The Tortoise… and the Slightly Slower Tortoise…

It was with some surprise on xmas morning I read that I had been entered into the 2014 Marlow Olympic distance triathlon at the end of June as one of my presents.

I had wanted to do one for years but had never managed to summon the courage to actually do it, merely completing (note, not competing) a couple of sprint distance events a year for the last 8/9 years or so. Now my hand had been forced and I guess, on reflection, my wife Louise had realised that this was going to be the only way it was ever going to happen.

It seemed I had spent much of my adult life eating, drinking and generally enjoying static pastimes, with some club level badminton once a week to justify my otherwise sedentary lifestyle. That changed when I met my wife, who introduced me to the world of multi-sport events and over the next 8 years we managed a few sprint and super sprint triathlons, duathlons, a super sprint bi-athlon and even one half marathon; but this felt like something much bigger.

If I was really serious about this, my first challenge was to finally give up smoking (I kid you not). Not only did I want to complete this event but I had already set myself a target time of three hours. I’d remembered reading a colleague’s times in the London event a few years previous where he had just made that target and I had been in awe at the sustained effort.

Adding realistic times for each event, and the two transitions, by my calculations I would finish in 3:09:00 – so there was much work to do.

Of the three disciplines, I start off not the best and it goes downhill from there. My swim is normally in the top, cycle in the middle and run in the bottom third of the field’s results. It never seems to matter what I do, the order is still the same and given the comparative durations of each event, all efforts really needed to concentrate on the cycle and run elements because this was where real gains could be made.

The early months of the year were wet and as I started training, I began to doubt my sanity. Deciding that I needed an earlier target, I entered the Reading half marathon. There was method in the madness in that if I could complete 2 hours of effort, running for half that distance in a race would be a doddle. Target time was to beat 1:57 (last year’s time) and following a huge effort, I managed 1:56. It may not seem much to you but it felt like hell on earth at the time.

My bike at the time was a second hand Esperia (don’t bother looking it up, there really are very few reviews of them and none of them are good) I’d owned for seven years or so, fitted with a set of clip-on tri bars. To me the bike was a vast improvement over the even cheaper mountain bike that I had ridden previously in a couple of the early events and really knew no better. On a holiday in March, my eyes were opened when the hotel bikes a group of us borrowed for a guided 24 mile tour felt amazing up hills to me only to find that the others in the group were pretty disparaging about them. I then realised that I could massively improve my performance by getting a better bike and one second hand Giant defy 3 advanced later, I was proved correct. I am officially now the slowest and heaviest component of my bike set-up, just the way I like it. By tagging along at a few Tuesday evening brick sessions and going over the Kingsclere downs a few times, my average speed and hill climbs improved incredibly.

Having read many first race reports where the horrors of the mass swim start are first realised, I decided I needed to experience this for myself before the big day so entered myself into the 1500m doggy paddle at the Tri20 lake at the start of June.

Technically the race was a disaster but from an experience point of view, it was priceless. Even though the race was far friendlier than the tri would be and therefore didn’t actually have to fight anyone in the water, I still suffered sighting inexperience issues, wet-suit burn on my neck and had to keep stopping every fifty metres or so to clear fogged goggles. That all said, I had actually really enjoyed the event, much to the surprise of my wife who having watched me struggle, thought it would be a grim drive home.

I had managed a time of 34 minutes but was confident that I could take 3 or 4 off this with good vision so this was similar to the times I achieve in the pool.

My next stage was to set myself a time for the run so my next entry was into the Royal Berks 10K event. This was not so much fun as the previous swim and, with really hot weather, only managed a 53 minute time, which given it was a single event was really disappointing and several minutes over where I thought I should be, given the training effort that I had put in. That said, again the experience was useful over the distance in race conditions so once again, the drive home was bearable for Louise. As an added bonus, she had managed to capture on video my personal battle with a similarly aged (and shaped) “athlete” as we raced for the line like our lives depended on it.  Suffice to say that “chariots of fire” it was not. Private viewings for selected discrete individuals on request only, it is never going on you tube.

I had picked up a knee issue in the last few weeks before the event so following professional advice (thank you Fir Tree Clinic), I was told to keep the swelling down but just man-up for the race because there was nothing seriously wrong. I did however tail off my training a little earlier than I would have liked.

On to race weekend and following advice on the race notes, we went over to Marlow on the Saturday to register and get a feel for the place. Registration was an eerily quiet occasion and for some reason I had expected a lot more people to be milling around. My nerves were really building now and looking out at the Thames, I wondered what I was in for. The spontaneous playing of a real favourite music track over the PA system was seen as a good omen by Louise.

We decided to follow the bike route on the way home to familiarise myself with that but the roadwork’s from Henley to Nettlebed and the general road condition did nothing to help the nerves, so we stopped for something to eat and headed home for an early night.

