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Saturday, 20 June 2015

A Tale of Three Relays - Pembrokeshire Coast Triathlon 2015

Last year I had done the Broadhaven Triathlon in full, and although it was clear it was a fantastic course in every respect I hadn't really enjoyed it. I had been struggling with a back injury the previous year, so I had only really started back running a couple of months before, and it was only my first year getting used to Pembrokeshire hills on the bike! On top of this, I had went over on my ankle twice on the coastal path, choked on an energy gel and generally died on my feet during the run. It was the 1st time since I got gotten into triathlon that I was really disappointed at the end of the race!

With all this in mind (time of registering: around Christmas, before Ironman training really got underway), I decided I'd be happy with a relay team entry this year. The office had entered last year as a relay, and had won the corporate relay, and there was talk of entering 2 relay teams this year, so I thought that would be a bit of fun. My one rule was that I didn't want to do the run - with the Ironman in mind (or more pressingly, the long course weekend coming up two weeks after), I didn't want to run the risk of injury on the coast path. In all honesty, I thought I'd be a dead cert for the swim, but it didn't exactly turn out that way!

One of the secretaries in the office, Michele, had recently gotten into running about 9 months before, and said she would definitely be up for the run. This guaranteed that we would have two relay teams, which was great. With another colleague, Rhodri, taking on the whole event again this year and our two relay teams, we would have 7 people from our office of 10 participating this year. What a fantastic participation level for an architectural office (or any office, for that matter)!!

There was a lot of discussion in the office as to how to split up the teams. We could put together a really fast team, and a 'B' team, or just divide ourselves randomly between the two teams. In the end, we decided for the latter -it was the fairest option, to maximise enjoyment for everyone on the day, and the opportunity for a back-and-forth race between both teams sounded more fun! 

The teams looked a little something like this:

Acanthus 1
Me - swimming background and always good for a top end of field swim split, but technically able to put a decent shift in the other two if need be.
Mark - had done a few marathons and a naturally good runner, despite limited training opportunities due to have a young family, had run for the relay team last year
James - mainly into surfing, but seemingly an all round natural athlete, a very strong swimmer and runner, and managed an impressive time on the bike last year for the relay team, despite only cycling a handful of times in the lead up!

Acanthus 2
Peter - our boss, in his 60s, and a very good swimmer, still capable of a 27-28 minute 1500m with minimal training.
Jonathan - probably along with myself the biggest triathlon enthusiast in the office, and probably the fastest runner and cyclist of the lot of us
Michele - new to running this year and really caught the bug! 2 or 3 runs a week, her first 10k only a few months previously, and due to do a half marathon this summer - was great to see someone get into a new sport!

Looking at our teams, it was pretty obvious what Acanthus 2 would be doing, Peter was only ever going to do the swim, Michele was only ever going to do the run, which left Jon with the cycle.

Our team was a different story. Technically, our strongest team would probably have been me on the swim, James on the bike and Mark on the run (though Mark and James could easily have swapped to similar effect). However, Mark had just gotten himself a decent bike (and had been joining me on my hill repeat sessions in Freshwater East), and James, already a decent swimmer, had improved dramatically at swimming during our weekly office sea swims last year and had been doing a lot of swim fit training over the winter (I was eager to see to what he would do enough to forfeit my swimming place!), so we decided to completely turn our team on it's head, with James on the swim, Mark on the bike and ...... Me on the run. Yes I know that was the one discipline I didn't really want to do, but this order of things actually made things really interesting between our two teams: Peter and James were probably going to be level enough on the swim, Jon was probably going to open up a sizeable gap against Mark on the bike, and I was going to spend the run leg chasing down Michele! This was going to be great fun!!

And then I threw something of a spanner in the works...

As time went on I thought I really wanted to do the swim as well. While still not swimming quite as much as I would have liked, I had been swimming a bit more regularly than last year, my general plod pace was a bit more consistent and I wanted to give it a good go this year. So I advertised with the Pembrokeshire Triathlon club for any relays looking for a swimmer, and sure enough within a few weeks Kirsty Pope, another Pembs triathlon club member who I had yet to meet, invited me to swim for her team. She was going to be doing the run, and a fellow called Jeremy would be doing the bike. By the sounds of their predicted times for their legs of the race, this team was going to be much faster than our evenly spread relay teams, but I didn't think much of it - after all our office teams were going to be in the 'Corporate Relay' so we weren't really going to be racing each other anyways.......

