This Sunday I raced my first Olympic (international) distance triathlon at Hever Castle. Hever’s triathlon is part of the Castle Triathlon Series that have been happening for few years now on the highly charismatic grounds of castles across the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. Hever’s is the UK’s second largest triathlon, and the largest for children (in fact, our two daughters also competed this weekend, and I am a very proud dad).
Unlike last year, which was a bit of a disaster because of the weather conditions and overcrowding that created a total organizational chaos. Parking, registration, setting up in transition, race briefing, racing and post-race amenities were superb this year. There is also a new layout this year for registration, transition and race control, which is much easier to navigate for both competitors and spectators.
Additionally, the Castle Triathlon Series have joined this year the British Triathlon Association, which you could actually see with BTA inspectors on transition, during the course and on the race briefing. The BTA rules are designed in theory to ensure a fairer and safer competition, and they were really highlighted by marshals and BTA inspectors on course.
Registration and Setup
I was due to start on the first non-competitive wave at 9:20am. When we booked my entry, I did not notice there were separate competitive waves from 8:00am till 9:00am, but in any case waves were sorted by expected finish gun times, so my wave was supposed to be the fastest of the non-competitive ones. After going through registration, getting the stickers, and collecting the freebies, I went to set up in transition.
At this point, I noticed that a lot of competitors had bikes several times more expensive than mine. Pretty much everybody was on aerobars, and maybe about 50% were showing fantastic aero wheelsets. I felt a bit intimidated, but also made me reflect that money cannot buy performance.
All this gear in display barely makes a 1% difference for 99% of the competitors. Which is probably good news, as it means the sport is still open to those with less financial means to buy such high-end gear.
There are two arguments for expensive: weight and aero. As we know, the gains in weight savings come first and foremost from the athlete, and the savings in aero are only really meaningful if the rider actually keeps the aero position. But as I could later find out, most athletes were overweight, and almost nobody kept steady in their aero position on the flats and the descents.
And here I was, with a heavy (10kg+) non-aero cross bike happy to take on these guys (naively perhaps).
I finished setting up at 8:30am and went for a warm-up run on the grounds of Hever Castle, which by the way I can only highly recommend. Surprisingly, most competitors did not warm up. What do I know …
At 9am I headed up to the brief area by the swim start, where the director walks through all the race details. The BTA also gets a chance to remind us that this is a non-drafting race. Which, for the record, I really wish it were true and enforced on the course. I had a to pass several times packs of 2 or 3 riders invading the opposite lane.
The swim starts at the lakeside Loggia and goes on a loop around the Sixteen-Acre island, by a beautiful Japanese Teahouse on Hever’s lake and on River Eden. It’s an extremely scenic swim, one of the best I have ever done. The water was at 17C, chilly but nice, and the lake has sufficient visibility for swimming (except in the start/finish area which is very muddy).
Because of work and travel (excuses) but mostly laziness, I had only bought my wetsuit in early September, and I had not gone for a swim on open water with it. Totally my fault. It felt tight, but with sufficient mobility, “performance fit”, or so I thought. As the race started, after swimming about 100m at my CP of roughly 1’20/100m I had to stop because my breathing was totally out of control. I was badly suffocating and unable to get enough oxygen. Panicking that I could not swim! Fortunately, I was still 30 secs or so ahead of the pack, so I did not totally panic, but I was definitely getting stressed by the second.
I decided at this point to start swimming very slowly using an easy breast stroke without immersing my head. I knew I was losing time, but not as much as I thought I would. The pack eventually caught up and slowly passed me over the next 25 mins or so. I kept on drafting about 1.2m behind swimmers, which I think helped. I bet the marshals going around in their canoes were a bit concerned I was going to possibly drown any moment.
Despite the bets against me, in totally non-orthodox style, and totally out of breath, I finished the swim with a time of 00:29:35, ending up 201 out of 777. I had lost 10 mins or so in the swim, but most importantly, I had burnt a lot of matches that I would pay for later in the run.
