Pippingford Park XTriathlon
Rob at the Xtriathlon

Pippingford Park XTriathlon

By: Rob Lawrence

I always feel a pinch of excitement receiving emails from event organisers in the week running up to an event; ‘this is your start time’, ‘be here for the race briefing’, ‘nuances of transitions we need to let you know about’. And so it was, an innocuous email from Trail X late on Friday was followed by a flutter of excitement for the next day’s event.

Fresh from scouting the course, which was wild, true the event’s advertised nature, I was struggling with a footwear dilemma. Twice on the swim, transitioning between lakes, still clad in wet suits we would climb from one lake, dash across the forest floor and jump into the next lake before exiting the third lake and climbing 300m uphill crossing more heather, rocks and forest into T1. What to wear on my feet? Sacrificial neoprene socks, trainers that would feel like dragging a parachute while swimming or simply tough it out with bare feet. I had chosen to go with option three.

Swim Cancelled. The email’s subject turned my flutter into a swirl of thoughts. E-Coli had been discovered in the lake, so the swim leg was to be replaced with a 2km run, turning the event into a classic duathlon format. The swim footwear dilemma was solved, but with a touch of disappointment.

The MOD has used Pippingford Park, troops frequently dipping into the murky, lily pad covered lakes in the name of training, for years. With this came frequent water testing, but never the discovery of E-Coli. Sharing the news must have been a nervous moment for the race organisers, but speaking on behalf of those I chatted to, our initial disappointment was soon replaced by thankfulness that someone was overseeing our welfare. The testing laboratory believed the warm weather earlier in the year followed by recent heavy rain caused something containing E-Coli to be washed into the river that feeds the lakes. Something else to blame on Global warming? I’ll try harder with my carbon footprint.

The relaxation of social distancing rules allowed us to start in waves of ten, separated by 30 seconds. I adopted the start line stance, index finger posed on the start button, chip timing ankle well back from the start line, perfectly copied by nine others that would soon join me gasping for air on the opening uphill, long meadow grass, 100 metre field dash. We hit the top of the field, turned left onto a bridle way, gently downhill, gently back up then into the woods for what became the most enjoyable part of the whole race. Not fatigued enough to be in any pain the tightly packed wood presented a single, windy, root-infested downhill track that I flowed down, gliding from bump to root, the sense of speed augmented by the nearby trees whizzing past me. To an observer I’m sure I looked more pedestrian than racehorse, but to me, for a few moments, I felt gazelle-like. Then it was over, and the reality of the task ahead started to sink in. Heading back into for T1 lungs gasping and thighs burning a little more than sensible pacing would suggest they should be, I was a little nervous I’d overcooked things.

52 seconds later I’m out on the bike, shoes still undone, but peddling. 500 meters go by; the shoes are still undone. 1km in, no change with the shoes. I’ve made an error. Attempting to save time in T1 I thought I’d tighten my shoes on the bike. But MTBing is not like road biking where smooth tarmac allows you to reach down and tighten your shoes. My legs were working overtime to hold my feet in the loose shoes, lactic was building, others were passing me. Opportunities to reach down and tighten my shoes weren’t presenting themselves, then I slipped and ended up in a muddy heap. An inglorious start to the MTB leg, but an opportunity to sort my shoes and try to put things right. I’d lost a lot of time and for the remaining 20km it didn’t get much better. I fell off a further five times from a mixture of bad overtaking decisions and poor MTB handling. This was hard work. There were points where I felt dejected with the whole event. The towel, however, was not about to be thrown into the ring.

Flustered from exhaustion T2 felt like it took a long time to come round but come round it did and with equal measures of fluster I transitioned into running gear. Not a lot could go wrong now, it was just man and trainer versus a cross country route. Leg drive gone, glutes packed up for the day, it wasn’t the most elegant run, but it too came to an end at the finishing banner. There was a little pleasure, but I was too consumed by all the things I’d done wrong in the transitions, on the MTB leg and how I should turn them into lessons to enjoy the moment.

As the lessons crystallised, I became happier with my performance. I’d learnt a lot, about my kit and myself, and most of it would be transferable to ‘normal’ road races. The search for the perfect MTB tri shoe has started – it needs loops on the heels and Velcro fasteners, not Boa dials. I’ll be back next year, more skilful on the bike, fitter and calmer and wiser in transition.

Thank you Trail X Triathlon, a wonderful day!

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