The Eastleigh Open Water Triathlon – Sunday 1 July 2012
So I finally did it. After months of talking about it and after one false start, I have done my first triathlon. I don’t think I would go as far as to say I am a triathlete – there is work to do – but I have done a triathlon.
From submitting my entry until the event itself was about 8 weeks which meant I had to get my skates on with some training. I didn’t really have any idea how to approach this so I simply split each week up into 6 sessions and did 2 on each discipline with some kind of progression on each built in. If I am honest I wasn’t as diligent about my training for this as I had been for the London Marathon but I more or less stuck with it. I felt as though I had started from a good base of fitness from the marathon and so was in reasonable shape by the time the day came.
The event was the Eastleigh Triathlon. A classic Sprint Triathlon with the exception of a shortened swim. It was made up of a 400m open water swim, a 20km bike leg finishing with a 5km run. I felt OK about the bike and the run but a couple of things concerned me about the swim. First it was a wave start. In other words it was me and 39 others on one start line in a lake, no staggered start, no lanes, no niceties and no holds barred. Second, because of the water temperature it was a wet suit swim. I don’t own a wet suit, in fact I have never swum in one before. To overcome both of these fears I went down to a training session at the lake the weekend before the race where I was able to swim in open water, in company and in a hired wet suit. Although the swim session started at the unearthly hour of 7.15am on a Saturday (6.15am for me because I live an hour away) and although it probably didn’t improve my performance on the day, it did put my mind at rest that a mass start open water swim was manageable.
On the day of the race I left home with all my kit packed into our car at 6.00am feeling a little apprehensive. I arrived at Eastleigh Lake at 7.00am just as registration was due to open in the hope of quickly getting that process out of the way. I had a carefully mapped out pre-race routine – all calculated to the minute working backwards from my start time.
7.00 – Register. 7.15 – Set up bike and run kit in transition. 7.40 – Race briefing. 8.00 – Warm up. 8.25 – Change into wet suit. 8.30 – report to start. 8.40 – start.
None of that happened!!
Registration opened late, so I was late to transition. I panicked when they announced the race briefing 30 minutes early only to find when I got there that it was for the wave before me. I then got confused again about which wave I was in and cut short my warm up to pour myself into a wet suit. Putting a wet suit on in a hurry, especially with a small audience is not to be recommended. Eventually I got it on only to find to my horror that I had put it on back-to-front (that is easier to do than you might think), so the whole suit was peeled off and fitted again. Eventually I reported to the Starting Marshall sweating and out of breath only to find I was there a wave too early. My first triathlon was not going well!
I was starting with the blue wave and we were the third wave to start. As we waited to enter the water, I looked around at the other competitors in my wave. It was noticeable that we were all slightly older than most competitors in the earlier waves. Judging by the conversation many of them were also new to triathlon. Suddenly I felt a bit less nervous. We were let into the water about 10 minutes before our start and the swim to the start line allowed me to warm up. Once we were on the start line, standing in water only waist deep, the on-water starter gave us a quick briefing on the course from his kayak. During his talk I could see many of my fellow competitors craftily manoeuvring themselves to the back of the field trying not to be noticed. Maybe I wasn’t the most nervous one here after all.
“OK” the starter shouted to get our attention once the briefing was finished. “I’ll hold my oar above my head, I’ll give you a 3, 2, 1 countdown and when I lower my oar you’re off. Any questions?”
There were none. He counted us down and I saw his oar drop and we were off. 37 members of our wave dived into the water and started thrashing their way towards the first turning buoy. Three of us stood our ground. In my case it was quite deliberate. I wanted a couple of seconds to see where everyone went. Having seen the main bunch head straight at the buoy I dived off to the left to give myself clear water. My first triathlon swim was underway.
Those of you who have read my blogs before will know of my ability to devise a perfectly sensible race plan and then at the very first opportunity completely ignore it. My aim today was just to get round and see if I liked it. I had promised myself that if there was any argy bargy on the swim I would give way. If someone wanted my water, they could have it.
After about 45 seconds of swimming alone and unhindered I felt the presence of a body swim into my space. I waited a moment to see if it was an accident and if they were going to swim away once they realised. No, this person (I don’t know if it was a boy or a girl) wanted to swim where I was swimming. Straight away my hackles went up. I had chosen this line for a reason and I wasn’t about to concede it to someone who liked it better than their own. I slightly changed direction to swim into the person challenging me hoping they might be persuaded to move away but to no effect. Now we were locked side by side bumping on almost every stroke. Without a thought for my pre-race promise my hackles rose further. The intruder was to my left and the next time my left arm came down to make a stroke I slapped an open hand on the water right by the side of his head being careful not to make contact. I don’t know if it was that or the fact that I wasn’t budging, but at that point he swam off to find calmer water. I smiled to myself – a small early victory.
The buoyancy that I got from my wet suit made the swim easier but I think the adrenaline and the fact that we were racing made me swim at a much higher tempo than I could maintain for 400m. I eased off at about 200m but was finding it hard. Already I was breathing on every stroke just to gulp in enough air. At about 300m I took a break for about 5 seconds and did breast stroke. With a chance to lift up my head and look around I was surprised to find that I was in 5th place out of the 40 in our wave. However I wasn’t going to stay 5th for very long doing breast stroke so it was head down for the last 100m. In no time we were rounding the final turning buoy and heading for the exit ramp.
