Having been one slot (although considerably more minutes!) away from Kona qualification at IMFrance earlier this year, I was on the lookout for an alternative race to close out my 2014 season. I considered the ITU World Championships, but the expense and logistical headache of getting to China was off-putting. The European Championships were taking place at Challenge Amsterdam-Almere, home to the second oldest triathlon in the world (after Kona) so since I’d never done a Challenge race before, this seemed like a good alternative. Meldy was roped in as Sherpa, although in retrospect I am not sure how well she met the “responsible adult” criteria as with our combined incompetence I am amazed I made it there and back alive.
Almere may well be the cleanest city I have ever visited. I saw nothing in the way of graffiti or dog poo, minimal litter (except on race day – please don’t do that, people!) and next to none of the general rubbish you get at the sides of the road in the UK. Mind you, it’s possible that it all just blew away.
Our hotel was about 50m from transition and this, combined with a start time of 7:10am meant a pretty sociable alarm call and breakfast. The lake wasn’t cold, but I was more worried about where I was actually supposed to be going. From the start line, I couldn’t see the red Challenge turn buoys at all. The guy on my right swore (in English) so I asked him where we were supposed to be swimming to. He told me that the first turn buoy was round to our right, obscured by the building. He also told me we got out of the water at the end of the first lap, which was not what they’d said at the race briefing, so I was busy wondering how much to believe him when the cannon went. Ah well – follow everyone else, as usual then!
Things went ok for the first couple of hundred metres. I settled into a rhythm and was fairly happy. Then my goggles steamed up and the rest of lap one is a mystery. The course should have been simple enough – counter-clockwise around a large triangle, twice. The sun was barely up though and the red buoys were very hard to see (even without the goggle fog). Several times I found myself swimming on my own, but when I stopped to try and properly look around, I would see a column of swimmers on my left and another on my right and not having a clue which were on a better line, I usually just kept going on my own merry meandering. Despite knowing there really wasn’t a mid-lap break, I couldn’t help hoping the guy at the start was right, which is why I left it until the end of the first loop to clear my goggles. The second lap was therefore a bit of a revelation. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend this as a strategy, it went quite some way to preventing me getting bored, as I saw various landmarks (the shoreline, several yellow buoys, alien-looking lake weed, a sunken shopping trolley…okay, no trolley) for the first time.
My biggest complaint with the swim though, was the absence of any type of finish gantry. The exit was a carpeted ramp, with volunteers on hand to help you out, but with transition behind them this was extremely difficult to spot until the last 50m or so. Even with clear goggles.
Pretty quickly through transition, out onto the bike and I passed a couple of familiar faces in the first few miles. The BTF trisuit does not meet my definition of comfortable when the chamois is wet, which is my excuse for a fair bit of wiggling in the early stages.
From about mile 5, we started to turn into the wind and miles 10 – 25 were directly into it. There was no let up and nothing at all for shelter, it was just a case of putting your head down and getting on with it. IM heart rate was producing an average speed for that section of between 15 and 16 mph, but if you’re working at an appropriate effort, speed just is what it is. The fastest half distance cyclists started to come past me on this stretch, like I was standing still; incredible strength in that wind. From my recollection of the map, I figured we would turn away from this head on at about 25 miles and was mightily relieved when this proved to be the case. A short section with the tail wind followed, but the zigzagging way we returned meant a cross wind was more often the case. I would be pretty happy if I never bike in that sort of wind again; even Kona didn’t compare, as there the wind was gusting, not a constant blast. I really think the Dutch should consider making the windmill some kind of national symbol or something, so that people are forewarned about the wind…?
The night before the race, just prior to going to sleep, Meldy and I had a discussion about the enormous spider that had taken up residency outside our hotel window. I had wondered how our window-spider friend would go about riding a bike and decided that his bike should be a single-saddled tandem, so that two pairs of legs could do the pedalling, leaving one pair for the drops (for steering and brakes) and one for the aero bars. This was quite a nice mental image. I thought a lot about this whilst twice circumnavigating Almere. I also decided that spiders would be good at boxing, tabletennis, rowing and basketball, but rubbish at equestrian sports, most track and field (with the exception of the pole vault) and all variations on football. Holland isn’t particularly known for its views, so there was little else to do really, except pedal, stretch my neck and shoulders every so often and try and get the job done. A fellow GB athlete caught up with me about 10 miles from T2 and asked me if I was ready to run. I replied that I was more than ready to get off the bike, if that was what he meant, but beyond that, I wasnt sure!
Bike: 5:46:56 (Did I mention the wind?!)
Finally off the bike and back around the lake for the run. Although 26 miles is 26 miles, six laps seemed quite a daunting way to get this done, as well as having the potential to get really dull. As it turned out, it was quite a varied loop, on nice footpaths and usually not within actual sight of the water.
From a tactical point of view, the fact that the organizers decided not give out wrist bands as lap counters was a disadvantage. It was impossible to know where people were in relation to you, or whether they were in my age group or not. Our race packs had included 6 hair bands, which we were invited to use if we so desired, but when I put them on my wrists, they felt uncomfortably tight – and I have little wrists! – so it was a case of counting to 6 and overtaking as much as possible. I set off steadily, keeping my heart rate down and was fairly happy with the pace when, right on cue, my heart rate monitor stopped working. From then on, I probably erred a little too much on the side of caution. Lap 4 was a bit of a low point, but I hooked up with a fellow GB athlete and we had a bit of a chat, which passed the time. There were groups of GB supporters at various points on the course who did a fabulous job of making anyone in GB kit feel like a rockstar. I had to remember my automatic response of a Piratey “arrgghhh!” wouldn’t be understood – old habits die hard!
I played Spot the Meldy on each loop, ate a lot of orange segments and cursed my HRM and finally it was the last lap. I was wondering why Meldy hadn’t been giving me any information about my placing, so as I set off on the final loop, I asked her how I was doing. “Perfect” came the reply. This could have meant one of two things – either I was winning my AG, or I was nowhere near winning my AG and she didn’t want to discourage me. Either way, I thought it meant I should put some effort into the final 4 miles. As it turned out, Challenge’s tracker was even worse than IronMan’s and she had no idea.
Challenge amalgamated several female age groups, so from their point of view, I raced in the broad F24 – 39 age group, in which I was second, to an F30. The ETU ran traditional age groups, which means I am F35-39 European Long Distance Champion, earning me two trips onto the podium, two medals, a trophy and a fun time – that’ll do me!