Swim, bike, run, write.

An Estonian Adventure: AG European Champs Race Report

The day we set off on our journey to Estonia for the ETU age group European standard distance triathlon championships began, as all good adventures do, with a notification from the Easyjet app. Our flight had been delayed. After a few hours of scampering around Gatwick airport, we eventually got up in the air and landed in Tallin just after midnight. Bikes safely retrieved - with a big sigh of relief from me as this was the first time travelling with my shiny new Canyon - we headed down to the hire car place, expecting a quick 5 minute form to fill in before we could head to the nearby hotel we'd booked. No such luck - the guy seemed to want our full life stories and the promise of our first born child before he'd hand the car over. We eventually arrived at our hotel at 2am where we had a short nap before getting up at 5.30am to drive down to Tartu in time for the team briefing. Tired, but excited, we arrived in Tartu at about 8.30am and headed to the conference centre. Despite being surrounded by fellow GB athletes, taking our team photos and getting a full run down of the ins and outs of the race details, it still hadn't sunk in that I was in Estonia, getting ready to race at the European champs.

The day flew by in a blur of rushing around, finding registration, figuring out where transition was and just about managing to catch the start of the elite women's race before heading to our Air BnB. Guess who managed to book a top floor apartment with no lift? Just about managing to avoid dissolving into a puddle of our own sweat, we dragged both bike boxes and our suitcases up 8 flights of stairs and G set about putting the bikes back together. It was soon time for us to head down to check our bikes into transition, meaning that we hadn't had time to recce any of the bike course or even really ride our bikes properly to check they were working. Lesson very much learnt for the next time we race abroad - turning up less than 24hrs before you're due to race is a really bad idea!

After another sleepless night, race morning had arrived and I still hadn't quite got my head around the fact that I was there and about to race. This was only my second ever time racing the standard distance and it was at the European championships. Less than 2 years ago, I could barely ride a road bike and now I was here in GB kit. It all just felt a bit surreal and I was still half expecting someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask what I thought I was playing at!

With only a few weeks until Ironman Copenhagen, this race was all about making the most of the experience but coming home in one piece, ready to take on my final big block of Ironman training. With this in mind, I was having a small internal struggle with the part of me that wanted to go all guns blazing, and the part that knew I needed to race sensibly. We walked down to transition to do a few final bike checks and then walked the mile or so along the river up to the swim start. My wave were due to set off an hour before Graham's and soon it was time to say goodbye and get into the water. The swim was a deep water start and lining up at the buoys you could feel the current trying to pull you along - it was so hard to stay on the spot and wait for the customary heart-beat countdown before the gun went. Non-wetsuit definitely wasn't going to be a problem here. We swam downstream with the current pulling us along. I'd never swum in a river before - it was awesome! It was hard to gauge how fast we were being swept downstream. I spotted a guy from a previous wave up ahead, but figured that I didn't need to worry too much about him just yet. A few strokes later and the next thing I knew I'd managed to beach myself on his back like some sort of pesky river dwelling whale. Awkward. Turns out I was swimming a lot faster than I would in a regular lake. Minor beaching incident aside (sorry, man in the blue hat - at least I'm a fairly small human being!) the swim was great fun. The distance had been extended from the usual 1500m to account for the current and 24 minutes later, with my watch clocking a total of 1800m, I was making my way up the steep exit ramp to T1.

Bike time. Goggles off, helmet on, grab bike - go! The bike course was made up of two loops, taking us out on a long out and back before winding through the town right down by transition and back out again. Other than a few sharp little inclines here and there, the course was pretty flat and the conditions were ace, with very little wind. It was so tempting to go as hard as I could on the out and back, just to see what speed I could get up to! I managed to stay disciplined and stick to my planned power. Go hard, but don't break. With the Ironman in the back of my mind, I was probably a little overcautious round some of the bends in town (I was so paranoid about coming off and wrecking my bike with only weeks until the big day) and lost some time there, but overall I was happy with my bike split and I had a great time out on the course.

Soon I was rolling into T2. You'd think that, having completed two of the three disciplines, it would have sunk in by this point that I was racing at the European champs but nope. Dilly daydream over here was on autopilot. Bike racked, helmet off, trainers on. Time to run. I've been working hard on my running this year, but it's all been about the long slow stuff ready for the Ironman marathon. I knew I needed to be realistic with my pacing - clinging on for dear life works in a sprint but blowing up a few kms into the 10km run of a standard distance wouldn't be a pretty picture. I settled into my pace - go hard, don't break. I overtook a couple of people on the bridge out of town and found myself a little bit in no-man's land for the long out and back section. Usually on the run I like to go into shark mode and choose people ahead of me to try and overtake one by one, but for quite a long section of the run there was no one really around me - only people going in the opposite direction heading for the finish! As much as this was mentally a little tough, I was kind of glad for it as it was good preparation for the inevitable lonely sections that I'm sure I'll encounter during the Ironman marathon. The humidity of the day was starting to make its presence known by this point and I chucked water over my head at each aid station to keep cool. I settled into a good rhythm on the run, but it was here that I really started to feel our less than ideal preparation from the day before - the 20,000+ steps we'd walked, the numerous flights of stairs we'd slogged up and down to drag the bike boxes and suitcases up to our apartment, the major lack of sleep - I could feel the fatigue in my legs. I would have loved to have been able to negative split the run and speed up for the second half (that was the plan!) but, not today satan. I knew realistically that pushing any harder was going to be risky in terms of being able to recover enough for my big Ironman training block. I had a 5 hour bike ride and a 20 mile run to complete just a few days later. Calm your pants, keep it smooth. I held my pace, keeping it consistent until I knew that blue carpet to the finish line was near. With supporters lining the barriers, I managed something vaguely resembling a sprint finish (in reality it was probably more like a shuffle) and crossed the finish line with a new PB for the standard distance. There's still a huge amount of work to be done if I ever want to get competitive at this distance, but all things considered I was happy with how I went on the day.

It wasn't until I was back at the finish line, on the other side of the barriers now, waiting to watch Graham and our friend Chris finish that it really sunk in how cool it was just to be here. To go from 'I'd never be caught dead doing a triathlon' to qualifying for the age group European champs is a pretty big step, and I feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to go and race in a really cool city and represent my country. A GB lady who was racing in the 75-79 year old age category (she was quick to point out that she's only 75!) was talking to the commentator at the finish line - this was her 21st time racing at a championship, after taking up triathlon in her 40s. That kind of sums up how special this sport is. You don't have to have been a child sporting prodigy to be able to compete at a high level. There's so much opportunity for anyone to get involved. Give it courage, commitment and maybe just a little bit of madness and triathlon will take you places.

As I type, it's exactly 1 year to the day since my qualification race last August. I've come a long way since then and I feel like I'm only just getting started. Next stop, Ironman Copenhagen - 13 days to go!

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