A dense white fog had fallen during the night and lay still, hugging the ground like a heavy winter quilt embracing the earth. The sun was slowly rising on the horizon casting long dark shadows from occasional trees that carved deep black trenches through the air. It was just great to be out running and relaxing in such stillness. I found myself reflecting on my race only two days ago – wow.
The team of 32 British athletes joined 1,400 others in the French spa town of Vichy to tackle the 3.8km swim, 180km bike course and 42km marathon. The swim took place in the rowing lake, Lac d’Allier, followed by a 180km bike ride into some strong headwinds, particularly in the final 30km. The marathon run passed through the famous parks of Vichy and banks of the Allier River.
There was no time to waste. I made my final checks to my bike, last comfort break and it was time to get fully zipped up in my wetsuit and ditch my ‘street clothes’ bag to collect at the end of the race. It was 6:50am and the ten minute call was made to hurry athletes into the water.
We were shuffling like a mass of penguins waddling into the water –“oh wow”, as I entered the water and it grabbed my legs with an unexpected friendly warmth. At this time of the morning the water temperature was higher than the air.
Mad war cries
With almost three hundred and fifty triathletes competing in the European Championships, it was a packed deep-water lineup. I was trying to check my watch to make sure it was ready to start and then…….”what was that”?
There was a hum of deep growling noises and then I realised it was coming from us, the crazy bunch of penguins that now resembled bobbing seals, now grunting like animals. It went quiet and then these mad war cries burst out of athletes and before I knew it I was joining in. “What the hell”, I thought – I sounded scary.
BANG! “Here we go” Mistakenly, I thought I had a good position to start but being in a river space seemed to be tight and it was the usual battle for swim space. You could hardly move for bodies.
“NO!” My right goggle had been kicked into my head so hard that my eye ball was almost touching the inside of my goggle. Don’t ask me what stroke I was doing when I sorted it, I don’t know, but I had it sorted quickly. Head down and back into battle.
This swim was as bad as the congestion on the M1 on a Monday morning. There was no let up. I’d never experienced anything like it. The first turn point seemed to take forever to arrive but then finally it was there. At the halfway point you had to exit the water, run along the bank and throw yourself back into the water for the second half of the swim.
Kung Fu Panda
Just as I was approach the re-entry point the guy in front of me seemed to not know what to do. I had no idea if it was deep enough to dive or if it was a shallow entry. He couldn’t make his mind up and I almost found myself laughing as he made the most embarrassing flop into the water. And then I realised I had no idea what I was doing and then took off like Kung Fu Panda.
Into the air I flew, arms out stretched to my sides and parallel to the water, right knee high and left leg behind from a massive push off – you get the picture. Don’t ask me how I landed in the water because I can’t remember but I do remember getting on with the swim. Then… I got a battering from some guy. I recognised his wetsuit as I had just passed him.
I couldn’t understand why he was now suddenly overtaking me. He then swam straight over this poor female and she went under. I just could not believe this guy. Then he settled down and I was overtaking him again. Oops, (listen, this was not my fault) his face seemed to collide with my fist and he was stopped in his tracks (flow I guess). Let’s just move on.
Some swimmers around me appeared to be tiring and with a little more space in the water I could work harder to the swim exit.
Transition was a blur and I was just glad to be out on my bike. Everyone had been talking about the first 20-23km as it was supposed to be just lots of climbing but it wasn’t that bad. There were quite a few cyclists on the road as the half-distance race was well and truly on the course now, so you had no idea if you were up against rivals as not everyone in the championships was wearing national team kit.
Here come the draft busters
I was loving it but trying not to go too hard as I knew I would pay a big price later if I did. But I couldn’t help but steadily chase people down. I had no idea where I had exited the swim in the race but I guessed I was quite far back so anyone I could pick off on the bike was a bonus.
I was more than half way round the first 90km loop of the bike course and had overtaken, what I later found out, was the lead GB female. I gave her a tap as I rode by just focussing on doing my own thing.
About twenty minutes later I was now heading into the final 30km headwind of the course and suddenly this train of cyclists came screaming past me. I just hate people who cheat but athletes sometimes do and there were about fifteen of them including my female teammate. I had to let them go and ride my own race.
“I’m not going to cheat! If I do well I want to know it was because I earned it and not because I sat on someone’s wheel being dragged along”. Interestingly enough they didn’t seem to be getting any further away from me. This headwind was tough and they were not going so fast any more.
Then, a ‘Draft Buster’ (technical term for a race official) pulled up alongside me. “YES”, I thought. “Go get them”. I didn’t hear him coming so I knew they wouldn’t either. He noted all of their numbers and yellow carded the lot. Justice was done. Five minutes in the penalty box for the lot of them. The ridiculous thing was that they all sat up and started to protest as if their race was over!
Guess what? They had to break up and I rode straight passed the lot. Into Vichy again and there was a gruelling climb out and back onto the final lap of the bike. “Ouch!” It hurt.
The field was well and truly stretched out by now and I had time to enjoy my race. Beautiful fields of sunflowers with their heads bowing in pity. The stunning villages and gorgeous farmhouses were fantastic. I was suddenly aware of how much the wind had picked up.
