The Scribbler

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.


24 May 2015

Clive Cookson 10k 2015

Filed under: run — The Scribbler @ 14:20
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It’s fair to say I wasn’t best prepared for this race. But sometimes they’re the best ones.

I’d spent the early part of the week working in Dublin, a city I always enjoy visiting and where I’m always made to feel welcome. I flew in and did a couple of writing workshops, then flew back the following day, feeling rather tired, having not slept well in an overly warm hotel room.

But my legs were well rested, having done nothing much more than a few decent walks and a bit of a swim, and it was a pleasantly warm summer’s evening, so I headed off to Monkseaton High School for the start of the race.

This is one of those great local club runs, well organised by North Shields Poly. Not a big corporate or charity fundraiser, just a good chance for a decent fast race. I picked up my number and timing chip in the school and headed out to do a bit of a warm up.

Me running the Clive Cookson 10k

On the trail section on the second lap. Picture by David Johnson

There’s a good sampling of club runners at this race, with Saltwell, Tyne Bridge, Wallsend, Derwentside and Elvet Striders‘ vests in evidence. It’s a two lap route, mainly on tarmac and pavements, but with a small section on a hard gravelly trail, to form a big circle around the school.

As usual I bounced off way too fast, realising as I ran alongside Alister from Elvet Striders that I was in danger of making things difficult for myself. He gave me a pace check and I dropped back as I caught my breath and settled into a more realistic rhythm.

I really didn’t have a plan for this race. I wasn’t consciously pacing or looking at my watch. I just ran to feel and my legs felt strong and my stride firm as we ran out up Rake Lane toward North Tyneside hospital. It’s a bit of a gradual uphill, but barely noticeable, and I didn’t notice it on the first lap.

Smiley and encouraging marshals kept us on track all the way round. Special mention goes to the chap who stood in front of the bench holding up arrows to make sure no one went clattering into it. I found a nice bit of space and just settled into my own race, passing people and being passed throughout the run.

Last time I ran this course, it was in the other direction and I thought there was more off road, on trail surface. As I turned away from the main road, the sweet thick buttery smell of the fields full of yellow rape flowers and local farms hit my nostrils and I spotted a clump of blue harebells tucked into a grassy verge.

There were a few km markers and as we came round for the end of the first lap, I stole a look at my watch, to see how I was faring at the half way point. I was surprised to see a time not too much slower than this year’s fastest 5k, and to feel that I was still running strong.

Although runners were never out of sight in this race, I was out on my own for good sections, concentrating on reeling in a group in front and hoping those behind didn’t catch up to me. Whenever anyone approached to pass, I tried to stick with them to push my pace on as hard as possible.

I slowed unconsciously the second time up Rake Lane, still not really aware of the slight incline until another runner came past and said, “I’ll be glad when this hill is over.” Turning the corner away from the main road, I found another burst of pace as the path levelled out again.

At the 7km marker, I was still feeling strong and comfortable. A quick check through my form, making sure I wasn’t hitting the ground too hard, picking up my feet and keeping my shoulders down and I started to work out the minutes left to run. I could feel a slight tightening through my left hip and quads, but nothing to worry about.

I played catch up with a couple of other runners through this last section, passing and then being passed by them in turn. At 9km, I made sure I picked up the effort a little, trying not to leave everything to a last desperate sprint finish.

A shout out from the sidelines as I turned the final corner and I picked up into a sprint for the last couple of hundred metres. Over the line, stop the watch and boom! I was pleasantly surprised to see 54:27 – my fastest time over this distance since 2013.

Although not a keenly anticipated and targeted race, I felt like I’d had a really good run. Time to focus on cycling and swimming for the next couple of weeks in preparation for my big race of the season, the Northumberland Standard triathlon on 7 June.

Clive Cookson 10k race results

31 August 2014

Tynedale 10 mile ‘Jelly Tea’ road race 2014

The traditional warm-up race for the Great North Run put on by Tyndale Harriers, is a well organised run along quiet and closed roads between the outskirts of Hexham and Ovingham in the Tyne Valley. It gets its nickname from the excellent sandwich and jelly served at Ovingham School at the end – a brilliant incentive and reward after a long run.

I was a bit nervous. Even though I had a plan to run at a sensible pace and use it as a test for next week, there’s something about it being a race. I was further unsettled by a couple of changes to the usual instructions for parking due to an out of action bridge and realised I’d been dreaming about getting lost and turning up late to the race.

In reality, I found the parking spot in plenty of time to catch the first of the transport buses to Hexham. It was sunny and warm, so I left my extra layers in the car, but took my sunglasses and a pocket full of jellybabies to the start. Once I’d collected my number and chip from the sports centre, there was a good deal of waiting around before the start of the race.

I saw a few people I know from parkrun, but far fewer than in previous years. With so many great local races on at this time of year, we tend to spread out a bit. I wasn’t really in a very talkative mood. I find other runner’s nervousness infectious and wanted to just keep myself right in my own head today.

It’s a good walk to the start of the race, on the edge of a slightly less than picturesque industrial estate. But once off and along the country roads it soon opens up into a really pleasant course.

It felt like I was barely among the running pack as the colourful club shirts stretched away into the distance and the crowd soon thinned out. My goal was to go steady, see if I could feel 10 min miles, just using my watch to check now and again, but not being a slave to it.

I ran the first couple of miles near to a group of Saltwell Harriers girls. They kept me amused with their chatter as I ran mostly just in front of them, or sometimes just behind a leading pair, one of whom was called Helen. We were near the back of the pack, but I make it a rule never to look back in a race, and it was clear from their chat that they were targeting 10 min miles too.

The pace felt nice, just right actually, not too slow, just steady and easy on the breathing. I did feel like I was holding back, but knew I’d have to do that to keep going strong. The sun had come out hot, so we took what shade we could by the road sides and I got asked a couple of questions about my shirt after putting ‘The Scribbler’ on the back.

As we came round into Corbridge, we were a bit held up by a combine harvesting machine in the road. Even running alongside it on the pavements felt narrow. Helen ran beside me for a while at this point and I learned she was just coming back after a a long injury lay off and using the run as a test to see if she was up to doing the Great North Run. I thought she was a strong runner. As we left the village, she dropped back to run with the others in her group, and I kept expecting them to come past me, but they never did again.

There’s a long slow climb at about four miles, but at this point I was feeling strong. I just kept my legs turning over at the same pace, but took smaller steps and focused on keeping my heart rate and breathing nice and even, not powering through and burning myself out. I suspected my pace target would have dropped a bit, but that was okay.

