TL; DR: 40 degrees of blazing sunshine, a swim without wetsuits, a cycle course with no shade, and a lovely run. Long and hot and hard – the achievement being actually finishing! And the main issue was nutrition really….
So this Sunday mum and I took part in the Skoda Villa de Madrid triathlon in Casa de Campo. I knew I wanted to do a triathlon while living in Spain over the summer and when I discovered there was one right by the centre of Madrid… it seemed fantastic.
It started to seem slightly less fantastic as I looked at the weather forecast in the run up to the race. The hottest day of the year so far was to fall on Saturday – the day of the triathlon. It was also slightly nervewracking as it was an afternoon race, starting at 5.10pm – I’d never done an afternoon race before and so was slightly concerned as to how that would work out.
I met mum after work on Friday afternoon and we caught the metro to Casa de Campo for packet pick-up. It was very smoothly run, with no queues whatsoever to pick up our numbers and then a bag with a waterbottle and a t-shirt. They didn’t ask for our ID which we had expected but thought no more of it.
We had a quick peer into transition and wandered around to see the swim out and bike in/out so we would at least have some idea of where to go on Saturday! Then it was time for a tinto de verano and a wander to a restaurant for dinner. I was drinking a LOT of water, had been all week, and had been putting extra salt on all my food.
We had a lie-in Saturday morning, then a huge breakfast with lots of carbs. Back to the flat to pack up our stuff into rucksacks, and then we popped to the restaurant across the road for a quick lunch. Still with time to kill, we slowly got changed in my air-conditioned flat before taking our bikes downstairs. The cycle to the park is all downhill so we thought it would be a good opportunity for mum to check she had put her bike together properly after flying it over.
Arriving at the race we had a bit of an issue – now we needed our IDs! But as we had packed very light in order to cycle down to the start, we hadn’t brought any. I had a debit card with my name on it and mum had absolutely nothing. A brief moment of panic as we wondered if we would actually be able to make the race but we played the “stupid English people who don’t understand Spanish races” card and got into transition after a bit of a telling-off. In England you need ID to pick up your number and chip, and then you just need your number in order to get into transition.
But we were there! We set up and had a nice chat with a couple of the other ladies competing. Out of around 400 competitors there were only around 20 women… incredible.
With still an hour to kill we walked down to the lake to stand in the shade and watch the start of the first waves. We had worries it might be a dive start which were soon confirmed…. I cannot dive, not in the slightest, so knew it would be a jump in and a slow start for me!
Finally we put our bags into the bagstore – again very efficient with no queue, went to the toilet, checked everything was set up a final time, and went down to wait for our start. With hindsight, we should have brought a disposable bottle of water so we could have something to sip on for the 20 minutes before our start. Not something I would be particularly worried about in England but I was already feeling thirsty before we even started.
The swim was wonderful. With only 20 women on a pontoon designed for over 50 people, we had plenty of room to dive / jump / lower ourselves into the water, and then we were off! No fighting or being kicked or hit, nothing. No wetsuits but the water was incredibly warm, at some points it was as warm as a bath. There was absolutely none of that cold water shock you get when you first get in. We had two laps, having to get out of the water and jump back in after the first lap – again something completely new to me.
With hindsight I perhaps enjoyed the swim too much. I did say to myself on the second lap “you’re not going to need your arms again” and started moving them faster, but up until then I was very relaxed, fully enjoying myself. I overtook mum just before the last buoy which was quite fun, and then it was just a swim to the finish. I knew it would be slower than normal due to a lack of a wetsuit – but 35 minutes was quite a lot slower than I had expected!
Transition was frustrating as I had a stone inside my sock …. took my shoe off first of all then tried to continue, but no the stone was still there, so had to stop again and take my entire sock off. Really frustrating but at least meant I got to see mum coming in just as I was leaving.
