Friday 13 September 2013

Race Report: Valencia Triathlon

When Mrs won a competition to race and train with Team Freespeed for a season she also got entry into the London Triathlon. This is an annual event for Team Freespeed, and they generally perform very well (that’s a bit of an understatement!). We had an enjoyable weekend there, I really enjoyed the race, as did she, and we met most of the team and sponsors. I raced the Olympic Plus distance with some of the team and had a good day.

I thought that would be my only insight into what racing with a real team of high-performing age-group (amateur) athletes would be like, but quite unexpectedly she also received an invite courtesy of Virgin Active UK to fly out to Valencia with the team for a couple of days together with entry into the Valencia Triathlon – and I got to go too!

The weather in London would not be missed

That’s why, on a cool rainy Friday morning, we found ourselves shuffling the bike boxes around again on our way to another airport. We met up with Richard Melik, owner of Freespeed bike fitting company and team manager, his wife Jenny, their adorable twins Noah and Leo, Freespeed athlete Stuart Anderson and his wife Mette, (also the team’s administrator), David Risebrow and his wife Steph, and Nick Stocker who is Sponsorship and Partnership manager for Virgin Active UK and our liaison for the weekend. In the hotel we met up with a further Team Freespeed athlete Matt Malloy and his wife Helen. Quite a party!

No problem with bike boxes this week - they just popped out onto the carousel

The weather in Valencia was beautiful – we left Gatwick in 14C and a rain storm, we arrived to almost 30C and a perfect sunny day. After some fun trying to get all our bike boxes and luggage into taxis we checked into the hotel and strolled the 25 minutes or so down to the beach-front.

Plenty of room for bike boxes, not so much for passengers

A few of us went for a dip in the sea and pointed at jellyfish – a world apart from London!

That'll do nicely, thankyouverymuch

Saturday we took it easy – most of the team went out to look around the old town, but Mrs and I had a lazy day. We put our bikes together and cycled lazily down to the marina to see what was going on. The Valencia Triathlon is in its 4th year and spreads across the weekend with around 1,700 people racing each day. It was mainly sprint and super-sprint distance Saturday, with Olympic distance on Sunday. We were all racing on Sunday, but in different waves.

The expo area was small and quite crowded. We tried to register but it was too early. Bikes now confirmed as working, and circuit checked out, we headed back to the hotel for a nap (which accidentally turned into a good few hours sleep).

The whole group went back down at about 6pm to register. The queues for registration were short, but the queue for collecting timing chips was huge! It spiralled around the entire expo area, coiling in on itself confusingly. The queuing etiquette was distinctly non-British with much queue-jumping and pushing in! We had to rack our bikes but weren’t allowed to leave anything else in the transition area.

Queuing - Spanish style

Race day rolled around with a 6am alarm call, and we headed downstairs for breakfast. The hotel was serving from 6am, an hour and a half earlier than usual on a Sunday, due to all the athletes staying there who needed to get out early. Every competitor had to lay out their transition area out between 07:00 and 07:45 so regardless of which start wave we were in we all needed to go down at that time. I was the first of the group to go off at 08:20, with Dave Risebrow in the wave behind me at 08:30, so I didn’t have much standing around to do.

Road bike in transition for a change

I barely had time to take advantage of one of the very small number of portaloos before it was time to get in the start pen. For future reference: Avoid the portaloos at all costs. There are nowhere near enough of them and they aren’t cleaned or emptied between Saturday and Sunday. Not a joyful experience!

Couldn't ask for a better venue

The course is in a fantastic location with excellent access and viewing for spectators. Right in the heart of the Valencia Marina, it’s in the same location as the Formula 1 circuit. Mrs and I had been here before in 2010 for my birthday (the year MarkWebber tried to take off).

My wave collected in the start pen eagerly – let’s get going! A final briefing in Spanish that I didn’t understand a word of, and we were off down a ramp to plop into the water. I jumped in and set about acclimatising myself.
  • The swim, 1,500m, 28:20, 448th overall
I was understandably cautious going into the swim – I really didn’t want a repeat of last week’s freak-out in Austria, particularly with the Team Freespeed crew watching from the shore. The water was very warm so it was compulsory non-wetsuit. I’m not currently sure if my sudden panics are due to the cold water, wearing a wetsuit, the fact there are so many people around me, or something else. I positioned myself at the back and floated around a bit waiting for the off.

At 08:20 on the dot a gun sounded, and we were off. I decided I wanted to start slowly, be as calm and relaxed as I possibly could, and hope that I was OK. Thankfully there was no repeat of last week. I gradually wound up the effort over the first half of the 1,500m course, and by the far turn buoy I was moving up the field. I hadn’t looked at the course closely enough so wasn’t sure where the exit was, I relied on following a mid-pack group and trusting the collective sense of direction. That worked fairly well, and I even jumped a few gaps from group to group. One day I’ll learn to start hard without a panic-attack and my swim times will improve appreciably!

