Swim, run and chips up Bray Head

bray-seafront

You’ll have to forgive me I’m running behind time here when it comes to updating how my racing season is going. So hot on the heels of a blisteringly scorching day in Blessington I thought I’d indulge my competitive instincts and get as much value out of my new wetsuit and compete in the Wicklow Triathlon Amphibian King Aquathon on the 21st of June. This was going to be one of a trio of races hosted by Wicklow Triathlon Club over the summer months and involved a 750 m swim along the sea front and a 5 km run along the promenade.

I had arrived early in order to avoid the inevitable traffic on the M50 and the N81 leaving Dublin at tea time, the race itself wasn’t scheduled to start till 7.30pm. This was going to be my first race in the sea which I had been told would be a good bit different compared to swimming in a pool, river or lake. While the salt content of the water combined with the wetsuit would aid buoyancy and theoretically aid faster swimming than in a pool or lake, you would also have the added factors of swell, waves and current to negotiate.

The day itself if you recall was one of the warmest of the summer so far and humidity was high. Thankfully the sun had gone behind the clouds once the time approached 7.30pm. Just prior to the start time all the competitors had registered before then donning their wetsuits and then waddling en masse like penguins down the promenade to the starting point. I say waddle, primarily because we were obviously barefoot and if you know the beach in Bray you’ll know its comprises pebbles rather than sand. Needless to say just getting to the water was a challenge over those pebbles.

Once in the water it became obvious this was a totally different environment for me. While I had swam in the forty foot in Sandycove on a couple of occasions in preparation, the water in Bray seemed more turbulent from the get go. The challenge would be to swim parallel to the beach passing three buoys and then swimming in to transition to the run along the promenade. Easier said than done !!!

Open water swimming is unique, in that you either sink or swim. Now that sounds very obvious but its only when you are in a body of water 150 feet away from the beach that it hits you and your survival instincts kick in, because if they don’t and you don’t revert to actually swimming you will be in trouble very quickly. You must remember open water swimming is still very new to me, so much so there is still that fleeting moment of panic at the realisation of what it is I am doing. I literally couldn’t swim other than doggy paddle 4 years ago. It was only when studied swimming technique from youtube videos that I began to master the basics. In the beginning I decided every time I went to the pool, I would swim 1 km, no matter how long it took me. At the start it took me 1 hour 15 minutes to swim 40 laps of the local 25 metre pool, now that takes me 20 minutes. I didn’t get any lessons I just stuck at it and thought myself how to breathe bi-laterally which came in handy last week in Bray.

The ability to be able to breathe to both sides is especially handy when you are getting pummelled by waves which was exactly the case during the Bray Aquathon, as a result I chose to breathe more often than not to the side opposite the incoming waves which helped to settle me into a rhythm and settle my nerves. One of the trickiest parts of open water swimming is the necessity to sight every few strokes to ensure you’re going in the right direction. I have heard plenty of stories of swimmers meandering off route and ending up swimming in a zig zag formation which is obviously counterproductive if you are in a race. I actually managed to swim a bit longer than the desired 750m myself but given this was my first sea race that would inevitable.

Once I rounded the final buoy I have to say I was relieved to sea the shoreline approach in front of me. I hauled myself out of the water and up onto the beach and began the process of transition which involves taking off my wetsuit while still running. Thankfully there were no hitches this time and it came off in super quick time. I also elected to run without socks which speeded up the process. I had managed the swim in just under 15 mins, which wasn’t super quick but wasn’t too bad either. Once you set off running after being in the water it takes some time for the legs to get into a rhythm and for you to get up to race pace. Your legs are largely redundant in the open water swim, not so the run.

I should have paid more attention during the pre-race briefing because I wasnt actually sure what the 5km comprised. I knew we had to run from the bandstand down the promenade and then up Bray Head to the level of the car park and down again to the bandstand. It quickly dawned on em as I gasped for breath on the hill up Bray Head that we had to run this route TWICE !!.  let me tell you now, walking up Bray Head is tough, but running up Bray Head seemed like madness and I think alot of the sun worshipping spectators tucking into their chips and ice creams along the promenade probably though the same thing.  The humidity in the air certainly made breathing difficult but once I was on the downward slope of the hill I was able to pick up my pace and prepare myself for the second lap and a second bite at the Bray Head cherry which was just as excruciating as the first. I honestly thought I was going to have a coronary !! Needless to say I managed to get through the run in 18.30 a new personal best and the best part of all I came home 29th!! I just need to improve the swim and I will be in a much better position to compete with the top ten I think.

