“Blithfield….where?……Abbotts Bromley…..where?……East Staffordshire……still not sure” That was how most of the conversations went when asked where my recent race was. I say recent but it was actually the 4th of August and it’s just taken me a while to get round to writing it up.
With the British Championships hosted in Liverpool and the quickly-approaching Worlds in London, the little village of Blithfield was a quaint location for the English Sprint Championships. There’s not an awful lot in Blithfield, apart from a big reservoir (which helps for a triathlon) and a sloping hill, on which with a bit of makeshift scaffolding, just about turns into a transition area.
The weekend before the race I’d stopped at the venue on the way from my childhood home in Malvern to current home in Manchester. Despite only being 20k, the bike course managed to include some tough little sections into a particular fierce headwind, some short punchy climbs and even a large water feature (a flooded road) to navigate.
By Wednesday of race week I was already feeling excited and ready to race. Normally I tend to feel sluggish all week until just a couple of days before, so now I had the different task of trying to resist doing too much before the race. On the Saturday evening before the race I wasn’t too surprised to receive an email from the organisers entitled, ‘URGENT – PLEASE READ, IMPORTANT INFORMATION INSIDE’….it turns out that someone making the final checks of the course had encountered the flooded course meaning a last minute change of plan. The rest of my evening was spent clicking my through the street view of Google Maps. it’s worrying to think how much my Saturday nights have changed.
The race started at 7am and I got there in plenty of time, narrowly avoided twisting an ankle walking from the car park field, registered, racked the bike and pulled on the wetsuit. The PA system packed in during the race briefing and even though I was right at the front, I was only just able to hear which may have led to some confusion at the swim start…..
The female sprint race was scheduled to start 5 minutes ahead of the men’s. There was then an amusing (bordering on silly) 5 minutes as the event staff tried to tell 50-odd swimmers in the middle of a reservoir to move behind an imaginary line with nothing but big arm signals and a slight optimism. The problem was that if everyone had lined up as desired some poor souls would be swimming a lot further than others as the first buoy was at an angle to the start line. Finally they gave in and set them off and told us that we better not do the same. Sure enough we jumped into the water and did the exact same thing before another 10 minutes of silliness and they gave up and set us off.
As ever the swim was a quick start and a large group quickly formed off to my left. The group was pulling ahead as I swam by myself but as we reached the first turn buoy and the group turned into single file, I managed to pick up someone’s feet only to quickly lose them again. I spent the rest of the swim just off the back of a group, not losing time but expending some serious energy to keep within touching distance.
I came out the swim about 20 seconds down on the leaders but made up some considerable time in transition. I’ve learnt a bit about the skills needed in cyclocross in the last 12 months (cheers Budge) and I’m sure this helped as the transition was literally in a sheep field on a hill. In normal circumstances you can run alongside your bike as you wheel along a nice smooth, flat tarmac road. In this case the smooth tarmac was a steep hill with Sheep poop and rabbit holes. Feeling rather pleased with my flexible approach I picked up the bike, stuck it over my shoulder and ran out of transition making up a good few places along the way.
Out on the bike, I soon passed those ahead of me on the swim and figured I was probably placed in third or fourth place. Someone soon came flying past me on the bike and opened up a 20 second gap. I stayed within touching distance but lost a few more seconds here and there on the steeper sections. After a hilly 10km the course flattened out and I was able to build some rhythm and speed. I like nothing better than a long, hilly training ride in the Peak District but when it comes to a race I always prefer a flat and fast course. As the course straightened out I could see what I thought was second place maybe 30 seconds ahead and definitely catchable on the run.
The run course was visible from transition and out in the distance about 400m ahead I could make out a rather tall, broad, shaven head woman. At least I hoped it was a woman – deep down I knew it was probably 1st place. 2nd place was close ahead, but something would have to go very well for me or very wrong for 1st to make up that much ground over 5k.
The run went out alongside the reservoir before turning on the dam causeway and retracing our steps back to the finish. The first 2k led out along the reservoir on a rough gravelly track and into a strong headwind, at least this will be easy on the way back I thought. Within the first km I’d moved into 2nd place but the twisty course meant I couldn’t see far up ahead tell if I was getting any closer to 1st. The route left the path and moved onto the causeway across the dam and up to the turnaround point. 1st place came running back past me looking too fresh for my liking and still maybe a minute ahead. As I made the turn for the final 2.5k back to the finish I found a second wind and the gap to first was getting shorter and shorter, but so too was the course. That headwind on the way out seemed to have a change of mind and became a headwind for the return making that last km that little bit harder.
I crossed the line just 20 seconds down from the overall winner to take second place. Overall a very a good result but will be hoping to go one better next year!
As ever the next race isn’t too far away in the diary or location as it’s the return of the Salford Triathlon and one I’m really looking forward to.