My past year of training had been leading up to this past weekend: the honour of representing Ireland in the World Triathlon Grand Finals in Lausanne, Switzerland. The best athletes from around the world were gathering to race against each other, and I was joining them. No pressure, so.
A year of preparation
I’d been training hard, and I’ve been competing in both Sprint and Olympic distance races in Ireland. A few months ago, I had a choice to make for Lausanne: the sprint distance race (on the Saturday), the Olympic distance race (on the Sunday) or even to do both. It was a tough decision and in the end, it was the rest of my life which dictated the choice: I had to do an Ireland AM television slot on the Friday before the weekend, so it would have been difficult for me to get out in time to be properly prepared for the start of the sprint race early on the Saturday morning. And so the call was for the Olympic distance race. I travelled out on Friday afternoon, settled into the hotel, and then had a comfortable 36 hours to get my head to the right place.
A global gathering
There’s a real buzz around the World Finals: we shared our hotel with Icelandic and South African athletes, and the competition area on Lausanne seafront was buzzing with folk from a lot list of countries, from Columbia and Mexico to Australia and New Zealand, from USA and Canada to every European country, with many other nationalities too.
Saturday was my acclimatization day: I watched my friends competing in Sprint distance, learning how the mechanics of the race set up worked, from the swim entry and exit to the transition in and out, to the bike and run courses.
Warm water brought challenging news
It was early to bed on Saturday night, with the alarm clock set for 630am: my race started at 9:50am, so there was plenty of time for breakfast then a taxi to take me to the start. There was disconcerting news for me first thing: they had just announced that the water was so warm – at 24’ – that wetsuits were not to be worn. You might think that this was good news: less hassle and complication taking the wetsuit off when you get out of the water. The truth is that slower swimmers (like myself) benefit hugely from the buoyancy of a wetsuit: this lifts your legs up in the water, preventing drag, and making you go faster. And all of my open water swim training had been done wearing a wet suit. So to swim in a Lycra tri-suit, with no buoyancy, was going to be difficult.
The start of the race
A big race event like this starts in multiple waves of entrants, divided into age groups. So I lined up with 75 men of my own age, and five minutes later, another 75 men of my age headed off: there were 150 in my age group altogether.
We were herded into the Lake Geneva water five minutes before the start: it was pleasantly warm, like a big outdoor swimming pool. Then three-two-one – we were off.
The no-wetsuit swim
The swim was 1500m, around a series of huge red and white bouys. A birds eye view of this would make it look easy, but the reality, when you are in the water, is far different. It was easy swimming the 100m to the first bouy: I tucked in behind a red-suited Swiss competitor, enjoying his slip stream. But then there was congested chaos as 75 people tried to swim around that bouy at the same time, and I fought to keep my place. As we moved past the bouy, I found it difficult to see the next bouy that I was meant to be swimming towards. The water was choppy, ruffled up by the breeze, and I was being tossed around in it, like a twig in a babbling brook. It was hard to stay calm and focused. I ended up following the person in front of me, which is never a good idea. The tracing gathered by my Garmin watch showed me after the race that I had zig-zagged rather than swimming in a straight line: I swam a distance of 1700m, an extra 200m, which would have added at least 4 minutes to my time.
Towards the end of the race, I could see a line of yellow-capped swimmers to my right: I swam towards them, even though they seemed a bit away from the main race flow. As I got closer, I realized they weren’t swimmers at all: they were stationary yellow buoys. I’m swum in the wrong direction again.
The eventful bike ride
So it was a tremendous relief to finally emerge from the water, running towards my bike. I glanced at my watch, and was disappointed to see 40:00 minutes on the display for my swim time: nearly ten minutes slower than my target. It was a poor start to a race that I had had high hopes for. Later I discovered that everyone has a slow swim: water conditions were just difficult. But at the time, it put my race mood on a downer.
As I headed off on the bike, I had a second problem: my friend D had kindly lent me his bike, as he had been racing the day before and didn’t need it for the Sunday. It was a lovely, light weight road bike, with super-efficient electronic gears. I had been for a spin for it the day before, to get used to the novel way of changing gears. But in the race, under the pressure of the chase, I found it difficult to change the gears up and down. I ended up putting time and energy into puzzling over this rather than just pushing myself to pedal harder and faster. It was a hilly course, and gears were important. The result: my average speed was 29.7km/hour, significantly slower than my usual 33 or 34km/hour.
I had stashed some food on the bike, to eat near the end of the bike course, so that I’d have plenty of energy for the run. I had taken some cake from the breakfast buffet at the hotel: it seemed like sugar-rich, easily handlable food. There was one problem that I discovered too late: crumbs. When eating on the bike, you are at full exertion: almost panting like a dog. So eating crumbly crumby food is not good: I ended up inhaling a few crumbs, giving me coughing fits, which was the last thing I wanted to be having as I pushed myself to cycle harder, faster, stronger.