Quite aside from the competitive aspect there seems to be a terrific camaraderie amongst triathletes before the races but certainly afterwards as each one crosses the finish line red faced and spent. There is unity in the suffering after all, and a week later I can still smell those bloody chips !!!

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Coming thick and fast

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Yup believe it or not that is me. See I suppose after banging on about having aspirations to be a triathlete for the last few months it would take more than a few well meaning blog posts to convince you all of my triathlon credentials, so let me remove all doubt courtesy of a photo. This was taken during the second leg of the Blessington Triathlon on Sunday the 11th of June which you may remember was easily one of the hottest days of the year. I say ‘one of the hottest’, like there have been loads of sweltering Sundays peppered across the month of June, but you get my drift.

I had hoped, given the weather conditions the previous day and the impending forecast for the Sunday, that it might be a tad cloudier and by extension a bit cooler but I had hoped in vain. When I arrived in Blessington after a misty sat nav-guided circuitous route via byways and hilly highways there wasnt a cloud in the morning sky.the time was 8.30 am and the temperature was already climbing. The lake in front of Blessington Sailing Club was glistening tantalisingly, it was actually quite breathtaking and there was absolutely no portent as to the thrashing of hundreds of silicone capped swimmers that would come later that morning.

I have to say I enjoy the buzz  in advance of a race. There is the usual cocktail of nerves and anticipation while watching the competitors sizing each other up mid race prep. I’m equally guilty of sizing other people too but even into my second triathlon it’s a dangerous game to play, because appearances can be very misleading. Dismiss someone based on their physical appearance and or their bike at your peril. Till now I had a preconceived notion that a triathlete had to be honed to physical perfection to compete, how wrong I was. In Athy there were many many examples of competitors who had strength, speed and stamina that belied their appearance on first examination. So nowadays I suspect anyone who has had the tenacity to line up on the starting line is a worthy competitor and not just there to make up the numbers. Now there are those triathletes who seem to have gone the extra mile financially having spent a small fortune on the latest triathlon suit, wetsuit, cycling helmet and bike. Indeed you can spend 500 quid on a wetsuit, 300 quid on a helmet and 10 grand on a bike. Personally I don’t have that kind of disposable income so I have done the whole triathlon thing on a shoestring budget and I am proud to say it too, even if my bike looks like a tricycle compared to some of the space age looking ‘bikes’ on display in Blessington.

I had chosen to compete in the sprint Triathlon which to remind you consists of a 750 metre swim in the lake, followed by a 20km cycle around the Blessington countryside and then a 5 km long run. The swim itself was more challenging than the swim in the river in Athy a week previous, as there is virtually no buoyancy because the water is fresh water and there were no currents to aid your passage, but I got through it in 18 minutes, slow for me but not too bad. Exiting the lake I had the misfortune of being slowed down in the transition when I couldnt get my wetsuit off. The zip had become stuck, eventually it came free but the delay had cost me about 90 seconds which meant I would have to floor it during the cycle to make up for lost time. My cycle would be stronger than my swim and I quickly began to pass cyclists along the hot 20km route which gave me great encouragement. I had expected this would be the case as the same thing had happened in Athy, in fact nobody passed me on the bike leg at all which meant I must have been doing something right, not even those lads on their fancy 10 grand bikes which made me smile considering my bike cost about 200 quid.

Once the bike leg was over it was straight into a punishing 5 km run. By this stage the temperature was in the mid to late 20’s and the heart rate was high. The first two km of the run were uphill which afterwards I told the race director was particularly sadistic. The heat was beating down and you could see some runners really flag at that point. Thankfully I have a decent run and managed to eek out a better 5km split than in Athy, coming in under 21 minutes.

Crossing the finish line I was elated it had gone as well as it had especially when I learned that I had managed 21st place. If all I managed to do next time was to improve the swim leg by a couple of minutes I would be making the top 10 for sure so I am hugely encouraged.

