Background to the race
The triathlon season runs from April to September in Ireland, so this sprint triathlon in Youghal on 30th September was the last race of the year. The Moby Dick Sprint Triathlon has been an annual event for several years, but this was the first time that it had been designated as a National Series race, upping its profile and attracting a bigger crowd. It also meant that the race was the last opportunity to gain points for the National Series Rankings, the nationwide competition which allows triathletes to compare themselves with all others in their age group category. Before this race, I was fourteenth in the National Series – and my season goal had been to get into the top ten. So as well as doing well in this individual race, I went into it with the aim of getting enough national series points to get up there into the top ten rankings for my age group. It wouldn’t be easy, but I was feeling ready, and there’s nothing like a goal to get you focussed.
Travelling to the event
The race started at 2pm, which mean that I didn’t need to travel down the day before. We decided to make it a family day out – my wife Joyce came along, bringing Finzi, one of our dogs. Finzi loves beaches and water, so while I was racing, Joyce would be able to take Finzi out for a run around.
It was a three hour drive from Bray to Youghal, but it’s easy when you aren’t travelling alone: Joyce and myself happily filled the time chatting. We are at an interesting time of life: our young adult daughters are in the process of leaving our nest, so we have more time to do our own thing now. Plenty of dreams to dream and plans to plan. Plenty to talk about!
I love the build-up to triathlons: the jangling nerves, the sight of all the bikes lined up, the other competitors mulling around. As someone said elsewhere. “don’t forget to smell the races”: I’ve learned to savour these pre-race moments. The anticipation and excitement is part of the pleasure of doing triathlons. There were nearly 600 competitors, but very few from my local Wicklow Triathlon Club (Noel Kavanagh and Fiona Alston – great to see you stalwarts there with me).
After registering with the race organisers, the pre-race routine involves “racking your bike” (i.e. setting your bike up in the transition area, along with your helmet, sunglasses, running shoes and perhaps a towel). These days, the bike racks are always numbered (i.e. you put your bike in the slot with your race number on it). This makes it far easier to find your bike when you stagger out of the water and pull off your wetsuit, and it also removes one small tension from the pre-race build up: the place is decided for you, so you don’t need to try to decide the best position to rack your bike.
Looking for motivation and inspiration?
There’s always a bit of a lull around an hour before the race start: you’ve registered, got your gear organised, the bike is racked, and now you just have to wait. There are the inevitable visits to the portaloo for pre-race-nervous-bladder emptying (there are always queues, so the loo visits can be surprisingly social occasions. Triathletes never struggle to find something to talk about).
I tend to use the time to get my mind into the right place to race. My daughter Ella gave me a book that I find useful: “Triathlon: An Inspiration“. It’s full of photos of triathletes training and racing, along with quotes to help the focus. My favourite on this occasion was from triathlete Chris McCormack, “When pain comes, you know what I do? I smile”. I thought about this one repeatedly during the race! And I love the quote from Helen Keller too: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement”.
The race begins with a beach start
It was a damp, drizzling day, with a breeze in the air. It was chilly as we walked down onto the beach. We were given a few minute to acclimatise to the water and I was pleasantly surprised: it was warm. Water temperature seems to lag behind ambient air temperatures: the sea is slow to warm up in the early summer, but then it’s slow to cool down in the autumn. After a few minutes of paddling, we were called back up the beach, we lined up beside each other, and the count down began: THREE, TWO, ONE, GO! I always find it odd that the race entrants tend to run in the water silently: this is a race, a battle, after all. So I roar like a lunatic as I dash into the waves, imagining in my head that I’m in Braveheart, charging at the enemy. I may look stupid, but I don’t care, and I love it. It gets the old adrenaline surging through my veins.
SWIMMING THROUGH CHOPPY WAVES
My coach, Eamonn Tilley, had warned me that the water would be churny, and so it was. Apart from the turbulence caused by fellow competitors all around, the weather and tide meant that the waves were bigger and more forceful than normal. Eamonn had told me just to get my head down, under the water, and keep going. So that’s exactly what I did. We had to go around two big yellow buoys, and sighting was a problem, because the swimmers in my wave were all wearing yellow hats. It was difficult to tell the difference between a yellow hat nearby and a yellow buoy in the distance. Many of the swimmers seemed to be heading off in the wrong direction. You can see from the graph generated by my Garmin 735XT that I was a bit crooked myself: it was meant to be a 750m swim, but I ended up doing 945m. I can see from other folks’ Garmin tracks how far they went off course: some swam straight, doing the course in as little as 880m, but most were like myself, making their swim artificially long and slow. It was a good reminder on the importance of accurate sighting in a race.
Swim to bike transition
I find it difficult swimming in to the beach in a sea-based race – it’s hard to judge when you can put your feet on the ground. In this race I tried to ground my feet unsuccessfully a few times, discovering that it was still too deep to make contact. If you can walk, it’s always faster than swimming, and my conclusion is that it’s best to watch the folk around you as you are swimming. When they start walking, then it’s time. And there’s no point in pausing your swim to check until you see them walking.
