and the trip to Druridge Bay was uneventful. I bumped into my best tri buddy Lesley just after registering and then was a bit of a faff getting ready and set up and didn’t even manage to wish her luck.

The ground was sodden after yesterday’s heavy downpour, making transition a splashy, muddy mess and I realised I wouldn’t have time to warm up or do much of a calm down before the start or the race. Still I got myself sorted and headed to watch the sprint distance event start, hoping, but failing to pick out Lesley from the throng.

I took some deep breaths and made sure I got into the water quickly, to give myself as much chance as possible to relax before the swim start. It was warm, and once I’d done the usual gasp of getting it down the back of my neck, I floated around a bit and splashed my face.

I was still catching strands of weed in my fingers as I was treading water, and couldn’t get my face in without spluttering, so I just floated and hoped I’d get my adrenaline surge under control. I’d positioned myself at the back, out of the way, but the start was wide enough to manage the number of swimmers without too much of a bash fest anyway.

The countdown completed and the horns sounded. We were off!

I wish I could say that I got hit, or kicked or splashed, or that something unsettled me for what happened next, but I can’t. It was just my own stupid, adrenaline fuelled nerves that kicked in and let my swim demon say “You’ll never make it”. I stopped in the water and watched everyone swim away from me.

I trod water for a moment and thought, “Now what?” I had a little conversation with myself. “Are you going to turn round and get out?” “Or are you going to carry on?” All the while I had my eyes closed, trying not to cry.

The kayak safety crew shouted over to see if I was okay. I couldn’t answer for a second as I was still trying to get myself under control. “Just having a moment,” I eventually replied and then started to strike out into front crawl. I was at least going to try.

With a clear lake before me, I just focused on swimming smooth and slow. Surprisingly, the breathing rhythm came quickly and I took advantage of the extra buoyancy of the wetsuit to roll to the side to breathe and catch a glimpse of the blue sky.

“Just swim your own race”, I said to myself as I headed for the first marker. There was a bit of a sticky moment when I struck some weeds with my hands and had a few panicky breaths and did some breast stroke, but actually, after that initial upset, I was calm and swam well and consistently.

My sole goal pre-race was not to be last out of the swim. I thought I’d blown that by placing myself well behind the pack. But, as I closed in on the first buoy, I spotted a few other swimmers nearby. I kept my space from them so as not to disturb my swim, but I was able to catch and over take them. By the time I was back round to the start of the second lap, I was confident and happy in the water, swimming in nice straight lines between the buoys.

On the second lap I had company, a girl swimming beside me and then a guy coming up on the other side. Again I tried to keep out of their way, but managed to get past the girl and then get brave and swim in the bubble stream of the guy, hoping to get a bit of a tow. But he kept veering off course, so I let him go.

Remembering to kick when there were only a few hundred metres to go, I swam right into the shallows and was grateful of a hand out. I ran up over the grass into transition, where it was easy to spot my bike among the largely empty racks. I allowed myself an easy transition. I didn’t rush, but didn’t faff either, just got my kit sorted and rolled the bike out to the start line.

Run at Northumberland triathlon
On the run beside Ladyburn Lake – Photo by Bob Marshall

A standing mount well past the line and over the speed hump, low gear, spin the legs and away. The bike leg was my biggest concern for this event. I have not done enough distance on the bike or as many brick sessions as I did to prepare for this race last year when it was my first standard distance. So, as I headed out of the country park onto the road, I told myself I was out for a ride, that it would help dry me out after the swim and give me a chance to drink my juice as it was a sunny day and I still had a run to do.

I probably daisied round most of the two laps. I found myself in my usual position of being passed by the speeding solid wheel brigade and just about everyone else. I just didn’t have the confidence to hammer the bike – 40k is a long way to me.

Still, a couple of girls kept it interesting, passing me and then me re-passing them when I decided to put a bit of a spurt on. They were on their her second lap as I was on my first, so it wasn’t really a place battle, but I was grateful for the a boost.

By my second lap I was in my usual bike zone, out on my own, seeing barely any other riders. I’d counted those behind me as I turned at the roundabout – 4, with only one I thought was close enough to possibly catch me. So I wasn’t last, could I keep it that way?

I had good and bad patches on this part of the ride. I got stomach cramps and aches in my lower back. I wasn’t sure if it was the juice I was drinking (I usually only have water, but I have been okay with High 5 before) or it was just me. I couldn’t seem to get comfortable on the saddle. I’m a bit heavier than I was last year, you would think that would give me extra padding!

