As I sat on the boot lip of my car with a luke warm Erdinger Alcohol Free Wheat Beer in my hand, the sun still rising into the 5th of June, I felt a sense of……achievement. A day of rare triumph in a field in West Sussex in a race that I had probably come last in. What gives?
Just a few hours earlier I drove up to the Europa Hotel Gatwick with very different feelings. A hotel at which hope checked in but never checked out. A hotel that hadn’t just seen better days but better weeks, months and years. And a hotel that mainly smelt of boiled ham.
The White Bird Sprint Triathlon at Ardingly is a boutique race, small in number but perfectly formed. Held in the beautiful West Sussex countryside, all competitors needed to be on site at Ardingly College before 8am. Living in Oxford that meant an overnight stay, being West Sussex that meant expensive. However Gatwick wasn’t more than a 10 minute drive and lots of cheap hotels abound.
TripAdvisor is a little like the current EU referendum. Full of passionate misdirection, bile and opinionated grandstanding. Europa had a terrible write-up but was cheap. So many people are hotel snobs so… However there are times no matter how low your expectations are the reality under shoots. Not so much a hotel with a large car park more a wasteland with rooms. But check in was pleasant, the room airless but functional and I have stayed in worse including one memorable occasion in Cambridge when someone tried to kick the door down post wedding party. I miss the 90s.
I wasn’t going to sit in all night and with the car in one of the last spaces in the ‘hotel’ parking I wasn’t driving either. Rammed against the M23 the nearest place to head was Crawley so out of the frying pan I caught a bus into town. Some places catch your imagination either through their history, culture or the people. My last sprint tri was at York, a city I love for all three. Sadly Crawley is an experience that does not begged to be repeated. Starbucks (sorry) and a film (The Nice Guys) then a taxi back to get my head down.
After a surprisingly good nights sleep, considering I could have crowdsurfed onto the motorway, I was eating my obligatory instant porridge and raisins before waving good-bye to the Europa and driving to Ardingly. Within a few minutes I was deep into the countryside.
Ardingly. Achingly beautiful. Oh my Lord maybe it was the bright sunshine, maybe the contrast with Crawley. Maybe, maybe, maybe but as I drove up to the College and parked in the field for the competitors I felt at peace. Well at least until I had a chance to size up the competition. Then I felt panic.
I am a good runner. On the age related ratings (ARR) systems I now count as ‘elite’ and get pissed at myself if I am not in the top 10% of any race at 10k or below. For super sprint and sprint triathlons my swimming is so poor that if native American my name would be Floats Without Purpose. So I hope to get into the top third but accept that is a push. That is helped by the fact that the world is full of morons who think the word ‘sprint’ means ‘easy’ so there are aways those that fuck themselves into the ground by the time the final discipline starts.
Ardingly though had a smaller, more focussed intake. No fun runners or twatheletes. Novices allowed but, apart from my Asthma UK vest, no evidence of fund raising. Just lean and muscular competitors with a sense of purpose. Very few ridiculous bikes, (always a bad sign when true) but no bone shakers either. This was the lost tribe of serious triathletes and I was the fake in the pack.
As tribes go though they were awfully friendly and as I sat outside the pool block waiting for the race briefing I realised I could out run most, I just needed to ensure the rest of my game was no more than normally horrendous. The race director (Paul from Hedgehog Tri) was funny and constantly interrupted by his radio. A lack of volunteers this year meant they were stretched and using the airwaves more than normal. A reminder we must all make more of an effort to volunteer if we want to compete.
He made a point about the need to switch down to your lowest gear in the final part of the bike race which I did not understand. He then wished us well and we were on our way. The White Bird began to fly 🙂
Queuing for the pool I started to talk to the woman in front of me and swap tri stories. She’d given birth not more than 9 months before and was planning an Ironman. She had that mad look us converts and zealots get and I guess if her man had refused to look after the baby she would have strapped her daughter to her back and done it anyway. I am not criticising. You are looking at the man who scoured the pharmacies of Barca two years ago for a supplier of Dicloflex just to compete and not keel.
It was small pool so, even though it was a small race of just over 40 of us and even at start times of 30 second intervals, the pool soon became human porridge. I passed one person, was passed by more but was soon out in the bright sun, jogging a couple of hundred metres uphill to the bikes. Unlike last time in York I rememered where I racked mine…
Then off to the beautiful countryside on one of the hilliest courses I have even done. And it was beautiful. The fields of England in glorious technicolour. The old houses and estates, a viaduct or two. If it wasn’t for a couple of arsehole drivers it would have been pretty much perfect. One Jag at a junction decided it would be hilarious just to sit there. No traffic coming, no reason to stop but hey. Having lost a minute there my mood darkened. It being a race of few people there were few people to chase which is how I pace myself.
Through pure anger I managed to regain momentum and saw a pack of three riders ahead by about half a click, two I recognised at the brothers who started their swim 3 minutes before me. In my head I had named them the Non Brownlees and had wondered whether they were beatable. Twenty years younger, sure but….
And there they were. Could I catch them on my bike on the straight before the finish? I was so close.
The the race director’s words became flesh. The lowest gear. I turned a corner, went up a hill at speed, quick plateau before hitting a sheer cliff face. Or at least that is what it felt like. I could not drop gears fast enough and almost fell off the bike as the momentum disappeared up my own arrogance.
Just about regaining control, remaining upright and reaching the top gasping for breadth I could see the College just a short distance away. Some dignity retained but the Non Brownlees were obviously long gone and I red faced. Passing the marshal, my feet numb, stumbling to rack the bike I realised I couldn’t find my space. A sort of reverse stupidity to what happened at York. Not the end of the world because you can rack anywhere but I had left a carbohydrate gel knowing that this sprint was longer than York. Too tired to swear I found my space, my gear and a second wind. Time to run.
Achingly beautiful Ardingly was also the arch deceiver. What started out as jog through the green and pleasant playing fields of the college quickly descended into a cross country run with the final stretch of each lap up a muddy hill through a forest. I have two photos. The first at the beginning (“I am a running god, bow beneath me puny running course”) the second on the final lap (“Oh fuck I can’t feel my legs, where’s me Mum?”).
I normally sprint to the finish, this time less so. Passed on the line by a younger, fitter triathlete (bastard) he complimented me on my running style. I was too tired to care. But I had finished, not come last and…..passed the Non Brownlee’s on the final lap 🙂
22nd out of 44 who finished. 6th in the run but *coughs* in the swim.
That was the hardest sprint I have done but I have come to believe that nothing is impossible. The only question is time. With MS, tumour and blackdog how much time do I have?