Woburner long course, Alex Meek & Daniel Sly

Woburner middle distance triathlon (Woburn Abbey, UK) 8/09/2018, Alex Meek (with interjections by Daniel Sly)

I had the opportunity to go somewhere for a conference so what better way to pick one than to try to triangulate all the world’s conferences related to my PhD and all the 70.3 / middle distance triathlons. Fortunately, I found a conference in London with a middle-distance triathlon the weekend beforehand, an hour outside London. Conveniently one of my PhD supervisors is now working in Edinburgh and my sister and her husband live in London, so with the one trip, we had the opportunity to kill many birds.

We flew in on the Thursday night. The plane arrived late. We had a car booked to drive the couple of hours to an AirBnb near the triathlon on Saturday. First test was finding out if we could fit the two bikes. My mate Pam at the car hire desk, although initially seeming gruff (it was 10pm after all), upgraded us for free as she was concerned we wouldn’t fit them in the car we’d booked. We must have won her over with our adorable Australian accents.

We did a quick driver changeover on the side of the freeway as we were struggling to keep our eyes open after two days of almost no sleep. We got to our accommodation at almost midnight and of course were awake at 4am thanks to our confused body clocks – another night of almost no sleep but the bed was a lot more comfortable than the plane at least.

We built the bikes the next morning. It only took an hour which we were reasonably pleased with. Each bike had some cosmetic scrapes from the elbow rests rubbing on the fork. ☹ At least Daniel didn’t discriminate and made the same packing mistake with both bikes. Luckily our hosts had a floor pump as the small hand pump we’d brought with us wasn’t going to make fully pumping four tyres a fun job. Daniel had an important football game to watch so that took the middle part of the day around stuffing our faces/carb loading. We went to a race briefing on Friday afternoon and inquired about the number of horses and cars we were likely to encounter on the course (as the roads were open and we’d been warned to pass horses slow and wide ). After the briefing we did a drive of the bike course. So many turns. So so many potholes. It looked fairly well signed though – at least we shouldn’t get lost! (Or so I thought... idiot!)

We packed everything in the car the night before. This doesn’t sound like much when written as one tiny sentence but, believe me, it was no mean feat. Although it was only the same stuff we arrived with, the bikes took up a bit more space once built. So long as the car wasn’t stolen with our prized bikes and almost everything else we’d brought with us, we’d be fine. We had been planning on riding the 10km from our accomm to the race but the roads didn’t look too inviting – mostly 110km/h (and people didn’t seem too fussed about speed limits) and far narrower than Australian roads. Our AirBnb hosts didn’t think it was a great idea as they said you don’t generally see bikes on these roads so people wouldn’t be expecting us.

The next morning… we only had to be up at 5am but it was another night of not a huge amount of sleep following on from a few weeks of not enough sleep. Our lovely AirBnb hosts had left breakfast out for us – their homemade crabapple jam was delicious! And off we drove to the triathlon. As we drove in, we could see the deer napping in the paddocks next to the road. Transition was ridiculously cramped as they had those of us doing the 70.3 distance on one rack running down the side of transition. Wetsuited and off to the swim start.. missed most of the briefing as getting setup in transition had taken longer than usual given the lack of space. The swim was 3 laps of a 633m circuit. Daniel didn’t start until 50 minutes after me as they could only fit so many people into the little lake so I’d asked him to finish setting up for me. Luckily there was no transition cut off – you could go in and out whenever you wanted during the day (even more relaxed than the All Bar None triathlons).

Aaaand into the lake. As expected, it was disgusting. And freezing. Vince had warned me that it would probably be freezing but I’d been hoping after England’s oddly hot summer that it might have been warmer. No such luck. It was squishy and slimy underfoot and the water was cloudy and brown – delicious! No time for a warm up as we were only able to get in for the start. It was a ‘deep’ water start, although in this case that was about waist deep. I tried to stick my head under to give myself a few seconds to get used to the temperature, and we were off. In the first 50-100m, I was wondering if I was going to need to be pulled out due to having hypothermia, my face was burning in the cold. As it was also so disgusting, I wonder if I was going to have to swim it waterpolo style but once I’d stuck my head under a few times, I got used to it/maybe it wasn’t so bad a little further out and away from the turbulence of us all having entered the water. I spent the first half lap focusing on not dying from the cold. As I started to warm up and get my senses back, I could see there was a pack off ahead of me. I had a minor panic around this point – I couldn’t remember putting my gloves in transition. Would Daniel notice and put them there? Should I run past Daniel’s bike on the way to mine to steal his gloves in case mine weren’t there? Would I be able to see Daniel on the way up to ask about the status of my gloves? Would I have to DNF due to lack of gloves?

