“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”
A line from Shakespeare’s Henry V in trying to spur his men on in attacking the blockade of Harfleur, after his army has blown up some French fortifications. An applicable quote for describing this weekends activities? Perhaps a little pretentious, but as this was to be my third triathlon in as many weeks and the nature of the entry was somewhat unplanned I shall use it. It might bring some literary kudos.
It was unplanned as I had received a text from a friend on the Thursday evening asking if I fancied one last hurrah at Sundays Huntsman triathlon. A quick google revealed it was an Always Aim High event, the same people who had run the Slateman triathlon I had so enjoyed earlier in the season. Wonderful. I was in. I sent the invite on to a few other friends, but the only one to reply positively was Oli Murphy – a friend who had also competed in the European Championships out in Lisbon earlier in the year, beating me by an infuriating 3 minutes or so.
One last gasp for the end of the season? How was everyone feeling? Oli quickly started to lay the excuses regarding his form.
“Looking forward to seeing how quick I can swim and bike with negative training…”
Apparently, he wasn’t in shape. A lads week away in Marbella, which was described with a grimace and a single northern utterance – “dirty” – had put paid to his fitness. However, a 7th placed finish at the Hellvellyn triathlon three weeks prior might indicate otherwise. Being a veteran of many events with the Sexy Walrus, I knew all the excuses regarding pre-race form and secret training and refused to fall for his ruses. I suspected that, whilst he perhaps wasn’t in the same vein of form that had seem him take 6th in our age group in Europe, he was actually in pretty good shape and planned to take the event by storm.
However I wasn’t in bad shape myself. Third last weekend in Eton Dorney wasn’t a bad result, which combined with a maiden title at the Sexy Walrus Triathlon two weeks prior meant my confidence was high. This weekend was sizing up to be a veritable clash of the titans.
The race was to take place at the Royal Engineers military training ground situated on the banks of the idyllic Hawley Lake, Hampshire. Whilst this meant a beautiful backdrop for the drama of the race to unfold, it unfortunately also meant a 0530 start. I had been out until midnight the night before meeting some friends from school, one of whom happens to be recently returned from the Rio Olympics. Polly Swann, who was part of the Great Britain women’s eight that won their first Olympic medal just over a month ago, was down in London doing fulfilling various sponsorship responsibilities. It was hugely exciting to listen to the stories from Rio; all the famous athletes she met, the build up and participation in the Olympic final and the flight home sitting next to Tom Daley. I was inspired to give my all – Jonny Brownlee style if necessary – in the Huntsman the following morning.
Needless to say when the alarm went off 5 hours later most, if not all, of that inspiration had evaporated into the duvet. It was hammering down with rain and I could hear the wind howling outside. I was sorely tempted to just roll over and go back to sleep but the thought of what an Englishman (even one from the North) should say should a Scotsman not turn up to a race because of the weather was one I could not live down. I dragged myself from bed, packed my things and loaded the car. The weather seemed to be getting worse as I pulled out to begin the hour long drive to Hampshire.
Happily though, as I drove on the weather improved steadily until it was positively sunny at the start line. The organisers clearly must have paid their dues since the Slateman, where it was fairly ‘dreich‘ if anything.
Here I met Jez, the initiator of this last minute madness, and a friend from University. He had recently completely Weymouth half-Ironman in a very respectable 5:45, however had blown on the run and was displeased with the results. He was keen to race again, and put the previous result to bed. We racked and suited up, ready for the off. Oli was going through his usual pre-race routine of appearing and disappearing without announcement, often mid conversation, so Jez and I did our own thing, and leisurely made our own way down to swim start. Oli, having last been seen sprinting in the other direction for the loo, was already in the water and vigorously warming up. Having missed the pre-race briefing, Jez and I asked a fellow competitor what the swim route was.
“Oh, you just swim round that island there,” he said, gesturing to his right, “then round that island there,” swinging his arm casually across and pointing to his left.
These were dubious instructions. Bewilderingly, he had made no mention of the series of colourful buoys that had been laid out across the lake. Having never once participated in a race that relied solely on topographical features for the swim we were highly skeptical.
