Friday, 19 June 2015

Solstice Triathlon 18/06/15

When we got back from holiday I was a bit alarmed to be reminded the Solstice Tri was this week. I have felt a bit jet lagged – all that travelling and the dregs of a cold and this crappy weather and just a bit low energy. I was seriously thinking about not showing up. Then I checked the entry fee (£36) and non-refundable this late in the day, and so reluctantly dragged myself along.

Having no other way of getting myself there I cycled – with a couple of pannier bags on the back of the bike full of towels, wet-suit, running gear, standing around gear, biking gear and various options of all of the above. There is a lot of fannying about in Triathlon. And that's without shaving my legs or wearing sunglasses when there's no sun.

reflective or shit scared? 
My first open water race.

The event is organised by the lovely people of Pentland Tri so I mustn't be too rude about it because they (and just about everyone I bumped into last night) are lovely! But the whole fear factor on top of the not-feeling-up-for-it energy levels, did make me a little grumpy. (Hey no change there I hear you say.)

So the thing began with an hour of cycling a heavy load up-hill from Leith to Threipmuir. I gave myself plenty of time as I wanted to stop off at EBC and get a new pair of cycle mitts. I suspected there was a really good chance of taking a dive over the handlebars and I wanted some padding on my paws. I tried not to race up the long drags but still managed to arrive a bit damp and woolly legged. (Excuse #1.)

(JoTho) Jim, pb, Mike
All going well so far

I changed into my standing-around clothes. Seona drew a marker pen number 22 on my arm and I picked up my swim cap, number, Stinger Honey Waffle (scoffed immediately) towel and handlebar sticker. I hadn't quite timed my lunch properly (too early) and had been snacking since to fill the gaps before a 7.30pm kick off.

Did I mention the weather (for mid summer) was appalling? What was a cold stiff breeze in town was an arctic gale at Threipmuir and we all stood about with chattering teeth hugging ourselves, looking at the water, into which we would be getting, with disbelief. What was I doing here?

Berit, Mitch and Kate

And I remembered, or was reminded by Mitch that it was himself that suggested a few off-road tri events, this one being particularly recommended, after I got a new mtb. He was there and shared a few top tips immediately before, some helpful (don't wear a jacket for the bike even though you are freezing right now). And some just bizarre: rub this baby-oil on the cuffs of your wetsuit to aid extrication! So now I am standing painfully barefoot on the shores of a Pentland reservoir on a baltic Thursday evening, about to immerse myself in the frigid waters, like a lubed condom.

But first we stand and listen to a long and largely unnecessary talk about where the route goes. Only the first 5 need to know really, we'll just be following them. During the chat my feet turn to ice. And (prob due to landowners concerns) the bike route has been changed. This is the kernal of my fear (not the swim) since I recci-ed the previous route a couple of times in the last few weeks. And (tough climbs aside) it was ok. During a recent cycle with Mike however we gingerly descended the gravelly trail to Bonaly car park. I remarked at the time how pleased I was that we didn't have to do this in the race. (“Thank fuck that's not in the race.”) No prizes for guessing where the new route went? So if I survived the swim I could look forward to this bowel loosening downhill career. The gradient is very steep encouaging speed, but the terrain is loose deep large gravel. If you turn the front wheel it skitters and slides sideways, the precursor to a high speed mash up. Thankfully for some of the quarter mile there is a grass path on the right although it is rutted and undulating.

that descent into Bonaly from a couple of weeks ago

I was so terrified of this part of the course that I forgot to be wary of the swim. Just back from Portugal where I swam every day, partly with this event in mind but more because I like swimming. However I wasn't wearing a wet suit and the water was just right for swimming, cool but not cold. I did 60 lengths of the hotel pool on one occasion. Although that was only about 12m long. I think the swim last night was about 750m. Certainly more than I have swum in one go outdoors. And when I swim at Threipmuir I tend to stick to the shore and walk every hundred yards and tip the water out my goggles. That was another point of contention. I took an old pair of swim goggles and my usual ones which are recreational (for looking at stuff underwater.) I meant to get into the water early and find out which worked best. On dry land it seemed the recreational ones formed the best seal but I know from experience I have to empty them every 100 yards. Can't be doing that in a race. But better the devil you know etc. So I wore them.

