As regular blog readers may know, as well as writing about animals, I am an enthusiast about triathlons, and during the summer race season, I post race reports after competing. I do this both for personal reasons (journalling can be an effective way of dealing with internal stress, which racing can certainly induce) as well as for simple sharing reasons (I like to encourage others to consider doing triathlons, as I enjoy them so much, and in particular, if someone is considering a particular race, it can be helpful to read someone else’s report about it).
I realise that not everyone likes reading about triathlons (you are here to read about animals, right?) If that’s the case, just skip over the race reports. And I will catch you with an animal story another time.
And so, on with the race report.
My first triathlon of the racing season
The Carlow Sprint Triathlon took place on Sunday 19th May 2019: for many of us regular triathletes, it was the first race of the season. It’s a sprint distance – i.e. 750m swim in a river, 20km bike on the road, then 5km run along a footpath beside the river. It was also part of the National Series: this means that competitors gather points that are totted up at the end of the season to work out where you stand in the ranking nationally compared to other athletes in your age group. This makes it more exciting than non-ranking races: the pressure is on.
Keeping warm before the shock of the cold water
The weather on race day was perfect: overcast, calm and dry. We had to register by 11.30am, get bike set up in transition by 1145, get to race start by 1215 for the first wave of entrants to start at 1230. As is often the case, I left my timing a little late, but that was OK: I don’t like hanging around feeling anxious before racing My long suffering wife J was there as my supporter which made life much easier: she had the very great pleasure of carrying my spare clothing and shoes, which meant I could stay snug and warm right up to race start, trying not to look too self satisfied beside my shivering wet suited bare footed competitors around me. I was wearing a Dryrobe, which is like a huge fleece-lined jacket that makes you feel as if you are inside a cosy tent (and which made me look as if I don’t have any legs in this photo).
I did my coach Eamonn’s recommended pre race warm up moves, feeling a bit foolish as I stretched, jogged, high kicked and high fived. What sort of pseudo-wannabee professional was I? But I’ve learned before, the trick is to do what coach says, so I just did what I was told.
I was in the fourth wave of swimmers (we were sent off in batches of around 80 at a time). The folk before me had entered the water silently, but I couldn’t help screaming as I plunged into the 13’C water: it was sooo cold. The wetsuit helps, but still, total immersion in cold water is a shock at any time.
The race starts and it’s go – go – go
It was a relief when the hooter went off and the race started. We had to swim upstream for 100m (staying close to the bank, out of the way of the downstream current), then around an orange buoy, swimming downstream in the middle of the river (to stay in the way of the downstream current) for 650m. It’s always a bit of a muddle: you can’t easily see where you are going when there are people kicking and splashing all around you. Still, I battled through it, and in less than 15 minutes, I was out of the water at the other end, running towards my bike.
The first transition – getting out of a wet suit
This is known as T1 (Transition One) and the aim is to rip off the wetsuit as fast as you can (without actually ripping it), put on your bike helmet and bike shoes, and head off onto the bike segment of the course. It takes about two minutes, and speed is of the essence. If you’re really quick, you can do it in a minute and if you are slow, it could take you five minutes. It might sound odd, but triathletes practice these transitions, methodically timing themselves taking off a wetsuit as fast as possible. How exciting can life get? In Carlow, I couldn’t reach the zip at the back of my wetsuit: it’s too fiddly, and I was pawing at pathetically for an extra fifteen seconds before I managed to unrip the velcro catch. These fifteen seconds can count for a lot at the end of a race.
Jumping onto the bike
You have to push your bike up to the “mount line”, and you then leap onto it, like vaulting onto a running horse, trying to get up as much speed as fast as possible.
In Carlow, the 20km bike course is unusual: it’s an “out and back” route, on closed roads, so there’s no other traffic. It’s a steady incline up, so I was peddling hard for 20 minutes up the hill, which hurt a lot. The positive side is that coming back was easy: less than 20 minutes downhill. I remember whizzing past a speed check monitor which told me that I was going at 60km/hour. It’s exhilarating stuff as long as you don’t contemplate what would happen if the bike crashed at that speed.
My main goal in this race was to beat a training mate, D, who consistently managed to race faster than me last year. He’s a far better swimmer than me, we bike at about the same pace, and I can usually run faster than him. So I knew I’d be chasing him, and as I peddled hard, I wondered when I would see him. I eventually spotted him at the turnaround point of the bike ride: he was 50 metres ahead of me. And by the end of the bike segment, it was more like 100m. I was going to have to run hard to catch him.
Bike shoes off, running shoes on
T2 (Transition two) is easier than T1: you just need to jump off the bike, take off your helmet, and replace your biking shoes with running shoes. But again, mistakes can happen. It can be hard to remember which of the 500 bikes is your own one, even though they are in numbered racks and you know your own race number. When you are racing hard, your brain sometimes doesn’t think straight. It helps that you are wearing a label carrying your race number around your torso: I have been known to look at this to remind myself in the middle of a race.
So the run was also an out-and-back course, this time along a river bank. Five kilometres doesn’t sound like much but when you have already exerted yourself fully for nearly an hour, it’s not easy. Runners like myself wear watches (mine is a Garmin Forerunner 735XT, which I love), and we monitor our progress by checking what the watch tells us. So I knew that I had to catch D, and that meant running at a pace of 4 minutes 30 seconds or faster. As I headed off, I was going at 4:45, and my heart rate was 150 per minute. Neither my running pace nor my heart rate were fast enough, but my legs and body didn’t want to go any faster. I could see D ahead of me, and I wasn’t getting any closer. I began to sense failure. D was going to beat me.
Then two guys passed me, running as a mini-pack, a bit faster than me. I told myself it was now or never, and I slipped in behind them, running at their pace. It hurt, but I had to do it. Now I was moving at 4 mins 15 seconds pace, and my heart rate had shot up to 165 beats per minute. I gritted my teeth and tried not to think about the pain. It would be over soon enough.
This faster pace did the trick: I began to catch up with D. Within five minutes, I was overtaking him. I was in too much discomfort to make smart comments as I passed. Even once I had run past him, I feared that he, in turn, would hang onto my heels, passing me out close to the finishing line. So I stayed at the faster pace, keeping the two lads right there in front of me, for as long as I could. Eventually, after glancing over my shoulder to make sure that D was far enough away, I eased up, back to my slower pace. The finish was just a few hundred metres away now.
The much anticipated finishing line
And that was it. I found myself laughing as I crossed the line: at last, the pain was over. There must be some massive endorphin release at this time: the finishing line is always a place of euphoria for me. Especially when I was able to greet D with a handshake when he jogged in, 30 seconds later…
Next race? The Westport Standard triathlon in June, then the wonderful family-friendly Two Provinces triathlon, one of my favourite races, in July. I will keep you posted.