Wave all set and ready to go

The water was a perfect temperature. The high salt content made the swim very easy. There was a bit of jostling and a few periods of contact but in general the swimmers were considerate about their space. I’d expected a bit more of a bun-fight, so this was a nice turn-up. Towards the end we swam under the famous swinging bridge of the F1 circuit, and after an acute left turn round a final buoy I could see the red carpet of the exit ramp. I’d been jostling a guy for the last few minutes and decided I was going to beat him in the last 100m, so opened it up a bit and came out a couple of lengths ahead.

The bridge was "open" when the magic satellites took this photo

I’d had a little facebook banter with Mrs before hand about who would win the swim between us -  thanks mainly due to that push at the end I took the win in 28:20 compared to her 28:55. There must have been some current helping me somewhere as 28:20 is a huge PB for me over 1,500m. From memory I’ve broken 30 minutes just once before, and that was only by a couple of seconds.

I felt good coming out of the water and all fired up ready for some fun on the bike. A great start!
  • Transition 1 (Swim to Bike) 2:56
With no wetsuit to remove, T1 was uneventful. After picking up a blister on the run last week I decided to take the time to pop some socks on. As I was racing my road bike rather than my TT bike I didn’t have any loops on my shoes to attach them to the frame, so I had to put those on too and run out to the mount line in my cleats, clattering and skidding as I went.
  • The bike, 40km, 01:10:06, 391st
The bike course is four 10km loops that take in a few km of the Formula 1 circuit before branching off into the town, over a couple of bridges, through what looked like a disused car park, and then back onto the F1 circuit. The course was fairly flat, a few lumps and bumps with the only rises being over the bridges. The road surface was generally very good although there were some gratings, manhole covers, and at one point some sand to make the corners interesting. There were quite a few right-angled turns to keep it interesting.

A satellite view of the F1 course...

The most exciting thing is that this was a drafting race. Normally the bike component of a triathlon is non-drafting – this means you have to make sure there’s a certain minimum distance, normally 10m, between you and the bike in front with overtaking manoeuvres need to be completed within a time limit, typically 15 seconds to overtake and 15 seconds for the overtaken rider to drop back again.. This is why most triathlons are ridden on fast aerodynamic time-trial bikes. In a drafting race there are no such restrictions. Everyone rides road bikes and you can be as close as you like to the bike in front (therefore gaining an advantage by being in his slipstream), and if someone wants to sit on your wheel to get an advantage, they can do.

...and the bike route we followed

I shot off out of transition full of excitement; I’d really been looking forward to this. I immediately came across a couple of groups and decided they were going far too slowly for my liking, and shot past them looking for a pack going as fast as I wanted to go. I went round most of the first circuit alone, before getting into a group just before the start of the second.

Generally when you ride in a big pack it’s good form to take turns on the front. There’s no advantage in the front so it’s harder to keep the pace. With each rider taking a turn for a minute or two, the whole group can make better progress without tiring out. My turn came and I put some power down, I checked over my shoulder and I’d dropped the lot of them! Oops. They caught up and swallowed me up, then my turn came around again and the same thing happened! This probably wasn’t the right group for me.

Constant high heart rate all the way, check 40-50min - I finally got a drafting advantage!

I jumped off the front in search of some new friends to play with. For about 50% of the second lap I pushed hard. Racing on my road bike was great fun – it’s so much more nimble than my TT bike, and I feel a lot more comfortable flicking it about and through corners.

I found a new pack and had to work hard to stay in it – this was more like it. When my turn at the front came I couldn’t drop them this time, instead I put in some real effort and had a snake of about 20 people behind me for a quarter of a lap. Someone else took over and pushed hard. By the end of the third lap there were just 4 of us left, all working well together. Everyone else had slipped off the back. Loved it.

Kept my speed up, pace well under 2:00/km all the way through

Two of the remainder were from an earlier wave and so pulled off into transition at the end of the third lap. Me and my new friend pushed on for lap four, picking up a couple of stragglers along the way. We exchanged mutual respect statements and back slaps at the dismount into transition – I don’t think we had a common language (other than cycling).

This was my first experience in a drafting race and I absolutely loved it. You work yourself so hard that you can hardly breathe any more, and then get to recuperate by tucking into a pack, before taking up the reigns and doing it all over again – brilliant, I highly recommend it. I think you have to be strong on the bike though, and confident in a group - probably not for the feint-hearted.
  • T1 (Bike to Run) 2:35
Full of adrenaline and excitement I ran through T2 quite quickly. A change of shoes, a quick gel (High5 EnergyGel Plus caffeinated orange – tastes disgusting and metallic but I figured I needed a bit of a boost going into the run), and I was off again.
  • The run, 10km, 55:40, 1,039th
My run plan was simple: Firstly, try to run rather than shuffle along – it’s not an Ironman, you’ve only got to go 10km. Second, listen to my knee – if it even begins to hurt like last weekend, stop and stop immediately. This race was never planned; if I need to DNF to avoid an injury then I must do so. Thirdly, try and get in under an hour.

