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This weekend I took a bit of a journey to continue my European triathlon scene adventures. I didn’t actually decide on this race until just over a week beforehand. I had narrowed down the weekend (July 6th/7th), and then narrowed it down to Olympic distance triathlons within a train ride or so from Paris. After that, it was down to just a couple of choices, and this one (the Stowe Triathlon) ended up being the winner.
Typically I manage to write the race reports up the same day as the triathlon, but this course just left me completely exhausted – so you’ll have to excuse the one-day delay. With that, let’s dive into things!
Simply getting to the race was a bit challenging. Not due to the fault of the race, but more the fault of the fact that I live in a different country. In my case, I’d take the Eurostar (Chunnel) from Paris to London, then rent a car from London to Stowe – in theory about a 60-90 minute drive away.
The first part (the train) actually turned out far better than I expected. You drop off the bike (fully assembled) to a luggage office at the train station (though, about a mile walk round trip near the far ends of the station). From there, it gets stacked up with other bikes:
Then, it goes for a ride – just like you. It costs 29 Euros for same-train service.
Once the train stops, you pick it up at baggage cars #9 & #10. Now, this little part they don’t tell you. Officially you pick it up at the baggage office 15-25 minutes later. But if you move quickly, you can get it immediately by handing in your claim sheet, right there on the side of the train. I really should emphasis quickly. To put it in perspective, upon the return into Paris, I got to the baggage door no more than 60 seconds after the train doors opened, and they were almost ready to cart it away. Mind you, nothing happens in France in 60-90 seconds, let alone something involving the trains. So, be warned that it’s either hurry up or wait.
That said, that was actually great – and we were in/out very quickly.
The unquick part was the car. We had booked a rental car at a train station a short 5-10 minute walk away. Well, by time we finished up getting off the train and over there and finding the rental car place, that had somehow closed at 4PM. Thus no rental car. Then we had to find a different car rental place – involving a taxi ride across town – and more rental paperwork. Finally we got it, but overall cost us a number of hours.
From there we drove north about 90 minutes with traffic and found the race site and subsequent hotel. Woot, we were here!
It was a short 20 minute drive from the hotel to the race area. The race was being held on the grounds of the Stowe House, which is also a school. The grounds are massive – sorta harkening to what you might see on Downton Abbey.
Parking cost a couple pounds, but was nice and close to the start:
After that we headed over to registration, which took all of a minute or two to pickup the packet and be on my way.
From there I headed into transition. They did a quick check of my bike brakes as usual, and then checked my helmet. Interestingly, they had me put on the helmet and validated my chin strap clipped and was tight. Never had that before – but quite logical.
After that I found my spot with my name on it and got all racked up.
Like most races these days, the transition was designed so that there no competitor had an advantage (different entrances and exits). Overall, you can’t complain when this is the view from your spot:
After racking and stacking the bike they had a race briefing. There were start waves starting at 9:00AM, and continuing until 12:30PM. Each race wave had a pre-race briefing 30 minutes prior next to transition. This actually worked pretty well to be honest.
Upon completion we headed down to the start. This was a 3/4ths of a mile walk across the grounds. A pretty walk though:
Then from there it was time to suit up. Now, the suiting up was a bit of a contentious subject. At the pre-race briefing they had said the wetsuits were going to be illegal for those going for awards (water temp was 22*C/71.6F). The wording was a bit weird though, and there was lots of discussion amongst the faster racers and race officials. Clearly there was some confusion between the British Tri official and the race directors. In either case, upon leaving the transition area it was clear that “Wetsuit = No Award”, so all of us towards the pointy end left them behind.
Then, upon arriving at the swim site the rule was changed so that wetsuits could be eligible for awards. Obviously this meant that all of us had left them behind 3/4ths of a mile back up the hill. More squabbling and they then delayed the race start by 30 minutes to allow folks to get the suits. Luckily, The Girl ran up (and back down) to grab mine for me. But others had to make the run themselves.
Finally, suiting up:
The Swim was held in a small pond. The course would have two loops, each 750m in length. We got into the water and then they backed us up a bit to the first buoy for the start.
While free of the pack, the water visibility would best be described as ‘low-visibility’. But in the initial starting pack, the water visibility was literally black-out. It was astounding actually, never have I put my head in the water and seen nothing but pitch black. Someone joked that it was brighter at night in the water.