Worryingly, I also felt the niggle in my right shoulder. I’ve had it all week. A result of too much time sitting at a keyboard and too much stress. I had an intensive sports massage on it on Tuesday night, which really loosened it off, but there it was again, and I worried it would bite me on the run.

The first rider came past me on the downhill just after the turn. I was really struggling on the bike now, just wanting it to be over. I glanced at my watch – 35k done, just 5 more to go. That was a cheering prospect and helped me keep cheerful as the second rider passed me. I knew as I turned back into the park, there was a good chance I’d be the last to finish this.

Off the bike and out onto the run without too much fuss and not too much of the jelly legs. Still I kept it easy, just focusing on moving forward on the first lap. It was something of a dead man’s shuffle in truth and I could feel my feet hitting the trails hard.

On the first lap there were runners galore, just up ahead and passing me at regular intervals. Once again, I opted to just run my own race, keep my focus. My goal, just to finish, to enjoy this.

Finish at Northumberland triathlon
Heading for a big finish and a course PB – Photo by Bob Marshall

My favourite bit of the course was a shady, leafy path between the trees, where the ground was soft and you couldn’t hear the noise of the tannoy across the water. The shade was very welcome and you could be alone with your thoughts. I tried to pick up the pace a little here, but each time I felt like I was forcing it, so I settled back and just decided to let it come if it would and not fret if it didn’t.

At the end of the path there was a lovely, smiley lady marshalling. All the marshals round the course were great, shouting and clapping and saying well done, but she really lifted my spirits each time.

As you come round towards the start/finish there’s a little rise and then another bit of uphill along the trail. I ran the steep bit and then let myself walk the longer slope, pumping my arms to keep myself moving, not dawdling. It was probably a mistake to walk it on the first lap, as that set a precedent. But it was my little treat to myself and it helped me stick to my goal of relax and enjoy.

First lap done almost done and I spot Bob Marshal taking photographs and then there’s fabLesley, running a little way with me, telling me about her brilliant race.

It’s like my own wee cheering squad as I come round each lap, with Barry from V02 Max Racing Events announcing every lap on the microphone and then Jules and Lottie the dog from parkrun giving me a shout out.

Lap one done and I’m feeling more confident. I know I can do this, my legs are strong and I’ve won my mental battles on the bike and swim. The other runners thin out on lap two and I’m taunted hearing finishers announced as I pass by the opposite side of the lake. Still half way done and I grab a cup of water and walk a couple of steps to make sure I drink it.

Lap three, I’m on my own, and getting the distinct feeling I may be the last runner on the course. But I don’t care. It’s a sunny day and I’m running round a lake in beautiful Northumberland. Still it’s a bit of a mentally tough one and I’m glad to see my cheering crew as I come round for that last lap.

As I come through the shady wood and out onto the lake path, the marshal picks up his sign and starts walking.’Ah, that’s me, last then,’ I think. But I’m still in fair spirits. I have little idea of my time or my pace. I deliberately didn’t look at how well I’d done last year when this was my first event, but I know it was well over 3 hours.

On the last time up the little rise, I pump my arms and ask myself ‘Why do you do this?’ The answer, loud and clear is ‘Because I can.’ And in that moment I think of three people who would love to be here on this day, running in the sunshine round a lake, but who have been taken by cancer. So at the top of the rise, as I pick up my feet and start to run again, I say out loud: “This is for you, Zoe and Alastair and Sue.”

And you know, my heart lifts and my feet lift and I feel every inch of how fortunate I am to be able to do this. And so, those thoughts carry me back round to the finish for the final time.

I’ve picked my spot, the puddle on the path where I’ll sprint from, but I push on even before that. And even though my legs have been complaining, and I’ve been hot and tired and sweaty for over 3 hours now, I power through with a smile and my arms aloft.

I am dead last. And the organisers can finally get on with the prize giving 🙂

Met and congratulated by Lesley and Bob, I grab some water and an orange slice as we listen for the prizes. I’m afraid I barely pay them much attention as it takes me a little while to recover.

I go to rescue my bike and gear from the muddy transition area as they grab a table and we eventually have a bit of a picnic. And lovely, lovely Lesley buys me an ice cream. I sit in the sunshine with my fab friends and reflect on a challenging but terrific race.

Just don’t tell my legs we’re running again tomorrow night at my favourite race- it’s Blaydon!