After getting out of the water, it was a short run back to the transition area, tearing off the wet suit, putting on the sunglasses (with Varia Vision attached), then the helmet, then grabbing the bike and running out to the mount line.
starting out on a Fast, flat, bike course
As I leave the swim-bike transition, I use the elastic band method of having the shoes on the bike in advance, which means running in your bare feet. Once you get the hang of this, it’s very efficient and easy to do. It was wet underfoot which can make it slippy, which is a little unnerving when you’re trying to go fast on the bike. Today the competitors were well spaced out, in a number of different waves, so it wasn’t a congested course, and the common concern of collisions with other cyclists wasn’t an issue.
Out along a straight busy road, and back again
The bike course could not have been easier: out along a straight flat stretch of road for 10km, then back along the same way. It was the main road, shared with cars, so it was a little tricky from the point of traffic safety, but it was well marshalled: we had a wide hard shoulder to bike along, and the road surface was smooth and safe. The turn around was tricky: traffic had to be stopped by police while we did u-turns, but again, it was well controlled and it felt safe.
My Varia Vision had connected via Bluetooth smoothly to my watch, showing me all the necessary metrics beamed up to it from the watch on my wrist. I was easily able to monitor my progress by glancing up to it without averting my vision from the road or moving my head. I could see that I was averaging 155bpm heart rate with an average speed of 33.7kph, which was faster than my usual pace. The information from the watch allowed me to pace myself, going harder if my heart rate or speed dipped at all. I kept pushing myself to go faster and harder, and I was relieved when the end came into sight. As is often the case for me, I was very happy to be getting off the bike and heading off on foot for the final segment of the race, the run.
a 6km sprint rather than the usual 5km
The Moby Dick course is unusual, in that it’s 6km long rather than the standard 5k distance. It’s a loop course, so you do two 3km circuits, along a boardwalk on the seafront, then doubling back inland.
It was a flat course, which made it easy to judge your pace: no need to worry about slowing up too much up hills or trying to go fast down again. I knew what I wanted to do, and the Garmin statistics tell me that I pretty much managed to do it: average heart rate 158bpm (I’d been aiming at 160) and average pace 4:22mins/km (I’d been aiming at 4:20). I find it easy to default to a slower pace of 4:30mins/km, so I have to keep telling myself to go faster than is comfortable. For me, it works to spot a competitor around 30m ahead of me: I tell myself that I need to catch them, putting on a burst of speed until I’ve done that, then relaxing a little. My coach calls this method “burning matches”, and that’s what it’s like: one match flares up (as I sprint) then dies away (as I slow down again). It would be better if I could train to be fit enough to be able to do one great long match burn, lasting 6km, but I haven’t been able to do that yet.
Happy to be finished
I enjoyed the run, remembering to smile as I felt the pain of pushing myself hard, and soon the final kilometer came into view. At this point, I reminded myself that not only was this the end of this race – it was also the end of the triathlon season. This extra thought made a big difference to me – I ran hard, and as I approached the finishing line, I let all the emotion out. I had done it! I had finished the season! No more races for ages! No need to focus so hard on training for ages! These were the thoughts that whizzed through my head as I raised my hands above my head in victory: I agree that it was a slightly over the top reaction to finishing a sprint triathlon, but for me, it was a lovely moment of completion.
And happy with the results
After the usual gathering of breath, congratulating those around you who’ve also just finished, and gobbling down some bananas and drinks, there was time to watch fellow athletes coming in. It’s always entertaining, witnessing the whole gamut of athletes finishing their own personal journeys. People of all shapes, sizes and ages. Some sprinting, some jogging, some grimacing, some smiling, but all of them relieved to see that finishing line ahead of them.
We then packed up the car, and were ready to head home. But wait: there’s always the prize giving ceremony.
I had no expectations, except that I knew that I had raced the best race I could have done. Maybe I could have sneaked into the top three for my age?
I checked on a friend’s phone: unusually, the race results had been posted online within an hour of the race finishing.
And there it was in black and white: somehow, I had won my age group category. This rarely happens to me, but it is the most wonderful, goose-pimple raising, exciting occasion whenever it does happen. I was handed the prize – a brown envelope with a present inside it – by the host club chairperson.
The end of the triathlon season – for this year
So that’s it all over. The last race has been swum, cycled and run. The pressure has eased, for now.
That doesn’t mean that the training has finished. Now is the time to work on that swim stroke, to get more streamlined and faster for next year. It’s the time to work on flexibility, with triathlete yoga classes. It’s a chance to try a few different sports, such as cross countries or mountain running.
But no more triathlons for at least six months.
I need to say here, as if it isn’t obvious, that I think triathlons are great. Ten years ago, I was middle aged, overweight and unfit. Thanks to triathlons, I am still middle aged (even more so), but the regular, enjoyable training enforced by triathlon training has at least kept me reasonably fit and at a normal BMI. Anyone can do triathlons: I am not a “sports person” at all. If you are fit enough to run for a bus, then you are fit enough to start doing – and enjoying – triathlons. And if you are half thinking about doing one, don’t wait: take action now. Local triathlon clubs are currently welcoming new members: now is the best time to start to train, so that by the springtime, you are properly ready to get going for that first race.
A final PS
As I said at the start of this report, my aim was to do as well as possible in this race (and I was first in my category, to my surprise) but also to somehow sneak into the top ten of the National Series Rankings. And yesterday, I heard the outcome, when Triathlon Ireland did the final update to their calculations for the year-long competition. The news was great – my result from Saturday boosted my points significantly, lifting me into the tenth place. So I finally achieved my goal (just) of being in the Top Ten of the National Series. Whoo hoo!
And so on to 2018…