Then it was time for the final 30km into the headwind which was so strong that when I sat up and the wind almost stopped me. I tucked tight and just drilled it. I just wanted this section over and done with.
This seriously wasn’t fun anymore. My heart rate monitor wasn’t working so I was racing blind to how hard I was working. I was working hard, possibly too hard, as I tried to slice my way through the wind’s force.
Finally, “what a relief”, as I rode into transition and glad to hand over my bike. As I ran into the transition bag collection area there was just a mass of blue bags! I know you’re thinking, “so what?”, but this meant that there were a hell of a lot of people still out on the bike course and I might be having a good race. I quickly ran into the transition tent and got my running shoes on, grabbed my salty gel, and got going.
“What on earth?” My legs felt amazing. Unusually, I could really feel my quads (upper legs) and thought that I was going really strong. I was loving being out on the run and started picking off each kilometre. “Three in the bag”, and I was onto the riverside and only thirty nine kilometres to go.
There were so many people out on the course I had no idea who was in what race – the half or the full distance championships. A steep climb up onto a bridge and I was soon down the other side and I thought I might just about be on time for when I told my wife Emma I would be passing our hotel. But she wasn’t there!
Okay. Long distance triathlon is not the most captivating spectator sport and Emma has a habit of going off shopping when she is supposed to be supporting me.
I was disappointed. She wasn’t there. I ran on. And there she was, further down the road, fumbling with her iPad to take a photo. It was too late and I was trying to run backwards for a photograph that she didn’t manage to take.
“OH DEAR” Suddenly the horrible reality about my quads come crashing home to me. That strange feeling was not ‘super strength’ but horrible pain. I was in agony. My legs were screaming at me. But I felt as though I was still running well and none of it made any sense.
My body seemed to have settled into autopilot and was just getting on with it. Athlete after athlete, I just kept overtaking people and had to accept the horrific pain. The only thing I could think of that had caused this was the last 30km of the bike course, but I was not going to stop and I was going to finish the race.
I was into my second 10.5km lap of the run and back into the park. I was running along a river and saw a couple of otters. “Otters”! I think I said it out loud. I admired the effortless swimming technique of the one in the water whilst the other was scurrying on the grassy bank. The continuing pain from my quads reminded me to focus on the race. I focused on technique and was surprised to be holding the same pace as the first lap.
By now I was passing people walking or doing the ‘Ironman shuffle’ (This is the craziest thing you’ll ever see. It’s not exactly a run, it’s certainly not a jog and it’s possibly slower than a walk. It’s what happens when your brain has shut you down, you’re physically exhausted, your pride is stopping you from walking and you are determined to keep going to the end).
Back into the finish area and straight back out again and I was past the half way point. The crowds were just amazing and there were loads of noisy Brits there with massive union flags waving cheering you on. There were people shouting words of encouragement to all the athletes almost all the way round the course.
I just kept counting down the kilometres until the final 10.5km lap. I told myself, “Okay now. Find that next gear and let’s push for home”. Nothing happened. I had no other gear but I did continue to bounce along.
I was still overtaking people but was beginning to feel the effects of the race and was taking longer going through feed stations. My time goal had passed and I knew I was not going to break ten hours. Thankfully my legs ignored what I was thinking and just carried on.
I hit the 2.4km to go and I ran past the final feed station and suddenly, and finally, found that next gear. I was tearing past people now over the bridge and into the final 1km. The sound of the finish line was so welcome and I had yet another increase in pace. Into the finishing gantry and I could see someone in front of me and chased him down and crossed the line. 10:11 was above my head and I was disappointed – flat.
Check the race results before you beat yourself up
I turned to look for Emma in the crowds and threw my arms in the air as I saw her waving at me. That was the best bit for me. A disappointing race but Emma was there to support me and that meant a lot.
It was a long but welcome walk back to our hotel and we walked back with an old teammate. After freshening up we met up at a riverside restaurant together for a bite to eat and lots of fine wine. My friend Per was the second GB athlete to cross the finish line, which was an amazing achievement. I avoided talking about my own performance.
I hadn’t worked out what my race splits were but I had it in my head that I had run a shocking 3 hours and 50 minute marathon and that got me down. I didn’t even want to check the official results.
When we got home I thought I should check the official results. I suddenly felt a whole lot different about my race – I was fourth GB to cross the finish line, seventh out of 64 athletes in my age group and 43rd overall in the Championships. This was by far me best championship result ever. A week later I printed off the results and had a closer look at the splits. What did I learn? ‘Check the race results before you beat yourself up!’
I ran a respectable 3:35 marathon and realised that everyone had endured a tough race. It wasn’t about the time but where I finished in the field. I now had the highest ranking in Europe I have ever had and I know I can improve and do better.
Now I’m looking forward to getting back to training, racing for fun over the winter and targeting the Worlds and European Championships again next year in what will be my fifth year on the GB Team for Long Distance Triathlon.
Brian is a Trustee on the board of the British Triathlon Foundation Trust, which aims to inspire young people through triathlon. For more information head to www.britishtriathlonfoundation.org