It certainly wasnít an auspicious start for the new 70.3 in Staffordshire! Not altogether the best race preparation to be attending the Harriersí ball on the Friday beforehand either, but some things canít be helped.
Arriving at a soggy field at 10.30am on the Saturday, having driven through pouring rain all the way didnít put anyone in the best of spirits. The queue to get into the car parking field was slow and tedious and car parking passes were generally not where they should have been to collect. The field we parked in was an annoyingly long walk from registration, which had you snake your way through a crowded tent past all the Ironman merchandise before you even joined the queue to sign in. Queues werenít well signed and many were waiting a long time only to arrive at the front and be told that their registration documents were at the end of another queue entirely.
Tempers were fraying.
My registration docs were also misplaced, briefly worrying, but eventually found.
From there, there was little time to put all the correct gear in the transition bags, which need to be handed in the day before the race and prep the bike for racking. I was lucky to find shelter from the still pouring rain in the Faddenís beautifully appointed yurt on site and organised what I needed into the relevant piles. This proved tricky, as the weather conditions were still very uncertain, so contingency clothes/sunglasses etc all had to be considered.
Then the trip to the race start, about 10 miles away through built up areas with more long traffic queues, adding to frustration levels and more parking a decent walk away from swim start and transition. Itís still teeming down by the way.
The poor official who tried to tell us we couldnít get in the lake to do the practice swim when we arrived, admittedly towards the end of the time allocated, got very short shrift and his boss finally agreed that the safety team did have time for us to swim the 10 minute stretch they had arranged as a swim practice. I think the safety team may have been needed to rescue him if we hadnít been allowed, as he was insisting we couldnít even touch the water to check the temperature.
Mercifully the swim was uneventful and the fact that there was a changing room and warm showers at the end was a most unexpected pleasure. Lucky for us that we had trusty companions in the form of Sarah and Billy Fadden who had realised that we were not going to exit the water at the same place we entered it and brought our bikes and dry kit around the lake to us Ė others were traipsing back around the lake path, cold and wet in bare feet. Itís still pouring at this stage!
At least changed into dry clothes, we went to rack the bikes and where queues had been developing to get into transition, for us this was fairly quick and painless. Bikes smothered in large plastic bags, timing chip collected, blue bag for bike kit hung on the correct peg, we set off on the walk back to the car, now with soaking feet where the drenched grass transition area was rapidly sinking under growing puddles.
Quick stop at Tesco cafť to warm up and eat something before heading back to registration area to drop off our run bags, briefly run through the geography of the second transition area and then attend the 5pm race briefing. This was less informative than usual, but at least in the dry; it was hard not to snooze through this.
Another walk, this time a pretty track to the local pub, which was lively, but happily found room to seat and feed us. The walk back was still in the rain, but much better on a well fed stomach.
Final prep for the morning, alarms set, swim gear organised, wet-suits drying, tri kit ready. How wonderful to snuggle down in a proper (albeit bunk) bed in a snug and truly waterproof yurt with a proper floor and log burner making Ďcampingí a truly comfortable affair. Best nightís sleep Iíve had before a race for a long time!
But in the morning, despite the fact that it has finally stopped raining, all is not well. In plenty of time for our bus, we walked over the brow of the hill to see a queue of people several miles long, all waiting for the same bus, which has obviously not arrived. They are meant to be frequent and ferry us to the race start, but it is soon apparent that if we join the queue we will certainly miss transition and probably the race start. Sarah to the rescue once again, who is tactfully roused from her slumbers by Alastair to ferry us and a couple of random other competitors found heading for the bus, to swim start.
We arrive with 8 minutes of official transition open time left and hastily check tyres, gears, shoes, garmin, food, bottles, etc. The large number of plastic coated bikes still on the racks show that a significant proportion of athletes have not yet made it! Transition closing is postponed and eventually the race start is pushed back, but only by 10 minutes.
We have time to watch the pros set off on their swim and for those of us in later waves, to see them come in again and leave on their bikes. Waiting in wetsuits, the sun is even starting to break through the clouds!
And just when we thought we had another 10 minutes, they have caught up on the 10 minute start delay and we are being called to the pen. Our ladies wave included Tania Ramsay (wife of Gordon, who was also racing), but I canít say I spotted her. Pink swim hats again, such a clichť. The pontoon lets us down into the water gently and itís not warm, but to be fair itís not instantly freezing either, however as I hang about on the front line of the swim, rapidly cooling off and starting to shiver, with no-one wanting to be in front of me, I realise itís going to be a slow swim today. I never lead out the swim, but at Staffs I did. Assuming hoardes of quicker swimmers would soon overtake me and I would latch onto some helpful feet, I set off as usual. There really werenít many quicker feet, however and finding a decent draft was quite tricky. Breathing to the right on one section meant waves smashing into your face and I drank a good amount of the lake on my way round. A predictably slow time then, but 2nd in ny section out of the water Ė unheard of and she was only just ahead of me!
Running into transition, (bare feet on old cracked concrete Ė ouch!) I passed Steve Gaunt, who had started in the previous wave. On to the bike with no dramas and pleased not to have to use the emergency gilet in case of freezing conditions.
The bike course was amazingly straightforward. The first hilly, twisty, narrow, gravelly section for about 10 miles rode far better than we had thought It would, despite seeing a few crashes and tyre marks from previous hard braking on the road. The hills were not as hilly as we had thought, but Ďflat and fastí was still not an accurate description of the course. Rolling with fast sections, but impeded by a head wind for much of the way would come closer. It felt like I was cycling well, however, when you start as the last (nearly) wave, the people you are passing are the slower bikers from previous waves, so there is no-one pushing you to attack the course. It was quite a lonely bike, brightened occasionally by flashes of yellow Harrier kit to shout abuse, oops encouragement, at!
The run course was part road, part trail. Varied enough to be interesting, with a long steady climb in the first half and the descent following with big crowds of enthusiastic spectators cheering you on. I felt well supported all the way round, probably because as I came onto the course I was the first lady they had seen since the pros, who started over an hour before us. Passing the finish funnel each time is always torture, but collecting a coloured arm band at the end of each lap pure joy. I could have hugged the cheery helpers at the red (final) armband station, but obviously didnít, as I was a little preoccupied with getting to that finish line. I found my run legs somewhere towards the end of the first lap and by the end of the third they were working pretty well, so I cruised round the last section and into the final straight; the red carpet with the backdrop of Shugborough House. Some poor chap was tootling up the funnel at a relatively easy pace, but soon took me on when I went to pass him. We sprinted hell for leather up the final shute and plummeted over the line, trying desperately not to knock the cameras and officials the other side for six. ďYou really didnít need to do thatĒ, he remonstrated, exhausted and panting afterwards. Oh yes I did! Itís what itís all about, but probably proved I hadnít worked anywhere near hard enough on the run.
1st age grouper home, I had an anxious wait to see if anyone from the following wave would finish within 10 minutes of me. Lucky for me they didnít. 5th lady overall, meant as a pro I would have earned money and made the podium. Happy enough with that, but I know if I had been able to start with them it would have spurred me on to put more effort into each discipline and produced a quicker finish time. Lessons learned ready for the World Champs in Austria.
At this point I have to say a HUGE thank you to the Faddens, without whose help and support I would have had a thoroughly miserable time. Also the other Harriers and friends both racing and supporting; it makes such a difference to see familiar faces and hear encouragement shouted. The feeling of being part of a team is great and inclusive, whatever the outcome of the race, to have faced it together remains a very special experience.