Running and writing

My 2011 trainers
A selection of my running shoes

I was very honoured when my writing mentor John Simmons asked me to guest post on his blog 26 Fruits. I frequently refer to his books on writing, including 26 Ways of looking at a Blackberry in my job as a copywriter, and always look forward to his weekly posts.

So this week, having made a return to writing about running, it feels very appropriate to redirect you to John’s blog, where you’ll find my guest post on the connections between running and writing.

Communication challenges

I spent much of the weekend near Ashbourne in the beautiful Peak District this weekend, volunteering as a bike marshal at the Care Construction Challenge.

The event saw more than 50 people assemble as teams and take to Carsington Water in kayaks. Then jumping on mountain bikes for a 21 miles cycle on roads and trails; stopping off for a 5 mile run up and down and up a nettle-filled river path, and tackling mental, physical, memory and teamwork challenges along the way.

Bicyle propped against a stone wall
One of the views along High Peak trail

Everyone was there to support the work of Care International, a charity that currently works in 74 countries helping people find their way out of poverty. They provide immediate life-saving assistance and are often the first on the ground after natural disasters like the earthquake in Nepal and help people rebuild their lives afterwards.

I got my marshal briefing notes via email before I arrived. It was a comprehensive document detailing roles, responsibilities, tasks and timings. With a large team of volunteers and a lot of ground to cover, many of us were taking on different roles in various locations throughout the day. On reading the notes, I remarked that everything had been planned like a military operation. I later learned the writer was a former Marine.

These communications were ideal for me. As a great reader and traditional verbal learner, I was able to retain and repeat the information, even down to the important detail that packed lunches would be available on the day.

The teams took part in a number of communication challenges throughout the day, including one where a team member had to instruct their team on how to construct a model house out of straws and tinfoil without talking to them.

But the biggest communication challenge was provided by our environment. Despite being well equipped with radios, spare batteries and multiple mobile phones, getting messages between the various marshal points was very patchy due to the undulating hills and dales.

I arrived at my first marshal point to find that no one could hear to respond to my radio call, and that with only  minimal signal on my mobile phone, I could only send text messages, and they arrived hours after being sent.

High Peak Trail, Derbyshire
One of the flatter parts of the cycle route

We’d marked out the cycle route the previous day using orange arrows – no text or words needed. These were visible in the misty morning and (mostly) sent competitors in the right direction.

Standing at the road crossing, ready to count all the riders through and direct them onto the next part of the trail, I was able to hear them approaching long before I could see them as they toiled up a series of climbs, encouraging each other and issuing huge sighs of relief when the ground finally levelled out.

The team who turned up wearing dresses over their cycle gear were communicating that they were out for a good time and had a joke and smile at every check point. Those kitted out in team hoodies were well organised and supportive, sticking together, helping each other on the tough climbs and generally being all round good sports. They deservedly took home the trophy for best fundraisers.

Even when no one was speaking, there was communication through touch and body language – a pat on the back after a tough section, a hand up out of the ravine, or a wry roll of the eyes at yet another hilly section.

These very human, simple, one-to-one communications were ultimately the most successful. They were slower paced than modern technology usually allows, but no less effective for it. Messages were relayed along the route, radio to radio, or person to person via bike and car, keeping the communications moving along the line.

After testing endurance, memory, communication and teamwork, everyone made it to the finish, and all had a story to tell.

Watch a video of the Care Construction Challenge 2015

2013 – my training year review

It’s been another good year of training and competing in triathlons and road races for me. And it’s good to look back at what I’ve achieved as well as planning for the future.

Let’s start with the numbers:

Swim: 42.1 miles/ 36 hours – only just a bit less than last year’s swim mileage
Bike:956 miles / 86 hours – that’s the most I’ve ever cycled in one year (hours to miles don’t quite add up as there were a lots of indoor bike sessions where I logged time but not distance)
Run: 526 miles / 85 hours – not my biggest yearly run mileage, but I didn’t have a half marathon to train for
Cross training: 76 hours – including boxercise, yoga, weights and PT sessions

That’s a total of 283:48 training or racing hours in 2013. It’s the most I’ve ever trained in one year.

