With my two opening races of 2018 both cancelled or postponed due to weather (first snow, then torrential rain), a late entry to Newbury Duathlon finally saw me open my racing account for the year.
To be honest, Newbury Duathlon isn’t a race I enjoy very much. Nothing against the organisers or marshals, all of whom are very pleasant, it’s just that I don’t like either the run or the bike courses!
The 5km (or just short of, as it’s mandatory that all duathlon runs are!) runs are 90% off-road and normally that means pretty slippery conditions that require trail shoes and the surefootedness of a mountain goat. I have the shoes; I don’t have the skill. Or the run conditioning (two quite sharp climbs don’t help).
Anyway. Rewind to 9am on Saturday morning and it wasn’t even clear we’d race at all. West Berkshire was shrouded in dense fog. Not great for the cycling leg of the race. Maybe I would continue my trend of being a bad talisman for my fellow competitors and make it three out of three races cancelled.
Thankfully, by 9:30am the organisers had decided that the fog was lifting and we would get underway at 10am. It was pretty chilly, so I did the ‘duathlon thing’ of teaming my trisuit with socks, a base layer and even arm warmers (no leg warmers or gloves, though. They’re for girls, Andy Tucker).
About 200 of us set off at 10am and after a scenic trip around the playing fields, it was off onto the off-road track. I was conscious that my run fitness was lacking, but still went off too hard (for me) with a 3:48 first kilometre. I was also reminded that I’m almost as bad at running downhill as I am uphill.
My plan (hope!) was to keep the frontrunners in sight so that I at least stood a chance of reeling them in on the bike. After 3km, it was clear that wasn’t in their plan and I was probably already a minute down on the leaders. Hey ho; suck it up and don’t blow up before T1!
T1 went relatively smoothly, except one of the elastic bands holding my tri cycling shoes in place snapped on the rough ground out to the road (which also meant my socks were soaked, nice), which made my getaway a little less slick than normal.
I shouldn’t have worried. One of the downsides of racing on that particular Saturday at 10am was that we got caught in traffic queueing to enter the Newbury showground for a local dog show. So the first 2km was relatively pedestrian (in fact, I barely averaged above 200W as we waited behind slow-moving cars, unavoidably bunching-up).
Finally, the traffic cleared and we could start racing.
I was conscious how hard the first run had been and didn’t want to embarrass myself completely by falling apart on the second run, so the plan was to keep my power to around 250 watts. It didn’t take long to remember why I don’t like the Newbury Duathlon bike course. Again, I mean absolutely no disrespect to the organisers, but the roads really aren’t that great.
I remember hearing Mark Cavendish talk about ‘dead roads’ in the UK, explaining that what he meant was that many road surfaces in the UK just sap speed and are uncomfortable to ride on. I think most of the roads around Chievely, Stanmore and Peasemore in West Berkshire fit this description perfectly. Together with the undulating nature of the course and the fact I forgot to swap my ‘flat’ 11-25 cassette for a more appropriate 11-28 ‘sporting’ one, made the bike leg feel uncomfortably slow. The mistake with the cassette was witnessed by the fact that I would be flying (relatively) on the flats and then losing ground on the climbs, even needing to resort to the small chainring on a couple of occasions.
At one point I was about 30 metres behind the next guy in front and just instinctively followed him at a junction. I didn’t even realise that there were no route markings until I’d made the follow and then started questioning whether I’d accidentally followed someone that wasn’t even in the race or whether I’d copied his mistake.
Luckily, having raced the course before we came to a section of road I recognised and I relaxed, happy that I hadn’t taken a wrong turn.
It turns out I was lucky. The signage for the turn had apparently been removed and many other competitors did go off-course. I feel really sorry for them (and annoyed at whoever removed the signage), but ultimately the BTF rules are clear that it’s the competitor’s responsibility to know the course.
Anyway, I made it into T2 with the third-fastest bike split of the day. Should have been faster, but there you go (I was a whole second, yes one second, faster than the last time I rode the course in 2016…).
Out of T2 and I got the shout from a friend who was marshalling that I was in fourth overall. Not bad, but I could already feel the guy behind closing me down (he’d had a MUCH faster first run, so I wasn’t expecting to hold him off for long).
Sure enough, he closed me down within 750m and gradually disappeared off down the track. I didn’t want to ‘run scared’ or be looking over my shoulder, but I was conscious of listening each time I passed a marshal – listening for their words of encouragement to the next guy (or girl!) behind and trying to make a note of what the time gap was.
At about 2km I reckoned I had 30 seconds on the guy behind. That might not be enough and I was beginning to resign myself to losing fifth spot, hoping to just stay inside the top ten. As the run levelled out and rejoined tarmac I knew there was less than 1km to go and I couldn’t hear anything behind me. Maybe I might just do this.
The guy who had overtaken me out of T2 was beyond reach, but I didn’t want to relax and risk being pipped on the line. So I pushed as hard as I could, did my lap of the playing field and crossed the line to take fifth overall. To thunderous applause. Or, more accurately, to complete indifference from the few spectators!
At least I had started a race in 2018. At least I had finished it.
I have a LOT of work to do on my runs (as always), but at least I know the bike is fairly solid,
Thanks as always to the Team Kennet organisers and marshals. I’m sorry I don’t like your race; don’t take it personally! And yes, I’m sure I’ll be back.