Manic May part 3: Nottingham Sprint Tri

(Erm yeah, this one got lost in the ether for a while.  Had it 95% drafted just after posting the other two race reports from May, then forgot about it, then went on holiday, etc.  Fortunately, to borrow someone else's phrase, it doesn't go stale.)

I rounded off the month with the OSB Events Nottingham Triathlon.  This was by some margin the biggest event I've done so far, with 960 entry slots in total, albeit run as four separate races of 240 through the day then recombined in the results computer.  I was in the second wave, or 'blokes in their thirties', starting at 10:15am.  It was also the first event with an open-water swim, which almost doubles the swim distance from the shortened-for-practicality 400m typical of pool triathlons to the 'proper' sprint distance of 750m.  The open-water swim also meant it would be my first mass-start, with the entire start wave setting off at once. 

I took advantage of the option to sign on the day before, popping across to the National Watersports Centre at Holme Pierrepont after work.  I was on the motorbike, so didn't join those doing a few practice laps of the bike course.  I came home with a massive stack of race numbers - the usual pair of paper ones for the number belt, stickers for helmet, bike, transition bag and supporters, plus for the first time, number tattoos. 

Signing on early saved enough time in the morning to make a family outing practical, we got out of the house and over to the event fairly easily - aided by me actually having written a checklist at the start of the month, and only slightly complicated by The Boy throwing up his entire breakfast in the car on the way over. 

The mass start also meant a mass queue to get into transition as everyone arrived at once, but the marshalls were doing a good job of getting through the usual brake/helmet/check-you're-actually-a-competitor-and-not-just-trying-to-steal-stuff checks and so it moved along fairly quickly.  It was actually a split transition - only about 10 metres apart, but necessarily so to allow the course to progressively spiral outwards from the lake and avoid a potentially dangerous crossing between the bike and run courses.  According to the PA announcer they'd only had one person in the first wave leave their running shoes in T1 rather than T2. 

Having done what I could to pick out some landmarks for two transition spots rather than one, I popped back over to where Sarah was sat to swap warm clothes for wetsuit, then headed down to the briefing at the swim start.  After that they funnelled us through the swim exit timing mat to get everyone 'registered' in the timing system then back over to the swim start and into the water.  The line was sufficiently close to shore that you could get a decent warm-up (or cool-down) then either stand chest-deep or hang onto the jetties until the last minute or so.

The starter gave us a minute by minute (and then closer in the final minute) countdown to the start, interspersed with shouts of 'Keep Back!' and 'We're not going to start until you're all behind the line!' as he tried to stop people from creeping forwards.  I wasn't one of these people - having identified a counter-productive tendency to set off a bit too quick in pool-based sprints, then lose pace and end up failing to hit the times I can do in training, I'd positioned myself in the second or third row of starters, a little way behind the line. 

Then the airhorn went off and all hell broke loose. 

I had, over the course of the preceding weeks, worked my way up to about five times the swim distance in open water, so there should have been no problem just swimming round the course.  Funnily enough though I hadn't practiced swimming over, under, and through a load of other people.  I spent the first couple of hundred metres drinking lake water and switching back and forth between freestyle and breaststroke to try and figure out where to go and calm down a bit, and it wasn't until the home leg of the U-shaped course that I felt like I was swimming properly.

If I was doing a longer distance race (like the following day's Outlaw Half, with a 1900m swim), I'd actually be quite tempted just to wait for thirty seconds at the start, then aim to get straight into a proper rhythm and come back past people as things spread out and calmed down.  I think I'd probably be quicker to the end of the swim, and certainly in better shape for the bike and run.  Probably a bit too leisurely an approach over the sprint distance though. 

Over the course of the previous five events, I've got my T1 time down to something sensible - my first was a shocking three-and-a-half minutes, the last couple have been down to about ninety seconds.  Still giving away a bit of time to the sharp end, but of the order of 30 seconds rather than minutes.  Add a wetsuit into the mix and it all fell apart again.  Coming out of the water I struggled to get hold of the velcro flap covering the top of the zip, and ended up pretty much walking to the bike as I tried to sort that out and get unzipped.  With hindsight I could probably have just pulled the zip down then just pulled the velcro apart from the inside rather than trying to pick at the edge of it - but either way, it was something I hadn't thought to practise beforehand, and it showed.  Once I was at the bike, I faffed around a bit more trying to get the rest of the way out of the suit, then being a bit unsettled, felt like I was having to concentrate quite hard just to put my helmet, number belt and shoes on. I did redeem myself slightly by passing someone while getting onto the bike at the exit, but overall lost several places through T1.

The bike course was four laps of the lake perimeter road, which was unsurprisingly dead flat.  The wind was blowing at about 45 degrees to the lake axis, so one way was a bit harder than the other, but it was pretty quick all the way round.  I spent a lot of the time swapping back and forth with another rider who had a similar pace, and with the short lap there were faster and slower people everywhere, but there was generally enough space for it not to feel too difficult sticking to drafting distances.  There were actually referees from Triathlon England there, although I suspect they were mostly watching the fast guys - I got passed once by a motorbike which I assume was chasing the leader.  I ended up doing the fastest bike split of any race I've done so far at 34kph before rolling into T2.

The run start was a bit rough, with my calves deciding to cramp up, not helped by having to run up a steep bank to get away from the transition area.  Fortunately they loosened up within the first kilometer. 

I'm not a strong runner, and I'm perfectly used to people coming past me on the run, but in a pool sprint with continuous wave starts you can kid yourself that you were never going to beat them anyway - they've already pulled several minutes on you, so there's no point chasing them.  In a mass start race there's no hiding from the fact that every single one is a position to be fought for.  I did lose a few, but at least tried to let them tow me along for a while before getting dropped.