The back of the front pack was not too far ahead (10m? 50m? I couldn’t really tell), I decided to give it a push and work up to the closest feet. I caught them reasonably quickly and sat on them for the rest of the lap. I could see my lead feet had dropped off the front pack and I wasn’t working too hard to stay on so started peeking ahead (which was easy at least given the perfectly flat water). The distance to the next feet didn’t look insurmountable so off I went. I caught those feet and my new buddy welcomed me by giving me a decent kick in the chest as I went around the first buoy behind her. I think she had been going backwards from the pack ahead and before long, my friend from the first lap was alongside me so I thought, stuff it, I’ll see if I can get up towards the pack ahead and went out on my own. I felt really strong and tough, I was loving my new wetsuit – it was kind of like swimming with a pull buoy. And then at the end of the second lap, my friend from lap 1 came around me – dammit! So I chased her around for lap 3 trying to hold on. I felt pretty happy with my swim, I’d managed to keep working hard throughout which is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Getting out of the water and up to transition wasn’t easy though. Here is an actual image of my feet on exiting the lake:

I didn’t spot Daniel until I was almost at my bike and started yelling at him about gloves (I’d forgotten to run past and steal his). Luckily, he said they were there – phew! Not having gloves on the bike seriously impacts my enjoyment of riding at the best of times, and even more so when I have just survived a freezing cold lake. I was tossing up whether to put an extra top on as I was rather chilly but I could see people running out of transition in less than I had on so I decided to suck it up. As I was in transition, one of the organisers was warning us that the deer were waking up and were on the course – and that they wouldn’t move out of the way for you.  

- Daniel -

Having safely escaped transition just in time to hear the warning about marauding deer, I sprinted off for my adventure in the lake.  As Alex mentioned, it felt like you were a swamp monster fighting your way through. I had a good swim, starting at the back of a decent pack and gradually working my way through to the front of my group by the end. I didn’t find it quite as cold, but was definitely ready to be done by the end.  An uneventful transition and I was off onto the bike…

- end Daniel -

I overtook a few people on the little lap around the abbey and then headed out onto the road for the first main lap. Going over the cattle grates was scary. Going over the speed bumps was annoying. Definitely not a quick course! I was having to brake going down lots of the hills as I couldn’t see the road ahead and knew there could be potholes or cars coming the other way. I was cold and wishing for the uphills so I could pedal and spent some time wondering if I could both pedal and brake on the way down to try to warm up. I wondered if I’d be able to run on frozen feet or whether I’d need to give them a massage in T2 to avoid having either of them snap off.

I don’t think I saw anyone out on the road until about the 30km mark when a guy caught up to me. I was thankful to have somebody out there with me and sat about 50m behind, just keeping him in sight (guinea pig around corners). He’d tear off on me on the downhills as I was being fairly conservative – I’m not feeling the need for any bike crashes between now and the ironman – and then I’d catch up on the uphills. We had a few back and forths and I finally dropped him somewhere along the way. Coming into the abbey I saw a pack of about 100 or so deer walking towards the path I was riding on. I did a little ‘two trains are travelling to Chicago’ calculation and decided I’d get past before they arrived at the path. But then they must have sensed me coming with their big antennas. They stopped. Looked at me. I thought uh-oh. And then they started running. But luckily they ran at the path rather than at me and went over about 50m ahead of me. Phew. Although being set on by deer during a triathlon sounds amusing in theory, in practise I don’t think it would prove so amusing.

Back out on the second lap on my own. Part of the way around, I went past an intersection. There was one of the directional arrows pointing straight and a sign pointing left saying ‘Woburner Triathlon.’ Hmmmmm I kept riding, thoughts flying through my head… have I just missed a turn? But the arrow showed straight.. Had it changed direction in the wind? I couldn’t see anyone behind me or in front of me and no directional signs ahead.. I decided to turn around to go back and check. After less than a minute going back, a couple of bikes came the other way. Time to turn around. Pretty quickly we got to the next signed intersection. I hooned back past my saviours having a quick chat to them on the way past. I decided I wasn’t too unhappy about this, it had only cost me a few minutes. If that was the worst thing that happened to me all day, it wasn’t too bad. Coming to the end of lap 2, I went past a few women that I recognised from near me in transition and thought I probably wasn’t doing too badly working myself up the order after the swim.

One of the guys who lives at the abbey.

