"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Monmouth Aquathlon - Wye Valley - July 2nd 2017
I had my eye on this race because of the location and because it would be a first for me - a river swim! I've raced in the sea, in lakes, in pools, but never taken on the challenge of going upstream in a river. The "Full Challenge" race at the Monmouth Aquathlon starts with 500m against the current and then a turn around a buoy before you swim downstream for another 1500m. Then there is the small matter of a 12k trail run up the west bank, over the ricketty looking Biblins Bridge (a single file suspension footbridge) and back down the wider and firmer trails/lanes on the easter side.
I have canoed in this river, raced over it and alongside it (Tintern Trot, Offa's 'Orror) and cycled all around the Wye Valley from Newbridge down to the Wye Bridge near Chepstow, but this would be the first time I had immersed myself in the waters of the beautiful and mighty river - unless you count the accidental immersion at Symonds Yat when Balavan and I sank an open canoe after holing it on the rapid but that's another story!
Race day was perfect - clear blue skies, light breeze, idyllic Anglo-Welsh summer conditions that simply couldn't be bettered. Registration was relaxed and friendly and straight away I could see it was a laid back club event, but one that had attracted some handy competitors. My training had gone OK - ish! I had managed a couple of 2.5k swims at Cromhall Lake and a handful of pool sessions. Also my running was a bit up and down thanks to the now standard injury issues. These days my achilles and calf problems flare up, calm down, flare up again, seemingly at random. On this occasion the soreness after Dublin a couple of weeks earlier had eased off a bit but I still hadn't tried to run at all in that fortnight - so I was coming into the race undercooked but optimistic. My right ankle was strapped up with kinesio tape and so were my underarms which had blistered from the wetsuit pinching - it's getting old and inflexible, much like the body I am putting inside it these days, but the taping did the job OK.
We walked together up to the start 1k from Monmouth LC and the trails were lovely in the morning sun - numerous gates and bridges over streams punctuated the walk that would later form the first KM of the trail run. Most of it was a very narrow single-track of dirt through open fields and riverside meadows with the odd section through woodland. Once at the start point by an isolated church overlooking the Wye, I had a chance to meditate for a few minutes, befriending the water, before the Full Challenge swimmers were put, in treading water ready for the start. The water was comfortable - cool but not cold - and it was fine hanging around for a few minutes under starters orders. I went off fast, by my standards, holding close to the bank on the assumption that the current would be stronger in midstream.I'm not sure if that proved correct, but I made decent progress against the current at first - although it was clear I was one of the weaker swimmers as I couldn't keep pace with the pack. The upstream section felt like quite a battle as I negotiated weedy shallows where the fronds wrapped around my hands and occasionally my face, but after what seemed like a very long time (actually 13 minutes) I had my shoulder against the buoy and I was turning for home. The sudden change from upstream to downstream was dramatic and I felt as if I would be back at Monmouth in no time, but it was actually another 25 minutes or so before I dragged myself up on to the steps of the swim exit. Before that, there was the usual test of open water swimming - sighting, trying to keep up a regular stroke in the changing depths and alternating patches of clear and weedy, cold and then warm water. At one stage the swimmer ahead of me got charged by a swan who reared up and tried to scare the swimmer away from its young, so I accelarated away from the bank into midstream in an attempt to stay well clear. It proved successful as I had no trouble from the swan (it had clearly made its point) but the sudden accelaration gave me a bit of leg cramp that may have triggered the trouble I had later on the run.
2k is a long race swim by my standards, especially when it begins against the current. The surroundings were placid, serenely beautiful in the morning sunshine, but the experience of covering 2 kilometres in river waters was pretty dynamic! There was the usual business of dealing with swimmers alongside, right in front, swimming over my legs, etc. There was also a lot of weed to contend with in the shallows, which might explain why some were swimming near the middle of the river where you'd expect the current to be stronger against you. Upstream was a battle, as the current seemed to get stronger as we went, but after the initial surge at the turn where I suddenly felt like I was being pushed fast downstream, the current slackened off and it felt pretty much as though I was swimming in still water for the last few hundred metres. I'm sure that's a false impression though, as if you stand on the bridge at Monmouth you see quite a current on the Wye as it passes beneath you.
At the swim exit I headed for the traffic cone which marked the way out and two excellent marshals helped me out. The steps were tall but manageable and I was able to break into a jog and extract both arms from the wetsui before I made it into the cricket nets which were being used as a transition area. All in all my T1 time of around 2 minutes was ok - not great by any stretch, but considering the trouble I have these days with my old, stiff wetsuit I was pleased with that. I opted for a seated position - down on the towel - which allowed me to get my hands in to pull the neoprene suite off my heels, which is where it always gets stuck. Once free of the suite I had socks on in seconds and pulled on shoes and cap (my gore one which is a kind of peaked buff) for the run. Before I even got out of transition though I felt a sharp cramping in one calf and had to stop for a quick downward dog pose to ease it - it loosened enough to let me jog out of the leisure centre and over the Wye Bridge with short strides. It was sore but I assumed it would loosen up as I warmed up on the run.
Back on the trail we had walked on our way to the start I was overtaking straight away - the swim is my weaker sport so I get to "fish" for other competitors afterwards, reeling them in one by one as I try to make up the lost time. Once I had passed a few and could see a pack up ahead, I set myself the target of passing 30 before the finish - I pretty much did it, with only one overtaking me on the way (might have been a relay competitor as he was in a loose fitting run vest but can't be sure. I was running at around 4.20 per km based on the distance markers (discreet white ones placed on fences or trees - a nice touch) which felt like max effort - I wasn't planning on taking it easy.
Heading upstream we passed through golden fields and along a lovely, treee-shaded trail punctuated by numerous gates - too narrow in places to overtake so I had to pick my moments in the fields or the wider sections of trail to pass each runner as I counted my way up the field. I was loving every minute of it despite the effort being right on the limit - the sun was shining down from an almost perfectly clear sky and the wooded banks of the Wye were as gorgeous a backdrop for a race as you could imagine. Comparing it to the alpine scenery where I raced in May it was less dramatic but that soft, English/Welsh landscape is uniquely beautiful in an understated way and I never tire of it. Monmouth nestles in low, smooth, wooded hills at the confluence of two valleys - as locations go it's pretty perfect.
Exhausted already at the half way point, I was just about able to count to six in order to make sure I didn't break the "max of 6 on the bridge" rule on the shakey, metal footbridge at Biblins camp site. Once on I stomped across - running not allowed so I race-walked - and passed a couple of runners as I resumed the run. The trail here was wide and smooth - a sustrans style cycle route - and having passed the slower runners I was now having to make a big effort to catch some quicker athletes. I kept on moving up the field, ditching the hat after a while to stay cool, feeling strong. All went well until the road section - with 1k to go I had a sudden cramp in my left calf as if I'd been kicked incredibly hard right in the muscle - I hoped it wasn't a tear and just kept going. It meant I couldn't sprint for the finish but the race had gone well up to that point so I had no complaints when I staggered over the line. A truly amazing course and a great race experience!
Postscript to this one is that my left calf has eased up OK and my right achilles, which had been strapped up, is still sore 3 days later. Not bad - I expect that to clear enough for me to do some easy jogs between now and the Cotswold Triathlon. No more races planned until then!
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