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Tony O’Donnell reports on his first ever triathlon, the Tameside XL. Photographs by Paul and Nigel Events Photography.
“Basket!” I cried. “Clucking basket!” Or something like that, anyway. Here I was, storming (in my own mind, at least) through my very first triathlon, and I was brought to a halt by a schoolboy error. I looked down in dismay at the muddy back tyre of my mountain bike. Flat. Flat as a pancake. Flat as Flanders. Flat as a witch’s thingummy. And here was I, several miles from transition, with neither pump nor tube. “Basket!”
Up to that point, things had been going so well. I had awoken in what seemed like the middle of the night and, after scraping the frost from the windscreen on this particularly biting autumn morning, crossed the Woodhead Pass to Stalybridge to take part in the Überfit Tameside XL Triathlon. Of course, there are tris closer to home, but I have been doing a bit of trail running during the year, and the fact that my carbon mountain bike is probably lighter than my steel road bike persuaded me that an off-road triathlon would be right up my street. Except in this particular case it wasn’t, it was on the other side of the Pennines. My training for the event was lacking in science, but bursting with dedication: run some, ride some, swim some, and then do it all again. The swimming I found particularly challenging. Not having swum since school, I lacked stamina and technique (my freestyle stroke gives the impression I’m having a fight with myself), but I put in the lengths until I felt I could take on the required 20 lengths with some degree of confidence. I felt as ready as I could be.
In Tameside it was getting light, but was misty and still bitterly cold. When I reached the venue, the Copley Centre, racers had begun to arrive and a number of bikes were already racked up in transition and ready to go. I eyed my fellow triathletes uneasily; they all looked very lean and athletic, and many were wearing those funny all-in-one suit things. Well, I’m committed now, I thought. Registration was brisk and friendly; I picked up my race numbers and a nice lady wrote my number “34” on my arm in indelible marker. Completely indelible, as it turns out. After a bit of faffing with my kit I was poolside for briefing, and the five minute countdown to my start time went by remarkably quickly. I chatted with the other competitors in my wave. A real mix of people, male and female, from all age groups. One or two of them looked as nervous as I felt.
30 seconds to go, into the water… and we were off. Now, my strategy was this: because I still had insufficient stamina to swim 500m of freestyle non-stop, I would alternate lengths of freestyle with lengths of breaststroke. I had done this in training enough times, and while it was wearing, I reasoned that I could tire my arms and shoulders out as I wouldn’t need them on the bike. As it turned out, after four lengths, my shoulders had other ideas, and I settled into a steady breaststroke for the rest of the swim. What went wrong? The lack of a warm up, possibly? Meanwhile swimmers in neighbouring lanes were ploughing up and down with impressively mechanical freestyle strokes. Oh dear.
20 lengths done! Out of the water, quick towel down on the poolside, bike shoes on, and… run through the door into the frigid air. Well, that certainly woke me up. I jogged up to transition, located my bike, strapped on my crash hat and hit the road, inwardly relieved that I had packed some gloves.
The 15.5km bike route was uphill almost from the off. After passing through a housing estate I crossed a reservoir dam. The track followed the water’s edge before ramping steeply up onto the moors. It was still misty in the valley, but as I gained altitude I broke through the cloud and found myself under a brilliant clear blue sky. I picked off a couple of riders on the ascent and by now was feeling pretty good. Biking is my strongest discipline; as my legs felt strong I knew I could handle the climbs, and my bike handling is good enough to gain time on the downhills. The well-marked route continued to climb until it went through a gate and truly off-road. Rocky, muddy, rutted technical trails with steep descents. Mud tyres might have been the wise choice. I picked off a few more riders, noting with satisfaction from their race numbers that they had started 10 to 15 minutes before me. The route descended to the Longdendale valley, and immediately began to climb again, this time with added mud and rocks. But still, it was looking good. I overtook another rider and powered up a narrow woodland lane, and then… well, you know what happened then.
Why wasn’t I carrying a puncture kit? Put simply, I gambled… and lost. Before the event I knew little about the course, other than that it was bloody hilly. It’s only a ten mile course. I could do with saving the weight. Anyway, I hardly ever get punctures. Seriously, what are the chances?
There was nothing else for it. By my estimation (which was fairly accurate, as it turned out), I was about three miles away from T2. I shouldered the bike (reflecting that the carbon was finally paying for itself) and started to jog. A couple of riders overtook me; but on the next climb up to the high point of the course they were going no faster on wheels than I was on foot. Once over the top, I was losing time. While I could run downhill with relative ease, I was hitting nothing like the speeds I would have on the bike. A passing rider nobly offered me his puncture kit; I graciously declined, being vaguely aware of some rule about outside assistance, and treating this experience as a penance that should be borne manfully and without complaint.
By the time I wheeled my bike into transition, whatever advantage I might have gained from a strong bike leg had evaporated, and probably then some. Plus I already had a few miles of running in my legs, with six more to go. From here on I wouldn’t have the bike with me, at least. I pulled on my running shoes, and off I went.
For the first couple of miles, the 9.7km run retraced the bike course, before taking a left for the long, long climb onto the moors. Again, the trails were of rocks and mud; it would be easy to twist an ankle with a carelessly placed step. By the time I reached the final tortuous few hundred yards to the summit of the hill (where I was, I admit, reduced to walking for a short time), my thighs were screaming. In front of me was a capable lady racer in a pink top; she will not be aware that she was pacing me all the way round the run. As long as I kept her in sight, I told myself, I would keep moving. Here I will pause to reflect on the magnificence of the scenery, if only because this was not an option on the day. In the clear autumn air I could see for miles over the surrounding moors, as the glassy waters of Swineshaw Reservoir shone coldly below. The sky was cloudless and the deepest blue. The view would have been simply breathtaking, had there been any breath left in me to take.
The descent was fast and exhilerating. Soon I was back in the valley, and as I crossed back over the dam I could make out the sound of an excited crowd. A wicked short final climb over rough stones, a zig-zagging drop through the trees and I came into the arena, somehow finding the energy for something resembling a sprint to the finishing line, cheered home by spectators and cheerleaders. What a feeling!
My time? Well, I was well down the table, and it would be futile to dwell on “what if”. That wasn’t what it was about, first time out. I completed the course, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the memories of which will still be with me long after the number 34 has (finally) faded from my arm. The organisation of the event was flawless; the course was clearly marked and staffed by an army of smiling marshals. Perhaps timing chips might be incorporated into the event; they would probably be welcomed by serious competitors more than have-a-go types like me. Though the distances are those of a “sprint” triathlon, what the brutal course lacks in miles it more than makes up in contours, and the terrain is very rough and technical in places. As such it is perhaps not an event for a complete novice with no off-road experience at all, or with anything less than a good level of fitness.
Congratulations on an excellent event to organiser Dave Quartermain and his colleagues at Überfit; I will definitely be back next year. And next time, I’ll bring a puncture kit.