It’s 10:00 am on a glorious sunny Saturday 4th June 2011 and I’ve just arrived at Blenheim Palace in readiness for my first ever Sprint Triathlon and wow, they don’t get much bigger than this!
At midday I’m going to find out exactly what it’s like to take part in the event.
The first thing you notice when you arrive is the sheer volume of cars here. There are literally thousands. You won’t find any helpful signs or other markers to help you remember where you’ve parked your car either, just lots of grass and lots of trees!
So, kit and bike unloaded and it’s over to the registration marquee. Now depending on how early (or late) you’ve arrived this can be a long way from your car. Thankfully I’ve a big holdall over my shoulder with all my kit in it and it’s not too much of a problem to weave my bike and me through the cars on the trek to the big tent.
Here it’s a wristband check, an ID check and once done you’ll get your all-important timing chip.
Now I’m off through the ‘village’, heading for transition so that I’ve got plenty of time to set-up properly.
Transition is in the huge courtyard of the palace, but to get there you have to cross the bike course and this means carrying all of your kit and your bike up some steep steps and over a footbridge. I’m beginning to feel knackered and I’ve not even started yet!
Another wristband, bike helmet and bike label check and it’s into transition to find your row and rack your bike. No individual numbers and spaces here, just the row letter you’ve been allocated does it all. The space between each bike is quite small too, so there’s not much room for large bags or to spread out your kit.
So to the start! The swim start is out through the back of the transition area. It’s a bit of a squeeze as those exiting their swim also come back into transition part way along this route, so even though it’s fenced off there are a good few spectators around. Once past them it’s down quite a steep grassy bank to the briefing area and start. Thankfully today it’s really dry, but if it’s been raining I can imagine there could be a whole load of wetsuit-clad bodies slipping and sliding down it! It really is that steep.
Briefing over it’s a short walk out onto a pontoon and a hop off the edge into the water. The actual start is between two buoys out in the lake so be prepared to spend some time treading water before the off. It’s definitely too deep to stand.
It’s now 11:55 and I’m gently treading water towards the back of pack out by the farthest buoy from the bank. Lesson learnt from my previous super sprint event – unless you are prepared to really gun it in the swim or you don’t mind the inevitable feet and elbows crashing into you, then best stay well out of the way of the rest of the pack.
I’m gazing back towards the bank of the lake and can see the seconds ticking away on the large Timex clock. 12:00 and the starter hooters sounds. We are off!
Resisting the urge to swim like a mad man I’m settling into a smooth stroke. I’ve sighted a couple of distinctive trees that line up with the final turning buoy so I can now look up at those along the swim rather than worry about sighting the buoy itself each time. About half way through the swim and the pack has spread out nicely. My strategy seems to have worked as I’ve kept well out of any trouble and I’ve worked myself a good way through the field. I was never going to be first out of the water but I’m happy not to be way at the back.
Seven hundred and fifty metres, sixteen minutes and fifty-two seconds later I’m at the swim finish which is a sunken platform manned by some very helpful race marshals who are hauling people up and out of the water. Remembering that steep drop down to the start I stare up at the steepest bit of matting I’ve ever seen in my life and realise it’s going to be hard going back up to transition.
It seems to take ages to get back to transition, legs not really working properly, heart pounding, lungs burning but eventually I head back through the palace courtyard to transition and to my bike.
The start of the bike leg is slightly downhill, which is great for getting a your feet sorted on the peddles and makes for a smooth start. Look out though for people on their second and third laps merging from the right as you head off because they are likely to be going a lot faster than you and a collision here is going to hurt – a lot!
For the Sprint distance, of twenty kilometres, it’s three laps of the course, all within the palace grounds. It’s a great route, that seems to pack in an awful lot into a lap, a long sweeping fast downhill section, a few hills that might catch you out if you aren’t quick with your gear changes, some sharp turns and a great section in front of the palace and the transition area complete with a big crowd of spectators.
Its forty-five minutes and fifty-four seconds after starting my ride when I turn into transition after my third lap and jump off the bike. It’s bloody awful trying to run in my bike shoes and I really wonder if I should have somehow taken them off or got my feet out of them before getting off the bike – something to think about for the next one.
All it’s going to take now is two laps of the run course to complete the five kilometres and it will be feet up by four pm!
Again the run course is completely within the grounds but as with the bike course it’s far from flat. There is a very welcome downhill stretch not far into the lap. For me it’s more than welcoming as my legs are feeling shot and I seem to have run out of energy. It’s been a hot day and my head is beginning to pound. Thankfully there are plenty of water stations around the course so I’m making sure I take in at least a little bit of water at each one. I give the energy gel and caffeine shot freebies a miss but wonder if I’ll regret that decision later!
It’s not long before regret sets in. Towards the end of the lap, as you head up toward the palace, there is, certainly for me, an energy sapping, leg exhausting seemingly endless climb that’s certainly going to test most of us mere mortals! And it’s got to be done twice.
My second lap seems to take forever and it’s all I can do just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As I finally reach the top of the climb, it’s a left turn and I can see the finish line; it’s a painful distance away but at least I can see it and determination kicks in to see me across it.
After thirty-three minutes and forty two seconds of running torture I cross the finish line. I’ve been there, done it and I’ll buy the T-shirt. I’ve completed the Blenheim Triathlon!
Start to finish it’s taken me one hour, forty-five minutes and thirty-one seconds. It’s not a Tim Don time and Jenson Button finished in half an hour less than me but hey, not bad for mid forties, ex professional smoker!