There were some good patches of shade and trees around this section and a welcome water station between 4 and 5 miles. I dropped my first bottle, but managed to grab a second and keep moving, drinking on the run, practising for next week.

Now I was running on my own, slightly aware of the group behind me, but feeling like I’d pulled away from them. Over the next mile or so I managed to reel in the two other runners in immediate sight – a guy and a girl in a Tyne Bridge Harriers vest.

One of my running friends recently paid me a compliment about being a ‘thinking runner’. That’s very true, but sometimes it’s been to my detriment, in that I think too much, or endlessly ponder the ‘what ifs’. Some of my best runs have been when I’ve stopped consciously thinking and just focused on the immediate now, a bit like meditation I guess.

I was trying to do that today. Keeping it simple, having a plan of 10 minute miles and jelly babies at 3, 6 and 9 miles. When I could feel my mind wandering, I just kept saying to myself, ‘keep going like this’. I had confidence in my pace, it felt nice and I was relaxed, so ‘keep going like this’.

As the watch clicked over from mile 5 to mile 6, I stole a glance at my pace and saw 10:01. Lovely, bang on target. As I saw the 7 mile marker, I thought to myself ‘just a parkrun to go’ and dug in up a little rise.

It was hot now, and the hedge-lined lanes alongside the fields didn’t offer much shade. My thoughts had become a bit knotty, my breathing heavy and the effort to keep the same pace, all the more harder.

I started to break down the rest of the race, took another jelly baby and told myself, ‘water at mile 8, jelly baby at 9, and then you’re in the last mile.’ I thought I’d got myself out of a tricky spot, but later my splits will show I had started to lose pace. A cheery and unexpected shout from a running friend helped lift my spirits around this point too.

But, yes, I really was starting to feel it and at mile 8, I let my mental drive go and gave myself permission to slack off if it meant I just kept moving. My feet were really hot and I was no longer running with good form. I tried a couple of times to move more onto the forefoot, but couldn’t sustain it, so drifted back to a flat shuffle. ‘Just this’, I told myself, ‘just keep going like this’ – keep it simple, accept the moment and just keep moving forward.

Up ahead there was a girl with a blonde pony tail walking. Slowly, slowly, I reeled her in, then gave her an encouraging shout as I passed. I was really pleased when she started running again, even though she soon outpaced me. Sometimes we all need a little boost and she was obviously a better runner than me, maybe battling her own mental demons or the heat.

Into mile 9 and it’s almost done. Apart from the hill. Yeah, it’s a killer at this stage of a 10 miler and although I remembered it was to come, I couldn’t exactly remember where it was. As I peeled up out of a tree covered section, it became unmistakable.

It really was a shuffle. The teensiest, tiniest steps that were barely any faster than walking, but I was determined I was going to run every step, even if it was horribly slowly. The marshals near the top were brilliant, no doubt having seen many pained faces that day. I managed to get to the top without blowing up and then I knew it was as good as over.

Just a long, slightly twisting road to the finish. Tantalising in that you couldn’t quite see where the end would be, although I could sense it was soon as runners started to appear running back up the road from the finish. With encouragement all round, I tried to pick up my feet again and push on for the last little bit. One guy said, just 1/4 mile to go, and I believed him, and he was right.

But still you can’t see the finish as it’s round a right turn. But as I approached, a girl appeared from nowhere at my shoulder and overtook me. I was done, I just wanted to finish. And then, no, I wasn’t having it. Spotting a narrow path along the verge that I thought I remembered as being within sprint distance of the finish, I put the pedal down. She came with me for a bit, pushing on, but I found another gear and saw the inflatable finish line and went for it. Thank you, whoever you were for getting a sprint finish out of me today. That really wasn’t on the cards.

I crossed the line in 1h47 by my watch (official time to follow). Not quite 10 min mile pace all the way round, but I was very happy with my run. I’d kept my head, run to plan, not lost myself in ‘what ifs’ or stressed too much about pacing. I’d tested out my race kit and water and fuelling and it all went pretty well.

I shake my head at the thought that I ran that course in under 1h30 3 years ago. How well was I running then! I don’t think I ever realised. But back then I was mainly running and had much more specific training and mileage in my locker.

Today, I’m feeling positive, mentally and physically strong and as ready as I can be to give the Great North Run a good shot next weekend. But advice and encouragement is always welcome.

Splits and stuff:
10 miles 1:47:00
1. 10:02
2. 10:01
3. 10:13
4. 10:52
5. 10:34
6. 10:02
7. 10:08
8. 11:04
9. 11:40
10. 11:54

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

20 July 2014

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



11 May 2014

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


28 April 2014

Stockton duathlon 2014 – my sprint story

Filed under: bike,run — The Scribbler @ 19:42
Tags: , , , , ,

Early on Sunday morning, I drove through grey fog, following the vagueries of the sat nav, getting stuck by ‘road closed’ signs for the event I was desperate to get to, I arrived, in Stockton, rather frazzled, for my first duathlon or run, bike, run.

With three events taking place on much the same course, I’d wanted to get there early to support my friends tackling the novice version, including Sue taking part in her first multi-sport event and the reason I was there at all. So it was a huge relief to see her, Tove and Jules as I wheeled by bike along to register.

I could have wished for kinder weather than the grey clouds and chill over the Tees, but spirits were high and I was able to wish them luck before the start and give a few encouraging shouts as they passed on the bike and the run.

Soon it was my turn. I set up in transition for the sprint distance and a little warm up run settled any remaining nerves as well as convincing me that I would be okay with my choice of long sleeve top and tri-suit.

Just before the start, all the competitors were called to transition to check that bikes had been properly racked. The marshals were very efficient controlling security of bikes in and out of the area, but perhaps a few more would have been useful to give advice on racking. With all abilities represented, there were bound to be some rookie errors.

I had joked that I’d feel strange not getting onto the bike sopping wet. There was still a chance of that as grey clouds loomed. But the first run was like any other mass run start. A gaggle of shivers and just wanting to get off, then a surge forward and I was on my way.

The route for the first 5k took in much of the riverside and took us over a couple of bridges. Much of it was familiar to me from the Tees Barrage 10k, but with lots of twists and turns, I really was doing nothing more than following the ribbon of runners and pushing hard, not thinking too much of the ride ahead. It’s just a Sunday run and ride I told myself and a chance to blast out a decent 5k.