The alarm had to be set for 04:30 to allow me to have breakfast and load the final bits in the car before heading off.

It is ridiculous that even though I have done lots of small events, I was still as over-awed in the transition area as I remember being at my first event. There were some seriously exotic looking machines in there being fettled by some seriously fit looking individuals. I had to keep telling myself that I was not racing them and I would be having my own private little race.

Race briefing told us that, due to rain the day before, they had altered the swim course to two half mile laps, rather than a single one mile loop. Also, thanks to the roadwork’s up to Nettlebed which had unsettled me the day before, they had changed the cycle course to include an additional loop of the Marlow to Henley road.

Due to the levels of the river banks at Marlow, they had laid out artificial turf and there were a team of marshals to drag contestants from the water at the end of the stage.

A quick hello to my cousin’s husband who was also racing (but he’s actually really good at them) and we were waiting for the start. Louise said that she was feeling sick for me and any ideas she may have had about doing a similar event had long disappeared.

The sprint race started and the speed merchants were racing back to transition in what can only be described as annoyingly short order. Those of us doing the longer distance were asked to wait until the last of the sprint contestant was out of the water and I hope that the cheer she received from all of us helped spur her on for the rest of her race.

We all gathered in the river and I positioned myself away from the front but not so far back that I would compromise what has been traditionally my strongest event.

The gun went and I was immediately in race mode with all nerves seeming a distant memory!

The swim went well and I found that I could push, kick and shove as well as the rest of them and once I had some space, I defended it as best I could, even swimming over someone who only thought they were going to get the marshal I had silently selected for myself to help me get out…..the cheek of it.

I ran to transition struggling to peel the suit off and settled myself for the bike.

At the Marlow event, you are not allowed to mount your bike until you get to the road and that is probable a 150 Metres away from the transition exit so once I mounted the bike, I checked my watch only to see no time at all as I had managed to knock it during transition and couldn’t seem to get my swim time up. I decided that I would gauge progress from here on in by my bike computer but to my horror, I realised that I had not reset it in transition from my last ride. I was riding blind and decided that the only course of action was to push all the way.

Many of you will take group riding for granted but the experience I had gained through my few brick sessions paid dividends as riders in front pointed out obstacles and I was confident riding so close. Although it was officially a non-drafting race, with so many people on the same section of road due to the course change, there was little other option and I was glad I had decided to fit a set of clip-on tri bars the day before.

I rode out of my skin and other than the final 200 meters up the last hill, I felt strong allowing my legs to recover going back down into Marlow. As I entered transition, ready to take on the next stage, my thoughts turned to the run and I managed to reset my watch so that I could at least keep an eye on my pace for the final element.

Any ideas I had about breaking the land speed record were soon ended as I started on the run and had to remind myself that even doing a sub 1 hour after everything else would be something to celebrate. I plodded on and with every person that passed me, I thought to myself, well I swim and cycle quicker than them and that alone kept me going! That and the fact that there was a chap in front of me of similar age and shape (are you getting a theme here?) and I decided that there was no way he was going to beat me, so the slowest pursuit ever in history began.

By now the sun was really beating down and with the rising temperature, I realised that I was really close to being able to say that I had completed my first standard distance triathlon.

As I started the second of two laps, I was thinking, OK, you did that first lap in 28 minutes, you have to match or beat that……and beat that guy who was annoyingly still in front of me.

I started to wind him in half way through the second lap, timing the distance between us using landmarks and watching it come down. He must have known I was there because by now because I was not light of foot and I was huffing and puffing like Thomas the tank engine pulling up a hill! By the time I had decided that I was going to make my move, only 1 KM from the end, he must have been thankful for the peace and quiet and let me go past without really fighting back as I sailed trudged past.

I picked up my pace for the last 200 hundred metres as I approached the finish, deceitfully looking like I could have carried on for a couple of miles more and cheered on again by Louise.

I crossed the line looking happy which was also a goal and a welcome change. Louise greeted me in the finish area and excitedly told me that I had easily beaten three hours but she wasn’t sure by how much. When I got my timing slip, I was amazed to find that I had actually managed 2:48 with the following splits.

Swim        0:28:53

T1        0:02:12

Cycle        1:20:10

T2        0:00:49  (this is nearly professional transitioning)

Run       0:55:59

Total        2:48:05

On my way back to the transition area, I passed the guy that had given the race brief and thanked him for a great event and really meant it. Everyone was friendly (even the other competitors), race direction was clear, organisation was spot on and the marshals were in the right places and encouraging at all points on the course.

If you have never done this one, give it a try.

A final word of thanks to Louise, who not only forced my hand in the first place to do this, but then stuck with me through the training and was there at every event and every early start……even if some of the drives back home weren’t as bad as you thought they could have been.


Gary L.