Photo Lesley Marshall
This looks like a cult baptism or mass suicide.

We all got into the water and it was a bit like standing in a line to be executed by firing squad. I deliberately went deep as Jim H said it is like being in a washing machine at the start and there's a good chance of get kicked in the goggles. What's not to like? Before I had properly accustomed myself to the water (not that cold) a hooter sounded and we were off. I had told myself not to head off too fast and be out of breath in 50 strokes and I thought I was doing ok. Until after about 100 strokes and I was out of breath. Despite hearing Jones's “don't panic” I was feeling a rising panic. My wetsuit felt tight and restricting over my chest and round my neck (it felt absolutely fine before we got in the water) and although I was breathing every second stroke (I only do the one side) it was not enough. I wondered if anyone else was breast-stroking yet. (They were.) I had to swim on my back and gulp air. I thought I would give it a few yards of this till I caught my breath then return to crawl (freestyle they call it these days I hear). Crawl = more apt.

I have always been a competent swimmer. I was in a pool 5 times a week in my early teens, and although I didn't do lengths as training I became familiar with how to get through water. I was third best swimmer in my year at secondary and they asked me to represent my house in the school gala. I said I didn't want to and when they asked why I said I swam for fun not to compete. Partly true, although the real reason included that I didn't need to get wet to find out I was the third best swimmer in the year. The other 2 were club swimmers from generations of swimmers and did mindless lengths at shit o'clock in the morning. They “forgot” to take my name off the gala and because I had my kit, (5 times a week) I swam. I was third. The whole process struck me as dim. Swimming pools are full of noxious stuff like chlorine and kids. I like swimming in interesting places. I would recommend the Algarve. Less so Threipmuir with its mud brown water although it does taste better than sea. However (with the recent 60 lengths the exception) I keep forgetting to TRAIN.

This is the sort of swimming I prefer (last week in the Algarve.)

I think I would have done considerably better if I'd got into the water earlier and done a decent warm up. I mostly backstroked the first half to the buoy. Jim said afterwards that he had remarkably similar experiences – tight wetsuit, trouble breathing, misting up goggles etc. We stayed about the same part of the field and he watched me backstroke the first half, probably wondering why he wasn't going considerably faster. My breathing recovered to an extent although I was still having to empty my goggles every hundred yards. In fact I raised my goggles for a while in the first half while on my back. The second half I began to relax into the turmoil. OK head down and lets see if I can get out of the back third. I got into a rhythm but then looking up I saw nobody ahead. Doing a double take and swallowing water I turned to my right and still nobody. I turned almost right round before seeing the crowd, and that I was heading off perpendicularly to it. I reckon I could have been about 75m off course and cursed myself. I kept some feet in sight for a while although in the second half I was making ground (water) over a lot of the field. Then I would get too close to the feet and have to overtake. It certainly manages to remove most of the pleasure from swimming.

The business of being in deep water, that idea that you are out of your depth, that can seem alarming beforehand: I was so caught up in the turmoil I didn't have time to freak out about it and it was the least of many problems. Jim reckons we left the water around the same time. I couldn't confirm this as I wasn't fully in charge. I was struggling to unzip and de-neoprene, while running on blocks of ice trying not to kick submerged bricks.

Mitch's tip: remove your swim hat (and hood – I was wearing a neoprene hood as well, mainly to keep some water out my ears) and goggles with one hand, then pull that hand through the arm of your suit, leaving the gubbins trapped in your wet suit arm. Contains it all at T1.

