The London Tri. A Flabber is Gasted

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September 25, 2012 by shortbloke

For years I have talking about doing an Olympic Distance Triathlon. It was always a long term plan, but there was little action. Then one day last summer TB, man of action that he is, finally called my bluff and agreed to do it with me. So now I had to do it. Or never live it down.

And now it’s done.

The Tri in question was the Virgin London Triathlon. This is a fairly high profile event held in the heart of London’s business district at the Excel exhibition centre. 13,000 competitors swim, ride and run over multiple distances in various categories over two days. The swim is in the waters of the Victoria Docks right outside the centre, the two available ride routes stretch out to Westminster and Tower Bridge and the run is inside the grounds of the centre.

I had been unhappy all week about our start times – 6:30am and 7:00am respectively. Getting that start time ended up being a hugely fortunate turn of events. We had low wind, cool temperatures and calm waters. Shortly after we finished the weather closed in really badly. It got horribly windy and started raining cats and dogs. It got so bad that the final swim wave of the day was cancelled on safety grounds. Even without that, I can imagine early is generally not a bad option because it’s most likely to be cooler and calmer, especially in summer.

So, up ludicrously early, I was ready to collect TB and his kit at 4:00am. The roads were clear so the journey was quick. After getting lost following the woefully bad parking directions, we arrived at the Excel shortly before 5:00am. The hall itself didn’t open till 5:30 so everything was quiet and stress levels low. Plenty of time to sort our heads out. All good.

After registering we were guided by the hoards of helpful and ever present volunteer marshals to the huge transition area at the back of the hall where we were to rack the bikes and lay out our kit. For most people kit means cycle shoes, running shoes, a small towel, gels, an energy bar, a drink, a running belt to hold a race number and maybe a banana. TB, minimalist and decisive as ever, had a small bag and minimal kit. He was laid out in a couple of minutes.

Me? Not so much. I had a warm shirt, a not so warm shirt, a wind cheater gilet, a banana, a few extra gels, a drink, cycle gloves, socks, sun glasses, sun cream, talc, sighted glasses, spare contact lenses, a warm skull cap. Oh, and an extra small towel. Look, I like to be prepared for all eventualities. OK ?

And then we waited. TB went off in the first start wave of the day, just ahead of me, so I had some extra time to prepare mentally and physically for the actual start. I was quite relaxed. For once I had sorted the nutrition out properly in the run up to the event, which helped. Plenty of water for the 24 previous hours. Two plates of pasta the day before. A bowl of porridge and a cup of tea at 3:15am. A small bowl of muesli at 5:15am.

Each wave is corralled into a pen where you can put your wet suit on, pick up your swim hat (coloured to identify your start wave) and get a safety briefing. The guy giving the briefings was great. Really animated, informative and funny. He made it very easy to listen, most importantly providing a great distraction from pre-race nerves.

A final tug to pull the slack in the suit up, down the stairs and into the water. 2 or 3 minutes gathering at the start line and swoosh, we’re off.

The start of the 7:00 am swim

I had been told to hang back and swim at the side. Good advice for novices. Except I now realise I picked the wrong side. I picked the inside – doh!. That’s where all the racey guys want to be. That’s the shortest way round. Like that’s not obvious…..

I should of course have chosen the outside. I ended up right in the middle of the messy bit of the pack (at the top of the picture). Lots of ankles and elbows, all around me. I did get some tow, which I’ve never felt before (it’s cool actually, there really is drag forward) but I was forced to hold up a couple of times to let the pack get ahead, I wasn’t about to fight it out in my first proper open water race. Thankfully, it eventually strung out enough to let me make my way along the float line reasonably unencumbered. All through training the swim had been my big fear. In the event it went smoothly. And quickly. A huge relief.

Into transition, dry toes, socks on, gloves on, protective glasses on (to protect my contact lenses), not so warm shirt on, gel down throat. Hat on and then touch bike, in that order.

Yea, yea I know, a 6:50 transition, tell me about it (a good transition is under 3).

Then ride 40K. That bit was ok. I can do that. It was a pretty flat ride and the early start time meant the road was not very busy. There were some seriously strong riders swooshing through the field, the ones who pass you at speeds that make you subconsciously double check your gears, and quite a few TT types wearing aero helmets, full body suits and huge egos. There were also surprisingly many riders poodling along like they were nipping down to the supermarket for a pint of milk. I found myself doing a lot of passing, paying close attention to the non-drafting passing rules of course.

As with the event in general, the ride route was well marshalled by loads of enthusiastic and vocal volunteers. Thanks to them for their help and encouragement. It was appreciated.

Back to transition. Rack the bike, hat off, cycle shoes off, gloves off, running shoes on, gel down throat, water, off. 3:31. Better.

Run. Run some more. Run a bit more. The run is 4 laps, so pacing is quite easy. There are 2 water stations, again with enthusiastic and diligent attendants, anxious to place the cup right in your hand as you pass. There were also guys offering gels at various points. The route weaves through a car park and along the dock side to and from the transition hall. Frankly, the route was a bit ugly with nothing of any interest to see. In fairness, I was there to run, not sight-see, but never the less, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed about that.

As I rounded each lap, I could see the finish line and the clock over the top of the finishing arch. I had started at some time shortly after 7:00am. Lap 1 passed the clock at 09:17am. Lap 2 passed at 09:30am. That’s 13 minutes. 2 more laps to go. That’s 26 minutes. That meant I might finish before 10:00am.

10… minus…7…. 3 hours.

Nah, can’t be right. Do it again…..

10… minus…7 …Blimey, that really is 3 hours.

Rounding the last corner to the finish arch I could see 09:58:32 on the clock. With a 10:00am target I sprinted to the line and immediately got annoyed. The fact that I still had the energy to stand, let alone sprint, meant I had clearly not run hard enough. Weird how your mind works in those circumstances.

My final time was 2hrs 49 minutes and 52 seconds. Way better than I hoped for. My flabber is well and truly gasted. I smashed my expected swim time by over 10 minutes (1,500m – 33 minutes and 34 seconds), managed to cover the 40K at almost exactly the same speed as TB, give or take 3 seconds and ran the 10K exactly on schedule at 55 mins and 1 second.

What a feeling. What… A… Feeling…

So what did we learn ?

  • I can do this.
  • An early start is not always a bad thing.
  • The signage approaching the Excel centre is appalling.
  • Porridge at 3:00am is a generally good thing.
  • Swimming with the pack does have the benefit of drag. It’s also quite crowded.
  • “hang back and to the side” does NOT mean take the race line.
  • I need to work out the distances and check out some visible distance markers on the swim route. I found it quite hard to work out how far there was still to go once I got into the water.
  • I need to do some interval training so I can improve my speeds, both on the ride and the run.
  • Wetsuits are great.
  • Swimming is not quite as boring as I thought it would be.

A year ago confidence in my ability to complete this kind of event was low, primarily because of the swim. In fact, Mrs ShortBloke got a call from a number she did not recognise at about 8:00am the morning of the event. The first thought she had was the emergency services. The way I had been talking about it, I don’t blame her.

On the day, I exceeded all my own expectations. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not an earth shattering achievement. Many thousands of people did it this weekend and many millions have done it before this weekend. But, I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I worked hard and now I’ve done it. That’s a great feeling.

And the fact that I did better than I thought I would ? Well, that’s just a huge dollop of sugary icing on an already big sticky chocolate cake.

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