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That period before the start of a race is an odd time; standing around, quietly crapping yourself: exchanging banter and tactics – and generally talking nonsense – with anyone who will listen! Or, at least, that’s how it works for me!! It’s one of the things I do to settle my nerves – giving myself a few tranquil moments ahead of the frenzy of the swim start, the long grind on the bike and the gently building exhaustion and pain of the run. Actually, when I put it in those terms, why the Hell do any of us do this sport!!
But on Sunday, July 12th, the need to settle my nerves was all the more real. Standing on the quayside at Fambridge Yacht Haven – with the swim course stretching off toward the horizon on my west and the tide running steadily in from the east, my head was already imagining currents stronger than Niagra Falls, long-forgotten sea monsters waiting to drag me to the bottom of the River Crouch and tsunami-like waves ready to toss me around like a cork in a washing machine. As I exchanged notes with Tally Hall and James Bunn, I was glad to learn that some of these irrational fears were also probably lurking somewhere in the corner of their heads – although probably not in as much graphic detail as my over-zealous unconscious manages to depict; when it goes to work on something.
The swim course at Fambridge has a bit of a reputation. Although only 1.9K – your standard middle-distance swim, it is swum in the River Crouch. As someone who, many years ago, used to idle away many a Saturday afternoon fishing from the banks of this very river, I know how strongly the tide runs here. Equally, with a bit of wind-over-tide, you’ve got the perfect conditions for a bit of ‘chop’, too. In fact, the event organisers, Dengie Events, even go so far as to point out in their race briefing that this is more challenging than your average open water swim.
Those who know my recent history will know that this swim was the reason that I pulled out of the Fambridge Half last year. With 2014 being my first full year in Triathlon and with my swimming prowess and technique (at the time) roughly equivalent to those of a drowning Bulldog, I accepted that tackling the swim at that stage might actually turn out to be a process of choosing the manner of my own death. To be fair, by the race date in 2014, I would probably have made the swim before cut off but, as one of the sage East Essex Tri Club swim coaches said to me at a Monday evening coaching session, “Swimming like that, you’ll make cut-off…..but probably not a lot else!!”
Anyhow……..back to that windy quayside on July 12th, 2015. With the race briefing now delivered we, made our way down the slipway into the water. Instinctively, I settled in to my well-proven face-in-the-water warm up and then, as the rest of the crowd followed in, I swam out into the deep stuff ready for the start. Massing with the crowd at the start buoy, the current is starkly evident – even treading water backwards (if that is possible) I was already being dragged into other competitors – and they into me. And then, with the full pack gathered, we were instructed to swim the wrong way – in order to get everyone back behind the line before the start. Although this felt rather unfair, the warm up was welcome and, if nothing else, it proved to me that swimming into the current may not be as bad as I had imagined. Suddenly, I was aware of stillness around me, and then the claxon sounded! We were off!!
The swim course extends west for the first leg then turns around two buoys to turn east, again around another two buoys and then repeat. My race plan was to swim in a cocoon of calm, controlled and steady; not burning any matches – swim like I swim and just get out of the water in relatively good time and relatively good shape. Settling into that first westerly leg, this was working splendidly; cruising nicely, bi-lateral breathing working like it should and…..hang on…..actually going past people!!
As someone who’s never considered myself a strong swimmer, there’s something very reassuring about managing to make some places up on the swim. Notwithstanding this though, sighting was tough. But being with the pack, I decided there’s safety in numbers – so swimming in the same general direction would probably put me there – or thereabouts. That plan worked for a while but soon I realized that some of these folks were having the same problems seeing where they were going. So, after realising this, I hastily handed back navigation duties to the gyroscopes and little voices in my head.
Something that always amazes me in the swim is how a buoy – seemingly as big as a double-decker bus – can simply disappear as soon as you’re in the water. This was very much the case for me right now! As the wind hit the tide, I started to bob up and down into the swell. At that point, all I could see was a wall of water. But eventually, a little beacon of yellow bobbed into sight so, instinctively, I headed straight for it.
