Borris Viaduct

Borris Viaduct
Borris ViaDuct

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Hangover - TriAthlone 2012

So, the weekend had finally come - TriAthlone was here, and I was still on my post-Skerries Triathlon Buzz. I felt ready!

I was going to be staying with my cousin Lorcan who lived in Athlone with his then fiancee Fiona, and I opted to head down on the Thursday so I could have a look at the course on the Friday. My brother, who had done this the last 2 years, was doing the Olympic distance for the 1st time this year and would be joining us on the Friday evening.

TriAthlone was a completely different animal to Skerries.
  • Skerries had 350 competitors in total between its Olympic and Sprint distance events, TriAthlone was going to have over 2000!
  • The swim was going to be much easier than Skerries in theory - a 750m straight line swim with the river flow (Olympic would have to swim 500m upstream before swimming 1000m with the river).
  • The transition area in Skerries had been a small grass area cordoned off with some tape (in fairness, it did the job) - the transition area in Athlone was HUGE, making use of the secure main yard of the town barracks, which sits prominently on the quays.
  • The cycle in Skerries was a hilly route on country roads (shared with vehicular traffic) - the Athlone route was a simple out and back on a flat, main road which would be closed on race day.
  • The run in Skerries had been a straight forward run out and back along the beach promenade - Athlone was quite a convoluted route contrived to maximise your exposure to Athlone town centre, taking you from the barracks across the bridge, down the main street (where you passed by the finish line),before turning down a laneway leading you to a small quay which brought you back to the bridge and then on a loop around some other streets before bringing you back to the barracks. Strangely, this lap was only 2km and you had to do 2.5 laps of this course to achieve 5km! Once you passed the finish line the 1st time, you would start counting your 2 laps from there. Very confusing on paper. So much so, I could not figure it out and decided I would only do recon on the bike!

There's not a lot to be said about my recon experience on the bike course on the Friday. Irish main roads are pretty uninspiring stuff and this was no exception - 2 wide lanes, hard shoulder, embankment/grass verges each side occasionally broken up Garages and rest-stop restaurants. The prospect of a flat closed road was exciting, but in reality, it was BORING. It seemed like forever before I reached my 10km mark and had to turn around. The Skerries route had definitely been more enjoyable! One thing I noticed was that I was clearly against the wind and on an ever so slight incline on the way out, and with a tailwind and slight descent on the way back - I would have to be clever with the gears to get the most of this tomorrow.

As uninspiring as the course was, I was happy when I came back - 38 minutes, and average speed of over 30km/h. With the river swim in mind and this flat fast cycle course (though with probably a slower run than the pretty flat Skerries run), I could see myself going a good 10 minutes faster than Skerries, and was confident of a time around the 1hour 20minute mark.

Andrew came down that evening and we went to the barracks to register. Here I got my first taste of the scale of the event. The transition area was so big - all I could see was bike racks!! And there was going to be a LOT of waves (ie heats or rounds of people starting at the same time). In Skerries there had been 3 - 1 for Olympic, Spinrt Advanced and Sprint Beginners respectively, here there was going to be 15, 3 for Olympic, 12 for Sprint. The Olympic waves were going to start first, so Andrew was going to be starting pretty early. As for me, I was not until the 12th Wave! The transition area would be closing to competitors on race day at 12pm and my wave would not be starting until 5.30pm!! What the hell was I going to do for 5 and a half hours?

Anyways we went back to the house and I cooked up a huge spaghetti bolognese for everyone - the least I could do for my generous hosts, also some good carb loading (based my very limited knowledge of carb-loading). After this point, my high standards of preperations started to slip a bit. Knowing I was starting so late the following day I let my guard down, and a casual can in the house with Lorcan and my brother turned into 5 or 6 pints with Lorcan and his friends in the local pub!! Oops.

The following morning, I got up at about 10 with more than enough sleep and I actually felt grand. Lorcan and Fiona were already putting together a pretty epic fry-up breakfast - ah sure it would rude to say no! I was definitely in 'visiting friends' mode as opposed to 'I'm doing that race that I've been training all year for' mode! That said, things felt very relaxed and I felt good. In our own sweet time, my brother and I got together all our stuff, did our final checks on the bikes and headed over to  the transition area in the barracks.

The transition was absolutely bustling! If seeing over 2000 competitors setting up for an event doesn't either make you really motivated or really nervous, then you're probably at the wrong event! Luckily I was pretty motivated. I racked up my bike (we had specific spaces for racking our bike in this one as opposed to Skerries where you could rack where you wanted) and crucially I took note of where my bike row was relative to the swim approach - this would be so important in finding my bike later!

I prepared my bike & area pretty much the same as in Skerries. I figured my main problem was just practise and knowing where my stuff was, so replicating the Skerries set-up seemed like a logical step, with the minor exception that I would be leaving my socks in my runners to be put on before the cycle! I found myself, now a veteran of one triathlon, offering advice to the guy setting up beside me doing his first triathlon. It's amazing the difference one race experience can make to your nerves on the day!

We gathered around for the race briefing before the transition area closed, this was important as the swim course had been changed. As there had been such a heavy volume of rain in previous weeks, the river was flowing much higher and faster than usual - this had two consequences:
1. The Sprint distance swim, which was completely downstream, was going to start further up the river to be lengthened from 750m to 1000m, to try and keep it like a 750m active distance.
2. The Olympic swim which was partially upstream was going to be reduced from 1500m to 1000m and do the same course as the sprint distance guys, as they were concerned about weak swimmers swimming against the strong current
Even though I was doing the sprint distance I was kind of annoyed by the change to the Olympic distance - it would have been a major advantage to strong swimmers, and I thought it was a cop out. Afterall you don't see cycle courses and run courses being shortened or cancelled if there is a bit of wind or rain! [rant over].