I’ve completed 6 run races of up to 10k distance and enjoyed many more timed runs at parkrun
And I completed 6 triathlons in 2013, including my first two Olympic distance events and my first sea swim.

I studied for and passed two fitness related qualifications – Level 2 Gym instructor in March and Level 1 triathlon coaching in November

My swimming improved thanks to some training sessions with my PT early on in the year as he trained for his coaching qualification. I’ve spent more hours and done more miles on my bike than any other year and enjoyed it more than I have before, especially when I’ve had the chance to go riding in Scotland with my tri chums.

I have walloped time off in my second season of triathlons, including a 10 min PB at the QE2 sprint triathlon, with improvement in all three sections. 

There was another memorable day at the Olympic Parkrun. It was an amazing experience to do it the first time, so to go back, post the Olympics, with my expectations high … well they weren’t disappointed.

And the Blaydon race is still my favourite event, particularly as I managed to go under 50 minutes this year.

I’ve enjoyed volunteering at parkrun and I know I’ve inspired a few people to dip their toes into triathlon.

With no races longer than 10k, it’s inevitable my run mileage was down on previous years, but that will change as I take on a half marathon again in 2014.

Reflections and aims for 2014
I wanted to find a better balance in my training and to give myself a season with a true tri focus. It did pay dividends as my tri times improved and I felt more confident swimming in open water and taking on the longer distance events. But, as always, there are areas for improvement.

I did miss taking part in the Great North Run in 2013. It was lovely to see all my friends and shout encouragement from the Tyne Bridge, but I did feel like I was missing out on the party, even on a cold and dreary day.

So I’ll be back in again in 2014. The challenge will be to switch from tri focus at the end of July to get myself in shape to run 13.1 miles by the beginning of September. I’ll see how I feel nearer the time as to whether or not I set myself a time goalIn 2014 I want to maintain a good balance of training hard but not putting too much pressure on myself, and most importantly to enjoy my training. I’ll pick my key races to go hard, and others I’ll do for the experience or the fun. There will be a good mix of challenges, including my first ever river swim in the Tyne.

My first race isn’t until April – and right now that seems a long way away. But it will soon come around. I’ve entered a few popular races already and I’m sure I’ll fill up my calendar with a few more as they open up for entries. I’m looking for another standard triathlon – preferably one that I can easily travel to from the North East of England, so any suggestions are welcome.

I’m also currently on 76 parkruns, so only 24 away from 100. It would be great to achieve that in 2014, but I need to balance them out against other training and races. And of course, I’ll be doing my fair share of volunteering too.

Getting fit, starting to run and then taking on the challenge of triathlon has really changed my life over the past six years. I’m sure I never imagined achieving a fraction of what I’ve done when I first stepped out onto the beach and tried to run a length of the sands. It’s taken me to some great places, given me some amazing experiences and brought me life-long friends. Oh, and made me fitter and healthier too!

So if you’re thinking you want to make some changes to your life, I can thoroughly recommend it. Just remember, start small – I couldn’t run a mile when I first started. Find something you enjoy, but that challenges you. Commit to make it a habit and go out and get moving!

Haddington sprint triathlon – last tri of the season

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

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.

Northumberland Triathlon – my first Olympic distance tri

And so the day dawned for this triathlon tiddler to start swimming with the bigger fish and take on a tri that’s double the distances I’ve done so far.

Enjoying the cycle - Photo courtesy of Bob Marshal
Enjoying the cycle – Photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

The Olympic or standard distance triathlon is what all my training has been focused on this year. From building a good base and working on my swim over the winter, to hitting the bike and building up the mileage as the weather improved.

A big challenge. But I was ready for it thanks to a great training plan from Ian and Inspire Fitness.

Kit sorted the night before and a decent night’s sleep, although I really didn’t appreciate the car/house alarm at about 03:45. But up and dressed and making porridge and packed up the car, ready to go.

It was set to be a scorcher, but I was grateful for the clouds that kept the searing sun back a little as I arrived at Druridge Bay Country Park.