Swim: 31:36
T1: 2:00
Bike: 1:34:57
T2: 01:21
Run: 1:10:22
TOTAL 3:20:13

 

Alnwick sprint triathlon – first tri of the year

It’s fair to say I was quite nervous about doing my first tri of 2014 at Alnwick. My training’s been a bit inconsistent and mainly run focused and I’ve had very little time on the bike. But, having never done this race before, I had no performance targets to compare myself against and approached it as a good Sunday training session.

I can see now why this event gets booked up so quickly. It’s well organised, very friendly, with top marshaling and a great season opener. I’d definitely do it again.

I arrived quite early, but was glad of extra time as a road closure meant I had to take a diversion to get to the Willowburn sports centre. I registered in the sports hall where there were lots of people sorting out numbers and goody bags, so it was very speedy. I checked my number and swim time on the list on the wall – last but one, in the pool at 09:11:40. That meant a long time to hang around and get nervous.

Bike rack at Alnwick tri
Personalised bike racking space – a nice touch

I knew I had to have my bike racked before the race briefing at 07:25, so collected my kit and set it all out in transition. For once there was plenty of space on the racks, and a nice little touch was having your name marked with your number.

As I made my way back into the building, Stuart, a Fetchie pal, spotted me and said hello. It was really nice to see a familiar face. Although I know quite a lot of people in North East triathlon, not being part of a club can make you feel a bit lost turning up at a race. I also bumped into a couple of people from my tri coaching course, so started to feel more at home.

The race briefing was straightforward and left me enough time to walk back through transition and get my bearings before the elite women were first off in their race at 8am. I still had loads of time for the nerves to build and to wonder what to do with myself, so I checked into social media and got some encouraging good luck messages.

I went to watch the start of the swim, to see how it worked and to familiarise myself with the pool. The first girl was off like a rocket and soon 100m ahead of the next swimmer. Starting people off at 20 second intervals and keeping them moving from one side of the pool to the other, meant there was a continuous stream of swimmers, and not too much overcrowding.

I’d been unsure what to do with my kit, especially my car keys during the race, but discovered the sports centre lockers were big enough to fit my tri bag, which just left me with one of those locker keys in a plastic holder that straps round your wrist.

My nerves were building with the wait and hearing snippets of nervous conversation from others getting ready for their turn, so I took myself off to a quiet area of the car park and ran through some warm up drills. This really helped settle me before I went to strip off my final layers and wait beside the poolside.

I took some more deep breaths and did some stretches, trying to give myself the best shot at a controlled and panic free swim. It was almost all undone when I finally got into the water and ducked below the surface to get my face wet and practice breathing out, only to come up with a splutter, realising I couldn’t touch the bottom. I didn’t think I’d got it under control when I got the 3,2,1 go!

But I was off and swimming and the adrenaline rush was under control. After a real confidence booster open water swim on Thursday night, I resolved to keep it controlled and easy, making the most of rolling to breathe in and pulling right through my stroke. I’m afraid technique gets a bit lost when I’m racing, but I did my best.

Ducking under the lane ropes after 4 lengths was a new one for me, and I thought it would give me a bit more of a breather, but as I moved into the centre lane, I took on a mouthful of water and spluttered. It gave the guy who had been last in, but who was catching me, the chance to duck in front.

With half the swim done, I was annoyed at myself for losing a place I didn’t need to lose, so I kicked on and managed to pass him in the last 100m. Up and out of the pool and round to transition with no hassle.

I was a smidge slower than the girl ahead of me and the guy behind me in transition as I’d opted for bike shoes and they just went with trainers, but it was still a decent changeover and I was off and out onto the bike and into the unknown.

I hadn’t checked out the course, other than the online maps. This was deliberate on my part, as I didn’t want to over complicate and add pressure to my preparation. I’m not the fastest cyclist anyway, so it was just about seeing how I got on. I knew, from talking to a friendly couple before my swim that there were two significant hills, but was reassured, that despite one being called ‘Heartbreak Hill’, it really wasn’t that bad.

I kept the bike in low gear through the first few twists and turns until I got a clear patch of straight road where I felt confident to hit the big ring. The course is undulating, so I was clicking through the gears nicely, trying to keep the cadence up and grateful for my bike service this week, which meant everything felt smooth and easy.

I almost took a wrong turn, despite at least three marshals pointing me to the right, because I’m dozy, and corrected it by making a wide turn behind a lady marshal. I really enjoyed the route, it had enough twists and turns and up and downs to make it interesting and most of the time I could see a rider ahead, which made me feel less lonely.

