Leeds Castle 2017 had been a small affair, beautiful setting and 160 competitors (a mixed bag of sizes, shapes, ages and experience). After last year I had signed up for this early season standard distance event with pleasure. I was not in the best of shape after being hit by a car and missing all winter training, (the number of pies I ate while convalescing had made the wetsuit slightly snugger than was comfortable) but it was a quiet event, it wouldn’t matter, would it?
An email arrived with the race information and my wave position. I noticed that Dave Clarke and I were in wave F. I checked what I written about the race last year to confirm that the two waves of 80 competitors in 2017 had grown to six waves of a hundred each. I had a closer look at the race details. I don’t know whether the title of the event had changed since I had entered, or somehow I just hadn’t noticed but it was now a qualifier for the world championship in Lausanne. It could be that the event had just grown naturally but it seemed much more likely that the huge majority of these additional athletes would be trying for qualification. My heart rather sank. It seemed to me that setting off in the final wave with a swim time slower that a clockwork duck with a broken spring, on a borrowed bike and a knee that hasn’t managed 10km since September I might be last, left slogging round a deserted run course as the drinks table are being dismantled.
Still, I packed my bag, woke up at 4am, breathed in very deeply and managed to zip up my tri suit and went to pick up Dave. Leeds castle is a very well organized event, stewards direct you to parking spaces, the registration tent is well manned and transition seems positively ‘roomy’. As we find our spots and rack our bikes Dave says what we’re both thinking when looking at the space age carbon creations gleaming in the sunlight ‘they’ve all got wheels more expensive than my bike’, I agree and looking down at what I’m riding I secretly think, ‘some of them have probably got handlebar tape worth more than this bike’ (I don’t say it out loud - as it was very kind of Dave to lend me the bike in the first place). The standard of our rivals gear isn’t the only disconcerting thing, I seem to be carrying more body-fat than the rest of our wave combined, I’ve never seen so much sinew. The vintage rugby forward with a barrel chest, pot belly and hairy legs look that I’m sporting, and that seemed so prevalent last year seems to have fallen out of favour and to have been replaced by underfed supermodels doing passable impressions of whippets. I try not to feel self conscious. What I had forgotten, and what is always amazing and delights me is how absolutely charming everyone is, people chat to you about the weather, the course, everything and despite looking like a badly squeezed tube of toothpaste alongside these finely tuned specimens you are welcomed into the family and you are doing it together. We make our way to the briefing and to see the first two waves off. The briefing is thorough and entertaining (it’s slightly less entertaining if you listen to it twice as the jokes are the same). We are herded into a pen by the waters edge. The more serious competitors who have already entered the water for a warm up have to be called back. The same damp party popper as last year sets us on our way. By the time I tip toe down the gravel the leaders (including Dave) are halfway to the first buoy.
The swim doesn’t go well. The Brown Windsor soup of the moat is just how I remember it. I stay afloat and don’t drink that much. Not last, but not by much and not by many. The two leaders from the wave three minutes before us lap me and I get a couple of gentle clips as they go past. (Note to Chris - the sighting practice done a couple of days before was the only thing I did well - not lost or off course once). A bit wobbly out of the water but I manage a crowd pleasing sprint/stagger up the slope to transition. On the way I’m floundering about trying to find the zip cord with a lady onlooker trying to point out where it’s gone, finally I give up trying to find it and she gives up pointing and just undoes it for me. Transaction is as undignified as always and the only person I seem to get out in front of is a large silver haired man doing a complete change into a rather natty multi-coloured cycling outfit. The bike doesn’t go well. I remember it being a very flat course with only gentle undulations, it now seems mountainous. Completely on my own I labour to make any progress. Within minutes I’m blaming the bike (if the bike had a voice I’m sure it would have blamed the fat bloke riding it). At about half way I am overtaken by a couple more veterans from my wave (they must have had trouble getting their armbands off after the swim). Finally, more than twenty minutes slower than last year I make it back to transition. By my calculations I’m only ahead of the dapper cyclist and perhaps one other from my wave (I had passed a couple of people for earlier waves who were obviously having a really bad day). I pulled on my trainers and set off.
The run doesn’t go well. My race tactics are try run when people are watching, walk the quiet bits when nobody can see. Not many people are watching, and they’re certainly not watching on the hills. It’s a two lap circuit on bumpy ground and the sun is blazing down. All my attention is looking back for the solitary cyclist. As I approach the finish a hear Dave, Rachel, Vicky and Mike cheering me on, it’s lovely and they’re all really pleased for me. I have to confess it’s only the end of my first lap and I’ve 5km to go. It has gone that badly. The second lap is as uncomfortable as the first although I am reassured by the fact that my pursuer is even slower than I am and not going to catch me. Amazingly a couple of athletes are also on the final straight and I overtake them, and keep my legs pumping to the line. The Leeds castle medal is great, a lovely double swan design and a really big chunky piece of metal - just a little tip, don’t let them put it round your neck when you are bent over double struggling to breath I could barely straighten up with the weight of it!