Saturday September 16th, 2017

To club triathletes and seasoned multisporters, the Ilkley Triathlon & Aquathlon are highlights of the club & local tri calendar, and in the latter’s case, a fantastic introduction for junior athletes to get some early experience. Then there are people like me, who have never taken part in a full sprint or standard distance multisport event and basically want to have a go to see if they like it, or to have a bit of fun with the challenge.

In my case, the Ilkley Aquathlon had come to symbolize a little bit more for me. Just under 2.5 years ago, fresh off an incident at my local pool which led to me being dragged out before I got into further difficulty, I took part in the Go Tri Yorkshire Aquathlon, a 100 metre swim, and 1200 metre run. I swam the entire 100 metres head above water, but found it such an enjoyable experience that ever since, I’ve taken over two years of swimming lessons just to get to the point of being capable for this one race. If London and Snowdonia were my target races last year, this was arguably my target race this year. I’m now much improved, a capable front crawl swimmer who can move at decent pace (though not competitively fast), with a decent technique, and reasonable endurance. Though I’d never once swam 400 metres in one go, my swim training for this race left me believing I absolutely could. I was absolutely looking forward to this race, and absolutely couldn’t wait to take my first true step into the world of multisport, and one step closer to my ultimate goal of becoming a triathlete.

My trip to the race venue was going really well until I arrived, when I stepped on one of my elastic laces and snapped it, meaning I had to tie knots in it to prevent it from unravelling, and to keep it attached to my foot. Undeterred, and not reading into it as a sign of things to come, I walked to race registration and became reacquainted with the ankle tag – the thing they use in these events to time each part of your swim, transition and run consecutively. Even better was the offer of a free hat! An unexpected perk.

The setting out back was amazing. The lido was closed but it sits right with the backdrop of Ilkley Moor for company. I bet that’s a cracking place to be on a warm day. But I digress. The race briefing was given out by a man who looked not unlike WWE megastar John Cena. After he gave the crystal clear information to everyone, I proceeded to leave my vest, shoes and a towel in transition, convinced I would be fine with safety pins and not a race number belt, having carefully tried successfully to put the vest and pins over my head and over my t-shirt. With that taken care of, it was over to the spectator area. I wasn’t due to race until 4:47pm. I could easily have gone back into Ilkley for another hour or so, but to do what exactly? I thought I might as well soak up the atmosphere of my first aquathlon race proper. So I had my lunch and went out to the back where the run course was, walking once round it to get a good idea of the 600 metre route.

My race number (picture taken post-event)

In this country at least, the majority of aquathlon races (of which there aren’t many) are aimed at juniors getting into triathlon. So the first wave of runners where known as the Tri Start wave (for entrants born in 2009, would do two lengths of the 25 metre pool (50m total) and one lap of the 600 metre course. The three Tri Star groups, comprising slightly older children per category – Tri Star 1 (born 2007-08) would incrementally do four pool lengths and run two laps, Tri Star 2 (born 2005-06) swim eight pool lengths and run three laps, Tri Star 3 (2003-04) swim twelve lengths and run four laps up to Youth/Adult (born 2000 or earlier), doing a full sixteen pool lengths (400m) and five laps of the run course (3000m). Time passed, along with a passing rain shower that lasted for about 10 minutes, with barely anywhere to shelter. As I worried about changing into my now possibly wet shoes and vest, the rain subsided, the sun broke out a little, and the racing continued. At about 3pm, still just under two hours to launch, I went inside and observed the swim legs. There was a 10 second countdown for each event, and I keenly observed the swim pedigree of some of the older juniors, seeking an opportunity to just watch them go through their stroke and trying to observe the tumble turns, something I haven’t yet mastered. Although thankfully I wasn’t the only one. I would later get dressed into my swim shorts, then my hat and goggles, as time ticked down.
We were all briefed by one of the race marshals at the shallow end of the pool. There were about 10 or 11 of us. I generally have done well in races with smaller fields, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted given I was likely to come out behind in the swim. We were later assigned into lanes and (finally) led to poolside.

So this was it. After nearly 2.5 years, numerous swim lessons, and 22 prior waves on race day, it was time to get in the pool. I dunked my head into the water to check my goggles weren’t letting anything in. All good. I assumed the push and glide position as the 10 second countdown commenced. At 1, my head went under and the race began.

