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Saturday 30 August 2014

Kimbolton Triathlon Race Report: Drowning in 4ft of Water

The triathlon was over before it had really begun. I was only three laps in, but I was panicking. The pool water –stinking of chlorine and enclosed spaces - was splashing into my face, I was gasping for air and I’d completely forgotten everything I’d learned in my swimming lessons. My head was telling me I was drowning in 4 feet of water.


It had started well enough. I’d arrived at the venue early and parked my modest Ford up among the Range Rovers and big cars with their racks of expensive bikes. The light was shining off of the sandstone of Kimbolton Castle, making me feel very small in amongst all these people that knew what they were doing, with their shiny bikes and goggles they definitely hadn’t borrowed from their friend.

Maybe triathlon was a bad idea. I have enough adventures with just running. Triathlon meant I’d be able to drown myself, fall off AND fall over all in one race. Maybe, I should just pop the bike back on the car and get home. There would still be time for a pub lunch and a bit of a sit down on the sofa. Sunday would be salvageable.

Except I’d told ALL of twitter I was doing a triathlon today. Sarah, you tit. Let this be a lesson to you. Next time – don’t tell ANYONE.

Getting to the small race village, I found my first problem. So I have the bike, armfuls of kit and I’m weighed down with bags but I need a number. How do I get a number without having to drag everything into the registration tent? And I can’t rack the bike and put my kit down first as I don’t have a number so won’t know where to rack it! This is so confusing.

I obviously looked as though I was suffering from extreme confusion ... or maybe the fact I was standing in the middle of the teeny race village, cuddling a road bike with kit strewn around me gave it away – but a kindly race official took pity on me. “You rack the bike there, bring your bag into registration and we’ll give you your chip and number.”

I registered ... after working out how to get into the tent. Yes really. They made it really complicated although the early morning, lack of coffee and Fear Of Triathlon (yes - a real Thing) might have contributed to this. I managed to squeeze through the barrier before being told I needed to find out my race number. I squeezed back out ... squeezed back in and bashed a board over with my bag. There must be an easier way of doing this.

Finally I had my number and chip. I made my way to the transition area which was rows and rows of empty bars (unfortunately not the sort selling vodka tonics) as I was so early and I racked the bike. ‘Racking the bike’ is basically a triathlon way of saying “I hung it up off a bar by the saddle and it didn’t fall over”. Or off. Huh. Get me. I’ve ‘racked my bike’. Am like a proper triathlete.

Spot the kit that shouldn't be on this pile ...

Stern looking marshal came over and told me my bike was racked the wrong way round. Bugger. Am not proper triathlete at all. I turned bike round hoping no-one had noticed and knocked my neat little pile of kit over. Never mind. I had towel, sports bra, bike shoes (ready talced), rolled down socks also full of talcum powder (Thanks VeggieRunners!), shorts. Helmet with sunglasses on went on the bike handlebars so it would be easy to put these on before getting on the bike as I’d be disqualified for touching the bike without my helmet on. Garmin on bike. I had a tri belt which is a stretchy piece of elastic with a clip and I had a number to attach to it.

Now just to attach the number. I felt a bit smug at having remembered to bring a hole punch so I could clip nice neat holes in my number and attach it to the belt with the minimum of fuss. Get me. Am like PRO triathlete.

Smugly placed hole punch on number and clipped. It jammed. Firmly. Was completely unable to get hole punch off number. Start to panic. Will have to run race with hole punch attached to number. Will look like a tit. Although is nice and heavy so will be able to club anyone who laughs at me.

Resorted to smacking hole punch with a trainer. No luck. Was firmly entrenched. Smacked hole punch harder and with both trainers. Hole punch finally let go spilling small white paper circles on the grass.

Looked up. Have audience of bemused people watching me beat office stationary with running kit.

Realise holes punched in wrong place on number.


Never mind. There are HOLES in it. That will do. I put everything in a neat pile. Very nice. Hope I haven’t forgotten anything crucial.

Right. Kit sorted, race briefing attended, coffee obtained and drunk. Time to visit the portaloos ...

I elbow the side of the portaloo which makes a plastic “thunk” noise. I’ve managed to avoid dropping any clothing into the gaping hole and I haven’t touched anything in here except for with my elbow which I’m counting as a win. Plus there’s a plastic hook on which to hang my clothes. “Thunk” Other elbow hits other the plastic wall. The people in the queue outside are going to think I’m having a fight in here or something. And in one way I am. I am fighting clothing and my swimsuit. And trying desperately to hold my breath and not touch anything at the same time.