The next 5 hours, waiting on the quay was not an entirely fun time - my stomach got pretty unsettled and I must have found myself going to the loo every 15-20 minutes - not a convenient exercise when you're wearing a wetsuit up to the waste over a 'onesie' tri-suit which has a cycle jersey over it! This was not helped by the fact that I had a bit of a headache so was drinking all the fluids I had on me (mainly what I got with my triathlon goodie bag). There was no food or drink stations on the quay either which would have helped. At this stage, I probably could've done with some lunch!

At least when the waves had started, I had something to look at, as all the athletes were waiting by the swim exit. The river was flowing really strong! It was something you couldn't really appreciate until you actually the swimmers in the water, but in some case the flow was so strong that if swimmers got their direction slightly wrong , they ran the risk of missing the exit! All very exciting though - there was an announcer with a microphone, interviewing the odd competitor as they came out of the water and the atmosphere was great.

My brother had left for his wave by the time my family had arrived, and I was still about 3 waves away. I was actually pretty dehydrated at this point. The weather hadn't been great at all, but the sun had come out since we were booted out of transition and this was not a good combo! I got a bottle of water off my little brother, but honestly at this stage I just wanted to get into the river! I knew from experience, that hangover or not, I generally didn't feel things like that while swimming, plus a full body dip was just the invigoration I needed!

Finally, my time had come - I gathered with my wave in the waiting area, and just about saw my older brother come out of the swim exit before we started our walk up the riverside park to the swim start. This was to be a much different type of swim start to Skerries, instead of a run start which gradually gets you into your depth, here we had just jump in the river and wait in a group at a notional line between two kayaks until the gun went off (harder than it sounds when you are battling a strong river current!). Despite the strong current the river surface was smooth and flat as a swimming pool, and you just didn't get the feeling you were in a strong current. I tried to negotiate a start position about 1 or 2 rows of people from the front, but through constant adjustment of group to stay behind the kayak I ended up right at the front!

The gun went off. Chaos ensued. For the 1st 30 seconds or so, it was difficult to get going. I tried to kick my legs, but guys were already swimming on top of them. I tried to pull away but strong starters were already ahead and I was swimming on their feet! I would try swim around, but would just bump off swimmers on either side and get a smack in the head for good measure. It took a while to jostle into a free position and find my own rhythm, but in hindsight it was still early enough in the swim. Finally I had a chance to sight - there were buoys we were to swim between, and occasionally I had to but in a concerted effort to slightly change direction - the current was strong! The conditions were great though and I was enjoying the swim. Weary of my quick burn-out on the Skerries swim I just swam steady and strong. All the same, there was hardly more than a half dozen people ahead of me. There was a bridge just before swim exit - we had to make sure we swam through the right-most arch,otherwsie we would run the risk of missing the swim exit. This actually took some concentration. The bridge approached really fast! Even after swimming under the right archway I still had to keep 'steering' right to ensure I got to the exit!

The swim exit was a temporary pontoon and slip made from those modular plastic rafts, and had two float 'arms' extending from it that created a safe zone, that could gather all the fast flowing swimmers. It was quite difficult to get my legs under me and climb out with the speed the river was bringing me in, but there were marshals on hand to pull people out. In Skerries, you had a gradual reintroduction to gravity as you ran out of the sea onto land - here it was a bit more sudden. From out of my depth to out of the water, my legs had completely turned to jelly. As well as this I had to negotiate the slippy surface of the plastic pontoon. It's a miracle I didn't fall over in front of the massive crowd (I certainly saw plenty of people slip while I was waiting!). I ran up the path away from the river, across the road of the quay and into the barracks to transition.

My god, the run to transition was long! It must have been 100 - 200m at least, from the barracks gate to the main yard were all the racks were. At least this driveway was covered in a non slip blue mat, which made things easier on the feet. Transition itself was a bit more straightforward than last time, though not terribly fast. I took off my timing chip before taking off my wetsuit, and made sure to put it straight back on again. Putting on socks was a nightmare as my fingers were still numb, but I figured it was worth the small time delay for the advantages later. Putting on and zipping up the cycle jersey was a similar struggle. I put on my sweatband and helmet, and cycling gloves. I nearly forgot to put on my race belt too before unracking my bike, such was my disorientation still. And away I went on the bike.

Very much like my recon, the cycle was non-descript. It was nice to be on a closed road but that's about all I can say about it. For 10km out, it was just a matter of cycling in a straight line, gradually catching up on cyclists ahead and overtaking them. One thing I didn't mention earlier is that in the order of waves for the swim start, every alternate wave was male and female. This made it quite satisfying to overtake a woman on the bike course, as I knew I had caught up on the previous wave, that had started 15 minutes before me!

At the turning around point, I made a grim realisation - I had been cycling with the wind on this slight incline and now I would be cycling against it, taking all the speed out of the slight decline back to Athlone! There was very little interaction with cyclists on the way back. Whereas on the way out I had maybe overtaken a dozen and been overtaken by half a dozen, I only overtook about 2 or 3 people on the way back. It was a very uninvolving cycle - maybe I needed my chain to fall off again. One thing that struck me as I struggled to find some speed against the wind was just how quick some of the serious guys were passing me. At one point a clocked myself doing about 45km/h on the slight decline, and these guys were passing me like I wasn't moving at all! I knew I would have to work on actually training on the bike for next year, but also I could start to appreciate the advantage of the aero position on the tri-bars (which I didn't yet have). All in all, I found the cycle a bit samey and tedious and I didn't feel as energetic as I had the day before on the recon - I'm sure the hangover had something to do with this! It was a relief to get back into town and back to the crowds, even though I never really looked forward to the run.