The flat terrain and simple course meant the finish was visible from a long way off, allowing me to kick towards the end, and even pass someone on the approach to the line.  Sharing a race weekend with the Outlaw Half meant a proper finish experience with red carpet and giant timing clock, although they had high barriers alongside so no chance to high-five random people in the crowd.

The wierdest experience of the day however was being handed a pint of beer after the finish, courtesy of event sponsors Erdinger Alkoholfrei.  Alcohol-free and 'isotonic' or not, it wasn't exactly my idea of a recovery drink.

Once all four waves had been run, my time of 1:19:42 put me in 565th place of 781 finishers.

2015 Is Go! Nottingham University Varsity Triathlon.

So then somehow it was mid-March, with all the posts I'd been planning to write at the start of the year about racing goals and training plans still unwritten, and the first race of the year already finished.  I'd blame the (now just shy of eleven month old) little man again, but he gets blamed for all sorts of things, so let's just chalk this one up to my own laziness.

(Photo by Shawn Ryan)

The race was the inaugural University of Nottingham Varsity Triathlon, which took place on Sunday in the grounds of the University's Park Campus.  I wasn't actually expecting the tri season to kick off until May, and had been focusing my concerns on the 100 mile Cycle Derby Sportive - which I (foolishly?) entered in a flurry of optimism in January, before getting ill with a lingering cough and not going near the bike for two weeks - when this event popped into my Twitter feed a few weeks ago.

With a fairly early start time at 0920, a recommendation from the organisers to allow plenty of time for signing on, and the pessimism about Nottingham traffic that comes from working near the University during the week, I ended up leaving home around 0700 - meaning I was on my own, because there's no way we were getting the aforementioned little man out of the house by then (hence not much by the way of photos).  I was slightly concerned about the way the temperature reading in the car stubbornly refused to rise above 5 degrees on the way over, given I'd shortly be running out of a swimming pool in just a dripping wet tri-suit, but blue skies offered some hope.  

I arrived with plenty of time to sign on, figure out where the pool actually was, put a bit more pressure in the tyres, rack the bike and scope out the transition layout, and remember how awkward 'just popping to the toilet' is when wearing a tri-suit with warm clothes over the top, before dumping said clothes back in the car and making a swift move to the warmth of the pool building.

This event was run slightly differently to the two I did last year, with distinct waves rather than a continuous stream of people entering the pool.  Each wave of 32 (of which I was in the second) got a briefing before heading poolside, four people to each of the eight lanes, and set off at ten second intervals.  I thought it worked pretty well - no mismatch of pace between people at the start and end of their swim, a bit of reassurance that you've counted your lengths right because others are getting out at the same time, quite a long time before overtaking is necessary, and (crucially), every single person there had been told five minutes earlier "overtake by tapping feet at the ends of the lengths, not in the middle".  I was the second off in my lane, and there was very little between the first three of us - the guy behind overhauled me part way through but I then sat just behind him the rest of the way.  The fourth was slow enough to get lapped by the end, but got out of the way politely enough.

I exited the pool with all the elegance of a beached whale thanks to the high poolside and deep water, and didn't even think about the outside temperature as I headed to T1.  I thought I was fairly quick through the transition area itself (but the timing sheet says otherwise), then out for the 200m or so run down to the mount line, which made me glad that I was in mountain bike shoes rather than road shoes or barefoot - although the latter approach makes for an indisputably faster transition.

The cycle leg was five laps of a 3km loop contained entirely within the campus - which sounds easy on paper, and is short even for a sprint tri, but contained a lot of elevation change, a lot of acceleration, and a rather interesting chicane.  Although the campus was still open to general traffic, it was naturally quieter than the open road, and a one-way system had been enforced in the same direction as the race, so we could generally just concentrate on riding, with what cars there able to easily pass on the 'wrong' side of the road.  

(There was one exception - most of the entry points to the campus were well marshalled, and they were holding cars back when bikes were coming through, apart from one, where the marshall was only making sure people adhered to the one-way system, and waved cars onto the roundabout in front of me pretty much every lap - at the only junction with any real potential for danger, with bikes coming downhill at speed and trying to make a right turn.  The cars should have - and generally did - still stop, because the direction the bike course was coming from had right of way, but drivers have a nasty habit of assuming it's OK to go when someone in a yellow jacket points them in a certain direction, so I was always on edge preparing for an emergency stop at this point.  This is genuinely the only complaint I could possibly make about an otherwise brilliant event.)

After a slightly slow first lap trying to find my legs and figure out where the course went, the next four were pretty consistent (-ly painful), and included the satisfaction of flying past someone on a full-on TT bike on one of the climbs (where admittedly the bike wasn't really giving him any advantage) before it was time to get off the bike and make the long run back uphill to T2.  The sun was well and truly out by now, enough to merit grabbing sunglasses out of the transition bag before setting off on the run.

The run course covered an even greater height range (albeit only once rather than five times), following the cycle course over its highest point and down the first steep drop, a chance for a breather on the bike but a desperate attempt to avoid tripping over tired feet here.  Another short rise followed before diverging from the cycle course and dropping right down to the very bottom of the campus for a lap of the lake, dodging the families and pensioners out for their Sunday stroll.  Then back up, up, up, passing through the courtyard of the Trent Building on the way, before a final few hundred metres down to the finish.

Final results say 106th, and on closer inspection that the run is still my weakest point relative to the rest of the field (well, apart from transitions, but there's less time to lose there).  I think my running has improved over the winter, and I did a decent (for me) 5k off the back of a session on the rollers a week or so before the event, but the hills were the killer here - both on the bike and the run.  More work to do over the rest of the year.

(results from DBMax)