Incidently, if you are considering getting involved in triathlon as I mentioned above it doesn’t need to break the bank. I bought my wetsuit online at wiggle.co.uk for 120 euro. while it’s a fraction of the cost of the more expensive models of wetsuit it is more than sufficient. As far as bikes are concerned you absolutely don’t need a hitech piece of kit, my own bike in the photo proved that, the most important thing is maintenance, so regular cleaning and oiling of the relevant moving parts will certainly make your like alot easier.

Well, I did it !!

triathy

Apologies about the delay on writing this I’ve been a tad giddy. Yes I competed in my first ever ever triathlon on Saturday and it was amazing. After months and months of training which at various points was impeded by injury the day finally came . I had spent so many nights running the sequence of events through my head of what might happen on the day and yet no matter how much you train and plan you clearly cant cover every base. The night before it actually dawned on me that this ‘thing’ / challenge that I had so casually set out to do practically a year previously, had finally arrived. I actually felt apprehensive. There were fleeting thoughts of pulling out, but that was never an option. These thoughts were in fact drowned out by that phrase, feel the fear and do it anyway. It had always been my desire to push my boundaries, not having done so enough in the past. I wanted to actively step outside my comfort zone and this was my gilt edged opportunity. It’s funny when you realise you are in the maelstrom of doubt, when you face that wall of fear and you basically have 2 options, success or failure. There is a clarity that comes with that situation. You can either embrace the unknown or you can cling to the rock of status quo and all it’s feeble familiarity. The latter was absolutely what I didn’t want. The reward for riding out that fleeting moment of self doubt was too great as far as I was concerned. I had also spent far too many hours in the pool on the bike and braving the elements on the running track to give up and let myself down now. In reality I was never going to give in, I was too eager to experience the exhilaration I had experienced while competing in the Naas Duathlon several months ago. I suppose the nerves I was feeling were perfectly normal,  befitting a first time triathlete. I had spent the previous day cleaning and servicing my bike to make sure it was in tip top shape. On Wednesday I had picked up my registration pack with my race number bib and timing chip. Laying out my sporting paraphernalia the night before made it all very real, there was no going back now.

 

After a, how shall I put it, given the circumstances, an adequate night of sleep I woke at 6 am  forced myself to have a bowl of porridge. While my Sprint triathlon was set to start at 11 am, I had to be on site in Athy by 9.30 am at the at the latest. I had calculated it would take me almost an hour to get to Athy so left the house just before 8 which was a good idea in hindsight because when I arrived in Athy the traffic on the main street was bumper to bumper. Slowly we inched along, as the clock ticked down towards 9.30, I was getting anxious and was glad that I had taken the option of registering earlier in the week. All I needed to do was park my car in the car park provided and assemble my bike before dropping it off in the transition zone. The sense of excitement and of collective anticipation was palpable. The small Kildare town of Athy has been hosting Ireland’s most popular triathlon for over a decade and as such the hordes of yellow-bibbed marshals contributed to the air of industry and anticipation. It was great to see so many kindred sporting spirits assemble in the transition zone as they racked their bikes and arranged their cycling gear for the second stage. Everywhere there were competitors in various states of undress as some elected to put their wetsuits on early and others chose to wait till the last minute. Adding to the sense of industry was the fact that there were four separate triathlons scheduled to take place ranging in distances from the super sprint triathlon to the double Olympic distance triathlon which had already begun earlier that morning at the ungodly time of 6.50 am.  As a result there were 4 transition zones and hundreds of bikes everywhere, understandable given that there were 2000 triathletes registered to compete on the day. Along with this there were a few hundred spectators along the banks of the river Barrow to lend their support.

