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Competing in European Age Group Triathlon Champs 2017

Written by Fiona

June 26 2017

I qualified for the European Age Group Triathlon Champs 2017 at the Strathclyde Sprint Triathlon last summer. On Sunday, I took up my place to race in the champs in Dusseldorf, Germany.

The qualifier race was one of our Glasgow Tri Club events, organised with Durty Events. I was volunteering at the event anyway so it seemed like a no-brainer to also compete.

There are three qualifying races each year for the Euro champs and around 20 GB Team places per age category (five year age groups) up for grabs.

I was surprised to qualify when I came fourth at Strathclyde because I had not done any focused training and I am one of the older ones in the age category. If you read this blog you will know that I keep generally pretty fit but triathlon is very competitive, even at my grand age of 49, and so it felt good to win one of the first roll down places after the first three places at each qualifying event had been awarded.

I did have every intention of training hard for the European Champs (I promise I did!) but in reality I buried my head. I enjoy all kinds of outdoors activities and I think I enjoyed a few too many other sports instead of focusing on some fast and hard triathlon training.

I let the rest of the summer drift by, then the winter came and went in a blur of skiing holidays and by springtime I was doing a bit of panic training. I do run regularly and enjoy mountain biking, spin classes (in winter) and road cycling in warmer weather, plus I’ve been on two cycling holidays this year, so I am not unfit but I am also not sprint triathlon fit.

And then there is the swimming! I know my swimming is weak so I should have focused on that discipline but numerous incidents of foot and leg cramps in the pool, leading to torn calf and groin muscles, put me off. It’s not a valid excuse because really I could have done more than I did with some short pool sessions but I found other things to distract me. (Plus HRT has helped quite considerably in recent months to reduce the muscle cramps.)

In short, I guess I am not as disciplined as I might like to think I am and I found a lot of reasons not to get on with some hard and focused sprint triathlon training. 

The weekend of the Euro champs race

Team GB at Dusseldorf. Our team was huge.

My GTC friend Christine Catterson had also qualified for the champs at Strathclyde. (So do did Torquil Clyde and Stephen McIntyre but they decided not to take up their places.) Christine was very excited about taking part in the event and although she dislocated her shoulder in a Tough Mudder the weekend before she was determined to compete in the Euro champs.

Like many events, the lead up to the race is nerve wracking and although we were heading to a new – and therefore, exciting – city, Dusseldorf, the Friday and Saturday were spent faffing around getting ready for the race and doing very little else.

Some of things we faffed at…

We reassembled our bikes…. And then panicked about whether they would be race ready.

All the info at the briefing and we were still a bit confused.

We attended the race briefing … and then panicked about whether we had got all the timings right.

We looked on the Facebook group page for the race… and then panicked because everyone seemed to have different timings and info.

We worried about the possibility of a non-wetsuit race… but then I calmed myself down by going for a surprisingly warm swim in the harbour water without a wetsuit. I assured Christine she would also be fine despite her hopes of “the wetsuit to hold my shoulder together”!

We worried some more, this time about goggles that might steam up, the huge flight of steps from the swim exit to the transition, the 800m run from the steps to transition, finding our bikes in the 400m long transition area, timings for transition closure, timings for the race start, getting lost on the bike and run course. Etc.

I worried about being disqualified for drafting although I have never been DQ’d before!

I worried some more about my goggles steaming up and about my bike shoes swinging off the pedals because of broken elastic bands and about cramping muscles and about losing my way and, well, I just worried a lot!

It’s the same worries that come with every race but this was a European champs and most people seemed to be a lot more experienced/much fitter looking than us and so we worried a bit more just for good (bad?) measure.

Friendly and welcoming Team GB-ers

Thanks to our managers, Barron and Kirsty.

Despite all our worries and faffing we did find a lot of helpful people to ask all our worried questions of. The Team GB managers, Barron and Kirsty, gave us lots of tips and assistance.

The managers even managed to get the race officials to agree to handing me my prescription glasses as I exited the swim. (I was very worried about trying to navigate from the swim to transition with only my goggles for optical guidance because I am very short sighted.)

The Team GB bike mechanic sorted out a gearing issue I’ve had with my Planet X race bike for the past couple of years. No other bike mechanic has managed to get the gears working perfectly yet he spotted the problem and fixed it within minutes.

