This past weekend was the 2019 Multisport European Championships in Targu Mures, Romania, and my first international duathlon race for the Great Britain Age Group team. Since qualifying back in October last year this had been my priority race for 2019 with every subsequent race, training session and avoided beer feeling like a building block towards this event. I’d had a long winter of building my base fitness, commuting to work by bike in the cold and the rain and the dark. And building up the running mileage, either in similar conditions on winter evenings or mindlessly pounding away on a treadmill.
In duathlons last season, running was my weakness so I prioritised this element in my training. It worked, and by Spring I’d set PB’s in two consecutive half marathons. But I suppose unsurprisingly it came at the expense of my cycling power which dropped quite significantly. Multisport races like duathlon and triathlon are a test of your combined speed across all disciplines, so the training cannot be too focussed on any one sport. I ramped up my cycling training and entered lots of local timetrials and crit races to try and bring on some form. By the start of June I was running slightly slower than Spring but still significantly faster than last year, but my cycling was back to the same level as the previous year. It felt like the best compromise.
I travelled out to Romania with no real expectations of the race. I was slightly concerned by the possibility of crashing on a draft-legal bike leg – my first duathlon of this format. I just wanted to finish feeling like I’d given it my best and to put on a good show for my wife and kids who’d come out to spectate. And also not to be a neurotic bag of nerves before the race and ruin their holiday! The lack of expectations helped me to stay relaxed in this respect. We had a great family holiday in Targu Mures, spending most of our time at the local outdoor swimming pools.
The race was taking place on the city centre streets so I got out a couple of times to recce the course. Unfortunately due to the levels of traffic and stop lights it wasn’t really conducive to do any meaningful training on, but I could see that it would be a flat and fast bike leg, but with a lot of sunken manholes to try and avoid.
The race started well and I set off on the first run at fast but manageable pace. After a couple of kilometres I was in a group of about 5 runners and despite it feeling a bit too fast for me, I didn’t want to let them go. I think this is basically the sweet spot in endurance racing – that horrible and painful place that feels neither too fast nor too slow. I think Chris Boardman once said “if you think you can maintain the pace then you’re not going fast enough, and if you think you can’t maintain it then you’ve set off too fast!”
With a few hundred metres to go to transition I eased off a touch and let the group go ahead of me. My aim in transitions was to be faultless rather than fast so I wanted to give my brain half a chance of achieving this. It worked and I exited transition back with the same group.
With draft-legal racing at amateur level there’s always going to be an element of luck about who you exit transition with. Personally I think it detracts from the pure form of racing that time-trialling gives, but thems were the rules of this race. Fortunately there were 3 of us in our little group who were immediately prepared to take turns on the front at riding hard. We raced fast and began to hoover up the faster runners ahead of us. Unfortunately some of them clung on to our group, so that by lap 3 of 4 we were a big group of about 15. With only a few of us working. By this point the older age-groupers and women were also all out on the course so it was pretty hectic on the tight city-centre streets. I sat in the group for most of lap 3 to recover, before launching an attack at the start of the final lap. Partly I wanted to put on a show for my wife and kids and come tearing past at the front of the pack; partly I wanted to try and lose some of the wheelsuckers. But mostly my brain just shouted “let’s go” and before I knew it I was giving it full gas and leading out the group. After a minute another GB rider came through and shouted that we’d dropped a load of people. I sat on his wheel until he started to fade and then launched forward again. By this point I was starting to hurt and also worrying that I might be damaging my chances of running hard. I eased off a touch and a Romanian rider came through. We worked together and I recovered slightly, feeling positive that we were down to about 6 riders.
The final run really hurt. But it was two out-and-back loops of the city centre so I could see the lead runners and realised I was in a much better position than I had been for the first run. We’d overtaken a lot of the field during the ride. This helped with blocking the pain. The first kilometre lasted an eternity but on a positive note, the pain didn’t actually increase. It stabilised. This is often the way with duathlons – the hardest part of the race is the start of the final run because you’re already on the limit and you force your legs to stop spinning and start running again. They can protest against the pain quite convincingly! All I could thing was ‘keep going, the end is in sight’. I refused to let my pace drop.
On the final approach to the line I heard and saw my family cheering. I gave my 5 year old daughter a high-five as I passed. I looked up and saw the clock on 59:45 so I dug deep and reached the line just under the hour.
It was a great feeling to have finished and to be in the sweaty embraces of athletes from all over Europe. I could tell that I’d finished well in the race, but was delighted to find out I’d finished 4th in my age group, missing the podium by just 22 seconds. It also looks like I had one of the fastest bike splits of the race, including the elites who raced later that morning. The icing on the cake was being told that by finishing within the top 3 GB athletes in my age group, I’d automatically qualified for next year’s European Championships. That’s next year’s summer holiday sorted then!