Also, I’d highly suggest not drinking much of the water. While I’m sure it was perfectly safe (actually, they posted water quality reports at the start), it tasted like water with turtle crap. How do I know this? Well, up until moving to France I had water turtles in an aquarium for about 20 years. Upon cleaning the tank with a siphon a bit of water always gets in. This water tasted exactly like that water.
At any rate, the swim started with a typical airhorn, and off we went!
It became immediately clear that the British must have much better access to pools than the Parisians, as there were a number of faster swimmers. Still, many of them faded off by the first buoy and I found myself among roughly equal swimmers that I was able to pace against.
I was pretty happy with my pacing in that I kept nearly perfectly consistent splits across each buoy segment for both loops.
Once two loops were done I headed on out of the water and up to transition. The swim map from the FR910XT is a bit sketchy given the smaller course and loops, but it generally gets the major turn points right. And, the overall distance was pretty close to spot on (I forgot to hit lap upon leaving the water, so it’s a bit long and you can see it going into the woods).
My time for the swim per my watch was 22:18, but in reality it would have been about 21:55ish since I forgot to stop it upon exiting immediately.
T1: The Longest Transition Run on Earth:
Ok, with the swim behind me, I was ready for the first portion of the run, which, happened to be T1. I’m pretty familiar with long transition runs, for example, the Escape from Alcatraz is famously long.
But it’s not both famously long and uphill – which is exactly what this was. You started off at the water and the hill didn’t end until you reached the mansion/house – almost .75 miles later!
On the bright side, it did meander through some really pretty grounds. And, through parts of the school itself:
When looking at the entire transition route from the air, it’s probably important to take into account the relative size of objects on the map. At the upper section is the transition area. A vast area the size of a football field or two. Obviously, you can see just how many of those football fields would fit along the route.
Now in order to make it easier, they allowed you to have a pre-labeled bag down near the water. This bag contained a pair of running shoes. So I took my wetsuit off and then put on running shoes. I’ll point out that putting on running shoes with soaking wet bare feet was much harder than I anticipated. Nonetheless, once that was done you stuffed your wetsuit into the bag and then tossed it to a volunteer who would have them available for collection later on.
With my first run segment complete, I was off on the bike!
First up was the mount line. Pretty straight forward and not at all crowded:
Then a few dozen yards later was the first cattle guard. As the race director noted, as long as you maintain speed and go straight, you’ll be perfectly fine.
The bike course was 30 miles in length, and two loops in total. So a bit of a longer distance than a standard distance Olympic course.
As you can see below by the course profile, it would best be described as rolling. Some flat sections, no massive climbs, just rolling along:
I don’t really have any of my own photos from the bike, since I didn’t have a camera with me (for bike or run this time). Instead, The Girl took a few photos as we left the race site (the sprint was still going on).
Here’s a few to give you a rough feel for things:
It was funny in that we passed a big race car site towards the end of each lap. Before I get to the race car portion, this area was great as the roads were awesome, slightly downhill, and wide open!
In doing so there were some sort of Pro-Am races going on out in a large parking lot, with tons of skidding going on. While you were clearly protected by the fence, it still would catch you off-guard each time to hear all the skidding and sliding of the car wheels.
From a race standpoint I had heart rate zones set, as well as power zones. I wasn’t able to achieve my heart rate zones (too low), but was able to hit my power zones. This typically indicates that I was probably tired in some way. As you can see below, my average rate was quite low for the big segment (155bpm, where it was targeted closer to 163-166ish).
Average power wasn’t bad at 259w (keeping in mind that all the rollers would lower it, due to the zeros being included). NP helps to normalize that a bit – seeing 278w there, which given everything was still a bit low.
For me there wasn’t too many other competitors on the course ahead of me. I passed probably 6-10 folks all in during the bike leg, and had one or two pass me. I didn’t see any drafting myself, though there simply weren’t many folks out there for me to see. The Girl said she saw a fair bit watching the course, which is somewhat logical given there were no officials out on the bike (at least visible to either of us).
My final average speed was 21.7MPH (35KPH). Not bad, but again, still a bit lower than I would have preferred if I was really kicking at optimal. I just couldn’t seem to get my heart rate up, and thus things felt a bit flat.
Here’s one quick photo of me The Girl took from her cell phone coming back off the loops and towards transition (finger is free of charge). I’m just about to sit back up again as about 30 yards to the right is a short steep hill.
It took me about 10 feet beyond the exit of transition (T2) to realize how badly this run was going to hurt.
