After completing the Virgin London Marathon in 2012 I quite fancied the idea of a triathlon. So I entered the Virgin London Triathlon 2013 at sprint distance – that’s 750m swim / 20km bike / 5km run. In order to get a bit of a taster before jumping into the Thames with thousands of other people, I entered an Eton Dorney supersprint distance triathlon with around 500 other people to see what was up. The difference between supersprint and sprint in this case is a shorter swim – only 400m.
For starters the Eton Dorney supersprints, held at the same rowing lake where the Olympics took place, seem to cater well to first timers. It’s also not too busy – about 500 or so took part in the whole event and around 150 in my category – under 40 men.
I’d done training in all the disciplines separately, mainly focusing on running and cycling when I should have spent time on swimming. I’d done a few brick sessions as well – where you combine two or three of the disciplines in a session – and I’d even done my own sprint tri by cycling to the local pool, swimming, then doing the bike ride, before dropping the bike and running. It’s good to get a feel for the impact but it gives you no idea of what the transitions are really like. This is an art in itself I have since discovered.
Swimming is by far my weakest discipline, but I think this is common among triathletes. I hadn’t spent enough time in the water to get a grip on my breathing, and I’d also spent too much time ensuring I could cover the distance on breast stroke rather that work on my front crawl. My intention was, for the first event at least, to do the swim breast stroke and make the time up on the cycle and run. Whenever I told someone this they laughed.
The other thing was, this was an open water swim in May in the UK. Triathlon rules say that if the water is below 14 degrees wetsuits are compulsory. I’d never worn a wetsuit, never mind swam in one, so I was banking on the weather to pick up and get the water to 14 degrees so I could still race. This was a Bad Idea.
Come race day the water was indeed 14 degrees (or so it said on the board. No one believed it). Having watched a couple of races and seeing everyone in a wetsuit I kind of panicked and bought one on site. Fortunately the guy from Blue Seventy was very helpful and a triathlete himself so I put myself at his mercy and got suited up.
The second after I plunged into the water I knew I’d made the right decision and was glad I’d bought the wetsuit outright. I’m going to wear it for every triathlon I do if possible.
The transitions are all important in triathlon and they’re something you can’t really practice under race pressure. I’m sure plenty of people do practice removing the wetsuit and getting changed, but I can’t imagine it’s the same as when you’ve just climbed out of a freezing lake.
Getting into and out of a wetsuit is a tricky business. I saw a couple of guys putting a plastic bag over each limb before sliding the limb through. Worked a treat, so remember that.
Then it’s just a case of laying out what you’ll need, for me:
Towel to dry feet
Extra top layer (it seemed cold but I shouldn’t have bothered)
Race belt with gel holders and a couple gels (better than pinning your number on)
They say try and practice open water swimming and I can see why (I didn’t). For starters, 400m in open water looks a hell of a lot further than you imagine it when you’re doing lengths in a pool. Also 14 degree water is still bloody freezing. The wetsuit (Blue Seventy Fusion) made it bearable but my hands, feet and face were completely frozen. Having a pee helped a bit. It certainly warmed the suit up! (It’s not as nasty as it sounds. If you’re constantly hydrating before a race what comes out is pretty much clear water with electrolytes in it.)
I positioned myself on the outside of the pack, so I had the widest route to swim, but I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way as I expected to be pretty slow. I’d read about wetsuit wearing but when the starting horn went off I discovered a few things…
Tri wetsuits are designed to be much more flexible than regular suits, and they also have buoyancy panels in them which make it impossible to sink. Problem is, they make you float on top of the water so breast stroke is nigh on impossible to do. So I sucked it up and just started front crawling. I reckon I did about an even split between breast stroke and front crawl. The cold water took my breath away so I reckon I swam most of it with my head above the water. Good goggles also paid off here (Aqua Sphere open water goggles). No misting, good visibility and no leaks. Also, the wetsuit does actually make you faster and much to my surprise I stuck with the middle of the pack for the whole swim.
My main concern throughout the whole race was keeping my breathing under control, tricky in the cold water, but once you start hyperventilating you just get tired more quickly. This can make the exit more difficult as by the time you are able to stand up, you’re very disorientated and your head still feels like its rolling from side to side. But as soon as you can, get those goggles and swim hat off, unzip the suit and start jogging to transition number one.
Swim done in 10:21
Transitions are an art in themselves. You’ll see the pros have lots of tricks, such as having their cycling shoes clipped in and somehow putting them on whilst cycling. My main concern was getting the wetsuit off but I had it down to my waist by the time I got to my transition station. Somehow I sat on the floor, got the legs off the wetsuit, dried my feet on the towel, put socks and cycling shoes on, then race number belt, helmet and sunglasses. I put another layer on my top half as I thought I’d be chilly after the swim but I shouldn’t have bothered as it was too hot by the time I got to the run. There are rules for transitions – make sure you’ve got your helmet done up before you get your bike off the rack – it’s a disqualifiable offence!
T1 done in 3:33
My favourite part of the race but also one I was really worried about. What would I do if I got a mechanical? Were there really as many crashes as Youtube would have me believe? What if I really needed to pee?
Well I didn’t have a mechanical and I didn’t need to pee. Also, I didn’t see any crashes, so I guess that’s all three answered.
The 20km ride was four laps of the boating lake. As it’s a boating lake you can expect one side to be really windy and one side to be really sweet. I’ve no idea how the guys with the disc wheels handled the windy side, but given that it was flat I just got in the drops and ground round without touching the brakes once.
I’d thought about the ride a bit so I’d got my bike set on the small ring and an easy gear, because I expected my legs to feel like jelly for the first mile or two. It was a good move. They weren’t so much jelly as frozen and cramping from the water. I gave it best part of the first lap slowly working up through the gears and then slipped it onto the big dog and really started mashing.
Again I was really focused on my breathing so I didn’t start drinking until the second lap. My plan was to do all my rehydration on the bike so I didn’t need to on the run. I’d had some amazing foresight which paid off in spades here – I’d nicked a bottle cage with a horizontal clamp off my daughter’s bike and clamped it onto the handlebars. Then got an 800ml bottle with a long straw and filled that with carb and electrolyte mix. This meant I could drink whilst in the drops just by sucking on the straw, no messing about with bottles and cages. I think it worked excellently and got me hydrated for the run.
I was really worried about not having any legs left for the run, so I don’t feel like I pushed myself on the ride. I reckon I could shave some time here definitely. I was really paranoid about drafting though – this is another illegal activity in triathlon and the drafting zone is 7 metres behind the bike in front! As a result I was constantly pulling out into the wind and overtaking as much as possible. I get the feeling riding fixed every day also helped here as I don’t think I coasted for the entire ride. This meant my legs were nicely warmed up and pumped for the run. I did drop down onto the small ring for the last half lap though to give my legs a bit of a break ahead of the next transition.
Ride done in 42:09
This is a straightforward transition. Dismount, run in, make sure to put your bike on the rack before unclipping your helmet, then switch bike shoes for running shoes, a quick slug of water and off.
T2 done in 1:50
Definitely had jelly legs at the start of the run and a bit of cramping. Also started to feel a bit lacking in energy. Still my race number belt had a couple of loops for gels and there was water available on course. It was only 5km and by the time the second lap came round I was feeling much stronger. In fact, I think the second half of each discipline was the strongest as I’d settled into it by then.
Run done in 24:03
Total time 1:21:58
257/500 for whole event
59/105 in my category
Pretty happy with that for a first attempt and enjoyed it enough to want to do it again. I’d like to do a couple more sprint distance triathlons and then go for a full Olympic distance one. I’ll see what’s going on later this year.