Sunday, May 23, 2010


It was 4 am on Saturday morning and I was wide awake after about 5 hours of sleep. The thought of swimming through the Atlantic was rather heavy on my mind, heavy enough to prevent any more sleep for the rest of the night. No doubt about it – I was rather nervous.

By 7 o'clock staring at the ceiling had lost its fascination and I got up. For lack of anything better to do, I went for a run. I usually go for an early morning run before short races, so why not today? I followed the route that would constitute the run portion of today's triathlon, which is basically up a hill and then turn around and come back again.

Eventually the rest of the family as well as Fionnuala, a friend who would do the race as well, joined me and we slowly got ready. The transition area was supposed to be open at 8am, but when I got there at 9:30, it was still cordoned off. Sigh. We're still in Ireland.

Sitting around doing nothing was not good for my rising anxiety levels and I think at one stage Fionnuala was tempted to throw me out of my own house, my constant fidgeting making even the veteran competitor nervous. Eventually it really was time to go and set up stall. Having Fionnuala around was really helpful and I gathered plenty of little hints and tips. I also appreciated the fact that putting on your wetsuit is not part of the actual race or else I would have been well behind everyone else already. Maybe Niamh was right when she made her remark about my ballooning weight. Having said that, putting it on the wrong way round wasn't the smartest way to start. Ahem.

The Valentia triathlon has a rather unique setting in that the swim portion is from the Irish mainland across the channel to Valentia Island itself. It's a great idea, but swimming through the Atlantic Ocean without any dry piece of land anywhere between the start and the finish was rather intimidating and the major reason for my anxiety.

The transition area was right at the harbour and then all 500 competitors gathered on the ferry for the short journey to the mainland. Well, short if you're on a boat. It's a lot longer if you have to swim. It all happened rather quickly from here on. I had a very quick dip into the water before the first wave set off (after a false start) and there was just enough time for the second wave to assemble at the start and off we were.

Having read enough about the potential mayhem of a mass swim start I kept to the right side of the field, trying to stay out of the worst of the mayhem. Still, for the next 750 meters I kept bumping into bodies coming from all sorts of angles and directions and I had no way of telling if it was me who was swimming zig-zag or them. I kept looking up every now and then and just followed the general direction of the yellow hats in front of me. I had absolutely no idea if I was towards the front, the end or the middle of the field and just tried to keep swimming at a steady rhythm. I had been worried about the fact that there was no wall every 25 meters, but if you don't have the option of resting every now and then you just don't do it and I simply kept going, keeping the effort low enough not to tire myself out unnecessarily. I was very reluctant to look behind because I was worried to see that I had only covered a tiny portion of the swim. The complete lack of reference points made it impossible to tell where we were. For the first half I only saw murky green water, then it must have become shallower because I could sea fern every few meters. I did get a few elbows and feet into the face and inadvertently kicked a few people myself, but no major incidents. Eventually I saw the pier ahead of me and knew this would indeed be over soon, and then came the happiest moment of my life when my feet touched firm ground again and I could stop my poor imitation of a fish. (I'm exaggerating, of course. The happiest moment of my life was of course Paul Dickov's 95th minute equalizer in Wembley against Gillingham in 1999. [What do you mean what about the birth of my children? Go away!])

Apparently for the last 50 meters Fionnuala and me had been swimming side-by-side but I had not noticed a thing, just concentrated on the exit. I quickly waved to Niamh and the kids who very cheering and made my way into transition where I was very surprised to see Fionnuala's bike still on the rack. Having said that, she was there a few seconds after me and I was still struggling to get out of my wetsuit when she took her super fancy TT bike with aero bars and racing wheels off the rack. I followed a good bit later, but eventually I was on my way myself. Niamh tried to take a few photos, but she might not yet make it as action photographer. To be fair, the camera probably did not help.

The cycle starts with slightly over 2 miles of continuous climbing to an elevation of about 100 meters, but the gradient is smooth enough to stay in your saddle at all times. I surprised myself by passing scores of people. It really must have been dozens, and some of them did not exactly look super-fit. My overwhelming thought at this was “I really have to learn to swim better”; maybe it's arrogant but those guys did not look like they should ever have been ahead of me at all.

Anyway, just one guy went by me on that climb, and towards the end of it I even passed Fionnuala. I expected her to fly ahead again at the next part (and so did she), but for the time being I just enjoyed overtaking. I got passed once more, but it turned out to be the same guy again! I have no idea when I had gone past him and if I caught him again later on.

Obviously the climb was followed by a dro and while I did not go past people at the same rate any more, I still kept moving up the field gradually. My proudest moment came shortly afterwards when I overtook a guy on a fancy TT bike in full aero position, and there was me going past on my relatively cheap and heavy frame.

Soon enough we reached the other end of the island where we had to take it easy on a set of tight blind corners, but I went through without incident. I had expected the wind to be on our back for the return trip, but actually it came from the side and was rather strong. Fionnuala later told me that it caused real problem with her deep-rimmed racing wheels and she was really scared most of the way. I, on the other hand, had an entirely different mishap. At one stage, doing quite some pace on a downhill stretch, felt something tugging at the top of my head and a few seconds later, before I knew what was going on, there was another, heavier, tug and all of a sudden it was ok again. Something seemed not quite right, and when I touched the top of my helmet I realised that the plastic cover had completely blown off and just left the styrofoam behind. How bizarre is that. Technically I had just violated the no-littering rule, but I was not going to turn around and start looking for the rest of my helmet, and what was left would just have to do for the rest.