This is a great venue for a tri, with the still waters of Ladyburn lake for the swim and the smooth trails of the lakeside path for the run. The bike course is a simple out and back along major roads and is pretty flat. And the organisers Vo2 Max Racing Events put on a great, well organised race. It was a very professional set up with a largish transition area, and everything was very well organised. Marshals all around transition and the course did a brilliant job, being cheerful and helpful on a very long day, when I’m sure many of them would have loved to have been racing.

Immediately I arrived, I saw my friends Bob and Lesley and although I wanted to chat, I was anxious to get set up in transition. That meant a long, nervous wait in 2 different queues to pick up my race pack, then my timing chip before I could go back to the car and get my kit into transition. Thank goodness for Lesley’s help or I’d have forgotten my drinks bottles for the bike

But I was soon set up and able to concentrate on getting myself mentally ready to race. A few shoulder rolls and some arm swings, some deep breaths and listening to the race briefing. Then, after a final round of good lucks, it was off to the lakeside.

I wanted to get in early, to acclimatise and calm my nerves and I did get a few minutes to float about and try to get my head in. But the shallows were weedy and I didn’t quite manage to control a good out breath under water.

With one minute to the start, I moved towards the back of the pack, whereupon someone I think I swim with at QE2 lake said “I think I read your blog the other day.” Quite how they recognised me in wetsuit, cap and goggles, I’m not sure, but hello, and you’re welcome 🙂

Anyway, we were off on the swim and I was determined to crack it. I mixed in with the pack and started okay, but soon became aware I was short breathing. I was breathing out under water, but not fully and fighting the urge to hold my breath. I got a couple of knocks and then someone really scraped down my side and caught my Garmin, tugging at my wrist.

I spluttered to the surface, did some breast stroke to centre myself and tried again. But I was short breathing even doing head up breast stroke, so I needed more time to settle. Part of my game plan was that if I did find myself in an adrenaline fuelled breathing fix, I’d allow myself 10 strokes of breast stroke to settle and try again. I lost that deal before the first buoy, doing more breast stroke and dropping right back off the pack.

The distances seemed huge. I was still being a little harried by swimmers nearby, including some really erratic sighters who basically swam sideways throughout and kept the canoe support busy shouting at them.

I couldn’t get into a nice rhythm. The fear kept holding me back. I kept trying to crawl and then got flustered, splashed with water, or just the demons in my head. I tried thinking of Lesley’s beautiful clear lake and tried to enjoy the warm water and the sunshine, but could only hold it for a while.

I decided to start counting my strokes. Do 12 strokes front crawl, settle, go again, do 15 and repeat, adding more strokes each time. That was quite successful until I hit a weedy patch in the middle of the long stretch. I resorted back to breast stroke to get through it, panicking my breathing even more when I got a long piece tangled around my neck.

Running laps around the lake at Northumberland standard triathlon - photo courtesy of Bob Marshal
Running laps around the lake at Northumberland standard triathlon – photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

Two laps of this seemed a big ask. But I just kept moving forward as best I could, kept trying to get my face in and crawl, but ultimately, I let myself off with a lot. Swimming seems to be the one thing I can’t bully myself into. Or maybe I just need to develop even more mental toughness.

The fast swimmers from the sprint came charging through as I headed towards the end of the first lap, almost lifting the top half of their body completely out of the water with each stroke. I tried to stay out of their way and kept swimming as best I could.

By the second lap I was with the stragglers, a girl and a couple of guys. They were swimming consistent front crawl. When I got my head in and counted strokes, I easily outstripped them, but then I’d go to water polo style or breast stroke and they’d catch up. I must have really cheesed them off. I just wished I could stick with it.

I was more relaxed on the second lap, but having let myself off with the swim, I’d determined how it would go. The patch of weeds once again disrupted my rhythm, but I swam through slowly then struck out for home.

I tried to make more of my leg kick as I approached the shore,  but really it was too little, too late. But, hey, it was my first Oly distance swim and I’d done it. I didn’t look back, but I would have been one of the last out of the lake.

Out of the lake with some welcome helping hands from the VO2 Max Racing crew, and up the grassy slope to transition. My left leg cramped as I ran up the hill and I ended up sitting down to ease my suit over the chip on my left ankle. The rest of the transition was fine and I was soon out and onto the bike.

