European Championships (ETU) Sprint distance, Dusseldorf – June 2017 by Alice

I was very fortunate to qualify for this race last summer through the qualifying race at Nottingham. There are 20 places per age group and I qualified 15th or 16th on the list which I was quite pleased with.

I’m going to cover pretty much everything about going to the race in this report so, if you are planning an ETU/ITU race you know what to expect. If you’re not, you may want to skip to the last few paragraphs!

Preparations start in the New Year for this race. You need to have paid your race fees, booked your travel and accommodation and think about how to get your bike to the race. I booked my own flights (bike in a bike box as hold luggage) and used the GB team travel agents to book into one of the team hotels and for my airport transfer in Germany. A week before the race they upgraded my hotel for free, so I ended up in a very nice team hotel, which was 200m from transition and about 1k from the race expo. Which was quite good – as you do a lot of walking at these races to and from the expo/race start each day.

It’s a given that team athletes wear their GB kit when travelling – which means you meet up with fellow athletes at the airport and get to know people. So, on the Thursday, at Heathrow, I met up with a super fast lady in the age group below mine and a lovely lady who was new to the experience and very nervous. They weren’t staying at my hotel but friends from my previous World Champs race in Chicago were staying there and we met up on our first evening for a meal with a group of older age-grouping. In fact we went every night, to the same restaurant, with the same ladies and some others – a very inspiring experience. Before dinner though, it was time to unpack and build the bike, ready for first thing Friday.

Friday came and my bike was booked in with the team mechanic, Graeme, at 8am. Graeme was fantastic, gave the bike a check over, adjusted brakes and made sure I hadn’t messed up putting it together. Then it was race-packet collection and we headed off to get our timing chips, numbers, t-shirts, etc. After a wander round I found a shop to buy some food and snacks, send a postcard to my littlest child and then after lunch a small group of us headed out to do a bike recce. This very short bike ride (in terms of mileage) turned into an hour or so of stop, start riding, negotiating turns and looking at technical elements of the course. As we headed back we watched the elites riding their bike recce, with motorbike rolling road closures, at great speed – a very impressive sight. That evening was the opening ceremony and pasta party. The opening ceremony wasn’t great (it’s rarely as good as you think it will be) and we didn’t do the pasta party but instead headed back to the restaurant from the previous evening. The best thing about the ceremony was that one of the ladies in my group was chosen to represent all the athletes and take the athletes’ oath in the ceremony. She is truly inspirational and has been racing at international level for 30 years – she’s seen it all and is very wise.

Saturday and the busiest day by far: we went for a short recce run – 1 lap of the run route and a run through transition. The race briefing at the team hotel (compulsory). Watched the elite men race. Swim familiarisation and then bike check-in to transition and kit check. Swim familiarisation gives you the chance to swim the swim course in full or part. I swam just a short part of it – up to and around the last buoy and up to the exit ramp. The water was a rather balmy 26° and it felt great. I was really hoping for a non-wetsuit swim. I was sensible and wore a trisuit to do this swim, my friend Jen decided to wear a swimsuit and change on the pontoon afterwards and managed to drop her towel and moon to all the spectators on the harbour wall 40 feet above us. Sadly it wasn’t done incognito as she had a team t-shirt with her name printed in large letters on the back! We checked out the mount and dismount lines and then headed for an early dinner at our usual restaurant and off to bed.

Race Day: The team travel agents had arranged an early breakfast for us but I had taken my own with me for that morning so I could eat at leisure and in quiet in my room. A group of us met at 6.30am to head to transition. We’d left our bikes and helmets in transition over night (obligatory for ETU), set up transition and then headed off to the race start.

I had hoped for a non-wetsuit swim, but as I had anticipated, the officials managed to engineer a wetsuit optional swim. They do this because if it’s optional a good proportion of athletes choose wetsuits and then everyone else copies so they are not at a disadvantage. Officials prefer this because it’s safer – the swims at that level are pretty brutal and athletes do not avoid each other, give way or show any empathy towards each other in the swim. If you are in the way, expect to be swum over. The water temp was over the 22° limit for wetsuit but apparently officials were concerned with the difference between water and air temp and the wind chill (as it was quite windy) and the hypothermia that may ensue. It turned out to be quite warm, especially on the run.

