Race Report: Castles Challenge Middle Distance Triathlon (27 July 2014)

Hello there blogosphere, it’s been a while!  Almost a year since I wrote about my first middle distance tri – Aberfeldy 2013.  I enjoyed Aberfeldy so much that I concluded that the middle distance tri (aka half ironman) really suited me: I decided to concentrate on this distance in 2014, so I entered two.  My first was on July 27th – the Castles Challenge in the beautiful setting of Bamburgh, Northumberland – and the second will be Aberfeldy again, on August 17th.  So, here I’ll recap on my training and report on the Bamburgh race.

After Aberfeldy

So of course I kept up the good work after Aberfeldy last August, right?  Alas no.  Sure, I had a crunchy Achilles tendon (I’m sure that’s the medical terminology for it) for a few weeks post-race, which stopped me running for a while.  But in the eight months up to the end of April I’d been out on Ricky, my trusty Bianchi bike, for a total of 9 hours (5 rides), and amassed a total of 82 minutes of running (3 runs)!!!  An ongoing niggling hamstring (see last year: MOT fail) also contributed to the dearth of running, while winter and general laziness had limited my cycling.  I was still doing the occasional spin class in the gym, and swimming twice a week, so was keeping the old ticker ticking over, just about.  After the 3rd physio to look at my hamstring basically told me to “(wo)man up” (aka, Rule #5 of the Velominati), I understood that much of the problem was in my mind, so was able to build my running back up.  Phew.

Training in 2014

Training started in earnest at the end of April, with 14 weeks to the Bamburgh race.  OK, not the 18 weeks that last year’s training plan had me doing, but to be honest I’d thrown out the training plan ages ago*.  From last year I’d learnt a bit about how to train for middle distance triathlons, so my new approach was the über-scientific ‘Winging It (TM)’ plan (Patent Pending).  This involved doing as much running, cycling and swimming as I could fit in to each week, training twice a day, making sure I included a mix of distances and intensities (including lots of interval work), and working up to the longer race distances over time.  I found I could push myself harder when training with a group, while being told what to do, so I swam with Bloc3 and Scott Balfour’s Masters group, and ran with Edinburgh Athletics Club and Lothian Running Club.  Plus some core work (abs and Pilates), a monthly massage/torture session (courtesy of Jarek at Blue Morpho, Edinburgh), and more practicing of race nutrition.  I threw as much effort as I could at improving my cycling: the worst part of my triathlon, and the biggest part.  A small improvement here could be significant over the 90 km of the race.  Training went really well, and I learnt how to push myself closer to my physical limits than I had done previously.  By monitoring my runs and cycles using Strava I could see steady improvements in both.

(*My rationale for not working to a plan was that I didn’t need yet another thing to beat myself up about and stress about.  I’d been struggling with depression for a few months.  Alongside training for last year’s race my private goal had been to wean myself off the anti-depressants I’d been on for a few years, aided by the natural highs of training.  I managed this by the end of 2013 :), but in 2014 it became clear to myself and others that I was unable to weather life’s little storms without a little chemical help :(.  Very reluctantly I went back on medication, but am now convinced that this was the right thing to do as it’s given me some much needed breathing space, and a return to normality.  Uncharacteristically, though, the depression helped me train more rather than prevent me from getting out of bed (as it had tended to previously) as it was the singular time I felt strong and effective and in control of things.  Bonus.  Alas, this time the natural highs from exercise were not sufficient to keep my black dog at bay.)

A recce trip to Bamburgh early in July gave me some invaluable mental preparation for the race, as I did the complete bike route (flat and fast, even in the driving rain) and run route (hilly and uneven in places) and worked out that there are some pretty strong tidal currents running along Bamburgh beach.  When I started to taper for the race I felt in better shape than I’d been before Aberfeldy, although some alarmingly slow sessions during the taper made me wonder if it was all falling apart.  Also, giving up caffeine for the week (to sensitise me to caffeine ready for race day) gave me continual headaches for days, so I was a decidedly grumpy bunny.

Bamburgh: race weekend

paula&mumMy Dad grew up in the Bamburgh area, and my uncle still lives there, so my family came to watch me race for the first time.  I was both excited and nervous about this: excited that they’d get to share in something I enjoy so much, but nervous in case it was a bit dull for them, and didn’t justify their long trip from Bristol.  I needn’t have worried as they had a fab weekend, and the great weather, atmosphere and scenery helped.  On the day before my race we watched the sprint triathlon, and my mum and sister got a bit teary about all the great personal achievements we saw (by people they’d never met): hence they became my cryathlon team, and prepared themselves for my race with comprehensive hydration strategies and waterproof mascara.  This was going to be a 5+ hour test of cryathlon endurance.

bamburghcastleThe amazing scenery and sunshine got me in the mood for the start of this special race.  The swim was supposed to be 1.9 km: 3 laps of a triangular buoyed wetsuitthumbsupcourse that looked to me to be a bit longer than the intended ~630 metres.  But my distance judgement is rubbish at the best of times.  So when I finished the first lap in 17 minutes, and given that 1.9 km should take me ~31 minutes, I just put it down to having a bad swim.  At the end of laps 1 and 2 we were required to wade back to the beach through the surf, run round a marker, and then wade back in to start the next lap: this was the most draining bit (though at least I got some family support back on the beach).  Then my shoulder started playing up half way through, which I quickly diagnosed as poor technique and tried to correct it (more rotation) for the rest of the swim.  It was a great relief to finish the third lap, which is unusual for me to say as swimming is the strongest part of my triathlon.  As I started the long run up the beach to transition on to the bike the race organiser was apologising to each competitor about the length of the swim, but I still had no idea how long it had been.  I found out after the race that the laps had been ~1200 m: so we had almost swum a full ironman swim (3.8 km)!  While a bit demoralising for me this could have had really negative effects on weaker swimmers.  At least one competitor pulled out after the swim because he was so exhausted.  Time for my 3.6 km swim plus ~300m run up dunes: 1:10:36.

