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European Age Group Duathlon Championships - April 2016

Race report time. And as you might imagine (spoiler alert: I did good) I'm pretty pumped to write this one. On Friday 15th April, I road-tripped with my sister to Kalkar in Germany for the European Age Group Duathlon Championships.

Aside: Age Group multisport racing is an odd business - whilst it represents the top level for amateur competitors who have qualified throughout the preceding year, it also gives other enthusiastic but very capable athletes an opportunity to represent their country via a roll-down system. The Brits love it and usually make up half the field at the various European and World Championships. In previous years I would have put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack - serious enough but unlikely to trouble the podium. Back in the autumn of 2015, I had decided 2016 would be different.

Kalkar is an unassuming town on the border of Holland and Germany. It is notorious for its nuclear reactor - built in the 1970s but, as a result of ongoing protests and political wrangling right through to the 1990s, never actually brought online. It cost in excess of $4 billion dollars. In 1995 it was sold on for around $3 million to become a theme park called Wunderland, complete with rollercoaster and rides built into the old cooling tower. Where else would you hold an International Duathlon?

We arrived around 4pm, registered with anticipated efficiency and got changed for a pre-race loosen-up session. I familiarised myself with the 2.5km run course (of which there would be 4 laps on the first run and 2 laps on the second) putting out a handful of fast efforts whilst my sister took some photos of the site. The whole facility wouldn't have been out of place in an episode of Scooby-Do, it appeared tired and rather desolate. We prepared ourselves for the inevitable encounter with a runaway mine-cart, propelled by an embittered caretaker determined to scare us all away in order to gain access to some historical fortune.

If it wasn't for you pesky Duathletes!

Then we rode the 9.5km bike route (which would be tackled 4 times). It was a smooth pancake flat out-and-back route, with a single roundabout, one 90 degree turn and a dead turnaround at the far end. The transition turnaround seemed pretty confusing, involving a rather twisty return across a carpark, up a small ramp, round some cones, back down the ramp and along an overgrown brick path back out to the main course. I figured it would all become clear, at least by lap 2.

With my bike racked we set off for a nearby campsite, put up our tents and then went in search of dinner. A pizza restaurant on the old town square was doing good business, much to the chagrin of the flustered and ill-mannered proprietor. Nonetheless we ate well and made our way back to bed. I slept solidly, despite the overnight rain and wind which brought with it fearsome memories of the previous year's washout championship in Alcobendas, Spain.

Race morning was pleasant enough, the weather was dry but breezy, and final preparations were pretty relaxed. Soon enough it was time for the off - first wave (after the para-athletes), the 18-39 year old standard distance males. At 39 I was, of course, one of the oldest in the wave (and my 35-39 age category) but still made sure I had a good starting position near the front. And we were Go!

The pack went out of the blocks hard. I allowed myself to be drawn along whilst also trying to keep an eye on my pace, sliding back when necessary not to blow too soon. Within the first mile a natural order had been established - I was running comfortably in the third main group. One section of the run, where we left the park, was particularly exposed - it was imperative to find some shelter from other athletes, I mostly did this and tried to stay relaxed, but it was still tough. Towards the end of lap 2, I had a small mental wobble - I was labouring and allowed my mind to entertain the idea that it wasn't my day to feel good. Fortunately, I have been working on dealing with bad thoughts and convinced myself that it would pass and that I had done the training necessary to back up this pace. On we went for two more laps - now I started to work my way slowly back through the field and onto the shoulder of one of the athletes from Luxembourg whom I had identified as being a strong contender in my age group. I knew of one other British 35-39 competitor who was some 30 secs ahead still, as well as a decent Irish runner but I had a feeling I was now in contention for the medals. I had also run a new standalone 10k PB of 36:03.

My first transition was pretty smooth. Not blisteringly quick, but sufficiently so. On the bike, I negotiated the technical site exit and put the power down on the open road. I was pleased to see Mr Ireland come back almost immediately and disappear behind, along with a few other run specialists from other age groups. Mr Luxembourg had slipped ahead during transition and we would be trading blows for the next 50 minutes or so. The first lap was a joy, I was working hard but everything was under control. Even the transition turnaround was pretty straightforward and it was great to get some support from the crowds of other athletes waiting for their race start. I also had my sister out halfway round the course cheering me on and taking photos.

