I’d had my eye on the Monster series of races for a while. They’re based in Ely so when I was living in Cambridge it seemed ideal, and even now I live in London, it’s nice to race somewhere that is familiar, and I can combine it with visiting my parents.
Last year I did sprint, olympic and middle distance triathlons. So far this year I’ve done a few running races (including 5 half marathons) but no triathlons, so I jumped straight into a middle distance. Was this to be a big mistake?!
At 04:45 my mum very kindly drove me to Ely, where it was dark and rainy. I registered and stuck the requisite stickers on my bike and helmet, then said goodbye to mum and went into transition. Once I’d laid out my stuff I wriggled half into my wetsuit and queued for the loos, feeling nervous, then walked to the swim start, about a mile downstream.
On the walk I got chatting to a man doing his 59th race. He was super inspirational and good conversation, which helped take my mind off my nerves. We chatted to his club mates and another random they’d picked up along the way, a young guy who’d signed up the night before.
Briefing done, the first wave (inc. me!) were told to get into the water, which wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be.
Although I’m not a terrible swimmer, I’m not confident in open water swims, and I’m also not at all well-trained. This year I have swum five times: 1) with a sprained ankle, just before the marathon, 2) the day after that, 3) one 1km swim a few weeks ago, 4) at a spa with my mum, where I mainly did handstands, and 5) at the lido last week but I decided it was a bit chilly and didn’t stay in long.
I therefore didn’t have high hopes, and when the swim got underway I felt the beginnings of panic. But amazingly, I was able to ignore it! I swam along and felt quite relaxed. I focused on breathing, although I did a lot of breaststroke (my front crawl sighting is pretty bad) swimming towards town.
I have no concept of time when swimming, but knew that the second wave were starting ten minutes behind, so tried to work out when I might get overtaken, hoping that it wouldn’t be until near-ish town. I enjoyed the cheers of people on the river bank and watched a family of swans swimming imperiously through the wetsuit-clad swimmers. People on boats were watching – it must have been surreal for them.
The course went upstream for 1.5km, past the exit, around a buoy and back 400m. By this point I was looking forward to getting out, and although I’d been kicked a few times, I was still calm and happy that I had survived the swim. At the exit, I reached up a hand and a man pulled me out. I then staggered about a bit and another man caught me, and then another, with me ricocheting around the slipway like a pinball, trying to shake the water out of my ears.
There was a walk back to transition from the swim exit and I struggled to get my wetsuit off my arms. Once I had it down to my waist I jogged to transition and then struggled to get the stupid wetsuit off my legs. I chucked it on top of my bag (containing my post-race dry clothes, doh) and toweled myself down. Garmin on, jersey, hat, helmet, gloves, shoes, glug of water and off I went. Somehow this took four minutes? I definitely didn’t feel like I was rushing, maybe I should have been.
I’m more of a cyclist than a swimmer or runner, and normally, the bike is the thing I don’t worry about in a triathlon. But I was worried about this one. I’ve not ridden my bike much this year – two days in Wales (less than 100km each day), a ride from Bath to Andover, and two trips to Regent’s Park, where I was shocked to discover how slow I am. I have been finding cycling nerve wracking of late, something I’m yet to get to the bottom of.
The forecast was for strong wind – 15-18 mph – and this was correct. We cycled north with massive crosswinds, then west directly into the wind, south with crosswinds from the other side, and then finally a tailwind for the final stretch (the course wasn’t a perfect square so this bit was, of course, the shortest bit). It was really grim. I hate cycling in strong winds, I’m always convinced I’m going to get knocked off. And every time I was overtaken (which was a lot) I lost more confidence and motivation.
My legs had no power and while everyone else sped past, hardly affected by the wind, I was locked in a battle, my (slightly too big) mass against the force of the wind.
Halfway round the first lap I thought I might not do the second lap, partly because I was worried about not making the time cut off (which is incredibly depressing) and also because I was just not enjoying it. I was eventually lapped at the very end of the first lap, which added an extra layer of depression. But I went on to the second lap.