We met lots of friendly GB Team members including George from Glasgow (a member of another city club).

Our fellow Team GB competitors and their supporters (family and friends) offered kind words of support and bits and pieces of information and recommendations. It was great to have the back up of their prior experience.

We met new people who were also age group competitors from Scotland and enjoyed the banter and exchange of life and training (or not!) stories.

The night before the race

My blue Planet X bike in position in transition.

We attended the transition area as instructed. Each age category had a time slot in which to leave bikes and helmets (this time schedule felt very strict and official).

Previously, at the AirB&B apartment that was brilliantly located just a five-minute walk from the race in MediaHaufen, we had laid out the rest of the kit needed for the race.

This included:

Team GB trisuit, wetsuit (just in case it became a wetsuit race), goggles (de-misted with a special solution), race belt, bike shoes (with a puff of talc in each), race trainers (also with a puff of talc in each), baby oil (for arms and legs under wetsuit), tiny elastic bands, sunglasses (x2), gels and a water bottle.

We decided on an early evening meal and then an early bed. I never sleep properly before a race and this proved to be the case as usual.

The day of the race

Christine had an earlier start time for her age category (F55-59) and we decided it would be best simply to do our own thing before the race. It’s far easier to focus only on yourself pre-race.

The very, very long transition.

The transition area closed 15 minutes before the first age category started at 8am and all of the extra items of race kit needed to be deposited by then. I added bike shoes to my bike and kept them level with small elastic bands. I checked the bike was in the right gear and the brake pads were not touching the wheel rims. I added a gel to the bike’s top tube and the water bottle into the bottle cage.

I placed my helmet and race belt in my allocated yellow transition box. I placed my trainers neatly at the side of the box. I added a spare pair of glasses to the box in case the arranged hand over of glasses after the swim did not happen.

I checked everything one more and some things again and again.

By this point we knew the swim would be “wetsuit optional”. I decided to wear the wetsuit.

In the end, the race was declared wetsuit optional and Christine is clearly very pleased about this.

I had an hour in which to sit around feeling nervous before I would be called to my own swim start “pen”. I spent some time chatting to other GB Team competitors and trying not to get nervous. I’ve mentioned that I get nervous, right?

I enlisted the help of a woman in my age category (from Ireland) to do up my trisuit zip and then help me with my wetsuit zip. She also let me use her special “slippery” cream instead of my baby oil. She said it worked a treat for getting the wetsuit off after the swim. It did!

We handed in excess kit at the bag drop area and I was then left with a pair of prescription (but not my exact prescription) goggles to see the way to the swim start. I jostled along with the other ladies in my age group, like a huddle of determined penguins (very slim penguins, I should add).

We chatted nicely together and offered kind words to each other.

The swim did not go well

I knew the swim would not go well but I simply got on with it. Halfway through I decided I would be lucky not to be last. I have not practised enough and this showed. I also avoided a lot of the rabble of group open water swimming by keeping to the edge but this meant I swam further.

I cursed my way through the second part of the swim and gritted my teeth.

I was very pleased to exit the swim. I stumbled up the first few steps shouting: “Glasses. My glasses.”

Thankfully the GB Team manager Kirsty pushed her arm out ahead of me offering up my glasses. I grabbed them and pulled off my goggles. I pulled on my glasses and felt a big sense of relief. I could see at least, even if I could hardly breathe.

However, I could also see that I was almost last out of my swim wave. Oh well…

The set of steps we had to climb after the swim.

From the top of the steps there was a long run to transition. I found myself running, wetsuit half pulled down but alongside people without wetsuits. They were men, too. I was confused but then I suddenly remembered that in the briefing we were told that the runners from previous waves might end up in the same area as the swim exiters. This was an area where the course crossed over in a bit of an ugly fashion.

I concentrated hard on working out how to reach transition and not follow the runners on to the run course.

I did this and then looked for my bike.

Post race it’s all smiles for Christine and I.

The bike section was better

TT action!

“Wetsuit off, race belt and helmet on. Grab bike.” I did all this by silently reminding myself of the right order. (If you touch your bike before the helmet is on you can be DQ’d. I did not want to be DQ’d.)

The bike-run seemed to go on forever. The 1,000 bikes had been split into two with pairs of bikes lining either side of the transition corridor. The bikes each had 75cm of space. Multiplying 500 by 75cm equals 375m. I had around 300m to run with my bike from where it was located.