Transition to bike: dry feet; put on shoes, helmet, gloves, sunnies, and race belt; cram a Mediterranean rice ball or two in my gob (nice savoury break from the sweet High5 gels and Maynard’s wine gums (food of champions) I was also using for energy); then get out onto the bike course (a leisurely 2:00 minutes total).  Mum and Dad had cheered me out of the water (telling me I was 7th female), brother-in-law Keith cheered me over the dunes (telling me I was 6th female) and sister Paula cheered me on in transition and out on to the road (telling me I was 3rd female).  So I concluded I was probably somewhere in the top 10!  And that my family were rubbish at counting (and/or identifying female triathletes).

The bike was the best bit of my race, surprisingly.  All the hours out on the roads of East Lothian and the spin classes in the gym must have paid off.  I couldn’t monitor my speed, time or distance as I’d had multiple gadget failure, so I had to go purely on effort levels, but it felt pretty good throughout, and comfortable.  I passed two ladies, putting me in either 5th, 4th or 1st place, depending on which family member’s counting skills I bikebamburghtrusted.  I decided on 4th.  Cruising back past the castle to start the second of the two laps the cheers from my family were so uplifting: they spotted me a mile off.  I think they confirmed I was 4th then.  The whole of the second lap involved an annoying (but probably beneficial for my speed) game of cat and mouse with a ‘plonker’** with all the gear but none of the speed that should accompany the gear.  His posh bike, pointy aero helmet, tri bars, compression socks, etc… seemingly enabled him to pass me during ridiculously risky manoeuvres (e.g., overtaking a car ON a roundabout) where I proceeded with more caution, but didn’t enable him to go faster than/as fast as me, so he would put me in an illegal drafting position, forcing me to overtake him straight away.  On his fourth overtaking attempt I ‘encouraged’ him to go faster or else not bother.  He didn’t really take this on board, so by the end of the lap he’d passed me seven times.  Anyhow, cresting the hill to see Bamburgh Castle at the end of the bike course was a special moment, signifying the beginning of the end of the race.  Time for 90 km cycle: 2:54:23.  Very good for me.

**(other words came to mind at the time)

Back into transition the family agreed that I was in 3rd place.  I got the impression they were really enjoying themselves, and my performance, which really encouraged me to do as well as I possibly could.  Paula shouted “THAT’S MY SISTER!” at the top of her lungs and made me giggle.  But now, having never been in such a good position in a race, I discovered a variety of new things to worry about.  I wondered how difficult it would be to hang on to 3rd place, and how far the 4th lady was behind me.  I wondered how far the second lady was in front of me, and whether I could catch her.  As I started the run (after racking my bike, a quick shoe change and a drink: time 1:03) I quickly became more worried about being overtaken and losing 3rd place, as I must have eaten/drunk too much on the cycle and felt really uncomfortable (new lesson: don’t eat in the 30 minutes before starting the run).  runhillI settled into what felt like a really slow pace, but found the rest of the family at the top of the first hill on the run course: a great spot to support from as their cheers helped distract me from the hill.  In the course of the first lap I located the 1st and 2nd placed females (heading back as I was heading out) and figured they were too far ahead to catch.  I also spotted the girl in 4th place as I was heading back, a little too close behind me for comfort.  At the end of the lap came the steep ascent into Bamburgh Castle: another cruel twist in this triathlon, especially given we had to repeat it three times.  As my running slowed I forced myself not to walk it, so took miniscule strides.  This ascent became my nemesis in the race: each time a little demon on my shoulder kept trying to seduce me into walking it, while another voice cautioned that I’d be caught if I did.  Running up and through the castle for the last time, knowing I was a few hundred metres from the finish, was an utter joy!  finishlineWhen I passed my family before this I’d asked them to get to the finish as I wanted to cross the line with them, so I started to well up as I neared the end.  I was overcome with many emotions – from excitement at coming 3rd, to appreciation of the love and support my family had shown me, as well as relief at it all being over.  And in the end the run can’t have been as slow as it felt as I completed the 19 km in 1:35:02.  Total race time 5:43:04, 3rd female and 3rd senior (18-39 years) female.


Although it’s impossible to compare different races, with their different terrains, etc., I was pleased to be about 4 minutes quicker than in Aberfeldy in 2013, especially with the double-length swim.  I know that the fantastic support from my family will have had psychological benefits that translated into physical benefits.  So it’s hard to know what I should expect at Aberfeldy 2014 now, but I should hopefully be a bit quicker than last year, all else being equal.  (Which they might not be, because the rain and wind from last year’s race, that I was hoping to avoid this year, is forecast to be outdone by even worse rain and wind this year, with a Met Office weather warning in place).  Given a level playing field I think I would be able to take most time off the bike (3:20:51 in 2013), then the run (1:48:38), but I’m not sure my swim would be significantly quicker than last year (29:20).  Watch this space!


2 thoughts on “Race Report: Castles Challenge Middle Distance Triathlon (27 July 2014)

  1. Pingback: Race report: Aberfeldy Middle Distance Triathlon, 17th August 2014 | Going the (middle) distance

  2. Pingback: Castles Challenge: what a race! | Going the (middle) distance

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