Given what I’ve already said about my poor swim, there are two things I’m not very familiar with – (1) being in the pack after more than 200 metres (2) swimming straight enough to hit the inside line on the turn. Both of these happened to me on Sunday and whilst I was gently reassured by the first, I found the second quite un-nerving. But I’ve never actually minded a few fisticuffs in the water so, in an odd sort of way, quite enjoyed the gentle exchange of blows around the first buoy (even if I did manage to get my hand tangled in the net around the base of it in the process).
After the turn, and settling into the up-tide leg, the current wasn’t as bad as I had imagined it would be. In fact, with a steady and controlled freestlye it was, in some ways, a little easier than the down-tide leg (as mad as that sounds). Again sighting was an issue and again that massive buoy had somehow disappeared. But I knew it was somewhere among the cluster of boats ahead of me so, swimming with the pack, I simply headed for those and figured out that I’d work it out when I got a little closer.
This leg also provided a couple more new experiences (1) someone actually drafting me!!!! And (2) the very odd sensation of Jelly Fish slipping gently through my hand as I swum over them. With regard to the first of these, all I could think was, “Don’t draft me mate; I’m really bad!!” and with regard to the second, “Dear God – I hope that was a Jelly Fish and not a dead body!!!”
The second lap got a little tougher though. By now the wind had really picked up and, combined with the tide, the swell had become more of a chop. A couple of times, I took a big mouthful of salty Crouch water down but I didn’t let that worry me too much – it’s all electrolyte, isn’t it!!
Stepping from the water in a smidge over 47 minutes – and 92nd out of 160 swim finishers, I was very happy with that; the Fambridge swim, which had seemed like my Nemesis for so long now tamed and, in doing so, setting me up perfectly for a good bike and run.
Exiting the water, the East Essex Tri Club Massive had gathered. I saw Kevin Baldwin and his trusty Nikon ready to capture my distressed state and heard my name, along with, “Go on East Essex” shouted from all directions. And I have one particularly clear memory of Peter Harley leaning in toward me and shouting, “You own this!!” Honestly, that made me laugh out loud.
As I have already observed, this was becoming a race of new experiences for me and T1 provided another – running in to find loads of bikes still in the racks!!! That never happens to me!! In a way that was good – as I congratulated myself on a strong swim. But, conversely, it was quite bad – as I usually have no problem finding my bike; it being the only one there. In no time, however, I was standing in front of the Planet X and running through my carefully rehearsed T1 routine. A total T1 time of 2:13:60 may not sound like anything to write home about (or include in a race report) but, believe me, for me personally, it was a PB.
Exiting transition, more of the East Essex Tri Club crew had gathered and I mounted the bike to shouts of encouragement from the Sheans and many others. I also had the words of our sage cycling coach, ‘Smiffy’ ringing in my ears…….”SPARTANS NEVER SURRENDER – ‘AVE IT EAST ESSEX!!”
Settling myself into the bike on the short stretch from Transition to the Lower Burnham Road, I was consciously trying to get my heart rate down. My race plan had been to keep a steady Zone 3 on the bike – not digging too deep too early and saving something for the run. With the Garmin showing BPM figures nearer Zone 4 at this point, I was concerned that I might end up bonking unless I did something to control it. Nevertheless, my race head had already kicked in and was now over-riding my sensible head. So, throwing caution to the wind, I settled onto the bars and went after the bike ahead of me.
One-by-one I picked off other riders and although the plan to keep Zone 3 was falling apart, I didn’t actually feel that bad. So, bolstered by this, I simply thought, “Forget the heart rate stuff – just ‘AVE IT!!” Passing a few of my East Essex Tri Club team-mates, I took a second each time to shout, “Go on East Essex” and exchange a smile. And throughout the bike, I constantly traded places with another guy in a ZipVit Tri Suit – I’d get past him, he’d come back past me and so on and so forth. It felt like proper racing and I loved it.
