Yorkshire’s first iron distance triathlon! How could I not be involved in that? I’d said at the end of 2018 that, having spent a lot of money on events, I wasn’t going to enter anything this year. Let’s face it, we all knew that resolve wouldn’t last. And it didn’t survive the announcement of this race at Newby Hall near Ripon.
I had done my first Middle Distance Triathlon at the same venue a few years ago, and had fond memories of the river swim, but painful memories of a cramp-ridden run around the grounds. That triathlon – the Rubicon – is now long dead, but Freebird Events have created a great new brand here in its place. The Yorkshireman offers a half and full iron distance race, and this first running seemed to go off very well. I hope it will become a regular fixture on the Yorkshire Triathlon Calendar.
My training programme had been a little erratic leading up to the race. There had been a couple of monster sessions, most notably Enduroman Weekend in May and a week of cycling in Tenerife in April. But I felt the consistency of my training had suffered a little in recent weeks. Consequently, I was confident that I would get around the course, but had low expectations in terms of finishing time, aiming for something in between 13:30 and 14 hours.
Instead, I set myself some smaller goals for the race: firstly, I wanted to capitalise on a strong winter of swimming, and have a real go at the swim, aiming for 1:16 (2 minutes per 100m). Secondly, I wanted to have a consistent run, replicating the success of the Enduroman run, adopting a run-walk strategy from the start and sticking to it through the race.
It was an early 6am race start, so all registration and racking was done on the Saturday afternoon. I had driven up with Elle Jones, who was competing in her first ever half distance race. She was a bag of nerves, which I found strangely relaxing. As the experienced one, I was trying to reassure and calm her, which had the effect of keeping me chilled out. We sorted out our transition bags and watched the briefing video before leaving our bikes and heading home.
By the time the race started, I was feeling great. A 4am wake up call, and a forty five minute drive up to Ripon, and I was ready to race with just under an hour to spare. I had a few friends among the 79 starters, as well as a reassuringly noisy bunch of Wakefield friends among the marshal team. There were a lot of nervous faces by the river, but I was annoyingly chipper, telling anyone who would listen how excited I was.
With such a small field, I took the risk of positioning myself near the front of the swim pack, getting in a couple of minutes before the start. The water was a good temperature (I never heard an official reading) and I wasn’t cold even as I hung around waiting for the hooter.
The swim is simple: the obvious advantage of a river swim is that it’s bloody difficult to go the wrong way. In very simple terms, we would swim upstream until we reached a large yellow buoy, then turn around and swim back. After less than two minutes, I found myself in space and swimming smoothly. The small field helped, and I really focused on completing my stroke. I wanted to do well in the swim, but not at the expense of the rest of the race. That meant using my upper body strength to give each stroke some oomph, rather than tiring myself out by whirling my arms too quickly. Stroke quality, not quantity.
I got to the turnaround point and glanced at my watch. Disappointing. The time was a good two minutes down on what I’d been expecting. I wondered what might have gone wrong as I rounded the buoy, and then it became obvious. As I turned into the flow of the river, I immediately felt faster. I hadn’t noticed the current against me in the first half – it was hardly white water rapids – but the contrast as I turned reassured me that this second half would be faster. It was like riding a bike into a low wind, then feeling the difference as you turn around.
On the way back, I managed to get some respite on the toes of another swimmer, but then paid the price by trusting their navigation and following them straight into the overhanging branches of a bankside tree. After that mishap I tried to stay in the middle of the river. I told myself (without any knowledge or evidence) that’s where the current would be strongest.
I approached the swim exit with my eye on my friend Tracy Jones who was one of the marshals pulling swimmers out of the water. A friendly face would be welcome, and if I really got lucky, she might fall in and give me a big laugh. No such luck, but my official swim time was 1:16:15. That includes the time it took to clamber out of the water and fail to shove Tracy in, so I am taking that as achieving my 1:16 goal.
Turns out I was 16th out of the water. I know it’s a small field, but I am really pleased with that. It’s the first time that my swim has been the best of the three disciplines in a triathlon. A tangible reward for the training over the winter. I mentioned earlier that consistency is key in training, and my swim training through the last nine months has been very consistent. Big thanks to Mark Mills, who has been helping me improve. It’s enormously satisfying when results reward hard work.
I took my time in transition, boosted by the unexpected presence of lots of friends lining the run to the changing tent. The half distance race was due to start in half an hour so there were now a lot more people around the site than there had been when we started swimming. By the time I collected my bike and trotted out to the mount line, I had eaten a Nakd bar, had a big drink of electrolyte, and was feeling great.
The bike course consisted of a 15km ride out of Ripon to Kirklington, then three laps of a 45km loop, before returning to Newby Hall via a longer route to make up the distance. In the first twenty minutes, I was overtaken by a few riders, but wasn’t too bothered. (That’s just the sort of thing you have to put up with when you’re such a fast swimmer – ha!) I was trying to stay on top of nutrition, but in hindsight I was too reliant on gels and bars. I was craving some real food within a few hours.
The course is undulating but there aren’t any particularly monstrous hills. I probably went a little too fast at the start despite trying to rein myself in, and started to feel tired during the second loop. By this time, all the half competitors had finished their swim and were whizzing around their one and only lap of the course, so the road was a bit busier. However, as I turned onto the loop for a third circuit, and everyone else around me seemed to go straight on to complete their bike leg, it immediately got very lonely.
At this point, things got very dark very quickly. I felt completely isolated, with nobody else in sight. My legs felt heavy, although I had been fuelling well. I was just tired. To make matters worse my left ankle was starting to hurt. This is a recurring problem that has afflicted me when running, and I was anticipating problems later on, but soreness on the bike has never happened before.