Run completed and into transition. I see my bike, but not my helmet, which has been knocked off from where I’d balanced it on the brake cables. I pick it off the ground – no obvious damage, so on it goes, along with my bike shoes and I’m off to the mount line before I can think any more about it.

The surge of adrenaline carries me off and away, pedalling fast on the bike, up a bit of an incline and spinning the legs in an easy gear until I start to settle and pick it up onto the big ring. 

It’s a closed course of three laps, which is great for me as there are always cyclists around, unlike at many events where I’m passed by the fast groups and left out on my own on empty roads. It’s twisty and turny and you have to keep your wits about you. 

The super-fast road warriors first lap me as I’m negotiating the trickiest part of the course – a series of tight bends over the potentially slippery paving in front of the council buildings. There’s a loud, clear shout as they take the inside line and slower riders clear out of their way. 

It’s the first chance I have to catch my breath and bring my heart rate down to a more reasonable level after the surge of the start. But I do my best to keep the cadence fast and chase down riders who I think may be on the same lap as me. As I gain in confidence, I make use of the bends and turns to gain advantage and I hope a place or two. Overtaking is a new experience for me on the bike.

Three laps down and I remember to drop through the gears and spin a little before the dismount line, then ignore my legs as I judder into transition. 

There’s a bike in my slot. I check my number, thinking I’ve misremembered, but no, that’s my slot and there’s a bike there. I cannot rack my bike. I shout that I cannot rack and think about shoving it further along, but I know that I could get into trouble if I do. A marshal comes over and moves it, but I’ve wasted some time, and in the anxiety my left quad has cramped up. I limp out of transition and battle on.

‘Ignore it and your legs will come back to you,’ I say to myself. I take small steps, just keeping moving forward, willing my muscles into this new action. Back out along the riverside and over the bridge again. This time, the route is shorter – around 2.3k.

I start to target runners, picking them off one by one. Guy in black T-shirt… guy in white and orange… girl in pink…We loop round and a cheery marshal directs us round to the left and up some steps. Steps! That’s just mean. Around the corner, a young lad gives a big grin, clear directions and a ‘doing well’. Top marshalling young man.

My legs start to regain some feeling and I push on, looking for the pace of my first run. The last bridge is in sight. A quick up and over and I let myself go down the ramp on the other side, picking up places as I go.

At the final corner is Alister from Elvet Striders, with a big shout and just 200m to go. I’ve turned onto the final straight with another girl beside me. She pushes on, picking up the pace. I stay with her, shoulder to shoulder and push on. But I have a sprint, and this sustained hard pace proves just a bit too much for me, so I let her go, hoping, hoping I’ll be able to pull out a last gasp of power.

Less than 100m to go and I pick up my feet, rev through the gears and close her down. Another surge and another. I catch her as the route is narrowed by a couple walking beside the river. If she’s got a sprint in her, she’ll still beat me. I put my final surge down just metres from the line and accidentally bump her shoulder as I go through to finish. 

She takes it in good form as I apologise, understanding it wasn’t an intentionally aggressive move and we chat as we recover our breath and pick up our water and chocolate bar. 

I felt really unprepared for this race, but was pleased in the end to give it a really good shot. It’s really well organised, marshalled and inclusive. It’s definitely one I’ll think about returning to next year.

Total time 1:37:04
Run 1: 27:29
T1: 1:00
Cycle: 53:20
T2: 1:25
Run 2: 13:53

Pictures and report from Gazette Live

3 September 2013

Haddington sprint triathlon – last tri of the season

Filed under: triathlon — The Scribbler @ 18:15
Tags: , , , ,

Saturday sunshine, car packed up and I’m heading north again along the coast, singing along to the radio, stealing glances at the blue sea. Off to race with my best tri buddy, Lesley.

We spend the afternoon exploring the moors, alive with purple heather, swooping buzzards and blackfaced sheep. We stop beside the site of an old iron age fort and look out over Berwick Law, Trapain Law and Bass Rock. As we climb to the top of the fort’s mound, the wind fair blusters and we hope it will blow itself out before the race in the morning.

It’s a very relaxed approach to my last tri of the season. I scarcely feel like I’ll be racing in the morning as I tuck into a mound of pasta for tea. In bed I start to think through the race in my head. I’m asleep before I get in the water.

Up earlyish, to the sound of the dogs pottering around and  making porridge. The wind has not abated. If anything, it’s built overnight and it promises to be a rather blustery ride.

It’s a very short drive to the sports centre where we park up and get registered in double quick time. Lesley says hello to lots of local triathletes and I get to meet some really friendly people. The usual faff of getting our bikes set up and then trying to keep warm as we wait for the swim waves to start.

Now I start to get nervous – as I’m standing in the sports centre in my tri suit, goggles in my hand. There’s at least 30 mins to go before my swim start so I do some shoulder rolls and take some deep breaths and have a good chat to Al who has cycled from Edinburgh to support us.

Me on the bike at Haddington tri

On the bike at Haddington tri – photo by Bob Marshal

I’d planned to really attack this race, but somehow on the day I just didn’t have the fire in my belly. Usually tri season feels like it goes by in a flash, but to me it’s felt like a long one, this year. Maybe that’s the step up to the standard distance and the fact that I found my last race at Allerthorpe such an endurance test.

But I’d loved doing Haddington triathlon last year, I was with my good friend and top tri girl Lesley and it was my last chance to get out there and enjoy it. So I did.

I watched Lesley swim in her heat – nice controlled and steady, just doing her own thing, not letting the other swimmers phase her at all. I thought – that’s just how I want to do it.

My heat stood by the side of the pool as the others finished their swim. The marshal said one of the swimmers was going over time, so we wouldn’t have much time to warm up. I really wanted to get in and take some breaths, but when I got in and sank down, my first one was a gasp and a flutter back up to the surface. Darn that race adrenaline rush!

Thankfully I had time for another couple of sinks and breaths out and I managed to get my nerves under control, but I didn’t have time to swim even half a length before the race started. I was last to go in my lane, watching the swimmers ahead go off one my one at five second . The whistle blew and it was my turn.

Nice and steady, straight into a smooth breathing rhythm, I was away and feeling good. Not getting too stressed by the churned up water or the bubbles ahead of me, just swimming nice and steady, taking my time to breathe, making sure I completed each stroke.

