A test of man against nature – The Swanage Triathlon

It’s 5am on Sunday 10th August and my alarm has just gone off.  Must be time for the Swanage Triathlon.

The Swanage Triathlon has been considered by my family and friends to be my “A” race for this year.  My mother and father both grew up and met in Swanage.  My grandmother, auntie and uncle and both cousins (along with their families) all live in Swanage.  In fact, my grandmother has lived in Swanage her entire life, and has been living in her house for 70 years, so you could say that it has very close links to my family.

Swanage is a beautiful place, has a lovely natural bay surrounded by hills on both sides with calm waters for swimming and paddling.  It is an idillic spot for a good old British seaside holiday, and I have spent many weeks as both man and boy enjoying the beach, the lovely weather and in my older years the lively pub scene.  Of course I was hugely looking forward to this Triathlon.  I know the local roads well, have swam in the sea countless times, and knew my family would all be there to cheer me on.  

Swanage in August is usually lovely weather.  Like the rest of the UK it can be a bit rainy on occasion, but usually you will get better weather in Swanage than you will have in the surrounding areas.  It is like God himself smiles upon the town, and those who chose to spend their time in it.  Bearing all that in mind, the weather forecast for the Sunday of the triathlon was far from good.  Strong winds, with up to 50mph gusts, and rain.  A lot of rain.

Upon awakening at my uncle’s house it was clear that the weathermen had gotten this one right.  It was raining, and very windy.  My wife and I woke up our daughter Niamh, Cat got her ready to go and then we walked down to Sandpits field where I had pre-registered the day before.  I had a fairly good idea that the triathlon would be cancelled, and when I arrived at the transition area and caught a look at the sea I was even more sure it would be.  The waves were as big as I have seen them in Swanage, and the hills on both sides of the bay were shrouded in fog.  

Wetsuits are tight!

Never the less I proceeded to rack my bike, and put on my wetsuit.  I have been lent a wetsuit from my Grazing Saddles teammate Mike, and in all honesty it is a little bit on the small side.  As you can see from the picture, it requires my wife to help me hike it up, and Bushy to supervise from afar.  

There was a delay to the start as we were waiting for the lifeguards to arrive, so we proceeded to stand around in the cold getting wet.  Not ideal preparation for a triathlon, but at this point it was still unclear if the event would be going ahead or not.

Sprint athletes ready to go

After a 45 minute delay, the first group of competitors was off.  These were the sprint distance athletes, with Bushy and I starting in the second wave as we were competing at the standard distance.  Watching these guys swim off into the swell I must admit there was a lump in my throat.  I am a competent swimmer, but these waves were big and my open water swim experience had never put me up against waves like this before.

Bushy and I made our way down to the beach and got our briefing.  The swim would be shortened to 750m (should have been 1500m) due to safety concerns, and the bike leg was re-routed to avoid a steep climb and then downhill (although it remained at just under 40k).  The run was also shortened to 5k as we could not run on top of the hills (which was the original plan) as the hills were covered in fog.

Now before I describe the swim, my open water swimming has one major downfall.  I am not very good at “sighting”.  I have described this before, but as a reminder sighting is when you lift your head up during your swim stroke to make sure you are going the right way.  There is a knack to it, and it is definitely something I need to improve on.  Good sighting will make sure that you swim the shortest route possible around the buoys that mark the course.  Poor sighting can mean you swim an extra 100m, 200m or more as you zigzag around the course.  As you can see, getting this right is crucial to a good swim time.

Anyhow it was time for us to go.  I double checked my hat and goggles, got a position close to the back and the side of the pack (to avoid getting too many elbows in the face at the start) and then waited for the whistle.  Ready, steady, we were off.  Below is a picture taken by Curry soon after the start.  If you can make out a swimmer on the right of the bunch not going the right way, this is me.  I instantly swam pretty much, in totally the wrong direction, and found myself out of position.  Remember the sighting?  Prime example of how bad I am at it.

The swim was tough.  I was getting battered by large waves when I tried to breath, and twice got a very big lungful of sea water.  I was coughing and spluttering, kept having to swim breaststroke just to check I was going the right way, and I was struggling.  Still I pushed through, rounded the first buoy and headed towards the second.  I was dismayed to see many of my competitors missing the final buoy and heading straight towards the finish point. Thinking this was probably a mistake on their behalf I carried on round the final orange buoy, and pointed towards shore. 50 metres from shore my left calf cramped.  It has cramped during pretty much every sea swim I have ever done, and was far from ideal.  Knowing I could get to shore easily without kicking my legs, I dragged my feet behind me and eventually felt sand under my hands.  Standing up, I quickly realised that my calf was not good at all.  I limped up the beach, then up the set of steps that took us to transition.  It was hurting, a lot.  I saw my wife and parents on the way into transition and said a brief hello, followed by “my leg has cramped”.  I saw the look of worry on Cat’s face, and knew exactly what she was thinking.  Cramp this early in a triathlon was very bad news indeed.

