Triathlon Plus coaching editor Phil Mosley takes on TriStar Estonia 111.
Let’s be honest, Estonia probably isn’t on your all-time list of ultimate triathlon dream destinations. It wasn’t on mine either, until I met the race founder Ain Alur Juhanson at the Triathlon Show in Surrey a few years ago. He’s a former pro triathlete who once held the bike record at the Hawaii Ironman, and he changed my perception of racing in this former USSR controlled state. A brief chat and a DVD later and I was soon re-writing my triathlon bucket list. Somewhere near the top, just under the Hawaii Ironman, Challenge Roth and Ironman 70.3 Phuket I hastily pencilled in TriStar Estonia 111.
The DVD I saw was of Phil Graves winning the inaugural event in 2010, and I was surprised and impressed by the blue skies, warmth and beauty of the landscape. The depressing Eastern block landscape in my mind was replaced with clear lakes, dense forests and rolling hills. It was less Soviet and more Scandinavian with a hint of the Mediterranean. Add to this the cyclist-friendly format of 1km swim, 100km cycle and 10km run, and it was enough to persuade me to enter the 2012 event.
As ever, it was a last minute rush job, and three days before the event I still didn’t have an entry, flights, accommodation or a hire car. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Estonian websites are somewhat behind the times. None of them take online payments, and many don’t have English translations, so you’re left wondering what (if anything) you’ve just booked.
It’s not the simplest race to get to either. It’s held in the middle of Estonia, in a national park called Otepaa. The nearest airport is Tartuu (40km away) but it’s only a small place and I didn’t manage to find any flights that landed there. The next best option is Talinn, which lies 220km north of the race venue. Failing that you can fly to Riga, which is a similar distance away but in a different country (Latvia). You then have the option of paying for transfers from the organisers Star Events, although for me it would have meant waiting four-hours at Talinn airport and then cramming onto a minibus. For a similar price I managed to hire a car through an Estonian company.
Driving through the middle of Estonia gives you a feel for the country and the first thing you notice is that it’s very flat. The next thing you notice is that it’s also very empty. As I sped along arrow-straight motorways that dissected never-ending farm fields I couldn’t help thinking I was on a road trip through the middle of America. In my mind I expected to see poverty, but there was none on view. The economy is strong, and as a result the roads are full of Volkswagen, BMW and Audi cars rather than the Lada’s I’d half expected.
Twelve hours after leaving home in the UK, I finally arrived at my lakeside hotel destination, keen to check in and chill out. Unfortunately the low-tech Estonian hotel booking website I’d used hadn’t actually worked. So the poor receptionist was left to explain that I’d need to look elsewhere. Unfortunately for her, I hadn’t eaten for several hours and was having a low-blood sugar moment, combined with no sleep. Within 10-minutes of me having a meltdown, she’d made a few phone calls and found a room, and I spent the rest of my stay apologising and being super-nice to her.
Our hotel overlooked the lake I’d soon be swimming in, while the transition area was laid out on the hotel’s tennis courts. Within the hotel gardens was an open air race expo, pasta party venue, stage for live music and an impressive Ironman-style finishing funnel. All in all, it felt like a big race and I was getting suitably excited.
I spent the Saturday checking out the course, eating and lounging around in the sun. I also attempted to watch the women’s triathlon at the Olympics, but Estonian TV weren’t showing it. So I managed to get it on my iPhone through the BBC website, which was brilliant until a text message came through from Vodaphone after 20-minutes saying I’d already spent £48.
Race day soon came around and the 11am start afforded us a leisurely start. I enjoyed a hotel breakfast, sitting opposite former Hawaii Ironman champion Thomas “Hell on Wheels” Hellriegel, who had also triumphed at last year’s Estonia race. He was sporting a marvellous haircut, similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in Commando. Yes, it may have been a bit dated in fashion-terms, but it certainly showed that he meant business.
Within three hours I was lining up on the sandy edge of the clear blue lake, ready to dash into the water with 600 other nervous people. After what seemed like a lifetime being held back by burly security guards, the hooter went and I sprinted and leapt Baywatch-style into the warm waters.
The 1000m wetsuit swim was a real bun-fight, with lots of people jostling for the same space. Swimming in such close quarters does at least mean you can draft on other people’s feet, which helped me to a relatively fast (for me) time of 13:06. After a slow transition, where my number belt got trapped in my helmet, I jumped on my bike to tackle the undulating course on smooth roads. To save you from a lengthy description, here is how the rest of my race went:
0 to 20k on the bike:
“Great, I think I’m in the top 10. Feeling good, bring it on. These hills are a bit of a bugger though.”
20 to 40k on the bike:
“Wow I’m fifth, I’m in business. I just wish I didn’t keep getting overtaken on the hills.”
40 to 80k on the bike:
“Oh dear, my tri-bar extension seems to have fallen off. And my legs are blown. This isn’t a good combination.”
80 to 100k on the bike:
“Good lord above, the other tri-bar extension is about to fall off and my legs are so tired that I’m barely able to turn the pedals. I wish people would stop overtaking me.”
0 to 5km on the run:
“How can a run around a lake be so hilly?”
5 to 10km on the run:
Phew, an aid station! Damn, it’s just a big table full of pickled cucumbers, surrounded by wasps”.
In the end I finished 11th overall, in three hours and twenty-nine minutes, while Hellriegel claimed his second victory. I then had the best free post-race massage I’ve ever had in my life. In fact several aspects of this race were the best I’ve ever experienced. The crowd support, the huge numbers of excellent volunteers, the post race party, the live music, the prize giving ceremony. It has that whole “big race” feel that makes it a life-experience rather than just another race. Yes, Otepaa in Estonia is a pain to travel to, but providing you let your hair down and stay for a few days it’s well worth adding this event to your list of must-do triathlons.
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