Within a few lengths I was accidentally touching the toes of the girl ahead of me. I didn’t want to pass, as I wanted to keep it nice and steady and not rush myself into a stressed out swim. She did stop to check at the end of the lane but I let her go. I decided that if I was still getting close to her in another five lengths then I’d pass. I actually made the move after another three and realised maybe she had been slowing me down a bit.

I still managed to find clear water, which kept my swim nice and controlled, but after a few more lengths gained on the next swimmer and overtook her too. By now there were less than 10 lengths to go. I kicked on a bit as I overtook, trying to increase the pace a little but maintain the control. After two lengths she re-passed me again as I took a rather longer turnaround, and I managed to stay on her toes for a bit of a drag for a while.

Somewhere in the passing and re-passing I had miscounted, getting the tap on the head for two more, when I thought I had four to go. I pushed off hard and swam the up and down with a good kick, gaining on the girl ahead of me and getting out of the water only seconds apart.

Dropping my swim cap by the side of the pool, I went out into transition. It wasn’t as cold as I’d feared. And unlike last year, I didn’t stand there looking at my bike like a dunce, having thrashed myself senseless in the swim. Shoes on, helmet on, something I had to do twice – I think it was my number belt – but I was off with the bike to the mount line.

Not my fastest mount as there was a guy stumbling onto his bike next to me, but safely on and away before he got clipped in. Catching my breath and getting into the ride, keeping the gears low and the legs turning over.

As promised at the race briefing, we were straight out and into a head wind, up a slight incline. I stayed in a low gear, giving myself chance to recover my breath. And I kept breaking my mental deals with myself to go up onto the big ring at the top of the incline as ahead there was another stretch and the gusts were rattling my bike from the side too. I ended up in practically my lowest gear, trying to keep my legs turning, battling the wind.

At some point, I thought ‘This is ridiculous,’ powered myself up to the big ring and pushed on through, but it was hard work until the welcome left turn out of the headwind. Then suddenly the road opened up, the bike wasn’t being buffeted and the effort my legs were making finally felt rewarded.

Another left and onto some nice flats and downhills where I really picked up some speed, got down on the drops and up into higher gears. I knew after 8k there was a bit of an incline, so I tried to carry as much speed as I could into it and even managed to overtake another rider who I’d been closing in on. Okay, so they had a flat bar bike, but still, it’s a rarity for me to overtake anyone on the bike leg, and in this race I managed to reel in two riders.

I enjoyed the rest of the ride, managing to stay mostly on the drops, whizzing through the police check point and was allowed to go through a red light! I remembered to dodge both pot holes and speed bumps on the entry back to the sports centre.

Me on the run at Haddington tri

On the run leg – photo by Bob Marshal

Bike racked, helmet off and into my run shoes, I was away without any hassle. My feet had been a little cold on the bike, and I’d tried to keep wriggling my toes, but they warmed up quickly on the run. My calves were very tight though, twinging with threats of cramp through the first few turns, so I shortened my stride as I ran alongside the river.

With Lesley in the heat ahead I’d hoped to see her on the run. And soon here she came, heading for the finish looking strong and smiling with a big high 5 as we passed.

It gave me a nice little boost as I saved my legs, hoping the muscles would soon warm through and I could pick up some pace. It took at least a mile though before I felt I could run with anything like my usual form.

The ground at least was forgiving, as the trail paths were kind to my feet and marshals at every possible way point shouted encouragement or sang and waved and generally really made this a fantastic race. As the run is an out and back, there were lots of shouts from fellow competitors too. It really is a very friendly race.

It’s a good job too, as the final run section is a rather narrow path beside a field, banked by long grass and thistles, barely wide enough for one, let alone two people passing. But I made it through with a couple of jinks and turns and then it was back the way I’d come.

My legs were working well by now and I tried to bound along and pick up the pace a little. Not sure I managed it, but I did enjoy the return leg and was able to shout out to other runners from later swim waves as they passed on their way out, including new ironman Tina and Lesley’s swimming pal Christa (sorry I missed your high 5).

Triathletes at Haddington tri

Some of the prize winners at Haddington tri

Back over a wee bridge and along beside the river and I knew I was on the home straight. Still I couldn’t rustle up much of an injection of speed. It seemed today I had one pace and I was going to stick with it. Leaving it all to a death or glory sprint round the path at the back of the sports centre across the finish line!

Very efficient marshals directed me to water, bananas and snacks and I soon caught up with Lesley, Al and his girlfriend, Michelle. And after the race, it was lovely to meet Catriona (who I know from Fetch)  and Ellem’s tri friends Tina and Glenn who had just completed their first Ironman.

At the start of the race I’d said  that it could be a close run contest between me and Lesley. Last year we’d been in the same swim heat and I’d run out of my skin expecting her to catch me at any moment. But my running was stronger then as I’d been dong much longer runs. This year, I knew my swim was likely to be faster, but my bike slower and our runs would probably be very similar.

In the end, there were mere seconds in it and had we been racing in the same heat, I’m sure we would have been chasing each other very strongly. One day I’d love us to finish a race together. But I better get working on my bike skills if I want that to happen.

My stats:

Swim: 17:07

T1: 1:01
Bike: 47:41
T2: 0:51
Run: 28:21

Total 1:35:03

5 August 2013

Allerthorpe standard triathlon 2013

Encouraged by my coach and feeling great about finishing my first Olympic or standard distance triathlon in July, I entered another to test my training and see if I could improve on my time.

The venue was Allerthorpe near York, a good hour and 45 min drive away. Unfamiliar surroundings, no one I knew doing it or supporting and a lengthy drive there and back. So yes, I was a bit nervous.

But I’ve been training hard, enjoying this year’s triathlon focus and I did want to see what I could do. Volunteering at parkrun on a sunny Saturday morning, I would have loved to have run it. I took that as a good sign, that after a couple of days easing down the training, I was sharp and ready to race.

It was a early start, but I’d got everything ready and all I had to do was cart my kit downstairs, pack up the car and hit the road. It was overcast and a bit rainy as I set off around 5am to make my way to Allerthorpe lake, but the roads were deserted and I made good time.

Me in a wetsuit getting out of a lake

Finally out of the lake

The lake looked lovely as I drove into the car park, relatively small, surrounded by trees, with a cafe and caravan park nearby. As I got out of the car, I overheard a man say to his friend, “It’s warm enough to be a non wetsuit swim.”

My tummy flipped. I hadn’t really thought about that. None of my open water swimming has been without a wetsuit, even though arguably it was warm enough at the last couple of QE2 training sessions. I had a 1500m swim to tackle and it’s the part of the tri that makes me most nervous.

