Going Long(er): Blithfield Olympic Distance Triathlon

The term that seems to be used in the triathlon world is 'A-race', although I'm not sure it's quite right in this situation.  To claim I had had a season-long coherent plan leading up to this point would be bending the truth (a lot).  "Thing-I'd-not-done-before-but-really-wanted-to-do" would probably be more accurate, if a bit more cumbersome.  Whatever you call it, the idea of doing a standard/Olympic distance (1500m swim/40km bike/10km run) triathlon in 2015 has been firmly planted in my head pretty much since doing my first two sprint distance events last September.   

The specific event was the Blithfield Triathlon, run by Punishing Events - the same local organiser who ran the first (Derby City) event I did last year, as well as the Ashbourne race in May.  The event was run out of the sailing club on Blithfield Reservoir in Staffordshire, about half an hour's drive from home for me.  Oddly, this wouldn't be the first time I'd put on a wetsuit and got into this stretch of water for a race, although the previous occasion dates back to the last millennium, and was for a windsurfing event. 

I did try to do a few bits of sensible preparation, mainly for the swim - acquiring a wetsuit, going along to a few open-water practice sessions with a local tri club, and entering the Nottingham tri to get some race experience at a shorter distance.  Mostly though, I just did what I'd have done anyway, riding to work as often as practical and going out running when time and one-year-old son permits.  I think I managed a reasonable training volume through May and June, but then things went a bit astray in July.  Two weeks of holiday meant no riding (although a few decent length swims in the Mediterranean), but it was the lack of running that worried me.  I'd actually taken my running gear with me on holiday, only to have a bit of a shoulder niggle in the first week which wierdly allowed me to swim with the exception of a few days, but really didn't agree with the shock loading of running.  I didn't do much better on returning home, only managing one 5k outing in the next couple of weeks. 

About ten days before, I turned my ride home from work into a full length 40k/10k brick to get some feel for pacing.  Wasn't too bad, but I started the run too fast and it all fell apart in the last few km. I decided that not taking any food on board during the 2h20m-ish total duration probably hadn't helped either.  One more leisurely round-trip cycle commute in the week leading up to the event and then it was race day.


The (mass) start time was 0850 for the standard distance, but they were also running a sprint event with an 0830 start, so everyone had to be signed on, briefed and racked by 0820.   This worked back to needing to leave home around 0650 - too early to get The Boy out of the house, so I was on my own again. 

I'd carefully planned to arrive, sign on, go to the briefing, then go back to the car to grab all my gear and drop it off in transition before it closed.  This got thrown out of kilter when they didn't run the briefing at the time in the competitor info document.  After standing around looking confused with a few other people for a while someone went in, asked, and came back with a new time.  I then missed the start of it because I was still sorting my stuff out in transition.  Oh well.

After the briefing and a quick pre-race comfort break, I watched the sprint race go and then we were counted into the water.  The organisers had measured the water at about 18 degrees, nice and comfortable in a wetsuit - although you wouldn't have known it by the amount of whinging and general reluctance to get in from a decent chunk of the field.

The course was two laps of a simple triangle, starting and ending at the corner nearest the sailing club.  The field here was smaller (about 150 vs 225) and the start line considerably longer than the Nottingham Tri, and after the startline mayhem there I chose to position myself towards the less crowded shore end of the line, accepting a (possible, and very slight) increase in distance to the first buoy in return for being able to settle straight into my preferred rhythm from the start.  This seemed to help, and by half way through the first lap I was in much better shape and even comfortable enough to engage in a bit of gentle jostling for position around the turn buoys - in contrast to Nottingham where, after getting beaten up in the start frenzy I pretty much steered away from anyone that came anywhere near me for the rest of the swim.

I was out of the water in about 35 minutes, about five minutes slower than I'd have expected/hoped to be over 1500m, although I'm pretty sure the course was long.  My Garmin 910XT called it short at about 1400m, but is visibly wonky when you look at the track against a satellite picture (below).  Most of the other competitors' tracks which show up on Strava seem to be around the 1600-1700m mark, which would explain most of the difference.  Maybe I should have found the extra hundred quid or so for the new 920XT.


There was a short run from the shoreline up to the grassy transition area above the sailing club.  I managed to make less of a hash of stripping off the top half of my wetsuit during the run, but managed to hit 'stop' on my watch rather than 'lap' (to tell the auto-multisport mode I'd finished the swim), then wonder why it still showed 'swim' rather than 'transition' when I got to the rack.  Fortunately it was easily restarted once I figured out what I'd done.  Stripping the bottom half of my wetsuit and getting my shoes on still seemed to take an age (official T1 time was 2:42) before I was ready to head for the exit. 