T1 was leisurely. I had cut 3inch slits up the back of my wetsuit legs to speed removal and it seemed to work ok but then I had to put on heavily talc-ed socks over numb feet and into shoes tying laces with fumbling fingers. T-shirt on (and it rumples like a straight jacket around the shoulder blades) then helmet and new mitts on and suddenly I'm flying down the road almost immediately overtaking folk letting them know I'm coming past on the right. And there's Bob taking photos. I am worried about how far down the field I have dropped as the people seem to be cycling in a very non-competitive way. Am I the only one standing on the pedals? I overtake about 10 folk on the climb up to Maiden's Cleugh. Or more. A few towards the top stay with me and then a couple zip off on the descent. I am cautious, especially overtaking folk on the downhill and sit behind someone for a while waiting for a wider spot before making a move. The guys ahead are already off the radar.

almost having fun - thanks to Bob for photo

My cycling is like my swimming. I have always had a bike – even in the drunkest darkest moments of my art school years I would cycle into college (late). However I have never raced and as such, am uncertain what speed is competitive and what, breakneck. Trying to avoid the latter. Recces are of course the answer. Then they changed the route at the last moment. So now we are going down from Maiden's to Glencorse but before the bottom we turn sharp left, down onto the granny chainring and up steeply up-hill rutted (thankfully dry) dirt tracks. A competent cyclist nearby nails the turn and keeps on the pedals. I am off and running, pushing the bike, and pleased I seem to be keeping up with the competent dude. Very much a runner's answer to triathlon: push the bike and run over the technical stuff. I keep up with him as we overtake 5 or 6 more who seem stymied by the tricky cycling and are walking pushing bikes or cycling slower yet. Eventually the gradient allows a re-mount and I hop on refreshed from the run. Overtaking is fraught although sort of necessary as people ahead display a variety of abilities. I think the adrenalin and red bull (consumed at 5pm) are encouraging me to push through and generally I am pleased that most of the judgement calls I have made on the bike have panned out. The bike is going well. (I have already passed several punctures including sadly Jim H whose race (on a thinner tyred cyclocross) ended at Maidens Cleugh, pretty much the first opportunity to burst a tube. He was 12 bikes ahead of me at Bob Marshall.) The 29” wheels roll over gaps: as if to prove the point a girl upends her 26” in a ditch she forgot to lift her front over. I am operating on fear and self preservation rather than skills learned. But now we are approaching the dreaded Bonaly gravel.

I am trying to keep the speed up but can feel the bars buffet and wobble as the front tyre snakes through the deeper gravel ponds. Fuck it, I'm up on the grass. A guy whizzes by at a speed I wouldn't even think about. Just not worth it mate. I presume we're not even in the top ten, though I have no idea. Whatever, it's not worth breaking bones over. I stick to the grass verge as much as possible but there are parts where you have to do the gravel. Then through the gate (held open as are all the gates, thank you lovely Pentland Tri people) and down to the sharp left, change down gear and climb like a bastard. Various riders express relief at getting past the gravel and it slowly sinks in I have squeaked through without spilling any blood. Oh I forgot to mention the blood red towels they gave us at the start (for mopping up spills no doubt). I do like a nice (small) towel. Take them to work. These are very red and might have to be washed seperately.

