One of the curious things about the Sexy Walrus Inter-Club Triathlon is that, presuming all athletes have been honest when submitting their season’s scores to George, everyone should cross the finish line at exactly the same time.
It is one of the only races I know of where, in its perfect form, there would be no winners or losers. This is due to its unique ability-based categorisation system, whereby athletes are placed in a category – Pig, Slug, Cucumber, Monster, Beast, Seal Elite – according to their predicted time, with each category enjoying a suitable time advantage. The slowest athlete from the previous year – nominated as White Fang – leads the pack.
Whilst the reality is very different to this ideal, the effects of this system are glorious and multiple. Firstly, it means that the event is competitive for all athletes, regardless of ability, as everyone should stand a reasonable chance of winning their category. Whether they are a seasoned Seal or a first-time Pig, everything is to play for. This creates a transition atmosphere like no other, with competitors of all abilities united by the sense of panic mixed with the desperate and unenviable need to go to the bathroom – caused by one too many (or too few?) bananas – that accompanies all triathlons.
Secondly, it creates the unique and tantalising atmosphere of the hunt. As White Fang sets off, he or she knows that a full pack of slavering beasts is hot on his flippers. The same goes for all categories that follow behind, right up to the Seals who essentially take on the role of a ravenous pack of hounds. Every year the athletes speculate prior to the event as to what might happen should a Seal catch a Pig, metaphorically and literally. Some say that this is the root of the old Sexy Walrus adage, passed on by our forebears:
“One Pig’s freakout is another Seal’s lunch.”
The final effect of this system is that it makes it very difficult to tell how well one is doing at any point during the race, as athletes from all waves cluster during the ride and pass one another regularly. All anyone can really know is that, somewhere in the distance, somewhere far behind, rising up out of the water like some Homeric monstrosity, Jonny is coming for you.
The race itself is a unique and wondrous event. Preparations start months in advance as athletes prepare the bodies and minds for the occasion: athletes simultaneously train intensively while complaining about how they haven’t trained for months – ‘doing an Ian Burns’ as it is known.
The aim of this process is both to lull other athletes into a false sense of security about their chances, and also to trick George into lowering your category. And it’s all part and parcel of the event, permitted and encouraged by the rules. Indeed, a quick perusal of the Club Rules gives this:
In the build up to a race, it is expected that Walrus will spend much time asking other Walrus as to their form. The correct response is to state that you are in the worst form you have ever been in and have no chance of success, while secretly being in the shape of your life. The question is reciprocated and the same process occurs the other way. Both Walrus are of course aware of this; the process is merely a formality. This is facilitated by what is known as ‘secret training’: training not logged on Strava in the build up to a race to make it appear one is in worse form than one is.
It is also customary to discuss nutrition at length before an event, making suggestions for what fellow athletes should be consuming while doing something completely different oneself. This can start as early as the evening before – for example, by attempting to feed fellow competitors with a single boiled sweet potato, combined with advice as to why this is essential, while secretly consuming a delicious pasta meal. The breakfast before is the most important: key is to ask fellow competitors the quantity of bananas being eaten, and whether they will be having a full English or simply some porridge. Try not to give away too much information yourself as you consume your carefully pre-planned breakfast of yoghurt and eggs rapidly. Immediately pre-race it is customary to offer competitors to your right and left in transition a gel – be sure to look offended if they refuse and insist it be gobbled down to the full. This works best with novice athletes – these are easily identifiable in transition.
Hopefully, this gives a picture of the lunacy that accompanies all Sexy Walrus weekends. This was due to be my first attempt at the club triathlon due to injury in 2014 and the 2015 decision to abstain due to the World Championships being the following weekend. Having been present at the weekends in previous years, but unable to compete, meant this year took on a whole new level of excitement for me.
We were due to stay at the haunted Yarnton Manor for the weekend, and we arrived their late on Friday night. I spent the night dreaming of running through treacle with my heavy, heavy legs being unable to move as quickly as I’d like. Other competitors galloped past me like fabulous ponies and laughed scornfully as they raced into the distance. I awoke with a start at 6:00AM precisely, rain hammering on the window outside. The Sexy Walrus Whatsapp group was already firing on all cylinders; clearly other competitors were also unable to sleep.
We breakfasted, packed the triathlon gear and drove to the start line. Transition was already a hive of activity, and people were arriving in droves. Every year sees added professionalism and this year was no different. Two time champion Jonny Smith-Walrus, not competing this year, was on media duties and he and Tim Ellis (White Fang 2015) had seen fit to bring a full video camera and microphone in order to conduct pre-race interviews. I tried to give off an air of confidence and nonchalance in mine, but struggled to quell the rising anxiety within. Sexy Walrus is the biggest event in the triathlon calendar, and being tipped as the pre-race favourite was flattering but also nerve wracking.
Soon however, more athletes began to arrive and the excitement of seeing old faces put the nerves to the back of my mind. Bayly’s laughter was infectious and the nativity of the Pigs soothing. I comforted myself by giving some truly terrible advice to a nervous group hungry for tips.
The pre-race briefing was riotous and conducted, for the first time, indoors with a stage and seats. George later admitted that this added to the unwanted rising facade of professionalism. Although it perhaps calmed a few unruly Slugs, it ultimately would be of no use should calamity occur. This was not a closed roads event and, as we were reminded several times, we had to be self regulating in terms of safety. Given the rain pouring down outside, the concerns of George, Jonny, Caspar and the rest of the marshals were well placed; the last thing this club needed was another death on its hands.