Easy, easy out through the park entrance, side stepping the speed bumps, then up onto the big ring and out onto the road. I allowed myself to settle, made sure I started drinking my juice early and just relaxed into the ride.

A long out and back, passing by the park entrance twice, it’s a relatively flat ride, so the focus was really about keeping the focus and trying to keep the cadence high. I glanced at my watch a couple of times to see the turnover, pushing myself on, when it felt good.

Me on my bike at the Northumberland standard triathlon
Out of the swim onto the bike course – Photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

At times my thoughts drifted back to the swim and I told myself ‘just be here now’. I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could make sure I had a decent ride. I had a few mantras on that ride, notably Chrissie Wellington’s ‘Keep your head held high and don’t stop’, although I did make sure I kept down on the bike and hit the drops on some of the smoother straights and slight downhills.

I tried not to pay too much attention to the riders passing by on the opposite side of the road, not wanting the distraction. But unbelievably, as I passed over one of the two roundabouts on the course, a group of social cyclists passed across it, including

I can’t say I pushed on the bike. I kept it steady, within myself, unsure how I would handle the challenge to come. I managed to overtake a couple of riders on hybrids, and got quite excited to catch a guy on a road bike, until I saw he had a flat and would soon be out of the race.

I spotted Ian on the bike twice, just as I was setting off and then again on my last lap, when I was starting to lose my focus and feeling a twinge in the lower right of my back. It gave me a boost, just when I needed it. I stretched out my back, moving back on my saddle and focused on getting to the end.

Finally back round to the park entrance and the road seemed a lot shorter than I remembered. A short run into transition and a decent changeover into the run. Heading out on the lakeside path, I got a shout from Lesley and felt good.

My legs were a little stiff and I just kept the stride short and steady until I eased into it. On the first lap I passed and then was passed by a guy from Cramlington who was a lap or two ahead. He had a bit of a chat, which helped me settle and push on, before he found his race legs and outstripped me.

Last lap of the run - photo courtesy of Bob Marshal
Last lap of the run – photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

The run was warm, but with the sun still behind the clouds and a nice section between the shade of wooded trees, I managed really well. Again, I chose to run well within myself. The aim is to finish, I told myself. My other little mantra for this one was “I do 10k before breakfast!”

I really did feel at home here, running round the lake. I kept my focus on my form, trying to bounce along like Alastair Brownlee.

I’ve done some training sessions of 40k cycle 5k run, so I was confident I could get half way comfortably. Being a multi lap course really suited me, getting an encouraging shout from Lesley each time round and walking through the water station to make sure I got a couple of mouthfuls before running on.

Although I’d worn my Garmin, I resisted looking at it, just running to feel, keeping as light and easy as I could on my feet. The lower back ache disappeared as soon as I got off the bike, and although my left knee felt a bit tight, it didn’t upset my rhythm too much.

The field was well spread out and most of the time I ran on my own, grateful for the cheery marshalls who clapped and encouraged on every lap. I looked straight at the guy at the top of the incline every time, imagining he had a rope round his waist and I was pulling myself up it.

On my penultimate lap, I passed a Cleveland tri runner limping quite badly, and told him to keep on trucking. He seemed cheerful enough and kept it going to finish.

Round to lap number four and with Lesley saying “Just half a parkrun to go”, I knew I’d be fine to get to the finish. No bullying needed when it comes to running this kind of distance. I guess I did all that in my earlier running days.

Bouncing over the finish line - photo curtesy of Bob Marshall
Bouncing over the finish line – photo curtesy of Bob Marshall

Just another time through the wooded greenery and onto the gravelly paths. Just once more up the little climb then down again.Just one more time spotting the finish flags only for them to disappear as the path snaked round the lake. Just on more time to thank the cheerful marshals.

And then it was a turn onto the grass for the finish and heard my name as I came in to cross the line. Struck the now traditional tri finish pose of arms aloft and smiled my way across the line.

My first Olympic distance tri – done. And I’m more hooked on tris than ever. I love the challenge and the cameraderie. I love the way I feel when I cross the line.

<pLots of things to think about. Loads to improve. But that doesn't diminish how chuffed I am today. My goal was to finish smiling and I did.

