Weert European Championships - June 19
The morning dawned sunny and calm with forecast temperatures at mid-day of 30c. I’d had a good night sleep and woke ready for the day, the first of this year’s championship races that I’d qualified for last season. In one respect it felt like a long time coming, but the months of training have flown by. The knee injury seems a long time ago and continues to improve on a monthly basis, and the last two months of training have gone well. I arrived at today knowing I was not where I could have been fitness wise, but this took some of the pressure off to perform and made the build up to the event less stressful.
We drove over to Weert on Wednesday, an easy drive, but the usual traffic jam around Antwerp extended the journey by 90mins. We’d booked a bungalow in a holiday park around 5km from the town centre and the race headquarters. I’m glad we did as the woodland setting was calming and we had control over what to eat and when. We also had plenty of space and I needed it as I seemed to have packed all but the kitchen sink!
Thursday was cool, dull and breezy. It was registration, swim familiarisation and opening ceremony day. Having had my documentation checked and accreditation issued, I collected my race pack. Just the usual stuff, but no large number to wear, as I guess our names on our tri suit is enough, along with the body decals.
The lake, a disused sand pit, looked inviting even on a cloudy day. White sandy beach, palm trees and blue water, I kid you not! The water felt a little cooler than at home and having completed a single out and back lap, all felt good.
The opening ceremony was held in the evening which was preceded by the parade of nations. The teams lined up behind their country flag and we walked from the city centre to the finish area where various dignitaries were introduced. All a bit weird really and felt like I was at a party where I did not know anyone. I chatted with fellow teamies and then left for dinner.
Friday was sunnier and the start of things to come. The team briefing was held in the morning at the local sports centre. This is where it started to feel real, team GB! Our team Manger went through the key rules, start procedure, transition flow, logistics for the day etc and then discussed race tactics, “go as fast as you can and overtake as many people as possible!” A team photo was taken, and we wished everyone a great race. In the afternoon five of us rode a lap of the bike course to get a feel for the corners and transition entry and exit.
Saturday was race day for some, I was racing on Sunday and Saturday dragged its feet. An easy paced 5km run with some efforts late morning and then it was prep time for the next day. It was warming up. We watched and cheered the races during the day and got to see the finish of the Elite men’s race, with Alistair Brownlee winning by a mile. After an early meal it was back to the bungalow, chill out, and early to bed.
I woke, I was ready. Breakfast, packed the car, and then the short drive to the city centre and T2. I found my spot and left my running shoes, hat and some water before cycling 5km to T1. All was going well and ahead of schedule. All the GB athletes were talking to each other, probably to release the nerves, and there was a real feeling of being part of the team. I was excited and loving the day so far. With bike racked and after a few visits to the porta-loo it was time to put the wetsuit on, 30mins to go! The first wave has just been set off, I was in the last wave. It was beginning to get hot, so I sought shade. The excitement was building. The 30mins flew by and soon my name was announced, smiley proud moment, and we walked from the holding pen onto the blue carpet along the sand a few meters back from the waters edge. The music stopped. The heartbeat sound came over the speakers and then faded. The brief silence was interrupted by ‘On your marks’ and then the horn and we were off. Running down the beach, into the water and dive, the swim had begun.
After the usual madness of the first few minutes I found some space and the feet of another athlete. It was about 400m to the first turn buoy, a 90 degree left, and I was beginning to think about the possible carnage at the buoy. I’d decided to go a bit wide at the first buoy and then tight at the next two right turns. I found some space and all the turns worked out well. It was then around 750m straight before two right turns and a final left (making a T shape) and the swim back to the shore. A final push to the end, made up a couple of places and then the ground started to appear. A couple of strokes where my fingers touched the ground and then up and run out of the water into T1. Run to the second blue bin and at the tall weed stop and there was my bike. Wetsuit off, helmet on and off to the mount line. Jump on the bike, feet into shoes, around the 90 degree right turn and off for a 40km ride.
The swim felt good, not fast, just good and mentally I was up for the bike. The course was flat and straight, three laps and with a technical bit around the city end past T2 and the finish area. I could feel the sun on my back and it started to get warm. I’d added an extra bottle to the bike as hydration was key today. The roads were smooth and flat. There was a gentle breeze and noise of carbon being pushed to the max along the traffic free roads. Heading into the city for the first time I saw Judy (my Wife) proudly wearing her read Team GB supporters T-shirt. She shouted words of encouragement and I pushed on. After negotiating a few turns and passing T2 I turned and headed into the City. The crowds of supporters were brilliant, shouts of ‘Go GB’ were a real energy boost, two more laps to go. The course was crowed and the draft busters were out on their motorbikes. Reports from Saturday’s race indicated that many penalties were handed out, so I was extra vigilant for any headlights behind from the motorbikes. The remaining two laps passed without incident and my thoughts turned to T2 and the dismount.
Shoes unstrapped, feet out, around a corner, out of the saddle and the dismount line approached fast. Brake, step, run and into T2. I found my position, racked the bike, slipped on my running shoes and grabbed my hat. Boom, the heat suddenly hit me now that the wind from the bike stopped.
I weaved my way out of T2 and onto the run course. A pretty straight forward four lap course, passing the finish area on each lap. I grabbed some water at the first feed station, sipped from one and poured the other over my head and neck, this was repeated throughout the run. There was very little shade and the sun beat down. I got my running legs pretty quick, but just as quick I felt the heat. As my head started to pound I had to accept that my normal pace was not going to be achievable. I pressed on but effort versus pace was not matching. At the next water station there was also a water spray curtain, it provided a few seconds of cooling, but not much more. After the first lap, 7.5km to go, I had to back off the pace. Heart rate was high and my temperature was climbing. The next two laps felt long, but I was controlling the heat, I’d found a sustainable pace. The support was immense through the city. I could hear shouts off “Go GB”, “Go Ross” and “Go Mark” the latter I knew came from friends and family who had come over to watch. It was fantastic to see them each lap and seeing their faces gave a real boost. One lap to go. I was passed by a few, and I passed a few. Some were walking and a few were sitting on the floor having over heated. I pushed on. More water, more cooling showers and then my watch beeped 10km. The course was long!! One final push, sod the heat. Then the blue carpet came into sight. Turn right, no more laps, thank goodness, and then onto the finish straight with the finish line in sight. I had a quick glance behind, no one on my feet, not that I could have done anything about it, so I relaxed and took in the last few steps. I saw Judy in the grandstand and smiled and then passed under the shadow cast by the finish line. Inside I was feeling all things good, on the outside I just wanted to collapse. I managed to walk around, take on water and find a water spray. I started to cool off and recover. I’d survived. I found Judy, we hugged and I got emotional.
Wow, what a day. It’s now a few days after the race and I am still buzzing from the experience. The actual day was fantastic, and I will remember it forever. Everything went to plan, the start was an amazing experience, I’d had a good swim and bike and managed the heat during the run and the knee worked. It was never going to be a great finishing time, due to the knee injury, and I was happy with 28th in Age Group. After a week of active recovery my thoughts have now turned to the World Championships at the beginning of September. Bring it on.
Thank you to everyone who supported me during my journey to qualify and race day and turned my dream into reality.