“Ah thank you,” we said. “But what about all those buoys? Don’t we need to use them?”
He peered wistfully out across the lake again, as if seeing the brightly hued objects strewn across it for the first time. “No no, I don’t think so,” he said, “they must be for the standard distance guys.”
We left him gazing knowledgeably at the lake and moved on to corroborate the story from a more official looking gentleman in a high-vis jacket.
“Ah yes. You start at this buoy in front of us, swim straight out to that buoy out there, back round that one to your left and then in. If you’re doing the Olympic distance you do it twice.”
Much better. Thank you that man. We tried to find our previous advisor, keen to get him back on course, but he was already deep in conversation with another competitor, motioning wildly from left to right and pointing animatedly at branches floating on the water. We decided to leave them in peace and plunged into the lake, ready for the start.
Armed with the correct course information the swim went well. I tried to hang on to Oli’s coattails but lost him after about 50 metres, gasping and floundering. I tried to re-establish my rhythm and finished the swim in 6th place overall, which is rather good for me. Evidence that swim training has been going well? Or perhaps the gentlemen giving the perplexing instructions had managed to confuse half the pack. A tactic for next time it would seem.
T1 was an absolute nightmare. Usually, my transitions are my best discipline but this was the worst I have done for ages. I was stuck half in-half out of my wetsuit trying in vain to clip my race belt on for what felt like an eternity, but eventually I managed to put it all together and got out onto the bike.
The bike route was a lap, with a short out and back at the beginning. The out and back was useful as it gave a chance to see the enemies and gauge their respective distances. I saw Oli heading back towards me and marked his position. I estimated I was roughly a minute down on him. If I could catch him by about halfway on the bike, I might have a chance to put enough distance into him to stay away from his strong running. The race was on. Jez gave me a rousing cheer when he passed a minute or so later, he was high up the pack and had clearly also had a good swim.
The bike route was fairly flat and had some good straight sections where you could really get up some speed. I had Oli within sight before too long, and could see I was catching him in, but was it fast enough? How hard should I push? What should I leave for the run? The optimisation problem was constant and torturous. I could often see him intermittently as he disappeared around corners, and the cycle started to take on a hypnotic quality as I chased him round the leafy Hampshire roads, sunlight flickering between the trees, slowly, inexorably, reeling him in, inch by inch.
Eventually, I caught and passed him on a corner. He took it wide, like an oil-tanker, as is his fashion, and I nipped up the inside. I glanced down at my watch. 17km of the bike completed, only 3 or 4km still to go. He grinned across at me.
“It’s not enough mate.”
Sadly he didn’t actually say this out loud, but his eyes gleamed with the knowledge and we both knew it to be true. I pushed on, my only hope now that the organisers had mistakenly measured a 30km course rather than a 20km one. Annoyingly, this was not the case and we turned back into the army base a few minutes later. T2 was a real stormer – 30 seconds flat – and 2nd fastest of the day. Ed English would be proud. As I was putting my shoes on, Oli arrived with his bike. I ran past him with a few choice words and left to begin the run.
This was to be a trail run, a lap around the lake that we had swam earlier. I set off, consciously trying not to fall into my usual habit of beginning too quickly, and tried to settle into a decent rhythm. I could hear Oli approaching before too long, pounding the trail behind me and managed to hold him off for a pleasingly long time, but eventually he came past me at an impressive rate of knots and strode away, looking like a fabulous pony.
Disappointing although this was, the run was delightful. The scenery in the Hampshire forests at 9 in the morning was incredible and I enjoyed every tortuous minute of it, at least as much as one can at this point of a triathlon. I rounded the last corner and gave a last minute token surge for the line. The announcer gave the customary shout of surprise at the Sexy Walrus name, and announced my position – 4th.
Fourth. Oli had pushed me off the podium into fourth. Typical. Jez arrived a few minutes later in 9th and concluded a very satisfactory showing for our impromptu group. All 3 in the top 10. We celebrated with a bacon butty and made plans to return bigger, better, faster and stronger next year. Anyone for The Sandman?