The Scribbler

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.

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.

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