Briefing eventually complete, and with a last minute check on the bikes to make sure all was well, we proceeded, whooping and hollering jovially, to the swim start. White Fang was first off, and off he thrashed, limbs flailing independently of one another, closely followed by the rest of the Pigs and a couple of bemused kayaks who had appeared at the wrong time. A few minutes later the Slugs were off and then the Cucumbers. I was to be last off, 22 minutes and 10 seconds behind White Fang. Time passed quickly however and with it, steadily fewer but more steely eyed competitors were left. Furtive glances were shot left and right, and gels offered and accepted with increased suspicion. Soon, it was time to slither into the inky black. I confessed at the last minute to Maddie, the swim start marshal, the extent of my secret training.
“I’ve done a lot of secret training.”
It was true. I’d had almost 10 weeks off post Ironman but, with the threat of Sexy Walrus on the horizon, I had begun a rigorous 2.5 week training regime in order to get back in shape. Essentially this amounted to extreme over-training, with an enhanced recovery period at the end in order to hopefully regain some form in such a short time. It was a risky strategy and one that could easily go wrong. The prospect of Sir Walrus however, was sufficient lure to risking it all. So I’d set enhanced privacy on my Strava profile and gone about my business secretly. In order to not arouse too much suspicion I’d been sure to release roughly the slowest 30% of training sessions to the general Walrus public.
The starters horn cut through my reminiscing, and I started vigorously, keen to be off. The swim was good, but poor visibility meant I weaved a lot, a fistful of algae wrenched from the shallows every now and again being the indication that I had strayed from the middle of the river. However, I made good progress and the balloons that signalled the swim end came sooner than expected and I exited next to Rob Friend, a competitor from the previous wave. A quick dash up a stony road led to T1, where I ejected myself from my wetsuit. I grabbed my bike and ran, laughing manically at Rob who I’d left in T1, onto the bike course.
However, upon mounting my steed it became apparent that something was wrong. My front tyre was completely flat. Having pumped it up pre-race, I suspected sabotage. However, there was nothing I could do about it now, so I turned tail and ran back into transition to re-pump my tyre. Rob laughed manically as he passed me heading out to begin his bike.
A couple of minutes later I exited transition again with my tyres fully inflated, enraged and full of vengeful fury. Personally, I suspected that pair of rogues, the Maguire brothers. They’d always had it in for me, and quite frankly there’s no depths those two wouldn’t sink to in order to win. I would spend the next 30 minutes plotting my revenge.
The bike was flat, not windy, and fast. Apart from the 180 switch backs, you could really get up some speed and I proceeded to try and make up for lost time. Due to the staggered starts there were plenty of targets to chase and I made full use of the incentives presented, giving my respects to each athlete passed according to the rules:
“When passing other members of the herd, it is customary and polite to offer respect through the means of a deep guttural noise, mimicking the cries of the great Sir Walrus himself on those long nights trapped on the ice after falling overboard, calling to his friend Stirlingsworth for rescue. This should be commenced approximately 5 metres away from the approaching Walrus and continued until they have passed. The other Walrus should follow the same procedure and it is considered in the height of bad manners should they not do so, and indeed to signify a long-standing grudge or enmity such as has not been seen since the merging of the Stirlingsworth and Grundlethorpe clans. If a competitor other than a Walrus attempts the same procedure they are to be met with silence and, if possible without physical or legal backlash, slapped in the jowls as if with a flipper.”
As the bike came to an end and I began to head back into transition for the run, I was hopeful that I’d put enough distance into my nearest rivals and to avoid being caught by the superbly fast runs of both Haddock and Wetbeak. I did my best in T2, but knew that I would always fall short of the astounding times set by Dr Edward English in this discipline. He has really made this area his own over the past few years, and the course record of 19 seconds for T2 remains a goal for all to strive towards.
Out onto the run just behind Jeremy Barker, a Walrus newbie and very talented athlete. He was leading the Seal Elites, despite there being a strong showing in this category this year. I pushed hard to try and pass him and break him mentally early doors, and sure enough as I drew close and passed, he emitted a roar and collapsed sideways, clutching his side in agony. I ran on quickly, hoping that no one had witnessed my not stopping to help as had been dictated in the race briefing. I just couldn’t afford the 2 minute time penalty should he perish.
The run was cross country, hard going and I didn’t feel great. There were athletes strung out along the course, so I had plenty of people to chase. I tried to keep my form, head held high and rakish, and focussed hard on the course ahead.
The end finally came, and with a final sprint finish, I crossed the line. 1:09:58 was the time, a new course record. I had stolen it from one of the great athletes of yesteryear, Jonny Smith-Walrus, and I felt a shiver come across my body. Perhaps it was just the wind and the rain, but I felt as if a mantle had been passed from him to me. I had now earned the right to be called Sir Walrus, and all that came with it. It is title to be treasured, but never to be held lightly. I am honoured to now be listed alongside the great athletes of days gone by who have won this trophy.
I will endeavor to do it justice in every race I run from henceforth on, under the good name of Sir Walrus.
“Fastest Walrus – This is the most coveted of the prizes, the winner of which becomes designated as ‘Sir Walrus’ for the coming year. It goes to the Walrus – male or female, pig or elite – who is the fastest against the clock at the end of season triathlon.”