A bittersweet experience at the British Triathlon Championship for Alex, as he explains….
(we’re over the moon though!)
It’s 05:45 on a Sunday morning the day after the British Triathlon age group championships. Despite the previous night’s beers and consumption of excessive BBQ meat, my mind or body doesn’t seem to realise that the usual routine doesn’t need to be adhered to today.
Yesterday was a great day in many respects, I took the gold medal in the 25-29 category to become a British Age Group champion and finished 2nd overall. I should be right royally chuffed with this, but as will be revealed there is also a sense of frustration which makes this race report quite a painful one to write (as painful as they can be anyway).
Being a British Championships and the opportunity to qualify for the World Championships in September meant that standard was always going to be high. The start list showed a few familiar names in my age group who had beaten me in separate races earlier this year. Along with those in the other age groups I thought a top 10 overall finish and medal in my age group would be a good result.
Since my last race I’d had a very good couple of weeks of training. Swimming had been going well and despite the great weather I’d swapped the evening outdoor rides for the more intense, painful but ultimately more beneficial sessions on the turbo trainer. As the days of training accumulated I was feeling pretty drained by the Sunday before the race and happily took the whole day off (made easier by the chance to watch the Tour De France and Wimbledon Men’s final). As with any taper period (the days of reduced training before the race) the following few days involved feeling like a lead balloon where even climbing the stairs up to bed feels like a daunting challenge. One of the benefits of racing more this year is that I’m a lot more accustomed to this and able to take it as a good sign of the previous weeks hard work.
With the race on the Saturday I’d taken a day’s holiday to travel over to Liverpool on the Friday and take care of all the registration admin. The race was in a great location, based around the gentrified docklands with the swim taking place in the Wapping and Queen’s docks, whilst the lapped bike and run course took us past the Liver building and Echo Arena and created a spectator-friendly environment. After picking up my race numbers myself, Lex Hughes and Paul Savage (both Manchester Triathlon members) had a look at the swim course and transition areas before heading for our pre-race dinner. Unfortunately the run course was still being marked out, the significance of which will be revealed.
I woke up on race morning at 0430, 3hrs before my start time to get a decent bit of food down me (banana malt loaf followed by another couple of bananas with peanut butter if you’re interested) before snoozing for an hour or so. After making the final kit and bike checks I had the essential espresso and made the short trip from the hotel to the start.
With the bike racked and new wetsuit on, and it was quickly time to get into the water. Our age group included close to 125 competitors so we had been split into two separate waves, separated by a 10 minute gap. I was in the first wave and made sure I got a good position on the pontoon to avoid the need to swim diagonally to the first buoy. The smaller waves meant swim start wasn’t as aggressive as usual but I took an arm to the goggles at the first buoy. Thankfully they didn’t come off and only slightly filled with water which made sighting a bit tricky. After the first buoy I was near the front group, although I was sure a couple of other swimmers were already out of reach. By the 500m mark and we had become a group of 4 and the new wetsuit was making the swim far easier and comfortable and made me realise how restrictive and poor fitting my previous one had been. This group stayed together for the rest of the swim apart from when we were briefly navigated around the previous wave’s swimmers, and the odd jelly fish.
The group of 4 exited the swim together and jogged up the ramp into the transition area to collect our bikes. After finding my spot amongst the other 1200 racers I slipped off the wetsuit, donned the aero helmet and took off to join the 10km bike loop. As our wave merged with the earlier starters I tried to keep track of those in my wave and the lapped course and high number of racers meant that the first lap and a half saw about 5 racers from my wave bunched together and trying to avoiding any drafting violations. This inevitably means easing off the gas to drop 7m behind the person in front, and after a lap and a bit of this I was getting sick of the process. Luckily one of the other riders felt the same and quickly took off after the turnaround point. Whilst you can’t draft off other riders there is still benefit of keeping close enough to someone to act as a pacemaker. I took off after him and soon we had put some distance between the rest of the bunch. By the third lap this guy had pulled away and was about 20 seconds ahead of me. Rather than make any intense effort to close this gap I continued at my own pace and was confident that I would close this on the run. The flat straight bike course meant that you could really get your head down and grind it out in the big gears to build up some speed. With only two turn points at either end of the course the bike was a hard, non-stop effort for the full 57 and a bit minutes it took me to complete the 38-40k distance.