The bike leg was two laps of a loop course with a short spur connecting to the sailing club at the start and end.  Heading out along this spur was a bit tricky, trying to get past people who had exited T1 just ahead and find some clear road, while simultaneously trying to avoid the sprint race front-runners who were coming back in at the same time with a 40mph+ closing speed. 

The start of the loop passed through the centre of Abbott's Bromley, complete with traffic calming chicanes and parked cars (I got briefly stopped on both laps behind cars that had to give way to oncoming traffic).  Once through the village, the rest of the lap was easily navigated with no traffic issues.  The marshalls (both on the bike and run courses) were great, shouting encouragement at everyone that passed, and the sun even came out at some point in the first lap. 

With running remaining my weak point, the byword for the bike leg was 'restraint'.  It's one thing to suffer through a 5k after giving it a big effort on the bike, another entirely to do that for 10k.  I'd decided, more through gut feeling than science, that if I kept my heart rate just under 150bpm most of the time I'd probably be alright.  This seemed to work out well, and I actually ended up doing both laps of the main loop with only 36 seconds difference over 35 minutes (and pretty similar speeds at all points on the loop).

The other key point for the bike was to remember to take some fuel on board.   I'd gulped a gel down during T1, reasoning it would only add a couple of seconds and is much easier to do stationary with both hands available, but I'd guesstimated wanting another mid-bike and then to have a third handy for the run.  Incidentally, I was trying out using a Flip-Belt (no, I don't look like the people on the link when I exercise) as a number belt at this race.  I'd bought it a month or so earlier - primarily to keep keys/phone in when out running, but also with half a thought that it might work as a number belt (given the only real requirement for a number belt is 'you can stick safety pins through it') for longer events where I did need to carry food/gels.  I did look at some other products like the SPIbelt which are actually intended to be used like that, but decided I preferred the 'clean' look of the Flip-Belt.  I was wearing it with the openings on the outside, since I was more concerned with ease of access than the risk of losing a quid's worth of gels, and it was easy to reach round and grab one out without even lifting off the aero bars.  Go me.

I think I gained places overall on the bike, although at the time of writing the full results file is missing some columns so I can't check.  Naturally a few came past, including one on what I think was the full-fat non-UCI-legal Specialized Shiv Triathlon.  Fortunately he vanished up the road before I dribbled too much.  I just about managed to hit a 30kph average over the bike leg, which I'm fairly pleased with, since it matches the fastest I've done over the sprint distance on a 'proper' road course with some hills in (at Ashbourne).  I did about 34kph average at the Nottingham Tri, but that was on the pancake-flat, traffic-free perimeter road of the rowing lake. 

(Although to ensure I don't feel too pleased with myself, while I was doing this, a friend of mine was out doing a 50 mile (80km) time trial - double the distance - at 37kph average.  I doubt he ran anywhere afterwards, but still.) 

The run was again two laps (almost as if they were running another event half the distance on the same course), out and back along the shoreline, with the turnaround in the middle of the causeway which divides the reservoir in two.  About half dirt/packed gravel and half tarmac/concrete.  The first few minutes out of T2 was horrible.  Everything hurt, and I was preparing myself for my target time to disappear out of the window and to be fighting just to finish.  Of course once I'd gone far enough for the average speed reading in my watch to stabilise I realised it was because I was actually going way faster than I thought, and indeed way faster than was sensible for that point in the run.  After that I relaxed a bit, although looking back my pacing was still all over the place.  The sun was well and truly out by this point, and it was quite hot.  The split into four obvious chunks (out/back/out/back) was a psychological help at least, as was gulping a final gel on the first lap.  I flagged a bit on the second outward leg, but managed to pick it back up in the last quarter, and even sprint for the line (for a loose definition of 'sprint') to make sure I stayed clear of the person I'd been able to see coming up behind me looking back across the last few bends.

I crossed the line in 105th place in 2:51:43, which I'm pretty happy with.  I had three hours in mind as my "I'd be disappointed if I missed that" time, so it was good to be comfortably inside.  I still need to run faster though - or improve my cycling to the extent it doesn't matter.  I came out of the swim in 106th place, so any places I made on the bike disappeared again on the run.  The other point of note was that I was still a bit marginal on fuel.  I didn't have much left in the tank at the end, and having forgotten to pack anything to eat immediately after I was almost chewing the steering wheel on the half-hour drive home!  I'd probably slot in at least another gel or something solid into the bike leg next time.

For now though, the next few weeks is all about running.  More on that later.