It only later dawned on me that the team I had agreed to swim for was not a Pembrokeshire Triathlon Club entry, but an entry for a local sports shop called Haven Sports! I decided to leave it late to tell the office I was swimming for another Corporate relay team that was likely to beat us. Oops!

In the weeks leading up to the event, banter and smack talk in the office really heated up. I had a touch of Tenosynovitis (inflammation of the shin to foot tendon sheathing) which meant I had to frustratingly rest for two weeks with three weeks remaining and made my general ability to run look very doubtful, James was going on a two week sun holiday and was due to be back the day before the race, and Mark achieving times of about 1 hour 39min on similar profiled 44km courses, about 18-20minutes slower than his Acanthus counterpart Jon. All of these developments lead for some very bold statements to be made by our rivals ("you are going to get so destroyed by us!"' Jonathan Pickford, June '15), which I duly wrote down and put on the notice board for 'motivational purposes'.

On top of this I decided to speculate on what all the relay teams would actually do on the day and make a spreadsheet! ..... I know, right? Seriously, if you weren't into triathlon in our office, you would either catch the bug, or be driven crazy by it! 

Meanwhile my injury woes were probably working in Haven Sports favour, as I was now swimming a lot in lieu of cycling and running, in particular in the sea, was getting used to swimming with my wetsuit a lot more than I previously had, and was also getting more used to the local wildlife - The relatively mild winter meant that there was a significant increase number in barrel jellyfish (in laymen's terms: the fecking massive ones!) in the local waters - last year the most I saw in a single swim would have been 1 or 2; this year, in one of the sessions I swam over 40-50 of them! Strangely though, the sheer amount of them had gotten me a lot more used to them is year. The occasional appearance out of nowhere last year spooked the bejesus out of me and had me jittery & paranoid about when the next sighting would be for the rest of the swim, whereas this year their constant presence this year forced me to deal with them. All in all I was much more confident in the sea last this year, and felt good for race day!

Ultimately, it looked like Acanthus 1 were going to edge it over Acanthus 2  by a minute (possible beach finish?!) but would not stand a chance against Haven Sports, which meant I was possibly going to win a corporate prize for someone else and have to come to work on Monday. Brilliant, I guess....?

So yes that was the background, sometimes the race is not all about the day but the banter and outlandish claims made in the run-up! But race day was upon us now and all of a sudden things were very quiet in the office! Time for the legs and arms to do the talking!

I cycled out to Broadhaven on the Friday for registration, and met Kirsty and Jeremy of my Haven Sports team for the first time, both nice friendly people and was looking forward to racing for them on Saturday. Maybe it was just the week that was in it but I was still in the mood for some outlandish claims: "top 10 in the swim" and "49 min in the run" were my goals, fairly optimistic as it was the Welsh Championships tomorrow and I hadn't run in 4 weeks and wasn't sure if I even could!

Peter picked up myself and Michele on race day and things were looking good. It was a lightly overcast day with minimal wind, and as we came down the hill into Broadhaven, I was delighted to see that the sea was like glass, hardly a swell, barely a ripple - perfect swim conditions!

I'm not going to lie, I was pretty pumped up in the transition area, as we waited for things to get started. This race could not get started soon enough. in fact I felt I needed to get into the water as soon as possible before all this adrenaline wore me out! One thing that helped was meeting the various people I had come to be familiar with through various training sessions (and strava), and wish them luck for the race. The difference in the amount of people I knew at this race compared to this time last year was noticeable - it's great to be living in an area so actively involved in triathlon!

 Eventually after the race briefing we had access to the sea where we could have a quick dip before the race. I practised a bit of sighting to the 1st buoy and generally loosened the arms, but didn't stay in too long. Then the nerves kicked in. Where should I line up in a Welsh Championships swim start? Was top 10 a bit optimistic? Where my goggles already fogging up? Was my shin injury starting to flare up again? Was I even going to be able to run into the sea?! Flipping hell! 

I lined up at the front in my own little space on the beach, but quickly found myself surrounded by other athletes. Apparently the inside line (where I was) was where all the fast guys would be going - I was in the shit now! I tried to hold my position at the front of the bunch, but I ended up with two really tall guys to either side of me, their shoulders above my head height made them effectively in front of me on the start line. My apprehensions got the better of me and I decided I would let them take the lead by a millisecond and I would follow in their wake.

There would be no countdown, just notification of a minute to start and then 60 seconds of silent tension until the gun. And boom, eventually off it went and the mayhem began!