 

In the minutes approaching 11 am I had made my way towards the starting point of the swim. This involved crossing the river by the main bridge and walking down the bank on the far side. Already in the water were those competing in the Olympic distance triathlon which comprises a 1.9km swim, a 40 km cycle and a 10km run. I took the opportunity to analyse the flow of water and the effort  which some of the swimmers were exerting. As 11 am approached I positioned myself towards the front of our group, I had initially thought of starting towards the rear but thought it best to challenge myself by starting just off the front runners who would inevitable be on the starting line from the off. In hindsight this was a good decision as they were starting two swimmers at a time so the swimmers wouldn’t be on top of each other so there was no advantage to starting at the back. As it happened I probably had about 60 swimmers in front of me. When it cam to my turn to enter the water I took a  deep breath and thought its now or never. The main thing I had on my mind was the fear that my goggles would fog up. Only the previous weekend I had spent 32 euro on a fancy new pair of goggles but these had been totally useless when I tried them out in the pool a couple of days later. Thankfully the goggles held up.  The water while murky wasn’t half as cold as I had prepared myself for. I got into a rhythm quickly, in fact probably too quickly as my breath quickened. While I have done hundreds and hundreds of kilometres in the pool this was a completely different experience right from the word go. Not having transparent water in which to swim and with no lines to follow at the bottom of the pool, my frame of reference was robbed. When swimming in a river for the first time, not alone is it a river but it’s the first time in this particular river so you don’t actually know how fast you are swimming. I had a plan of counting my strokes to help me with my pacing but sure that went completely out of my head the second I got into the water. It was replaced with a sense of panic in that I was conscious I couldn’t slow down for fear someone would thunder into the back of me. In fact the opposite was true. I seemed to be catching up with others ahead of me which was novel to say the least. I then did something I never do in the pool, I swallowed mouthful of water. This robbed me of air of a couple of seconds which was inconvenient to say the least given the fact that I was already gasping. In the pool I usually bilaterally breathe every three strokes, in the mayhem this became unilateral breathing every stroke. What complicated things even further was the necessity for sighting. This is where you look up and straight ahead to see where you are going because you don’t want to swim into another swimmer of swimmers. As I caught my breath, rounding the 250m marker and setting off down stream I managed to swallow another mouthful of water. Very briefly I panicked but chose to breast stroke for 5/6 strokes to catch my breath and settle myself, once I did this I then regained my rhythm and actually resorted to bilateral breathing which propelled me through the water till I got to the pontoon at 750 m. In hindsight I am very pleased with how I dealt with my first river swim especially with the momentary panic when my breathing was disrupted. In future I will choose to lift my head a little higher out of the water to escape inevitable waves which had swamped me.  I think this experience wi8ll stand to me next time in that I wont be quite as rushed. The important thing is to calm the mind and revert to basics which is what I did eventually.

 

Once out of the water I made my way dizzily towards transition where I comically tried to divest myself of my wetsuit. Transitions in practise should be as brief as possible but they can, if done poorly, cost you places in the final reckoning. MY first transition was about 4 minutes long, about double the length it should have been, primarily because I insisted on drying my feet, putting on socks and generally showing no haste. It was inexperience on my part. Once on the bike I was immediately encouraged by the ease with which I was picking riders off. Since I had competed in the Naas Duathlon I had bought clip on triathlon bars and these allowed me to maintain an aerodynamic  position which would have helped me cycle faster. I felt very good on the bike even though I pushed an unrelenting pace. I passed about 30 riders in all and was only passed by a couple myself.

 

Once the 20km cycle was over I managed to negotiate the second transition in 90 seconds and I was off on my 5km run. While I felt good, I was beginning to tire at this point. My garmin was telling me I was running just outside of 4 min per km pace which is slowish for me, but again I passed a lot of runners which spurred me on. The terrain was unusual to say the least, ranging from pavement to dirt tracks to grassy river banks. When I realised I was on the homestretch the tiredness left me completely and I looked over my shoulder and realised I was literally all alone on the circuit at that point. I was greeted by a couple of hundred spectators on the finish line who gave me a good cheer. Before I knew it I had a medal around my neck and had registered a time of 1:16:54 , while 2 minutes slower than that which I was aiming for it was enough to secure me 42nd place over all out of almost 600 entrants in the sprint triathlon which given the difficulty in the swim and the slow transition was really a very good first triathlon result.  In fact if I hadn’t taken so long in the first transition I would have achieved top 30 and that’s without swimming, running or cycling any faster so I am hugely encouraged. The goodie bag was greatly appreciated and I devoured half its contents and I’m delighted to say that despite swallowing half of the River Barrow, I didn’t contract Dehli belly or anything J the next one is in Blessington in two weeks and I’m already looking forward to it !!

Oh and if you’re wondering, the River Barrow doesn’t taste that bad actually 🙂