I passed the test. The true test of whether you are a newbie swimmer. The complete inability to use a portaloo while wearing a swimsuit.

I gave up and went for the ‘Total Disrobe’. I’ve been toilet trained for approximately 32 years but put me in a swimsuit and give me a toilet situation and I panic. But better to panic than have a soiled swimsuit and a look of humiliation.

Also I was pretty sure you could get disqualified for soiling a pool. I imagine there would be a lifetime ban and some sort of register. And some REALLY unhappy triathletes.

I finally got sorted and emerged from the portaloo triumphant. Borrowed bike was racked next to borrowed bike shoes, I had borrowed goggles in my hand. Now I just needed to borrow some confidence and I would be ready.

We met up with Angela, Craig and Sarah from my running club, Northbrook. Angela and Craig were doing the triathlon (it was also Craig’s first) and Sarah was chief cheerer. She also had the camera. Made a mental note to avoid Sarah during my ‘running in swimsuit’ sections.

The triathlon started with the swim which was set off in waves. Not a pun. Craig was setting off early, then the Mister was due to start and Angela and I would go about 9:30am, a few minutes apart. There were about 5 people in each wave, each setting off at 4 minute intervals.

Hooray!! Familiar voices and Anne and Lozza had arrived! Hugs all round and they told me they’d been practising their ‘loud cheering’ and ‘sitting in the sunshine’ ready for today. Perfect!

We all hung around the swimming pool nervously. I was wandering around in my swimsuit, feeling exposed and wishing I’d invested in a trisuit. Then an “Oh shit” moment. I would be running and cycling in this later ... and I’d forgotten to put my sports bra on. It was in the neat little pile next to the bike in the transition area.

Smacked self in face with hand and ran to get the sports bra from transition. The first few people were coming through from their swim now and leaping onto their bikes I grabbed my top and sprinted back to the pool where a quick change got everything where it should be. At least I realised the sports bra was missing before the run. That could have made for some interesting pictures ...


This is it. Deep breath. I walked through the changing rooms where I got an automatic soaking from the showers (or maybe they’d heard about the portaloo issue ...) and got my first look at the pool.

It was mayhem.

People thrashing up and down, 3 or 4 to a lane and 5 lanes of a tiny pool. The water was choppy and opaque like a mini, murky sea. I’d never seen anything like it. The whole atmosphere was pervaded with a chlorine smell of desperation and damp. And in about 8 minutes I’d be thrashing up and down and trying desperately not to drown myself.

We had a mini briefing: had to overtake by touching toes of person in front and hope they weren’t ticklish otherwise you’d get a reflexive kick in the face. Hat colour denoted the wave you were in – you had to take hats off and leave them at the poolside before you left. Your wave would get called up when it was your turn to start.

There was a bench along the left side opposite the pool and we were all sitting in number – and start time - order. Every few minutes the next 5 would be called and we’d bum-shuffle up the bench getting closer and closer to the end of the bench and the start of our triathlon. And the desperate thrashing around in the pool.

There were different colour hats for each wave of 5 swimmers – we were the silver hat wave. We were called to the poolside and with 30 seconds to go got into the pool. “Go!”

In my enthusiasm, fear and utter desperation I went off far too fast. I got a length and half down the pool with an overtake – and toe tickle – done and thought “This is brilliant – I’m nailing this!”

Approximately 3 seconds later my body shouted at me “No you’re not! You’re not breathing, idiot! What were you thinking overtaking people? Slow the hell down, stupid!!” I didn’t listen ... then the demand for air made itself known.

I panicked and swallowed water. I coughed and the choppy water splashed over my face, I couldn’t breathe. Every time I tried to take a breath, the water splashed over me and I felt as though I was choking. The stink of chlorine in my nostrils and the panting of the swimmers echoing off the walls was pressing in on me. I couldn’t breathe. Try to keep going. I bumped off of the ropes thrashing my arms, a swimmer in my lane overtook someone coming the other way bumping into me. I was drowning in 4 feet of water.

Any minute now a marshal is going to spot me and drag me out of the pool, the end of my triathlon attempt. Over before I’d even got halfway through the swim.

Focus, Sarah. This is a POOL. You are not going to drown in a pool. Think of all those times you’ve been caught up in breaking waves messing about with surf boards and body boards and thought you were going to drown. All the times you’ve held your breath at the bottom of the pool as a game. You didn’t drown then so you’re not going to drown in an oversized paddling pool surrounded by marshals and other people.

