With a slogan like ‘stunning and savage’ it should have been blindingly obvious that the Croyde Ocean Triathlon wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.
But nothing could have prepared me for just how brutal it was.
The fact that I had only returned to training four weeks prior to the event (following surgery in the spring) didn’t exactly help matters.
In fact, with a month to go I’d resigned myself to watching from the sidelines. And then a fellow racer accused me of trying to (I quote) ‘chicken out’… the equivalent of a red rag being dangled in front of a bull.
And, so, on Sunday July 2, I came to be gingerly tiptoeing around the jellyfish on Putsborough Beach heading for the start line with two 10ks, two open water swims, one bike ride and a few Watt bike sessions under my belt.
A beach start, racing into the waves, was new to me – and nowhere near as glamorous or dramatic as the professionals make it look. When watching from the beach the sea looked calm beyond the initial crashing waves. It wasn’t. I lost count of the times I clawed fresh air instead of water or took in seawater instead of oxygen.
At one point, I was well off-course and a kindly kayaker had to be point me in the right direction. The red buoys proved elusive and hard to reach and I became convinced some joker was moving them. At the half way point, the jellyfish suddenly increased in numbers – reminding me of that memorable scene in Finding Nemo. We’d been reassured that they didn’t sting – but it didn’t make them any more pleasant to deal with. With every stroke, I could feel their jelliness slip through my fingers and there was a particularly horrendous moment when I almost inhaled one as it clamped itself to my open mouth. Under water, no-one can hear you scream.
I emerged coughing and spluttering from the sea in desperate need of a lie-down in a darkened room – only to embark on the calf-busting climb up the steep hill to transition.
New equipment is always a no-no for a race. But I’m thankful I made the foolhardy decision to ride my two day old new carbon bike (Happy 50th Birthday to me) as, otherwise, I’d still be there now puffing and swearing on my old heavy contraption.
Let’s just say the hills were a challenge. I saw a few racers pushing bikes up a particularly steep hill immediately after the turnaround point and I came within a hair’s breadth of joining them.
My suspicions that I was way, way, back in the field were confirmed when I embarked on the long and lonely 12k run (after a very stressful transition where I spent five minutes trotting up and down each row trying to find my unmarked spot which had seemed so blindingly obvious just a few hours earlier).
The initial part of the course is fairly flat along trails, through woods and fields. I even managed to catch the odd remote racer. ‘This is ok,’ I thought, settling into a pace and finding my rhythm. And then we encountered the oh-so-steep climb, up a wooded trail, to Saunton Sands. Crampons would have been useful. Even walking that stretch was a challenge – let alone running it. The only consolation was that every other person around me was puffing and blowing like a steam train as well.
Finally, came the reward…. the view. A turquoise sea glittering underneath a cloudless sky with white sands and rolling hillsides as far as the eye could see. It quite literally took your breath away. “It’s like racing in Australia,’ someone panted.
Despite the pain in my legs and lungs, my spirits soared and I found myself on the brink of tears at the sheer, spectacular, unadulterated, beauty of it all.
I’d like to say that the run course got easier after that but it didn’t. Not by a long stretch. There was only a very teeny section along a tarmacked road before we were back on the trails and narrow paths through fields, woods and rough ground. We climbed stiles, skipped through kissing gates, clambered over rocks to descend onto Croyde Beach… flaming hoops of fire and packs of rabied dogs on our heels were the only missing challenges on the day.
The final stretch up to Baggy Point and on to the finish was long, relentless and brutal.
By now the sun was mercilessly hot and the eternal path mercilessly steep. I have never, in my entire life, been so relieved to cross a finish line.
Over the years, I’ve completed seven marathons, countless triathlons (including an Ironman distance and two half Ironman races) plus two Tough Guy events which saw me weeping from electric shocks and a cracked rib, but Croyde Ocean Triathlon was, without a doubt, the toughest, hardest, race I have ever done.
I was particularly surprised – and pleasantly chuffed – to win a bronze medal for third ‘super veteran’ woman. (One benefit of getting older is that the numbers for your category decrease dramatically with each Birthday). And, yes, there were slightly more than three of us in the category.
I am in complete awe of local lifeguard Jack Hutchens, who smashed the course record with a 2: 22 finish and elite Marathon Runner Lucy Macalister who won the women’s race in 2:41. While they were basking in well-earned glory, I was still trying to locate my running shoes.
Both are newcomers to the sport and, clearly, have a fantastic future ahead of them. Because any other race they ever take part in will be a downhill breeze in comparison.
I’d like to think that, one day, I’ll return to Croyde Bay in peak fitness, properly trained, and wearing sunscreen (I was burnt to a crisp) and have another crack. But, for now, I’m happy to have survived.
Written by Fiona Duffy, former news editor, Triathlon Plus
Next year’s race is provisionally booked for July 1 2018; entry opens on December 1 at www.croydeocean.co.uk