Oh well, I was here now, better go and find out what the score is. I lugged my bike and kit over to registration, where I picked up my timing chip, numbers and a nice tech T-shirt. There I learned the lake temperature was 22C, so it was to be a wetsuit optional swim. Another 0.5 degrees and it would have been non-wetsuit.

I set up in transition, hearing voices around me calling to their friends asking how they had got on in other races. There were a lot of Outlaw race T-shirts and some serious looking carbon fibre TT bikes on the racks. I felt like a real tiddler and racked up near some other road bikes.

It was a really good set up, with plenty of marshals around, a great big start/finish gantry and a simple but clear race briefing. I wriggled into my wetsuit, did a bit of warming up and deep breathing, then took the opportunity to get into the lake for a warm up swim before the starts.

The water was pleasantly warm the smooth sides sloped in gradually, so it never felt very deep. I bobbed around, got my face in and blew bubbles, then swam a few strokes back and forth. You couldn’t see anything below the surface as the water was cloudy, but it felt relatively clean. I stopped when I collided with another swimmer and we both apologised, laughing nervously about our sighting skills.

I actually felt quite relaxed and chatted to a nice girl as we waited on the bank watching the first swim wave do three laps round the circular course. Most had finished as we got back in the water, ready to start our swim. I placed myself off to the side at the back as we started, but it was still a bit of a bundle and I started out swimming head up water polo style to try and avoid crashing into other swimmers.

This was soon pretty tiring and I tried to get into front crawl. But I was constantly biffed and harried, having my goggles knocked a couple of times and another kick in the chest from a breast-stroker.  No one means to get in your way or hit you, but it really doesn’t help me keep calm or find my swim rhythm. Out came the breast stroke to try and regain my composure and calm my pounding heart.

There were fewer swimmers than last week at Bamburgh, but I found it hard to find my place and drifted well back to the end of the field having breaststroked and part crawled round the first lap. It felt endless.  And quite honestly, there was a big part of my brain that was all for chucking it in and getting out.

But I started to find clear water and began counting my strokes. Slow and steady, 12 strokes then sight, then another 12 and keep going. I found something approaching a rhythm and was making progress. And then behind me came the hooter and the crashing sound of the third wave of swimmers piling into the water. Cue another frantic scramble, more kicks, bashes and a real whack in my face. I mullered on through, doggy paddle, breast stroke, anything to keep moving forward.

Once the initial rush was over, they calmed down a little and once again I found clearer water and began counting strokes to get round the second lap. I was well to the back of my swim wave now,  a few straggling yellow caps drifting well off course through erratic sighting or breast stroking their way round.

I told myself it would be over quicker if I actually swam properly, kicked my legs and pulled through the water in something like a decent front crawl. My last lap was definitely my best and having conserved my breath and energy a little when I was struggling, I found I could finish strong, kicking out to over take a couple of yellow caps before hitting the shallows and running up out of the water.

I glanced at my watch which showed 29 mins as I stripped off my wetsuit and found my bike. That gave me a boost and I headed out thinking I was already about 15 mins up on my last standard experience.

Me on my bike

Working hard on the bike leg

Out of the park and onto the main road and almost immediately my bike sounded and felt wrong. There was a metallic sort of squeaking, a whine that hadn’t been there as I’d ridden a couple of minutes round the car park before racking. I sort of convinced myself that one of the brake pads was misaligned and scraping along the wheel.

Stop and sort it, it’s early on the ride I thought. I stopped, looked at front and back wheels and couldn’t see anything obvious, so I hopped back on. But the noise was even worse, and now it was combined with a chain click. I managed to reach down and run my hand over the derailleur, again, nothing obvious.  When I saw a marshal at a junction, I stopped again, turned the bike upside down to check it over and promptly dropped the chain off. He didn’t help me, but just having him there was a reassuring presence as I talked to myself and tried to get myself to calm down and deal with whatever problem I had.

Chain back on, no obvious problems, I determined just to go with the grating noise and hope for the best. My panicked brain was not helped by the realisation that I’d just lost those hard fought for swim places as a handful of other competitors went speeding past. The squeaking noise continued, but lessened and after about 10 minutes of me thinking I was going to have to ignore it for the whole of the ride, it stopped.

Still I smiled to myself as I looked down at my hands, forearm and legs which I’d managed to cover in chain oil. I never manage to touch my bike without getting a chain tattoo, but I really outdid myself. If there was going to be a prize for muckiest triathlete, I was a cert.

The bike was 2 laps of a flat route, along some main roads and through a couple of pretty villages. I noticed fields of corn, a windmill and heard the strange metallic singing of the overhead cables as I passed under the electricity pylons. It should have been lovely, but I found it a bit dull.

The roads were straight and endless. I was rather warm and I made sure I drank plenty of my juice. But the only time I saw anyone else was when they passed me and cycled into the distance. With no hills, there was no variation in pace, nothing to work at, and then enjoy some free speed on the way down. If I hadn’t been in the swim league I was miles off the bike pace.

I held onto the thought that I was only racing my own race and just kept reminding myself to keep pushing, to be the best I could. I’d taken time off my last race on the swim, I just needed to hold on, stick with the bike and then I’d be running.

On  my second lap, I started to see runners coming out on the same road and raised my spirits by giving the odd one a shout of encouragement. It took my mind off the lonely road and the pains I was starting to get in my lower back. It was demoralising when the only other cyclists I saw came past me. I started to wonder how many of the next swim wave had gone by and was glad I wasn’t counting.

I kept drinking, snacked on my malt loaf and not giving in to the mental demons. I’d abandoned my posh Garmin on the basis that it can add to the pressure and I start getting fixated on the numbers. It did mean I had no idea of how far I’d gone, or what my cadence was, but I was wearing a basic stop watch and knew I would be happy if I got the ride done in 90 mins or less.

There, at least I succeeded as I came back round to transition with 01:59 on the watch. But I’ve never been so happy to get off my bike.

With a really spectacular or short 10k, I had a slim chance of going under 3 hours – which would be amazing. As I ran with the bike round towards the racks, I heard a runner yell out, “where’s the finish?” He was less than 200 metres away from the line so I stood aside and let him through.

I had a slow T2 as bikes were racked anywhere and the person next to me had racked theirs facing forward, rather than in reverse as it had been when we started. It meant there was a bit of a battle between the handle bars and I knocked their bike off the rack (sorry). I did re-rack it before dealing with my own T2.