I dismounted the bike, and took it up that long procession to the transition area. I didn't feel terribly fast running with the bike, as a lot of serious guys flew past me even then. Though I knew the row, finding my area was much tougher now without my bike as a visual marker. I found it all the same, quickly racked the bike and de-helmeted and away I went.

I was so uncertain about the run - I didn't know the course at all! All I knew that I was 2 laps from when I passed the finish area to when I would actually finish, so I would have to follow the crowd until I had done one lap. The running felt good, despite me being pretty dehydrated (I still hadn't taken to bringing water with me on the bike). Crowds lined the whole run course and the atmosphere was amazing. Despite all this I quickly spotted my parents in the crowd, which was nice. After crossing the bridge and going up the main street I saw the finish line. Right 2 laps to go from here! The main thing here as obvious as it sounds was to stay right and make sure you didn't cross the finish line too soon (actually quite easy to do when you're caught up in the atmosphere, probably not now, but maybe at the end of the 1st lap). Turning right of the main street the course went down a really steep laneway to the riverside. This was really jarring on the knees and I was not looking forward to doing that again! We ran along the quay on a min loop back to the bridge. Just before the bridge was a water station -learning from Skerries, I just walked and made sure I took the water on. I didn't really care about time - it was all about self preservation! Crossing the bridge, took the runners onto another mini-loop before taking us back to the barracks. This mini-loop was probably the hardest as we had to run past a lot of pubs with people sitting outside having a cold pint - I wished I was one of those people!!

It sounds confusing, but now I had done 1 lap, but would only be on my last lap when I passed the finish line! It all made sense while I was running anyways!

Now that I had relaxed into my running, knowing the course, and taking in the amazing atmosphere, I couldn't help but notice how I was predominantly getting overtaken by people. I actually felt I was going alright, but these people seemed to be cruising by me and it looked such little effort for them too! I knew there wasn't an awful lot more I could've done in fitness training in running for this event, but this was the first time I got an indication that my technique was holding me back. All the same, I really enjoyed the rest of run. I saw a few of my cousins in the crowd and there was a few random high fives thrown in for good measure - it really was a great event. The only time I stopped again was to make sure I took on water on the 2nd lap, but otherwise it was all very manageable. It was only when I tried to put in a final sprint at the end that I realised I had very little left in my legs which was good!

As soon as I had finished, my legs started seizing up. I found my brother quite quickly in the post race area, and I got as much free food and drink as I could get my hands on. The great thing about the organisation and size of TriAthlone was that it had it's own app, so I was able to find out my times very quickly, which went a little something like this:
  • 750m (1000m) Swim:             08:54  - frankly a ridiculous time, just showed how fast the river was. My split was nearly 4 minutes faster than in Skerries and I wasn't trying near as hard! I think the fastest times were under 6 minutes! Normally around 9 minutes would get you the fastest split, just to put that into perspective!
  • T1:                                           05:43  - very, very slow but didn't know how much of that to put down to the sheer size of the transition area, and how much to put down to taking my time!
  • 20km cycle:                             41:09      - was pretty dissappointed with this. Really wanted to get over that 30km/h average (ie sub 40 minutes) on this closed predominantly flat circuit. I think Andrew had average slightly over 30km/h on the Olympic circuit, twice the distance! (and fair play to him, by the way!)
  • T2:                                           02:29      - if anything, this illustrated the size of the transition area, as all I did here was run in, drop my bike off and run out!

  • 5km Run:                                28:45    - Again, was really disappointed with this, I at least wanted to be sub 25 minutes, but maybe my running simply was not as good as I thought it was!

  • TOTAL TIME:                       1:26:58
Overall I was pretty disappointed with the time on the day. It was real mixed feelings. After-all, I had completed the event I had trained 9 months to complete, but I didn't give a good account of myself. What made it worse was I saw exactly where I could have made up that time (to get sub 1hour 20) with my current fitness. I had done the cycle 3 minutes faster only the day before, and I had done 5km (albeit on a flatter route) 3 minutes faster in Skerries. I knew I could do better, which made for a bit of an anti-climax as it was my last triathlon of the year. It was all down to shoddy preparation the day before, and I knew I wouldn't make that mistake again.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

I Don't Think I'm Ready For This Jelly – My 1st Attempt at Sea Swimming

The weekend after my 1st triathlon, I found myself in Skerries again. I had left my bike there for the week, for my uncle to drop it into the local bike shop, to see what had cause my chain slippages that had happened a few times in training and also during the event. As it turned out, the gears weren't tuned terribly well and either were the brake cables. I suppose this was forgiveable as I had purchased this directly from the supplier, and had it quickly put together by an agent over here – if I had bought it from a bike shop, I would have expected it to be fully serviced and road ready.On a side note, the bike shop owner asked me about my bike and how much I paid for it. He was pretty impressed by the spec on it and was surprised by the cost, saying it wouldn't be able bik
es of that spec into stock for what I paid for it! I was pretty happy to hear that from someone who knew his stuff. I had kind of winged on my bike selection on the Sensa website, picking the Romagna Special because
a. with the discount I was getting, it fit in my budget
b. as a special, it was a package deal on groupset, saddle, wheel and forks (I was intimidated by such choice on things I knew absolutely nothing about!)
and c. I liked the color scheme!
So yes, by some stroke of luck, and through no skill on my part, I had landed myself a decent bike – good to know!

In any case, apart from the usual social reasons, there was another triathlon reason I was out in Skerries that weekend – I wanted to have a proper go at sea-swimming training.

