Swashbuckler 2012 - from Laura
Deep in the New Forest, near the village of Beaulieu, lies the sleepy harbour community of Bucklers Hard. Every year a fresh wave of underprepared athletes emerges from its winter cocoon to test its newly-minted strength in the half Iron-distance triathlon.
I lie on the grass with Angela and Kenny, midday sun warming my bare arms, happy as can be. What could be nicer than basking in the sunshine with friends, soaking up the pre-race day atmosphere? We all entered the Swashbuckler back at Christmas. The objective: to scare ourselves into training properly for our Ironman in the summer. As predicted, I spent most of the winter eating chips, so the preceding month has passed in a frenzy of belated training. But now, for the next day at least, training is behind us; glory (or varying degrees of mediocrity) ahead.
A hundred athletes are sprawled around us, sporting newly purchased Tri kit from the race expo retail frenzy, and wearing big smiles. After a month of non-stop rain, this is the first clear, hot day in weeks and the forecast for tomorrow’s race is good.
A lean, silver-haired race organiser strolls to the stand at the front of the group and taps his microphone.
‘Great to see you all here!’ He begins. We grin back. “So, you’ll be delighted to know that the race officials have confirmed the water is a balmy 11 degrees and it’s legally safe to swim. For a bit anyway, before the old body goes into shut-down.” I rub my arms, my piece of grass a little chillier. “We were saying to ourselves, ‘at least it’s too cold for jelly fish this year!’ But, guess what? Yesterday I saw one!” Murmuring, from behind me. “Oh no, don’t worry, they’re pretty much harmless. They won’t hurt you unless you swallow one and choke to death on it! No, no, they’re pretty benign really, just a bit disconcerting if you get one between your fingers, handful of jellyfish and all, but just push it away, push it away. Or, you know what? Save it for the bike. Protein.” He gazes into the distance for a moment, remembering. ‘Ha ha! Actually, last year we had a guy, he’d broken his shoulder, couldn’t turn his head and had to swim with a snorkel. We were worried it would get jammed with jellyfish! But you’ve got to hand it to him; just worked it into his technique, blew them back out again.”
Ha ha! ha ha ha! Ah yes, there it is: the fear.
Next morning, a bleary round of texting ensures we are all awake at the really lovely time of 3am. Our level of self-denial having ensured that none of us actually booked accommodation in the New Forest, an exciting night-drive ensues. It is a weird amalgam of exhaustion and adrenalin. I see a barn owl sitting in the road. It stares after us. Woo hoo.
Getting out of the car on arrival, the chill morning air slaps us awake. Kenny and I stumble to transition. I set out all my gear for the bike and run segments and go over in my head the order in which I will put everything on. My transition times are too slow and I need to get faster. I memorise my bike’s location amongst the sea of other mounts: third tree up on the left. I am wriggling into my wetsuit when a hand taps me on the shoulder. A grinning, wet-suited Angela stands before me. This is her first triathlon. “I’m so excited!” she bursts out, and then adds cheerfully “I can’t feel my feet!” I look down at her toes, buried in the frozen 5am grass then shuffle up so the three of us can all stand on my wetsuit bag. We share a rubbery hug then walk gingerly down the gravel path towards the river. I wince for Super-Ken. Three-time Ironman, fast and powerful; pebbles are his Kryptonite.
Down by the waters edge the first wave of swimmers sets off as the rest of us huddle together for warmth. I imagine the freezing water seeping into their wetsuits and I shiver. The sight of so many of us in our black neoprene reminds me of the penguins in that Morgan Freeman film, braced against the elements, waiting for their partners to come back to regurgitate fish. The first age-grouper back from the swim brings, not liquidised fish, but good news. He runs by, red-faced and dripping and puffs “don’t worry guys, it’s warmer in there than out here.” Everyone laughs, and gives him a little cheer, and then the race organiser is chivvying Kenny and Angela’s wave into the river. Angela’s enthusiasm carries her into the water first and Kenny and I have time for a quick goodbye. He adjusts my swimming cap and tells me “stay safe. No dangerous riding on the downhills”. Kenny knows me well. I like to make up for lack of fitness on the uphills with recklessly rapid descents into oncoming traffic. I tell him I’ll see him at Kona. This is our in-joke - we are so ridiculously far from that level - and also our inspiration – “but what if, one day….!”
Now I am alone, the race really begins for me. The organiser counts my wave of swimmers into the river and I am shuffled down the slope by the crowd, towards the water’s edge. This is a tidal swim, into the sunrise, shortened to just 900 metres to meet the BTF rules for maximum safe time at this temperature. I am braced for the shock of cold and am delighted to feel warmth flow over my freezing feet. It really is colder out that in! I keep moving deeper into the river and put my face in straight away, to acclimatise. My breath comes too quickly at first, but by the time I swim out to mid-river it has slowed. We bob for nervous seconds, then the claxon blares and we are off.
I love this part! Head underwater, bubbles tickle my face as swimmers churn the water around me. Head to the side to breathe and I see flailing hands, arms and feet and flashes of red, as canoes keep pace. I look ahead to sight but the rising sun is directly in my eyes. That’s okay. I can sight using the canoes and the other swimmers. I am so happy, what an adventure! Light pierces the top of the water and I see my hands ahead of me, sliding along, pulling my body through the stream of bubbles. Beneath, the water is dark, black. I feel so lucky to have air in my lungs and my healthy body to carry me along. Also, I realise happily, there are no jellyfish in our stretch of river today.