I hesitated maybe a half a second too long, and the two guys slightly in front of my became two or three rows of people! How the hell did that happen? The next 300m was chaos - fists and feet and kicks to the teeth. I held my own though and felt like I got a good draft off the strong swimmers that were around me. The good conditions meant my sighting was pretty good, and I was confident I was holding a good line. In previous years I would have held back and given other swimmers right of way as they bashed into me but this time round I held firm and accelerated when needed. 

After rounding the first buoy, the first of 4 corners of the rectilinear course to start the long part of the rectangle parallel to shore, things cleared up a bit, and I seemed to be in a mini pack of 3-4 swimmers. I could see another bunch quite a distance ahead, but hard to tell how far away - it was really hard to tell where I was in the scheme of things. Oddly, I couldn't see the next buoy for sighting, but could see the one after that. There was a subtle chop out there, probably invisible to those watching onshore, that made for tough swimming, but also as it was coming at me diagonally, whenever I sighted I kept looking slightly right instead of straight on. Instead I sighted off the bunch of swimmers ahead, and gauged off the other two swimmers in my mini group, occasionally getting the odd bump as one or both of us lost our way momentarily - would be fun to see aerial footage of this! A massive barrel jellyfish swam right under me too - am happy to say I didn't freak out one bit!

We rounded the second buoy, and were around the third in no time, back to the 4th buoy parallel to the shoreline again. This was the business end now, and I had to try a bit harder to stay with the pack - my shoulders always seem to get a bit fatigued at this point, as my entry level wetsuit always seems to restrict the mobility in my shoulders. I was confused by other swimmers positions around me, very far left, and very far right, as I could see the buoy perfectly and was sighting well towards it - maybe it was simply the difference in how we all took the corner. I saw a giant spider crab crawl along the see floor - nice!

We rounded the 4th buoy for the final bit back to shore. I kicked my legs harder for a little bit extra, but my arms had very little left - I kept telling myself 'no bike after this' and persisted. I swam and swam until the sand looked close enough to touch my face and then stood up. Damn, still too early, was nearly hip deep as opposed to below the knee deep - damn hydro-magnification! With the adrenaline pumping, I forced legs against the resistant of the water and ran out anyway - it must have been the adrenaline, as I felt I ran out and up the slip at a decent pace. I got into transition and saw Jeremy and Kirsty wave me down. Jeremy took over and took the timing chip off my ankle and away with him on the bike.

Exiting the Water for the Haven Sports Relay Team

 Only then did I stop and take things in. I looked at my watch, 22:30 including the run out - nice! The guys were telling me I was out in the top 10 - it was hard to believe - it was difficult to tell how many people were in that pack ahead of me, but they must have been the lead pack. Sweet, audacious target no. 1 met!

I waited in transition with Kirsty, Mark, Jon and Michele. James came in very shortly after me, must have been under 25 minutes, very impressive, and Mark was away for Acanthus 1, approximately 2-3 minutes behind Jeremy for Haven Sports! Rod was in shortly afterwards on his individual effort, then came in Peter at 28 minutes and Jon was away for Acanthus 2! 

James, exiting for Team Acanthus 1
Rod, exiting on his individual attempt 
Peter, exiting for Acanthus Team 2

After all the relevant action had happened for us, we settled down a bit and watched all the other athletes come in, cheering for all the people I knew, which was a surprising amount! I got changed into my running kit and checked my phone. Mark had his phone on him so I was able to track his location using the 'Find My Friends' app, very handy indeed!

It was then, a bit of banter kicked off between the relay teams (possibly mainly started by me, trying to hold on to my post swim buzz). I gently reminded Kirsty I was no longer on her team for the day (though based on predicted times, I hadn't a hope of catching her). I told Michelle to just enjoy the run - it was really impressive the progress she had made in only 9 months of training - and then reminded her, with tongue firmly in cheek, that I would be chasing her down!! I just couldn't help myself! 

(l-r) Michelle, Peter, James and Myself waiting in transition, for the cyclists to come back!
In all seriousness though, I had to think about an etiquette strategy for racing Michele on the course - it was all set up for a bit of fun after all, and I didn't want to ruin the spirit of it by being a competitive asshole! Our predicted times showed that Acanthus 2 would be finishing about 1 minute ahead of us, so chances of a beach finish together (the first and last 800m of the run was a run across the beach) was high, if I caught her at all.  So I decided that if I caught her for the finishing stretch on the beach, I would cross the finish line with her. However, if I caught her significantly before then, I would run my own race, and then run back for her and run with her across the finish. Excellent, everyone will be happy then, right?

