So there I was at a loose end. I had a taste of warm weather and wanted more so what better than to hook up again with an old acquaintance that is Superleague Triathlon. In previous posts from 2017 and 2018 you might recall my travelling to Jersey to see this new format of short course triathlon racing. While I was only a wide eyed spectator in 2017, last year I completed in the age group race and did rather well.
Work commitments prevented my travelling to Jersey for a third year in a row but it did get me thinking. I knew Superleague were running a race in Malta in October, having watched it online last year. The temperature would be about 26 degrees and the water temperature would be 24 degrees so very much conducive to open water swimming. The only downside would be the lack of a bike segment due to the nature of the race course but I threw caution to the win and booked a place in the age group Enduro Aquathlon. This race would comprise a 300 m swim in the marina in Birgu, a suburb of the Maltese capital Valletta, followed by a 2km run, followed by another 300m swim finishing off with a 2.5km run. The distances are short I will grant you that, but the racing would be hell for leather!!
The race in question would take place 6 weeks after my jaunt in Majorca. I booked a private room in a hostel, a flight and figured out the logistics of getting from Malta International Airport to Valletta which would be fairly easy because I wouldn’t have my bike with me. In fact this trip was looking like it was going to be kind economical as the accomodation and the flight combined were only 290 euro, throw in 38 euro entrance fee for the race and it was till cheap as chips.
It takes about 3 hours 30 to fly from Dublin to Malta and when you arrive you have the option of taking a taxi or the bus. The taxi from the airport to Valletta is 17 euros whereas the bus costs 2 euro in the summer or 1.50 in the winter, so I opted for the bus. I have to point out that I only opted for the bus once I had done a few google searches on arrival and figured out my options. Google directions are brilliant for literally frogmarching you from the arrivals terminal to the bus stop in question. I got the X1 bus to Qroqq which I knew again courtesy of google directions was only a few hundred metres from my hostel.
I hadn’t stayed in a hostel since I visited Nice in the early 2000s. I had memories of sleeping in a dorm and just didn’t fancy sharing with a load of inebriated younger travellers this time round so the private room with the private bathroom was a good call. The hostel and the room itself was fairly modest but as good as can be expected for 30 quid a night. They put on a respectable enough buffet breakfast in the mornings although the only catch being, to avail of said breakfast you need to be up before 9am. There were plenty of common areas and a small pool which was a pleasant bonus.
The hostel was situated about 10 minutes walk from the marina near Sliema, the direction of which I headed the following day to collect my registration particulars for the race. I would liken Malta to the middle east meets western Europe. There is very evidently a mixture of cultural influences that have shaped the island over the last few centuries. This makes for fascinating vistas. However those vistas are peppered with the signs of a booming construction trade. There are building sites and cranes literally everywhere in Valletta. I counted 17 cranes on the horizon at one point which is more akin to Dublin than a small Mediterranean island. I go so far as to say the level of construction happening is aesthetically jarring. The other thing that jars is the Maltese approach to health and safety, which is non-existent because many of the aforementioned building sites simply spill out onto paths and roads unchecked. Throw in the treacherous ‘paving’ and Maltese penchant for parking anywhere and everywhere and getting from A to B on foot can be more akin to negotiating an assault course.
Can I also add at this point that Maltese drivers are the craziest and most impatient I have witnessed. Indeed there are signs asking drivers to be mindful that they must share the roads and urging patience. Having spoken to Irish expats living there the Maltese have a cavalier attitude towards drink driving and seat belts are an optional extra. While I had brought bike helmet anticipating that I might hire a bike as I did in majorca, I elected not to throw caution to the wind. The helmet remained unused in my hostel room as I didnt fancy testing the limits of my travel insurance by taking a trip on a bike on Maletese roads.
I didnt have much time ahead of my race on the Sunday morning so decided to do a little bit of sightseeing. I walked from my hostel along the waterfront all the way to George’s Bay which took the guts of an hour and where you will find the more high end hotels and a cute little beach where you can go for a swim. It was actually on my way to Georges bay that I happened upon an open air pool which charged a fiver for a swim. As it happened I had my togs and goggles with me so took the plunge. It was surreal swimming in an open air pool rather than open water but it was a welcome change.
I had a free day before my race on the Sunday and had seen lots of tourists boarding boats along the waterfront in Sliema. It seemed most people were choosing to take a day trip north to the smaller islands of Comino and Gozo. So after a quick google search I thought I would do the same thing and bought a ticket for 30 euros from a guy at one of the numerous waterfront stalls which was a good shout seeing as he charged me a fiver less than what I would have paid online.
It was an early start the following morning. I descended upon the buffet breakfast in my hostel after a restful night helped by the fact I had walked 27,000 steps the previous day plus I had managed to operate the aircon successfully which was very much needed given the lack of air coming in the window. While I ate my breakfast I found myself shaking my head at the antics of some of the other guests who were loading up on all the free fruit and croissants just because it was available to them. There are only so many apples one can eat, does one woman old enough to know better really need 4 apples and 8 slices of bread ? Most of the aforementioned food suspiciously disappeared in the time it took me to get a glass of orange juice. Hmmmm.
I arrived at the waterfront at 9.30 and the sun was already beating down so I was glad I had coated myself in factor 30 and wore a hat. We departed after 10 am for what would be a 7.5 hour round trip taking us to the northernmost island of Gozo. It took almost an hour to get there and when we did all the ferry passengers were divided into small groups and were whisked off in cars, jeeps and buses by local drivers to see the island. I sat in the front seat beside the driver which was a good move because it gave me a birdseye view and the benefit of the driver’s local perspective and knowledge. We were driven to the very top of the island which was only 14 km away but seemed longer as we raced through winding narrow streets. When we arrived at our destination we were on the north coast and were greeted by the Maltese version of the cliffs of Moher. Plenty of photos were taken in the baking sun and I even stretched to buying an ice cream to help cool me down. Gozo itself seemed quite rural and less built up than Malta but all that could change with the construction of a tunnel between Gozo and Malta mooted to be in the offing.