The long transitions could be seen in the results later on as the overall times were generally slower than you might expect for a sprint.

I managed to get on the bike after the mount line without a shoe issue and headed off to ride as hard as I could. I like the bike section and I am quite good at it. I knew this would be my chance to catch some of those in my age category. Almost everyone was ahead of me due to a woeful swim.

I quickly caught an Austrian lady and then proceeded to pick off a more women, some of whom I believe were in my age group. I raced past some guys, too.

The bike course was smooth, fairly flat and fast. I used my tri bars to their maximum and enjoyed the speed and the technical turns. I feel confident on a bike and so the technical sections were not too challenging.

The bridge crossings were less fun because of a strong side wind and there appeared to be a headwind both on the way out to the turnpoint and the return.

I liked overtaking people and it was thrilling to be part of a race where people whooshed by on go-faster TT bikes (these were the guys in the wave after us.)

It was fab to hear my namesake and fellow GB Team member Mark Russell shout “Go Team Russell” as he whizzed past me.

Sadly, I saw a number of crashes and falls on the bike course but I tried to focus on the forward and not worry about what was going on around me. It must be horrible to get so far, only to have the race ruined by a crash or a fall.

After a dismal swim it felt good to be back in the race again (sort of).

It turned out that my bike ride was in the top third when compared to all the other women.

The run was not too bad

The pain on my face as I race to the finish line!

After dropping my bike in T2 my legs felt as useless as they usually do after a hard bike ride. But I willed myself on and told myself to stretch out my stride.

I kept saying over and over that it was only 5k and the pain would not last.

I pushed past more women (I think some of them were in my age group) and tried to pick up the pace.

I looked at my watch with 2k to go and willed my legs to move faster. They did (a bit).

The run was a two-lap course and I knew there would be a wee downhill before a short uphill and then on to the finish line. I took a gamble and widened my stride to speed down the hill. I overtook another woman in my age group and decided I would not let her pass me.

I had been chasing down another woman and while she kept me going as fast as I could it turns out she was in a younger age group! (I thanked her after the race for keeping me focused on running to chase her.)

And at last it was over. I crossed the finish line exhausted and lent on a tall German gentleman who was a race volunteer. He told me the hug was the nicest thing to happen to him all day and finally I could let myself laugh.

Christine rushed to the finish line to hug me and we congratulated each other on our efforts.

It was fun hiring a Next Bike to explore the city after the race.

I think I will now try duathlon

I had known that my swim would hold me back in the triathlon but I was still pleased to have been taking part in the Euro champs. Even just to qualify for such an event means I was one of the fastest amateur triathletes in Britain (of those who bother to enter these races.).

On race day I was 25th in my age category. (As was Christine in her F55-59 category.) At first this felt a bit rubbish but I managed to spin the result on its head and remind myself that I had qualified for the event and I had come 25th in Europe. This is not so bad.

I could make all sorts of excuses and think up a dozen reasons why I should have gone a few minutes faster but, in the end, it matters not. I did what I did on the day and I raced as hard as I could. There is no point in going over “what ifs” and “I wish” because the playing field is equal on the day and we all arrive at the race having done whatever training we could find the time, ability or energy to do.

In my opinion, anyone who makes it to an age group European or World champs has achieved something brilliant. Those that podium on the day have most certainly worked hard in training and pulled off a great race on the day. But, all of the competitors are fantastic in their own ways. I am especially impressed by the competitors who race into their 70s and 80s years. There really is hope for us all.

Cheers to us!

Next year, I head into the super vets age group as I will be 50 in May and I think I might well take the opportunity to compete at duathlon instead of triathlon. I have been saying this for a while but I think the timing is perfect. Swimming is my weakest link and so I will focus on the sports I am better at.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to getting back to my general this-and-that sporting aspirations. I will be cycling, running and doing some Munros but probably not swimming for the next few months – until I can go skiing again!

Congrats to all who did the European Triathlon Champs and well done to all the many GB athletes who podiumed. I can only ever dream of such things!

  • I am sorry there are not many race day pics but it was not a priority to take photos as I raced!

The Tour de France arrives in the city at the weekend.

One of the many beautiful Dusseldorf parks. A taxi driver told us that the city is unusual in Germany because of its many parks.

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