I wasn't going to catch Kirsty. I did not have a plan for Kirsty...

The cyclists were starting to come in and it was time to stay sharp. I checked Mark's progress - he was on the final 10km stretch, about 20 minutes away. It was great to see the really quick guys come through and watch their transitions. The lead guy was flying it, minutes ahead of the guy in 2nd. It was interesting to see how many of the top 20 guys were not having brilliant transitions, at least half a dozen had problems locating their spots in transition finding runners etc - weird, but showed the importance of walking yourself through transition before the race for orientation - every bit of prep helps!

Jon was the 1st to come in and he was flying it. Michelle nearly missed the changeover, putting her phone band on for strava, so I did the timing chip changeover for them (is that allowed?), and away Michele went. Jon was seriously pooped, and justifiably so - 1:19 on a hilly 45km - he could barely stand. It didn't seem long before Jeremy was in and Kirsty was away - I didn't catch Jeremy's split as I was keeping a sharp eye out for Mark. I was also starting to worry about the run - what if I couldn't? I hadn't ran in 4 weeks after all! Or worse still, what if the injury flared up again?! What if I went over on my ankles again like last year? Flipping hell!! 
Jon, coming in first on the bike for Team Acanthus 2
Jeremy for Haven Sport Team
  I didn't have too much time to let these concerns take hold of me, as Mark was coming in on the bike - here we go! 
Rod (centre) on his individual attempt, chased by Mark (right) for Team Acanthus 1

I went to get his timing chip which he'd hidden under his sock (aargh!), but managed to get the strap around my ankle and get going pretty quickly. Aside from my new trisuit feeling 'a bit odd' and a gust of wind nearly blowing my cap away as I ran down the slip to the beach, I got into my stride pretty quickly. I ran down the beach at a nice springy tempo but had no idea what kind of pace I was doing. I would have to average comfortably under 5 minutes per km if I wanted to break 50 minutes... I saw my 1st km split as I start the climb up onto the coastal path - 4:36... Nice! I felt good and springy climbing the beaten track to the high point of the coastal path, and passed out 5 or 6 guys. My next split, if the terrain was anything to go by would be the slowest of the day - I was expecting about about 6 minutes, maybe slower. My watched bleeped just as I finished the climb - 5:06... Sweet! I was already feeling good but this gave me a boost, and I really focused on finding a good rhythm. I was still passing quite a few guys, maybe 1 or 2 a minute - an unfamiliar feeling in my runs. I passed the point where I had the 1st of my ankle twists last year. Woot, not today!

Just as a dense sea fog quite suddenly rolled in on the cliffs I saw a familiar figure in the distance, highlighted literally by her pink arm band - Michele. I passed her and wished her the best, and told her I would be back for her. This was confusing - there was no way I should have been catching her by now... With Jon's bike split, they should've been 20minutes ahead of us... I struggled with the math while running, but the only conclusion was that Mark cycled well beyond himself!!

4:34 split, and I was off the coast path - more like that please. I continued to reel in one athlete after the other, though maybe not at the same rate. Nobody had passed my either  - what a difference not cycling makes! 4:31, 4:16 and into a hilly section I'd forgotten about from last year. Oops. Just as we passed the 5km marker, I saw a familiar kit in the distance, maybe 200-300m ahead. The blue and white of the Pembrokeshire triathlon club top - it was Kirsty! I was not expecting this! She was going a good pace, and without changing my effort level on the hills it took me about 2km to close the gap. I caught up with her on the 7km mark, last drink station. I was now racing my own relay team. Awkward...

"ah, does this mean we're not going to win the corporate relay?" she said when she spotted me,
"the race isn't over yet!" I said, which was probably a mistake!

We chatted a tiny bit more. I mulled over just running alongside Kirsty to the end, but worried about the prospect of a beach sprint finish for the corporate relay team title. I had not planned for this scenario at all! I decided to try and continue at my pace and go for a good time. I wished Kirsty luck with the rest of it, and pulled slowly away. Really, really slowly....


