When life did a curveball on me this year and thwarted my training plans, I had a choice. Go to Denmark and do my best, or bail out in a mess of lack of fitness. Some of those close to me urged the latter, but I knew that this was absolutely not a choice, so off to Denmark on a jet plane to do a Half Iron distance I went.
There is something reality defying in a triathlon swim-start. It holds a unique blend of terror and magic in equal parts. You can feel the nerves in the air, and it is the only time of race day that has a sense of quiet.
The swim start at the ETU Middle Distance European Championship in Herning last weekend was no different. I’d somehow qualified in 2016, off the back of my Ironman 2015 fitness and hundreds of miles spent ‘having fun’ on my bike. I’d planned to train to my peak fitness for the race in Denmark; a race that would see the most enthusiastic and/or best in age group triathletes from across Europe meet to race one another to the crown of European Champion, whoop whoop.
Come June, peak fitness eluded me thanks to a challenging working situation. I decided to take on the race thanks in part to curiosity, part foolishness and part just-plain-want-to-race-wearing-a-GB-flag. As the race neared, and with some evidential fear around my lack of fitness that came out the week before the event in pseudo colds and injuries, I committed to simply enjoying the race, to going along for the ride.
Does British Age Group Triathlon pay for the Brownlees?
Going to the Europeans as an age grouper is eye-wateringly expensive. It is for this reason perhaps that it even exists. I wasn’t about to spend my hard-earned dosh simply suffering, at least, that was my plan; the Age Group Director had other ideas and understandably so. At the briefing the night before the race, we were told ‘you’re racing for Great Britain, so please race hard.’
I felt confused. I knew I wasn’t race fit and I knew that racing hard would be a horrible experience for me. But I also wanted to be a team player. I concluded to start the race and see how I felt, but mentally, I was already very much on the back foot.
My competition in the 35-39 female Age Group was 28 European athletes strong; four Germans, four Danes, one Norwegian, one French, one Netherlands, one Irish and the rest from Great Britain. It seems us Brits are either excellent at triathlon or more likely, just really love this Age Group malarkey. With twenty slots available for each age group within each gender and country, it seemed a little odd that there were so few racing from other countries.
Representing your country at Age Group level is unique to triathlon aquathlon and duathlon, and holds quite the mystique to those just starting out in the sport. Those not in the sport might think you are a big deal for wearing your country’s colours for your sport, and those in the Age Group Team might feel pretty special. While you do have to go through a selection process based on race times, I couldn’t help but question it all, rather a lot. I felt like a bit of a fraud because I just wasn’t that comparatively fit or good. Sure, I earned a place but I was hardly at the top of my game.
Nevertheless, I planned to enjoy my experience running with DOGGETT printed across my bottom, which I’d long been looking forward to.
When you go away for races, the event gets stretched right out and as a result there is a LOT of build up and faff. On race eve, we recce’d the swim, went to T1 (first transition) to hang up our bike bags at swim exit, went to T2 to hang up our run bags in second transition and then went to the pasta party to dose up on carbs and avoid the salad at our peril. I’d previously learned to avoid anything with fibre the night before race day the less than fortunate way. I hit the hay at around 10pm and had probably the best pre-race sleep I’ve ever had. Seven solid hours is almost unheard of; the Danes really know how to do comfy bedding. It helped that the race started at 10.20am, giving us plenty of time to have porridge and head on down to the swim start.
Thanks to the growing heat of the day, I climbed into my wetsuit at the last possible moment, then pulled on my yellow swimming cap which indicated I was a 20-39 year-old female. It’s hard to tell in a wetsuit. First the elites, then the men, then the older men, then us, then the older women. It was a deep water start, which meant jumping into the 17 degree man-made Fuglsang Lake and swimming over to the start buoy. I’d worried that the swim would be more brutal, less friendly than usual since everyone was competing properly here, and my fears were confirmed before we’d even started. We lined up almost on top of one another. Where usually we’d be dotted about and spaced out, in this case we were in tightly-knit rows, like waiting for the tube at rush hour.
It became suddenly quiet but for the treading of water and the silent anticipation of a long awaited horn, as the final seconds stretched out like minutes. The occasional call of ‘good luck ladies’ from amongst our yellow caps, and three, two, one – the horn blasted and the aqua-frenzy began.
1.9km stretched out before me in a frantic washing machine of weeds and swallowed brown water and squints for bright orange buoys. Pleasingly, like my Ironman race day, my panic didn’t show up. It’s true that you just need to remember to breathe out. In the natural physical panic of a swim race, where everyone is aiming for the same turning points, I always have to inwardly state clearly ‘breath out’. The water is cold which naturally encourages you to hold your breath once your face goes in. As such, I’ve learned that pushing water out of my nostrils immediately upon facial immersion is the only way to create breathing regularity and avoid hyperventilating. The swim demon popped up a few times to tell me that I couldn’t do it and I needed to stop with immediate effect. Luckily the voice was only a whisper and I’d taken on a new technique to shout in my head ‘I can and will’ which proved unbelievably effective. Immersed in that lake, surrounded by tens of other yellow caps, I was there inwardly shouting ‘CAN AND WILL!’ I wonder what mantras they all had to get through it.
