National Triathlon Club Relay Championships – 25 August 2012

A theme that seems to be establishing itself as I find my feet in the world of triathlon is that competition day involves an early start. The National Club Relay Championships at the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepoint just outside Nottingham were no different. I had packed the car up the night before allowing me to make a quick getaway. My alarm went off at 5.15 and by 6.15 I was on the road.

I wasn’t due to race until 1.45pm but I was racing for the first time with Andover Triathlon Club so I wanted to get there early and meet everyone. I also wanted to watch and support the Andover team who were running in the mixed category in the morning. I arrived on the dot of nine and immediately the scale and organisation of the event was obvious. The car park was only 5 minutes from the event which meant that I was soon in the complex. The morning race was already underway with some swimmers still in the water and the early bikers out on the course.

The format of the 500m swim, 15k bike and 5k run relay is that the four competitors in each team must complete a discipline in turn before the team can move onto the next discipline. A wrist band is handed from one competitor to the next in lieu of a baton. Andover’s Team of Dan Mason, Nicky Flemming, Emma Hayles and Shaun Green were nearing the end of the swim when I arrived. The car park led me into the Holme Pierrepont complex where I was greeted by hundreds of pop up tents erected by the competing clubs as their team bases for the day. Team flags flew outside each one like a scene from Agincourt. As luck would have it the Andover Tri tent was almost the first one I came across. Nicky, who I had met a few weeks earlier, was just putting on some warm clothes after swimming. We wandered down to the lakeside where I met two of my team mates in the afternoon race, Sam Pratt and Jason Briley. Like all my previous dealings with the club I was immediately made to feel very welcome. Sam is a physiotherapist, she is also one of the founder members of Andover Triathlon Club. Jason is in his fourth season as a triathlete and is a two-time Ironman!

By now the Andover team had completed the swim leg and Dan was out on the bike and looking quick. The bike course was three laps of the 5k perimeter track round the lake so we saw each member of our team come by three times. As I chatted to Jason I learned that Dan has recently qualified to represent GB in his age group in the triathlon world championships to be held in Auckland in October. In turn we watched Nicky, Emma and Shaun flash by and tried to make as much noise as we could each time we saw them. Shaun handed back to Dan who started the run.

The 5k run course was one lap of the perimeter track but travelling in the opposite direction to the cyclists!! I had visions of a triathlon relay turning into an episode of Total Wipeout. But as we were to learn in our race later in the day, the oncoming runners weren’t to be the biggest hurdle we faced on the bike. Jason, Sam and I waited at the run relay transition to encourage Team Andover.  Dan, Emma and Nicky all posted quick times and in no time we were watching Shaun taking the high fives down the finishing straight for a team time of 3.38 hours. I had enjoyed watching so much that I had forgotten the time. A quick look at my watch showed me that I had less than an hour until we started.

The afternoon was the ladies event. So you may ask what I was doing racing! There was also the opportunity to enter a team in an Open category which could be any composition of men and women. We were three boys and a girl. The team was Dan (again!), Jason, Sam and me. We collected our wet suits and headed down to the swim start for the race briefing. The format for the swim was that the first swimmer completes the 500m swim and runs to a relay pen where 150 swimmers ready to swim the second leg await the arrival of their team baton. Chaos ensues as exhausted swimmers arriving thick and fast, some disoriented and unable to speak, search for their next team member in the crowd who is shouting at the top of their lungs and waving furiously. The band is eventually handed over and the process is repeated by swimmers on leg three and four. Each team is only allowed to have the next competitor to swim in the pen so everyone has to keep a sharp eye on things if you are not to be late for a handover.