Anyway I blast past more folk on the flat easy ground, but mostly it's quite up and down round the same route as the 7 Reservoirs from here. Bit of a climb up towards Maidens again, where with absorbing big fat 2.2” tyres I overtake a dude sweating on his thin cyclocross wheels. Not a course for cyclocross. Very choppy rocky stuff and the 29er rolls over it without complaint. And whizz along the flat. Bob again and I'm still out the saddle. At some point my instincts tell me Mike is hunting me down. Sure enough he goes past just before T2, I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner. (His swimming is slowish, his cycling is fast.) However he has to change shoes from spds. All I have to do is rack my bike, remove my helmet and run. I use toe clips on my bike. They give enough pull and are super quick release. And I don't race my bike so I don't really need spds. But best of all I can bike and run in Hokas. I take off on the run and make short work of the 2 dudes who were just ahead on the bike. I think Mike is still changing his shoes. Then third lady. There is nobody ahead within sight so I settle in to the run. I am a bit concerned that there are no marshals or markings at the far end where I just follow the trail and worry I might have gone wrong. Can we be turning already? Appears so. There is Bob again who asks am I enjoying it yet? I am certainly relieved not to have drowned or broken bones or bike parts but maybe the enjoyment threshold has yet to be breached. And is that the finish line already? So the bike is longer than the swim and run combined? This is plainly a scam put on by bikers to take the piss out of runners. Whoever decided on the relevant distances was not a runner. Trouble is, I am.

I have no idea where I came and because I am not wearing a watch or garmin (due to wetsuit and water) how long it took. I saw the third overall dude more than half way through his run before I got off the bike, although the run was only about as far as you could spit. Jim dnf-ed and pushed his bike back to the finish. Mike finished right on my heels. I didn't even sweat into my running shirt and wore it home, that's how short the run was. James Harrison was there. Really good to catch up with him (exPRCer) and he had a reasonable time, coming fourth. Although he did admit to being as scared as myself about the biking. He is a roadie and had to borrow an MTB. He was on the grass at Bonaly as well, although I suspect travelling a little quicker than myself. Mary and I spoke of James just the other day: Mary had been searching some old (2006) NHS newspaper and come across this article.

James has since had 2 kids and takes the majority role of child carer, his wife being the main wage earner. We chatted together on the cycle home. His focus this year is hillrunning and cycling.

Before we left there was a quick prizegiving for top 3 m&f and NO AGE GROUP PRIZES. I guess £36 per entry doesn't go very far these days then? OK that was pretty much my only grump with the organisers who went to a LOT of trouble making a transition area where you could rack a bike etc, and putting up marquees for those modest enough to need to change indoors. Best thing was a hot drink and a really excellent large burger (freshly BBQed) in a bun free of charge. (As part of your £36) And a banana and water and a biscuit as you finished. So yes, lovely folk, but a bit expensive. Probably not by Tri standards. From what I hear they're normally an arm and a leg and some of your teeth as well. The sport of doctors and lawyers on carbon bikes. But not good runners. Just what I hear. If I was a doctor I'm sure I wouldn't blanch at the cost either. And I'd have an expensive bike. And run slowly.

There is a tempting event (Craggy Island) in Sept. I'm tempted but the jury is still out and it may sell out before I get there. Do I want to take time out from being a reasonable runner to being a third rate tri-guy? I'm not sure I need to go along to that particular gala to find out what I already know. But if you are in the mood sometimes it can be fun to test yourself at something new, just for the buzz. Thoughts are with Richard L who is doing an Ironman in the Lakes this weekend. This accounts for his numerous 100+milers on the bike and a lack of proper running of late. He knows the score.

Huge thanks to Bob and Lesley coming out on a flippin' cold evening to take photos and cheer us on, really appreciated and the excellent results (many of which I have used here) were posted pronto last night and can be found here

presumably the results will be on the Pentland Tri website here


  1. Great event write up. I was one of those nice people telling you which direction to go in on the bike course

  2. Big thanks Ryan, I should try to do more marshalling myself, in return for all the good folk like yourself who go and stand in the cold to help out fellow athletes, and who are essential to make events like this happen.

  3. Hi, I remember you running with the bike behind me! I was the guy cycling just in front of you on Phantom's Cleugh. Did you do Craggy Island? It's much more a runner's tri. The run (8k) takes me longer than the bike ride. I think it'd be really well suited for you :) I quite like the swim and the MTB is not technical at all (save for one descent). Cheers, John-Sebastian

  4. Hi,
    I was signed up for Craggy Island but due to transport problems and work never made it. Maybe next year.