I expected to tire out on the bike eventually. 20 km might not be long, but it's a lot longer than my usual 8 km ride to work which constituted 90% of my “training”. In actual fact I felt great all the way through and kept passing people. Just before the end one rider passed me on an aero bike and I entered transition right behind her. I tried to get out of my shoes while still on the bike, but when I got my first foot out the shoe started dragging on the ground and I was worried about my balance if I took out the other foot, so I got off the bike one foot still in my bike shoe and the other one bare. At least my stall was stationed close to the entrance.

Since I had acquired a blister yesterday I decided to wear socks on the run after all and it was that delay that enabled Fionnuala to once more pass me during transition. Having said that, her 28 seconds transition time was rather spectacular, but taking more than twice that time was still poor. It didn't help that I started running and noticed after about 5 steps that I still had my helmet on! At least I noticed it before going out of transition.

Finally, a real sport! Setting out on the run I passed my personal cheer leaders and action photographer once more and set off, 2.5 km uphill, 2.5 km downhill. I found it rather disconcerting that the overall winners finished their race just as I started my run, 20 minutes behind. Then I remembered that they had been on wave 1, meaning I was “only” 15 minutes behind. At first all the runners coming down looked like super serious athletes (which they were), but the sheer amount of runners ahead of me was not a sight that I particularly appreciated. I did the best I could to recover the situation and passed out scores of people, including Fionnuala. “There won't be any more transitions for you to pass me” I quipped, though I should have saved my breath for the run up that mountain. I could have sworn it had grown since the morning. At least passing people kept me focused and the pace honest. One runner overtook me, and he ran like a whippet, probably one of those 15-minute 5k dudes I have no business competing with. As I neared the top I kept looking at the runners coming downhill, wondering how many of them I would be able to catch. Eventually I reached the turnaround point.

I had expected the run part to be the most enjoyable one, but in actual fact I found it the hardest. The swim had gone much better than expected, the cycle was oodles of fun, but the run was really tough. It didn't help that we were running up the side of a mountain and that the sun was blazing at full setting, of course, but I think there was a different factor. On the swim and the bike my exercise threshold had been lower. But having completed dozens of runs I know how hard I can push my body, and pushing hard means pain. On the plus side, I must have gained a few dozen places. In the downside, it hurt.

As I got closer to Knightstown again I was both looking forward to the end of the torture and ruing the fact that I could still see loads of slower runners who would finish ahead of me because I was running out of road. I always kept concentrating not on the runner directly ahead of me but on the one before that to make sure I would always have a target in front of me, even after I had passed someone. I even found the legs for a sprint finish somewhere, focusing on the woman ahead of me who I passed one step before the finish, gaining one last place (or so I thought. Turns out she was a wave 1 swimmer, so was 5 minutes slower anyway).

After surviving the swim everything else was just a bonus and I was happy enough. It sure had been fun and I guess I'll do that again, but I am definitely a runner, not a triathlete. This was reflected in the final results; I came 150th, 19th M40, and in a race of 500 runners I would have been significantly further ahead. For the next time there is plenty of scope for improvement, during the transitions especially, and of course I could make a radical change and actually train for the swim and the bike parts. Now there's a thought. But for the time being I'll focus on my upcoming marathons and ultra instead.

Update: I was 340th on the swim, 152nd on the bike and 44th on the run. I think I know where to improve.

22 May
Valentia Island Sprint Triathlon 2010
1:17:37, 150th overall, 19th M40
swim: 17:24, T1 + cycle: 38:54, T2: 1:06, run: 20:13 (11:09 up, 9:04 down)



  2. Delighted to read "NEXT time". Well done Thomas!

  3. Well done, especially in your triumph over your concern about the open water - though I must admit that the idea of starting with a swim to an island re-awakens childhood adventure fantasies - and doesn't the salt help with bouyancy?

  4. Great report as usual, Thomas, and well done.

  5. Well done Thomas, great report too! My first Sprint is coming up in less than 7 weeks, at least I don't have to swim in the Atlantic...

  6. Great to hear reaching the bike leg in one piece ranked up there with the birth of your children.

    Excellent effort for your first Thomas. When you place 44, 44, 44 you can call yourself a triathlete ;)

  7. Great start to the tri season Thomas. No need to stare at the ceiling in the wee hours anymore.

    "Swimming through the Atlantic" - sounds very impressive, it's the way you tell it.

    Impressive bike time, although I would have thought your placing would have been higher. A 20 minute 5k, especially with a hill thrown in, is top class.

    I can relate to you finding the run harder and less enjoyable than expected - imagine how tough it must have felt for those who don't come from a running base and are continuously being overtaken by the Thomas's of this world - at least you were motivated by how many places you would gain before you ran out of road.

  8. Very pleased you had such a good debut Thomas. I thought that you would like it and it wouldn't be the last one you did.

    I'm dead scared of trying as I know I'd be hooked too!

    Nice report too. Ever thought about becoming a novelist?