Dan went first for us. With over 150 teams in the race it was a fairly packed mass swim start. Dan had told me at lunch that he had got at least one kick in the face in the morning swim – but he had volunteered to go first again! As expected Dan posted a very quick swim time (8.33 mins) and Jason was on his way. Sam was to follow Jason with me swimming last so it was important I kept an eye on Sam starting. In the melee of swimmers coming and going I lost track of her in the pen and so wasn’t sure if I would see her set off. To be certain I managed to sneak my way into the pen early and gradually shoved my way to the front so that I could see swimmers coming out of the water. Opposite me in another pen fast filling up were the first riders on the bike leg waiting for the last swimmer in their teams to finish. Thanks to a bit of good fortune Dan was there right opposite me with his bike gear on. He told me Sam had started, I had missed it. We also agreed exactly where I would hand the band to him. In no time at all Sam was out of the water and running towards me. We managed to hand the band on without either of us shouting!!

Once in the water I took a few fast strokes to get away from the entry ramp and then told myself to relax. I didn’t want a repeat of Eastleigh where I had overcooked it at the start of the swim. As we were now on the fourth leg of the swim the field had spread out which made life a bit easier. The course was clockwise round three sides of a square meaning we had to turn at two buoys. I sighted the first large orange turning buoy and tried to push out a steady manageable rhythm. The lake was really churned up reducing visibility in the water to a matter of inches so it was important that I kept sighting the buoy and those around me. I got round the first buoy without event except that I went very wide to avoid a group of swimmers and probably added 20 meters to my swim – 200 metres down. The next buoy was at the end of a  short leg of about 100 metres. I rounded that feeling like I was starting to labour but now I was pointing straight at the exit ramp 200 meters away. I put my head down and struck out for home.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point in the next 50 meters I felt like someone flicked a switch and I lost all energy. I had nothing. I stopped and swam breast stroke for about five seconds while I tried to catch my breath. I looked at the exit ramp – there it was in front of me – all I had to do was swim to it! I put my head down and stroked. Although it felt like there was no power in my stroke I seemed to be going forward gradually. It was slow progress, but eventually I reached the exit. Once out of the water, feeling slightly wobbly, I made my way as fast as I could to Dan. I handed him the band and thanked goodness that I had an hour to get myself sorted before the bike leg! My swim time was 11.16 mins which bizarrely, on a pro rata basis, was quicker than my 400m swim at Eastleigh, but had felt much worse.

By the time I got back to the team tent to change, Dan was nearing the end of his bike leg, Jason was in T2 waiting for him and Sam was setting off to rack her bike. I quickly put on my tri suit, took some water and an energy gel and went to the grandstand to watch Jason cycle. I saw him come past a couple of times looking quick. We yelled our encouragement. I know he heard us because he raised his hand very slightly in acknowledgement! I waited until I saw Sam come past for the first time – that was my cue to go and rack my bike.

The format in the bike transition was much like the swim. The incoming rider had to rack their bike before running to a wall of hay bales. On the other side of the wall was the next rider. Once the band was exchanged at the hay wall, the outgoing rider was free to collect their bike, run it to the mount line and go.

T2 wasn’t as smooth for some teams. I witnessed the hilarious episode of a rider arriving into T2 (the club should remain anonymous) and standing at the hay wall yelling for his team-mate Martin. But Martin was nowhere to be seen! Mischievously all 100 or so riders in T2 took up the cry and were yelling for Martin. He eventually made it looking sheepish and having cost his team five minutes. I have a hunch that Martin was buying the beers on Saturday night!

There are a few things you don’t want to hear when you are just about to start a 15km bike race on a congested course – one of them is thunder. But that is exactly what happened and almost immediately the heavens opened. The forecast had been for rain throughout the day but the weather Gods decided it would be more fun to give it all to us in 15 minutes. It poured! Then it hailed! At one point there was so much standing water that it was difficult to distinguish between the lake and path next to it. I was getting cold and soaked in T2, but I spared a thought for Sam who was out on the bike course. Without glasses you would have been unable to see anything. With glasses visibility would have been seriously reduced. That is not to mention the hazardous road conditions for 150 cyclists trying to go as fast as they can with slick tyres.

