Bala Standard Triathlon September 2015

I had been tentatively planning a return to triathlon with a short sprint or super-sprint event, but when Dave J invited me to come along with him to Bala I couldn't resist - before I knew it I'd signed up for an Olympic-distance tri after 4 years without entering a public race! I still had injury issues but I was confident I could get round the whole course - in particular the 10k run - without breaking down.

The trip to Bala was epic enough - once you leave the A5 at Shrewsbury the roads get narrower, steeper and more winding as you approach the fringes of Snowdonia, passing through amazing glacial valley country and heather-covered mountains.After a night in a unique backpacker hostel (totally silent - great night's rest) in the quiet and picturesque town of Bala we were nice and early at the start, taking shelter in a cafe as it was mighty cold for triathlon! Someone told me they'd seen the temperature dip to 3 degrees during the night and I could believe it. I left getting into the wetsuit until quite late in the day as I knew I was in the third wave, about 20 minutes after the main start, and it was still pretty cool even after 9 as start time approached. Stashed around the bike I had a gilet, a jersey, arm warmers, gloves and even a buff as I wasn't convinced I warm up enough on the bike.Water temperature, we were told, was a cool 15 degrees.

With 700 athletes gathered in transition, a samba band began a slow and funereal march beat and the under-40 men began their march down to the water's edge. Although there were many experienced and top-end contenders for this Euro-qualifier event, you could feel the nervous tension in the air. I wished Dave luck as he headed off, aiming for a sub-2.20 time. I was contemplating sub 2.40, but had to keep telling myself to be realistic and be happy just to get round. I hadn't done a hard effort in a race over 2 hours for a long time - only all-day endurance bike rides or short and intense 2-mile runs.

It took an age to get waves 1 and 2 off because the lead swimmers didn't want to get behind the line (imaginary line between 2 buoys) so the starter had to keep ordering them back before he hit the airhorn. Eventually though it was my turn and I was marching down to the lake in bare feet with the other 40+ guys, about 95 of us in all, to the slow and rather ominous beat of a drum.

The water was a fair bit colder than the lake where I'd done my four open-water sessions in the weeks leading up to the race, but a decent wetsuit and a thermal swim hat meant I was soon acclimatised and getting into a reasonable rhythm with my stroke. The chaos of a hundred swimmers trying to take the same line towards a buoy soon took over though and I was constantly having to zigzag as I bumped into people, tried to get round them, had others trying to get round me (or over me), all the usual fun of open water swimming. It seemed to take a while to get to the turn, but when it came I was right on the inside, shoulder against the buoy, just where I wanted to be. I held a good line for the rest of the swim until I began to get overtaken in the final stages - people get excited when they see the exit and often accelarate, but I resisted the temptation and held steady. Despite that, when I tried to stand up in the shallows I found the footing very uneven and went down again almost straight away. On the second attempt I was able to stagger over the stoney lakebed and reach out a hand to the marshal at the end of the jetty who helped reel me in. Once on the boards it was easy to get jogging and start trying to extricate myself from the wetsuit, which had got noticeably tighter and less flexible in several years of non-use. Both arms took ages to wrestle free and once at my bike I was still struggling with both legs. My head was spinning after the swim and I had trouble standing upright - I remember reaching out for the transition bar to steady myself and even finding that difficult. After what seemed like ages I gave up trying to stand and de-suit at the same time and just sat down on the grass - that was the right move as within seconds the dizziness had passed and I had eased the legs of the wetsuit over my heels and off. I pulled on gilet, arm warmers, helmet and shoes then ran with the bike, shoes already on, across the grassy transition area to the road. Getting shoes on was another good decision as I could see others having a tricky time on the up-slope out of transition trying to work their feet in to shoes already clipped to their pedals.

