I ran along the narrow metaled track focusing hard to keep moving and keep my form. Lift heels, elbows back, cadence high, no slouching. I focused my eyes on the track in front, faltered, rubbed my eyes and stared again. There, right in the middle of the track was a fully grown swan. It was standing up and staring at me with its beady little eyes. Have you ever seen a swan out of water and standing next to you? They are massive and they look like they have a serious attitude problem. I briefly envisaged a new take on the old Monty Python sketch. In my version the swan is guarding a track and emits a low voice “None shall pass!” The swan then proceeds to peck the limbs off of various triathletes who attempt to continue with their race, while uttering phrases like “It is but a flesh wound!”
Stepping out of my surreal reverie you may be wondering what it is like to take part in the Markel Castle triathlon series? This article is the first person account of my race on the day, featuring the highs, the lows and any little tips that I picked up along the way. Have a read and consider how you do it. Are you doing something better than me? Are you doing something worse? How can you improve?
At the bottom of the article you can find links to my original race preview which will give you an idea of what is involved in the Castle Triathlon Series as well as providing some hints, tips and race strategy for novices and more experienced athletes. You can also find a link to a more structured race review that I crafted with Joe from the very useful website trireview.co.uk with yet more triathlon tips and advice. As usual feel free to comment, email me or hit the “Ask BRS” button at the top of the page if you want to discuss any aspect of this article.
I had decided to camp onsite due to the amount of traveling that I needed to do to get to this round of the CTS. I figured that while the camping itself would almost guarantee a bad night’s sleep, at least I could take it easy on the morning of the race and would have plenty of time to sort myself and my kit out. A friend from my triathlon club had decided to come with me to offer moral support and had grabbed himself a spot in the sprint race. We would be sharing the car for the journey and the tent overnight.
As we got near to the start of the event we began to see warning signs on the roads, so that the locals would be aware of the Sunday morning disruption to the traffic. The roads wouldn’t be closed, but there would be policemen around to stop the traffic when required to give triathletes the right of way at all of the road junctions.
The Cholmondeley Castle estate was easy to find and we followed the organisers signs onto the campsite next to the lake. It wasn’t a formal campsite and would be serving the purpose simply for the event , however it was well kept with just enough grass to keep the ground comfortable without it getting in the way. Nobody was immediately around to greet us, so we found a spot and began to set up.
I had rooted my tent out of the back of the garage earlier in the week and tested it in our back garden. It looked clean and mould free but I didn’t have the time to check if it was still watertight. I don’t think that we had used it for five or six years, so given the wet and windy weather forecast, this was a genuine concern. On the site we pitched the tent in the lee of the car to give it some protection from the wind that was coming off of the lake and were soon settled in. Just as we were about to go for a walk the campsite attendant came over, ticked us off of his list and briefed us on the amenities.
The estate was beautiful, and the evening was uneventful, with children and adults playing in the lake until around 10pm. This was an encouraging sign especially as there weren’t any screams about it being cold. I eventually settled into a restless sleep, apprehensive about the bad weather forecast. I didn’t fancy waking up, starting the day cold and then shivering my way down to jump into a cold lake.
Registration, racking and the race brief
The Markel CTS team operate a very efficient registration system which means that you don’t need to turn up too early. You will have more than enough time as long as you give yourself the recommended hour between arrival and the start of your wave. I took my bike and transition box down to registration where I was ushered through, bumping into a couple of welcome and familiar faces on the way. Nothing is sent out before the race, which is a good thing, so I collected my race numbers, swim hat, timing chip and goody bag as I moved through.
Once out of registration there was plenty of space to affix the two numbers to my helmet, one to my bike and the other to my race belt. As usual I then had to put my helmet on before I was allowed into the transition area to rack my bike. The racking is laid out in waves, so I made my way across to the section marked as Wave 1. I was pleased to see that I wasn’t the only person in the “elite” wave that didn’t have aero bars on their bike. I had been training in a normal riding position so felt that simply putting aero bars on would do more harm than good without getting a proper bike fit done around them.