There is so much to think about in the water that, in what seems like no time at all, the huge, orange buoy looms ahead of me. I turn on my side, swim around it and am bashed by other arms and feet in the tight turn, and then the current is pulling me home to shore. I swallow a lot of salt water and my arms are starting to feel cold, but in minutes the jetty is in front of me and then my feet touch pebbles (I am immune. My one and only superpower). I stand, dizzily and keep my legs moving, up the path, back to transition. A hard-core group of kind, early rising supporters claps us as we exit the water.
“Fast transition” I think “Fast transition”. But my stupid hands and feet are so cold! I can’t feel what I’m doing as I fumble with socks, gloves and arm-warmers, struggling to pull them on over wet skin. I remember, belatedly that some athletes pre-coat their gear with talcum powder. Also, in retrospect, perhaps fashioning make-shift arm warmers out of my work tights the night before wasn’t the smartest move.
No matter, I am waddling on my cleats now, through the squishy mud and out of transition. A quick glance around for Angela and Kenny tells me they’re already on the bike route. The RFID tracker bleeps as I exit transition and heart gives a little leap. Stage one complete.
My trusty steed carries me out of the windy country lanes and into the open New Forest scrubland. I pedal at a high cadence, warming my legs, and swallow an energy gel and some water. I can’t feel my feet but that doesn’t matter too much for the ride. As long as they’re clipped in securely I can settle in and maybe even catch some people. The swim always feels like fleeing for survival; on the bike I am a hunter. The smooth road stretches ahead, long and flat and I can see riders dotted like ants for miles ahead. I’m on the big cog now, down on my aero bars, chasing my prey. The speedo reads 35kph on the flat and higher on the descents. This is a fast course and I want to make up for my slower swim and run with an honourable bike time. I think I can keep this pace up for three hours, although it feels like I am pushing harder than is good for my legs, which still have a 14mile run to complete. I don’t care! I love my bike. Six foot tall and solidly built, I am often slow. But now my wonderful bike gives me wings.
We ride into a headwind. I hear it whistling over my helmet, and over the wind the calls of scrubland birds and neighing of wild ponies. It really is a beautiful route. Rainwater has pooled into temporary lakes, where marsh birds wade and cows graze at the edges. Mist rises from the ground as the morning sun gathers strength. Past Beaulieu now and turning left into the Ipley crossroads I slow down and straighten up for my first cattle grid. It reverberates in my bones as I cross. On the other side of the grid are dozens of dropped water bottles. I hope everyone is okay.
Through Ashurst we dodge potholes and hit a small incline. But then we level out again and it’s straight and flat, mostly on fast A and B roads through Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst and in less than hour I’m amazed to reach the end of the first lap. This is a terrific bike course. The second lap flies by, as I start to pass the same riders on the downhills (sorry Kenny) and they overtake me again on the ups. I muse, not for the first time, that perhaps I ought to lose a stone and do some hill training.
My second transition is much quicker. My skin is dry now and I only have to whip off my Phoenix cycle top and don trainers. I still can’t feel my feet. I feel a tinge of familiar mid-race shame as I see that there are a lot of bikes already racked in transition, which means that I wasn’t as fast as I thought and I will probably be running much of the second, seven mile run lap alone. Thankfully, I have just enough experience by now to know that over any 6 hour race period I will oscillate between deep depression and overwhelming euphoria, and that learning to weather my shifting moods is part of what makes these ‘endurance’ races. With my new union jack trainers on and a race belt loaded with lots of nice caffeine gels I am happy again and I bleep my way out of transition and onto the 14 mile run course.
Now I am surrounded by athletes. We huff and puff along the country roads, pins and needles tingling as our feet come to life for the first time in three hours. For the first time I feel real heat and am grateful for my cap as the sun rises higher and I plod my way through the first three miles. My cadence feels slow and other runners, already on their second lap, skip by lightly. Thankfully, the feeling returns to my feet after mile three, and, no longer feeling like I am running in horse shoes, my energy returns. We run through beautiful country lanes, devoid of traffic, redolent with the sweet scent of the bright-yellow rapeseed from surrounding fields. Around mile 6 I make a new friend. She looks fit and strong but is grimacing with pain from her knee. This means I can keep up with her! We run together for the next three miles, conversation distracting us from sluggish limbs. The last two miles of the run course is through woodlands and we gratefully leave the unforgiving tarmac and bound along under the shady green of the spring trees.
We emerge from the woods to the unmistakeable buzz and chatter of a gathered crowd. Rounding the corner I see a 400metre incline to the finish line, lined by cheering supporters. I run up the hill and clap my friend through the finish line. I still have another seven miles to go. It is disconcerting to be cheered by the supporters, who don’t know I am still on lap one. The next time the cheers will be real and will give me tingles, but for the moment I feel a fraud, reminded of the work I still have to do. I am relieved to pass behind transition again and onto the final lap.
This time it is easier, the only minor blip when I realise my gels have fallen out of my belt a mile into the course. This is pocket energy that I really need. At mile twelve my thoughts drift and I start to think about Kenny, who must be crossing the finish about now. I visualise standing at the finish and clapping him across the line. Then I send out strong race thoughts to Angela, who I had hoped to catch on the bike or run but who has stayed powerful and is still out there ahead of me somewhere. I realise that I am starting to get dopey and emotional and pick up my pace for the final two miles of woodland. As I emerge into the sunshine from the long, straight woodland path for the second time the cheers of the crowd are finally for me. I feel happy and tearful and my arms have goose bumps as I sprint up the hill and across the finish line, and see Kenny and Angela waiting on the grass, in the sunshine.
We flop on the hot grass with cups of coffee and salt and vinegar crisps, and admire each other’s garish pirate medals. Angela’s hard work through the winter has paid off and she has run an amazing race, now well on track for her first Ironman in August. Kenny and I have ticked our half Ironman box and feel confident that we have a good shot of surviving Ironman Switzerland in July.
And none of us swallowed a jellyfish today.