How do you feel about a DNF? Well that is very much up to you. When you Did Not Finish, do you see that as an abject failure, or do you take the more pragmatic view that it’s a sensible precaution against further injury?
The last time I recorded a DNF was the Derby Duathlon in October 2006. (Yes, I have a spreadsheet!) I remember that I was desperately underprepared for that race, knackered after the first run, and almost threw up on the bike leg. I sat down in T2, and didn’t even put my running shoes back on.
This weekend, though, was something completely different. A planned and perfectly executed DNF. We booked Slateman months ago: Zoe and I both completed it last year, and I am completely in love with the place. As my hip injury refuses to go away, I’m still unable to run, and so I have gradually accepted over the last couple of weeks that I would be unable to complete the race this year.
However, I didn’t want to just throw up my hands and go off in a sulk. Apart from the race, we’d also booked accommodation for the weekend, and I didn’t want to completely miss out on the experience. I therefore decided to go along to this beautiful part of the country, have a fresh morning swim in a gorgeous lake, and then cycle around Snowdonia for a couple of hours. Pulling out at T2 doesn’t sound like much of a failure when you’ve had a morning like that.
Having made the decision, I felt liberated of all pressure to perform at any level, and would be free to enjoy myself. And enjoy myself I did.
The 1000m swim takes place in the famously cold Llyn Padarn in Llanberis. The Slateman swim – early in the season – has a reputation for being freezing, but honestly it wasn’t so bad. Certainly fresh, but at 12° it was perfectly manageable. I got into the water as early as they would allow us, about four minutes before my wave was due to start. The breathtaking shock quickly settled into slowly numbing feet, and I blew some bubbles, stabilising my breathing. By the time we were called to the start line, I was shrieking to the bloke next to me: “IT’S NOT SO BAD!” Really more for my benefit than furthering conversation, he nodded doubtfully, and we settled our goggles onto our faces.
I quickly got into a rhythm, and immediately had space. A wide start line and manageable wave sizes meant that it never felt too crowded. Usually I spend the first few minutes just in survival mode, but I was swimming well, and managed to start thinking about technique pretty early. The biggest problem was that the gloomy morning was shedding no light on the distant red buoys. The only thing I could see ahead of me were random splashes, so I just pressed on with faith in my heart and a creeping numbness in my hands.
Eventually – when I was virtually on top of it – I spotted the buoy, and navigated around it without incident. The pattern repeated as I blindly clawed my way to the second turnaround point, and then back to the shore, just vaguely heading in the direction of a bunch of marquees that housed burger stalls and first aid points. The exit’s got to be over there somewhere, right?
As it turned out, the problem with the swim exit was not locating it, but reaching it. As I approached the water’s edge, my hand started catching on the ground so I stood up, only to discover I was still a good thirty metres from the ramp. Not only that, but the bottom consisted of shifting mud. Rather than marching purposefully to T1, I and the other swimmers around me were stumbling and sliding around, trying to get some purchase on the deep slimy mud beneath the shallow water.
I’ll be honest: there wasn’t a lot of dignity in it. I tried to move forwards, with the mud sucking me back. At one point I stumbled face first back into the water, and then threw in a couple of swim strokes to style it out. Totally meant to do that.
I eventually made it to the shore and started jogging up the grass hill to transition. I probably shouldn’t be running at all, but I figured a light 200m jog wouldn’t hurt. Let’s call it rehab. I wrestled off my wetsuit, failing to get it over my timing chip and having to fiddle around for ages at my left ankle. If I had a pound for every time I had screwed up that particular manoeuvre, I’d have… well probably three or four quid, but you take my point.
Onto the bike and another schoolboy error as I mounted to discover my chain had come off at some point during transit. Bloody hell Gareth, you’re supposed to look for these things in your final checks! Maybe my “don’t worry about the race and just have fun” attitude had infected my brain a little too deeply. Anyway, a calm fumble of the chain gave me dirty hands to start the bike leg, and I set off towards Pen-y-Pass.
