This is Not What Triathlon is About

Last Sunday morning, I set off with my bestest bud into East London to take part in the AJ Bell London Triathlon. I had entered a while ago, and was pleased to find out after finishing Blenheim Palace Triathlon, that the medals would literally fit together, as they had been organised by the same people. I had entered the sprint distance (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run).

Getting there, I must say was absolutely fine the entire way into London, and we were even pleased to spot some signs to event parking, which disappeared without a trace every time you got near to the venue, resulting in us driving around it in circles for quite some time – not impressed! Parking was also a little on the pricey side (£20!), but I wouldn’t have been able to transport my bike on any of the nearby tube trains, so we had settled to drive.

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Sprint distance full course map

The race is set up at the ExCel centre, which is an exhibition centre (on the other side of London, for us) next to the Royal Victoria Docks. The swim, therefore would be in the Thames, the bike ride would be 2 laps on the other side of the centre, and the run another 2 laps next to the river. On a map, and set out next to the standard distance race, it looked to be a sight-seeing tour to Westminster at a close glance.

It was mad chaos when we got inside the exhibition centre. Races had been on all weekend, with 3 different distances – super sprint, sprint and olympic – meaning that there were several different wave times and a lot of bodies rushing around everywhere. I managed to locate the timing chip collection point and headed into transition (quite large!) to set myself up for the race.

I was racked up and ready to go, having familiarised myself with the ins and outs of transition and my bike position as best I could with a half-filled rack. After a few moments of time spent cheering in some other competitors from another wave, and a race briefing… It was time for the start!

 

The water was colder than I have been training in, but not as cold as it had been at the start of the season, meaning I was strangely grateful for those training sessions in 10-11°C lakes! The swim was one lap around the course, which to my delight was marked with large pig-shaped buoys. The water was salty and choppy. I have to say, as a person who enjoys swimming, and especially open water swimming, that I hated every second of the swim.

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Swimming with the piggies

During the whole race, there was a strong westerly wind that was probably an un-noticed helping hand heading east to west, however going into it was a struggle. In the water, you spent most of time swimming into it, and the waves were huge. They crashed over your head when you were trying to breathe, and my friend who was spectating said she had seen several of the girls in my wave get pulled out onto the boats because it was too much.

I was slightly pleased, although mostly grumpy, when I got out of the Thames and discovered that I had done the swim section in a little over 16 minutes, which considering I had struggled, I thought was good. I did have a little gripe that if the water had been more still, I may have broken that elusive 15 minute swim barrier, but I can always try in better conditions for it another time!

T1 was a little slower than hoped for two reasons. I was met at the swim exit with a strange prospect – in the briefing, they had asked us to remove our wetsuits almost as soon as we got out of water, and put them in these large carrier bags they had provided. I can only assume to keep the floor dry inside? There was promise of wetsuit removing helpers there, but I saw no one. Having run around with my wetsuit in a bag, I encountered the bigger obstacle, I couldn’t spot my bike straight away again. I luckily found it not too long after, kicking myself. I appear to have a problem with large transition areas!

Eager to make some time up from the start of the race, I shot out on the bike. The route, I have to say, was not very exciting at all. The Olympic distance route was the one that took you out into Westminster, however the turn for the Sprint distance was much earlier at Leamouth, just going up and down the A13. Again, that strong wind struck. I felt like a god going east to west, and then when I went back the other way, I was struck head on with a gust so powerful, I think if I stopped pedalling downhill, the bike would have just ground to a halt.

I powered on with it though, and managed to complete that section in 44:44, with some amazing support from my friend Katie, who had made me the most magnificent sign to cheer me on. She had positioned herself in a brilliant point – at the top of a hill I was climbing into a headwind, and had bribed the nearby marshals with sweets to cheer for me by name. That was a huge boost for me.

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Post-race, displaying my amazing sign, in costume of course!

T2 was a lot smoother, and I used the opportunity coming out of transition (it was a bit of a long road out) to slurp up an energy gel. The run again, I have to say, was not a very interesting route. It was nice to run next to the river a little bit, but after 0.6 miles I found myself at the turning point, concerned that it was only a two lap race. Was it going to be short? The run makes its way uphill back into the ExCel, and from there, you complete approx. half a mile inside, before heading back out. The run was done in 26:49, which I was pretty pleased with.

The finish is along a red carpet down a finish tunnel, and I soaked up the glory as much as I could. Fairly impressed with my total finish time of 01:37:43, and extremely pleased with the incredible support of my friend, who I would not have achieved this time in, I made use of the finish area.