The run course was three laps round one side of the marina

The run course was a simple three-lap circuit with a lead-in from transition and a lovely finishing segment round the amazing building with the Mar de Bamboo restaurant in it. Today it was being used as a VIP bar area during the race – and at the F1 events it’s inside the circuit and very exclusive indeed. I tried to remember that I’m not “run fit” so I know my time will be slow in comparison with 10km PB performance, but let’s just see what happens.

This building is incredibly striking in the flesh - and much bigger than it looks here! (not my photo)

My legs felt surprisingly good after such a thrashing on the bike, and I set off at a healthy pace. The first km ticked over in 5:24, not bad. It’s now around 10am and the sun was firing up its afterburners. The temperature was rising sharply and some parts of the run course were very exposed with nowhere to hide. I had a bit of stomach discomfort in the first half, but I knew it would pass so pushed on through.

I was managing to stay under 6min/km and was comfortable with that. In the second half I even overtook a few people, a rarity! My solid consistent pacing was paying off and I was overtaking those who had gone out too hard and were now paying for it in the heat.

My knee had niggled me a little bit, but only once or twice and it certainly wasn’t hurting or aching – I continued to push on.

For once, my speed didn't drop off, when I pushed in the second half I got a sustained higher speed

With 3km left I turned up the effort. I didn’t seem to get much faster, but at least I didn’t slow down. I eschewed the final pass of the aid station and focused on the finish. The final 200m took us up a long carpeted ramp, round the base of the VIP building in the marina, and then down a ramp to the finish line. I was not looking forward to the up-ramp and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be made of sprung wooden slats and I could sproing up it without much effort at all.

There was an athlete ahead of me who had started his celebrating half way down the finish ramp, so with a final push I accelerated and overtook him a few metres before the line. A bit cheeky, but the race isn’t over until you cross the line and every place counts! From his number I think he was in my start wave too.

A rare piece of foreign bling for the wall
  • Final result, Olympic distance triathlon, 2:39:37, 707th
The finishing area was excellent with a veritable feast for the hungry athletes. We snaked through some counters with water, Amstel Lemon beer (nice for the first couple of cans, and very refreshing, a bit sickly beyond that), and Toro Loco energy drink - then had a choice of melon slices, pastries, sweet and savoury pasties and more.

There was no urgency to push through so we could have as much as we wanted including going back for seconds. The big win was that beyond the refreshments tables was a large square concreted area reserved for finishing athletes. There was all the room you could need to cool down, stand in the shade, stretch, and chat to fellow competitors.

This was a far better experience than last week where after a race of twice the length in harsh conditions the disoriented finishers were shunted out into a tiny area crammed full of people. You can learn from this, Ironman – get some more finishing space, it makes a huge difference to the race experience.

This is a race I would definitely consider again – the circuit is good and fast, and the drafting element makes it very exciting. If it falls a week or two before Ironman Wales next year it’ll be a great warm-up race, however I think it might clash – this year they were on the same day.

Mrs went off later. She was 3rd in her wave in the swim but suffered some really bad luck on the bike with a blowout in the front tyre just 10m out of transition. She had to abandon there and then – a real shame, but these things happen. Better that it happened this week in a C-Race than last week in Austria or next week when she’s racing on home turf on the famous Hyde Park course in London in the open sprint competition.

Matt (left) sprinting to win his age group - this is why kids on a finish line is a Very Bad Idea

The rest of Team Freespeed had good days. Matt Malloy won his age group, Jenny came third in hers and fourth woman overall, and David and Stuart raced well too. Richard, Mette, Steph, Helen, and the kids had a great day in the sun soaking up the atmosphere and watching the races.

L to R: Me, Mrs, Stuart, Jenny, Matt, with Dave seated

Afterwards we went to a bar on the beach-front for a few well-earned beers and food. We fixed Mrs’ tyre and cycled gently back to the hotel. We all met up and ate together in the evening, with some tipsy banter and good laughs. What a lovely day!

L to R: Mrs, Stuart, Mette, Nick, Jenny (Noah), Helen, Richard (Leo), and Steph, with Dave standing

It was fun feeling like part of a team for the weekend. I must give huge thanks to Team Freespeed and Virgin Active for the opportunity. Maybe one day I’ll get to have this kind of experience based on merit – got quite a long way before that happens though!

Back home now and back to the real world. The last few weeks of racing have been such good fun, yes even Austria where I had a horrible day. I need to remember this feeling over winter when the temptation is to sit on my bum and eat pies – it’ll be ten or a hundred times better in 2014 if I’m leaner, fitter, stronger, and faster. A long winter of turbo sessions awaits…

(PS: A few days later and my knee remained fine, looks like Austria was just a one-off :)

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