This race had been inked in my calendar for a long time. Last year’s staging of the event had been my first ever bash at a standard distance triathlon and I’d always intended to bring this season to a close in the beautiful Scottish borders setting – the idea being that I could compare and contrast this performance with my 2014 showing and see whether I was actually making any progress at this multi-sport lark. Basically, I was hoping my triathlon year would finish on a high note and, as it turned out, it did – before I’d even set foot in the water.
St Mary’s Loch is a stunning place and its (generally) calm waters, quiet roads and proximity to the Southern Upland Way make it the ideal playground for triathletes. In fact, the standard event rounds off something of a triathlon festival there every year, with the off-road Durty Triathlon – for those who prefer to take the road (or hill in this case) less travelled – staged on the Saturday, before the slightly more sane road bike wielding crew turn up to tackle Sunday’s challenges.
And late September in Scotland certainly presents challenges. Indeed, a ripple of mixed reactions went through the crowd of competitors gathered for the safety briefing when it was announced that what should have been a 1500 metre swim had been cut to 750m due to the fact the overnight temperature had plummeted and the contents of St Mary’s Loch sat at a less than inviting 10 degrees centigrade.
So there was a little more trepidation than usual as the blue wave (the field was split into two waves – blue and yellow) wandered down the narrow slipway into the water to get things underway. It’s always quite a sight to see a crowd making a big splash and churning up the water and the atmosphere was heightened by the onlooking crowd of yellow wave competitors trying gauge the conditions as the hooter sounded.
All seemed to be going well despite the temperature as the first swimmers began to emerge – many of them still with a smile on their faces, though the icy water may have played a part in some of the fixed grins. But it was all looking very positive – and it was right at this juncture where I had my high point of the season.
As I and the other yellow wavers watched from the shore, it became clear that one of the blue crew had fallen behind and was now swimming her own race. Visibility was great at St Mary’s Loch but, in this case, it meant this competitor would have been aware – from a fair distance away – that she was last and that she was being watched. By a lot of people. The yellow wave would not be able to start until she finished her swim and my sympathy for her began to increase as the clock ticked on and the pressure seemed to mount.
I feared some people might start to get impatient, that the grumbles and the chuntering would begin as they waited to get their races underway. I worried, too, what reception this lady would get when she got out of the water – after all, to get to transition 1 she would have to run something of a gauntlet right through the middle of the waiting competitors.
But then it happened. As she got to within hearing distance of the finish buoy, the first few ripples of applause began to ring out. With every stroke she made, more people joined in and when this brave lady got to her feet to come back up the slipway she was met with a raucous cheer which brought a smile to her – and everyone else’s – face. Here was recognition of someone who was out there, doing it, setting themselves a challenge and tackling it head on. It was an uplifting sight to witness, though the mood changed when us ‘yellows’ realised it was our turn now.
Down we trooped into the water and quickly the initial sounds of ‘it’s not to bad’ were replaced by ‘can somebody check my face is still there?’ and ‘I was disappointed this swim was getting shortened until about 30 seconds ago’. I tried to stay as warm as possible but couldn’t stop my teeth chattering within a minute or so of getting into position for the start. It seemed to take a long time before we were allowed to go.
The cold – and the shortened distance – meant I was keen to start at a high tempo and I was surprised to find a rhythm and what felt like a decent stroke quickly. A couple of hundred metres in, though, I noticed my breathing was pretty shallow and too quick. Just as I wondered how to rectify that problem, then came a few of the tussles all too common in open water triathlons – and a couple entanglements and trying to hold position meant I could soon feel my stroke starting to unravel. Next, though came the first sign that I’ve made some progress – I didn’t panic. I stopped swimming – very briefly – but just a second long enough to ‘reset’ and when I got going again all systems were very much go. In fact, in the latter stages of the swim, I was in fact aware of going PAST people – that was a new phenomenon.
I didn’t have time to think about that as I slipped and slid my way into transition, though. I really need to find a quick way to take off a soaking wetsuit but, again, there was no panic and I was soon on the bike and heading up to the left turn on to the main road. Up to that point, save for the occasional breeze, there had been little sign of wind. That turn on to the main road changed all that as we were met face-to-face with a not inconsiderable headwind. On an out and back course, when the back section involves a pretty big climb, this is not good news. It’s not a good sign, either when you find yourself having to pedal pretty hard and feeling your quads start to burn on a steep downhill which in normal circumstances would present the perfect chance to make up a lot of time.
It took a lot of effort to get to the turn point, which probably explains why I felt like I was going backwards on the return leg, particularly on that long, steady climb which strikes with a few miles still to go. I’ll admit it, I was in the huff with cycling a little bit when I made it back into transition and didn’t feel in the best frame of mind as I began the run.
But I love running. And this particular run is hard, but lovely. An out and back 10k not only presented the chance to explore the loch’s shoreline, it also showed I hadn’t fallen quite as far behind as I’d thought and, when I realised I had the chance to make up some places, I hit it as hard as I could. Another sign of progress is that I feel much quicker at getting up to proper running speed off the bike than I used to – and the whole process hurts a little less! The run did start to bite hard but the mental tricks of encouragement you can play with yourself when presented with the chance to overtake a few competitors certainly helped.
Still, I must have painted a pretty tired, shambolic and wonky figure when I did hit the finish line but a subsequent look at the results compared to 2014 showed my transitions, my bike leg and my run had all improved. Yes, it was a shorter swim this time round but I was looking for some signs that I might be going in the right direction as a winter of training awaits. I’d got what I came for.