At the start of the year, when I set myself a ‘triathlon’ challenge of running, cycling and swimming every week, I never dreamt that I’d find myself taking part in the real thing. Nonetheless, once the idea was presented to me, I couldn’t not do it, and signed myself up for the 1/8 distance at the inaugural Vrouwentriathlon in Utrecht.
For those not in the know, that means 500m swimming (in a lake), 20km cycling and 5km running.
After making copious reminder notes on random pieces of paper the whole week leading up to the event, and studying the photos from last year’s event in Beesd (to see how many participants were riding on standard city bikes, rather than race bikes – the answer, not many), I was finally ready on Saturday night to lay out my gear, and panic when I couldn’t find my running shoes. They did turn up, eventually, in my wardrobe. Not a usual place to keep them…
Sunday morning dawned very early, after a very broken night in which I kept waking up and panicking that I’d overslept. I got myself together, swimming gear under my jeans and t-shirt, and headed off with my bike to Ypenberg station, 7km or so away. Given that I have a perfectly good station 5 minutes away, that might seem crazy, but there was method in my madness – I had no desire to lug my bike up and down stairs, so I plumped for a station with a lift! Despite problems with roadworks which send me off course, and problems with the ticket machine at the railway station, I made it up onto the platform with about 10 minutes to spare before my train left. Missing it would have meant cutting things very fine indeed – although my race didn’t start until 11am, the registration desk was only open until 9am.
I’ll say one thing for the new sprinter trains – they may not be pretty, or particularly comfortable, but they do have plenty of room for bikes, and easy access for getting them on and off.
Leaving the train at Utrecht Terwijde, I found myself in the lift with another participant and her father. We set off together but were a little flumoxed a few minutes later to see someone cycling towards us on a fancy race bike and carrying a banana – looked awfully like another triathlete, but going in the wrong direction. After checking Google Maps, and chatting to another rider who stopped, we quickly concluded that in fact we were the ones cycling off into the distance. After taking another look at the map I eventually cottoned on to the cause of my confusion – Utrecht is of course to the east, not the west! Fortunately we hadn’t gone that far, and we had plenty of time.
After 5 or 10 minutes cycling we found the start without any further difficulty, picking up another couple riders on the way. I was already disconcerted to see that my standard city bike stood out in the crowds… I’d had the feeling that with this being a good ‘starter’ event, more people would be using their normal bikes, but it appeared that I was wrong.
After picking up my race number and collecting my commemorative bike shirt and goodie bag, I decided not to hang around, but headed straight down to the start area at the beach.
The pre-race jittery part
The first thing to do when I got down to the beach was to set up my transition area – the place where you leave your bike and everything you need for the bike and run part of the course. Before being allowed in our bikes and helmets were given a quick once over, and we had our hands stamped so that we could have free access to the area for the rest of the morning. I got things set up as best as I could, trying not to panic at the professional looking girl next to me preparing her wetsuit, and then looked up and caught sight of my friend Anna disappearing into the distance. I decided to leave the rest of my prep until later, and rushed off to find her.
Anna was volunteering at the event as one of the traffic people on the bike course – equipped with t-shirt and whistle!
We hung out together until the first race began – she needed to leave for the bike course, and I wanted to watch the start of the 1/16 race (250m swim/10km bike/2.5km run). After a general briefing, all the participants of the first race headed off to the far end of the beach for the start of the swim. Despite the weather forecasts, it was still rather cloudy and ominous looking at this point.
After final instructions on the course, the racers all entered the water, amidst gasps and shrieks. Apparently 18C is not all that warm, when it comes to water temperature. Looking out into the lake and staring at the buoy further out which I was going to swim to, I had my first moment of real panic. Swimming out into the open water, with nothing to hold onto if it all went wrong suddenly seemed very scary indeed.
With a lot of whistle blowing and shouts that people were going out too far, finally everyone was ready for the countdown to the start.
3 minutes… 2 minutes… 1 minute… 30 seconds… and with a blast of the horn, they were off in a sea of bobbing pink hats.
Along with the rest of the spectators I walked back to the transition area and waited for the swimmers to come in. With one girl far out ahead of the rest it didn’t take long before she’d covered the 250m and was running up to transition. I waited for the last swimmer to come through and then left to make my own final preparations.
Back at transition I found that the area around my bike had really filled up. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw that the girl who had set up next to me in my absence was also using a normal bike. We got chatting, in Dutch, and then happily switched back to English when I recognized her accent and discovered that she was Scottish! Like me, she and her friend were doing this for the first time, and so after getting our last things together we hung together at the start.
Like the first set of participants we made the walk down the beach together, got our final briefing and then entered the water. Up to the knees it didn’t feel too bad. Further in up to the neck, the cold took my breath away and I had to fight the panic. I stopped and trod water until I felt my breathing relax, and then distracted myself by chatting to the people around me. I put my face in the water once, recoiled at its greenness, and wondered if breaststroke might not be such a bad idea after all.
Like the other group we had a countdown, but I never heard it. All I heard was the horn blowing, and we were off! On automatic pilot, I put my face into the water and started swimming front crawl. 3 strokes, breathe. 3 strokes, breathe… each time I came up, checking that I was still heading towards the big purple buoy.
Scared of being run over by people at the start, I’d placed myself at the back of the pack, and found myself actually overtaking people. Not being used to swimming in open water, I didn’t really know how to pace myself, so I took it gently, just keeping a nice even rhythm. As we passed the first buoy and headed out into the middle of the lake, I suddenly realized how much I was actually enjoying myself, and how comfortable I felt out there.
