Having pulled out of the Bath Half Marathon in March with an injury, the Blenheim Palace Triathlon was my season-opener. Blenheim is one of the largest triathlon events in the country with over 5,000 competitors racing over two days and has a reputation for a tremendous atmosphere, so I was extra excited as I set off from home on Sunday at 6.00am.
The scale of the event is immediately obvious. The moment you drive through the main gates you are greeted by an army of volunteers, acres of car parking and a large tented village. That was all before I wheeled my bike into the spectacular transition area which is basically the palace’s main courtyard.
As luck would have it my allocated racking spot was directly opposite the elite women. Just a few yards from me South Africa’s Gillian Sanders and Britain’s Vicky Holland, both Olympic triathletes, were going through their pre-race routine. Half an hour later I was treated to a front row seat as they flew through their swim-to-bike transition – it was incredible to watch.
Preparation done and wet suit on, I joined the procession down to the swim assembly area by the lake with 200 other nervous triathletes. Here I met up with two of my club mates – Chris Edwards and Gina Graham who were in the same wave as me. It was great to see them and chatting excitedly with them momentarily took my mind off what was to come.
The race kicked off with an in-water start which meant we had five minutes in the lake to acclimatise before the off. While we waited I made my way to the buoy at the far end of the start line thinking there would be less traffic there but arrived to find a lot of other people had the same idea! Then, without warning, the hooter went and we were racing!
The 750 metre swim course consisted of a long straight “out” leg of about 600 metres. Then a hairpin turn round a buoy and a short swim to the exit at the Fisherman’s Boathouse.
As we crossed the start line I found myself more in the melee than I wanted to be and braced myself for some whirling arms and legs. Luckily a gap appeared right in front of me allowing me to swim the first few minutes in clear water. As the field spread out and things settled down I relaxed and tried to get into a steady rhythm. I was pleased with how calm I remained during the swim – this has not always been the case in previous attempts!
Eventually after an incident-free 600 metres I reached the turning buoy alongside two other people. Just a few minutes later we were at the swim exit. A helpful marshal grabbed my hand to pull me out and in a moment my feet were on terra firma with the swim under my belt in 14.16mins – well inside my 15 minute target. But the swim had a sting in the tail
The route from the swim exit to transition was a 400 metre run, uphill, with a wet suit on. Not my favourite part of the race.
Transition passed without any mishaps and as I had racked almost next to the bike exit I was able to get away quite quickly.
The bike leg was three laps of a 6.6 kilometre route through the stunning parkland estate. It was billed as a flat course. The first few hundred metres took us down a sweeping hill in front of the palace at speed with a large crowd looking on. Plenty of scope to get over excited and carried away which was exactly what I did! The next kilometre was an exhilarating ride but then came a hill – so much for a flat course. I don’t know if it was the run from the lake or the over exuberance at the start of the bike but I was paying for something going up the hill.
What goes up must come down and having crested the hill we were treated to another fast downhill section only interrupted by a cattle grid, which luckily had boards over it. Then came the oddest but most frustrating moment of the day.
A footbridge over the road had been damaged on Friday by a bus driver who hadn’t understood what 10 feet clearance meant as he attempted to drive his 11 foot bus under it. The bridge was closed and so spectators had to walk across the road in the path of oncoming cyclists. To avoid any mishaps health and safety had decreed that all cyclists had to dismount 10 yards in front of the crossing and remount 10 yards after it on each lap. The bus driver may have been the most unpopular man at Blenheim on Sunday!
The next two laps were like the first – fast downhill overtaking; painful laboured uphill being overtaken and grumbling at the dismount! Not for the first time in my short triathlon career I felt vulnerable on the bike. I finally pulled back into transition after 45.03 minutes which gave me an average speed of 16.5mph. I was in and out of transition in just over two minutes – an age compared to Vicky Holland but I don’t feel like I hung around.
Ironically the run started by taking us over a footbridge to avoid oncoming cyclists on the road below!! After a few minutes to get my legs working I felt good for most of the run – a great advert for training at Camp Corfu!!
The 5.4km run course was two laps round the lake. Once again we were lulled into a false sense of our own ability with a downhill stretch on the way out and made to pay coming back up the hill on the return. Just to ensure it was really uncomfortable they put a drinks station half way up the hill.
In contrast to the bike leg I felt in control on the run, varying my pace to suit the terrain and passing more people than passed me.
After the second lap we carried straight on down the front drive of Blenheim Palace into the smartest finishing straight I have experienced. My run time for 5.4km was 27.18 mins which is 8-minute mile pace. I was pleased with that. My total time was 1:34:02 hours.
The finish area had a bit of a carnival atmosphere. I waited there to watch Chris and Gina finish. As we chatted about our races we noticed the podium which had been set out for the elite prize-giving ceremony later. We couldn’t resist and jumped on for a quick Andover Tri Club photo. Why not? It may be the only time I ever stand on a triathlon podium!
Congratulations to my other clubmates Helen Hunter who raced in the Female Sprint on Saturday and Nick Wall who raced the Male Sprint later on Sunday.
Blenheim is a great venue for an event like this (barring careless coach drivers). It has a course that is beginner friendly or that can be attacked by a more experience campaigner. The large crowds and multiple races give it a festival atmosphere. And as for the setting – I am not sure it is what they had in mind when they built the Duke of Marlborough’s ancestral home, but it is difficult to imagine somewhere more suited to triathlon. I will definitely come back.