TriRadar’s senior writer Tom Ballard returns from injury for a fast and flat adventure at the Cotswold Classic
The Cotswold Classic is the sister event of the Cotswold 113, a middle-distance race based in the picturesque setting of the Cotswold Water Park – an arrangement of lakes surrounded by lush countryside in one of Britain’s prettiest areas.
Lake 32 provided the swim venue, transition and much of the running route for the event, as well as a base for supporters to congregate at and cheer competitors on.
The Cotwold Classic follows exactly the same routes as the Cotswold 113, which is run earlier in the year, giving racers another chance to experience this wonderfully fast and exhilarating course.
My place came courtesy of organiser Graeme Hardie, who – for better or worse – offered me the bib of last year’s winner, Chris Standidge, who’d fallen foul of injury. So, race morning saw me milling quietly into transition, sidling up to the end of the first transition rack and sliding my bike into place with a “don’t look at me” sort of expression, while fellow competitors eyed the ‘number one’ bib slung around my waist with what I can only assume was confusion. Still, at least I hopefully wouldn’t repeat last year’s London Triathlon fiasco and lose my spot in transition.
With the sun just creeping into the sky above the tree-lined banks of the lake, the three-wave race got underway at 6.30am with a single anti-clockwise loop. Churning through the cool, clear water, I navigated between the boats that marked the course with my mind focused on clarifying my swim-to-bike transition order and not slapping too many people’s toes.
Pulled up the swim exit ramp by a couple of strong race marshals, I trundled into transition after what turned out to be a new PB swim of 31:03. At the time, I was more concerned with staving off the dizziness that usually accompanies my T1 efforts. To help combat this in advance, I’d balanced everything on the hoods of the trusty Felt AR4 I’ve been riding this season; surely no one would dare knock them off number one’s spot?!
After a surprisingly fast transition, I was onto the bike surprised by two things: how many people I was overtaking (I’ve probably got Wimbleball’s hills to thank for that) and just how enthusiastic and numerous the race marshals were. This was just after 7am yet each and every marshal was shouting their support as well as directing competitors safely and quickly over junctions with waves and jabs of their yellow flags. In fact, the marshalling at the Cotswold Classic was the best I’ve ever come across on an open-roads course.
The bike route is almost entirely flat and I was making pretty good time without hammering it too hard, only losing momentum on the pair of hills that formed part of the turnaround loop – though not losing as much as some others apparently, for which I gave the Felt a pat on the top tube.
The rest of the first lap passed without incident until around 24 miles in, when I flashed into the layby at the aid station, threw my half-full water bottle aside and made ready to quickly and efficiently grab a fresh one from the volunteers there. The only problem with this scenario was that this was a manoeuvre I’d only previously attempted at Ironman 70.3 UK, where both aid stations sit at the top of hills, meaning that cycling speed is lower than the 20mph+ I was barreling towards the new drinks bottle at. I’ve no idea why it didn’t occur to me that I should slow down more, but needless to say I’d soon palmed it to the ground. I wasn’t angry, just disappointed in myself for committing another schoolboy error at a big race and feeling guilty for the poor lady who may have felt in some way responsible for my idiocy.
Deciding on the spot not to go back for the bottle, which would in any case have been a dangerous thing to do with riders all around, I continued on with only gels to sustain me until the 50-mile mark. I felt a little proud that where a couple of years ago I might have raged at my incompetence or convinced myself that there was no way I could complete the bike without the water and might as well write the race off, I remained calm, repeating to myself that while it was a setback, things would be fine.
I was surprised to find that this was quite true. The lack of water didn’t seem to be having much of a detrimental effect at all. I was certainly thirsty, but my speed hadn’t dropped off too much, even as the winds pushed a little harder on the second lap. I reflected that long-distance runners often race into dehydration without problems, but with 30 bike miles remaining and another 13 running ones after that, I was going to make damned sure I didn’t fail to secure a bottle the second time.
Returning to the aid station towards the end of lap two, I rolled through the layby at comically slow speeds and managed to snag a new bottle of water, which I immediately began to gannet, the cool liquid easing my gel-filled insides. No harm done. A few miles later and I was back in transition with another PB in the bag thanks to my 2:27:07 bike split.
Now it was onto the half marathon, checking my Garmin early on to avoid sprinting after such a fast bike. Like the bike route, the run course is largely flat, but it’s not easy, with plenty of twisty woodland sections and tight corners to scrub off speed and hamper a constant pace.