You receive your medal and some water after the line, and have your photo taken. There were 2 igloos to go in after – the first where you could look up your times on the course, but I had my Garmin so went straight through. I received some recovery gels in the second one, and then utilised the stretching area they had laid out. It was great – there were yoga mats, foam rollers, and stretch suggestion boards. I discovered here that at some point in the day, and not to my knowledge before the race, that I had cut my foot and there was blood in my sock. I took my free pint of beer from outside the tent, found my friend and located the amazing volunteers in the medical tent, who cleaned my cut out, since I was unsure whether it had been exposed to the Thames.

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The two medals together in all their glory!

 

In summary, the medal was nice and I enjoyed the novelty of the two medals going together, however, I really felt like this was a triathlon for the sake of organising one. There are so many triathlons around the country and the world set in beautiful locations, and this was not one of them. It had no interesting qualities, and lacked a certain atmosphere that you get at any other triathlon I have entered. It seemed to me like there ‘had’ to be a London Triathlon, the docks seemed like a good enough place to do it in, and that was that. The course wasn’t well thought out to be interesting or fun, and it wasn’t for me. Box ticked, but I will not be returning to this race, I don’t think, and I completely agree with what a friend had mentioned to them: this is not what triathlon is about!

Thanks for reading,

Amanda x

 

Sprinting to the Olympics

Unfortunately, the title of this isn’t my announcement that I have a place in Team GB at the Tokyo Olympics, or that I have qualified for the World Championships in Rotterdam, but maybe one day! I have in fact combined my first 2 triathlons of the season into one post, as they fell within 2 weeks of each other. As the title suggests, the events were different distances – Sprint and Olympic.

Race 1: Blenheim Palace Triathlon – Sprint Distance

The stunning setting of Blenheim Palace is a great way to set off the season. Covering a weekend, there are various short distances you can sign up for: Super Sprint (400m, 13km, 3km), Sprint (750m, 20km, 5.8km), a team relay, and a ‘Weekend Warrior’ challenge where participants attempt to complete as many sprint distance triathlons as they can over the entire weekend. The grounds offer a swim in the Great Lake, a cycle following a wider loop of the Great Lake, and finishing with a run round the outside of the Queen Pool.

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View of lake, bike out, transition and some of the course

Race packs were sent out a few weeks before the race, and entry to the grounds was discounted for spectators by a considerable amount. My boyfriend was kind enough to deliver me to the race, and spectate. We met with my friend, who had brought her team of supporters with her, also. The Palace is an amazing venue to host this event, and it certainly was made to feel like a big thing to be a part of.

Transition is a royal affair, here. The Palace courtyard was covered in a huge red mat, or carpet if you will, and a ridiculous amount of bikes were racked up – row upon row of tightly crammed push bikes of all shapes and sizes lined up with one purpose: to race.

There were loads of stalls around with the latest gear, charities including the main event charity Bloodwise, and even a stall with some freebies courtesy of Science in Sport. Lots of gels and recovery powders to stock up on.

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My wave jumping into the lake

The race starts with a briefing just behind the pontoon in the lake, a good 10 minute walk from transition. Here we received our green swim caps, and a run through of what to expect. In the background, you could see the mighty Weekend Warrior triathletes coming round for another triathlon, and the total racking up on a big board. It was very inspiring to watch. Then, a jump into the lake, a paddle to the start line and it was time to go.

I was actually really pleased with the swim section. Previously, I have found the mass starts quite stressful and panicked a little, almost forgetting how to swim, which is always silly, in hindsight. After a lot more practise this year, getting used to swimming close to other people, and although I didn’t necessarily practise swimming in a group, I just felt more confident in the whole affair. I completed it in 15:53, a time I was pleased with, and even got right in the mix, surrounded by lots of swimmers most of the way through. Box ticked!

T1 (Transition 1 from swim to bike) was where it all went wrong. I knew this wasn’t a PB course by any stretch – it’s a hilly route, the bike course, I was told, was tough for handling, and the transition runs were long and tough. I had heard others speak of the T1 run, which was a 400-600m uphill climb straight out of the lake, and up to the palace. I survived, just about, found my row in transition, and then must have run up and down past my bike a couple of times, because I just couldn’t spot it! It is against the rules to put a flag or anything up, and I just went bike blind – I could not see wood for trees. After a minute or so panicking, I located my bike, and tried to finish transition as quick as possible afterwards, but I think it was nearing 8 minutes by the time I had got through transition from hell!