Next came the open road - literally in this case as it was free of all traffic apart from 700 riders and the occasional bus, cars having been diverted for the duration of the race. I felt I was being overtaken a fair bit but I had chatted with Dave about pacing and we'd agreed that going out hard on the bike would be an error. An even effort is bound to feel easier early on. Well, in this case I felt I was close to the effort limit and would be on it or over it on the way back. The views were stunning and the course perfect - undulating with a few digs here and there but no tight bends or junctions - so I was on the tri bars with as flat a back as I could manage for most of the way. I became aware of the usual cocktail of sensations and feelings during the ride - leg pain, exhaustion, elation, inspiration, numbness, focus, etc. Any idea of taking things easy had disappeared and I was right on the limit, as intense an effort as I was capable of. I was aware of the incredible views, the stunning beauty of the hills, valley and lake - but it was all slightly detached from the more immediate and uncomfortable reality of going flat out on the bike, faster and further than I was used to.One emotion kept returning and that was sheer gratitude for being part of the race, for being alive after my near death experience three years before after which I'd not been sure I'd ever do this kind of thing again. How I'd missed that mix of feelings and emotions that I only get in a race!

The turnaround came - tight u turn around a marshal - and the mostly downhill return leg was fast and fantastic. It all still hurt but I felt I was going well, even overtaking now and again. I clocked Dave coming the other way on the run as I drew back level with Bala Lake and gave him a wave - I reckoned if he was on for 2.19 I should be easily on for 2.39 seeing as he started 10 mins before me and I'd seen him on the outbound section (first half) of the run. Within a few minutes I was back into transition, relieved to be off the bike after such a hard effort, ditching the gilet and armwarmers and slipping into my running shoes for the last leg. I took care to keep my strides short out of transition and give myself time to adjust - I had done zero brick training so my body hadn't experienced the shift from bike to run since June 2011. I got overtaken almost immediately by a particularly fluent runner but apart from that I was steadily moving up the field, overtaking runner after runner, which felt great. I managed to keep the effort level steady - I had drunk a bit of fluid on the bike so I was able to just pour water over my head rather than attempt to drink at the aid stations - and before long I was coming off the road and into the camp site which marked the half way point of the run.I had a watch on now (hadn't worn it in the swim as I had known there would be a wrestling match with the wetsuit) and was assuming we'd started at 9.50, so a bit of calculation and I realised I had a chance of matching my PB of 2.35. Amazing feeling. So, I stuck to the task, gratitude now mixed with elation at the prospect of transcending what I'd achieved before, both those feelings mixed with that end-of-race exhaustion. The short strides had paid off and I wasn't cramping up or tightening up in any way, the only thing holding me back was fatigue. Eventually the transition area came into view and the lap around the car park turned out to be much shorter than the 400m I'd been led to expect, so I crossed the line in what I believed was 2.35, extremely happy and totally wiped out.

Immediately over the line I found myself in a huge crowd of triathletes drinking Erdinger non-alcoholic beer which was lovely for them but I was unsure if I'd be sick or not so I kept moving, staggering through the bar tent and up to the leisure centre where there was open space where I could breathe and recover. Later when I was sure I could keep it down I nipped back for a celebratory beer. Well, that was a very tough race, an inspiring race, a great experience - Dave and I both did well as he managed an excellent 2.19 and my finish time turned out to be 2.28 which I still can't really believe.

Athlete /Speed Pace/ Field min /Field avg /Field max

Swim 00:31:04 00:19:09 00:30:25 01:01:35

T1 00:04:05 00:00:36 00:02:47 01:29:55

Cycle 01:08:46 00:00:48 01:07:49 02:00:03

T2 00:01:01 00:00:18 00:01:39 01:37:31

Run 00:43:22 00:32:05 00:46:10 01:56:52

366 572 Garga CHAMBERLAIN M 45-49 Sri Chinmoy Triathlon Club 02:28:18 +00:37:45

If I go back next year I need to work on Brick sessions, more speed-endurance on the bike, wetsuit removal (!!!) and less worry about the cold - could have done it without the gilet.

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