I jumped off the bike and began the run into transition and I narrowly avoided being taken out as the person in front lost control of their bike and ended up on the floor. I racked the bike, slipped on the shoes and set off quickly, onto the 10k, 2 lapped run. After a minute or so I passed a cyclist who had pulled away from me on the bike, but after this I couldn’t be sure who in front was in my age group or one of the previous waves. The temperate was rising and I was grateful for the run sections shaded by the Liver Building and art galleries.
The legs were feeling ok but I could definitely feel the effects of the bike during that first lap.
Here’s where it all went a bit pear shaped.
One of the useful traits in triathlon training and racing is being able to block out the pain that inevitably creeps up on you as the race reaches the latter stages. As I headed back down to the end of the first lap and the turnaround point I can only think I blocked this pain and everything else out a bit too much. Instead of turning for the second lap I managed to run past the turnaround point and instead carried down the route towards the finish. I realised something wasn’t right an asked a marshal where the turnaround point was, “down at the end of the road” came the reply, so I carried on.
The next thing I was on the finishing straight and asked the next bunch of marshalls who pointed me back in the right direction. You can imagine what went through my head as I realised I’d added an extra 300-400m or 45-60 seconds to my run. I can’t blame anyone but myself for this and I think I may wake up in cold sweats with the nightmares.
The second lap was a mixture of pain and anger as I began to realise how much the mistake could cost me. As I came back down the long straight towards the finish area I significantly increased the pace to make sure I finished with nothing left knowing that every second would count.
I turned down the finishing straight (for the second time) well and truly spent. After a few minutes the announcer stated that they were still waiting for the first finisher from my age group wave. What!? I thought, I’m right here! On the bright side this meant that I’d won my half of the age group, but I then thought my extra running might have messed with the electronic timing system and my result hadn’t been recorded at all!
It was now just a case of waiting whilst the later age group wave finished their race. My honest expectations for this race were a top ten finish overall, and a medal for my age group. I knew there were others racing in my age group who had beaten my in separate races this year so a medal was a possibility but never a sure thing. My mistake must of cost me a minute or so plus the extra energy used, and I truly thought this would push me out of the age group medals.
As the provisional results were printed out I saw my position as 4th. C**p, I thought, missed out on an age group medal by one place. I then realised this was 4th overall, closer inspection then revealed that those currently in 1st and 2nd had actually dropped out during the run but that this had not been accounted for. From the low of feeling that I’d missed out altogether was the high from realising I’d just become a British Age Group Champion. Maybe I should’ve left it there and never looked at the results ever again. Curiosity got the better of me and I traced down the list looking for 1st overall. Chris Standidge…..1st Overall. Ah I thought, Chris has been in great form this year, I wonder what was his time was…..01:55:21…hang on, what was my time again? I traced back up the list….Alex Lawton 2nd overall….01:55:27….6 seconds behind! I’m sure you can imagine how I felt!
So I’d become a British Age Group Champions, exceeding my expectations, but still feeling the disappointment of missing out on the overall win. Sometimes these things happen, even to the best of them (such as Mr Brownlee’s mistake leading to a 30sec penalty in the Olympic Games). The important thing is to learn from it, not to do it again, and realise that the overall result was beyond my expectations and beyond what I would’ve been capable of even 12 months ago.
Luckily I tend not to get too caught up in the negatives or too carried away with the positives. I’ll have plenty more opportunities and there are still some important races this year to focus on, starting next weekend with the North West Sprint Championships!