Never before have I had so much fun on a day which began with being kicked squarely in the face. But I’m beginning to realise that, when it comes to triathlon, rolling with the punches (both metaphorically and, very often, literally) is part of the challenge and the beauty of the sport.
Gullane Beach Triathlon was one of the first events recommended to me as a ‘must do’ when I began to dip a toe in tri waters last year so I decided to take the plunge for 2015. This was only my third standard distance event, but it turned out to be very different – and certainly felt like a step up from anything I’d ever really tackled before.
Arriving at Gullane Beach, about 18 miles to the east of Edinburgh, in the early hours of last Saturday morning, the growing sense of trepidation was only heightened when I got out of the car and was met by the chilly air and the not insubstantial rumble of the North Sea steamrollering its way into the bay. Loch Lomond is my usual open water training ground, and it can get very lumpy, but this already looked like it was going to be a totally different kettle of jellyfish.
So with registration done and bike racked in transition, it was time to admit that this was indeed happening as I wriggled into my wetsuit and joined the red-capped hoardes willingly walking towards the churning water.
The task ahead was to swim two 750m triangular laps (there was a brief ‘respite’ between laps when you had to run out of the water, up the beach, run around a pole and then dive back in). We’d be starting by heading straight out into the onrushing waves.
Now, I’ve been in open water triathlon mass starts before – and they get messy as just about everyone succumbs to adrenalin, abandons the idea of pacing and jostles for position. This time, however, felt like a full match of underwater rugby in a washing machine. We started on the sand and after the shout of ‘GO!’ rang out, it was a run, hop, skip, jump, stumble, trip and a splurt into the water.
Within four ‘strokes’ – technique had to be put to one side to start with – I was slapped pretty firmly in the face by the sea as if to reinforce the idea of ‘what on earth do you think you’re doing?’, then the foot of the person directly in front of me made perfect contact with the bridge of my nose. I waited to taste blood and did wonder if the adrenalin was masking some serious damage, but none came and in any case I was already too busy trying to keep my head above water in all kinds of ways.
Despite a few more kicks, thumps and a bit of wrestling, I did start to make some actual progress, particularly on the back straight of the triangle where you were swimming with the tide and a good bit of timing could be rewarded with a healthy push forward. Heading into the final straight, though, the beach took forever to arrive and the first few steps when your legs try to cope with being upright again meant I bore more of a resemblance to a beached whale than anyone from the cast of Baywatch as I headed up the sand.
The run up the dune path to transition did offer a few moments to collect thoughts and try to work out what had just happened. Not for the first time in a triathlon event, I was aware of a huge smile breaking out across my sea salt encrusted face.
Transition 1 wasn’t the quickest, but I wanted to make sure I was methodical and didn’t panic. There’s definite room for improvement here and any tips for the quickest way to get out of a tight wetsuit when your hands don’t really work and your abs are cramping would be very welcome. Still, before I knew it I was jumping on my bike and rattling my way along the East Lothian roads.
By this point, the sun was out and some of Scotland’s most glorious golfing landscape was looking, well, glorious as I tried to settle into a rhythm. Unsurprisingly for a coastal race, the wind was out too, though, which all added to the experience and the challenge. There were enough inclines to really burn the legs but they were balanced out by the straight sections which presented the opportunity to really push the pace around the 42km course.
I’ve tried to do some work to my cycling over the summer and this was the first time I can remember feeling like I almost – almost – knew what I was doing as I tried to chase down those in front of me. I ruined a lot of that hard work and lost a few places by managing to take a wrong turn, but I noticed my error pretty quickly and promptly channeled my anger into riding as hard as I possibly could for the second half of the route.
Coming to the end of the cycle section, I always wonder how much the run is going to hurt. Having already seen the hilly start to the 10km course (split into two 5km laps) I had already had that question answered before I got started. But I got through transition as quickly as I could and began the run, the part of triathlon where I actually DO feel like I know what I’m doing!
The hill out of transition bit hard, but it didn’t have quite as many teeth as the second, steeper climb which met you a kilometre or two later as runners were spat out of a residential area on to the edge of the golf course and then devoured by the spongy links land. What goes up must come down though and the second half of the lap was a glorious coastal trail run. I could tell I was running fairly well and a quick glance at my watch as I came through for the second run lap confirmed that, if I kept calm and didn’t kill myself on the two hills this time around, then I was on for my fastest standard triathlon yet.
So, over the hill for the last time, my quad muscles were giving me a piece of their mind but I felt good as I hit the flat section again and felt like I upped my pace in the final stretch of the run. A finishing time of 2hrs 37mins confirmed I had never been quicker. The overwhelming desire to lie down after crossing the finish line suggested I had never tried harder.
So that’s another event done and, where triathlon is concerned, there is still much to learn. Where Gullane Beach Triathlon is concerned, there’s an enormous amount of fun and good racing in stunning surroundings to be had. A gumshield might help next time, though.