This was my first step into the world of the Olympic Distance triathlon; I was very nervous. The Olympic distance consists of a 1,500m swim (that’s about a mile), a 44km cycle and 10km run. At Hever Castle the swim was to be in a lake and river, a very cold lake and river. Brrrrr. In preparation for this, I took myself off to the Kings Cross Pond Club again last week and managed 30 lengths before I started shivering and had to get out, so I was a little bit nervous about having to be hauled out with hypothermia! But before I could attempt any of this we had to get there.
This was my birthday present from Edward and Hector (yes, I know my birthday is in December, but I do like to milk it!), so we were all set for a nice family day out in Kent. We hired a car (triathlon is an expensive business) and set off bright and early for my 9.45 wave start. Of course, along the way we realised we didn’t have any cash, so took a detour to find a cash machine in the countryside. We also had to pause briefly to deal with poor Hector’s travel sickness and off we went…to join a massive queue to the car park.
Due to the wet weather earlier in the week, the car parks were a slippery, muddy mess and there was a tailback of about two miles, with cars populated by twitchy triathletes, eager to get to transition. Eventually, as my start time got closer and closer, we decided to put my bike together and I would cycle down by myself. It’s a good job I did! By the time I reached transition I didn’t have any time to fret and quickly racked my bike, laid out my stuff and put on my wetsuit. The ground was muddy and squelched a bit between my toes as I headed to the water.
You see that? That’s where I swam, all the way to the last buoy (which isn’t showing in this photo, taken later in the day), sharp left, then into the river and back round! As we had all been delayed by the traffic situation, the waves were moved back fifteen minutes each (phew!) and we all gathered in our red swimming caps for the pre-race briefing, given by the race director. This was really good, with maps, and very clear but obviously a little scary. Again, this distraction stopped me getting worked up about the upcoming swim and we were soon heading away from the beautiful loggia and into the 14 degree water, gasp. It was an absolute stunner of a morning, with clear blue skies and a lovely golden glow over the water’s surface. I positioned myself near the back and let everybody else head off and do their thing before I eased forward into a tentative breaststroke, head out. I looked at the first buoy, deciding to break it all up into chunks: swim to the first buoy, count your strokes, enjoy the view, breathe out steadily. I chuckled to myself, imagining I would be last out of the water, but I soon passed other swimmers and caught up with those ahead of me, ticking off the buoys as I went. At the far end of the lake we turned towards the Japanese tea pavilion (yes, it’s a very fancy sort of a swim) and into the river Eden, under a bridge and around a bend. There was a lot of this around the bend thing in this section and I would approach each turning afresh and aim for the next corner. It was along here that I thought it might be nice to thank one of the marshals in a kayak, not a great idea when your chin has set frozen and you swallow a load of water. I overtook some more swimmers and started to hear the noise from the start/end point, I wondered if the boys had made it to the car park yet and looked out for them as I swam to the swim-out area. This was being assisted by some Speedo people, putting out a helping hand as you reached the edge. I made the mistake of putting my foot down and felt it sink into mud that was the texture of marshmallow! Climbing out, I reached for my zip and heard Edward and Hector cheering my name. I kissed Edward, feeling a great sense of relief at having completed this swim: ‘You’re so cold!’ he shouted as I ran to transition.
This was where I thought the otherwise excellent organisation was lacking, just a clear sign at the end of each row where you come in from the swim would make it so much easier. Luckily I had taken a look at what was at the end of my row, so located a big red flag at one of the stalls and tried to pick out my bike amongst the many others. I peeled off my wetsuit but couldn’t find anywhere to lay it, the bikes were all so close together, so I fumbled about for longer than I had hoped, guzzled a gel, downed some drink and ran along the exit and bike mount area, trying to stay upright in the mud. It took great concentration to exit safely, with the mud being covered by big plastic boards, which were tricky to negotiate on a road bike. Over some speed bumps, around a corner and out of the grounds to the bike leg.
From this point Edward and Hector had a fair bit of time to fill as I disappeared out into the Kentish countryside, so amused themselves with all the great stuff on offer…a bit of archery.
And even some bungee jumping :)
Meanwhile, I was getting my head round cycling in a race along open roads. Not that I go that fast, but you really have to have your wits about you when dealing with potholes, other cyclists (some overtaking at speed) and cars. The whole two-lap bike course was well sign-posted and marshalled and I didn’t have to stop and wait at road junctions at any point. Every so often I would pass residents who had come out to cheer (thank you) and was given a boost when we cycled past the in/out area each lap – there was a woman at the roadside who called out ‘come on lady!’ each time, I think she probably did this for every female competitor (I did feel we were very much outnumbered by the men). Before I knew it I was bobbing back over the speed bumps and into T2. Here I did a double-take as a woman’s voice reached my ears from the crowds along the edge. I had just swum a mile, cycled 40k and the thing she thought to call out was: ‘Oh, snotty face’. Yes, really. Thanks for appreciating my effort.
Racking the bike in T2 is always a wobbly sort of moment, the legs were still spinning, my toes were still numb and it was a very wobbly, hobbly affair. Edward and Hector called out some encouragement and I headed off into the woods, wishing I could feel my toes. I guzzled some more gel – yuck. I felt able to run steadily and enjoyed the setting, it really is quite a lovely race. Along the route there were water/gel stations and many of the volunteers were teenagers who were so incredibly enthusiastic, you couldn’t help but pick up the pace. Briefly. This was a two-lap course and each time we encountered an incredibly muddy down-hill section. I commented to a fellow runner here that I wished I had worn my trail shoes, he said he wished he had entered the sprint! A nice straight stretch towards the beautiful castle and around then up a hill, a steep and cruel hill. I had one of those moments where I wished I hadn’t noticed someone walking and walked myself :( I normally love a hill, but I really was knackered by now. Through the finish area and into lap two but not before going over a cheeky little footbridge that felt like Mount Snowdon. I knew I only had a few more kilometres to go, but had to guzzle gels and neck water to get me there, I really was struggling by now, none of the nasty cramp I had at the London Duathlon last week, just sheer tiredness. As I tackled the hill for the second time, I knew it wasn’t far, so sped up to cross the line with my hands in the air.
The finish area was excellent, like a bit of a food fest! There was coconut water, cola, water water, water melon, melon, oranges, Soreen, biscuits…pretty much something for everyone! I couldn’t get enough of the watermelon, so took some time to refuel before gathering my bike from transition. It had taken me three-and-a-half hours to complete the race, quite a lot longer than I had hoped, but I was so happy to have done that swim, probably the slowest swim I’ve ever done, but still! We spent some time afterwards enjoying the beautiful grounds and refuelling before heading home for steak and chips. I would definitely recommend this race, it’s rather wonderful, if challenging. Hector asked if we would go there again, saying ‘Maybe if we do, it will be because I’m doing a triathlon’. I think he’s tempted ;)