After Gozo we were taken to Comino where we had the chance to swim in the turquoise waters of the blue lagoon. This area is famed for the clarity of its waters and adorns the tourist brochures and websites of the ferry companies and rightly so because it is spectacular. The beach at the blue lagoon itself is quite small and access is made difficult by the craggy rocks surrounding it but once you manage to get into the water its breathtaking. I had taken my dry bag with me onto the boat earlier that morning and I was wearing togs so all i had to do was strip off , put on my goggles and tether my dry bag around my waist and I could go for a swim without worrying about leaving my valuables on the beach.
I was able to swim out away from the hordes and used the dip as an impromptu training session. It was astounding just how clear the water was with shoals of fish swimming happily within inches of me. This opportunity to swim open waters is really what I had been looking forward to from the day. It was a pinch me kind of moment, kind of like swimming in a postcard. Funny enough once out of the water and back on our ferry to make the return journey back to Malta the skies started to cloud over which suited me fine as it had by then been a long day in the sun even despite my factor 30.
We arrived back at the at 5.30 and thanked all of the ship staff who seemed to be predominantly from the Philippines and were super friendly. That evening I ate locally and retired early after a long day of being a tourist.
The following morning breakfast was had before I headed to an Irish bar around the corner from my hostel, the Mad hatter, with dozens of hats all attached to the ceiling. Now before you ask, no I wasn’t imbibing I arrived to watch Ireland versus New Zealand in the rugby which on reflection was probably not the best idea given the performance and result. However at least I was surrounded by my countrymen which was a comfort given I was away from home. Later that afternoon I did more sightseeing as I headed on to Birgu about an hour away on the bus. Birgu was the location of the Superleague event that I had come to take part in. In fact the Superleague event takes place over 4 days with juniors, corporate teams, amateur age groupers and professionals all getting their turn. On the Saturday I visited Birgu I watched the women pros competing in their semi final. It was great to see the pros like current world champion Katie Zaferes and Rachel Klamer up close and watch how they negotiate the course that I would be racing on the following morning. After the female pros it was the turn of the men. These guys like current world champion Vincent Luis are so ridiculously fit and there’s not a pick on them. I would consider myself to be fit with a body fat percentage of just under 10% but these lads are on another planet altogether. I watched as they took to the 300m swim course like dolphins, cycled at ferocious speeds round corners and down crazily steep hills with zero fear and then as they sprinted like gazelles for fun and all without breaking a sweat.
I stayed watching these ludicrously talented men and women for an hour or so before heading back home. Half of the purpose for my trip was to do a recce of the actual course but also to see how I would negotiate the hour long journey there in the morning. I had used my trusty google directions app again and had figured out I needed to get a 6am bus to be there for 7am.
And so that was the bus I got the following morning. I was pleasantly surprised that the bus actually turned up. I had a nagging feeling given the ungodly hour on a Sunday morning but my lack of confidence in the Maltese public transport system was unfounded. There were buses everywhere, Ireland take note !! It was astonishing at how many people were up and about at 6am on a Sunday morning as it happens. I navigated the route that involved two buses and a journey of just over an hour.
Once I arrived there were already about 100 age group competitors milling around as I checked in with registration and received my timing chip , swim cap and race number. Within a few minutes we were marched down to transition where the pros place their own gear when they race. Then we had a pre race brief and took to the pontoon for the swim start. In fact there were about 150 triathletes so we actually started in the water rather than diving off the pontoon like the pros. Alas as I lowered myself into the water my tri-suit on a nail and ripped a two inch hole. Thankfully it was the suit that was ripped and not my skin because tetanus is not what one really wants.
Because there were so many people in the water I knew a turbulent start was unavoidable. I just elected to pace myself and stay wide as I could around the first couple of buoys which would be easier said than done because we were swimming in a marina full of huge yachts like something you’d see in Monte Carlo. Once I rounded the first buoy and then the second the field began to string out. The hard part was getting out of the water and then sprinting to transition while taking off the goggles and swim cap but keeping them on my person (down the front of my tri-suit) during the run for the second swim segment.
I was still breathless as I started off on the run course with its super steep ascent followed by scarily steep descent. We would have to complete this 1km run loop twice before the second swim. The incline was tough it must have been about 15% but I just increased my cadence while I took the descents very gingerly primarily because I didn’t want a repeat of the injury I sustained at the beginning of the season brought on by pounding down a steep descent in Antrim. Secondly the run course was wet because people had just gotten out of the water so it was fairly precarious.
I had never actually dived off a pontoon before so this second swim leg was going to present me with that experience. While I had watched in awe at the how the pros dived off for fun I wondered if i would be able to dive off as gracefully as those pros did, I wouldn’t. While I leapt like an antelope into the air off the pontoon, the goggles left my face which as you might imagine stalled my momentum as I had to tread water till I placed them back where they are intended to be. Never having gone from a swim to a run to another swim immediately I was pretty out of breath on the second swim leg. In fact I had to slow down and breast stroke a couple of strokes to catch my breath which just heightened my appreciation for what the pros do with such ease. The second run went without a hitch as I paced myself well. two more laps of the run course and after 33 minutes of breakneck racing I crossed the steepest finish line ever!!
Interestingly the medal they gave us for our efforts was a plastic medal but it was made of recycled bottle tops which I thought was novel. All in all it was an enjoyable experience and slightly strange not to be cycling at all but the anduro aquathlon is a fun format and one I’d love to see at home here. Oh and I managed 5th in my age group which I felt was respectable enough too!!