Again, the bike leg was made easier by the massive support from fellow East Essex all around the course – the Fullers shouting, “Go on Ian” as they passed me in the other direction and, a little later, a full posse of EETC (including the Sheans, the Fullers and, I believe, the Harleys) shouting support as I hunkered down into the bars and had it large along one of the few long straights.
With the heart rate maintaining higher than I’d planned I was afraid, I’d soon have worked through my entire Glycogen store; risking my race plan and putting my energy bank into a worse state than the Greek economy. With this in mind, sense briefly prevailed as I sat up to take a gel and some fluids.
I love this bike route – in fact, it’s one that I use for the Sunday training rides that I lead for the club. And because I ride it so often, I know it quite well. So, as a long downhill unfolded before me, I resisted the temptation to sink back down onto the bars - knowing what was coming next; a sharp stop, a T-junction. So, watching others smash past me at warp factor eight on the bars, I wasn’t too concerned. And I even had a wry smile to myself as they spotted the frantically waved arms of a marshal at the foot of the hill and I heard the screaming of tyres protesting against tarmac and the shrill screech of cork brake blocks on carbon rims. The best part though was watching all of the faster boys now trying to negotiate the junction – and subsequent 10% hill in top gear as I spun into the foot of the hill on the bigger cogs!!! #Smug!!!
Throughout the bike, I continued to pass people. Combined with the swim, this was turning out to be a very good race for me. Why is it that though that when you’re in a good place like that, you suddenly feel the need to do something totally stupid and risk it all!! Sweeping, for the second time in this race, around the Burnham Bends, I spied the hi-viz orange of the photographer’s coat on a bend ahead. With the wind picking up into sudden gusts and with my deep section carbon rims gracing the bike, I’d been up on the bull-horns for all of these sharper bends – to keep the bike upright as the wind kicked into the wheel and tried to take the bike from under me. But with a photographer on the bend, the Village Idiot that lives in my head took the controls saying, “Just trust me on this one – we’ll give the bloke a great photo to take – hunker down, look cool and try not to crash!!! Oh, and if you do crash – make it a bloody spectacular one!!!”
But I didn’t crash and after another 40 minutes or so was sweeping back toward the Ferry Inn – and Transition. Approaching the final bend, the EETC Massive had once again gathered and the crowd literally erupted!!! Really – I simply wasn’t expecting that and, honestly, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up!! T2 was a shade over 1:50! Not something the Brownlees would ever admit to – but I’ll have that. And so, with trainers on, I set out toward the sea wall and the first part of the run.
From the start of the race, I’d had two goals: (1) Finish the race and (2) Go sub 6 hours. Looking at my watch, I’d calculated that I could hold ten-minute miles and still make both of those goals from this point (little did I realize that my ropey maths would actually put me ahead of goal if I ran that pace).
What a cracking run route this is – four laps that are a mix of sea wall, field, tarmac and trail. In all honesty, it would be tough to call what sort or trainers would be best for it; trail or road. But, mostly, even the rough surfaces are hard enough to justify roadrunners – which is lucky (given that this is all I had with me). I’m not really a fan of running laps but this is kind of different. Firstly, there is enough variety in terrain / backdrop / scenery and smells to keep even the most easily bored runner interested and secondly, the fact that once on every lap you run back through the car park of the Ferry Boat Inn – where your adoring fans / family / random bystanders will be massed to cheer you onwards. It’s even better if you are running in the yellow and blue of East Essex Tri Club as a full complement of your adoring club mates will be massed to almost blow your ear drums out with shouts of encouragement.