The bike was almost immediately difficult, with a sharp left turn and then a steep hill. I powered up the first time, no problem. I took a sip of my isotonic drink and almost had to spit it out – the water was boiling hot and as a result it tasted far too sweet and was just horrible. I took a gel, spilling half of it over my hand, but managed to take it. There was a quite technical but not too steep downhill, with lots of bends and a rough road surface. A sharp left at the bottom, followed by a short, flat section, before the hill started. Ugh this was horrific.Its around 3.5km, with a max gradient not much above 5% so it is not steep. But it was fully in the heat of the sun, with no shade whatsoever. And it just felt relentless.
The course was drafting legal and so on my first lap I managed to get behind someone quite fast. The first time I went up at an average speed of 17.7km which I was quite happy with – I finished that lap in less than 18 minutes which had been my (A) goal. The second lap I managed to switch between being on a slow person’s wheel to being on a much faster person’s wheel and my speed jumped from 13kph to 20kph in a matter of seconds. I couldn’t hold on as we approached the top though and my average speed up the hill was 15.8kph. That lap was less than 20 minutes which was my (B) goal. I enjoyed both those laps….
At the top of the hill there was a tiny flat section, before a short steep descent, followed by a short steep climb. Then you were finally cresting the top for a lovely downhill segment – much steeper than the uphill and quite technical but good for me as I had ridden the hill several times before and so knew which bends I didn’t have to brake on. A small heads-down flat section, and then it was the sharp left and the steep hill again.
The steep hill was quite good fun as it was lined with spectators cheering you on “animo chica!!!”, and a guy with a bottle filled with cold water who would come and tip it down the back of your neck. That was wonderful, every time it gave me a little boost.
By the third lap I was really flagging going up the hill – this time my speed was only 13.9kph. I noticed at the top several people getting off their bikes to grab a drink at the water fountain and promised myself that I could stop at the top of the fourth lap. I was really hoping the water would be ice-cold. I had been really, really struggling to drink from my hot, sweet water bottle. Sips were making me feel sick although I tried to get them down, and I was suffering from tummy cramps, and a really sore back. This made it difficult to take in my nutrition as I was so dehydrated it was just making me feel sick. Others were also struggling and I have never seen so many people in a race walking back towards transition with their bikes. Some with punctures, but many of them looked as if they had just given up.
On the fourth lap, a girl overtook me half way up the hill “venga, chica!” she smiled, and I tried in vain to stick on her wheel but didn’t manage. Then my mum came past! She was suffering too with back cramps and I managed to stay on her wheel, but at the top of the hill I had promised myself that ice-cold water, so I stopped.
Not the best idea – the water was just more boiling hot stuff that didn’t help at all. It did give me a chance to exchange a smile and a “hace calor!” gasp with a guy I had been criss-crossing throughout the race – a pretty big guy, he slowed considerably up the hills but was very fast on the flats and we had been powering past several men at one stage. We kept on helping each other around the last, horrendous, lap. I hated everything. I was wishing I would faint and fall off my bike because at least then I would have a reason to give up. “This is worse than the marathon” I kept repeating to myself, over and over again, and analysing whether it was in fact worse than the marathon (answer: it was less painful, but still worse as just nothing about it was enjoyable whatsoever). I was fantasising about diet coke with ice and lemon (my go-to I’m dehydrated fantasy drink!)
I barely pedalled on the downhills and limped into transition, exhausted. How on earth was I to run 10k? More importantly… was I going to be able to do it without pooing myself given I was still having a lot of tummy cramps?! And there were no toilets directly on the course….. There was a girl lying by transition in agony with leg cramps, both legs shaking as she moaned in pain and three guys around her trying to massage her leg and calm her down. That gave me a bit of a shock and I realised that, as hard as it had been for me, at least I was still moving. I felt really sorry for her as she had been one of the front-runners amongst the women.
I walked all the way through transition, not understanding the volunteers shouting at me in Spanish to turn my race belt round until one of them made the signal with their hands and I got the message. “Soy de Inglaterra, lo siento!” I gasped. As I started the run, I heard over the loudspeaker that the first woman was finishing…. I felt AWFUL.