All of this conspired to get into my head. I was wasting my time. There was no way I would be completing the race. If my ankle hurts now, I have no chance on the run. More dark thoughts crept in, unconnected to the race. Demons swarm as a pack, and they came rushing in. I was thoroughly miserable.
It took a conscious effort to drive this out of my head. You can’t just stop thinking negative thoughts. You can’t just wish them away. You have to replace them with something else – something positive. I reasoned that I could still walk around the run and beat the cut off. I considered what a bionic runner I would be if I have an operation on my ankle. I thought about what swim events I might be able to do in the meantime. I thought about other random happy things in my life. The future I could create. It takes an effort of will to pull your mind out of the hole, just as much as it takes an effort to drag your body up that hill, but it’s a skill that can be practised and improved. For long distance races, it’s as important as any of the physical training.
Let’s not get carried away though… I still felt like dog shit on the last 20km of the bike.
The last stretch of the route brought us back from the loop alongside the A1. It was long and straight and the road surface was rough, and I was more than ready for it to be over. I was delighted to enter the Newby Hall grounds and didn’t even mind when I got held up behind a couple of cars, taking the opportunity to freewheel for a minute, stand up and get some blood flowing into my legs. My bike split was 6:37, which was about on track with what I expected. In hindsight though, I’d have rather completed the first half ten minutes slower and made that time back in the second rather than the attritional decline that I endured.
In transition I took my time putting on my socks and making sure my feet were comfortable. I also took a couple of Ibuprofen to try to assuage the nagging discomfort in my ankle, and nipped to the Trainspotting portaloo before having a chat with the Wakefield friends who were manning the first feed station.
This set the tone for the run, as I intended to stop and walk through each feed station, even though there were six on each lap – an average of one every mile. The run consisted of four laps of 10.5km, mainly comprising a loop out of the estate, and around the public roads to Skelton. Then there was an additional out and back section to make up the distance before we returned to Newby Hall.
It was a reasonably flat route, but there were three short climbs on the back road that I also resolved to walk right from the start. My objective was to run at a sustainable pace in between the walking and get into a rhythm that I could keep going indefinitely.
As I got moving, I felt physically okay. But mentally, I felt amazing. I think I had worked myself up to the fact I might not even be able to run, so the mere fact I was moving freely and comfortably meant I felt like a champion. I was running at a pace between 6:00 and 6:20 per km, and walking where I had planned to walk, right from the start.
The out and back section was great as it meant you could see how other competitors were doing, and say hello to friends. I saw Pete Maurice every lap – he’d gone past me on the bike, but it was reassuring that he was still on the same run lap as me and wasn’t miles in front. I saw Ede Bone, who was completing his second iron distance race in a week after last weekend’s Lakesman. He looked comfortable, just tapping out a rhythm, and keeping his powder dry. Glenn Armstrong, a lap ahead of me and on his way to a top ten finish, was a friendly and reassuring presence.
Then I saw Elle, clearly very emotional on the last lap of her half race. I was probably about 90 seconds behind her at the turnaround point, so I focused on catching her up for a chat before she finished. It was a lovely coincidence, and we ran in her last 500m together. As she went off down the finishers’ funnel to the line, I paused and clapped her over the line before going off to start another lap.
After two laps, my ankle was absolutely fine, but my guts were starting to feel a little uncomfortable – a regular diet of flat coke and jelly beans at each feed station hyping me up till I reached the next one. I’d also started eating crisps to get some more salt into me. Another loo stop seemed to resolve the problem and, on the third lap, I started to feel really good. The run sections were still below that 6:20 pace, and I now knew the course well enough that I could mentally time my efforts to the next feed station. Breaking the lap into these smaller segments made it much more manageable.
I was also overtaking people. Psychologically this was really powerful. Vindication for my strategy of starting the run slowly at a sustainable pace. People I had got to know on earlier laps as they’d gone past, and whom I’d seen now several times along the out and back, were appearing in front of me, and then just being gobbled up. Even though my body was tiring, I felt stronger and stronger.
Looking at my watch, I realised that I could be on for a sub 13 hour finish time. Honestly I hadn’t been focused on the time until this point, but I realised I was ahead of schedule on the run, and suddenly it became inexplicably important to me that I beat the 13 hour barrier. For the last lap, I didn’t change the plan, still walking the same stretches, but tried to just up my pace ever so slightly on the run sections, dipping under 6 minutes per km. There is no way I’d have been able to do that if I’d run the first lap without rests. This is the experience of long distance racing shining through, and I had a huge smile on my face as my body responded and did what I wanted it to do.
In the end my split times for the four laps (and this excludes all the messing around and toilet stopping in between laps) were: 1.09, 1.11, 1.07, 1.04. In contrast to my mistake on the bike, I had nailed the run, getting stronger as the race progressed.
The last kilometre was an absolute joy. I felt like I was bouncing along, greeting spectators by the roadside, I knew I was well under thirteen hours. I was looking forward to seeing my friends at the finish line, and couldn’t wait to get there.
I crossed the line with a marathon time of 4:43 and an overall finish time of 12:50. That’s only fifteen minutes off my best time, and so much better than I expected. It also illustrates how powerful the mind can be. There were times during the bike that I honestly believed this was going to be a complete disaster, but the result was really positive. The mental work in long distance racing is just as important as the physical.
For a first go, this race appeared to be a huge success. The course was interesting but not too challenging as to be off putting. The logistics were good, with my only complaint that we could have maybe done with a couple more toilets on the course. Although 79 starters in the full sounds like a small number, I think the event would have been made financially viable by the inclusion of the half distance event alongside. Also, the race was announced late in the year in 2018, meaning that many potential participants would have already entered Outlaw or Ironman events by then. If Freebird can establish this event alongside those other races, then this race could grow into something special for the area and attract more triathletes from around the country.
Entries already open for 2020: