It’s been a week since I popped my duathlon cherry at the Oulton Park Spring Duathlon and now seems a good time and place to take stock on how the event went, how I did and where I go from here.

Firstly the event itself was amazing and kudos to Xtra Mile Events for putting on such a good show. The choice of venue was brilliant. I didn’t take a single photo regrettably, but take my word for it when I say that racking my bike in transition in the pit lane made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. And then walking out onto the grid for the start was just immense. I have to say there was a pretty decent turnout of spectators too, considering by the start time it wasn’t any more than 3 or 4C. The race itself was 2 laps running, 9 laps bike and 1 lap running. The track itself is 4.3km long, so it was an 8.6k/38.8k/4.3k split for a total of 51.7k or 32.12 miles!

I think there was somewhere in the region of 230 entrants for the main race, which was also a national qualifying event. The good news for me that looking down the list of entrants, there seemed to be as many novices as there were total tri ninjas (you had to declare if you were a novice, so I did to save getting trampled or embarrassed by whippet thin tri professionals). I was also impressed that there was such a broad range of ages in show, from teenagers through to 50-60.

One of the main things with events such as these is not to be intimidated by people who show up with expensive carbon bikes and all the gear. Here I was with my Decathlon running shoes and my £200 road bike! At the end of the day, it’s about the duathlete, not about the gear you’ve got. By and large I didn’t feel like there was any snobbery about the event, there seemed to be a decent camaraderie.

So in total, I’d been training for the event for six weeks. By my reckoning, I was already reasonably fit and this would be a decent amount of time to get in the miles and be ready for the event itself. How massively wrong I was. It was quite chastening that I set off for the first two laps of running at my usual pace of around 10.5/11k an hour and just about everyone streaked past me. I’d tried to take on board some carbs before I started (a carb bar and some toast in the track restaurant) and some fluids, but I am prone to stitches, so I tried not to take on too much that would slow me down. Imagine my surprise to see competitors in the restaurant tucking into bacon and sausages before the start! I did wonder if they knew something I didn’t, but I couldn’t countenance the idea of running round with all that swilling in my belly.

I had some fluids on my bike, so I presumed that would be OK, I could drink while I rode. Let me tell you, you never realise how hilly these race circuits are until you’re running around them! The leaders were off and snaking into the distance even before I’d hit the 1K marker. It’s not a nice feeling to have bikes already flying past you when you’ve just completed the first run lap! I tried to tell myself to stay calm and run the race I’d trained for. And even though I hadn’t done much road cycling at all in preparation (stationary bike in the gym), I was confident that I would be OK and I could make up some ground there.

I had labels made up on my bike handles so I could keep track of how far I’d gone, as I was paranoid I wouldn’t do enough laps! So I got to the end of the first two laps running and I already felt dead and that there was no way I’d get to the end at this rate. There was just nothing in my legs at all. I’d had a virus a couple of weeks before the race, and even though I felt OK, it had obviously taken a lot more out of me than I thought.

The first transition was a case of me getting my running shoes off, bike shoes on and deciding whether or not to layer up in the cold. As I was burning up anyway, I decided to stay with the long sleeve base layer and tri singlet I had on. It proved to be a good decision as I never really felt cold on the bike.

Endorphins kick in at different times for different people. I’ve heard some say as little as 20/30 minutes. In my case it’s a lot more than that, I’d say around 45 minutes, which was more or less when the bike phase started. I felt pretty good on the bike and I was lapping 9 and 10 minute laps, which looking at the results, was reasonably par with the rest of the field and considering I’d done so little cycle training, pretty good.

The 9 laps on the bike went by reasonably quickly, and I was very happy with the climbs I was doing, I seemed to pass a few people along the way. It helps that you can pretty much gun it all the way around, I can’t recall ever touching the brakes on the way round. I tore off my last lap layer and headed to T2. At this point, my troubles were just about to start. I only had one drinks bottle on my bike and I’d sucked it all down during the ride. I had a gel pack, but I was dubious of using it as I’d never used them before and I’d read some horror stories in forums before about getting stomach cramps with them as they divert water from your intestine (I don’t know if this is true or not, or an urban myth).

I dismounted my bike before the pit lane, as per the rules. My legs were very heavy, but I expected that. However, once I’d pulled on my running shoes and tried to stand up, I realised I was worse off than I thought. I started to run towards the pit lane exit to rejoin the race, but I was absolutely parched. I had my gel pack and I also knew there was a water station at the end of the pit lane. I grabbed a cup of water and necked it, and then  sucked out about a third of my gel pack. It tasted like shit. I just hoped it worked and didn’t give me cramps.

I tried to run but my legs were just numb. I just told myself to put one foot in front of the other and I’d be OK. Those kilometre marker points seemed a million miles apart! I must have looked like one of those Olympic Walkers, who do that funny kind of arse wobbling walk that isn’t quite a canter. Then the worst of it, I was about 100 metres short of the 2K marker board and my legs just locked out totally. I was wracked with cramp and felt like the muscles in my thighs were as big as tennis balls. I stopped briefly to stretch and to his massive credit, a guy who had just passed me and had started to streak away into the distance turned and offered to stretch my legs out. My friend, I don’t know your name, but you’re a fine human being. Pride and embarrassment prevented me from taking up his offer, but I managed to start again and before I knew it, I was more or less there. I crossed the line and just felt so relieved it was over. The photographer asked me to smile and I just wanted to tell him to angrily f**k off! I didn’t and the finish picture actually came out pretty well.

In terms of my goals, I’d hoped for 2 hrs 30 mins and I finished in 2 hrs 41 minutes, so slightly outside of that. I didn’t finish last though, and I also beat my training partner, which was also my evil secret goal!

So then, having had a week to think about it, would I do it again? Absolutely, yes. It’s being run again in October, and I’ve no doubt I’ll have another go at it. What advice would I give others thinking of doing a duathlon? Firstly, have a go. While there are some pretentious arseholes in the field, they storm away from everyone else and you’ll soon forget about them. The vast amount are in as much pain as you, don’t forget that.

From a training perspective, 6 weeks is nowhere near enough training for physical exertion of this magnitude. If you were doing the sprint version of the race (5 laps bike, 1 lap run) you could probably get away with it. I’d recommend 3 months at least, 3 or 4 days a week training, with plenty of rest in between.

One thing I hadn’t factored in much was “brick” training. This is doing a run when you’ve just finished a long ride and your legs are screaming at you to bugger off and lie down. As the summer approaches (if it ever does here), I’m going to ensure I do a lot more bricks and get my legs used to it. The first run and bike laps were not bad time wise, but the last lap in agonising pain certainly buggered up my timings.

Get hydrated and stay hydrated. One bottle on your bike is not enough. Take at least two, you’ll need it. Maybe even consider a hydration backpack. I read a feature with Mark Cavendish that said if you wait until you are thirsty before you have a drink, it’s already too late. I’d like to think he knows what he’s talking about, so I’d bear that in mind.

Don’t be afraid to carb load before the race. I’m still not sure I’d advocate a full English before you start, but a sausage butty probably wouldn’t do you any harm a couple of hours before the start. Remember it’s 52K, so you need something in the tank. Having also used gel packs now, I’ll probably have one before the start and one at T1 next time, to give me that extra boost. Jelly Babies are probably a good idea too, they’re small and easily stowed, just try not to put them too close to your body where they just go manky!

I’m now having a big look at my training plan for the summer, with a lot more road biking and I also need to drop another half a stone, I reckon. The weight to power ratio should be about right at that point.

In summary, if you’ve done 10K races and fancy something different, give duathlons a go. If you don’t fancy swimming in a cold duck pond with 200 others, a duathlon is a decent combination of run/bike over a testing distance. Be warned, it’s not a cheap habit (this event was nearly £50), but if you find yourself doing more, consider joining the BTF and save the £5 day licence fee you need to pay. If you’re not sure, dip a toe in the water with the sprint event, which is only a single run lap and 5 on the bike, which should be well within most folks’ compass.

Give yourself plenty of time to train and remember to do lots of brick training. That second transition is the key point of the race where you’re going to sink or swim. Looking forward to October and setting a new PB!


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