It was an eventful 40k bike ride: at one stage, the motorbike referee official pulled up beside me, and the guy shouted at me: “What is that on your sunglasses?”. I told him that it was my Garmin mini-display, showing me my heart rate, speed and distance covered. I always wear it in races. He shouted back that I was not allowed to have anything extra like that in the world finals, so I had to take it off and stash it in my back pocket, which I did. I was afraid he might even disqualify me – he seemed angry – but nothing more came of it in the end.
Great encouragement from Irish supporters
These hassles were easy to put to one side: I was enjoying the bike ride, spurred on by occasional groups of Irish supporters, waving flags and cheering, by the roadside. There was a lovely international sense about the occasion, and I enjoyed seeing riders from all of the nationalities, male and female, from a wide range of age groups: twenty year olds up to a few hardy souls in the 85 to 89 age bracket. I cycled past some, and others cycled past me. It was like the United Nations on tarmac.
The overheated and hilly 10k run
As is always the case, I was relieved when the bike came to an end. There was only one catch: it meant that it was time for me to start the run. The sun had come up and was now overhead, blasting down on me with continental summer heat. I knew that it was going to be a tough 10k.
I started badly: after racking my bike, I forgot to take the bike helmet off and I started running still wearing it. An official bellowed at me to stop making a fool of myself, and I had to run back 20m to take it off and put it with my bike.Then I was off, cantering along the sea front, watching the kilometers slow tick off on my watch.
Switzerland is a mountainous country, and the race organizers clearly wanted to remind us of this fact. The run course started innocuously along the sea front, but after a kilometre, it veered inland, up a path that was so steep that it really should have had steps. I started running up it, but the effort was so intense, and I was moving so slowly, that I decided to try long walking strides instead, and this worked: I even overtook a few determined individual who were persevering with running, out of principle. The only good thing about the hill was that there were no spectators looking on or taking photos: we suffered alone and in silence.
The rest of the race was flat enough, and I settled into a steady enough pace, but I struggled to find my usual zones. I try to run with three things in mind: first, my heart rate (if it is slower than 165, then I am not trying hard enough), and second my pace (if it’s slower than 4:30 per kilometer, then I need to go faster). The third parameter is simple: run as hard as I can for as long as I can. The problem I had in Lausanne is that my heart rate stayed too low (averaged 157) and my pace stayed too slow (averaged 4:55 mins per km). And this was despite the fact that I felt like I was running as hard as I could. With hindsight, I think this was for a number of reasons: the extreme heat and sun, the steep hills upsetting my rhythm, the stress of travel from Ireland and finally, the shock of a tough swim. It was a real battle to get through the run without slowing down to an easy jog, but eventually, the finishing line came into view, and it was over.
Kevin from Triathlon Ireland caught a video of me in the middle of the run – you can watch it here.
The joy of finishing
That moment of crossing the finishing line is always the happiest in my life. An official was using a hose pipe to spray finishers with cold water, and I kept going back for more. There aren’t many times in life when you ask for a firehose to be directed straight into your face, but this was one. The cool fresh water was like whole body air conditioning, right to the core, and it was just what was needed. Then I headed out of the finishers’ pen to greet the Irish supporters, feeling like a old, graying version of a minor sporting celebrity. There was a celebratory atomosphere, the endorphins and dopamines were coursing through my veins, and I felt fabulous.
The final results
The results were released a couple of hours later: I ended up being 102nd out of 146 competitors in my age group. Eamonn, my coach, summed it up: I had a good race, but not a great race.
For the event that it was – the Triathlon Grand Finals – I would have loved to have had a great race, to have performed at the maximal capacity of my ability. That’s what was meant to happen. But the race – like all races – had lessons for me, and one of the main ones this weekend was to accept what happens as the reality. It was what it was, whether I liked it or not. I’ll try to learn from the other lessons (e.g. no crumby cake on the bike) and I will try again one day.
A wonderful weekend of celebrating triathlons for everyone
The weekend in Switzerland was far more than just my own race: it was a gathering of triathletes of all persuasions and abilities from around the world. It was genuinely awe-inspiring to see the elite athletes race on Saturday – examples of the human physique at its very best – and it was equally inspiring to witness the paratriathletes racing on Sunday – examples of courageous humans overcoming hurdles that would seem insurmountable to most of us. Particular congratulations are due to Cassie Cava, who won a bronze medal in her event, and my own coach Eamonn Tilley, who is also the official coach for the Irish Paratriathlete team. And commiserations to Donnacha McCarthy and Bryan McCrystal, a pair with remarkable ability, who unfortunately were unable to race at the event, despite their hopes of a last minute entry.
As much as a weekend of sporting endeavour, this was a time of social connection, getting to know old friends better, making new friends, and celebrating the joy of being alive and healthy. I travelled with over fifty Irish athletes, all doing our best for Ireland: many congratulations to everyone. We all endured our own trials and fought our own battles, and credit is due to all.
I’m deeply indebted to my coach Eamonn, who made this event possible for me, encouraging me to enter, supporting my training, and putting the logistics into place to make it happen. If you want a hand with anything at all, triathlon-wise, then Eamonn is yer only man!
The 85 – 89 year olds have given me a new perspective: I’m planning to keep doing this sport for many years to come.