Me running at Allerthorpe classic triathlon

Showing off the chain tattoos on the run!

Right out onto the run, and my legs felt okay, strong, not too wobbly. With no electronic guide to pace, I just kept it steady, focusing on my form, keeping bouncing off my feet. Out along the road with traffic passing by, I didn’t like that much, even though it was a smooth flat surface.

Not knowing how far I’d gone, I broke it down into sections, 20 minutes would be about 4k and there was a promised water station just after that. Spot on, a marshal directed me down the path and there was a guy giving out cups of water. It was a hot day, though clouded over, and although I felt good having drunk about 750ml on the bike, I walked 60m or so and took a couple of gulps before picking up my feet and moving again.

I made an effort to pick up the pace, lift through my hips and push on as the route turned onto a narrower country lane, cutting a corner off the bike route. But even here there was the odd car squeezing past.

At 30 mins I told myself that was a parkrun down and just another parkrun to go. Not knowing the course or the area, it was all I had to go on. Again there was barely ever another runner in sight. Just after the second water station at about 7k I was passed again and I held the male runner in my sights for a good long time, but I could not gain on him.

I started counting down minutes – 50 minutes would be about 5 miles, just one more and a bit to go, push on. My form started to break down a little, less bounce off the forefoot and more roll through the foot as I tired, but I fought to keep it, lifting through the knees, using my arms.

By now I was totally confused about landmarks. The whip like song of the wires that marked about ¾ of a bike lap rang out overhead and I wondered how much longer I had to run. Once again the road seemed endless. Where was the major junction that would bring me back round to within striking distance of the park? I knew sub 3 hours was a distant dream, but how much could I take out of my last standard event?

I started to think there was a good chance I was flat last. But who cared? I was still on for PB and in triathlon you’re only really racing yourself. Just be the best you can be, I kept telling myself. Even though the speed wasn’t there, i knew my endurance would carry me through.

At last there was the end of the road, and the marshal who’d  been a reassuring presence when I flipped my bike. I gave him a thumbs up and a round of applause and pushed on, knowing the finish couldn’t be far away.

As I approached the entrance of the park, I finally saw a runner I could chase down, a guy in a Leeds Bradford tri-suit. As we turned into the caravan park I knew I had the legs to beat him. And even though the twisty turny finish didn’t really lend itself to a Scribbler sprint, there was a brief burst of speed up to the line.

Clock stopped at 3:06:12 and I was done.

My first standard was 3:20:xx – and admittedly had a very long swim and a long run, but I reckon the run at Allerthorpe was longer than 10k too. After a bit of a mental frazzle on the bike, I was happy I kept the focus and kept going. There are couple of easy free minutes to take off that without bike issues or T2 faffing.

I cleaned up the bike oil with wet wipes and packed my gear away, chatting to the Leeds Bradford guy as we laughed at how few bikes were left.

I took advantage of a sports massage before I drove home. A good chance to chill out, and reflect positively on the race as the guy dug into my right soleus (note to self, get this loosened up) and hit my quads and lower back. Quads need more stretching and flexibility.

But I was beat. Really. I drove home, hauled the kit upstairs and was wiped out for the afternoon- capable of nothing more than a bit of social media and TV.

I’m pleased to have two standards under my belt and as ever I learned a lot from this race. Probably the most important thing is to respect the distance. Even with all the training I do, even with all the advances I’ve made this year, it’s still a tough ask.

On my run I’d been thinking of those racing Ironman, and of Tony, running a marathon with a fridge on his back. You remain an inspiration and through my own smaller efforts I do start to understand how much it takes. Respect to you all.


Swim 1500m 29:59
T1 1:48
Bike 40k 1:28:28
T2 1:55
Run 10k 1:04:01
Total 3:06:11

Race photos

Race results

28 July 2013

Castles Challenge sprint triathlon

Another weekend and another tri. Sprint distance again, but for me, the added challenge of my first sea swim event. The venue – Bamburgh castle on the beautiful Northumberland coast. It made for one of the most scenic, testing and tough tris I’ve done so far.

Transition area in the grounds of Bamburgh Castle

Transition in the grounds of Bamburgh Castle

I’m in the middle of a roll of back to back race weekends, and in truth, I hadn’t really given this one much thought. Having set my sights on standard tris, a sprint suddenly becomes a more manageable. And I was amazingly relaxed about this one.

But everything was different. The start time for one thing – 5pm. What a great time to start a tri, I thought, a nice summer’s evening on the beach, with the promise of music and food afterwards. But it was weird, waking up at my usual early hour and not rushing to get into tri gear and go.

I didn’t really know what to do with myself for the morning, just pootled about, getting my kit ready, doing some chores around the house, going for a walk into the village – very much aware I was just killing time.

It was hot and sunny. People were out and about enjoying the sunshine, but I wanted to keep off my feet as much as possible and not be wandering aimlessly. Still I went down to my beach to check out the sea conditions, hoping they’d be similar an hour further up the coast. It was dead calm, barely a ripple of a wave.

What to eat, and when? When to leave? I decided to just go as normal with breakfast and lunch and hope for the best. The heat made me reluctant to eat much anyway, and I kept reminding myself ‘it’s only a sprint’.

In the end, as always I was a little later than I wanted to be, as my chain slipped loose as I was loading my bike into the car. And then I got slowed down by roadworks. So that as I was approaching Bamburgh, I started to see cars with bikes on circling for parking.

But I got lucky, as I was doing a 20 point turn to manoeuvre into a tight space, one of the day trippers  left and I drove straight into their spot. I unloaded my bike and gear and made my way over to registration, knowing that my buddy Lesley would be there.

It was a bit chaotic trying to get through to the cricket pavilion, with day trippers, dogs and kids circling round me and my bike and my transition bag, but I made it. I swear I get more anxious about getting to races and registering than I do about racing.

With my race number, chip and attractive pink swim hat, hugs from a rather nervous looking Lesley and my favourite race photographer Bob Marshal, we went to get set up in transition in the field below the castle.

Path down to the beach at Bamburgh

We ran up and down this path three times

Where does the time go when you’re setting up for a tri? I thought I’d been pretty quick and not faffy, getting my bike and shoes sorted, but suddenly it was 4:20pm and race briefing was only minutes away. I had a brief chat to my coach Ian, and his lovely family, there to support and enjoy the sunshine. And then I had to dash off for a last trip to the ladies before I started wriggling into my wetsuit.