The first 8km of the ride is dominated by that pass, as you ride up the ever steepening valley road. Even with several waves, the bike traffic is so slow on this section that you can see hundreds of cyclists dotted along the hill before you. Having climbed this before I knew to pace myself, and was not concerned when a few “all the gear” riders passed me on the lower slopes. In fact I was overtaking a lot more riders than were going past me. Although that’s all pretty meaningless when you don’t really know when anyone started, it’s good for the ego if the count is that way around.
Reminding myself of the advice I constantly give out to “Enjoy the Journey” I made sure I looked up and took in the incredible views of the valley: sheep dancing across craggy outcrops, with glowering clouds rolling over the peaks. The final kilometre is the toughest as the road steepens, and the visible pub that marks the top is a great target. I had been in my bottom gear for some time by now, and I alternated standing for ten or fifteen seconds with longer periods of seated grinding. Gratifyingly, I caught up some of those keen lads who’d passed me earlier, and we peaked with a sense of relief.
The next section is a great fast downhill section. Like the climb, the steeper parts are near the top, and there are just a couple of hairy corners to negotiate, before you can really open the taps and drive forward. With no run to save my legs for, I pedalled as hard as I could and averaged 50kph for the next 5km.
Next is a steady climb up through the striking Ogwen Valley, and there were a few impatient drivers keeping things interesting for us. I do have a bit of sympathy for drivers inadvertently stuck in the middle of a triathlon, but remember the golden rule: don’t be a dick. I got a little cut up by a minibus and trailer at one point, but I backed off and decided to have a bit of a recovery spin rather than get angry. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Don’t be a dick.
The second half of the bike loop is not as spectacular as the first, although the terrain is flatter so should be easier. However, a headwind and a poor road surface made for a gruelling return to Llanberis. By now I was pushing hard and feeling very grateful that my race would be over at T2 as my legs were screaming at me. I was still overtaking riders, but now feeling a bit of a fraud as they were clearly preserving a little leg strength for what was to come. I averaged 29.6kph for the ride, which is better than I’d have predicted considering the profile.
I have to say that finishing a race at the dismount line is a little disconcerting. Usually I am thinking about what I need to do in transition whilst trying to focus on a quick dismount that doesn’t end up with my face on the floor. Today, I pulled to the outside of the lane so as to get out of the way of other riders, came to a leisurely stop and eased my leg over the top tube with all the urgency of a pensioner getting out of the bath. Still being careful not to get in anyone’s way, I walked down to transition before finding a marshal and handing over my timing chip. The upside of this premature finish was that I could avoid the crowd and get my bike and wetsuit out of transition and to the car park well before it became trendy. Having said that, there were already people finishing their run as I faffed about, but the vast majority of competitors were still out on the course scaling that slate quarry that I had fought with last year.
As I changed in the car park, I took off my cycling shoes and was alarmed to see a big puddle of blood. On closer inspection, I had a slicing cut across the soft sole of my left foot. At this point my feet were completely numb, and had been since I stepped into Llyn Padarn. “That’s probably going to smart later,” I thought, and dug out the first aid kit, cleaning it up and patching it over with five tiny elastoplasts. Might need to restock that kit.
Sure enough over the next couple of hours, as the feeling returned to my foot, it was a little uncomfortable, but not so bad, and it’ll heal quickly enough. I have to conclude that I sustained this cut whilst scrabbling out of the lake. I must have scratched it against something within that mud soup. More importantly though, I had no ill effects from my dicky hip, and so my recovery continues uninterrupted. Mission accomplished.
There have been times when this hip injury has got me down over the last few months, but I am grateful that I have been able to continue swim and bike training, and I remain forever thankful that triathlon gives me the opportunity for experiences like this weekend. I’ve never been a “glass is half full” type of bloke before, but maybe Snowdonia brings out the optimist in me.