There was a few reasons I wanted to do this:
1.      I was now confident I could swim out in the bay, after my impressive swim split the previous weekend, on the other side of the peninsula.
2.      I had noted the muscle fatigue I had gotten during the swim, and figured I needed to practise in the wetsuit more.
3.      With TriAthlone coming up in a week, and the possibility of an Olympic distance swim as part of a relay at the end of the summer, I wanted to start putting more focus on my swimming again. I actually thought I would make this a regular thing, if I was to be out at Skerries most weekends like I had been lately.
From Mary's house on the coast you could clearly see Skerries peninsula, and crucially you could see a straight line from a little beach below the house, to the beach and slipway below the life-boathouse on the peninsula. I had plotted this on Google Earth as about 1km, so thought it would be achievable to swim there and back again on a plod. Also as this stretch of the bay was one to those few parts of the east coast of Ireland that is actually northfacing, the sea in this area, sheltered by the peninsula was calm pretty much 90% of the time.

I figured I needed to get it over and done with, otherwise I would've spent the day deliberating about it, but by the time I had my wetsuit on but I was nervous. I think had been fine on race day because of the adrenaline, and the fact that there was safety in numbers (there was also safety in safety boats) – even when I went swimming in the sea a lot as a kid, I was only comfortable doing it with other people. Also the water was not as calm as it could have been – it wasn't very rough by any means, but I would certainly have to swim out against a bit of choppiness!

I got down to the little beach. The swell seemed bigger when I was at sea level. Mary, Liam and Billy were looking at me from the back garden – was that camera in Liam's hand?! Oh well, can't turn back now!

The plan was to swim out perpindicular from the beach until I knew I was clear of the craggy outcrops on either side, and then beeline towards the boathouse slipway once I could see a clear path to it between all the moored boats. Billy was to meet me at the other side, just in case I didn't fancy swimming back.

The swim out was difficult. I had picked out a buoy to aim for while swimming, but in practise the swell was too big to sight anything. This resulted in a very stop-start swim out to sea, occasionally swimming breastroke, occasionally swallowing some seawater. Not pleasant at all, but no major problems. Once I had the lifeboat slipway in sight I effectively turned right and was now swimming across the swell, making it almost unnoticeable, which was a pleasant surprise! I took one last look towards the house, where I could just about still make out one or two figures, before I decided to get to my swimming.

This part was initially quite pleasant – the sun was out, the water was clear, it was easy to sight the boathouse and I was finding a good rhythym. This did not last for long.

After about 100m of swimming, this huge white pulsating thing passed right under me. A jellyfish. This thing was at least 1meter in diameter, and that's assuming it was only 1 meter below me. If it was deeper, it was bigger! I recoiled and lifted my head out of the water. I was well aware that jellyfish stings themselves were harmless from local irish jellyfish, though I was also aware that most people who die after getting stung by jellyfish are people who then went into shock and subsequently drowned! I'm not sure if when that fact was presented to me that it was meant to be reassuring or not, but it wasn't a good thought! I tried to compose myself, swam a few strokes (quite urgently) with my head up to get away from that area, then put my head back in the water and continued swimming. This had relaxed my breathing, but my heartrate was still in the clouds! I figured that was my jellyfish sighting for the day and I would calm down.
It was not be though – within 50m another giant, possibly larger than the last, pulsated by underneath me. Holy crap! I recoiled again, and swam with my head out of the water extensively. I told myself, they weren't after me, they don't swim after people, just go were currents take them, they only get swam into, and they seemed to be swimming too deep to touch. I didn't put my head back into the water though, I could recognize I was now in a panic and I wanted to control it a bit. I looked back to the house – no one to be seen. I knew there was some small dinghys out sailing with a support boat too, but it was very difficult to see with swell. What was I thinking, coming out here on my own?!
I kept swimming towards the life-boathouse slipway with my head up, trying to calm myself down again. Then my right hand hit something – a jellyfish! This was much smaller than what had passed under me, about the size of my hand, but no less disturbing. I'm not sure I'd ever touched a jellyfish before! Then I hit another with my left hand, then another. These things were everywhere!! I turned onto my back and started swimming backstroke, hit another. At one stage I crossed my arms and just kicked my legs, even still, I hit 2 or 3 with my feet! I was aware that I was probably freaking out a bit too much, but I couldn't calm down now – I was swimming out on my own, in a swarm of jellyfish!
"That's the Guy!"

I must have kicked my legs for about 5 minutes before I realised I was not hitting anything anymore. I turned to see I was about 200m from the slipway now. Thank god! I swam frontcrawl again, and was relatively calm but still didn't dare put my head back in the water again. Eventually I got back to dry land and met Billy. There was no way I was swimming back again. When I got back to the house and got changed, even though I felt calm, I was still shaking for about an hour afterwards before my nerves had completely settled.

Maybe I wasn't ready for sea swimming just yet...

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Triathlon Bug

In the days that followed the triathlon, I was on a bit of a buzz, to say the least.

1st of all was the event photos. Within hours of the event itself there were photos on facebook that my brother tagged me in. Then there was the fact that I had about half a dozen relations on the day taking photos and videos (I used all this footage to make the video that I attached to that blog post – which Irish Triathlon liked so much, they have used it to advertise the Skerries triathlon since!). Anyways this served a few purposes. 1st of all, at the very least on some subconcious level, there was a vain 'hey look what I did' element to it all – I had trained hard and I was proud I had done it afterall. But secondly and more importantly for me, it made it real! It sounds strange, but in the event of the race the adrenaline is flowing and while you can acknowledge the passage of time and your experiences during the race, within hours your perception of it just starts fading away, like it was just some dream! By the time I had showered and changed on the day of the event, the event seemed separate, like it hadn't happened that day or even at all – I couldn't believe I had actually done it! So yes, the facebook photos etc. were for me like some kind of certificate of authenticity - “yes Brian, those memories were real”.