It was slightly better on the second lap but my hands were numb from gripping my handlebars too tightly and I stopped every half hour to shake them out. I managed to eat one peanut butter bar and one gel.
By the end of the bike course my legs felt tired, every pedal stroke had been an effort. The end of the course had a little uphill and a sharp turn around a mini roundabout, which I nearly toppled off at, to the disgust of a motorbike behind me. Then downhill and weaving through traffic to transition, where I could finally ditch the bike…
Again I took my time. Bike racked, helmet, gloves, jersey off. Tshirt, sunglasses, hat, fuel belt on. Bike shoes off and socks and trainers on. Sitting down, because why not. And then off again.
By now it was very warm, although I probably just noticed it more as it was less windy. My legs had felt tired on the bike but when I started running I felt alright; my feet had been sore while cycling but I was surprised that they didn’t really bother me. Could this last?
I set off on a meandering route through parks and woods, eventually joining up with the rest of the route, where we would run laps through the town, picking up a wristband at the end of each lap. In my head I heard “four wristbands” and thought I had to run four laps, so I was a bit put out when I finally worked out that actually there were five laps (one without a wristband, four with increasing numbers of wristbands). Gah.
I had a fuel belt with Shotbloks, two gels and a packet of jelly beans but it was bouncy and annoying, so when I saw my mum (she went home after dropping me off, but came back for the run) outside the cathedral I decided to leave it with her. She didn’t spot me running towards her and eventually I yelled out “HELLO!” so loudly that it made some tourists jump. Then I posed for some pictures and went on my way.
Although my legs felt alright, I walked up the hills and ran everything else – which meant three walks per lap (one of the hills was probably more of a slope, but these were my rules!!). It was a relief to get my first wristband.
The course went past the cathedral twice per lap, which was cool. The people of Ely were all friendly and there were quite a few retired couples who’d stumbled across the race and were enjoying cheering. Lots of confused looking tourists.
Ely is very pretty, with the exception of the bit past Sainsbury’s, which still isn’t that bad. I went past my brother’s old school. I waved to my mum on each lap. I petted a small dog (who looked like a teddy bear!). I got in an argument with a lorry driver who nearly ran over me and the guy I was running with.
By the fourth lap I was starting to feel tired, it was so hot and there were fewer people still running to chat to. I was drinking lots of water but had only eaten a packet of Shotbloks. At one of the water points I picked up a gel but it was horrible, granular and really thick. Mum drove past me as I ran down the hill towards the start of my final lap and heckled me from the car.
Mum thought the run was 4 laps so once she’d parked, she went to the finish. When she didn’t find me there, she thought something must have happened, so got the marshals all looking for me, radioing each other to report on me. Embarrassing – but also quite funny.
I broke my rule of only walking uphill on the final lap as I was knackered, my knees and hips ached. I said thanks to all the marshals and as I jogged down the hill in the final kilometre I thought to myself: wow, you’ve gone and done it, you’ve finished a half ironman with no training and barely any food – you total moron.
I ran into the park, and turned left to the finish line. At last! My running form was totally pants by this point but I had four wristbands and I was coming for my medal!
Swim (1.9km): 00:45:55
T1: 00:06:49 (including run from swim exit)
Bike (92.8km): 04:06:46
Run (21km): 02:20:47
A banana and some water later, I got changed in the carpark toilets and went for lunch with my mum – a massive salad with a heap of bread, followed up by a 99 with a flake.
I’m pleased that the swim went better than expected (actually faster than last year, and no panicking!) and I inexplicably ran faster than the last two half marathons I’ve done (Richmond and Ashridge) – I actually felt pretty good on the run, apart from the final 5km and when I thought I might be sick in a bin after eating that gel. But the bike… I’m shocked at how bad I was. As I struggled around, I promised myself that I would cycle more and get my cycling legs back, which I’m determined to do.
I’m glad I did the race, though it was maybe a bit silly to do without training. I would really like to improve on my time. Perhaps I should join another club…