I stopped at the end to catch my breath and started another length. I was still gulping at the air in between strokes, but I’d stopped trying to breath water and hadn’t been told off, ‘rescued’ or told to leave the pool. I slowed down and concentrated on finishing the swim, reaching my arms forward and breathing every other stroke. My swim wouldn’t be pretty or quick but I would finish. Or I would sulk and drink the rest of the pool water out of spite.

In all the excitement – or maybe urine poisoning through amount of pool water ingested - I realised I’d lost count of my laps. Crap. I had 16 lengths to do. NO idea what number I was on. I tried to count back. No idea. I reasoned I was probably on lap 5. Or 7? If I did too many it didn’t matter to the marshals - that would be my swim time, too few laps – a 2 minute penalty per lap would be imposed.

At least I was helping the people coming after me. I’d accidentally swallowed so much pool water, the level had probably dropped by 6 inches, sod the swimming, they’d be able to RUN their laps up and down the pool and be finished in 5 minutes.

16 laps... I think. I wibbled out of the pool and legged it for the door, dropping my silver swim cap on the poolside. When I say ‘legged’ I obviously meant ‘run on jelly legs that HATE me’. Also running in a swimsuit? It doesn’t look like Baywatch, not at all. I would have been pleased to carry a red float to cover up all the bits that wibbled along, even a swim cap to cover up the hair which was doing it’s best impression of bogbrush released from loo after it sprung free from the silver swim cap. However, I DO look very happy in the photos. Mainly because I’d escaped from that pool and not died.

Transition 1 (T1)

I pretended I wasn’t wearing just a swimsuit, carried on running and remembered where I’d left Le Bike (she’s French). Shorts on. Standing up, I bent down to dry my feet on the towel and started wobbling, nearly taking down a rack of bikes. Remembered Mary of Inspire2Tri’s advice and sat on the ground to do it. Put rolled down socks on, shoes on. Stand up; tribelt on, helmet on, glasses on. Bike off rack – GO!

I even managed the ‘run holding saddle’ and may even have looked as if I knew what I was doing ... if only I was running towards the exit not the entrance. Sigh. Redirected by a marshal and made it through the right gate. Across the grass and to the ‘Mount Bike’ sign. We are go go go!!


I set off and managed to get the shoes clipped in and was relieved that I'd remembered to put the bike in an easy gear ready for a swift getaway. My Garmin was already switched on and attached to the bike handlebars ready for me to press 'start'. This was my escape from the pressures of the pool and the spectators and I was looking forward to getting out on the country lanes. 

Coming out of the school drive was fine, then I had to stop at the main road to let a herd of road bikes pass. They were fully lycra-ed up and obviously out on their usual Sunday morning ride. I pulled out after them and was concerned about drafting for a brief moment – does it count if they’re not in the triathlon? - but it didn’t matter, there was no way I could keep up with that speed. I couldn’t have drafted them even if I’d wanted to. Unless there was a tow rope involved and I was pretty sure the marshals – and the Sunday cyclists – would frown on that.

I enjoyed being out on the lanes a bit too much and found myself easing off a bit too much at sections as apart from the odd cyclist on the horizon I was mainly alone. I overtook 5 people, most of which were doing the same as me – bumbling along enjoying the views and completely forgetting they were in a race. The photographer caught me coming around a corner, big smile on my face just enjoying it. This was the antithesis to the swim. Relaxed but focused. Out in the fresh air, big grin on my face and no sodding water.

The cycle was 20km and was a loop on mostly B roads and lanes. It was picturesque and mainly flat – the beauty of doing a triathlon in Cambridgeshire. It was all slightly uphill until mile 6 and then you had a gorgeous downhill until the finish apart from 2 small but sharp hills. This was my 2nd time ever on a road bike and I LOVED how fast it was. I was going to have to start saving up for one of these ...

It was a hot day and I drank an entire bottle of water on the bike. I was surprised how thirsty the swim had left me considering how much of that water I had also swallowed.
Whummm ... whum ... Whum ... I was overtaken by a fast bike ridden by a chap with a sperm helmet and aero bars. He had a determined expression, muscular legs and apparently a complete disregard for the national speed limit. He made it look very easy and was past me so fast it was as though I wasn't moving at all. I bet HE hadn't had to run through transition in a swimming costume though. See – he had it easy.

