Weymouth Middle Distance Triathlon 2011

After weeks of glorious summer weather and talk of drought and hosepipe bans, the night before my birthday race marked a total change in the weather with a storm blowing in from the north east. This meant a route change for the bike leg as the town centre was full of blown-over cones and other storm debris - but a shortened route of around 51 miles was not a problem for me, as I knew I was going into the race a bit undertrained. A virus has meant I'd had to rest up for two and a half weeks when I should have been piling on the miles. The weather also meant I would be facing a rougher than expected sea swim - a repeat of last year at Llandudno where I endured the waves and got round the course but not without a few moments of doubt when I thought I might not finish.

We lined up in the shelter of the sea front buildings trying to keep out of the wind, a gaggle of shivering penguins in our black neoprene, watching the sprint leg swimmers take to the sea and meet the challenge of the waves. As usual I was trying to meditate and get focussed but I felt strangely detached from the situation and got distracted by another competitor engaging in the friendly, nervous chat that you get on any start line. We talk to fill up those moments of tension before the race begins, but really silence would serve us better. After a briefing on the cold pebbles we were down by the surf waiting for the whistle from our starter, then it came and we were running into the waves.

At first it seemed easy enough - I opted to stay on my feet as long as possible and soon found myself battered by head-high sea. Down, head under, I started swimming properly and struggled to climb each braking wave, which promply dumped me under as I fell into the trough that followed it. This went on for a few minutes out the the first buoy, which brought a little relief as we turned parallel to the beach - here I was breathing to the landward side and able to keep the water out of my mouth with a bit more success. It was hard - definitely rough water is something I don't cope well with - but I could see myself making progress. Once round the next buoy we were heading out to deeper water, swimming into and over the waves again, and it was back to the feeling of struggle as I battled to breathe, sight the buoy ahead and try not to ingest too much water. I was taking on a lot when the waves caught me mid-breath or pushed me hard under, and I started to get worried I might vomit either now or when I got out of the water. I knew it was possible to get sea sick while swimming too, and this started to prey on my mind as well. Safety boats - kayaks and ribs - prowled like sharks. I got the feeling their occupants were looking at me as a struggler but this was probably sheer imagination. Beyond all these anxieties and the physical trial of the swim I was praying and chanting inwardly like anything - always a good thing to do on your "Soul's Day"! I wondered why the sea would be so hostile to us after all those weeks of calm weather - why today of all days? But it dawned on me that we can only control our own nature, not the outer nature, so I should focus on that and be strong. The swim got harder - waves seemed to be breaking in on me from more than one direction and in an unpredicatable rhythm that made it hard to breathe. I passed a white buoy which meant I was swimming a good, straight course from turn to turn - a minor miracle - then I caught sight of the last orange buoy that meant a landward turn and I knew I could do it. The buoy got closer by inches, and at last I was nudging it with my left shoulder and swimming straight at the lower of three buildings on the sea front which was the exit point to transition. Waves were breaking from behind me now and much easier to cope with. Then there was sand under my feet, then a stagger on to the shingle and an awkward walk to the steps and a slow jog into the tennis courts that housed transition. The swim was over - what a relief!

I took my time in transition, donning a gilet and arm warmers, for the wind I knew I would be riding into and the torrential rain that was forecast (but of which there was no sign so far). Getting on the arm warmers and cycling gloves probably took a minute and a half but I reckoned it would be worth it over fifty something miles in unpredictable weather. After lifting our bikes up the steps we mounted up on the road and began to spin our way out of town to the east, into the blustery north east wind. The hills began within the first few miles, as the route unwound before me through beautiful Dorset scenery. A main road, it carried little traffic on a dull Sunday morning and the calm was only broken by the gentle sounds from the bike - the wheels on the road, chain noise, wind through the holes in helmet and tri bars. I was aiming at 17-18 mph with the course so "undulating" and windy, and I knew the second half would have a tailwind so I was happy to get up to 15 or 16 on the way out.

I don't remember much else about the bike course except that I enjoyed it and kept a better pace than expected - around 19 mph, definitely good by my standards. I got down on the tri bars more than I usually manage on a windy day and my legs felt strong. There were tiny Dorset villages, backroads through forests and heaths, all with great road surfaces, fast stretches of A road without too many trucks and just one dangerous gravel-covered bend where a marshal made sure we slowed down. Coming back to transition my legs were very tired but not "empty" as they sometimes feel on a long ride - I was still capable of climbing or pushing harder on the flat. The turn to transition caught me by surprise and I only got one of my feet out of the bike shoe, so it was with one shoe on and the other foot just in a sock that I clattered up the pavement into the tennis court to get ready to run.

I usually make up time and move up the field on the run leg, but I realised within a few minutes that I was pretty much spent and I would just have to grind out the run. Physically that's pretty much what I did, steady paced, working hard all the way, but never managing to get up any speed. Inwardly I was really enjoying it, repeating songs and mantras and drinking in the lovely scenery of the wetlands. The course was basically a 5k lap of Ldomore Country Park, with the outbound leg on pavement between the park and a quiet section of sea front and the return leg on winding paths throught he park itself - tall reedbeds, grassland and woodland that finally opened out into the car park of Weymouth College where bands were handed out to mark each lap. Kokila met me a couple of times and took photos, looking in good shape after her long run along the coast path, and I counted down the laps. On the final circuit I ditched my bottle belt (I had emptied it anyway) and resorted to a few jelly beans to keep me going - unencumbered by the belt I felt lighter and the psychological boost of being on the last lap picked me up too. I felt a bit faster though in reality it was probably no more than a couple of minutes faster. Still, I felt good at the finish, completely worn out, happy to have finished in 5.12 (albeit on a shortened course). A great way to spend my Soul's Day.


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