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One of 3 laps on the bike

The bike went alright. I was on my cyclocross, as I had not quite got used to my new TT bike and I had been advised that I should be comfortable on that if I was going to ride it on this course. I took the more sensible option and stuck it out on the cyclocross. It was a tough, hilly route that you covered 3 times. The grounds of the palace truly are stunning and I tried to absorb the beauty of them, whilst pushing myself to go that little bit quicker each time. My only real mistake was grabbing the brake instead of switching gear going up the one of the hills, but I recovered that, and somehow stayed upright and pushed on to the top of the climb.

T2 went pretty smoothly and I was happy with my new Xtenex laces, which allowed me to slide my feet into my trainers and head off sharp-ish! The run was 2 laps of a slightly less hilly course, but undulating all the same. My only upset on the run was on the second lap, when a large group of people wandered onto the course in single file and blocked the whole route, despite there being a marshalled ‘official crossing point’ about 10 metres away, who did not move when I said excuse me, and caused me to almost grind to a halt. I gratefully accepted some water on the route, after going through a little bit of anger management, as it had been a warm day, and pushed through for a sprint finish down the last straight to finish in a time of 1:46:07. Mission accomplished!

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Happy finishers

Race 2: Royal Windsor Triathlon – Standard/Olympic Distance

Two weeks later, I found myself at sparrow fart listening to another race briefing, this time with an orange swim cap on, waiting to take the plunge into the River Thames. This would be my first ever Olympic distance triathlon and my first river swim. The water temperature had been measured the day before at 20°C, and it had been a warm day, so I knew we were in for a scorcher. In a way, I was glad of the 6:28am start!

Racking for this event is done the day before, unless you have paid a premium. My bike had been dropped off in transition on Saturday with my helmet, and I had tried to familiarise myself with all the ins and outs for the different disciplines. Race numbers are picked up on the Saturday as well, attached onto bikes, helmets and the like. All that was left to do on race day was to bring yourself and the rest of your kit along to swim 1500m, cycle 41km and run 10km. (There was a sprint distance available as well.)

No sooner had I really jumped into the Thames in my wetsuit for a predictably warm swim (and stubbed my toe on the bottom in true style), than the race had started – there really wasn’t long at all to familiarise yourself with the water. I ended up in the middle of the pack, with my goggles fogging up, swimming into the sun towards Eton Bridge, hoping that I was following the right people, and not the ones doing the sprint distance. The vision issues caused me a couple of diversions off-course, and some confusion when I got to the turn-around point and there were people in kayaks yelling at me to swim under the rope that was in front of me, but I was soon swimming the last third or so of the route upstream towards transition. I survived the swim in a time of 30:19 minutes.

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I’m too tight to buy the official race pictures, but here’s the Roo for you all to admire

T1 was good. It was again a long one, but thankfully flat. I ran into the entrance at halfway, where you then run up to the top, then all the way back down to the exit where my bike was (which I found no problem this time – wahoo!). I had a smooth change-over and then ran the long exit out the other side. The bike was my favourite part of this triathlon. I was riding the TT bike for the first time in a race – my Quintana Roo, and I was hungry for pace. The bike route is a 2 lap course, where you cover the top section of the route a second time before you head back towards Windsor. It’s mostly on country roads, and certainly a lot flatter than Blenheim. I really enjoy being on the road on two wheels and this race was no exception. I covered the 41km distance in 1:22:01, averaging 18.6mph, which I was very pleased with.

It was starting to get warm, even at 8:30am, as I racked my bike, ran the loop out of T2, and began the 3 lap run I had left to finish the race. The run route takes you from Alexandra Gardens next to the river, up past the castle, and onto the Long Walk, before turning around and running back on yourself, and completing it again. It was a tough end to a race: the sun was beating down and there wasn’t a whole lot of shade, it was going to be mentally tough to complete 3 out-and-back loops, and my body was getting a little tired by the third go.

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New shoelaces ready for action!

It was nice if you were racing someone else, as I was able to high-five and offer encouragement to my friend who was also doing the standard distance race that day, but it was still a tricky time. There is a fine line between over- and under-hydrating, and at first I was concerned about over-doing it, but I soon found myself needing to hydrate at almost every water station with little cups of water. I was determined not to let the heat get to me, and I hadn’t set myself a goal time, just to make sure I finished.

