My second triathlon race of the season took place last Saturday in Westport, a small town on the edge of an Atlantic inlet on Ireland’s west coast. The big challenge for me was going to be that this was another battle with my rival D, my training mate and age group rival. So when I heard that he wasn’t racing after all, the racing pressure was less intense: I no longer had to focus on catching him after the swim. But still, a race is a race, and I wanted to do my best.
In the end, another age-group rival, N, turned up on the day but I didn’t spot him soon enough. If I had known he was there, the pressure would have been on.
Late night driving or early morning start?
I was working in my vet clinic on the Friday evening, and it takes over three hours to drive to Westport from my home, so my original plan was to travel up on the Saturday morning before the race. However as race day drew closer, I realised that this would mean getting out of bed at 4.30am to be ready to start the race at 10am. So I decided to travel up with my wife on the Friday evening, staying in a local AirBNB close to the start of the race: we arrived close to midnight, but it meant that I could sleep on till 7am, and even enjoy a healthy pre-race breakfast beforehand.
My training has been building over this season, and I felt ready to race, right up till bedtime on Friday. But then I woke on Saturday morning with a sore throat and nasal congestion. I’m aware that I sound like a right hypochondriac to talk about stuff like this, but if you’re planning to race, you do need to be aware that there are times when you need to listen to your body. If you are properly sick, the worst thing you can do would be to pressurise your system with the stress of a race.
So was my incipient cold bad enough to stop me racing? This is one of those occasions when it helps immensely to have a coach: as I munched my muesli, I called him for advice. He asked about my symptoms: no chest involvement – tick. Head feeling clear – tick. Resting heart rate still less than 55 – tick. He told me that it was safe to race, but that if I began to feel bad during the race, I should stop rather than trying to push through the discomfort.
Setting up the bike at transition
Before lining up in your wetsuit to get into the water, all triathlons start with setting up your bike in the transition zone, ready for you to leap onto it after the swim. This is a time for settling your nerves and getting your directional bearings sorted: I always pace out the path I will be taking, from water’s edge to bike, and where I will then run with the bike before jumping on it to do the bike ride. And after the bike ride, you need to park the bike in the same place, leaving it there before heading out on the run. Again, I like to pace this out: it sounds easy, but when there are two or three hundred bikes parked in an enclosure, it’s easy to lose your bearings, and there’s nothing worse than running around like a headless chicken looking for your bike while your rivals are passing you out.
As it happened, I’d been too relaxed over breakfast in the lovely AirBNB, so I’d left my timing a tad late, and the transition area was being closed as I arrived and the wetsuited crowds had already gathered.
I didn’t get a chance to do my usual pre-race pacing up and down. I paid the cost of this later on.
Swimming in the Atlantic
Triathlons start in waves, with a hundred or more swimmers in each wave. My wave – the second one – started at 10am. The swim was a 1500m triangle around the Atlantic inlet off the quays in Westport town. The water was cold, but I’ve been swimming in the sea every week for the past month, so my system is familiar with the chilly sensation, and the truth is that once you get swimming, you’ve plenty else to worry about than the cold. People beside you in the water are kicking and flailing their arms, you’re trying to make out the orange buoy in the distance that you are meant to be swimming around, and all the time, the stopwatch is ticking and you really want to get this done as soon as you can. I tend to just focus on trying to get into the slip stream of the person in front of me, and keeping moving, moving, moving. I find this type of swim is like a type of active meditation: half an hour immersed in bubbles, cold water and adrenaline is an invigorating experience.
Should have learnt how to put the helmet on
As is often the case, I felt happy but disorientated as I emerged from the water: I found my bike and tore off the wetsuit quickly enough, but then I struggled to get my new bike helmet onto my head. It was a tighter fit than my old one, and as I put it on, it kept dislodging my sunglasses. I managed eventually but I lost twenty seconds or so as I struggled. After the race, my coach gave me a tip: put the sunglasses in your back pocket, put the helmet on, then once you are up and away on the bike, put the sunglasses on your face. It’s small details like this that can make a significant difference to your race time.
