Second time lucky?
After finishing 9th in my age at the previous sprint distance worlds qualifier in Eton, I wasn’t exactly holding my breath for an automatic qualification slot for my second attempt at Llandudno. However, the course looked to suit my strengths a bit more than Eton had; the swim is 750m in the (deceptively wavey) sea, plus a ~200m swim from the beach to the start line. The 18km bike is basically one long steep climb and a fast technical descent done twice, and the 5km run is pan flat out-and-back across the seafront with a short and steep up/down hill to the turnaround point. I was fairly sure, therefore, that I could at least improve my percentage against the winners time (108.7% at Eton).
Chloe and I decided to make a bit of a holiday out of this trip, due to the travelling distance involved. We drove up to Llandudno on the Friday before the race, arriving at our drizzly campsite at 9pm despite setting off at 1:30. We threw our tent up and decided we didn’t fancy squatting around a camp stove in the rain to boil some pasta, so we headed into Rhos-On-Sea to see what we could find to eat. I had been fully expecting that everywhere would either be shut or wholly unappetising; my experience of remote British seaside towns is usually one of faded wealth, where the whole town has a sense that nothing has really been updated or changed in the last 50 years. However, the first place we stumbled upon was a Hickory’s smokehouse/BBQ restaurant that was packed with locals enjoying the fantastic food, and some live music that was actually good! If you have one of these near you you need to go.
This isn’t exactly ideal pre-race nutrition (or in keeping with our aim to eat vegetarian as often as possible), but it was so delicious I don’t even care.
We had a relaxed Saturday morning before going for a wander around Llandudno to scout the course. We parked on the edge of town and walked the run route along the promenade heading for the Pier. It was here that Chloe noticed lots of people staring down into the sea from the side. Curious, we did the same only to realise that there were literally hundreds of rather large Jellyfish drifting past. Perfect.
Retreating in fear, we headed to register and pick up our race packs and check out the cycle route; race organiser’s Xtra Mile Events had put on a free open top bus tour of the bike course around the Great Orme. Complete with complimentary/compulsory pint of Erdinger Alkoholfrei (honestly, is it even a triathlon if you don’t get one of these?), we were driven in reverse direction around what would be the closed-road draft-legal route. This included a free blow-dry from the 15-20mph winds that would be in your face on the long climb. Double perfect.
After driving back to the campsite, we made the most of the sunny Saturday weather and cooked up that pasta for dinner before getting an early night. Race day morning brought some drizzle and grey skies but thankfully the wind had died down a bit. Racking in transition was painless, and the rain soon stopped, so we watched the middle distance athletes set off before going for a jog to warmup, squeezed into my wetsuit, and listened to the race briefing being delivered over the tannoy into transition (another stroke of genius from the organisers).
We were made to get into the water for a 5 minute “acclimatisation” period (rendering that warmup jog fairly pointless) before being allowed to swim the ~200m out to the deep-water start line. From the shoreline the water had looked nice and calm but once out to the start bouys it became clear that there was quite a strong current and waves that would make this out-and-back swim, running parallel to the beach, a little more difficult.
I decided to start slightly left of the shortest line to the turn bouy in order to avoid the worst of the inevitable contact, and when the airhorn sounded I sprinted hard for 50m before settling into a more steady pace and sighting around myself to see where I had ended up. I had clear water all around me, and a small gap from myself to those who had started alongside me. A group of around 6 people had similarly pulled away from the main pack on my right. I seemed to be keeping up with these guys, so rather than immediately move across to try to draft with this group, I decided to hold my own line to the turn bouy and try to keep within range of them for the return leg of the swim, which would be into the current and waves.
At the turn, 3 of this group had pulled away so I slotted in behind the 4th swimmer and spent 100m on his feet to avoid the worst of the waves. However, it soon became clear that the leaders were getting away from us, so I put in a burst of speed to get around my shelter-man and get just far enough away from him that he couldn’t draft me. As we rounded the second bouy and turned back towards the shore I could see my plan had worked and I was closing in on the front group, however I had left my move a little bit late and I exited the water on my own in 4th 10-15 seconds down from the front.
