Bala Middle Distance by Paul Cunningham
Bala Middle Distance by Paul Cunningham
Not only was this my first middle distance or open-water event, but it was my first ever Triathlon. In the weeks leading into Bala, fellow DTC folks had used the words Brave, Mad and Crazy, which coming from a group of people that routinely push their bodies beyond the limits of most “normal” people should have rang some alarms. My years of boxing must have had a dampening effect as I just shrugged and laughed.
Overwhelmed and underprepared were the distinct feelings I had when I arrived before the race. Having heard the horror stories of the previous year’s event and now seeing the harshness of the rain battered, windswept mountainous venue for myself left me questioning why I didn’t take up crochet instead. Not a lot I could do now except hope that the forecast was close to being right and that race day should be more suited to a June date.
The night before the race Simon Rolfs, Andy Thornton and I went through our race plans in the DTC village, whilst the rest of the Village People mocked our story-like narrative of the hours of anguish that lay before us. For me it felt a bit like cramming before an exam, with the volume of do’s and don’ts that came from the rest of the team. I didn’t want to rewrite my race plan as it was mentally imprinted, so a few modifications to avoid certain peril were made.
The morning of the race arrived earlier than I hoped with a car alarm blaring at 5am, which then in turn woke the whole campsite. I’m still convinced it was Rob Osborne as he had to spend the night in his car as the tent poles for “Osborne Towers” failed to make it to Bala. I took my time to rise, ate like a champion, got my kit together and headed to the race. The transition area was a swarm of activity with Lycra clad bodies applying lube to all things mechanical and exposed body parts in an attempt to save 1/100th of a second in the hours that lay ahead. I spent my time laying out my transition area like a summers day picnic, only to be told by the guy next to me that I’d taken up two spaces and I needed to move. Once rearranged, Simon Rolfs gave it the once over to ensure school boy errors where kept to a minimum
The water not only looked calm and inviting but it was surprisingly warmer than expected, almost Barton warm. I positioned myself outside of the anticipated scrummage in the hope to make a clean break without getting swatted or unzipped in the process. At the off I went anaerobic and found myself tucked in behind a small pack led by a red cap, after a few minutes I got myself into a steady rhythm with two other bodies and the red cap to my right. As I turned at the 1K point the pack had dropped off and I was now in a free space save the red cap which was now on my toes. With about 500m to go I started to feel the onset of some cramp in my right calf, I stopped kicking and tried to stretch it whilst maintaining arm strokes which eased it a little but then came back with a bite. In the end I found myself performing a hybrid of crawl arms and frog-leg kicking, it wasn’t pretty but it kept me moving and relieved the cramping. The final hundred meters seemed to be in just a couple of inches of water, but I refrained from standing until past the marshals trying to kick as much blood into my legs as possible.
I’d been rehearsing the sequence of getting through T1 in my head for the few minutes before I reached the shore. What I hadn’t planned for was not being able to find my zip cord and having to shoulder charge my way past a delirious swimmer on the ramp. A quick glimpse at the sky with my meteorological skills gave me assurance that no hats and scarves were needed this year so after unpeeling my wetsuit it was the bare minimum wardrobe of a helmet and sunglasses that was used.
I quickly got some liquid and food down me in the first few minutes on the bike as I navigated past dozens of marshals in the town, as I left Bala and hit the first incline I got “chicked” for the first time that day (it wasn’t to be the last). I knew I had another 78 kilometres to go so I saved my energy and let my pride go. I quickly got into my pace and had to rely on RPE as my HRM strap failed the day before and the strap I borrowed from Chairman Rolfs said I was barely awake. The next 60 minutes were quite uneventful, I ate and drank as per my plan and kept my cadence and RPE in the right zones. I reached the turnaround point a few minutes ahead of my plan so was conscious not to push too hard on the return leg as it was now mostly uphill, which isn’t a strength of mine. After about 20 minutes I realised that for some reason I kept passing the same guy on every flat or downhill section, and on every incline he’d grind past me whilst looking for a third lung as I spun it out chewing on some malt loaf. This repeated attempt to coast in front of me unleashed the road-rage and Tourette's that is normally kept for the M1 rush hour in the safety of my own car, as I passed him yet again he may not have understood the Soreen soaked, Scottish salacity I screamed but I’m sure he got the message loud and clear as he waved his digitus medius in retort. To preserve myself mentally I decided to push on until I was clear of him to prevent me having a proper hissy fit if he passed me again. This wasn’t in my race plan. I started to feel some fatigue setting in during the last couple of kilometres, but was confident in my run, so decided to remain as aero as I could, take on some extra fuel and push on. The descent into Bala was a welcomed sight and my trigger to mentally rehearse T2.
“Here comes competitor 100, and this guy looks in pain” was the encouragement from the tannoy system as I dismounted from the bike. Refusing to lose any speed I hit the road barefoot at a sub 5k pace, the trauma to my legs was clearly evident in my face. I was in and out of T2 efficiently using the very technical “Sit Down” method to get my socks and shoes on and grab my running fuel.
I felt strong as I left T2 and I knew I had a good run in me as I had held back on the bike, so from the onset I let my legs find their natural rhythm before I checked my pace. Once out of the lake side I followed the road that hugs the shore line and took on some fuel, I checked my pace and realised I was running a 3:50 min/km so reined it in to the planned pace.
By the 6k point I had been passing lead legged runners with ease, a stark contrast to my bike split, but now my bladder was proving to be my biggest cause for concern. Toilet stops didn’t make a feature in my race plan and as I was making good time they weren’t going to be introduced now. Thankfully there was no one behind me as I maintained pace and spent a penny simultaneously. Unfortunately, I was gaining on the runner in front and he may have got dowsed with the Berocca infused splatter as I passed him.
The hill that appeared just before the turnaround point really took the wind out of my sails; it felt as if I was merely shuffling, it was a long long climb that couldn't have ended soon enough. Thankfully the months of hill reps had paid off and I made it in one piece with enough left to push the pace on the return leg. I continued to pick up speed as I downed my last gel with only a few kilometres to go, I was now focused on maintaining a good form to prevent any silly mistakes in the closing leg. A light shower was welcomed as I made my way off the road back in to the lake side, where the sound of the tannoy could be heard welcoming in the finishers. A final surge past two runners on the home straight allowed me to avoid a sprint finish to cross the line in good from. A scream of satisfaction was emitted as I entered the finishers’ compound and then quickly congratulated Simon.
The race had gone better than planned with no real issues to cause concern. I surpassed my own expectations by exceeding each of the targets I’d set for myself and genuinely enjoying the whole experience.
I’d like to thank Andy Thornton and Simon Rolfs for their support and guidance in the build up to the race, without it I would have been in a broken state.
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