I overtook a couple of people on upright bikes ... if it wasn’t for the fact they had numbers on I would have thought they were out for a pleasant Sunday afternoon ride. They looked dignified and stately and I almost expected a picnic in a basket on the front. Maybe I was doing it wrong. I wonder if they made time allowances for picnics in transition.

I had no idea of my speed as I'd forgotten to change the Garmin to a mph setting after my last run, but I could see that I was coming up to the last mile or so of the cycle. I'd loved this part of the triathlon far more than I'd expected and despite it only being my 2nd time on a road bike I wanted to play more! I came into the Kimbolton village and saw the signs for the school. I spotted a lone cyclist coming round the last corner and overtook him – one last overtake before it was time to surrender the bike to T2. I heard a shout and spotted The Mister disappearing behind me on his bike. Whoops. Hope that doesn't cause a domestic when I get home.


I managed to avoid the thing I had been most worried about … I remembered to unclip the bike shoes before trying to leap off of the bike at the 'Dismount' sign. I ran with the bike through to my number on the rack and hung up Le Bike. Bike shoes off, trainers on. Thank goodness for elastic laces on trainers making it easy! Garmin off bike, onto wrist. Helmet off. Turn belt round so race number is now on my front. Sunglasses adjusted. Go go go!!


Hooray for running!! This is the good bit! The bit I can do … so why does it feel like my legs have been replaced by wooden pegs. I felt as though I was stumping along like a unlucky pirate.

I checked My Garmin and was relieved to find that I was doing my 10k pace despite feeling as though I was waddling. I peg-legged a bit further and checked again. Ah. Marathon pace. So now I really WAS shuffling. I could blame the heat for my pathetic pace but I'm pretty sure it was actually down to being made to swim then cycling for miles before being forced to run. Without snacks.

The run was 3 laps around a playing field looping up around a beautiful buildings onto some strength sapping gravel and back onto the playing field. There was a tiny hill … one so small it wouldn't normally register. Today it was Everest. Everest with gravel. And no snacks.

Pic by Sarah McNaney
I passed an older man wearing teeny tiny neon pink shorts and top. He drew the eyes. It was like a car crash. You couldn't not look. Plenty of people were walking now. It would be so easy to walk … but I would be disappointed. I would have struggled with that swim, pushed through … to give up now?

I'd thought I'd find run the easiest but I couldn't speed up at all. My legs were telling me that 'stumping' was now their 'flat out' pace and they were going no faster. They had gone on strike. Well … on stump. Lozza and Anne were cheering at the bottom of the field, Sarah and Craig at the top. This helped hugely as it meant there were two specific spots I couldn't slow down at.

Faster I go, faster I can stop. Stump right, stump left, c'mon legs!!

Finally … lap 3 after what felt like hours circling that bloody playing field and crunching on that gravel. Past Lozza and Anne, too tired to smile and onto the finishing straight. Under the finish gantry arms in the air, name called out over the tannoy … and I was finished!

Am triathlete!! Very, very tired but happy triathlete.

Pic by Lozza
Although apparently there was one last obstacle ...

I couldn’t find the way out. I'd crossed the line … to be confronted by a metal gate. I walked round the side and ended up back on the run course. Don't want to do another lap, thanks! Two other finishers had followed me and we all stood there looking confused. Do we have to do it all again? Where's the ice creams?

Luckily, we were spotted by a marshal and shown the way out. Phew. That was amazing but not sure I could have done it all over again straightaway. Might have an ice cream first ...

My results:
Swim: 09:03 (400m)
T1: 02:01
Cycle: 38:05 (20km)
T2: 01:13
Run: 21:52 (5km)
Overall: 01:12:16

39 seconds and one place behind the 1st lady in my age group which I was very surprised and pleased about!

Kimbolton Triathlon: 

400m pool swim, 20km cycle, 5km run.

If you want to enter this one I can highly recommend it. It's very beginner friendly and the atmosphere was great. Everyone was friendly and chatty and the marshals were very helpful. Plus it's a bargain at £44 for non-affiliated entries or £39 if you belong to a tri club. More info here.


  1. Amazing! Well done...

    I like this report as it's like 3 in 1; 3 times the hilarity, 3 times the ups and downs, and 3 great times!

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed it but it was SO hard!! I may have been bitten by the tri bug though ... I suspect there may be more!!

  2. Best race report I've read, had me laughing out loud. "Sperm helmets!" Won't be able to look at one of those again without giggling.

    1. Thank you!! So pleased you liked it! Apparently there were issues at some triathlons with people being poked by the spiky end of the helmets in transition! Can you imagine the complaints! AMAZING!! :)