And with every lap the shouts got louder – “Go on Ian!!”…..”Go on East Essex”……”AVE IT!” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no better painkiller in the world than crowd power and the boost that I got from this at the end of every lap was better than any energy product I’ve ever used. I left the car park every time grinning like an idiot – even the marshal on the exit kept saying, “….And he’s still smiling!” EETC support notwithstanding, by the end of the second lap, fatigue was setting in. With the pace hovering around 9:45 per mile at this point I made a conscious decision to wind back just half a notch and see it through. Still my dodgy maths persisted – and still I was telling myself that if I finished by 15:00, I’d hit my six-hour goal.
But at the mid point of the last lap – after a hastily swallowed cup of cola, I suddenly regained the ability to add six to nine and a half and realised that, let alone six hours, five and a half was actually within grasp. With just two or so miles left of the race, I decided that I’d no reason not to burn all my remaining matches so I lit the afterburners and went for it.
Ascending a rutted trail alongside a field in the last mile of each lap, you can just begin to hear the PA system at the finish. It grows louder with every step – drawing you onward. The last half-mile or so is run on Tarmac – my God, that’s such an under-rated surface. The relief (and instant injection of pace) as you leave the trails and hit the hardtop is incredible. In that last half mile, I picked off a couple more runners – each on their second (or in one case first) lap – as denoted by the colour of the various elastic bands gracing their wrists. But on this lap, the East Essex Supporter Section were no longer on the grassy mound in the car park to spur me onward – having moved to the finish line to ‘welcome’ the finishers.
Passing the final marshal, I paused briefly to collect another coloured wristband but was met with, “No mate, you’ve got three – you don’t get another”. To which I almost responded, “Thanks!!! if you’d told me that, I’d have crossed the line after the last lap!!!”. But we all know that the only loser in doing that would have been me – the race is the race is the race; run the distance or don’t enter!!!
Ascending the last final little climb to the line, all of my matches had well and truly been burnt. I recall a frenzy of shouts – I recall seeing a mate and others cheering me on – I recall hearing my name from all directions – I recall chasing my soul to the line and crossing just before it left my body for good. And then, it was done!!!
What a race – what an experience and what a crowd! Standing after the line, I was greeted by club mates Kevin Baldwin (who’d been adopting official photographer duties for the day) and Daniel Copp – who had beaten me to the line (well done, sir). Susan, my wife, ran toward me and, despite my shabby and sweat-soaked state actually greeted me with a kiss (Thank God Kevin and Daniel didn’t do that…. although….to be fair……at that point…….I’d have kissed anyone……or anything!!!!……..Actually……..let’s not go there!!!)
That little post-race period was fantastic – sharing notes with the other East Essex Tri competitors, basking in that most splendid endorphin-soaked post-race glow, looking back at the swim course (with the tide now practically out) and wondering why I’d ever let it freak me out so much and, of course, staring down at that lovely bit of tin hanging around my neck and just thinking, “Jesus – I did it, didn’t I; I actually did it!!”
The final time was 5:34:11. I’ll take that!! What a fantastic race and what a fantastic day. When you consider that this is a truly well-organised and run middle distance event which doesn’t cost the Earth and is on our doorsteps, I can’t think why it wouldn’t be on everyone’s race calendar. Actually, let me correct that to…..everyone who wants to do a middle distance (believe me, I’ve been there). But even if you’ve never done this one – or this distance before, I’d say don’t be put off. It’s true that the swim requires an ounce or two more commitment in one direction – but it’s not as bad as you’d imagine. But the bike is largely flat and the run mixed enough to have something for all.
But, above all this, if you race in the yellow and blue of EETC there is one over-riding reason to race this one…..the support you’ll get along the way. Honestly, without the constant encouragement from club mates around the course, this would have been ten times harder. Not only does that support keep you going, it actually makes you feel pretty special. But above all, I think a special thanks goes to my long-suffering wife, Susan who now has her body clock re-programmed to wake at 04:50 (when I get up for my swim) and who stands around for countless hours waiting to see me across the line – or take me home in a bag – at every event. Love you Susan and Vive la EETC.