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Tuesday 7 October 2014

Triathlon Relays: Dive-In-Wetsuits, MASSIVE beers & How Not-To-Get-Kicked-In-The-Head

It's 25 past 8 and I'm fighting with my wetsuit. The race starts at 8:45 and I’ve got to rack the bike, get my swimming hat on and get to the start ... and my wetsuit is only around my knees. Bloody wetsuits. Why are they so hard to get into when you’re in a hurry?

Why can't someone invent a dive in wetsuit? You’d oil up and take a running jump and voila ... one rubbered up triathlete. Job done.

My (borrowed) bike is at the bottom of a pile of bikes. It’s like an expensive carbon version of pick-up-sticks trying to extricate one bike from among the many. And you daren’t drop one.

I finally get the wetsuit on and I realise I haven’t got my stick on tattoos on my arms. Lozza comes to the rescue. These are like a grown up version of the cartoon ‘tattoos’ you have as a kid that came free with bubblegum. You peel off the back and stick the number on your arm which you wet with a tissue (or in our case without a tissue to hand, a babywipe) until it separates from the card and sticks on your arm. I rolled the top of my wetsuit down, Lozza grabs the tattoo and carefully sticks it to my left arm. Sorted.

Michael walks past. “Lozza, you muppet.”

Hang on ... what's my race number?

Ah whoops.

“Never mind!” She says cheerfully, “We’ll get the other one on properly.” She slaps it onto my right arm.

“Lozza ...” Michael says. “THAT one has to go on her leg...”

We peel it off. Bits of it are still stuck to my arm, but it’s readable and it sticks to my leg fine. It’ll do. I can always draw it back on if it starts coming off. I’m sure someone around here will have a biro.

I run to the start with the bike. “I’ll be fine.” I tell myself. “I still have 7 minutes to go.” I rack the bike. Then get told off for racking it in the wrong section. Un-rack bike. Re-rack bike.

Sprint to the start. Doesn’t matter. This’ll count as my warm up, right?

I finally get to the start. I join a sea of red capped swimmers, all in black wetsuits standing at the edge of the lake. It is looking quite calm and serene at the moment. All the swans appear to have been chased off which is a relief as apparently there have been ‘swan incidents’ in the past. Well. Being chased by a mental pecking swan intent on my blood would probably improve my swim time. So long as it was chasing me in the right direction, anyway. I have only been swimming again for the last few months. Hope I don’t let my team mates down. They might release the swans as an incentive.

This is my first ever open-water event and my relay team have put me in first. Talk about a baptism of fire. Well .. a baptism of white-water anyway.

I'm in this picture somewhere ... Source

I will be experiencing The Washing Machine firsthand as the kicking and flailing swimmers churn up the water like a washing machine as they all set off at once. It is notoriously rough and a friend had 2 ribs broken from a kick as she set off for the swimming section of her Ironman.

With this in mind, I position myself next to a man who doesn’t look very ‘kicky’. Although it’s difficult to tell when people are standing up. I decide to check. But how. “You look nice” might give the wrong impression especially when the person I’m addressing is wearing skin-tight rubber. “Do you like to kick people viciously during an open water swim?” seems a bit accusatory. I go with “Hi, this is my first open water event. Can you not kick me in the head, please?” He considers this. “Ok. I might draft you though.” No problem. This seems like a good deal to me.

The swim is 500m. We have to swim out to a massive buoy in the lake, turn right, swim to the next, another right turn and back to the finish where I’ll pass my rubber relay wristband to my first team mate who will complete his swim. All 4 of us will pass the band to swim, then the same thing will happen on the cycle section, then the 5k run.

I look at the buoy. It looks MILES away. But I have swum further than this in a lake with Lozza, Liz and Sarah. There weren’t people trying to swim over me and kick me in the head there, although Lozza gets a bit enthusiastic sometimes. The water also didn’t taste quite so much of swan poo. But this will be fun, I tell myself.

My internal voice chimes in: Fun? There will be massive bitey swans. And people trying to drown me.

It really WAS like being in a washing machine but with more swan poo and less fabric conditioner. Source

All of a sudden, a horn blew and it turned into mayhem. The water turned white as it was churned up by a few hundred swimmers all desperately trying to swim as fast as they can while not getting a foot in the face or an elbow in the ear. It was exciting, but difficult to find a clear patch of water to swim in as everyone was packed so closely. You also end up sighting far more than usual as you just can’t see a thing – you can’t get your head down and get into the swim like you would usually in a lake. I got a few kicks and bashes but nothing serious and it was quite fun to realise that everyone was in the same situation – trying to swim while taking the minimum of damage. It soon all spread out however, with the breaststrokers disappearing behind and I got a narrow strip of water to swim in, hemmed in on all sides but with people swimming about the same speed.

Lots of thrashing around happening. Source

I looked up and realised I was at the first buoy already. Going around the corner, the pack closed up again but it spread out and we were at the second buoy in what felt like seconds. No sign of swans.