In the elite triathlons the process of exiting the water always looks so simple. The exit ramp is normally a shallow incline with a slip-proof surface to aid the runners. In the lake at Eastleigh the exit ramp was a decades old concrete slipway that had been built to launch sailing dinghies from their trailers. To make it more interesting there were small holes in the ramp every foot or so. Great for helping the tyres of a trailer hold their grip but a hazard for a bare footed triathlete. And if that wasn’t enough the ramp was covered in an inch a slime, the result of years of neglect.
I kept swimming until I could touch the bottom with my hands. As I stood up and set foot on the ramp the first thing I noticed was that my legs felt a little wobbly and I was slightly lightheaded. About half way up the ramp a combination of my unsteady state and the slippery surface took control briefly and I felt myself toppling backwards. Reaching for the first thing I could, I grabbed the barrier that had been erected to guide us out of the water. It was only attached to one other section of barrier and immediately I felt the structure giving way under my weight. I had visions of falling back down the ramp taking several competitors along with me and all finishing at the bottom with the barrier on top of us. Thanks to an alert marshal who grabbed the other side of the barrier disaster was averted.
Once out of the water I jogged into transition and after a mini crisis where I couldn’t get my wetsuit zip to undo, I quickly changed into my cycling kit and was running my bike out of transition onto the bike leg. Over the mount line I jumped on. I had left my shoes attached to the pedals and watched as a competitor from my wave who had worn his cycle shoes mounted his bike, clipped on and cycled off into the distance while I fiddled with straps and shoes while trying not to crash. That part of my transition needs more thought or more practice.
The bike course was two laps of a simple “out and back” route which climbed up a long hill out of Eastleigh and brought you back down it on the other side of the road. Here things started to get confusing. With two waves in front of us already on the bike course, everyone just blended into one race and it became impossible to identify people from your own wave. This made the bike leg more like a time trial.
It didn’t take long for a couple of cyclist to zip past me. These guys looked serious, crouched down in a tuck position on aero bars wearing aerodynamic helmets. Their bikes were pure carbon – very expensive. In fact I would bet that each of their aerodynamically built carbon wheels was probably more expensive than my entire bike. What was more worrying though was when people riding bikes that looked just like mine started to overtake me. I own a decent middle of the road racing bike, but they were doing something I wasn’t and I definitely felt vulnerable on the bike leg. I regained a few places on the downhill return on both laps but eventually arrived back into transition about 45 minutes later with the distinct feeling that I had lost more places than I had gained.
Back in transition I quickly shed the helmet and put on my running shoes and headed out onto the run. Here I was far more in my element. I had expected to feel a bit wobbly in my legs after almost an hour pedalling a bike but was pleasantly surprised at how good my legs felt. What I wasn’t ready for was how difficult I found it to catch my breath. I just couldn’t breathe fast enough or deep enough to give my lungs the air they were demanding. This meant that my run started at what felt like no more than a fast trot, but I was later to find out was actually sub 8-minute mile pace. I think that the fast rhythm of the bike and the fact that I started the run with my heart beating fast must have been deceptive. I tried to settle myself into a rhythm and get a regular breathing pattern going.
The run leg was two laps of an off road 2.5 km route, mainly through woods. I definitely suffered for at least half of the first lap but held my own passing two people and letting two past me – one wearing a GB triathlon suit!! I was impressed until I tried to work out what he was doing on the run at the same time as runners from the third wave!
By the time I finished the first lap I felt as though I had some running in me. Just 2.5 Km to go! I quickened my pace as much as I dared. I didn’t have a watch on so couldn’t see exactly what my pace was but I felt as though it was brisk. So I was surprised when I was passed by someone who clearly wasn’t from one of the more elite waves! Was I really going that slowly? I listened to his breathing as he pulled alongside and he was clearly pushing himself to get past. I wasn’t going slowly, he was starting his first lap and was going too fast!! He got about 50 yards in front before he visibly started to labour. I set him in my sights. Having him as a target to catch was the perfect boost to keep my pace up. Slowly I reeled him in and when I caught him I passed him and just kept going. When I looked back about half a mile later he was some way behind me.
I managed to pass several more runners before the finish including one guy who raced me over the last 50 metres. While others still on their first lap continued straight on at the end of the circuit I turned off into the home straight and under the temporary finishing gantry to the line. Once over it, I did what every coach tells you not to do – I collapsed in a heap! I lay there on the grass on my back, arms and legs outstretched and stared up at the sky gulping in air. I lay there for no more than a minute recounting the race in my mind. Eventually my solitude was interrupted by the guy I had raced on the home straight as he very sportingly brought me a drink of water. Maybe he thought I needed medical help!!
The aftermath and the analysis
I watched others finish and chatted to fellow competitors for about 10 minutes before I walked back to transition and collected my bike and packed up my kit. Soon I was in the car on the way home. As I reflected on the events of the last few hours I think I knew that somewhere in the murk of the lake, or on the hill out of Eastleigh or the woodland tracks round the lake I had fallen in love with the sport of triathlon. Already I was trying to work out how I would do better on my next one.
A day later the results appeared online and they confirmed most of what I had assumed. I was 5th in my wave of 40 on the swim, 19th on the bike and 10th on the run for an overall position of 11th in my wave of 40. My overall time was 1 hour and 23 minutes. Taking all waves together I was placed 97th out of 172 entrants meaning that just over half the field was in front of me. I would have been interested to see where I placed in my age group. Looking around I don’t think there were many over 50s like me taking part.
My next outing is at the VLT Triathlon in Andover on 9 September. This is a slightly longer race consisting of a 600m pool swim, 30k bike and 7.5k run. I can’t wait!