The swim exit is always such a wonderful relief. Many triathletes agree that the in T1, the hardest bit is over. Personally I think the swim is the most magical part of the day. Well, that and the finish line. I ran through T1 in a great time. If transition had been the race of the day, I’d have done remarkably better in the rankings! I took on my co-club member’s technique which involved completely emptying my bag on the floor. I swiftly got myself sorted as I noticed others fishing around in their bags.
I think we were all a bit surprised by the headwinds going out on the bike. It was as though Herning had somehow transformed into Kona as some poor dude crashed out on his posh disc wheel. The weather had promised light winds, and this new prospect of pushing 56 miles into invisible syrup wasn’t exactly thrilling.
The drafting rules had changed not long before the race and we were required to leave a 20-metre gap between us and the next person. That’s four elephants or two buses. Having Googled that I’m quite surprised at how big elephants are. If we were caught within the two-elephant zone, we risked a one-minute penalty and being flashed the red card of shame. Luckily, I escaped this card of doom, but there were some hairy moments; the tactics were rife!
The Danes seemed to be playing the game quite well, they’d overtake me at the most inopportune moments, such as before a descent, and then slow down. When you’re overtaken, it’s your responsibility to drop back, so this turn of events is highly annoying. I tried to keep the effort up after overtaking, it only seemed fair.
As usual, to keep myself amused and sane on the bike I sliced up the remaining miles into local jaunts back home. At 30 miles to go it was ‘just the Chew Lake loop’ and at 20 miles to go it was ‘just the Fast Women loop’. I was in a lot of pain with about 15 miles to go; not using your tri bars pre-race is a terrible mistake, and my horns just ended up being surplus weight.
Now, about two years ago I’d seen a tri club member post a photo of himself on the bike in GB kit on Facebook and it looked SO cool. Part of the reason I decided to go to this race was to get my own version of this. Unfortunately, this is what actually happened:
In hindsight I really should have planned my race kit more, maybe bought a disc wheel, perhaps a sperm hat, not worn socks on the bike and got matching gloves – but really?
Finally, my Garmin flashed up to tell me I was nearing 56 miles. I shot toward the dismount line at about 18MPH, stopping just in time to see the marshal’s terrified faces and shouts of ‘slow down!’
I’d done a 03:01 bike, 18.5mph average, which was two mins extra on my previous time. Not bad at all with the headwinds and hills, a comparative improvement. Now all I needed to do was run a sub 1:45 half marathon and I’d have a PB on my hands.
Ho ho ho.
Three hours and 50 minutes into the race, I was in for a real treat. I’d not run more than six miles in weeks thanks to a knee injury, and as soon as I started running, the invisible wall of goop came out to play. The sun was beating down, and the road out of Herning and back again; which I’d have to do eight times, stretched out before me and mocked my inability to run.
By now I was feeling very sick from the sugar, I had an extremely tight feeling in my head and my body just did not want to go forward. It was very much like the feeling I had during my Ironman, I thought to myself ‘yep, this is it – that feeling of being hung over and beaten up, I remember it well.’ It is at this point, the mugged after twenty tequilas point, that your ‘want’ really needs to take over.
I waited for my want to kick in, to turn my treacle legs into pacier minute miles.
Now, at Ironman my want was pretty strong. But at this race, I just didn’t have the fight in me. I found the run route utterly boring, except for the token interesting bit where we ran through the middle of the Bibliotek. I found myself stopping a lot, squinting at my feet, looking at my legs and willing them to cheer up. This was not a good turn of events.
I was sick a couple of times, and later, I think I made a co-GB athlete sick by harping on about my being sick. As I did so, she started to burp and then dropped back. I looked behind me and gave her a wave as I plodded on. She sailed past me a little while later, and eventually found her way up the rankings past five or so GB team competitors.
Somehow, amid a shuffle of energy gels, occasional tears, being sort of told by a fellow athlete to pull myself together with a shout of ‘Doggett! Come on Doggett’, miles did what they do best and clocked-up. As I neared the end of the fourth lap, I checked the clock in the library. My qualifying time had been 5hours 26mins. The clock looked to be ticking on toward the six hour mark which was bewildering. As such, I attempted to up my pace for the last few tens of metres to a rather less pathetic shuffle.
On a lapped course it is common to be teased by the finisher funnel repeatedly. This time, the finisher funnel was mine to be had and as I ran along the red carpet toward a finishing time of five hours fifty minutes I heard my name called. I cried the moment I passed the line, as I dipped my head for the finisher medal. Through the other side, I bent over onto the barrier and couldn’t breath properly as the tears poured out.
The emotions of just keeping on going for the best part of six hours when I really wasn’t conditioned for it were clear to see.
I finished 26th out of 28 places in my age group. Needless to say this did not auto-qualify me for Ibiza the following year! After the race I continued to feel confused about my position as part of Team GB.
Writing this has helped a bit. I could have trained harder, but life had other plans this year and I’m not going to blame myself for not being race fit. I realise that despite the challenges, I showed up, I raced against the best of them and I finished despite a lot of hurt. I may have shown the softer side of a GB athlete to Europe, with my crumpled expressions and tears, but I did it. I’d previously have said at this point ‘…and I didn’t come last’ but this race has shown me that it’s ok to come wherever you do in a race. It’s not always about winning the race, but about winning within your own perceived and circumstantial confines.
‘Perfection is doing your best within the context of your life,’ says Chrissie Wellington, who always puts it so well. In this race more than any to date, that quote really makes sense to me.