Race morning began as normal. Wide awake well before needed but with lots of time to get a good feed and get sorted. I hadn’t thought about bringing bike lights with me and at 6am the 25-minute ride from my apartment to transition led me down a very dark cycle path that followed the old Turia riverbed. Reclaimed by the Valencian people and turned into a city park when the old river was diverted, the old riverbed was, by day, a vibrant thoroughfare for pedestrians, cyclists, and runners. This morning it was dark, eerily quiet, and lit only by my iPhone torch, the journey was tentatively slow.
Transition was busy and disorganised, and a large queue formed to the entrance. I was pondering the unusually large crowd, most of whom were not in national colours, when it dawned on me that there were 2 triathlons being run at the same time and using the same transition! The European Championship competitors were filtered into a separate entrance where the timing chips were being handed out and I joined a fast-moving line into transition where a few familiar faces were already making final preparations. Pre-race moves quickly once the bike is racked and 3 of us made our way together down towards the swim start.
The staggered swim entry format creates a very different start experience. Whereas there is usually an intense atmosphere in the starting pen with loud music, excited marshals, and adrenaline pumping, the usual 5 or 10 minutes waiting to be called to the water was, on this occasion, relatively relaxed. The rays of the morning sun, now a welcome warming after an hour transitioning in the dark and wearing just a tri-suit, served as a reminder of the roasting that would hit us in the latter stages of the race. The wait was chatty amongst fellow GB competitors. We enjoyed some gentle banter, and some giggles watching a German guy dropping down and doing sets of press-ups…..to warm up?….we had no idea….. but we were thoroughly amused.
For reasons and a logic, I still don’t understand, our age group were the very last wave to enter the swim and myself and the 2 other GB guys were at the back of the line in our wave with only the energetic Bavarian behind us. It was a dive start from a pontoon and as our line gently nudged along to the dive point there was talk of the entry strategy…most were jumping in after tales of goggles coming off the day before in the Sprint race and that seemed to be the consensus amongst others. I had made up my mind already, I was diving. All the unusual pre-race calm was now replaced with a focus and attention to the horn sounding every 3 seconds and the beep as each competitor crossed the timing mat and made their entry into the water. It was happening! Last push of the goggles to create as much suction as possible arms forward and shallow dive into the blue. We were off!
The first sensation as I broke the water was how warm the sea felt. The air temperature when we arrived in transition was around 19 degrees and with the water at almost 26 it reminded me of the distant memories diving into a warm sea on a Mediterranean summer holiday. Although it was non-wetsuit, the water in the sheltered marina was very salty and very buoyant. I felt myself pass a few back markers within the first 100 or so meters and was feeling good in the water so I settled into what felt like a reasonable pace. The route was marked with yellow and orange buoys and there were 5 or 6 turns which meant that each section was easy to sight. I had memorised the drill, orange buoys on the right shoulder, yellow on the left. The first left turn came quickly, and the low morning sun blinded the view to the next buoy. After a few hundred meters I saw the mad German thrash past me…..that was OK….I wanted to stay well out of his way. I was using my fellow GB mate Andy as my marker. We are generally the same sort of swim pace, but he had been racing particularly well this season. He had started behind me…… and he hadn’t passed me….all good. The second buoy was a right turn and the third quickly after. We were now heading back towards the boats, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was too relaxed and too comfortable. This was a race, and a competitive one at that, I needed to put the gas on! I could see the exit slipway in the distance and had a reasonable line in so put my head down and swam.
Transition out of the swim is always disorientating. We had rehearsed the drill pre-race and had memorised the rack which was marked E. Looking for the numbers along the rack I tried to remember my number….. what’s my number?…it’s tattooed on your arm Allon! Andy is still behind me, and the Brits were racked together with his bike first. Andy’s bike will be the first I recognise. His space is empty…..Shit!….he’d passed me and I hadn’t noticed…. I’ll have to shift now!
