Steven Baldwin writes …
My first couple of triathlons of the year hadn’t quite gone to plan, I’d failed to perform at the level I’d hoped I was capable of. But I’d then backed those up with a second place finish at Hitchin Sprint Tri and sixth place at “Calfman” Triathlon in Olney so I knew my fitness levels were in a good place. I was determined to use that fitness to complete a last block of training, a final push towards one more big performance.
It had been pointed out the final St Neots standard distance triathlon on 2nd September was a qualifier for the 2019 European Triathlon Union (ETU) championship in Weert, Netherlands. I had completed the first St Neots Tri back in May (Although the venue was changed to Grafham Water) and it had been a disaster; the water was still freezing so I was shivering with cold, I had a mechanical issue on the bike and by the time I hit the run, I’d completely run out of energy and motivation.
Refusing to be put off by my previous experience, I decided it would be an opportunity to test myself against a high-calibre field so signed up at the beginning of August and paid the £10 fee to register my interest in ETU qualification.
The race was based at Riverside Park, St Neots and I had been to the event registration the day before to collect my goody bag (timing chip, race numbers and swim hat). This gave me peace of mind that on race day I’d have very little to do other than dump my bike in transition and get to the swim start. Walking around transition is always an intimidating experience, seasoned triathletes tinkering with their time-trial bikes costing more than most would spend on a car. Although I largely block them out and focus on my own race it’s worth being nosey, you may pick up a few little time-savers.
Swimming has always been my achilles heel. Although I had basic swim lessons as a kid, it never went any further than that. Since starting triathlon at the tail-end of 2016, I’ve taught myself front crawl and gradually improved. To begin with, I could barely swim a pool length without feeling out of breath and having to stop.
The St Neots swim was a one lap course up and down the Great Ouse, setting off in multiple waves of approximately 100 competitors per wave. The race starts with the usual chaos as everybody jostles for position, limbs getting thrown all over the place. I always choose to start wide and steer clear of the scrap to avoid getting pummelled. Thankfully the river current was minimal although it definitely felt tough when making the turn to head back upstream. Unlike previous races, I didn’t push myself too hard and just focused on not letting my form drop. As you can’t read your watch while swimming, it’s difficult to know the pace you’re going until you exit the water. I was astonished when I stopped my watch to see a swim time of 27:04, almost 5 minutes quicker than I had managed at Grafham Water!
I quickly stripped off my wetsuit, put helmet on and on to the bike, all in the space of 57 seconds. Getting transitions right is key and a great chance to make up time on fellow competitors. In the lead-up to a race, I’ll always get a few practice transitions in to ensure it goes as slick as possible.
St Neots has a fantastic bike course and they’re roads I’m very familiar with. It’s a not-hilly-but-not-flat loop out through the Staughtons which you complete two laps of for a distance of 45km (5km more than normal standard triathlon). As it was an ETU qualifier, the event was sold out and this really showed on the bike leg. In the early stages it was very difficult to find space on the road and stay clear of peoples’ slipstreams. Following a fellow competitor too closely is known as drafting and can lead to time penalties and even disqualification if you’re caught doing it.
Those who follow my training on Strava will know I do a majority of my bike training indoors on a turbo trainer using the online application Zwift. This allows me to get a much more structured workout than if I was to just go out for a ride. It’ll tell me the power I need to produce and for how long, all from the comfort of my own home without any worrying about traffic, etc. It helps me understand how hard I can push on the bike but still at a sustainable effort. Since I started using Zwift, I’ve seen my bike speeds go up and up. I covered the bike course in 1:13:41 which equates to 22.6mph (or 36.4kmph) average, an approximate 1mph improvement on Grafham (approx 3 mins faster).
51 seconds after climbing off the bike, I was out on to the run course. The course comprises of four laps round Riverside Park, very flat but with long sections of grass. The previous weeks training with “BAC fast” had been aimed at locking into the target race pace, Paul Davies suspected this would be somewhere around 6:05-6:10 per mile. This target turned out to be bang on, without even looking at the watch I found myself running in this range. It was a largely uneventful run, just holding the target pace, passing plenty of slower runners with only one person overtaking me in return. I completed the 9km course (1km short of official distance) in 34:55, giving me an overall time of 2:17:50. It is difficult to compare triathlon performances because courses are rarely accurately measured but I feel this was comfortably my best to date and a fantastic end to my season.
The ETU qualification process is quite complex and would put anybody to sleep. Long story short, I didn’t get any automatic spot as I was outside the top four in my age group. However, as my time was so near to the age group winner, I was able to get a rolldown (or fastest loser) place. So next June I will have the honour of pulling on a GB tri-suit and competing at the European championships as an Age-Grouper (amateur).
I hope by sharing my experience, anybody considering getting involved in Triathlon will act on it give it a go. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to enter an event and I haven’t looked back since. For me it all started with a 29:14 Parkrun in 2015 and now I get to represent Great Britain as a triathlete, it’s actually crazy! You never know where you might end up.
Roll on Weert 2019!