Limping into Transition

I hobbled into transition, whipped off my wetsuit fairly easily, helmet on and I was off.  My bike shoes were already clipped onto my pedals, so I jumped on the bike, wrestled to get my very wet feet into my very wet shoes, and then started on my way.  25m into the bike, my calf cramped again and I fell off sideways.  It was blowing a gale, raining heavily, and I was lying at the side of the road rubbing my calf.  Bushy caught me up at this point and asked me if I was OK.  How he was behind me I had no idea, he must have been out of the water ahead of me in the swim as I was definitely one of the last out.  Anyhow seeing him spurred me on, I jumped on the bike and off we went.  Bushy had to stop to re-attach his race number properly, meaning I went ahead of him on the way out of Swanage.  

As regular blog readers will know, I enjoy the bike element of triathlons.  I feel comfortable on the bike, know I am strong enough to ride fairly quickly, and due to the fact that cycling is not load bearing I do not suffer from the cramps that can plague me during the run.  All that being said, on this occasion I felt terrible.  I could barely pedal, my calf had calmed down a bit but was still aching.  Bushy quickly caught me and overtook. I seemed to be pedalling through treacle.  Very soon after this I was sick.  It was pure sea water.  Clearly I had swallowed more than I thought.  As soon as this lovely experience was over I felt instantly better, had a quick energy gel and some water, then I was off.  Perversely I quite enjoy cycling in the bad weather as it forces you to focus and get on with things.  Arriving in the picturesque village of Corfe I caught Bushy up and overtook him.  I was desperate to make up for lost time on the swim and pushed hard through the awful weather.  Approaching a roundabout after a downhill section the competitor in front of me slid across the road and crashed into the roundabout.  There must have been a patch of oil on the road, as I almost lost control but managed to keep upright and push on.  Reaching the turning point at Wareham, where we started back the way we came, I felt very good indeed.  There was a nagging pain in both hamstrings, but this was due to pushing hard rather than anything else. As I sped back up the bypass road I went past Bushy going the other way.  We exchanged fist pumps and loud shouts, then head down, I pushed even harder.  I was over halfway and riding well.

The second half of the ride took us up onto the hills around Swanage and past the stunning Isle of Purbeck Golf Course, although there was not much of a view on the day.  Usually from this vantage point you can see the entire of Poole harbour, but today all you could see was grey clouds and rain.  Finally I finished on the hills and started the descent into Swanage.  I overtook quite a few people on the downhill section which I was pleased about.  Whether this is just down to me being a bit more fearless than most, or brilliant bike handling skills I do not know.  Let’s opt for the latter though hey 🙂

Heading out of T2

Into the second transition, I jumped off the bike and racked it, shoes on, helmet off and into the run.  Surprisingly I felt good and set off at a very respectable 5min/km pace.  This is quick for me; however I knew that the first 2k of the run was uphill after about 200m on the flat, so I wanted to get my legs loose before the climb.  Unlike most I do not seem to suffer from the “jelly legs” that people get swapping from the bike to the run and I really was feeling OK.  We then got to the climb, and almost instantly both of my quads locked.  This was yet more cramp, and it was crippling.  I had to stop and stretch and after a quick chat with some marshalls (mostly me assuring them I was OK), I carried on up the climb.  Sadly I was walking, but I was making progress.  After about 1km of walking the legs started to loosen and I managed a very slow jog.  Getting to the turning point I headed downhill.  Unfortunately running downhill is a killer on the quads, so I was slow.  Bushy caught me up and very kindly ran with me whilst giving me a bit of a pep talk.  I was obviously in pain and his kind words helped me to ignore this for a while.  Eventually he kicked on and left me to slowly jog the final 1.5km on my own.  I felt awful, but knew I could make the finish.

The look on my face says it all

After what seemed like an age I got back to Sandpits and crossed the line.  It had taken me almost 30 minutes to run 4.6km,this was not a good time at all.  Never the less I had done it.  Immediately my legs cramped.  Quads and Hamstrings killing me I was reduced to lying on the ground, moaning in pain.  

It was hardly the most gracious finish to a race; however my family around me offering support was a great comfort indeed. An especially lovely moment was when my beautiful daughter Niamh came over, in her all-in-one rain suit, to give me a well deserved cuddle. 

You gotta admit, my Dad has got some style

I would like to say a huge thank you to all those who came to support Bushy and I at this triathlon.  You stuck it out in appalling conditions and I am very grateful for the support.  Extra thanks to Curry for being official photographer on the day.

Finally an extra special thank you to my wife Cat.  She remains ever patient with all these triathlon antics and waking up a 16 month old at 5am, then entertaining her whilst her Dad messes about in a Triathlon is nothing short of a Herculean effort.  Cat, thank you for your ongoing support.  I really couldn’t do all this without you.

Chichester Olympic Distance Triathlon is next, with Curry and I competing together.  It’s also the debut of our Grazing Saddles teammate Andy Matthews in the Sprint distance.  Rumours are that perhaps Neil Perry could be persuaded into this event too, so it should be a great day.

Fingers crossed for dry weather, and a lot less cramp.



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