Home straight now. My arms are tiring. This is the equivalent of a sprint in running. I keep going, keep pushing. I look up – the finish gantry is ahead and I can see swimmers exiting the water. I swim as hard as I can, the person in front of me is wading now but I swim for the edge until my hands touch the sand and then I run. I run through the arch, onto the carpet and go to shout for my team mate.

Shit. Who is my team mate?

I left for the start of the race in such a hurry, I don’t know who I’m handing over the relay wristband to. I only met my three male team mates this morning so I’m unlikely to recognise them now they’re dressed in black rubber, wearing a white swim cap and goggles. An identical outfit to the other 300 people dressed in black rubber, white swim cap and goggles and crowding the edges of the transition area.

Right. Two out of three of my team mates were called Tom. I’ve got a 66% chance of getting this right!

“Doncaster Tri Club! Tom!” I bellow. No reply. “Doncaster!!!”

Crap. What now? No choice. Keep bellowing. “DOOOONCAAASTER!!”

A hand pops up and it’s Tom! Dressed unsurprisingly in black rubber and a white hat and goggles. Yep. A swimmer. We pass over the band and he’s off towards the water.

I’ve got about 25 minutes now to get into my bike gear and get back to the transition area ready to get the wristband back from my 4th and final teammate after their swim. I had no idea of the time I’d taken on the swim ... I was just relieved not to have been dead last, drowned or to have had my teeth knocked out.

It’s always so much easier to get wetsuits off again. I changed quickly out of my swim kit, got into the kit I was wearing on the bike and scoffed a flapjack. Another quick dash down to the transition area where I would be waiting for Johnno in the transition area.

Oh no. Here we go again.

A stream of black wetsuits, goggled-up people and identical coloured hats. I’m not sure I could have picked my own Mother out of this lot.(Although she’d probably have been the only one asking about cups of tea and worrying about her hair under the swim cap). All distinguishing features had been erased from people and the transition area was packed elbow-to-elbow with people waiting for their teammates. I was hopping up and down behind them, trying desperately to see over their heads to spot someone I’d met once for 10 minutes.

All of a sudden ...”Sarah! SARAH!”

It’s me! I’m up! I ran desperately up to the barrier but couldn’t get through the people. I waved my hands in the air and jumped up and down. Somehow Johnno saw me and passed the band over.

Sprint to bike, helmet on, glasses on. Unrack, run to mount line and get on. Lozza ... the hero had realised how disorganised I was this morning and had already put the bike in an easy gear to start. I could hear her and Doncaster Tri Club cheering me on from on top of the bank on my right as I set off. I was used to riding a mountain bike and couldn’t work out why I felt so unstable until I realised I was holding the top of the bars. Sarah, you tit. Get rid of your nerves. I settled down into the proper position and got comfy. I love Le Bike.

The bike was my favourite part of my first triathlon and it was my favourite part of this one. There’s freedom. You’re not jammed in among a group of people fighting for space or running so hard you’re feeling as though your lungs are going to fall out of your mouth. A bit of space to breathe on the bike. 

Pic by Lozza

The tarmac track around the edge of the lake was surprisingly bumpy in sections, and for a horrible couple of minutes I thought the bike had a puncture, but as soon as the path smoothed out and the wind dropped it became much easier. I was overtaken quickly by a fast bike with the strange whuuummm, whuuummm noise as they came past and I overtook a few people. I soon found that I was faster on the corners than most people and slower on the straights. The old motorbike riding had come in handy with the sighting and the corners, but it showed that I really needed some practise on a push bike.

I played cat and mouse with a lady cyclist for a few minutes, both of us overtaking and being overtaken. I passed her then gave an extra push to get away and lost her for good.

The bike section was getting busy now although there were still swimmers in the water. The boys have been fast and had given me a head start but I need to keep pushing to keep as much time as possible in the bank.

Coming around the third corner of the square track, there is a slick line of water across the road from where people have come out of the water. I concentrate on not sliding and forget to look for the transition entrance for the bike. I will need to come in after 3 laps and hand over to Tom here, but it isn’t clear where this is. I will look out next lap.

I push as hard as I can on the 2nd lap, knowing that when doing laps the middle one tends to be my slowest. I seem to be playing the overtaking game with a chap now and I push to get ahead. There are plenty of very fast cyclists coming past me while I am playing the slower version of the game. There don’t seem to be any drafting rules in this triathlon and plenty of cyclists are clumped together. I don’t want to risk disqualification so I keep to the '10 metres behind' and ‘overtake within 10 seconds’ rules that seems to be fairly standard in triathlon.

A fast lady cyclist overtakes me on the 3rd corner and I am keeping an eye on her and the water on the track and forget to look for the transition entrance. Crap. Next time I need to be IN transition. Bugger bugger bugger.

Push as hard as I can on the last lap. Legs are tiring and as the course is so flat, there hasn’t been a chance to change paces or resistance – it’s been the same pace the whole way. And I’m back around the 3rd corner. And there are marshals! They will be able to direct me.

Kept speed up and shouted at marshals “Where’s changeover?” but they were chatting to each other and didn’t hear. Argh! Why isn’t this clear? How can I get lost on a square course?

