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.