Before I knew it I was rounding the buoy and on the final stretch towards the pier and the shore. I watched the woman in front of me rise out of the water, then it was my turn, barely noticing the cheering spectators, I jogged along the grass into transition, dripping all the way!
(the wiggles in the course are more down to the Garmin getting confused by constantly going in and out of the water, than by my bad sighting… I think)
Coming into transition, I was immediately aware how much fewer bikes there were than at the start. That said, my bike was far from alone!
I dried off my feet as best as I could, pulled on my socks and shoes, swapped the pink swimming cap for the bike helmet, and started wrestling with my start number. We’d been given race belts in our goodie bags, and I’d pinned my number on earlier. Unfortunately, one of the safety pins came out, and after jabbing me in the finger, vanished into the grass. I replaced the remaining one in the centre of the number and hoped that it would be sufficient.
I wheeled my biked out of the transition area, managed a reasonable proficient looking mount at the start line and I was on my way for two rounds of 10km each.
We had a good wide road all the way along, although we did have to share it with a lot of other Sunday traffic – families, mostly, with children on scooters, bikes and roller blades, all forming obstacles to be avoided! There was also a fair supply of runners and cyclists, many of whom offered encouragement along the way.
Although I kept a good pace up, as I’d expected I was easily overtaken by a lot of people on race bikes. Not letting it bother me, I kept my own tempo and just enjoyed my own race, waving at all the volunteers along the way. Reaching the halfway point of the loop I saw Anna holding back the traffic! I waved madly to her, and as I passed, she, and the onlookers all cheered me on.
(photo by John de Boer)
My bike not really being set up for this kind of thing, has no water bottle holder, and having taken my bottle of custom made sports drink out of my back pocket, I never managed to get it back in again. I ended up holding it the whole way!
Before I knew it I was already back to the starting point and halfway through the course. By this point I had the distinct feeling that there was no-one behind me anymore. I kept pedaling away, this time having a better idea of what was coming ahead of me, passed Anna again, to more cheering and kept on going until yet again the beach came in sight. This time I veered off to the left, over the bridge, and managed a smooth running dismount at the finish line.
This was where things really got tough. As soon as I was off the bike I could feel how stiff my calves were, and my attempts at running were pretty pathetic. By now it was after midday, the sun was shining, and it was very hot. Setting off along a rather boring pathway, I could hear them announcing the arrival of the fourth finisher. There were already four people in, and I had still had 5km to go. Coming towards me was a stream of exhausted looking women, all of whom were within a couple minutes of finishing. After really enjoying both the swim and bike legs, the run was already proving tough, both physically and mentally.
I tried to listen to the encouragement being thrown to me by those runners who still had enough energy to do so, but the little voice in my head reckoning up how far I had to go proved louder. After rounding the first corner, I came to the conclusion that I would be almost as fast walking as running, and since I was certain that I was already last, and I couldn’t see anyone going in my direction up ahead, I didn’t think I had any chance of really closing the gap.
I stopped running, and walked as briskly as I could. Every few minutes when I could bear it, I ran a little again, and then slowed down to a walk. The stream of runners coming towards me thinned to a trickle, and I saw more and more people walking. I made the turn off onto the grass, and enjoyed the feeling of something soft under my feet. The change in surface loosened things up again and I made some more attempts at running.
Finally I reached the turnaround point, and took the cup of water being held out to me by a young kid. It was the last thing I wanted, given that the portaloo at the transition area was out of order, and I was pretty much bursting by this point in the day, but I didn’t have the heart to refuse.
With the encouragement of the volunteers behind me, I made the turn and set back off on the homeward stretch. Just 2.5km to go. I ran as much as I could, but by that point my neither my legs nor my soul were really willing! Eventually I made the turn back onto the road parallel to the beach and the end was almost in sight. I could see the blue shirts of the volunteers up ahead at the turn-off and I willed myself to keep running.
I took the corner, and there was Anna waiting for me. Never have I been so glad to see a familiar face. She ran alongside me at the start of the finisher’s chute, spurring me on when I thought I had nothing more to give.
(photo by John de Boer)
I approached the finisher’s arch, cheered on by all the spectators who kindly waited for the last person to come in! The officials called out that they needed to see my race number, so I unfurled it and held it out as best as I could, and crossed the finish line.
The clock read 1:59:50, and it’s official – I’m actually a triathlete, albeit the slowest one on the course. According to my Garmin, the times were as follows:
- Swim: 18:26
- T1: 4:06 (overestimate since I hit the lap button as soon as I exited the water, and didn’t hit it again until I was on the bike and moving)
- Bike: 54:56 (less a minute or two in T2)
- T2: (no idea, completely forgot I was supposed to hit the watch)
- Run: 42:38 (absolutely the slowest 5K I’ve ever done!)
Anna and her Dad (who I hadn’t even seen cheering me on, so focused as I was on finishing) caught me up on the other side of the finish line, and walked over with me to the transition area to try and get my stuff in order. Fantastically prepared, he’d come armed with sandwiches, and I wolfed down one with peanut butter and hagelslag (hundreds and thousands) – best sandwich I’ve ever tasted! I truly have fantastic supporters.
Everything together, we headed our separate ways into Utrecht, found a terrace and enjoyed a drink in the sun, before I headed off back home.
The long-term aftermath
It’s official, I’m hooked. Even though the run felt pretty brutal, I had a really fantastic time and enjoyed it far more than any running event I’ve done.
I think my future holds a new bike.