I’d opted just to ride in my tri suit, leaving my jacket in transistion, gambling that it wouldn’t rain or that any showers would be short. My shoulders were a little cold when the wind picked up, but I’m always amazed at how much warmer I am when racing than when training – must be all that adrenaline.

I managed to catch and pass the lady in front of me, after working hard up the first real incline. Then I think I must have taken my eye off the ball a bit and drifted into ‘hello trees, hello flowers…’ as she passed me a little later on the straight. But she shouted something encouraging as she went buy and I kept her in my sights.

Once again I passed her, working up a bit of an incline, and she shouted, “You know there’s a big hill coming up?” I did sort of, but it was good to know that would be it. I pushed on, dropped down through the gears and told myself I was strong. I was compensated by a really nice stretch of downhill, onto the drops and feeling quite daring, not touching the brakes through a dip and a turn. My bike was handling beautifully.

Unfortunately numpty head was on, and in trying to move the plastic wrist strap holding my locker key so that it didn’t dig into my hand, I managed to undo it. ‘Argh, don’t drop it’ I though as I made a grab for it. But of course I did. Stop the bike, turn round to see a car and cyclist fast approaching; backtrack a few yards pick it up, put it in my back pocket. Back on the bike, but having lost that place. “Bad luck,” she shouted as she passed. Nice lady.

Numpty error number two. There wasn’t going to be a number three. I knew I could catch her, so I put the effort in, gave it a bit of a sprint and pushed on. It was actually a blessing in disguise, as it stopped me drifting into easy cycle mode and made me up my game for parts of the course. Now the aim was to keep her behind me to the finish and see if I could gain ground on the rider ahead.

I never did manage to make up the distance to the one in front, but tried to make sure I put as much between me and the lady behind, before I dropped down the gears coming into the sports centre car park and got ready to dismount. Back round into transition again, bike racked and shoes changed. She was a fraction of a second ahead of me, due to her position in the racks and not changing shoes as we set off for the run.

Out across the road and into the fields. I knew this was an off road run, and was expecting it to be tough, but I hadn’t realised I really needed to do cross country training for it. The first part was pretty much all grass, round the edges of the playing fields. And after the recent rain, wet, soggy and muddy grass. And it was uphill.

Legs still in changeover mode, it was pretty brutal and ‘little steps, little steps’ went through my mind hundreds of times. As we turned onto something more of a trail like path with slightly better grip, but a steeper slope, the woman ahead started to walk. ‘Not walking. Not today’ I said to myself, even though I was barely above walking pace. She gestured me past, no doubt hearing my huffing and puffing, and I checked she was okay, not injured. “No, just shattered,” she replied good naturedly.

The up was relentless and it got steeper as we passed into a farm yard, so although the ground here was firmer, loose pebbles meant you still had to watch your step and keep your eyes upwards. I was convinced that was it, but there was a bit more, a more level path out to the turnaround point at which my running companion passed me.

I kept her in my sights, thinking it’s all downhill from here, and that if I stayed within 20 seconds of her, then that would still gain me a place. I really hadn’t enjoyed the run out and up, but the route back down made it much more bearable. Here, at last I was able to find my legs, stretch out a little and let go. It started to feel like I was running something like my current pace.

I didn’t manage to catch the lady in front, despite a Scribbler style short sprint to the line, but I had the honour of being the last competitor to cross the line and resounding cheers all the way. It felt great. And I remembered why I do this crazy sport. It does make you feel good. It is a friendly and supportive atmosphere. And it is a challenge.

I messed up the Garmin recording (again) so won’t have accurate times until they’re published by Alnwick tri. And I’m pretty confident I won’t actually be last when the results come out as they mixed in a wave of slow swimmers after the elite women. But today wasn’t about times or even feeling self conscious at the back, because I didn’t. It was about getting back into the swing of things, enjoying myself and taking on something I was a bit unsure of.

Yes I made some numpty mistakes, but it really didn’t matter. I’ll confess, I’ve had doubts recently, questioned why triathlon, why not just run? But I do still love it. It does still fill me with a much-needed buzz. And now I’m ready for the rest of my season.

Race results

My times:

Overall 01:37:28

swim +T1 12:02 (estimate 10:30 for swim)
bike + T2 57:08
run 28:18

134th out of 148 (back of the pack)
44 woman out of 56
20th in my age category