Most of the stretch back to Broadhaven was steadily downhill and I powered down, probably to the detriment of my quads on the descent.  I was starting to feel it in the legs now but the splits were still looking good for a good run so I persisted. 4:27, 4:14, 4:18, 1.5km left, time to bring it home! Legs really heavy now on a mini climb before joinng the main road back to Broadhaven. I heard quick steps behind me. I look over my shoulder - Kirsty!! Had she been on my shoulder this whole time? Balls! 

Well I actually didn't know how to feel about it. It was my team that was putting me under pressure after all! She slowly passed me and pulled away from me as we approached the final beach stretch. "sure you're going to win something anyway" she said as she passed. I had no answer to that or her pace at that moment. Did I just spend 7km catching up on her to watch her cross the finish line before me? We rounded the corner and onto the beach, she was easily 20-30m ahead of me now. Peter Lloyd, another familiar face from Pembrokeshire Triathlon club and Strava, was between us. I picked up the pace to catch up and say hi to Peter - you know, social energy! I passed him and kept accelerating. Screw it, I was going to go for it!! My legs were heavy and burning, but I kept going, in full flight as I passed Kirsty. I really hoped she had nothing left for a sprint as I passed, as I would've been screwed! I didn't get exactly what she said but it was somewhere between "ah come on, Brian," and something with a lot more expletives in it! She was not going to be happy!!

Final push on the run for Team Acanthus 1 (Kirsty in the background) 
Kirsty, coming in for Haven Sports Team
I crossed the line, utterly spent. I checked my watch, 48:37* - yus! There was some dazed wandering around, inhaling of welsh cakes, bumping into some familiar faces and shaking some hands - updating the work relay teams as to where I saw Michele on the course, and generally avoiding Kirsty... It was unavoidable though, and while there was some jovial anger thrown my way, I got an overriding sense that she genuinely wanted to kill me. I couldn't give an overriding answer as to why I went for it - it just felt right, and it was a race after all. No consolation at all!

Rod finishing his solo effort
So.... That was that, then I realised I had to go back for Michele! Shit! My legs were not feeling it at all.... I tried to start a gentle jog, but my quads and calfs firmly said no! I was talking to my teammate James (swimmer with acanthus 1) and asked him to come along with me. We walked along the beach, seeing familiar faces as we went. I didn't realise until this point that Rod hadn't finished yet - he'd put in such a strong time last year I figured he was just ahead of us. We saw him as we got back to the edge of the beach, along with Kevin Wheeler, another familiar face from the tri club. James wasn't keen on going any further, so I jogged on from there. The legs felt a teeny bit better after stretching them out. I headed back along the course into triathlete traffic. 

"you're going the wrong way" many triathletes helpfully shouted at me.
"feckin' show off" someone else shouted. Now that's more like it...

Coming back with Michele

I got to the point where the country back road joined the main road  (where I realised Kirsty was over my shoulder), and was delighted to see Michele making her way up  the mini climb to me. She was delighted to see me too as she had been starting to fade. I gave her some encouragement as we jogged back. She deserved it, she had only done her first ever 10km run a month or two ago, and this was a tough 10km (and a bit) by any standard. Not long to go now. We jogged up the beach and I left her to the finish line. All done now, time for some rest. It was great to see that despite the fatigue, Michele was still buzzing after the event - another ones caught the bug!

Michele, coming in for Team Acanthus 2
(l - r) Myself, Rod, James and Michele, shortly after finishing

Myself, James, Peter & Michele hung around for the presentations at the end. As it happened, all the rivalry didn't mean anything. We were beaten by 2 relay teams, both corporate, which meant for an interesting trickle down of awards. The open relay went to the 1st team, with the 2nd team winning the corporate title. This meant that Acanthus 1 won the all male team award, and Haven Sports won the mixed team award. Wahey, double whammy! I met Kirsty again to share the prizes, and everything was civil again.

Haven Sports Team, Mixed Relay Champions 2015 :)
The times were definitely interesting. Apart from me hitting my outlandish claims, James was just over 25 minutes on the swim, and Mark had done a whopping 12 minute personal best on the bike course. It was also interesting to note that the best splits from our two office relay teams would have combined to make the fastest overall time by 3 or 4 minutes! That made me feel a little better about our trickled  down Best Male team prize :)

All in all it was a good day at the office, and a good day for the office. And a good day for an office team to not get 'so destroyed' by another office team. And a good day for 3 randomers  competing for a shop they didn't work for. And a good day for a relay team to get beaten on the run by its own swimmer.... 

All in all, it was a confusing day!

*the official split time was in fact 47:57 - no complaints from me!