On lap 2, I closed the gap to Mr Luxembourg and passed him on a headwind section. On the same stretch of road on the way back he returned the favour. During this lap another British 35-39er came by both of us - I think he was the only rider to do so, in fact he also caught and passed the lead 35-39 athlete too. Mr Luxembourg and I did the same dance on lap 3 - but by now I knew he was tiring, especially into the now quite blustery headwind. On lap 4, I went by again and this time made sure I kept him distanced all the way back to transition. My bike leg came in at 59:48 (for a distance of 23.6 miles) - 11th fastest of the day, but more importantly the 2nd fastest of the 35-39 age group. After several early season bike disasters, my form had come in at the right time.

So, another transition later - this one a bit shaky as a result of my non-functioning fingers - and I was back out onto run number 2. By now there are other waves out on their first run leg plus various runners from other age groups ahead.

Let's recap on where we stand, or more interestingly where I think I stand:

There's two Brits ahead in my age group, by about 40 seconds I guessed from the last time I'd seen them on the bike. I know one is a stronger runner than me, the other is likely to be weaker. There's a Luxembourger on my tail, but he is struggling. There's a Dane coming up strongly, but he has a number from a younger age category. I know the race leader is on his second lap (because he came past me as I started my first) - he's 25-29, there's also a much younger Brit and an Irish guy who I (correctly) presume is younger too. Then there is an indistinguishable number of other Germans - on the out and back section I think I can figure out the ones from my wave (by the dead look of suffering in their eyes), but it is not possible to determine their age groups, as race numbers aren't always visible. I can discount some but not all.

I give up trying to work it out and decide that the best I can hope for is that I'm currently in 3rd in my age group. If true, there's a guy behind who is going to try his best to catch me - I also have a chance of getting one of these Brits in front, so I better get a shift on. If I'm in 4th, I really need to move it. If worse than that, well let's not go down that road for now. So I pick up the pace (I'm only just managing to break 6s though) and make some good ground on Brit #2 - I close steadily to around 15 seconds by midway through the second lap. Unfortunately, thanks to the turnaround he knows I'm coming and ups his own effort to hold me off on the return stretch.

We finish and congratulate one another - for what we are not sure. No-one seems to be able to confirm our placings. The announcer had lost track of athletes coming across the line and we have some Germans of unknown age to account for.


In fact it took several more hours, by which time my sister and I were well on our way home before a friend on site was able to confirm my third place and a British 1-2-3 in the 35-39 category. I celebrated ostentatiously by eating a Swiss roll direct from the box with a plastic spoon on the motorway outside Antwerp. I had never intended to hang around for the podium ceremonies later in the evening - whilst it is a shame I didn't get to take my rightful place, I now have my medal and the satisfaction of everything that I had achieved.

Having now reviewed the results in full, I know I came 11th (4th Brit) overall in the standard distance race. I was beaten by only one athlete older than me (from the 40-44s in the second wave), as the two Brits in my category are 37 and 35 respectively. It later transpires that at least 5 of the athletes ahead of me have raced as elites in the last year, some even appear to hold pro-licences. That doesn't bother me - I'm just content to have put up a good showing as an ageing, bona-fide amateur. I also have a bronze medal. Better get ready kids, "Did I ever mention that I once came third in a European Championships...?"

Of course, it isn't all about race day - it has taken a lot to get me to this position. I started my training cycle in August 2015, 35 weeks ago. In that time, I:

- completed just shy of 300 structured sessions (130 biking, 160 running)
- averaged 9 hours of training per week (with a low of 5:30 and a high of 11:30)
- averaged 93 miles biking / 34 miles running per week
- took only 34 days off, never two consecutively
- even went almost a full month on just a couple of glasses of wine

That, my friends, is consistency.

Am I disappointed by finishing third? A little bit - maybe I could have raced differently and caught second. Then what? A bit more training and first? Next time perhaps.

I owe a few thank yous - to Zoe and the kids for not missing me too much when I've been out training or racing, for tolerating my schedule as well as for their faultless supporting. To Ian for helping me plan a schedule, giving me confidence and for all the special 'encouragement' #thelook. To my Sis for keeping me company on race weekend. To Profile Protein for helping me with recovery along the way. Also, I suppose, to the rest of TeamSS for building the necessary fear of failure through a toxic culture of ridicule and one-upmanship #DBS.

Now I'm going to take a bit of a break, eat all the food, enjoy racing some local TTs, maybe even try to break a few running PBs.

Thanks for reading!