My first race of the season
Better late than never: the Loughrea Sprint Triathlon was my first triathlon of the season.The race took place on a classic west of Ireland summer day. The sky was overcast, but the sun was there, behind the clouds, trying to find a gap to shine through, and occasionally succeeding. Meanwhile the rain was also trying to find an opening, creating an occasional splatter of drizzle, and the wind kept stirring, throwing gusts of cold air to remind us that the Irish summer is never predictable.
A Bank Holiday race creates extra leisure opportunities
The race was on the August Bank Holiday weekend, on the Sunday afternoon, giving the possibility of an extended break away in the West of Ireland for Dublin dwellers. Loughrea is 25km east of Galway, so I’d booked a cottage in Connemara for the weekend, travelling over on Friday evening, and planning to stay in the West till Monday afternoon.
I chose to register just before the race, on Sunday lunchtime. The layout of the race is unusual: registration happens in the Temperance Hall, in the middle of Loughrea, but the epicentre of the event was 1.5km away, in a field beside the lake. This was the start of the swim, the transition area, and the finishing line. The roads were closed all around this epicentre, so after parking in the town and registering, we all had to walk or cycle the short distance to get set up for the race.
The bike racks in transition were numbered, which always makes it easier: no need to ponder which bike position is going to work best for you. You just put your bike where you’re told to put it. The numbering system meant that age groups were grouped together, which I always enjoy. I could chat to my age group rivals before the race, as we were getting set up. Furthermore, during the race, I could easily tell how I was getting on by seeing how many folk were still out on the course at each stage.
The Garmin 735XT triathlon watch in action
I soon had my bike in place, my holdall of belongings deposited in the bag drop and my wet suit on. I had paced out swim exit, the bike out route and the bike-run switch over. I was ready to go, apart from one detail: my watch. I was using a Garmin 735XT for the first time in a race (see above, on my left wrist), and I couldn’t quite get it set up properly. The watch has been my best-ever for training: it is smart and slim enough to be wearable in daily life, yet it records all the training information I need for swimming, cycling and running. It syncs seamlessly by Bluetooth with my phone, so there’s no need for me to do anything. My training data magically appears on my Garmin Connect and Strava online records, all by itself.
The watch has a special “triathlon” mode for the race, which means that it records swim, cycle and run sequentially; I just had to press the “lap” button as I moved from one discipline to the other. So far so good: there was one catch. I had to get it set up with the specific data fields on the screen that I wanted to monitor while I was competing. Every athlete has their own preference, and it’s different for each discipline; the Garmin 735XT allows you to choose whatever you prefer. A chest band makes sure that your heart rate is recorded continually, even during the swim.
My problem in that pressurised pre-race period was that I couldn’t work out how to configure the data fields. The watch is designed to be easy to operate; even without reading the manual, it’s easy to intuitively work out what to do. But as I scrolled through the set up screens, I couldn’t find out how to change the data fields. The race start time was approaching, and my anxiety was mounting about this first-world problem. I asked one of the friendly marshals if they knew what to do, and they had it for me instantly. It was very very easy when the answer was pointed out.
The swim starts in Loughrea by pushing off a stone wall
I downed my final energy drink, put on my swim hat, and joined my wave of 100 competitors in the water. It’s an unusual type of start: you all line up against the wall at the edge of the lake, one hand on the stonework. There’s a 3, 2, 1 countdown, and then you are all off, swimming aggressively towards the first buoy . It’s classic triathlon swimming, with people bumping off you, their elbows and feet clattering you around the head. But it’s exciting, and soon the numbers thin out, and it’s just you and a few close by as you swim together around the rectangular course of bright yellow buoys. The water was choppy, because of that intermittent breeze, and it was difficult to get a good view of the next buoy that I was trying to aim at, but I focussed on swimming efficiently and hard, and it was all over in 15 minutes: I’d reached the end and I was being hauled out by one of the helpful Loughrea marshals.
Velcro straps are meant to be easy to do up and undo
The first transition is the most difficult: you have to haul your body out of a wetsuit that’s clinging to you like a tightly fitting glove. I spray myself with suitlube when I put the wetsuit on and that makes it easier, but in this race, my challenge was that I couldn’t undo the Velcro-stuck flap at the back of my neck, making it impossible to unzip myself. It’s a new wetsuit, and I really should have practised doing this repeatedly in my training (but really, who wants to do that?)
The Loughrea swim-bike transition involves a 100m run from lake to bike, so I spent most of this run fumbling at the back of my neck, and luckily, I managed to do it just in time. I was onto my bike without much delay, noticing that most of my age group’s bikes were still in the racks, telling me that I was ahead of them at this stage. So far, so good.
Slipping bare feet into bike shoes mid-race needs more practice too
I use the elastic-band-on-bike-shoes technique, and it worked well in this race. The first 100m of the 20km bike course is up a gentle incline, so I had my bare feet on top of my shoes for this section, taking time in the following downhill section to slot my feet into the shoes and fasten the Velcro straps in place. It’s difficult to do this smoothly, and I veered to my right as I struggled, prompting a frantic shout of “right, right” from a cyclist behind me, vocally reminding me to keep to the left to let him pass me.