The chap just in front of me swerved to the right and into a pen on the side of the course. Aha!! Perfect timing! I swerved in after him, dismounted and ran with the bike. Lozza and co cheered and I looked up, just in time for Le Bike to hit the speed bump and bounce into the air!

Despite massive bounce, I didn’t drop (borrowed) bike and ran it to the rack incident-free and passed the relay wristband to my teammate who sprinted to his bike and was off!

I carried the bike up the stairs (2 flights of stone stairs were the only access!) and wheeled it back to the Doncaster Tri camp. Just as I got there I had a horrible thought ... I only did 3 laps of the lake of 3 miles each ... Sprint tri cycle legs are 12 miles.

I’ve missed a lap out. We’re going to be disqualified.

They are going to KILL me.

“Umm ... Michael ...?”

He gave me a strange look and confirmed that the cycle section of this relay was only 9 miles. Phew, bloody phew. I won’t have to go into hiding after all.

Lozza appeared with a steaming cup of coffee for me and I was given a chair in prime-action-watching position. I could relax now for about 90 minutes while the 3 lads did their cycle legs of the relay. This is the life. A coffee in one hand, flapjack in the other and a seat in the sunshine.

There were a couple of nasty accidents – 2 bikes collided with each other and the barrier. Another one was a lady forgetting she was clipped in and going down with her bike in the transition. I had LOTS of sympathy. It would have been so easy to do either of those especially when you’re nervous and trying to be as quick as possible.

The time evaporated and I was soon waiting at the hay bales at transition – hay bales? In case of a bike brake failure? - and Johnno came in at top speed. Leaping from his bike and thrusting the wristband at me. I tried to scream politely at all the people in the way and blocking my exit to the run but I suspect what actually came out was “Gerrrroutatheway! Please!” And I was off on the run.

I grinned up at Tigger, Michael and co and shouted out “This is the best bit!” as I disappeared off around the course in the opposite direction to the one I’d just cycled in. I saw Tigger as I came around the grassy bank section of the course and heard her cheer me on which was fab and made me run a bit quicker.

I love running, I thought. This is the BEST bit of the triathlon.

This bit was fun ... about 10m into the run.

This sensation lasted about 3 minutes before the “Argh, my eyeballs are bleeding” feeling kicked in. There was a Coventry Tri man just in front of me, I tried to stay with him as long as possible but he was going just a bit faster than I could maintain. Never mind, Sarah. Just keep going as fast as you can.

I had been looking forward to this run course as it was so straight and flat, but it just felt as though it went on forever. Right foot, left foot, right foot ... the end of the lake didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

Even worse, there were still plenty of cyclists completing their leg of the triathlon and I had to keep hopping onto the grass verge to save getting mown down. It didn’t do a lot for my pace or peace of mind that I was mere inches from death by aero bar spiking.

The hopping on-and-off of the bank was keeping my attention when all of a sudden, I was overtaken by a lady going at top speed in a bright trisuit. Where the heck had she come from? She disappeared up the side of the lake avoiding cyclists with ease. Huh. Get her, all fast and sprinty. C’mon legs.

The bottom of the lake section was completed in a blink and then it was a slog back up the other side into the wind. I could see the massive inflatable Erdinger Alkoholfrei bottle bobbing away and aimed for that. My finish line must be about there. C’mon Sarah – not far now!

I was checking my Garmin, waiting to start the sprint finish and all of a sudden there it was – a long time before I’d expected! A marshal bellowed “Around the front!” So I ran around the front almost completely missing handing over to Johnno who was running both his and Tom’s sprint legs.

And I was finished.

I’d completed my first ever tri relay with open water swim and borrowed bike AND didn’t disgrace myself. No throwing up, falling off OR getting lost. Win.

Well ... almost. I was chatting to Tigger and Lozza and a marshal came storming over. “Didn’t you hear me?” I half-recognised him. “Yes, you shouted go round the front – that’s why I ran that way and almost missed my teammate.”

Nope. Apparently he’d been shouting “NUMBER round the front.” Ah whoops. The breeze of the finishing straight had turned the number around on my tri belt. I got a bit of a slap on the wrist (after being told he could DQ me for it!) but the marshal could tell it was a genuine mistake and I was set free.

So this is where I went.

Team Results:
3:32:17 total team time
21st / 187 teams

My Results:
500m Swim: 10:29
9 mile Bike: 28:31 (Garmin time as actual results were mixed up)
5k run: 20:16

Race Info
This race was the Club Relay Championships run by One Step BeyondPromotions. I was talked into it by Michael and I joined his clubmate’s team for Doncaster Tri Club for the day. Doncaster Tri Club were really welcoming (and really quick) and I had a brilliant day! Thank you!


  1. Either you and mum are equally brilliant, or something... she put her number on upside down too!

    Well done on your first tri missus!

    1. Thank you!! Ha ha!! I'm glad I'm not the only one who ended up with an accidental upside down tri number! Maybe it was lucky!! :)