The bike out of transition was uncongested and simple to navigate. After the mount line it led into a nice straight section of a few hundred yards which was ample time to get up to speed and the feet strapped and secured in the shoes. I could feel the heat of the sun and took a good slug from my drinks bottle to get rid of the taste of the sea salt and settled into the ride. It was 3 laps of a very flat but extremely technical circuit through the centre of Valencia. Because they were running 2 triathlons on the same circuit it was very busy out on the roads, especially on the hairpin turns and roundabouts. Remembering my failings in Lausanne, getting trapped and dropping further and further back in a state of drafting paranoia, I was determined to be more aggressive. I knew it would be impossible to keep the distances on the turns so the strategy was to choose a line, hold it and power on to make sure there was a fighting chance of heading out of the turns in front. It should not be underestimated how much time can be won or lost with bike technique. Except for one road ride to test the bike, that hadn’t been ridden for a year since Shropshire 2020, I had done all my training on a turbo. This was good for aerobic fitness, but the lack of road miles was a concern before the race. The technical nature of the course was a leveler, and you could see the riders with good form. My turns were erratic, but with a corner coming almost every couple of minutes the power on / power off routine suited me. The distance was broken up nicely and the laps passed quickly.
By the third lap I had the course down, and although the legs were starting to feel the pace I was in reasonable shape. I never race with a watch but on this occasion, I had forgotten to bag it in transition and only realised when it was too late. Although I was never going to record the race itself, I was aware of the overall time of day relative to our approximate start time, so knew roughly where I was in relation to an overall time. I was also using the watch to clock other competitors and timing the distances to turns. This kept me on track. I had planned to take my bike gel on lap 3 and had chosen the section that was going to give me a good straight run. I had made sure that my tape was turned over at the ends so I could unwrap the gel easily and I was careful to retain all the tape and tuck it into my shorts…..the same with the top of the gel…..no littering penalties for me! I could see the next turn in the distance and just as I was settling down into the bars and brought the gel to my lips, bang! I had hit a pothole in the road and the gel flew out of my hand and hit the deck…. Shit!! Gel disappointment aside I was now concerned about the front tyre….. there was no sign of a puncture which was a huge relief, and I knew I had a gel waiting for me in transition for the run…. race nutrition was not going to plan but it could be worse.
The bike-in gave the same distance to get feet out of the shoes and the legs spinning in preparation for the run. The route back to the racks was still very wet which I wasn’t expecting, and footing was precarious. Bike to run is where most injury happens so I was mindful and careful not to rush. Bike racked, helmet off, shoes on, number belt on, one last swig of the drink and we are off…….. I forgot the gel!!….Shit!!
By now it was hot, and the sun was beating down from a cloudless sky. The run was also 3 laps and, like the bike, except for a very slight incline over a bridge, the course was flat. I set off and felt reasonably comfortable at a good pace. The run is normally where I pick up a few positions in the field, but my lack of multisport race fitness was starting to bite. I managed a good pace for the first lap using the water stations (4 per lap) to cool down with a quick dousing. Lap 2 was a grind. My legs were tiring, and I could feel my heart rate rising. I’m pushing close to my limit now and just need to manage the pace and try to maintain my position in the field. I could gauge my general pace by clocking my position relative to other competitors and I knew I was just about keeping my place. The crowds on the run were great with loads of GB supporters cheering us on and this was invaluable on the 3rd grueling lap. On the last turn just before the lap split, I caught up with another GB competitor who asked me whether it was a 2 lap or 3 lap course, I broke the bad news and then broke right for the finish.
With an empty tank I knew that I hadn’t left anything out on the course. Everything had gone reasonably to plan and my result (5th Brit & 26th in category) was a fair reflection of the training I had put in. It was my first and only race of 2021 and as I wheeled the bike out of transition it was a moment to reflect on the privilege to have competed at a good level and in such a beautiful city. The remainder of the day was very relaxed and can be summed up with 4 glorious words……….. beach, cheer, paella & beer!