Exactly three weeks after the amazing Castles Challenge Middle Distance Tri in Bamburgh I competed over the same distance at Aberfeldy, in a race that also happened to be the British Championships. The ‘British Championship’ part had been of little interest to me until after my success in Bamburgh, when I realised that my training had paid off and I was on my best form ever. Now I started wondering what might be possible at Aberfeldy – it was a course I knew and enjoyed, and the age group I’d be competing in would be smaller than the whole field at Bamburgh, BUT the field would be much stronger, attracting triathletes from across the country, and the swim would be much shorter, so I wouldn’t have ‘the Bamburgh advantage’! That way madness lies, I quickly realised, so I sensibly concluded that there was no point getting hung up on whether I could finish on the podium again (don’t believe a word of it: it nearly drove me mad!).
After Bamburgh I had an easy week to recover, then a full-on week of as much training as I could cram in – culminating in the Isle of Mull 10K on August 10th – then a week of tapering off again before Aberfeldy. Somehow everything came together for me during the Mull 10K: I managed a strong constant pace throughout and was 1st female and 6th overall (of 100+) in a time of 41:04. It was a bewilderingly great race for me!!! So I felt good and well prepared going in to taper week – a world away from how I felt at the same point last year. One thing, however, was frustratingly reminiscent: the shockingly bad weather forecast for race day. If anything the forecast was even worse this year – cold, heavy rain, thunder and lightning, and winds up to 20 mph gusting up to 40 mph. At least, I consoled myself, this levelled the playing field (if such a thing is possible when ascents of Schiehallion are involved), so any improvement in my time would be due to my training*.
(*OK, I should also admit to having faster wheels this year: my club Edinburgh Triathletes had been given a bike that belonged to our late coach and friend Andrew McMenigall, and I had borrowed the super-dooper wheels for a month. Their lighter, more aerodynamic form will have certainly helped on the cycle).
Race day began at 04:45 with a cuppa and bowl of porridge, then a six mile cycle (warm up!) to the start in Kenmore, on the shores of Loch Tay. We got into the transition area at 06:00 and set everything up for the swim-to-bike transition, then put on wetsuits and waited for the 07:00 start. The air temperature was decidedly fresh, but there wasn’t much in the way of rain. Yet. At the briefing the night before there had been talk of shortening the swim if Loch Tay was too choppy: this was not welcome news for me, as I get more advantage the longer the swim is (after the swim it all goes downhill for me, but unfortunately not literally). But the water looked as inviting as it could on a cold Sunday morning when you’d rather be tucked up in a warm bed, so the organisers granted my wish: a full 1.9 km swim! Phew. The swim start was the usual splash-fest, with arms and legs everywhere, but soon I found some space and got into a rhythm with my stroke and breathing. It’s always such a relief when the race starts: all the pent up nerves have something useful to do, and concentrating on the job in hand is a welcome distraction. I don’t think the fact that I’m going to be giving my all for the next 5+ hours ever crosses my mind – maybe it should! A bear of very little brain, as my father would say. Anyhow, my swim time was 31:40, 2:20 slower than last year, but I think that reflects a slightly longer course (buoyed courses are never particularly accurate: see the Bamburgh debacle for a case in point).
After a 4:00 transition (wetsuit shed; feet dried; helmet, shoes, socks, sunnies and gloves donned; energy gels stuffed in pockets; bike grabbed) I headed out onto the 90 km bike course. I was wearing the same sleeveless tri suit that had been fine for the year before, so expected it to be fine now too. But even the long ascent of Schiehallion couldn’t kindle enough core warmth to counteract the effects of the wind and rain, and my feet and fingers were going numb. Changing gears became a whole hand operation, rather than just fingers. So an hour into the cycle I reluctantly stopped to put a lightweight jacket on – this helped reduce the effects of wind chill at least. Another problem had started to bother me by this point: my bike wouldn’t give me enough flat road and downhill gears, hence I was either free-wheeling or pedalling like a loon (think Roadrunner) on these sections. The problem was degenerative: early on I could coax the bike into eventually giving me higher gears by continually pressing the gear lever, but later on this approach became more and more difficult/futile. After completing the steepest part of Schiehallion on the return leg (a short 20% gradient section) I took the executive decision to get into the highest gear I could and then limit myself to using the front chainring only. Effectively leaving me with two gears: hill and not-a-hill. As I battled up the rest of the Schiehallion ascent in this harder gear than I would normally have chosen my ex overtook me, and the red mist that descended helped me finish the hill off. Result. (Bike problem was later diagnosed as a split gear cable.)
Then it was back down the other side and into transition in Aberfeldy for the last leg. As I got closer I wondered whether my neighbours would have made it up from Edinburgh: they had planned to come and watch from this second transition onwards, but it all depended on whether their poorly five year old was sufficiently better. I dearly hoped that they had made it, because I was in dire need of some support by this stage. So rounding the corner into transition and hearing them cheering me on was really special. Just like at Bamburgh, having support really lifted my spirits.
I finished the bike course in 3:05:43, just over 15 minutes quicker than in 2013, and transitioned in 1:14 to get straight out on the 21 km run (half marathon). The start of the run was so hard: my feet were still wet, cold and numb from the cycle, and felt like lead weights attached to my legs. I plodded along as best I could, and eventually got comfortable (ish) (hey, it’s all relative). Because I wasn’t thinking at all about where I would place in the race I definitely wasn’t counting how many women were in front of me (easy to do on this out-and-back course) or trying to work out whether they were in the same age group as me (35-39). Of course not: that way madness lies, remember?
By the time I passed the half way mark and started heading back into Aberfeldy I’d found a good pace, and was even beginning to overtake people (including three women, whom I definitely didn’t subtract from the number of women I hadn’t counted in front of me). A few kilometres from the finish I became aware of a regular grunting noise, and realised it was coming from me. My lungs had obviously decided to add their voice to the many complaints coming from the rest of my body – most audibly from my hamstrings, Achilles tendons and hips. I recalled the catchphrase of the German cyclist Jens Voigt – “shut up legs” – and this mind-over-matter approach seemed to help. Or at least it gave me something else to think about. Still, I think I grunted my way through the streets of Aberfeldy towards the finish line, just hoping I could get there in one piece. The thought of being cheered across the line by friends gave me the psychological boost I needed to cover the last few hundred metres. And then it was over!
After a run of 1:36:27 (blimmin’ chuffed with that!) I crossed the line in a total time of 5:19:04, almost 28 minutes faster than in 2013. I put most of that down to having trained better, and part of it down to the snazzy race wheels. I finished as 11th female (of 96), and 2nd in my British Championships age group. The counting (that I didn’t do) was wrong anyway. It felt great to have improved so much in a year, in only my third middle distance race, and to have earned a silver medal for my efforts, but the fastest ladies were still half an hour quicker than me! Something to work on for next year…. (madness, madness, madness).