To start, it’s actually quite unusual for my legs to feel shot coming off the bike. In the vast majority of my races (virtually every race I can think of), other aspects of the run tend to hit first (general exhaustion) – rather than legs. Generally speaking I put in enough volume at enough intensity that my legs are rarely the limiter here.
That definitely wasn’t the case here. At first I hoped it would just be a natural bike to run feeling (albeit rare for me), but given I do 2-3 bricks a week (most of my workouts are structured that way as 2hr bricks), I didn’t think it would get much better.
Soon after leaving the giant lawn area we headed out on a dirt trail. The trail surface was perfectly fine for running, but it was also perfectly sunny. In this case, that meant I was getting cooked in the heat. While this sort of weather would have been totally ‘normal’ when I was living in Washington DC, it’s been rather chilly this spring/summer thus far in Paris – so I hadn’t quite acclimatized to it yet.
Nonetheless, despite my lack of enthusiasm for running at this point in my day, I was actually moving along at an ‘alright’ clip. While it felt like 10-minute miles (6:13/km), my first mile clocked in at 6:59/mile (4:20/km). Of course, that’d be way below where I should have been (about 6:10-6:20/mile or 3:50/km). Especially for the first mile, which is historically faster.
The course was a two-loop course, each about 2.6 miles – putting the total distance at about 5.2 miles (~8K).
The loop meandered across the grounds of the Stowe House estate, which while absolutely beautiful – were also absolutely painful. It was a series of constant ups and downs.
Much of the course was also out in the sun, and with only a single water stop per loop, keeping cool in the 85*F day was proving to be difficult for me.
I made it about 2 miles before I hit the first section of hill where my legs just wouldn’t go any faster, or really anywhere at all. I took a brief moment to walk a short section up that hill and catch my breath a moment.
A single person passed me, but no more than a minute or two later I passed them again.
You can see I repeated this again around the 3 and 4 mile markers. I mentally bargained with myself that those uphill sections would be the only ones I walked. It’s not a great bargain, but it was all I could do at this point.
It was somewhat impressive to see so many other very fit dudes (and two dudettes) being pretty much humbled out there on the course. I heard a few people describe it as ‘incredibly harsh’, and I think that’s true here. It wasn’t so much the course itself, but the conditions of the day.
On a cool overcast day, this would have been a completely different course. But combine the heat with the sun, and things got ugly (at least for me).
A few interesting things of note. I was disappointed to see so many competitors (especially those at the pointy end) cutting the course on the run. To put this briefly into context, the run route included many turns, all of them extremely well marked. It was abundantly clear you were to stay on the path (especially since they had more signs than a political convention). Yet I saw numerous instances of guys cutting across sections. While it may have only saved them 20y or 30y at a time, it really adds up over the course of a two loop course. Obviously, the GPS signal doesn’t track it perfectly below, but the blue arrow attempts to illustrate what I’m talking about.
The only complaint I’d have for the race organizers on the run was simply the lack of water. The course only had a single water stop on the run (once per 2.6 miles), which while fine on a cool day, is pretty slim for a hot-day. On the bright side, it was in front of this bus:
Oh, here’s me, taken by The Girl. As you can see, I wasn’t a happy camper (coming around on the 2nd loop):
The final hill towards the finish was pretty evil. Though, I think it was actually worse the first time around rather than the second time around. At that point, I knew all I had to do was get over the hill and run about 200 yards. It was a short-steep hill about 100 yards in length, but at about 15%+ incline.
After clearing the hill for the final time I managed to find some amount of energy to pick off one more runner before hitting the mat.
Overall I finished the run in 42 minutes, easily about 5-8 minutes off of where I should have been for this distance. But given the conditions it wasn’t all bad.
With my time I finished 4th in my age group, and 16th overall.
With the race completed I grabbed a bottle of water and my finisher’s shirt:
From there I spent considerable time lying in the shade of the building staring at the sky. Once I was done trying to catch my breath we headed for a brief walk and cheered on some folks at the bus:
Then we checked out a bit of the expo they had setup. I liked that it was available both pre-race and post-race. Makes way more sense.
The crowd support at the finish was also pretty good, though not necessarily actively cheering on runners, but more just enjoying the scene:
We checked in on results, and given only the age group winners received any awards, we headed on out working our way back home. We stopped along the way at Windsor Castle, just outside of London to poke around a bit:
With that, we arrived back home in Paris just after 10:30PM – pretty much completely exhausted by a long day.
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