I put my transition box on the ground and fixed my shoes onto the bike, using elastic bands to the front derailleur and the rear quick release skewer to hold them level. This should mean that they wont bounce and rotate as I run with the bike, while also offering themselves up to easily accept my feet when I finally leapt on. I had never tried this before, and was going against my number one tip “don’t try anything new on race day!” Do as I say, not as I do!!!
Due to the inclement weather extra precautions were needed to keep me warm on the bike, so I also laid out a pair of thin neoprene gloves and a lightweight Jack Wolfskin windproof jacket (reviewed here). My plan was to pull them on if I was feeling nippy in T1. I also laid out my running shoes, ready and open to pull onto my cold wet feet in T2. Finally I put my helmet on top of my transition box upside down and with the straps hanging out, with a pair of clear glasses stashed inside to protect my eyes against spray on the road. I have had some appalling transition times in the past and this time I wanted to do better.
With all of that done I left the transition area and returned to my tent to get into my wetsuit. I was wearing a neoprene skullcap and a neoprene headband underneath my swim cap. They weren’t really needed due to the warm (18 degrees) water, but I always use them when swimming outdoors just to ensure that I don’t get brain freeze. I was also wearing Docs Pro plugs in my ears which keep the cold water out of my ear canals but still allow me to hear the race brief. A lot of people think they get seasick when swimming in cold water, but in reality it is often the motion of cold water whooshing up and down their ear canals that gives them extreme vertigo and then makes them sick. This is easily resolved with earplugs.
“Can you tell your canoeists not to rush over if I look like I’m drowning, it’s all part of my “style?”"
As a regular and experienced race director I imagine that Brian has heard many such comments before. He promised to throw his washing in so that it could get cleaned while I was thrashing about…..
The water was….well, it was actually warm. I didn’t feel any discomfort whatsoever as I got in. This was a major result. Last year I suffered cold shock, with the associated hyper ventilation and panicking, which severely hampered all of my open water swims. The difference this year was that I had been swimming in the sea once a week since March and I was fully acclimatised. When we started it was a frigid 7 degrees Celsius, so the 18 in the lake felt simply balmy.
I barely had time for my pre-race alfresco pee in my wetsuit before we were set off. Once the chaos died down I was really pleased that I managed to keep with the majority of the swimmers for the first 400m. Unfortunately my swimming is a serious weak point and after that everyone started to gap me, but that was expected. I kept my cool and simply ploughed on as fast as I could manage. I was on the final leg and was angling away from the marker buoys towards the exit flags when the next wave started to come past me, still on their first lap. Due to our slightly different routes it wasn’t an issue and there was more than enough space for them to come through.
I climbed out of the water with the aid of a marshal, was careful not to kick the concrete step hidden under the water, and started to pull my wetsuit off as I ran the 120m to T1. My time for the swim ended up being nearly two minutes quicker than the target that I had given myself.
I put on my helmet, chucking my glasses to one side. They were covered in water droplets from the rain and would have seriously hampered my vision. I paused to put on my windproof jacket. This turned out to be a wise decision as I kept it on for the rest of the race. I grabbed my neoprene gloves and ran out of T1 with the bike. I crossed the start line and leapt on. It was my fastest ever T1 by over 1 minute and 20 seconds.
Both feet went easily into my Sidi T2 triathlon shoes and I started to pedal. One elastic band snapped, but the other didn’t, so I reached down and gave it a tug. Problem solved. I did up both shoes and then started to pull on my neoprene gloves. 5 seconds later a pair of neoprene gloves were cursed at and thrown into the hedge. I simply couldn’t get them on over my wet hands and resolved to collect them later.