I had a nice surprise on the second lap, when I spotted some friends who had come out by the castle on the nasty climb and offered some support for me to crawl up the hill. That really gave me a boost, and they had moved down to the finish straight to cheer me through to the finish. I decided I could push myself to break the hour for the run, and just came through with a time of 59:47 for the run, and a total triathlon time of 03:03:16. Not bad for a first go! I have signed up for next year already(!) to try to break the 3 hour mark now. Bring it on!

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Super happy, proud, first-time Olympic distance finishers!

I would say, that despite the heat, I enjoyed the longer distance more, and would definitely choose a standard distance event in the future over a sprint, if the opportunity is there. Eventually I would like to build up to longer distances, but I’m in no rush, as I am enjoying it. My next race is a sprint distance that I already had booked for the 23rd July in London, so I will try to bring my time down there (once I have got over the cold I am nursing this week).

Thanks for reading,

Amanda x

How To Conquer Triathlon

Blenheim Palace Triathlon is looming this weekend for myself and many others, so to help a few with some details, I have put together this post to try and calm friends and strangers alike. It certainly doesn’t cover everything – I could write a book on it, and several people have – but it covers the main points.

So, you’re having a meltdown because you have signed up for a triathlon and now it’s only a few days away! I am going to impart as much wisdom as my brain has, and hopefully it will help any budding triathletes, out of practice athletes, or anyone who has a brain like a sieve like I do and needs to check their kit bag 30 times before they leave for an event! This is based mostly on a shorter distance triathlon, but can be applied to longer distances if required.

If the race is coming this weekend, then I won’t need to give you any training advice – you should have done that part already! If you feel under-trained, then my advice would be to consider if you have done at least enough to get you round, otherwise you could be risking yourself and potentially risk others on the course. But, hopefully you have done some training and you’re good to go. If you are still worried, there is no point trying to cram training in this week – it should be a gentle week for training; just keep yourself ticking over.

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The beautiful transition area at Blenheim Palace

Next step: whether you have trained hard or not, I would recommend some time invested over the next few days in training your brain. A lot of things are controlled by your mental state, and I like to use some time in the run up to events telling myself that it is possible, I will make it round, and I can do this! It doesn’t always matter how quickly you do it, it’s all about finishing, and gaining experience. PB’s are a bonus!

I think it goes without saying to get plenty of rest and not to overdo it this week. Gentle exercise – certainly nothing at race pace, and a good amount of sleep. If you’re going a distance, a couple of days of carb-loading won’t go amiss! Don’t eat a huge mountain of carbs in one sitting, go for smaller portions in every meal. This will help load your muscles slowly with the energy they need to perform.

Now you’re loaded up, you’re probably going to start looking at your kit bag. Below is a list of essentials, and then I will follow it up with “luxury items” that you may want to include. Just remember, you don’t need to pack the kitchen sink – ask yourself, “do you really need this?”. The worst thing you can do is put too much in your transition area, and give yourself too many choices when you get there in the race. You will spend too long dithering and deciding: socks or no socks… these gloves or those, sun visor or cap? etc. Spend the time now making those decisions and pack ONE!

transition-funnt

Bare necessities:

  • Tri suit, or shorts and top – what you will wear for the whole race, and under your wetsuit
  • Sports bra (if you are a female)
  • Socks – if you have chosen to wear them for the bike/run sections
  • Wetsuit – unless you are brave enough to go in without?!
  • Goggles
  • Towel (for drying your feet off after the swim)
  • Trainers – for running, and cycling if you don’t clip in
  • Cycling shoes – if you do clip in
  • Helmet – a must for riding your bike!
  • Swimming cap (just in case, but generally you will be supplied one for the race)
  • Push bike
  • Fuel and hydration – I will come to that in a bit
  • The contents of your race pack – numbers, stickers, timing chip, safety pins…

That should be all you need to get round, with maybe a couple of extra bits if you are a minimalist! Another decision you should make now – what you are going to put it all in. I remember my first triathlon, where I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend carry my things from one end of Dorney Lake to the other with me, in about 3 different small bags. I saw loads of people wobbling about trying to balance big plastic boxes on their bikes walking along. It seemed to be the norm. I have always wondered if these people have ever heard of rucksacks, or bags, which you can put on your back and then have your hands free to steer your bike to transition. I was fortunate enough to be spoiled with the gift of a transition rucksack, which is a little large, but will be able to carry my wetsuit (with a special compartment of its own for when it’s wet), and everything else I need! I would recommend the rucksack approach.