Then there was the results page. Obviously I only had my swim split and my overall time, but I had worked them out roughly from my action camera footage and deduction. The results page had your race broken down into splits on a spreadsheet, and you could order the rankings by any of the splits. I had been 12th on the swim, but I was intrigued – I started to compare. My cycle time was okay – about midway through the rankings, and my swim transition was woeful but I could how that would be easily remedied. My cycle to run transition was comparably good, but my run split was well off, probably the lowest 25% which was disappointing considering that had been the main focus and the staple of my training for the past year.

Already I was starting to look at areas I could improve on. I had enjoyed my test laps of the course in the weekends running up to the event – what if I had been doing that every weekend throughout the year? What if I had been strength training with that? My past year of running training had gained me the fitness to run a 5k at the end of a triathlon, what would another year of training do, now that I had that base fitness? I had come 12th on my swim, by only doing one or 2 sessions a week, sometimes no training at all – what would an actual swimming training plan bring me? Imagine doing a competent swim transition and keeping my hard-earned advantage (if only briefly)? There was so much improvement to be had. I had only ever planned to do the TriAthlone (which I hadn't even done yet, due in 2 weeks time), there was no way now that I was going to leave it at that. I had trained for the last 9 months to do a triathlon as fast as I could, and I hadn't done that yet! Also I wasn't just going to stop all the training after raceday, was I?

Then there was the Irish Triathlon facebook page. I had 'liked' it in the lead up to the Skerries triathlon as I had realised (too late) that it had been advertising free supervised sea swim sessions the week before the event. This was helpful also as it showed when the results and event photos were up.
But then, other events were starting to get advertised on my feed from them. 1st of all was the  Phoenix Park Duathlon which was 10 days after the TriAthlone – a 2.5km run followed by a 13km cycle followed by a 2.5km, all within the cycle friendly environment of Phoenix Park on a Wednesday evening after work (ie no race-day hassle of getting there etc) – I was fit enough for a triathlon, why not this? And no wetsuit transitions to worry about! I asked my brother Andrew if he was interested too. Boom, signed on!
Then in this same browsing session I found another running event, the Port Tunnel Run – this was exactly what it said on the tin, a 10km run through the Port Tunnel. It was done before the opening of the tunnel 3 years previously, and was so successful, it was decided they would do it again, with closed roads, obviously. This was not such an easy one to decide on. The most I had ever ran at this stage was about 7.5km. But then again it wasn't until August 12th, 2 months away! I had time! Plus there was no pesky swim or cycle beforehand to tire me out. I asked my brother if he was interested. Boom, signed on! 2 events booked within an hour. Oh dear.

I wasn't finished yet though.

After seeing two Dublin events that were right on my doorstep, I was even more intrigued to see if there was another Triathlon handy in Dublin. I looked on the events calendar, and in a way was not disappointed – there was at least one event every weekend until mid-september. Wow! Unfortunately there was not any in Dublin (though if I had been looking at the Triathlon Ireland website, I would have noticed there actually was) – however there was an event on the calendar that really caught my imagination.
I saw a picture, an advertisement link, in the top corner of the calendar, of a very fortified looking island with the title, Escape from Spike Island - Interesting! I clicked the link – it was an Olympic Distance triathlon in Cobh harbour, where you swam 1500m from the former prison island of Spike Island (like an Irish Alcatraz) to the mainland in Cobh, before doing your 40km cycle (2 laps of a 20km course) and a 10km run (4 laps along the historic Cobh waterfront, where Titanic made its final stop before heading on its ill-fated trip) …. Novelty overload! I was hooked. The prospect of doing an Olympic Distance triathlon did not appeal to me at all, I had not trained for that, but I HAD to do that swim. There was a sprint distance option too, but that did not involve swimming from the island.
I remembered my cousin Billy remarking in Skerries that watching the triathlon had really made him want to train for a race, specifically running. A friend of his was also a pretty good cyclist, so I put it to him that maybe we would do it as a relay! It certainly seemed like a great idea, and something we could do very well in as we would all be playing to our strengths. He said he would think about it, so that was another option for later in the summer. It wasn't until the 25th August so there would plenty of time to think about it. More about that in later posts!

So, in the space of an hour, two days after my 1st ever triathlon, I had signed on for a duathlon, a 10km run and had possibly an Olympic Distance triathlon relay on the cards. I had well and truly caught the triathlon bug. To this day, no cure has been found!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Overshooting it - My first triathlon, Skerries 2012

Beach Start, Skerries Triathlon 2012

When this weekend came along, I was pretty nervous to say the least. Despite all my training, it all felt like it was happening a bit fast and there were a lot of doubts going through my mind. I was only just about able to run 7km in training - could I run 5km after a cycle and swim? Would I able to balance on a bike after swimming? What the hell was being in a race on a bike like?! I hadn't done any brick training - why hadn't I done any brick training*?! As for transition practice... well I had taken my wetsuit off once and that was okay... Oh dear...

Billy picked me up on Saturday morning on the way to Skerries, the day before the big event, which was handy as I had accumulated a surprising amount of triathlon shtuff over the last 6 months! The 1st thing I did once I got to Skerries was one last practise lap of the cycle route - this helped calm me a bit, and I felt I really had a handle on crucial areas of the course to change gears on. Also the familiarity of the course was starting to make it feel a bit shorter, which was nice.

After that, I settled into a bit more of a normal routine, just chilling out with Billy around Skerries like any normal weekend. In a way, I still didn't really believe I was going to be doing this the next day, it was hard to know how to feel about it! In fact, I was probably a bit too relaxed, having a beer or two and a bit of junk food that night watching a movie. I told myself it would help me sleep! Yeah right!