Race briefing was on the green in front of the stage and the instructions were pretty straightforward. But I started to realise what a big race this was. Hundreds of people wriggling into wetsuits, standing with their friends and club mates, getting ready to race.

I went through some arm and shoulder warm ups, took some deep breaths and tried to get myself focused for the race. I finally got the message to my brain that I was about to do a race.

We’d been warned that it was a long transition up from the beach to the bikes – about 400m of sandy paths through the dunes and up a bank before hitting the grass and tarmac of the castle green. It was bad enough walking down it to get to the swim start, thinking we’d have to negotiate it 3 times more between the bike and the run.

Once on the beach, any fears about rough seas were demolished. It was about as flat calm as the sea can be. But there were no sign of the swim buoys, still being dragged into place with the race due to start.

The delay worked to my advantage as it gave me plenty of time to get in the water, to get used to the temperature, bob around and try a few strokes to relax and get my breathing sorted. In previous tris, I’ve never felt like I have enough time to settle before the start, but just relaxing in the beautiful clear sea next to Lesley made this my most relaxed swim preparation ever.

The water was a bit chilly, but I didn’t think it was too bad. It was perfectly clear, meaning you could see the sandy bottom as it was reasonably shallow too.

So, it was a bit of a delayed start as we made our way back out of the water to the start flags, ready to run back in off the beach – another first for me. A quick round of good lucks, the hooter sounded and we were off, plodging back into the water and then swimming out towards the first buoy.

Swim start at Castles Challenge sprint tri - photo Bob Marshal

Swim start at Castles Challenge sprint tri – photo Bob Marshal

It was a bit of a scrum, with 300 swimmers taking to the water at once – my biggest mass start to date. I ploughed straight in, high on adrenaline, wanting to attack all my fears and for once to have a good swim.

It was like swimming in a soda stream. I the cool clear waters of the warm up churned into millions of tiny white bubbles as feet and arms and black rubber clad bodies bounced off each other, looking for space. Somehow I managed to survive the worst of it, with just a few knocks and only a kick to my chest that sent me spluttering to the surface for air.

I was breathing every stroke, trying to get a sense of where I was, keeping my head up and trying to stay out of trouble. I tried to get into my full stroke, but struggled with a lack of clear water and my brain starting to take over after the mad rush of the start. There was a lot of head up, water polo style crawl which was tiring me out quickly.

As I approached the first buoy, I was stuck in a mass of bobbing pink heads, no space to strike out into full stroke. I resorted to a mix of breast stroke and treading water to negotiate the melee and gave myself a bit of time out to gather my senses.

Once round the buoy there was something like clear water, but I could hear myself hyperventilating, even with my head above the water, no doubt due to the jumble of the mass start and my subconscious swim fears. So I gave myself some time, broke out the head up breast stroke, keeping moving, but giving myself chance to get my breathing under control.

I settled and calmed and looked ahead. The second buoy was a long way away. Time to get moving. And I broke into front crawl, trying to keep it slow, steady, pull through every stroke and give myself chance to breathe.

I counted strokes again to make myself battle through the temptation just to do breathe easy breast stroke. 15 strokes front crawl, then a breather, 21, then 30. After that I stopped counting and just swam as much front crawl as I could.

Beach and Bamburgh castle

Beach and Bamburgh castle

The second buoy seemed like it was moving further and further away. How could this feel so hard after I’d swum such a ridiculously long leg in the standard? I banished negative thoughts with Chrissie Wellington’s tweet to all weekend racers “Race with all your heart and soul, remember your motivation and smile always!”

Head down and more front crawl. Pulling away from the girl swimming alongside me. In clearer water, swimming my own race, starting to relax and enjoy the feel of the beautiful clear water. Still short breathing a little, but keeping it controllable.

I breast stroked round the second buoy and began the home stretch. With shallower waters and the certainty that it would soon be over, this was the most comfortable and consistent portion of my swim. A couple of times I drew level and passed other swimmers. I even tried latching onto some fast feet for a bit of a pull, but quickly decided I’d rather strike out in clear water, than face the turbulent bubbles.

Round the last buoy and swim for the shore. The shallows came quickly and I was unsteadily onto my feet and ploshing up onto the shore. Another hit of adrenaline and my breathing was quick and heavy. I just kept looking a few feet ahead ploughing through the soft sand, moving relentlessly forward. I walked up the steepest parts of the dunes, giving myself chance to drawn in oxygen and settle my breathing, moving my wetsuit down over my hips.

Once at the top I broke into a rough trot over the grass to my bike. Wetsuit came off quite easily, with a bit of a wrestle to get it over my chip. Then helmet, shoes, bike – off I go running with the bike towards the road.

I stay in a low gear to get my legs turning over and give myself chance to catch my breath. My hands are sandy from taking off my wetsuit, and I can feel bits of grit and sand stuck to my wet feet in my bike shoes.

Me on my bike with Bamburgh castle in the background

Heading off on the bike – photo Bob Marshal

I take a slurp of my drink and change up through the gears, but soon the road starts to climb and I drop back, negotiating the hill. The turnover is slow but steady. I’m trying not to burn too much effort yet, still settling from the swim.

The long up has a correspondingly comforting down. A chance to freewheel, find the drops and actually start enjoying this ride on a beautiful sunny evening on country roads lined with hedgerows and further beyond the blue of the sea.

For once, I’m riding with other racers. They are in front and behind and I’m never really out of sight of any. It makes for interesting racing as I start to catch some on the small inclines only to become aware of faster riders coming from behind.

This is a no drafting race, so I do my best to steer clear, riding out as I pass, but it’s not easy when the faster bikes also come by, especially when road and cycle traffic starts to come the opposite direction on the out and back course.

I keep drinking throughout the ride, with the goal of finishing my bottle as it’s a hot day. I keep the effort steady, but not stupid, feeling strong and enjoying the ride in the sunshine.

There’s a rough bit of road and a bumpy patch that catches my breath about a mile or so before the turn around point. I’ve opted just to wear a simple stop watch for this race, so I have no real idea about time or distance, other than how it feels.

Through a fairly scrappy u-turn and back along the same road in the opposite direction. I tell myself to keep up the effort and put a bit more work in on the return leg. The cyclists ahead of me make it easy as I start to chase them down – not something I usually get chance to do in a race.

Soon after the turn around, a vision in red approaches and waves at me smiling. It’s Lesley, looking fast and furious on the bike. But if she hadn’t spotted me and waved, I’d have missed her.