Soon after, I passed a cyclist lying prone beside the road. “Are you OK” I hollered. “No”, he shouted back. I was about to stop, then I saw marshals running to help him from behind me. I hope he was OK.
I enjoyed the cycle, perhaps too much. You aren’t really meant to enjoy racing in that way. Narrow country lanes, mostly closed to traffic. Whizzing past green fields, scattered with grazing sheep. Marshals appearing from time to time to warn you about hazards like steep bends while shouting encouragement at you. Gentle hills up and down: nothing too taxing. I passed a few other competitors, but barely anyone cycled past me, and I felt that I was doing well enough. Why spoil the fun by pressing myself harder? With hindsight, I definitely wasn’t pushing hard enough.
The Garmin Varia Vision helped me monitor my efforts
To monitor my progress, I was using the Garmin Varia Vision device, clipped to the side of my sunglasses: I had configured this for a heads-up display of the distance covered, my heart rate, my current speed and my average speed. The Varia Vision made it easy for me to see these statistics instantly at any time in the race, without having to glance down at my watch or at my handlebars. The data is shown on the screen, in the top right section of your vision. It doesn’t obscure the road in front of you, but it’s always there, easy to view.
So I knew at the time that I wasn’t cycling hard enough: my heart rate stayed around 150 (it should have been 160) and my speed averaged at 30kph (it should have been 33 or more). But I was enjoying the ride, my muscles were aching and I didn’t feel that I wanted to push myself harder.
An unusual feature of the Loughrea event was the fact that it was also the national championships for paratriathletes. I found myself cycling past people in wheelchair racing bikes, using their hands to power the wheels while they lie prone on their backs. They struggle to get up hills quickly but they overtake regular cyclists going down hills, with their ultra-streamlined close-to-the-road profile. I was also overtaken by a couple of cyclists on tandems: paratriathletes with partial blindness on the back seat with fully sighted companions guiding them in front.
My own bike-run transition went smoothly: I hadn’t been overtaken by anyone of my age on the bike, so I knew that I was still towards the front of my age group.
The final section: an undulating 5k run
The 5km run was another enjoyable saunter through west of Ireland countryside, with dry stone walls and pocket stamp sized fields around us. My legs felt odd at first, as they always do immediately after being on the bike for over half an hour, but I soon felt my normal running rhythm slipping into place. I had set up the Garmin 735XT to show me different data to the bike: for me, this meant the time since the start of run, distance covered, pace and heart rate. I knew that I should be aiming at a 21 minute time, running at a 4 minute 10 second per kilometre pace, with a heart rate of 165 per minute. The course at Loughrea added a complication: it’s gently uphill going out for 2.5km, then gently downhill coming back. This made it difficult to judge pace: it’s hard to run at full pace when going up a hill, and hard to know how much faster you should be running when going downhill. I ended up running at 4:45 min per km going out, speeding up to 3:58 per km for the final downhill kilometre towards the end. The Garmin statistics afterwards told me why my run was not as fast as I’d planned: I averaged 4:30 per km, 20 seconds slower than I’d wanted, and my heart rate averaged 160 per minute, instead of the 165 which I know I need to reach for peak performance.
That said, I enjoyed the run, talking to fellow competitors as I ran alongside them. The truth is that I enjoyed it too much: you really should be focussing so hard on running as fast as possible that it shouldn’t cross your mind to engage in conversation during a race.
I pushed hard as I ran the last few hundred metres: the cheers of supporters always make it easy to do this. I was happy enough with my time, at just over 22 minutes.
The finishing line: always a happy place
The Loughrea organisers had provided pasta, bananas and drinks at the finish, and as I refilled my glycogen stores, I stepped into the lake, up to my waist, to cool my hard-worked muscles.
The post-race awards ceremony took place back in the town, at the same place where we’d registered, and we were all served a full meal while they happened. I had half a hope that I might have earned a podium place (top three) but as it turned out, I was fourth out of thirteen. I would have had to have finished a full three minutes earlier to gain the third place. Perhaps I could have done this if I had spent less time savouring the scenery on the bike, and less time chatting on the run, and if I had forced myself to suffer more, pushing my heart rate up by five or ten beats per minute. But would I have enjoyed the event as much? Something to reflect on for next year.
Why do I do triathlons?
I often wonder why I do triathlons at all.
- Partly it’s physical fitness: without the goal of an event, I would find it difficult to make myself exercise regularly.
- Partly it’s mental fitness: I find exercise is a great de-stressor, and working as a vet, that’s an important need
- But there’s something else that I can’t put my finger on. Something a bit primeval, a bit tribal, even a bit transcendent.
At the end of the race, on the advice of my coach, I waded waist-deep into the cold lake water, to give my overheated muscles a cold bath treatment. As I waded out on my own, I found myself lifting my arms, filling my lungs and roaring at the expanse of empty, open water in front of me. What was I bellowing at and why was I doing it? It was unconscious: I didn’t know anyone was watching, never mind taking my photo.
I’m left thinking that there’s some sort of link with what my ancestors must have done, going into battle, extending themselves, pushing limits and fighting as hard as they could.
We don’t have to do that in the same way in the twenty first century, but maybe triathlons – and indeed many other types of physical exertion and competition – fill some sort of battle-shaped niche in our brains.
And so on to the next race, in Mullingar next Saturday. Or should I say: the next battle?