I groggily got up at 6.30am on raceday. Registration was at 7am, 2 hours before the race, and the plan was to register, then go back to the house for breakfast and get ready i.e. so I was not waiting around in transition for two hours! So basically registration is where you sign in, pay a one day license if required (this is essentially paying insurance for the day, in case anything happens - this is included in your annual Triathlon Ireland membership, but if you're not a member and just doing one or two races, you get a one day license), and you get a goodie bag which includes the following:
  • your race numbers (for front & back, though if you have a race belt, you only need to wear one race number and rotate to front for run),
  • a coloured swimming hat which told you what wave you were in (Blue was for Olympic Distance, Red was for advanced Sprint Distance, White was for Beginner Sprint Distance - despite being a complete novice I registered as advanced sprint, as I was confident in my swim!)
  • your timing chip
  • a fancy souvenir t-shirt
  • various other goodies including a bottle of lucozade and a nutrigrain bar. To my dismay it also included a race-belt and an ankle strap for the timing chip. Dammit, I didn't need to buy those!
Anyways, I got back to the house and had my usual breakfast and got changed into my trisuit. I felt really nervous and almost defeated while doing this, like I was getting ready to walk the plank. This was not a natural feeling. I didn't like this feeling. Had I paid money to experience this feeling? What was I doing here? This feeling of nerves & anxiety did not go away as I walked my bike from the house back towards the transition area. When I got there things were a lot busier than they were earlier that morning, a lot of very serious and athletic looking people walking around setting up their bikes and gear.

When I found my rack, I reluctantly hung my bike off it, not really sure what way I was supposed to hang it. Then I stood around like a bit of an idiot, not really knowing what to do. I didn't want to over-eagerly put on my wetsuit too early and be found out  as a newbie! Then to my relief I saw there were other people standing around looking a bit bamboozled by the whole affair. I was not alone! Then I started chatting to the guy next to me - he had done one or two before and was very helpful. All of a sudden this was starting to feel a little less intimidating. Billy and my uncle Liam showed up and this calmed me down a bit further - around this time I also found out that my parents were coming up from Inistioge, with my older and younger brothers in tow. This was partially to see me race, partially to see Mary and Liam's new house, and partially to see what my designs done to it!.... Mainly to see the race though... Of course...

There was an announcement that the race briefing was about to happen and everyone crowded around a man with a mega-phone. I remembered from my Wheelworx "Intro to Tri" sessions that the race briefing was very important as it not only described the course and where you enter and exit transition, but also informs of any last minute changes to the course. I listened intently. Unfortunately I heard absolutely nothing through the screechy and muffled microphone. Ah well- I guess I'd just follow everyone else!

After the race briefing it was announced that the transition area would need to be vacated in 10minutes time, before the Olympic Distance race commenced. Time to get ready so! I left my helmet on the bike, with gloves, sweatband and prescription sunglass inside it. I hung my cycle jersey off one brake hood on the handlebars and hung my racebelt with race number off the other. I put my runners with locklaces just beside my transition bag, under my bike with cap just in the bag in easy reach for the run. I sprayed tri-slide all over my ankles and wrists, anti-chafed the hell out of my neck and stuffed myself into my wetsuit. I had my prescription goggles and swimming wave hat. I was ready to go!

So, all suited up and ready to go, I watched on as the Olympic distance race started. As they had to do twice the distance in every discipline, they had to swim the 750m triangular route, run onto the beach and through a gate and then run in and swim it again! After a year of (fairly) dedicated training to get me to a point of feeling 50% sure I could even do a sprint distance race, I really couldn't get my head around the prospect of doing an Olympic distance event. Something strange happened to me around this point though - as I looked out at the guys leading the race, I started thinking to myself, "I'm as good a swimmer as them, maybe better...". Then I remembered how in most of my chats with people who had done triathlons before (some of whom had done them quite regularly), NONE of them had liked the swim! In fact for most, it was really something they wanted to get over with. I remembered being baffled at how so many people could regularly enter a tri-discipline event, and hate one of the disciplines so much! I was starting to psych myself up in a big way now - I was probably a better swimmer than most of these people!! Sure, I didn't know this at all, but that's what I was telling myself, and it was working. My nerves were gone and I was ready. I took a quick dip to get some water into my wetsuit and shortly afterwards we were called to starting position. Here we go!

Now at this stage, I was incredibly pumped up and ready to go, but I was still aware that I might be getting a bit overly confident. After-all, despite my swimming background, I had never done a sea swim race before or a beach running start with 200 other people! I nestled in the crowd about 6 or 7 rows of people back. My plan was to stay on the outside, and give myself space to swim at my own speed until the crowd spread out a bit, as triathlons swim starts can be notoriously chaotic. The race steward announced on the megaphone would be starting soon, and starting listing things to do if you started panicking in the water and how to signal the guys in canoes etc, - I didn't really want to hear this! Then he said the siren would go off in 20 seconds and there would be no countdown. The silence was deafening.

Then the siren went, and we were off!

I started to run, but 1 minute of tensely waiting in the crowd had turned my legs to jelly! I was actually happy when my feet hit the water, the cold shock, knocked some feeling back into my legs. I took a couple of skips and jumps over the waves and dived in and started 'dolphining'** from there - it was really effective, and got the feeling back into my legs. Once this happened, the adrenaline kicked in and I started swimming hard ..... too hard - I was in sprint mode! My legs were kicking in full turbo, and my arms were in full swing, and I was cruising past people on my left and right.

Now to be honest, I wasn't sighting (ie. looking out for 1st buoy, making sure I was swimming in the right direction!) at all in this starting sprint. I just was so caught up in the rush of it all. The water was so clear I could base my direction on the other swimmers around me. Then it came to a point when there was no longer other swimmers, so I decided to do one or two strokes of breast-stroke to take in my  surroundings. My, was I surprised!

I looked around, I was close to the first buoy, maybe 20m from it or so, but there were barely any swimmers ahead of me, 4 or 5 maximum. Wow, I couldn't believe it. I was well ahead of the pack - talk about overshooting it!