Official race stats:

Swim: 1500m 45:30
T1: 02:02
Bike 40k 1:29:20
T2: 00:57
Run 10.5k 1:03:59
Total time 3:21:45

QE2 sprint triathlon 2013

Me finishing the triathlon
Finishing the 2013 QE2 triathlon. Picture by doubleiphoto

Last year this was my first ever open water triathlon. This year my plan was to really focus on my triathlon training and complete it a lot faster. Well, the plans paid off!

After days of drizzle and temperatures feeling more like October than late May, early June, we’ve finally begun to see some sunshine and heat at the end of this week. And the day was as fine a tri day as you could wish for – sunny, with very little wind and the promise of heat from the sun.

I woke before the alarm and got ready, having set out all my kit the day before. I made some porridge but didn’t feel like eating it, so popped it in a bowl for later and hauled my bike and tri gear down to the car.

The QE2 tri has a great set up in the grounds of Woodhorn Colliery Museum. The old winding wheel from the pit forms a great backdrop, while modern windmills continue generating energy nearby.

I met my PT, Ian and one of his other clients Lee in registration where we got our race numbers and very nice race T-shirts and we made our way to the transition area together.

I don’t know what it is about triathlon set ups, but however early you are, time between arriving and start time seems to speed up. Once I’d got my bike and shoes laid out and run back to the car for my sunglasses, it was time to get the wetsuit on and head for the lake.

I wanted to get in the water early, as I’d been in on Thursday night and it was freezing. I knew I’d need a little time to get used to the temperature, relax and get my face in before the start.  I took some deep slow breaths to calm my nerves as we picked our way across the gravelly path and down to the lake and did some shoulder and arm rolls.

I got in the water and floated quite quickly. It had certainly warmed up since Thursday night. But it took me a couple of goes to put my face in and breathe out. It seemed like there was barely any time before the hooter and we were off!

I started swimming strongly, mixing in with the other swimmers, but well away from the front. But I soon realised I was gasping for air when I turned to breathe and was trying to breathe in and out at the same time.

I slowed down to try and get things under control. I told myself to blow air out when my face was in the water, but I struggled, and choked a little.  I swam a bit of front crawl breathing on every stroke, but I knew that would likely hurt my neck and tire me out.

I kept trying to get my breathing sorted, but after a few strokes each time, I was gasping. When I saw a man ahead of me breaking into breast stroke about half way to the first buoy, I gave in and did the same.

I did a bit of talking to myself in my head, trying to calm myself and bring my heart rate back to normal. I could feel it pounding and the top of my chest hurting as I’d been short breathing. But I kept on moving forwards with a slow swimming, head up breast stroke.

I did little deals with myself, counting strokes and then giving front crawl another go and kept on doing that to the first buoy. Now it was just a case of swimming back towards the lake side, which I thought would be easier, but the damage had been done and failing to find the right rhythm for front crawl, I carried on around with a mixture of strokes, drifting to the back of the field.

It was frustrating as, when I swam front crawl with my head in the water, bilateral breathing, I was swimming well and pulling away from the other swimmers around me. But I just couldn’t sustain it for very long.

At the final buoy I gave a good kick and did some more thrashing, breathing on every stroke crawl until I was in the shallows and able to stand up and gratefully take a hand out of the water. I glanced at my watch 19 mins – a disappointing swim after I have improved this area so much. But I’ve had hardly any open water experience this year and I’m still fighting my body’s natural instinct to hold my breath under water. I know I can overcome this, because I did it last year. I just need a bit more practice.

Anyway, swim done and I didn’t look back to see how many were left in the water, but I knew there wouldn’t be many. I jogged up the slope, catching my breath and unzipping my wetsuit off my shoulders. There’s quite a long run into transition from the swim at this event, but I was grateful of the chance to get my thoughts together for the bike.

Once at my bike, I shuffled the wetsuit down over my knees and off my feet, took off my hat and goggles and got my bike shoes and helmet on. Then it was a quick run out to transition, where Stuart, one of my fetch pals gave me a shout from his marshal position.