I’d not been able to run much more than four miles since Wimbleball, with pain in my right knee appearing beyond this distance and the ITB injury I’d suffered during the half Ironman continuing to niggle nearly every time I laced up my trainers. What I wasn’t expecting was a searing white-hot pain to erupt across my diaphragm.
It was far worse than any other pain or stitch I’ve ever experienced during an event. I’d normally have tried to push through the pain, but if the run at Wimbleball has taught me anything, it’s that you’re far better recovering so you can run better later. For the first time ever in a race, I began to walk.
When I was a less experienced athlete, this would have caused me no end of disappointment and self-directed anger, but I reflected that if stopping for a quick stretch in Kona was good enough for Pete Jacobs, it was good enough for me in the Cotswolds!
I found a handy widening of the route so that I wouldn’t disturb anyone else’s race and began every manner of upper torso stretches I could think of, eventually finding one that seemed to release the pressure across my middle and pressed harder into the stretch.
The whole process must have only taken two or three minutes and I got running again with the pain dying away and soon picked my pace back up to the sub- five-minute kilometres I was aiming for. I knew right away that I’d taken the right course of action and imagined blasting past the hobbling version of myself who’d refused to stop.
The figure-of-eight run criss-crossed the central junction leading back to transition. This didn’t cause a problem for me at all; I didn’t have to pause once to give way to bikes or cars. In fact, it was the best bit of the course, giving a natural place for supporters to congregate. It was also the fastest section of the run for me, as it was here I had to escape red-faced from the embarrassment of not only my wife shouting loudly that she loved me but our tri club chairman Gary doing the same!
As runs in triathlons do, the three-lap course seemed to go on forever, and matters weren’t helped by having to pass the finish line at the start of each lap. With the good humour that the organisers had shown throughout the event’s excellent race pack, there was a sign positioned here pointing left to laps two and three, and right to ‘glory/relief’, which cheered me up and meant I avoided feeling too bitter about passing the relentlessly-happy crowds here twice.
I made full use of each lap’s two aid stations, taking a cup of cold water for both inside and out as the sun’s intensity increased above. Once again, the volunteers couldn’t have been more helpful or supportive; either they were extremely experienced or athletes themselves, as there was definitely a sense of ‘I know what you’re going through’ in the looks they were giving the runners.
Despite the general feeling of muscle ache, I was ecstatic that my knees had held true throughout – something I’m sure was down to the spectre of Pete Jacobs telling me to tuck in my belly button, stand tall and take light steps. That helped me maintain my form throughout – a personal victory in itself. I wasn’t so delirious that I actually believed Pete was bobbing along in spirit-guide form, just remembering his tips every time my posture began to slouch or my technique dipped, and doing this served the dual purpose of distracting me and helping me run better, so I’d definitely recommend it. But, you know, find your own pro Ironman as a guide!
Most of the remaining miles passed without incident, unless you count getting briefly chastised by the race referee for showing too much chest – a rule I consider to be an utter nonsense anyway. Though I slowed towards the last third, I was pretty happy with how it was going, running somewhere in the limbo between a lot of pain and too much.
As if to prove that I had nothing left to give by the end of the run, I rounded the corner into the final straight and built to a sprint only to have both legs immediately cramp. The crowd support here was spectacular – supporters lined the barriers three deep and cheered madly for every competitor making their way to the finish. I galloped over the line in ungainly fashion to complete the race in 4:41:49, with a 1:41:41 run split – another PB to add to the swim and bike sections. I was still a good 40 minutes behind the winner, Duncan Shea-Simonds, but 61st out of 444 means I’m now officially above average!
It was nearly time to leave, but there was no way I was going to miss the chance of a post-race massage – something I’ve never had at the end of a race before, but a treatment I’d thoroughly recommend. As I dozed while having my traps and quads satisfyingly ironed out by Julie Rafferty of Bien Etre, I reflected that despite my mistakes, I’d pulled together what was, for me, a really decent performance and one that I could be proud of. There were still niggles there, but taking everything into consideration it was great, and the brilliant massage was the icing on the cake at one of the best events I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in.
Many thanks to Graeme and Nicci from 113 Events, Julie from Bien Etre, the army of excellent marshals and all the amazing supporters at the event. Photos by Shonsel Ballard