I continued swimming around the buoy at a slightly more relaxed pace. There was 2 main reasons for this:
1. I wanted to get into a sustainable rhythym to get me through to the rest of the race
2. I was absolutely wrecked! I mean totally destroyed! I was out of breath, had major lactic acid build-up in my shoulders and had to swim breastroke quite a few times on the long stretch to the next buoy in an attempt to settle down, but it wasn't really working. To say I got my pacing was wrong was an understatement!

I rounded the 2nd buoy to start the final stretch back to the beach. My main thoughts at this stage were "I'm dying. I'm actually dying...", and "Oh shit, this is my strongest part of the race, I'm wrecked, and I still have to do a cycle and a run after this. I've made a huge mistake. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit...". So yeah, I was in a good place, mentally! People were definitely passing me now, but I couldn't tell how many. It was a relief to start seeing the seabed become visible and closer as we got closer to shore.
Swim Exit & Feigning Energy Levels!

I decided I needed to swim as far in as possible to limit the distance I would be running against the resistance of the water. I swam until I couldn't avoid my hands touching the bottom, and then jumped up and started running. This was a really weird sensation, as the my blood realised it now needed to be in my legs! I had feeling in my legs by the time I was completely out the water, but was still struggling for breath. All the same, I felt pretty good - the crowd that were around the big inflatable gate that I had to run through made a big difference and I found myself bounding through that, and even heard my family shouting their support, though I couldn't see where they were.

This good feeling was brief however as I had to run over a little sand dune before entering transition properly. This sapped my energy big time, my legs were burning, and my pace dropped significantly - what a difference 50m makes!

I unzipped my wetsuit while running on entering transition and had half of it off and around my waist by the time I got to my bike .Most people seemed to this as soon as they were out of the water, but I didn't even think of it until I had my bearings - the migration of blood flow from upper body to lower body can have quite a disorientating effect! I took off my prescription and goggles and quickly replaced them with my prescription sunglasses which were waiting for me in my helmet and started to pull the wetsuit off my legs. This was going well (though not as easy as it appeared on youtube videos), but then disaster struck. The right leg of my wetsuit was stuck - it was not coming off! The timing chip was holding it back. I tried to force it but it wasn't happening. I had to sit down down, pull my wetsuit back up, take my timing chip off, and then pull the wetsuit off. I was losing a lot of time, and was aware of LOTS of people passing through transition ahead of me. I got up to put on my cycle jersey - this turned out to be quite difficult, as I had no feeling in my arms or hands from swimming in the sea and it took what felt like an age to get the zip attached and zip up. Clipping on my race belt was a similar experience, but the runners were fine - thank god I had the lock laces, can't imagine what tying laces here would have been like. I put on my helmet (it is illegal in a race to touch your bike before you do this), got on my bike and away I went, finally.

I had lost a huge amount of time in this transition! Obviously as my first triathlon I shouldn't have cared, but in full flow of race day my competitive mentality was fully engaged. Dozens of people had passed me in transition, and it seemed to defeat the purpose of my aggressive swim - something I would need to work in the future. But first I needed to complete this race!

I ran my bike out of transition to the mount line and got on the bike. Was definitely still feeling a bit weird getting on the bike - I had never done anything like this after a hard swim, and my balance and awareness was well off 100% - this did not feel safe! I started to feel better quickly enough though, as I got a bit of speed up, and only my legs were exerting energy, and unlike the swim I was still moving when I stopped pedalling!

The first 2-3km stretch of the cycle (ie the coastal stretch before going up the Black Hill) was difficult. Not only was I trying to find my pace on unfamiliar post swimming legs, I was pretty paranoid about the 'no drafting rule'.***

A long line of cyclists had developed on the route along the coast. As cyclists passed me I felt I had to slow down to make that 7m gap within the time. By doing this I was allowing other cyclists to overtake me easily, some of whom probably shouldn't have been passing me. It took me a while to realise that there wasn't a lot of race marshals out here and it was everyman for himself. I started to gain a bit of confident on the bike and started fighting my corner, re-overtaking some of the guys that had overtaken me earlier. We rounded the corner  under the railway track and started the climb up the Black Hill.

I had done a lot of practice on this course, and knew when to change gears for climbs like this and it showed. Despite being on a very light and easy gear, and feeling like I wasn't putting in too much effort (but at a high cadence), I overtook a lot of people on this section, which was pretty satisfying, particularly when passing some guys on very expensive looking tri-bikes with all the aero gear. "You can't buy hard work!" I thought to myself, which was probably a bit hypocritical of me as I had made some serious investments this year just to have the basic gear... and in hindsight probably could have added more hard work!

By the time I made it to the top of the hill, I was out on my own. I wasn't sure how far the others were behind me, but there was no one ahead of me, which was nice - I was cycling on my own terms now. I belted down the descents and around the flats, and was feeling quite comfortable, while still working quite hard. Occasionally a really fast cyclist would whizz by me - nothing much I could do about that! Despite my disastrous transition, it seemed my swim had put me ahead of a lot of serious cyclists, which felt good!

I found myself passing another little mini-group of people on the rolling hills of the countryside roads and was feeling good. Then I had a bit of a set-back. As I went to change gear, as practiced for another climb, I lost all resistant and was pedaling air - my chain had came off! Balls!

I quickly got off to the side of the road and tried to put the chain on with the bike upright. It was probably because I was on high adrenaline and panicking, but I couldn't do it this way, and had to put the bike upside down to make sure the chain was back on. I lost about a minute here, and during this time about 20 people I had passed on the hills re-overtook me! This was pretty frustrating to say the least, but at least I had the pleasure of overtaking them again over the next 5km!