The first thing I noticed was the guy next to me was absolutely off like a rocket. By the time I’d completed 25m, he was already into his second length and by 50m he was already coming back to start his fourth length. But I wasn’t concerning myself with him. I just kept focused on completing the swim. But something wasn’t right. By 100m some sort of tiredness had crept into my right arm, and by 125m I was feeling very tired. I wasn’t trying to keep up with anyone, I was swimming how I normally swim. What on earth was going on? I made it to 150 metres and needed a few seconds to take a breather. I kept going and did the next 50m, but at 250m I had lost count of how many lengths I had left. I was taking an extra second or two at each end to gather myself. This was not what I’d come to expect.

I was getting a lot of encouragement from the volunteers to keep going though, and this was certainly keeping me from even contemplating the thought of not finishing. I certainly didn’t want to be the one ‘DNF’ on the results, having put so much into getting into shape to do the swim. But the encouragement poolside was helping me think positive and at 300m I was told I had four lengths to go. Finally, knowing the end of the swim was close, I got back to it and seemed to swim my best 100m of all. I knew I would grow into the swim, just not like this. In any event, I reached the end, to a few cheers from poolside and more encouragement from the volunteers. I climbed out and walked to the transition herehere, offering brief thanks and acknowledgment on my way out. I was the last one out.

A couple of years ago, at the Go Tri event I did, we didn’t have race numbers to attach, and I seemlessly got my shirt and shoes on that day. Here, I got my shoes on first, no worries. Now the vest – over it went. Then, it seemed to coil up, and just as I’d feared, the safety pins were causing a problem. That, and the fact I was still wet emerging from the water, it took a good 30 seconds alone to get the vest to cover my body. Then I’d realised as I left transition I’d forgotten to tighten my elastic laces, and bumped into John Cena who was coming back into the transition area. He was very apologetic but I honestly didn’t mind, I just had to get the awful transition behind me and get into my run. 

I always knew I could catch people up on the run, and so it proved here. Emboldened by my recent success in club handicap races, I overtook runners on the course which we all had to do 5 laps of. I worked out the best, least muddiest route and used this to my advantage, making sure to accelerate out of the tight angled turns with as much power as possible and in the end, completed the run without too much fuss. Upon receiving my time via a printout – 23:35 in total – I found out I was indeed the 3rd male. Out of four. Placing fourth overall.

As one of the top three men, I would be presented with a plaque. There was applause from those who’d gathered, and then that was it. Off to get my train back home.

My overall feeling was somewhat strange about the whole thing. I felt that my race, barring the run, had gone pretty badly and I felt I’d only won the plaque through sheer lack of numbers. I’d only come for the challenge and the experience. I was pretty ambivalent about receiving such a prize. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for it, but it kind of feels odd to see it sat there right now next to my trophies for the Sir Titus Trot and the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter, both races where I’d placed highly in a more competitive field. Family and friends, at home and on social media, were much more encouraging (one of my kids said ‘you know, third place is still a good place to finish!’), others reminding me that you can only beat who turns up on the day, and third is third no matter what. I’m not going to reject that reasoning either!

Sporting my race swag (post-event)

But as for an experience in multisport, it was definitely a valuable one. In hindsight, my somewhat bad swim is one I’m putting down to psychological factors – I’ve never swam competitively before, and it honestly feels like my body went into some ‘fight or flight’ situation despite my best efforts to treat it as any other swim. It won’t put me off trying again someday, but it does put into focus what I need to work on. Namely adapting to cope mentally in competitive pool swims, build my swim endurance, and, should I come to race an aquathlon again, or indeed a triathlon, for all that is sacred, get a trisuit and a number belt! Transition would be a lot simpler if I did.
All in all, a slightly chasening welcome to multisport was endured, but at a great local event. Anyone wanting to take part in a well supported local multisport could do far worse than turn up here during the weekend of the aquathlon and triathlon. I can honestly say the encouragement from those poolside got me through that swim, and I’m absolutely grateful for it! Granted, Ilkley is a bit out of the way for some – it took me just under 90 minutes using public transport from Brighouse, about 15 miles away – but you’ll get a great, no pressure experience here and not to mention a great magnet for the junior triathletes. A big thank you must go to the volunteers and marshals, and indeed Leeds Bradford Triathlon, for making this event a success year on year.

I’m also sorry there aren’t many photos – there was a strict policy on photos at the event due to junior involvement, parental permission, etc, so I kept my phone away. I’ve not found official photos either since the event, but that’s no problem personally. I still have the memories of the event itself. 

Thank you all for reading.

Ilkley Aquathlon event page