Luxury items you may wish to bring – the basics, although certainly by no means limited to:

  • GPS watch (probably the most popular item)
  • Bike repair kit (inner tubes, pump – mine is always bolted to my bike, tyre levers, etc.)
  • Sun glasses
  • Sun visor or cap (remember, choose one and take one only with you!)
  • A pair of old flip flops to abandon lake side
  • Race belt – used by many to attach numbers to your body for the cycle and run. For the bike portion you will need a number on your back, and the run a number on your front. You can just spin it round and it saves either re-pinning a number if you are only given one, or wearing one front and back.
  • Lube! This will help your wetsuit slide off like Bruce Almighty’s clothing (if you have ever watched the film). Everyone has their favourite. I prefer a concoction of baby oil and Vaseline – I don’t believe the myths that Vaseline destroys your wetsuit; I have found no physical or scientific evidence of this – but there are other good products like Body Glide. I even read in an entertaining book I once, that there is a lady out there that swears by Durex Play!
  • Sun cream – the waterproof variety
  • Something comfortable to wear afterwards, if you are fortuitous to be racing somewhere stunning that you can look round post-race, such as Blenheim Palace, or you have a celebration after. Also, bear in mind whether there will be somewhere to change, although there is nothing wrong with getting changed in the loo, and wiping yourself down with baby wipes!
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Swim start lining up at Blenheim

Nutrition. My main point here would be the golden rule of all racing events: Never try anything new on race day! You might do it once, and then you will never do it again, after one bad experience. Use what you have been training with, and what your stomach and body is used to. If you can stomach gels and you have been using them, that’s what to go for. As a side note, if you want something similar to gels, but can’t get on with them, energy chews such as Clif Shot Bloks are a good alternative. Jelly babies, Haribo, fig rolls, dried fruit (I like apricots)… Whatever your poison is, that’s what you take. Be sensible – you don’t need enough to survive a week in the jungle – take enough, and a little bit extra in case you struggle, to get you round.

The great thing about a lot of tri gear is that it has places to put things. If you wear a tri suit, it may have pockets in the back, a bit like a cycling jersey. If you have a race belt, you might have purchased one with gel holders in, so you can fix them in before the race. Make it accessible to yourself. It’s easy to take on nutrition on the bike, and if it’s a short distance, you may get away with running without anything. Plan what you are going to eat and when, and stick to it.

Hydration wise, I tend to put a bottle on my bike for a short ride and load it with 2 for a longer one. You won’t be out on the bike for that long in a sprint triathlon, so carrying an extra bottle of water will just be more weight on the bike. You can leave another drink in the transition area if you are worried and drink it when you get off the bike. Water is fine, or you can pop hydration tablets in, if that’s your thing, or simply some squash for a bit of flavour.

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Aerial shot of the beautiful grounds

RACE DAY

  • Make sure you have had plenty of sleep the night before and you are well rested. Don’t fret going to sleep – everything will be fine and all that positive thinking you have been doing will pay off. Check your bag has everything in it before you go to bed, if that puts your mind at rest.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to eat breakfast, get to the event early enough to get parked, set up your transition area before it closes to competitors, and to absorb the atmosphere.
  • Breakfast should be nutritious, and something you are used to. I have inherited my favourite pre-race breakfast from a running buddy, which is porridge with blueberries. He says, “If it’s good enough for Bradley Wiggins, then it’s good enough for me.”. Then, around 30-40 minutes before the race, I will have a banana to top up my energy levels.
  • Practice the day before how you want your transition area laid out, and even practice transition, if you think that will help. Or just spend the time organising in the morning when you are there, making it easy for you to grab what you need fast, and continue your race. Learn from your mistakes. I used to put all my things on top of my towel, and then realised when I got out of the lake and wanted to dry my feet, everything was on top of it, which was no good! It will also make a difference how you lay things out depending on if you have a single transition area, or two separate areas, more commonly known as T1 and T2. Find out what is there on the day and plan around it.
  • Give yourself some extra time to get lubed up, into your wetsuit, and ready to swim.
  • You’re ready to race! Don’t forget all your race numbers, head down to the water, take some deep breaths and go for it!

Do your best, and most importantly, enjoy yourself. If you aren’t enjoying it, and it’s not down to bad luck, I always ask myself, “why am I doing this?”. Push yourself as hard  as you can, and achieve what you want to achieve. You have got this!

finsihing-pain

Thanks for reading, and good luck to those of you racing this weekend!

Amanda x