I was about halfway through the cycle at this stage, and the 2nd half was much more straightforward, passing some people, getting passed by others until we came back to the main road, the pacey stretch back to Skerries. There was someone about 50m ahead who I thought I could catch, but we were about the same pace, so I followed him in for the next 5km at pace. After passing under the railway bridge and coming back into Skerries, there was a lot of corners to negotiate and I lost my rhythm a bit. The fact that I had not fully gotten to terms with my balance on the bike was telling as I took a lot of corners ultra cautiously here, and had to work to get my speed back. I still managed to pass some people on this section, while still getting passed myself by some really quick guys!

The very last section was a bit crappy, with a lot of tight back lane-ways that were full of potholes to deal with before getting back to the transition area. Pace was out the window here, but at this stage it didn't matter. I was starting to think about the run. I must say I was in a much better state of mind now then I was at the end of the swim!

I stopped and carefully got off the bike at the dismount line, and ran my bike back into transition. This transition was pretty straight forward. As I was already wearing runners, all I had to do was rack the bike, remove helmet, put on sweatband and cap and away I went!

Coming up the dismount line at the end of the cycle. As it happens my action camera would have my only record of my cycle split! 

The run did NOT feel good.

Honestly I was expecting my legs to feel a bit ropey after getting off the bike for the run as I hadn't done remotely any brick training in my preparations - strangely enough, this was not an issue at all. What was an issue, however, was the fact that I was not wearing any socks!**** The first 1km or so was fine, but as I started running around corners, there was a lot of slippage within my shoes, and this new friction creating a lot of discomfort. On top of this, as I had not mastered balance on the bike, I had not drank any water while cycling and so at this stage was pretty dehydrated!

The run course went from transition along the coast path around the Peninsula to the lifeboat house where you ran around a bandstand (pain), and back down the coastal path past the transition area and around a car park at the other end of the beach (pain), before returning along the beach path to the finishing line just in front of the transition area. The water station was located just after passing the transition area the 1st time, about 2km in, and I was dying for a drink at the stage!

Drinking from a plastic cup while running a panting for breath is shit - I would not recommend it. The cups were tiny, about 100ml, 10ml of which went towards my hydration matters, 90ml of which went down my windpipe. I could have just stopped and walked to have a drink, but I really wasn't confident I could get the legs started again if I stopped them! I tried again, getting another cup as I got past the end of the drink station. Same result. Balls. Looked like this final 3km was going to be tough!

I battled through it though, and after rounding the mast at the end of carpark (pain) to head back, I got a bit of a second wind. Maybe I literally had a tailwind to help me out here, but I was a bit more aware of the remaining energy I had, and I picked up the pace a little bit and even passed one or two people! (for the record, my run was mainly defined by getting passed by people, so I was pretty pleased to see I could still pass someone!).

It seemed to take ages on this familiar run route before the finish line came into view, but it was a great feeling to finally see it. Though I'm not sure this would have been clear to the onlookers at the time, I made an honest attempt at a final sprint and crossed the line.
Attempting a sprint finish!
My elation was tempered by my exhaustion. I went to the the athletes food station and got (in this order): a water, a banana, a coffee, a flapjack, a water, a sandwich, a bar, a water, a flapjack and a water. I was absolutely pooped, but food and water after such an exertion as heaven!

I eagerly went to the timing station to get my time. From speculating roughly on times and factoring in 'shit happens' I was hoping to do a time of about an hour and a half. To my dismay, as I had taken off my timing chip in T1 (I didn't put it back on), I had no cycling or running and splits! Luckily as an official at the finish line had taken my race number, I had a finish time..... 1:29:59! Brilliant! I had gotten within 1 second of my goal time - who does that?!

By taking my swim split, final time, and working out my cycle split, from the action camera, I was able to roughly work out my splits as something like this:
Swim:  00:12:58 (Official time - was 12th out of 233 people in the swim! Woot!)
T1:       00:03:00 (at least)
Cycle: 00:48:20 (Based on my action camera footage)
T2:       00:00:45 (This felt quick, would be surprised it was over a minute)
Run:    00:24:56 (By deduction, this might have been slower and T1 faster, but unlikely)
Total:   01:29:59 (88th in race overall, not bad for my first go!)

We got back to the house, I got changed and I went for a pint or 3 in Skerries where my brother and cousin had to suffer my reflections of the race I had just done. The post-race buzz had kicked in now. All the bad bits were forgotten about, I was very happy with the way the day had went. Needless to say, I was dying to do the next one!

* Brick-training is a training session where you go for a cycle followed by immediately by a run. The distance of the run is insignificant - it just serves to condition your legs for the transition from cycling to running

** Dolphining is a technique used by swimmers on beach-start races. It involves diving in to the water when you are between knee and waist deep, pulling your knees in and then thrusting yourself from the sand into a dolphin-like dive back into the water & repeating this until you are at an adequate depth to start swimming properly. This is a particularly effective way of getting out quickly on a swim start as running out after a certain depth can become pretty tiring! I had only read about the week before the race in a triathlon magazine and thought I'd give it a go!

***The 'no drafting rule' basically states that you cannot cycle within a zone 7m long by 3m wide behind the cyclist infront of you. Once you enter this zone, you have 10 seconds to pass, or face a 2minute penalty. Once your wheel passes the front wheel of the other cyclist, it become their duty to fall 7m behind you within 20 seconds. This all makes perfect sense when reading it, but was quite confusing in the race itself!

**** No socks - One of the things I learned from the 'Intro to Tri' classes in Wheelworx was that you don't generally put on socks in T1 (transition 1) after the swim. This is because you don't have the feeling in your fingers generally to do so, but also because you would generally be putting your feet into special tri-shoes already clipped to your pedals, and would have the option or opportunity to put on your socks in T2 when changing to runners. As I hadn't got clip in shoes or pedals yet, I was already in my runners on the bike, sans-socks, and even though I considered it I decided not to take off my runners to put back on socks when changing to running. This would be to my detriment!