The course was getting a lot busier both with cars and competitors. The Olympic Distance was starting some time after the Woburner so those competitors were probably out on the course by now. I overtook a bunch of people going up a hill towards the start of lap 3 – either these people distracted me or maybe some of the traffic blocked my view of a directional arrow but off I headed down the main road, instead of turning left back into the quieter streets where the course would have taken me. I went past a road and saw a sign knocked over on the ground, something about Milton Bryan to the left – I knew the course went through Milton Bryan but I didn’t see an arrow. Should I turn around? I was still smarting from last time I’d turned around unnecessarily. I thought I saw a directional sign ahead but once I got closer, I could see the highway signs were on the same yellow background as the directional signs. I became more and more definite that I’d gone the wrong way. I started to think about whether I should ride back but I’d already gone quite a distance from the intersection where I saw the Milton Bryan sign. I was also going downhill so I was getting further away pretty quickly. I wondered if there would be a road that I could turn down and join back onto the course… I could see I’d ridden some kms. I got to a cattery and that told me I definitely wasn’t on the course anymore as there’s no way I would have missed a cattery on the previous laps. There was an intersection ahead with an A road (for those familiar with Britain’s road numbering scheme) heading the way I thought I might want to go but I remembered our AirBnb hosts’ warning that the speed limits are high and people aren’t expecting to see bikes. I decided I was already at a high enough risk of being run over trying to get back to the course so chucked a u-ey. I’d left the back light on my bike seeing as the roads were open but I’d forgotten to turn it on anyway. Long story short though, I didn’t get run over so really the race was a success. When I got back to the intersection to Milton Bryan, I still couldn’t see any directional arrows but took the road anyway. As I got to the village, I could see bikes going past perpendicular to the road I was on so I’d missed a turn well before I even suspected I had. Given I’d been overtaking some people, I’m sure someone must have seen me going the wrong way – a yell might have been nice! But maybe they did yell and I didn’t hear them from inside my space helmet over the road and wind noise. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. I was starting to think the whole thing was less funny by this point though. Luckily I wasn’t going too hard on the bike. I’ve gone too hard enough times recently so I was deliberately keeping myself in check but still, it was a tough course and I was starting to get tired.

I had some tos and fros with a woman on the remainder of lap 3. When we were stopped at an intersection giving way to a car (), I asked how far she'd ridden, explained I’d gone the wrong way and was wondering by how far. She said she'd ridden 50. I thought she must be on only her second lap so added the 28km for an extra lap – I was at 88km so I’d ridden an extra 10km. To add insult to injury, going over the cattle grate back towards the abbey loosened my bottle and out it came. I stopped and watched it roll back down the hill. As my riding buddy went past again while I watched my bottle, she commented that it just wasn’t my day. Too right. Eventually it fell in to the grate at which point I headed off again. I was almost at the end of the bike leg so didn’t need it but wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to become an obstacle for the riders still to come. I was suitably confused when my riding buddy took the turn to transition as well and we headed in together. It was only 8 hours or so later that I twigged when she’d said 50, of course she meant 50 miles not 50 km. Der. Nevertheless, when I compared with Daniel’s distance later, I’d done an extra 7 km so not quite 10 km but still not great.

- Daniel -

My ride was less eventful than Alex’s. I had the same internal monologue at her first misadventure, but luckily I could see a couple of others ahead, so decided we couldn’t all be wrong and ploughed ahead slightly concerned until I met the next direction sign.  The downhills were very much a test of my limited descending courage, as it’s fair to say I err on the side of caution.  For most of the ride, I was bunny-hopping with one of the female competitors.  I’d get a break on the hills and flats, and then she would bomb the descents and come flying past me.  Eventually after the fifth time this occurred, I asked her for some tips on how to keep up, but I eventually got a little break on her on the last lap.  The ride was very unlike Busso.  You were either going up or down, so it was definitely a different challenge, and on the first lap especially I had to be careful not to work too hard up the hills, so my legs had something left for the run.

- end Daniel -

As I ran into T2 I could see there were already quite a few bikes around my area, maybe 10. I thought I’d just see how I felt on the run and not push it too hard, I wasn’t out to win anything from so far back and I could probably benefit from needing less recovery from this race. I cruised along and was surprised to see I was meeting my original target pace in the first half lap before realising I’d largely been running downhill with a tailwind. I kept it about the same intensity on the way back which of course saw my pace drop once I was running uphill into a headwind. It was a 4 lap course so I was able to discuss my travails of the day with Daniel with each passing. It was also off road around the abbey, definitely not an easy half marathon. I ended up running myself into 4th but it was only because there wasn’t a great deal of depth in the field so nothing to write home about. Even though I was trying not to push too hard on the bike or run, it still ended up being a pretty tough day due to the course. 

- Daniel -

Onto the run and I was surprised at how good it felt to no longer be riding.  Off I trundled and was pleasantly surprised with my starting pace, but fully aware that I was probably going to slow.  I kept it fairly solid until about 13-14 ks, when the day started to wear on me and the legs started to feel heavy.  It was a lovely course though, and I knew at that point it wasn’t much over one lap to go.  The finish was up a hill which was a bastard of a way to finish, and the finisher before me broke the bloody finishing bell that the commentators were shouting for everyone to ring.  My race was ruined.  😉

- end Daniel -

After a quick relax and some hot chips, it was time to hit the road.  Daniel and I managed to pack the bikes back into the bike bags ready for the plane ride home, in the paddock, surrounded by deer poo, before we departed the Abbey to go meet our niece in London.  Our first travelling triathlon could definitely be declared a success (so long as blistering times weren't in the criteria!), even if it was a bit of a whirlwind getting from home in Perth to the start line in around 60 hours.  The Woburner was an excellent race, and it was enjoyable to race on such a different course to our previous 70.3s in Busselton.  All in all, a fun adventure, and looking forward to the next one.