The Stoke-on-Trent Triathlon - by Peter Hooper

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Dawn breaks on the 25th September. It’s time to get the dogs out for their run along the towpath, and for me to run through my mental checklist of everything I need for my first triathlon later in the day. There’s so much to think of: swimming gear, cycling gear and running gear; mandatory gear; optional gear; new gear; old gear. No wonder triathlon gear is an industry in its own right – for the dedicated, it’s not just swimming gear, it’s triathlon swimming gear (check); it’s not just cycling gear, it’s aerodynamic helmet (nope), carbon-framed bike (nope), aerobars to get a slow as possible on the bike (nope). At least the running gear is mostly just running gear, unless there’s a page in the catalogue I’ve missed somewhere.

That said, my big concession to the tri is my tri-suit, which I’ll wear throughout – the swim, bike and run stages. “Is that new?” my wife asks suspiciously as I parade around in all-in-one lycra – she seems completely immune to the charms of a slightly overweight middle-aged man posing around in sports gear designed for athletes half his age.

It's Lizzie Tench's fault I'm here - she's an outstanding paratriathlete who I met in Shropshire's Hanmer Mere while cold water swim training the month before.  Feeling a bit awed in the presence of a world class (and now world number one) paratriathlete, I say something about always having wanted to do a triathlon and she eggs me on to enter one. Like, immediately. So, inspired by Lizzie, I do.

So here I am. Thanks Lizzie...

It’s still dark on the towpath and there’s six hours to go still until my 12.15 start time, but part of the reason for the early start is making sure I get a proper breakfast down me before heading to Trentham for the start of the Elite races at around 8.30. It’s partly the chance to see how things like transition are done, partly just to see some outstanding athletes at the top of their game.  The event is being held at Trentham Lake, about half an hour drive’s away. Once I’ve had breakfast, double-checked I’ve got all the gear, and struggled into the tri-suit then it’s time to go.

It’s going to be a busy morning spectating: there’s a ‘Fun’ tri event to kick things off; then the Super Sprint (374m swim, 10km bike and 2.5k run); then the Elite Women, followed by the Elite Men, both doing the Olympic distance (1500m swim, 40km bike and 10k run); then the Olympic distance for ‘ordinary’ men and women, predominantly club members; and finally the Sprint event, which I’m registered for – first up the Sprint Men, then the combined hordes of the Sprint Women and the Sprint Relay teams – the Sprint distance being a 750m swim, a 20km bike and a 5k run.  The swim course that we all tackle is a 375m circuit marked out by buoys in the lake (so two laps for the Sprint distance), followed by a 600m run from the lake back to the main transition area, necessitating a ‘Shoe Transition’ to allow swimmers to exit the lake and put on running shoes before racing back to the bikes.

When I get to Trentham it’s a hive of activity. Registration has been open since 06.30, and the car park is starting to fill up with vehicles laden with expensive-looking tri gear. I chat to some of the City of Sport team who are helping on the day and am heartened to meet a couple of Sprint Male competitors, novices like me.  I register and get a bag of goodies, including labels to go on every conceivable surface of the bike – handlebars, seat tube, front of helmet, side of helmet – plus tattoo transfers of my number (510) to go on my arm and calf. And a swim hat, race numbers, safety pins, energy gels and more…

I make my way down to the pontoon where the races start, in time to catch the Fun and Super Sprint swimmers. I start to wonder if I’ve been a bit ambitious entering the Sprint category. Maybe a shorter swim would have been a good idea: it’s not my strong suit. Then it’s the elite swimmers turn – elite women first. Wetsuits are compulsory for the Olympic distance because of the time they’re in the water. They’re optional in the Sprint event but with the water temperature a measly 16 degrees I’m not sure my plan to swim in just the tri suit is the best one – on the other hand, I’ve entered a Chill Swim event in the Lake District in December where wetsuits aren’t allowed, so part of the mission today is acclimatisation to colder water…

The Elite Women waiting to start

The Elite Women waiting to start

I watch the Elite race start, then it’s time to grab a coffee and start getting my gear organised. Sticking stickers, applying transfers, pinning on numbers, finding a space in the transition area to rack my bike, catch up with a few friends and former work colleagues in the crowd and trying to calm last minute nerves.  I’m used to big race atmospheres at marathons and cycle sportives, but this is new territory for me: not just the three disciplines but the unknowns as well – I’ve only done one mass-start swim event, I’ve never done transitions, I’ve no idea if I’ll physically be able to ride a bike after what is a big swim for me – or be able to run on the back of the cycle ride. There’s endless potential for very public humiliation given the size of the crowds and the presence of TV cameras, which makes me even more nervous.

All too quickly it’s time to strip to the tri suit, put on my ‘run transition’ shoes and head for the pontoon, feeling seriously under-dressed amongst the spectators heading in the same direction.  On the pontoon, once we’ve been called forward, I look in vain for any other triathletes not in a wetsuit. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one braving the water without one. This is worrying.  I’m distracted by a tap on the shoulder from the guy behind me. “You know you can leave your trainers in the shoe transition area…” – I glance down and realise I’m still clad in running shoes! Whoops.  Back to T1 to shed my shoes and line them up with all the other pairs, and then back on the pontoon. I had expected a mass run and dive into the water, a la Hawaii Ironman, but instead we’re asked to swim out to a notional start line between buoys at the start of the course, where around a hundred of us bob around in the surprisingly cold water until the starter judges that the field is ready – and we’re off!