After a long, dizzy T1 run and quick transition I was out on the bike – unfortunately my swim tactics had meant that I was starting this alone with nobody to draft. I had anticipated that I would spend a lot of this cycle leg on my own, as the ascent and descent help to minimise the drafting benefit, and lend themselves to smaller groups rather than a large fast pack of cyclists. Onto the long climb (approx 3km averaging ~6% incline with a steeper section near the top) and I tried to spin an easy gear with a high cadence to save my legs for the run as much as possible. I could see the leaders up the road and tried not to lose contact too much – one guy had fallen off the wheels of the other 2 and I made it my aim to try to catch him.
I was almost within touching distance of him as we approached the steepest section near the top, when I was quickly passed by a solo rider. Unfortunately, as the hill flattened out, this pair were able to team up start to pull away from me again before I was finished with the climb, and I wouldn’t see them again.
The really technical part of this course is the fast winding descent. The road points steeply downward, is just one lane wide, and twists along the cliff edge. In hindsight I probably took this more cautiously than I needed too, but the damp road surface and potential for loose scree from the cliffs above was playing on my mind. As I passed through town and started the climb for my second lap, I had been caught by a further 3 riders, and at the top of the climb was passed by a draft pack of about 10 guys who were working well together. I joined this group over the short flat at the top of the course, but was left behind on the descent. I clearly need to spend more time on my technical bike skills, as this isn’t the result of not being fit enough to keep up. Despite this, I had been passed by a lot less people than I had at Eton so I must be getting a bit better.
I found myself running hard out of a smooth T2 alongside another straggler from the group that had passed me on the bike. We ran shoulder to shoulder for the first kilometer, and I was expecting to have a real battle on my hands. Thankfully, the pace proved to much for him and he started to slide backwards. I pushed on, starting to pass some of those ahead of me. I recognised 2 names on the back of trisuits ahead of me that were from my age-group, and started to reel them in. After 2km the road started to slope upwards towards the turn point, where there was also a water point.
At Blenheim and Winchester tri’s earlier this year I was suffering with bad stitch and nausea on the run until having a sip of water which caused this to subside. I felt good picking people off on the climb now, but decided to have a small sip of water at the turn in the hope that it would help to maintain this form. This turned out to be a huge mistake, and on the following downhill I started to feel really sick. As the road flattened out I realised I had stopped passing people, and I was actually the person being passed. I tried to block out the growing sense of nausea, but my pace had slowed significantly and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would throw up. I had around 1km too go at this point, and I had a quick internal conversation to decide whether I should try vomit now and hope that I would feel better, or hold it in and hope I would not vomit at the finish line in front of a large crowd of spectators whilst a medal was being put around my neck. Almost immediately, my stomach made that decision for me, but I managed to hold my stride whilst narrowly missing a passing spectator with the liquid I had taken on during the bike leg – sorry to that guy!
I immediately felt better and tried to speed up again, but I had run out of road. I crossed the line feeling a little disappointed that I had not managed to catch the guys from my age-group ahead of me, and resigned myself to thinking that I had probably not done enough to secure qualification.
I grabbed another pint of Erdinger, and wandered over to the results tent. My run split was surprisingly fast given how awful I had felt (depending on whose GPS you believe, the course was 100-200m short but that isn’t much different to other races I have done this year). My swim and bike splits were around what I had expected, and as usual confirmed that my swim is competitive but my cycling needs work.
I also spotted that I had come 6th – 2 places short of getting an automatic qualification slot. Prior to the race I told myself if I had to wait weeks for a potential rolldown slot, I would probably not go to Rotterdam even if I was given a place – waiting would mean prices for accommodation and flights would go up, and they were already at the limit of what I would be willing to pay given the huge cost of entering the actual race (£315 for a sprint tri!!!!). I also did not want to go to the race just to make up the numbers, I would want to be there because I had rightfully earned a spot, not just because someone else had pulled out from the race.
However, I realised that if just 2 of the 5 people ahead of me had not registered to qualify for Rotterdam, that would put me in the top 4 for automatic qualification. I had noted that of the 35 or so competitors in my age at Llandudno, less than half of those had actually registered to try and qualify for Worlds. I cross-checked the results with the list of registered athletes on the British triathlon website, and realised that exactly 2 of those ahead of me and not registered! Thus began an anxious wait for several days before the website was updated with qualification information.
Q4. A-goal for the year achieved.
I have done it. I’m going to Worlds.