My legs feel good and strong and I surprise myself overtaking a couple of girls on the slight inclines on the return leg. There’s one in a distinctive red and yellow Northumberland tri suit, number 305 who I pass, and then who overtakes me a couple of times and shouts encouragement as she does.

I seem to catch her on the hills and then she catches me napping on the straights. But the friendly banter really does help me stay focused and I’m grateful, even if I am surprised to find myself climbing so strongly. I cycle pretty flat routes in training and never think of myself as much of a climber.

My lower back is starting to niggle a little as it sometimes does on longer rides (I really do need to get myself a proper bike fit). But it’s manageable and I know it will go once I’m off the bike onto the run. I take advantage of a bit of downhill to drop as flat as I can to stretch it out and whizz past another rider – result!

One last climb and one last descent and the castle approaches swiftly. In fact so swiftly that I forget to change down and spin my gears, but still I manage some sort of dismount and run back to transition. I overshoot my bike place at first, but soon sort myself out, ditching the helmet and slipping into my trainers.

Running on the beach at Bamburgh - photo Bob Marshal

Running on the beach at Bamburgh – photo Bob Marshal

I’ve decided to go sockless for this one. It’s a bit of a risk as the run’s on sand. But I’ve been doing so much more barefoot stuff recently and having run in London on horribly blistered feet, I figure I can just get on with it and save myself a few valuable seconds in transition.

Out across the green and back towards the sand dunes, my legs feel good, quite bouncy and I have to cling onto the fence to round the corner to stop myself going flying down the bank. The soft sand down and up over the sand dunes is a leg sapper though, but I push through it onto the beach, heading for the edge of the sea in the hope of getting the hard packed sand we’d been promised.

It isn’t there. It’s just soft sand. The kind that melts each footfall and sends you slipping and reeling.

My run is a shuffle. Little steps, just moving forward, with no bounce, no spring, no hard fought for forefoot form. Just keep moving I tell myself. It doesn’t matter that your steps are small, you’re still making them. Keep on going with the relentless forward motion.

I spot Bob on the beach and being such a photo tart, smile and pick my feet up into something approaching good form. It doesn’t last much beyond the camera shutter click. Onwards, onwards – it’s only a 5k.

But it’s a hard 5k. As I come to terms with the soft sand and stop looking for firmer ground, settling with myself that this is as good as it gets, it does begin t firm up a little and finally I can start to pick up my feet and try to bounce off my forefoot. But the impact of the shuffle on my hips and my knees is making itself felt.

Running on the beach at Bamburgh

Back up the beach on the home stretch – photo Bob Marshal

Day trippers on the beach shout out to the runners “Come on number 36 – well done”. I don’t know if they are here to support someone or have just stumbled into this strange world where sweaty people stumble through the sand, but I welcome their cheerful encouragement.

Eventually there’s the flag, the turn around point. Just the same run to do again. I push on over the harder packed sand, trying to make the most of it, knowing the softer ground lies ahead.

The return leg is brutal on legs and knees and hips. I jink up the beach in search of firmer footing, but realy it makes no difference and just means I run further. There’s a hot, sore spot on my right foot, where the sand is rubbing against my skin. My face is covered in sweat. I see it through my peripheral vision, dewing up my eyebrows. This is relentless, like some Dantean trial.

And there she is again. My vision in red. Smiling, bouncing and high fiving as we pass on this beautiful stretch of beach. I love racing with Lesley. We always have so much fun. It’s a small high spot that keeps me going.

On the softest sand, I allow myself a little walk on the basis that I’m barely moving any quicker than walking pace anyway. Just 30 paces and then I run, or attempt to run along the rest of the beach, looking for the gap in the dunes which marks the turn back towards the finish.

Sand dunes at Bamburgh

The sandy slope back up from the beach

It is a steepish, sandy slope. I use my arms and power up as far as I can. But I feel a jolt in my left knee which has been nigglesome for a couple of weeks. With another standard tri next weekend, I go easy on myself and walk up the steep slope. Even the encouraging shout from one of my workmates can’t summon up a run just here.

I save my energy for the final flourish at the finish. Sand bank and dunes behind me, my shoes still carry pockets of the soft sand. But my feet fall on short, dried out grass and I can run at last. One lap of the outskirts of the green, bouncing out, finally finding my form. Chasing down the last corner, breaking into a sprint for glory with 20 metres to go, arms aloft over the line, smiling!

I take off my shoes and empty out buckets of sand. I’d been longing to do that. I skirt the green, trying to decide whether to drop them back in transition or keep a look out for Lesley finishing. I spot Bob running up with his camera and he tells me she’s on her way.

And so I run the last leg with her. On the other side of the barrier, carrying my trainers, barefoot across the grass, round the last corner, yelling her on through the finish. That feels good! And even better as we pose for our post race smiley photo.

Me and Lesley - Castles Challenge Sprint triathlon 2013

Me and my best tri buddy Lesley – photo Bob Marshal

That was a hard run. Harder I think that the 10k at the end of my standard. Harder mentally as I couldn’t rely on my form or any of my usual cues. At times it just felt like a relentless slog. Normally the run is my home stretch, the easy section, the one I can rely on. Today I had to dig deep for something special.

But that’s oddly satisfying and I actually enjoy the race more for providing a real challenge, and not necessarily the one I’d expected. I expected to struggle with the swim, and while it wasn’t completely stress free, the favourable weather conditions meant it was one of my better race experiences.

The mass start was a real eye opener and has given me something to prepare for at bigger races. But I’m definitely getting better every time I do an open water event. And my bike was strong, surprising even as I managed to pass a few competitors and I enjoyed it.

This is definitely the most scenic and probably the most challenging tri I’ve done to date. And it’s a good candidate for the list for next year. Post race shower, stretch and clean sheets on the bed never felt so good. And today I ache more than I did after my standard, but it’s a good ache, a worthy one.

With another standard tri at Allerthorpe to look forward to next weekend, I reckon the Castles Challenge sprint has been great preparation.

Swim 750m: 24:42 (was out of the water in 20 mins- rest is long run into T1)

T1: 01:29
Bike 20k: 47:10
T2: 00:54
Run: 00:32:56

Total 01:47:13

My race stats

Great video that gives you an idea of how scenic this event is:


Race results
Race photos – Bob Marshall
Event website

Update: Sadly the Castles Challenge Middle Distance tri which was due to take place the day after the sprint had to be cancelled as heavy rain meant the sea swim and bike course were not safe for competitors.

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