The run was an out & back course, repeated four times. All of it in the shade. On the way out it was ever so slightly uphill, but only so you’d notice you were going faster, easier, on the way back. Almost immediately after starting I caught up with mum, also walking, and almost cried with relief. We walked a bit, drank some of the cold water handed out to us, tried to run and quickly walked again. My stomach was still cramping and mum’s back was horrendously sore. “Let’s just do it together,” I said, “Walk a bit, run a bit, and finish together?” Mum agreed and we walked on. After almost a km though, we tried to run again and her back was still so sore that she was contemplating giving up all together. She told me to run on and from that point I was on my own.
I started aiming for a 5 minute run, 1 minute walk routine. Two minutes into my first run I had to stop, now I had a severe stitch in my side that was distracting all thoughts away from the tummy cramp and I could barely breathe. I was a mess. I kept going, gradually increasing the run times to 5 minutes, and then to 10 minutes, and then I was over halfway there. By the 5km point I was feeling more like a human being again and felt like I was running strong and well. I was actually enjoying myself again!
The out and back loops were wonderful as they made the race really social. I kept running past the guy I’d been swapping places with on the bike, now about half a lap ahead of me, and every time we would cheer each other on. There were a few ladies behind me still, one of whom gave me a huge but exhausted smile every time we ran past each other. And various other competitors telling me to “venga chica!” when they or I ran past. That’s my favourite thing about triathlon, how supportive and friendly everyone is. I met several people at the end, as we were all packing up to leave, who called out to me to say “enhorabuena” (congratulations). All we knew of each other was that we had all suffered for the last however many hours and we had seen that suffering on our faces as we struggled to get to the finish line.
There were still a few scary moments to come, such as the guy with extreme heatstroke wavering all over the course. When I passed that section of the course next, he was lying by the side of the road with an ambulance next to him, screaming in agony.
I finished in just 50 seconds over the hour and was really annoyed at myself for not pushing harder for the last 5k. I felt like a proper human being again by that point and definitely had it in me to push harder – indeed, I felt better after finishing the whole thing than I had after finishing the bike! A 10km cool-down :)
Mum crossed the line just a few minutes behind me. She walked almost 2km but then ran non-stop the rest of the way so we both had our different methods of getting going.
We packed up, took some pictures and wobbily headed home, stopping on the way for a cream cheese bagel (well it was 9.30pm by this point!). We showered quickly and then headed out for a celebratory cocktail and tapas dinner – at 11.30pm. Needless to say our eyes began to close as we finished our meal so we quickly headed / hobbled home.
Don’t triathlon in Madrid!!
No, seriously … I don’t regret doing it in Madrid for a minute. It was so lovely to compete so near my home, to find that the triathlon community is the same in Spain as in England (ridiculously friendly and supportive), to swim in a lake that was like a warm bath with people sunbathing beside it (probably wondering what the fuck we were all doing!) and to run on a beautiful shaded path, high-fiving other runners as they passed again, and again and again, and getting hosed down with icy water every 2km or so.
I should have put more ice in my water bottles in the hope they would hold onto their coldness a little longer. They probably wouldn’t have done. I should have had a bottle of water with me before the start. I should have had two water bottles on my bike, one with water, and one with isotonic, and I should have had a different isotonic drink. One that was less sweet. Maybe then I would have been able to drink more of it, which might have meant I was able to eat more of my nutrition, which might have allowed my legs to keep pushing up those hills. Or maybe the heat would have gotten to me nonetheless!
I should have pushed a little harder on the swim, I could have pushed a little harder. I should have pushed harder in the last 5km of the run and then I would have managed a sub-hour run.
Those little disappointments aside, I am really pleased I finished in what felt like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It would have been so easy to just not begin that run, but I’m so pleased that I did, and ended up enjoying it!