“Basket!” I cried. “Clucking basket!” Or something like that, anyway. Here I was, storming (in my own mind, at least) through my first triathlon, and I was brought to a halt by a schoolboy error.
I looked down in dismay at the muddy back tyre of my mountain bike. Flat. Flat as a pancake. Flat as Flanders. Flat as a witch’s thingummy. And here was I, several miles from transition, with neither pump nor tube. Up to that point, things had been going so well.
I’d awoken in what seemed like the middle of the night and, after scraping the frost from the windscreen on this particularly biting autumn morning, crossed the Woodhead Pass to Stalybridge to take part in the Überfit Tameside XL Triathlon.
Of course, there are tris closer to home, but I’ve been trail running during the year, and the fact that my carbon mountain bike is probably lighter than my steel road bike persuaded me that an off-road triathlon would be right up my street.
My training for the event was lacking in science, but bursting with dedication: run some, ride some, swim some, and then do it all again. The swimming I found particularly challenging. Not having swum since school, I lacked stamina and technique (my freestyle stroke gives the impression I’m having a fight with myself), but I put in the lengths until I felt I could take on the required 20 lengths with some degree of confidence. I felt as ready as I could be.
A GAMBLE… THAT LOST
In Tameside it was getting light, but was misty and still bitterly cold. When I reached the Copley Centre a number of bikes were already racked. I eyed my fellow triathletes uneasily; they were lean and athletic, and many were wearing those funny all-in-one suit things. I chatted with the other competitors. One or two of them looked as nervous as I felt.
30secs to go, into the water… and we were off. Now, my strategy was this: because I still had insufficient stamina to swim 500m of freestyle non-stop, I would alternate lengths of freestyle with lengths of breaststroke. As it turned out, after four lengths, my shoulders had other ideas, and I settled into a steady breaststroke for the rest of the swim. Meanwhile swimmers in neighbouring lanes were ploughing up and down with impressively mechanical freestyle strokes. Oh dear.
20 lengths done! Out of the water, quick towel down on the poolside, bike shoes on, and… run through the door into the frigid air. Well, that certainly woke me up. I jogged up to transition, located my bike, strapped on my crash hat and hit the road, inwardly relieved that I had packed some gloves.
The 15.5km bike route was uphill almost from the off. The track followed the water’s edge before ramping steeply up onto the moors. It was still misty in the valley, but as I gained altitude I broke through the cloud and found myself under a brilliant clear blue sky. I picked off a couple of riders on the ascent and by now was feeling pretty good. Biking is my strongest discipline; I knew I could handle the climbs, and my bike handling is good enough to gain time on the downhills.
The route continued to climb until it went through a gate and truly off-road. Rocky, muddy, rutted technical trails with steep descents. Mud tyres might have been the wise choice. I picked off a few more riders, noting with satisfaction from their race numbers that they had started 10 to 15mins before me. I overtook another rider and powered up a narrow woodland lane, and then… well, you know what happened then.
Why wasn’t I carrying a puncture kit? Put simply, I gambled… and lost. It’s only a ten-mile course. I could do with saving the weight. Anyway, I hardly ever get punctures. Seriously, what are the chances?
There was nothing else for it. By my estimation (which was fairly accurate, as it turned out), I was about three miles away from T2. I shouldered the bike (reflecting that the carbon was finally paying for itself) and started to jog. A couple of riders overtook me; but on the next climb were going no faster on wheels than I was on foot.
While I could run downhill with relative ease, I was hitting nothing like the speeds I would’ve on the bike. A passing rider nobly offered me his puncture kit; I graciously declined, being vaguely aware of some rule about outside assistance, and treating this experience as a penance that should be borne manfully and without complaint.
By T2, whatever advantage I might have gained from a strong bike leg had evaporated. Plus I already had a few miles of running in my legs, with six more to go. From here on I wouldn’t have the bike with me, at least.
AN UNWITTING PACEMAKER
For the first couple of miles, the 9.7km run retraced the bike course, before taking a left for the long, long climb onto the moors. Again, the trails were of rocks and mud; it would be easy to twist an ankle with a carelessly placed step.
By the time I reached the final tortuous few hundred yards to the summit of the hill, my thighs were screaming. In front of me was a capable lady racer in a pink top; unaware that she was pacing me all the way round the run. As long as I kept her in sight, I would keep moving. In the clear autumn air I could see for miles over the surrounding moors. The view would’ve been simply breathtaking, had there been any breath left in me to take.
The descent was fast and exhilarating. Soon I was back in the valley, and as I crossed back over the dam I could make out the sound of an excited crowd. A wicked short final climb over rough stones, a zig-zagging drop through the trees and I came into the arena, somehow finding the energy for something resembling a sprint to the finishing line, cheered home by spectators and cheerleaders. What a feeling!
My time? Well, I was well down the table, and it would be futile to dwell on 'what if'. That wasn’t what it was about, first time out. I completed the course, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the memories of which will still be with me long after the number 34 has (finally) faded from my arm.
A full version of this article is available on Tony’s fine new website, The Outdoor Times http://theoutdoortimes.com
Photos: Paul and Nigel Events Photography