The swim: my wave start was at 9am. We were herded into a pen at 8:30. Then the German marshall asked that ‘all ladies with the black bath caps’ head to the official briefing point. We were given the usual – ‘you are not at the Olympics, it’s only European Championships, please be kind to each other’ talk and then we were sent to the start pontoon. Age-grouping is not a dive start, as there are very full waves, so it’s either deep water mass start or in-water, hand on the pontoon – the latter for us. I was 3rd lady onto the pontoon and chose my start spot, which was, with hindsight, not a good position. It was direct and a fast line to take but was right in the middle of the fastest swimmers and it became a washing machine. However, I felt great – positive and excited. We entered the water and then they started the countdown music (sounded rather like the Jaws theme tune). 1minute 45secs to go and I started my Garmin as I didn’t want to be faffing with that at the start. And then we were off. OMG! It was awful. I was breathing every 2 or 4 or 3 or whenever I could grab some air, I took on water, I tried to stay on fast swimmers’ heels. I was hit, kicked and ended up with a nice bruise around my right eye but I kept going and hated it until about 300m, then I found space, settled into my usual breathing pattern of every 3, lengthened my stroke and increased my pace again. I had lost some time at the start but at least now I was feeling more relaxed, could breathe and my heart rate felt better. I made the last turn and took a good straight line to exit. Two strong chaps reached in and pulled me up and then it was time to run up the stairs – 40° angle, 60+ metal steps barefoot. Onto the bridge and running the 500m or so to my bike. I found my bike, wetsuit off and into supplied transition box (this is an ETU rule), race belt on (weren’t allowed them under suits), helmet on and now running the 300m to the bike mount line – foot in shoe and off we go – all good!

The bike: Out onto the course and I was in my element, I sped up and overtook loads of people. I only had one lady overtake me (from my age group too). The route is an out and back and the first and last bits are technical – over bridges, round tight bends, crossing carriageways. There had been crashes in earlier waves and each corner had marshals yelling to us to slow and waving red flags. Very few draft-busters around, as they had been used to help with the crashes. On the bridges there was a strong cross wind and it kept whipping my rear wheel, so the bike felt very twitchy. After the bridge section it was fast and flat with a slight head wind but I was loving it and hitting close to 34kmph average and I knew I’d be faster on the return leg – hoping to get to 36kmph average. I arrive at the turnaround point (a car park for a stadium/arena on the edge of town), I do the turnaround, exit the car park which has an appalling surface and I was off, chasing down some ladies ahead of me and then I felt a thudding and looked down – my rear wheel had a puncture and the wheel was starting to flatten out. I figure I had to keep going as long as possible, so I managed to maintain around 19mph for about a mile. My wheel completely flattened and was catching the brake pads on each rotation, then the tyre popped out of the clincher. I got off and re-inserted it. I took a second to think – run with bike or ride. I decided that with 5miles to go it has to be ride for as long as I can. I got back on and rode but this time it’s more slowly – every time I rode over a white line on the road I lost the back end of the bike. I didn’t want to come off and I didn’t want to take any other athletes out either. My speed dropped to a very sad and slow 10mph. People were cheering for me and I just want to tell them I’m not normally this slow but have a puncture! One of the ladies I overtook from my age group, spots my predicament and asks if I need anything but I say no – ‘just go and do well’. I finally reached T2 – in, find my spot, rack and go. Run all the way through transition and onto the run course.

Run: I knew there aren’t many of us left on the course now. After my wave it was just the fast middle-aged men left to start and many of them overtook me while I was limping home. I got onto the run course and knew that there was little point in racing hard and risking injury when it wouldn’t improve my position. On lap 1 I saw many of the ladies from my age-group on their 2nd lap and I started to feel very frustrated and disappointed but I also saw that there were some ladies in my age-group from other nationalities still running lap 1 – I might not be last in my age-group! I kept going, it’s hot, my legs are tired after riding on a flat and my shoulders tense from keeping the bike stable. Finally, I saw the end and try to find a sprint but my heart isn’t in it and I cross the line dejected. BUT I DID FINISH! I was determined not to be a DNF.

Afterwards I did run through the whole gamut of emotions: disappointment, frustration, anger, tears and then a couple of hours later I was fine. Mechanicals, crashes, broken bikes – this is part of the unknown challenge of racing triathlon and therefore you have to roll with what’s thrown at you. You can choose to stop and give up or you carry on. There were quite a few punctures in that race, some people picked their bike up and ran with it on their shoulders, others did like me and rode back. Some people had crashes and ended up in hospital – I’m grateful that wasn’t me.

In the evening we went out for beer, wine and some fab food. We laughed, celebrated and commiserated. From fastest to slowest we were there together, having fun and supporting each other. That’s what racing at that level is about. For me the achievement is qualifying. I know I can’t podium at that level but I can do my best whatever is thrown at me and find satisfaction in that.


29th out of 34 starters (if no puncture I think I would have been about 14th, based on who I had overtaken on the bike).

I read this in a book recently:

Q; ‘Better at losing? Is there any point in being good at that?’

A; ‘Life is mostly about trying things you can’t do. You end up losing more often than you win….and it’s more important to be good at something you’re going to do more often, isn’t it?’

Q; ‘But what does being good at losing actually mean?’

A: ‘Daring to lose again.’

That’s what competing at any level, in any sport, is about – whether you are new to the sport or not and that’s partly what makes it exciting and what makes you have that knot in your stomach on race day. Embrace it, roll with it, go for it. If it goes wrong, pick yourself up and have another tri!

Thanks for reading – sorry it’s as long as War and Peace!



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