Eventually Sam appeared with a big grin on her face and handed me the band and I was on my way. Once out on the course the worst of the standing water had drained away but it was still tricky. And if anyone needed any reminders to be careful, within the first five minutes we passed an ambulance tending a fallen cyclist. The ambulance was still there on the next lap so I hope he was alright. Apart from the weather, the injured cyclist and a guy fixing a puncture by the side of the track, the bike leg was only memorable for the start of the runners coming the other way. It only got hairy when overtaking runners met over taking cyclists – but to my knowledge there were no collisions. It didn’t seem long before I was pulling back into T2, racking up and running to the hay wall where Dan was waiting to start the run for us. My bike time was 30.10 mins which gave me an average speed of 18.6 mph. That’s top end for me at the moment, but it only takes a quick look at some of the times of the more competitive people riding on Saturday (Dan and Jason both averaged 23 mph) to see how much work I have to do on this discipline.

I quickly took my bike back to the tent and put on my running shoes before heading over to the run transition. There was a bit of a party atmosphere in the run transition area because as well as people like me nervously waiting to start the run there were a number of people who had finished and who were all doing high fives with their team mates. Their work was over for the day. By the time I got there Dan had posted a very quick 18.54 minute run – very impressive considering it was the end of his second triathlon of the day. I chatted with Sam as we waited for Jason. He too was all over it with an impressive 21.58 minute run. As soon as Sam set off I worked out what time she was due back and then went off to warm up.

The format in the run transition was slightly different. As your incoming runner approached transition, the tannoy would call your team number. At that point the next runner in the team was allowed out onto the race course to collect the band from the incoming runner and set off. Sam appeared a couple of minutes earlier than she had predicted – a great effort by her. It seems everyone was pulling out the stops on the final leg. No pressure then.

I set off at a steady pace – as with the swim I was giving myself clear instructions not to overcook it early on. My watch told me I was running at exactly 8 minutes a mile which was fine for me for the first half of the run. The course wasn’t all on the track round the lake – it diverted a couple of time onto a grass track which was churned up because of the wet. This gave it the feel of a cross-country run and made it a bit more interesting.

I felt fine for the first couple of miles. At about the two-mile mark I was starting to think about increasing the pace when a girl came past me and I lengthened my stride and tucked in behind her. The increased pace, about 7.30 mins a mile, felt fine – just what I needed. I felt like I had some running in my legs. I could see from the colour band on her wrist that she was runner number three in her team and soon she turned off to head back to transition. Left alone I increased my pace a bit. I could see the finish gantry about 500 yards in front of me. I also saw another runner about 50 yards in front of me labouring a little and figured I might be able to catch him if I put my head down. Gradually he got closer and closer and as if to finish my day perfectly I went past him about 25 yards from the line. The first thing I heard as I entered the home straight was my team mates shouting encouragement and then as I closed in on him the spectators in the grandstand took up the cause of this close finish. I don’t know how loud it really was but it certainly spurred  me on. It was bit like a bad round of golf that ends with a successful thirty foot putt. My finish, my team mates’ encouragement and the cheers of the crowd meant I finished on a high note erasing all memories of the swim. My run time was 24.39 mins which is an average of 7.44 mins a mile which I can’t complain about. However unlike the swim and bike I think I left a few seconds out on the run course. In retrospect I feel like I could have started my run for home a little earlier.

Andover Tri Club Open Team. L-R: Jason Briley, Sam Pratt, me and Dan Mason

Our team finished in a total time of 4.08 hours putting us 73rd out of the 153 teams competing in all competitions in the afternoon and 51st out of the 104 competing in the Open Competition. Not bad! But regardless of the placing or the time I think we all had a fantastic day. I know I did. I had really enjoyed myself. I had particularly enjoyed meeting my team mates from Andover Triathlon Club – even as a new comer I really felt part of the team.

I had to head home that evening which meant a total of almost six hours in the car over the course of the day but it was all worth it. As I sunk into my soft bed at home at about 10.30pm I didn’t envy my team mates who had stayed at Holme Pierrepoint overnight under canvas. That’s almost like a fourth leg of the tri!! I hope they all slept as well as I did.

Those times in full:

  500m Swim 15k Bike 5k Run
Dan 8.33 24.19 18.54
Jason 12.18 24.14 21.58
Sam 11.51 31.44 28.19
Peter 11.16 30.10 24.39
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