This event took place in Roundhay Park in Leeds in early September. It was my first event with an open water swim section and the aim of this post is to give you an insight into my build up to it and my thoughts prior to and during the event.
Having completed the Wilmslow Triathlon in May I was looking for another event this year to push myself that little bit further. After a bit of deliberation I decided that it had to be an open water swim event so I went for the Leeds Triathlon. I enjoy triathlons but the swimming is my weakest section, never mind not being able to touch the bottom, so this was really going to put me out of my comfort zone. I looked around for open water swimming near where I live and settled on the watersports centre at Salford Quays as the session timings were best suited to me. I also knew that I would be safe there, not that I wouldn’t anywhere else, and it was relatively accessible. I was nervous, to say the least, at my first session but the other guys in the changing room were happy to share their tips to try to put me at ease which unfortunately didn’t work. The wetsuit was tight to say the least but I knew it would do its’ job. As I entered the water it struck me how much warmer it seemed than a normal pool even though it was about 10 degrees colder (water temperature that day was 18 degrees, not bad for early July) and I launched myself into the water. I did a couple of lengths between the two pontoons to get a feel for it and thought that it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, even though I couldn’t touch the bottom. Given my new found confidence off I went. I swam 2 full circuits and 2 half circuits, a total of 1600m, in approximately 1 hour non stop. To say I was buzzing when I got out would be an understatement. That session completely allayed my fears and whilst not hooked I was a lot more confident.
At that time I was also involved in the May wave of the Six Pack Revolution and had been advised by their head coach to ease back on my cardio training and concentrate on weights and HIIT to ensure that my results would be good at the end of that wave. I had no issue with this as I knew my cycling and running would be fine and now I had tried some open water swimming I was a lot happier about it. In the meantime I picked up a short wetsuit at a very reasonable price ready for my next session as I thought this would suffice for what I was doing.
The May wave of the Six Pack Revolution finished and then it was time to get back to full training. My results had been good and my energy levels were through the roof so I knew it was going to be fine. I went for a second session with my son, who is a great swimmer. He too was a little nervous but had a full length wetsuit on and once he got in, like me, he was comfortable with it. I had my short one on. This second session was not a great experience. My son was swimming with me at one point and then swam off as I was too slow for him. However, he did not tell me and I panicked as he was not with me. Once I got to the final buoy I could see him sat on the pontoon and swam over to him and got out to sit next to him. That was a bad move. I got very cold very quickly and could not stop shivering so we decided to get out and get warm. That was easier said than done…
That session then set the demons off in my head. All the “What if” and “Just supposing” started going through my head and I knew I had to get rid of them. My son was over the following week so we went again. He had been warned to stay with me or at least tell me if he swam off so that I would not worry about where he was (he was aware of the safety procedures by the way). We swam together most of the time and when it was time to get out I was cold but not as cold as I was the previous week. Going back to the changing rooms though I noticed that my lower arms and lower legs and extremities were very cold and it was then that it dawned on me that the wetsuit was not the right one. Back to the drawing board I went and realised that I would have to get a full wetsuit (or at least hire one for the event) to ensure that I stayed warm both during and after the swim section. I had a final swim session the week before the event to ensure that I got the right wetsuit and that I was happy about my ability to complete the swim section, failure is not an option for me usually. That session went well and I left the watersports centre a lot happier about it than after previous sessions.
My bike training was also not going to plan. I had had a few mechanical problems over the space of a few weeks which resulted in my crankarm coming loose on the final long training run and leaving me approximately 15 miles from home with no tools and stuck in the hills behind New Mills. Fortunately I managed to limp to a local garage who lent me a socket to enable me to get home without losing my crankarm permanently. The upshoot of that was that the bike was booked in for a service and had some major work done on it the week before the event… I don’t do things by half do I? That also got a road test just after the service to make sure it was going to be ok for the event, after all it is over 30 years old but runs like a brand new one (most of the time anyway).
The only bit that seemed to be going ok was the running. I was out as usual with the group every Monday doing some quite challenging runs and the six pack training had help me keep my legs in good shape so I was happy with how it was progressing.
Usually I am what I call “Race ready” about 10 days before the event. My mind is in the right place and I know that I have all the bits in place to make it happen. This was not the case this time. all the upset with the swimming and the problems with the bike had really messed with my head and I was not confident about my ability to start the event, never mind finish it. However, I persisted and carried on with my preparations. The day before the event I did the Pontefract Parkrun with my children and left my trainers at their mums house. I didn’t realise that until I was sorting my kit out ready for the event and they weren’t there. The chaos that ensued was unreal. I like to relax the evening before an event, sort my kit out and get a good nights sleep, not that night…. I went back and picked them up and finally got my kit sorted out. I still did not really feel race ready but had my power porridge and went to bed. This was really messing now with my head. The demons we all have were working overtime. What if the bike gives out? What if I get cold and can’t move? What if…. and so it went on.
Before I knew it, it was 5.15 on the morning of the event. Time to get up and moving to be there in time to be set up before the transition area closed and the racers were briefed. One last check of all the kit and provisions and my partner and I set off for Leeds. I had stayed at her house the night before as it was a lot closer than mine, that was the one good thing as she had managed to relax me a bit before bed and put some of my fears down. The weather was great as we drove to Leeds, a beautiful sunrise and I felt that it was going to be a good day. I was still nervous but had to just get on with it now.