Biking (not too) hard
The bike course was 40km; 20km out along the coast, then back again. It was an easy course, with gentle inclines and straight roads; no steep hills or sharp cornering. I use the Garmin Varia Vision™ In-sight Display, clipped to my sunglasses: this syncs with my Garmin Forerunner 735XT triathlon watch, giving me a continual sight of the distance travelled, my speed and my heart rate: this helps to make sure that I’m putting the right effort into the race. I want to know if I am going too slowly, with a slow heart rate: the watch tells me, and I know to crack the whip harder against myself.
I had a technical glitch with the Varia display as I headed off on the bike: the bluetooth connection with the watch failed, and I had to keep starting, stopping and resetting the set up. It was frustrating but I got it sorted eventually by fiddling with it all as I zoomed along at pace. There’s no point in looking like Terminator if the technical kit isn’t doing what it’s meant to be doing.
Getting lost in transition
The second transition, from bike to run, was where I paid for my lack of pre-race preparation. I had to put my bike back at the same rack place as before, and I became disorientated, forgetting where I had to put it. I have a small red 50cm changing mat that I use to stand on while I change my shoes, and that’s one of my mental markers to identify my bike position. Someone else had placed exactly the same type of changing mat by their bike’s position, 20m away from my own bike, so again, I lost half a minute while I tried to unfuddle my befuddled mind to work out what was going on.
Running on schedule
The bike was soon racked in the right position, and I was off on the final stage of the race, the 10km run. This is my favourite part of the race: I am not a natural swimmer, and nor I am a born cyclist. But put me on my feet and point me in the right direction, and I can keep going happily for as long as I need to do.
Again, I used my Garmin Forerunner 735XT watch to gauge my progress: I was aiming for a pace of 4 mins, 30 secs per kilometer, and a heart rate of around 160. I could have pushed a bit harder and faster, but I was aware of that viral infection swirling around my bloodstream so I took things a little easier. I checked the stats after the race, and I had managed to stick to my targets almost exactly: it was a good example of how technology can make a difference in these types of races.
As is often the way, I found a “running angel”: someone going at around my pace to keep me company. This often works two-ways: each of us encourages the other when they slow down, so that our average pace is better than it would be if running alone. Angels can be either gender, young or old: they just need to be running at around your own pace. Today, the angel was a girl in her early twenties who went on to be third in the women’s race. I stayed with her for most of the run.
The run course was a series of three laps along woodland trails around a stately home, Westport House. The laps made it easier: it helps to have a countdown of 3 – 2 – 1 when you are suffering discomfort like that.
Finishing 90 seconds too late
As I crossed the finishing line, I was handed the usual medal and recovery drink, and as I sat there gathering myself, my rival N came up to me: he told me that he’d finished just over a minute ahead of me, and he’d been worried that I was going to catch him. I hadn’t even known he was there. He ended up being first in our age group, making me second, which I was thrilled with. But first would have been even better.
For the next race, as well as looking out for D, I now have to watch that lad N. Two rivals in my sights!
Wicklow Triathlon Club is the best
The finishing line was a social hotspot, with over a dozen of my local team mates racing on the day: we had plenty of post-race chat and debriefing. Wicklow Triathlon Club is known as the best triathlon club in the world, and it’s certainly the friendliest; there’s always great encouragement and camaraderie, especially before, during and after the races.
Finishing up with a pub-based music festival
After the race chats and post-mortems with my Wicklow Triathlon Club team mates, I headed back to the superhost AirBNB to shower: they had kindly allowed us to come back for this even though we had formally checked out. Then it was into Westport town to enjoy some of the Folk and Bluegrass Music Festival and pub chat (see below) before hitting the long road back home. I would have loved to stay for the night, but couldn’t do it this year.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable race: I will be back next year, and we’ll make a full weekend of it next time.
My next race? The enjoyable Two Provinces Triathlon on 13th July in Lanesboro, Co Longford. This is a sprint triathlon – the shorter distance – and it’s know for being a family-friendly, welcoming event, so if you are thinking about doing a triathlon for the first time, it’d be a great way to start.