TriRadar senior writer Tom Ballard takes on the first ever Wiggle Portsmouth Triathlon
The Portsmouth Triathlon returned to the seaside city this year for the first Olympic-distance race hosted there since Spencer Smith took victory in 1991.
With a shrewd choice of date – the late season positioning not seeking to compete with other major UK events – the race promised sprint and standard-distance racing over closed roads including a trip on the bike through the city’s historic dockyard and a promenade-based run.
Before the adventure was to commence on dry land however, there was the small matter of a 1500m sea swim to contend with.
Having racked my bike the night before in the event’s impressive race village set on Castle Field, it was soon time to suit up and face the walk over the shingle beach for my wave start.
With the tide on the turn, competitors on the shore were trying to secure some last-minute tips from the swim briefing and by watching the competitors already out on the course struggle against the shallow waters to the first buoy.
As the rough and tumble of my wave got underway, many athletes had indeed decided to wade out from the beach rather than swim. This let to a prolonged battle with a walker to my side (it’s meant to be a swim, so that’s what I was doing!) and another in front, who rather unhelpfully made an ungainly dive ahead of me and clouted me one in the face. Luckily, no water came in, but my goggles were knocked squarely so that the suction on my right eye seemed to increase throughout the swim.
Heading out through the salty water of Southsea Castle, the wave had split by the first buoy, with a leading pack tearing off over the waves leaving me to lead the charge from behind for a while. All was going well until it came time to make the turn near South Parade Pier pier. From then on the tide seemed determined to push us off course, with regular sighting and a furious arm turnover doing little to rectify the situation.
It felt like an exceedingly long swim to the final right turn back towards the beach and I was all too happy to be rolling down my wetsuit for the run back to transition, which was lined with spectators and fellow competitors waiting for their race to start.
Ninth from the soup, I was soon out on the out-and-back portion of the bike course. Any closed-roads race feels special and this one is a corker. Almost entirely flat, the route visits the galleons at the dockyard before returning for five laps around the seafront area (the sprint race doing only this section three times).
The generally wide roads meant there were few overtaking issues while the sweeping bends kept riders on their toes and added excitement to the pan-flat miles. Blasting along the seafront each lap was fantastic and the brilliant marshals made navigation easy while also offering a boost with their enthusiastic and loud encouragement. Whipping around the course, it was great to see how many beginners were giving the sport a go, with flat bars and even mountain bikes being regular sites along with t-shirts flapping in the breeze.
Having recently completed the only slightly less gradient-phobic route at the Cotswold Classic, I was a bit wary of going too hard over less than half the distance on the bike. In the end, I think I was probably a bit overcautious as I finished in 1:08 barely half a mile-per-hour faster. Still, I enjoyed the route and managed to keep count of my laps – which it seems a surprising number didn’t judging by the results.
My main aim going into the race was to have a good run – something that I’ve found difficult all year due to a persistent knee injury that seems to flare up whenever I run more than about four miles.
With this on my mind coming out of transition, I settled into a fairly leisurely pace that was nevertheless hard to maintain as my chest tightened and a side-stitch bit into my ribs. Hoping it would disappear, I ploughed on, concentrating on my breathing and eventually it began to ease, letting me straighten up, adopt a forward lean and move forward on my toes to up the pace a little.
After leaving transition along the promenade area, the run winds along a wide path before a lovely looking but tricky-on-the-feet cobbled section around Old Portsmouth and the aid station. Then it was though the tower of the Garrison Church – a great addition to the course – and back towards transition, enduring the torture of running through the wafting smell of fish and chips on the way to the turn-around point.
Keeping my pace under seven-minute miles, I plodded on, trying to keep my form and glad that me knee was holding strong.
Lap two is the same route but meanders off at the end to loop back to Castle Field and the finish line, with a cheeky short out and back thrown in. Even though I was on for a negative 5k split, my chest felt like it was on fire by this point and I was happy to be nearing the end of the race.
Weaving back onto Castle Field, the crowds were thick and suitably noisy on the way to the finishing gantry, where I was called across the line, puffing heavily but with a 2:27:35 under my belt. It took a while – and a bit of a lie down – for the satisfaction of finishing to sink in after the race; anyone who thinks this is an easy course obviously wasn’t going hard enough!
My Garmin clocked the final leg at 9.47km, which goes some way to explain my 40:42 run split, but as an Ironman friend of mine always says ‘it’s the same for everyone’, so it didn’t really matter. What was far more important was the buzz of the crowd, the keenness of all the race officials and the friendly but competitive atmosphere that surrounded the event – something that’s no mean feat for an inaugural race to create.
The event has already been confirmed for the next three years and with a capacity for up to 4,000 athletes, I’m sure it will soon be fixed as one of the UK’s major must-do triathlon races.