So after a three year break, the time has come to make my long awaited (even if only by me) return to the world of expensive bikes and running visors – otherwise known as triathlon. I’m not entirely sure why I stopped racing triathlon; it hadn’t been a conscious decision. I think I just drifted into running as it’s logistically easier training for one race – rather than three races in one. And if I am honest with myself, as much as I enjoyed it, I don’t think I would have come back if I hadn’t got injured and felt like I needed to spread the training burden. My season’s plan has been based on reacquainting myself in a sprint before deciding what distance I want to race later in the season. After crossing off a few potential races due to clashing dates I entered the South Hams Sprint in Devon – about an hour away from home.
During the build-up, the training had been going uneventfully well. I feel stronger every time I get out the pool – even if I haven’t managed to get any open water training in. My cycling has been fairly consistent – if not ground-breaking – but the green shoots of good form were beginning to show. I still haven’t found the running form of last year, but if I am honest with myself I know I haven’t put in the same sort of mileage that I was before the injury – which was the point of returning to racing triathlon. However, 2 km into a 50-minute run I felt something go in my left calf. I did similar when training for a marathon with no lasting damage, it just required a couple of weeks rest – which is all well and good but it was only two weeks out from the race. The purchase of calf guards and a tense two weeks followed.
The time had come to set an alarm for an evil time on a Sunday morning again, in this case 4:40am. In my youth I would be shocked to discover there are two 4 0’clocks in a Sunday – I always thought there was either a drunken AM one or a lazy PM one but never both, not in the same day. How times have changed. Blurry eyed I make a vat of industrial strength coffee – my very supportive family are coming with me and lots of coffee is the safest way to wake my wife at any time, never mind this time in the morning . I force down a large bowl of cereal that I really don’t want to eat and I busily round up the last few bits and load the car. It’s easy to forget how much more stuff is required to race a triathlon, I’ve gotten used to just grabbing my running kit or bike and cycling stuff with maybe an extra layer for changeable conditions. This is something else, the next level of kit organisation – extra swim cap form if it’s cold, safety pins, race belt for if you only get one race number, and the list can go one. In its simplest form there isn’t necessarily a lot more kit, but as you get into it you seem to pick up more paraphernalia.
Once we arrive at the race start and park, the time honoured pre-race procedure begins; queue, register, drop stuff at car, queue again, go to the toilet, return to car and riffle through the stuff in the registration pack – most of which is rubbish. After that it’s time to get my spot in transition sorted before kitting up ready for the start.
I make my way down the shingle beach for a pre-race acclimatisation dip, and as I’m about to dive in I realise I’ve forgotten my bloody goggles, slightly panicked and already a little stressed (the sea isn’t looking all that accommodating) I send my wife scampering back up the beach to get them for me. Thankfully she’s back with plenty of time for me to get myself into the sea, which is cold (fucking freezing in fact) and I really struggle to control my breathing. I spend a moment just bobbing in the waves trying to slow it down, and then swim back to the beach ready for the start. On the beach I swing my arms about in an attempt to keep warm. I had had doubts about being in the first wave for a week or two (the waves where based on your predicted swim time) and these doubts had really began to manifest themselves. Before I have too much time to stew in my own self-doubts the race starts. I wait a fraction of a second then take the 10 or so steps into the sea and I’m off and racing.
I get about thigh deep into the water and throw myself in. It’s still cold. It takes what feels like an eternity of fighting for space, breath and forward propulsion to get to the first buoy. This leg of the swim was really tough and I honestly doubted that I was going to get around, but once around the buoy (and after a quick stop to empty my goggles) things got a little easier. It continued to feel as though I was swimming against a current, but with the waves coming from my right, rather than head on, I got control of my breathing and began to get some composure back. I seemed have moved up the pack a little as we swam parallel to the beach, reaching the last buoy, turning left again and making our way back to the flags where it all started. During the swim I had convinced myself that the way back in would be considerably easier than the way out, and although it was easier it was in no way as easy as I had hoped for.
As I clamber out the drink and begin to make my way up the beach – wrestling the top half of my wetsuit off – I see my kids and I make a ‘B’ line to them, stopping for a kiss – much to my wife’s dismay as she has spent most the time I was swimming telling them not to distract me. At this point however I really don’t have my race head on and I’m just pleased to have gotten out the water without the assistance of the water safety team. I made my way up the shingle beach, and into transition. Wetsuit off, goggles and swim hat the same. Bike shoes, then helmet and sun glasses on. Out of transition.
The bike leg pretty much starts with a climb. It’s by no means alpine in stature, but anything that touches 16% is going to feel a test that early on. I make the decision not to try and be a big ring hero and drop into the granny ring and spin up the steeper banks – which sees me passed by a rider on a TT bike – before back into the big dog and driving along the false flat at the top. The decent on the other side was a series of sweeping turns and one very tight hairpin that just seems to keep going. Once down the other side the road flattens out along the sea front, where I manage to re-pass the TT rider. Visually this stretch is beautiful as you ride along a spur – with the rolling sea on one side and a fresh water lake on the other. This flat stretch lasts for about 5 kilometres, and as I approach the far side the first rider comes back the other way, and knowing that this is effectively the head of the race I begin to count back – trying to gauge my position on the road. 1, 2, 3…22, 23. I lose count, and interest as I drift back in the virtual field. After the long flat, it’s a short grippy, but not steep, climb to the turnaround roundabout. The decent back down is great fun, sprinting out the corners trying to eke out as much speed as I can and onto the drag slip straight. With the wind now at my back I try to find the balance between keeping up a decent speed, to catch the group in front, but also keep a bit back to get over the climb back to transition.
I catch the group of riders ahead of me at the foot of the climb. I keep it in the big ring up to the tight hairpin before dropping into the granny ring (and move up a few on the cassette) and keep the cadence up to the top, before pushing hard again on the flattened top before the technical decent back down to transition.
Into transition for the second time, rack my bike and remove my shoes. I then have a wobble as I try to get the shingle of my foot before getting my runners on, and then put my foot in the shingle again. Then repeat the process, finally getting it right I head out of transition for the run.
the run route was a four-lapped affair. With each lap consisting of a lap around a field, including what would begin to feel like quite a climb, passed the transition before looping passed the car park before retracing you’re steps back to transition to finish the lap. The run route felt a bit like a cyclocross course, great for the spectators but I really struggled to find any rhythm. I wasn’t helped by the calf niggle I picked up two weeks earlier meaning that I wasn’t able, or willing, to push the pace. I just concentrated on keeping my cadence as high as I comfortably could, while trying not to over work the calf. I needn’t have been worried, however. The calf strain didn’t give me a single twinge – whether that was the pace, the calf guards or the two weeks rest only time will tell, but I’m chuffed I got around.
When I got the results, I was initially disappointed with the times (and still am to a degree), but I’m pleased with the placings. I really struggled with the swim, and in hindsight I didn’t need to hold so much back for the final climb on the bike and I was always going to be tentative on the run. Despite all this I still managed a new PB by a few minutes (although the previous best time was set on a much flatter, but slightly longer course). My final position however is comfortably my highest, and I have never been anywhere near the top 20 for my age group – albeit in a reduced field.
What I have learnt from this race is what I need to do if I want to get both quicker and further up in the results. The first one is rather obvious – and in the true spirit of the sport – buy faster equipment. In reality, the two easiest things are, firstly work on my transitions. I don’t really practice them – and I need to – they are both slow and clumsy. Secondly, lose some weight (my wife will tut when she reads this) but the truth of the matter is that the fast are the lean and I’m not overly lean. Other than these two I do feel like I’m going in the right direction, I just think I need to find a distance and work on that.