I’ve played this bit of the triathlon out in my head in the wee small hours of most nights of the previous week, along the lines of: … I hang back at the start so as not to get swamped by faster swimmers; the faster swimmers (there’s about ninety-nine of them) lap me anyway when I’m about halfway around the first circuit; I’m pretty much on my own for the start of the second circuit, but not for long because the Sprint Women’s and Sprint relay team’s start time is only 15 minutes after the Sprint Male start - by the time I’m rounding the top buoy and half way round my second circuit the entire women and relay wave of swimmers will be bearing down on me; I stagger out of the water at the same time as the fastest Sprint women competitors…

And this is exactly as it plays out.  The first lap goes slowly and steadily, no need to panic that I’m behind everyone else, that’s where I expect to be. I find a brief spurt of energy at the start of the second circuit, hoping to round the top buoy before I caught up in the next wave – but in trying to go faster I ship an appreciable amount of Trentham Lake, which is by now a black soup of mud and weed. And then my left calf cramps up. This wasn’t in my plan. I can only kick with one leg. My coughing and spluttering and general impression of a non-swimmer attracts the attention of one of the kayakers who are providing safety cover. “All right?” she asks, as she paddles over. “Yes, just wish I learned how to swim better...” I reply. My breaststroke has descended to something more akin to doggy paddle by now, and half way down the final leg, with the pontoon still looking forever away, my right calf starts cramping off and on, alternating with my left one.

My personal rescue kayaker – she’s clearly decided I’m on the verge of drowning so is shadowing my every effort – is quite keen for me to grab the nose of her boat and either have a rest or get towed in. “I’m fine” I splutter. I think we both know I’m lying through my teeth but obstinate male pride makes me battle on. I don’t want to give up with the pontoon now frustratingly close, so painfully slowly and with the fastest women swimmers now finishing ahead of me, I struggle on and finally, finally reach the pontoon where I get hauled out by a friendly marshal. I’m sure I hear a sigh of relief from my guardian angel kayaker. Thank you, kayaker lady, whoever you are, for being there – I’d have been in trouble without your reassuring presence.

Not even enough energy to smile for the camera...

Not even enough energy to smile for the camera...

I stagger down the pontoon feeling completely shot and chilled to the bone. The agony of my cramped calves seems to have gone but that might just be because I’ve lost all feeling in my extremities. Amazingly, I manage a jog/limp to the shoe transition area and struggle into my running shoes - a spare pair so that my race shoes are dry for the 5k – and set off at an unsteady run for the bike transition.

A ‘proper’ triathlete will be in and out of transition in a matter of a minute or two, but I’m there drying off, trying to get my running shoes off, trying to get my cycling shoes on and generally being hopeless for over ten minutes, shivering violently. The next big worry - I’m a bit of a worrier - that had played through my mind in those earlier sleepless nights was of being unable to change gears on the bike because my fingers were too numb. But actually the bigger issue is my shivering.  For the whole of the first lap of the cycle route – up and down the A34 dual carriageway from Monkey World to Stone and back – it’s all I can do to keep a straight line and not impede the other cyclists on the route. There are cyclists everywhere – mostly overtaking me, although it’s a great feeling to catch and overtake a few myself. At this stage in the triathlon I’m in a completely random mix of Olympic distance male and female triathletes, slower Sprint males on their final lap, and the whole of the Sprint female and Sprint relay cyclists.

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The second 10km lap on the bike is better now that I’m warming up a bit, helped by the sun coming out – it’s amazing the difference in temperature between the shaded sections of road and the sunny sections. Back in transition, I dismount (with difficulty) on the dismount line, walking the bike back to the rack (running being beyond me), before taking my helmet off, swapping cycle shoes for running shoes for the final leg, and setting off for the run.

The start of the 5k run route passes near the finish zone and the (impressive) massed ranks of spectators, so I suck my stomach in and make the best pretence of running that I can for the first kilometre or so, until a slight uphill gradient (1:100) reawakens my twitchy calves – they were grumpy throughout the bike section, but are now threatening serious industrial action.  Some twinges can be ignored and run through, but this is in the “stop or I’ll go twang” category, so the rest of the run section passes in an alternating walk:shuffle eternity. Even so, I manage to catch a few other runners who have similarly ground to a walk, and even attempt to give an impression of a sprint as the finish line approaches.

I grind to a halt as soon as I’m through the finish arch and desperately want to throw up until I remember C4 are filming the event - I really don’t want to go viral on YouTube. I hold myself together, collect my finisher's medal and swear “Never, ever, again”. Ticked that box, done a triathlon, can call myself a triathlete, on to the next challenge.

Two days later I get the results and my splits. Two hours six minutes for the tri Sprint distance. Hmmm. The swim was slow, slow, slow, I think to myself– surely I could shave minutes off the time split there if I learnt how to swim properly and wore a wetsuit? And that T2 time of ten minutes – criminal. And if I hadn’t got so cold and had cramp, then there’s time to be had on the bike. And a bit more training and more of the 5k would be runnable, surely?

When’s the next one?! 

Thanks to Stoke-on-Trent European City of Sport, the Trentham Estate and Triathlon UK – it was a blast! What a great event. I would recommend it to anyone. My only advice would be to train. And wear a wetsuit. And learn to do front crawl…