As I settled in to a steady pace I pulled the wrist strap for my Garmin 910XT out of the Lezyne Caddy that I have strapped to the top tube, just behind the stem, and put it onto my wrist. I then pulled out one of the Cliff Double Espresso gels and chugged it back. The bike leg was my chance to restock. I intended to finish it feeling fueled, hydrated and ready to run.
I was setting a good pace and started to claw back some of the faster swimmers. Feeling good, I was rolling along and didn’t even find the strong headwind too much of a problem. This was great. My plan was working out perfectly. I put some serious effort in to that first lap to catch as many people as possible. It was a multi lap course so I also used the first lap to plan my pacing for the second, so that I wouldn’t finish it feeling too tired to be able to perform on the run. There were quite a few potholes around some sections of the course, and to make it worse they were filled with rain water, so you couldn’t tell which puddles were shallow and which were treacherous. I avoided all standing water wherever possible just to be sure, but I know that a few riders were caught out and finished with gravel rash.
My ego was dashed somewhat on the second lap when I started to get overtaken by a lot of young people with red numbers and wearing tri-suits with their names written on. This wasn’t a good sign. A lot of them were very fast and came past me like I was stood still. This must be the BUCS lot from the second wave. I knew I should have researched what BUCS meant. I kept my cool and stuck to my plan.
The last few hundred meters of the bike course was downhill along a private road through the estate. I rolled down it, moving my Garmin 910 XT from the handlebars to my wrist and also removing my feet from my shoes. I leapt off at the dismount line and ran into T2 to the sounds of a BUCS competitor behind me skidding across the line, leaving his braking a little too late.
Coming in to T2 I racked the bike, took off my helmet and stuffed my feet into my shoes before heading straight back out again. I set another personal best time for transition and ran up the well signposted track. I had to pause once to adjust my shoes as I hadn’t pulled the quick lace system tight enough, but this only took a second and I was away again.
I have been doing a lot of marathon and ultra running recently and simply wanted to beat my last Olympic tri 10k time. I knew that my standalone 10k PB wouldn’t be under threat, but I also knew that I shouldn’t really lose any ground on the run. Unfortunately nobody told the BUCS lot that. I had a brief chat with one of them as he went past. BUCS stands for British Universities & Colleges Sport and this was a major event for them so a lot of good triathletes had turned out. The guy that I was chatting to declared that his running was terrible before leaving me far behind.
My brief swan encounter on lap one was repeated on lap two. As far as I can tell the swan didn’t move for the entire morning and must have been enjoying intimidating the triathletes.
Overtaking one runner I eased off for a chat. He was on the sprint course and this was his first tri. I checked to make sure that he was enjoying himself before moving on and up onto the extra 1km loop that the Olympic runners were doing. When I finally got to the line, smashing my previous Olympic 10k PB by nearly four minutes, he was there, stuffing a burger into his mouth and drinking a pint of non-alcoholic beer. We shook hands, grinned at each other like idiots and I moved on to devour the contents of the free food table that was laid on for finishers.
I had a really good time during this event. The past few months of training and endurance racing had done nothing to harm my performance and on the day I exceeded all of my personal race performance targets. Being overtaken so much during an Olympic tri was new to me, particularly when I was going so well, but to be honest I didn’t mind seeing the “youngsters” in action. They were a very impressive bunch and it has motivated me to continue putting the effort in so that I can do better against them next time. Having such an amazing field did place me lower on the final results table than I would normally have liked, however I was competing against some of the best triathletes in the country, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
The CTS rounds always seem to feature a strong field, however don’t let this put you off. Triathlon is very much a race against yourself and it is good to see some very fast athletes doing their “thing.” Watch them closely and you never know, you just might learn something.
If you want to take part in an exceptionally well organised triathlon in stunning surroundings then head over to http://www.castletriathlonseries.co.uk/ and book yourself a spot in one of their next rounds. See you at Hever Castle for The Gauntlet in September?
- Markel Castle Triathlon Series – Cholmondeley Castle Preview
- Trireview.co.uk review of the Cholmondeley Castle event 2013