I came out of the water and did the transition a bit like a duck: clumsy and very slow (00:02:53, 340th out of 777). But by being slow, I was catching up with my breath. After this slow transition, I started riding easy to get my body focused.
The Hever course is really fun and quite hard for a tri, two loops of 20km around the castle, with 300m of elevation gain every lap. The course goes up and down a lot, with 8% slopes up followed by very long and tricky descents. The road surface is very worn out, patched, and with constant potholes. One has to be very careful on the descents not to puncture a tire (this is the key reason I had decided to use the cross bike).
I rode well, felt better, specially as I kept passing other riders (and nobody passed me!). Even though I still don’t feel totally comfortable cornering at 70 km/h like I did 30 years ago, especially with potholes and dark spots covered by trees, I pushed the descent more than in my training rides. This makes the course somewhat tricky, and the final time is not just about power or weight. As I was catching up with my oxygen deficiency from the swim, and also being extra careful, I ended up doing the cycling with an average HR of 152, significantly below my 168bpm lactose threshold. I had previously done this course spending 70% of my W’, whereas during the race I only spent 50% of W’, at identical aerobic decoupling (4%). I was just unable to burn more energy.
But I really enjoyed the riding, which was really, really, good fun. I ended up 17th overall on the bike (including elites, 5th otherwise).
And then came the run, and another failure. I didn’t know what was happening here. I kept going between 4:30 and 5:30 min/km. My HR was 155 bpm, and despite what I tried, I just could not bring it up. My stride was not working, it as not powerful, my arms were not pushing me forward, my hips and shoulders were out of sync, and my cadence was 174 spm rather than my usual 190 spm. I just could not manage to run faster. My cardio system was shutting down and it was totally killing my running.
The run is extremely scenic, going out of Hever, into the woodland, farming fields, through Chiddingstone Castle’s grounds, onto Hever Castle’s east grounds, by the lake and river Eden, ending up around the Hever Castle itself. Unlike previous years which did two laps, this year the run was 10.5km on a single loop.
I ended up posting a time of 00:51:37, which is ~10 minutes more than I expected.
Tech and Gear
As a side note on the report, I really missed a couple of things during the event:
- If I have had HR data in the swim, specially when I was suffering, I would have been able to re-pace myself better. The Ambit2 does not track HR during swim, even though the TICKR will record it fine.
- The Ambit2 sucks when it comes to open water swimming (and indoor …).
- Not having a dedicated cycling computer, just the watch, made it harder to manage my power and the effort I was putting. My RFLKT+ in this context is useless as I had no phone with me.
- My TT bike would help in this course, with fat tires.
With an overall time of 2:37:42 for my first Olympic triathlon, I ended up 60th out of 777 competitors that actually finished. So I guess I should be happy.
But there is clearly much to improve.
First and foremost, despite reading many, many, times that I should not try new things during the race, I did exactly that anyway, being overly confident and, well … cocky, about my swimming capabilities. And I dearly paid for it.
This year I neglected my swimming training, and decided to do 3 weeks of open water swimming during our family trip to Spain over the summer. The training in the sea was very, very, good, but it does not replace a well structured plan of swimming in both pool and cold English lakes (with a wetsuit) throughout the year. I also need to decide whether I can stretch this “performance fit” Tyr wetsuit or to simply sell it on eBay and call it day.
In regards the bike, I need to work on the descents, and becoming aero. Perhaps I’ll get the courage to get my Speedmax TT bike out on this course, as the ascents are very short whilst the descents are really long and one would heavily benefit from being more tucked-in and push constant watts on the flats. Maybe with 25mm tires I’ll feel more comfortable.
Finally, for the run, I need to train more frequent. Although the mileage this year is as planned, frequency has not been. I have stacked long steady runs outdoors, which I really enjoy, and neglected shorter speed interval work on track or treadmill. This has to change for next season.
Overall, I think I can do much better. My target now is to finish under 02:20:00, by carving 10 mins on the swim, 5 mins on the bike, and 10 mins on the run. But I have to work smartly on the weaknesses.
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