Hurrah, on the bike and it’s a sunny day, warming up nicely. I kept in a low gear turning my legs over as I rode out through the entrance to the museum and onto the road. Annoyingly a few bikes went past me early on. More places lost. But I knew I was only really racing myself and tried to keep focused on the course.

It’s a straightforward and flat bike ride, so I focused on turning my legs over, enjoying the sensation of drying out quickly as I rode into a light headwind, counting the roundabouts until the turn that would take me down the coast. I got passed by another couple of riders but kept them in my sights for a long way.

Skimming along beside the sea, remembering landmarks from last year’s race, I really started to relax and enjoy myself. Reminding myself to keep my shoulders relaxed, just looking ahead, down through Cresswell towards Lynemouth, with the power station chimneys and windmills acting as distant markers.

I got down on the drops on a nice smooth piece of road, but more often than not I had to keep my wits about me as there were lots of potholes. And I took the turn back inland a little faster than I expected, but managed to stay in control.

Heading back in, I re-passed the guy in a blue cycle top, realising as I did so that he wasn’t actually racing as he didn’t have a number. Probably just out for a nice ride on the coast. Still he was a good target to chase down and he lead me to my next one, a lady in a pink top who I also overtook.

Coming back towards Woodhorn Village, knowing I’d soon be turning back into the museum grounds there was another cyclist up ahead and I started to power on and chase him down. A cyclist standing watching at the side of the road, shouted “You can catch him,” and I did, just as we turned into the road back to transition.

For once I managed a moving dismount, right on the line and a fast rack of the bike and change of shoes out for the run. The route takes you round two laps of the lake. It’s mostly paved track, with a couple of sections of grassy paths and a loop around the back of the museum that goes up and down over some long grass.

My legs didn’t feel too bad off the bike, but I stuck to little steps and just moving forward as once again my breath was all coming from the top part of my chest and I wanted to get it under control.

The faster runners were coming pounding past and I tried to keep out of their way and give them a clear path t finish their races. Just over half way round, Lee passed, saying Ian was just behind me. That made me focus on my running form. I didn’t want Ian to see me shuffling when he’s worked so hard to get me bounding off my front foot.

A couple more runners went through. Each time I was thinking it was Ian and trying to put on a good show while bringing my breathing down into my lungs and getting it under control. He passed eventually, encouraging me to think of our running drills before bounding off to catch up with Lee.

A couple out walking beside the lake gave me an encouraging shout of “Well done, you’re nearly there,” as I approached the museum area. But I was not quite half way through.

Coming round for a lap and seeing the finish line so close, but having to run past it for another go is hard. But once I was back round by the lake again, I felt more settled. I’d controlled my breathing and was running a bit more freely. I knew I wasn’t fast, but I felt okay.

I was pretty much on my own for the rest of the run. I couldn’t see anyone ahead to chase or hear anyone behind to give me the hurry up. I just had to keep focused and race myself.

The second lap went quickly. I’d expected to fade a bit as it was getting hotter, but my legs stayed strong and after the last rounding of the museum I was able to pick up a bit of speed down the grassy bank and into a sprint and celebratory finish.

Ian and Lee were waiting, and I think a bit surprised at how much it had taken it out of me. But after a few deep breaths and a bit of race analysis I recovered enough to look at my watch and see 1:55:xx

Last year it took me 2:05:xx to do the same course, so that’s a huge personal best. And now the official results are out I can see that I improved in every single area swim, bike run and the transitions. Even though my swim was a lot slower than I have the potential to do, I still shaved 30 seconds off last year’s time.

So, I am really happy with that. I came into 2013 with a definite triathlon focus and all my training has been focused on multi-sport events. Ian has coached me to be a better swimmer, stronger on the cycle and changed my running style, as well as putting together all my training plans that have got me this far, so it’s great to be able to go show him that it’s working.

So, not everything was perfect and there are lots of lessons to learn. But there always are after any race. This is just the start of the season and I’m already looking ahead to my next challenge, my first standard distance event, with confidence.


Swim 750m 0:21:08
T1 0:01:38
Bike 24km 0:54:50
T2 0:00:51
Run 6km 0:36:48

Total: 01:55:17

Race results

Race photos