Bike racked, kit sorted and it was time for the race briefing. We all had to be in our wetsuits ready to go and getting into that was a work of art. My partner had to “zip me up”, usually something that I do for her, and that all felt a bit strange but I was comfortable in the wetsuit and all was feeling good. The race briefing covered all the usual bits and whilst still nervous I was feeling a bit more confident. I had over an hour to wait after the briefing for the start of my wave so we went down to the lake to watch some of the other waves start. I bumped into a young lad with his family who I had helped to find the registration point the previous day. It was good to see him and I could tell that he was nervous like me. We wished each other luck and watched nervously as the other waves started. That gave me a feel for how the event would run. It was well organised for the swim. We were counted in and counted out of the water to make sure we didn’t lose anyone. A good friend of mine also came to support me. He came down to the start about 20 minutes before I was due to start. It was good to see him and that helped to relax me too. As I went down to the swim start my mind was racing again. This time though I felt that all would be good. All I had to do was complete the swim section and I was away. The bike and run were no problem but the challenge was the swim…..
During the briefing we had been warned that there was a lot of weed in the lake, they weren’t kidding. As I got in I got some tangled round my legs and couldn’t shake it off. The water temperature was good, 18 degrees, and decidedly warmer than the ambient so it was actually nice to get in at long last. We all moved to the start, the horn blew and we were off. It was my first experience of a mass start and it was all a bit of a “scrum” (if you can have such a thing in water) with everybody trying to get away as quickly as possible. I still had the weed tangled round my legs and was struggling to get it off. There was a guy in front of me who got into difficulty and I had to avoid the kayak that came to help him and all this was still only 50m from the start! Kayak avoided I started to swim properly. The start had unnerved me a bit but I was now getting into my rythmn and by the 150m mark I was going well. The weed was gone from round my legs and I was swimming on my own. I was near the back of the field but hey, I was still floating and feeling warm. I started to increase the power of my stroke and headed for the next marker which was the half way point. It was at that point I thought, “You know what? This is sorted now”. I was near the back of the wave but I wasn’t bothered as I was swimming the best I possibly could and doing ok. All I had to do next was get out of the water onto a wet pontoon.
I turned into the final stretch before the pontoon and could see it. From experience I knew there was nothing underneath it so it was a case of roll onto it and pull myself out that way. And that is precisely what I did! Before I knew it I was out and up and jogging to the transition area having been warned by the marshall to watch the decking as it was VERY slippy, you don’t say. As I jogged up the path I was trying to unzip my wetsuit. I’d practiced the manouver during my training so I knew it could be done but this time the zip was stuck. I kept pulling and it wouldn’t move, I was cursing as I came to the top of the walkway and headed out onto the path. My partner and friend looked on helpless as I struggled with it. In the end about half way to the transition area I had to stop and have another go. This time it came down with no bother! YES!!! I was off into transition to get sorted for the bike ride.
The transition went smoothly and I was off on the bike section and feeling great. The hardest part, in my view, had been overcome and I was now in the strongest section for me. The sense of relief to be on 2 wheels was incredible and the demons were quiet even though the bike was relatively untested after the problems in training. The ride was quite undulating, nothing too major in my view. I pulled up alongside a lady from London at some traffic lights and she was complaining bitterly that it was very hilly, I just smiled, said I was a local and this was normal for the area. The look she shot me was not a good one……
Before I knew it I was coming down the main road to the park, which was familiar, and was back in transition getting sorted for the run. My legs weren’t heavy at all. My quads had felt it at the start of the bike section but had recovered nicely so I was feeling good and there was nothing to worry about. Transition 2 was smoother than Transition 1. Bike racked, helmet off and a quick change of shoes and I was away on the run. This is also quite strong for me now, it never used to be but I have got better over time. I had walked the run course earlier on and the only real problem was a quite steep hill just after the start of the lap. I do quite a bit of hill training so I knew what to do. As I had got into a nice rhythm it was quite easy the first time round. Back straight, keep breathing as normal, keep the stride rate the same but take shorter ones and dig in to “Just do it”. Once at the top the course levelled off and went round the park perimeter before dropping down the hill again to start the second lap. This time it was a bit tougher as I was feeling it by now. I did the same as before though and dug in to get to the top. Once at the top I saw that I had caught up people who were in my wave and I was actually passing them. As I did I encouraged them to keep going and they did just that.
As I dropped down for the second time I had to peel off for the finish which was a straight run down a slight incline. I could see a couple about 20 yards in front of me who were running together and I thought that I could catch them. So, I lengthened my stride and turned up the power. Before I knew it I had passed them well before the finish and I was in. The announcer said that my time was just over 2 hours. I was extremely happy with that as my target had been 2 hours. I was greeted by my partner and my friend who both hugged me and congratulated me on finishing the event. I went to the official timing tent and got my printout. I could not believe it, 2 hours and 7 seconds!! I was made up with that for my first open water event and punched the air. If only though I could have found an extra 8 seconds it would have been just under 2 hours. When I looked at the timing breakdowns, the swim was just over 23 minutes. I was completely blown away with that as I thought it had been a real struggle and a poor time, just goes to show……
The event had gone well, a lot better than I had expected given all the problems so close to the event. In the run up to it I had my doubts as to whether I would even start it, never mind finish it. The major learning points for me were to trust in my ability to do what was needed, to ensure that I keep my kit up to scratch all the time and ensure it is properly maintained. Above all to try the kit out before the event to make sure it all does what it is supposed to. There would have been no margin for error if I had got out of the swim section and not been able to feel my hands and feet and I probably wouldn’t have finished the event.
I enjoy triathlons. To me they are the ultimate test as they are a combination event. I salute marathon and ultra marathon runners, and I know a couple of them, but you would not catch me doing things like that. My next step? Rest up through the winter, get some miles in the legs both running and cycling and plan next year out. I am aiming for a half Iron Man at least, but I’ll have to find the right event, with a couple of Olympic distance events before it. I will be back open water swimming once the season starts again as I really did enjoy it in a bizzare sort of way, in the meantime I’ll just have to make do with my local swimming pool.