Never trust “flat” in Derbyshire…
So, since my rash decision to return to the world of triathlon, I have discovered whole new levels to my (lack of) fitness. Swimming has been fine (you’d hope so, as I’ve been doing it since I could walk), but the bike was proving the tricky part…on this basis, I booked an Aquathlon event for last Sunday (5th July), thinking that a bit of practise swimming then running would be a good little warm up and it was a bargain to enter. And so the countdown was on for the Wild Cat Aquathlon at Matlock Bath… a “flat” swim in the River Derwent – I quote “like a mill pond” followed by a looped run with a couple of small “climbs”. Great. What could go wrong?
Sunday dawned and I had the fantastic mix of nerves and excitement that precede any event worthy of mention. I double and triple checked I had everything needed (I am unfortunately known for forgetting certain essentials… like my wetsuit), packed up the car and set off for Matlock Bath, a part of Derbyshire I had not yet experienced. It was overcast and cooler than it had been, which was a blessing.
Entering the small town, I was taken by how cute and touristy it was – perfectly geared to the bikers who poured through it, even at 8.30 on a Sunday morning. I parked up and went in search of registration. Matlock Bath is a very interesting little place – set in the valley by the Derwent, it is flanked by enormous cliffs, with the Heights of Abraham on one side and Willersley castle somewhere on the other. in the middle meanders the River Derwent – a leisurely river up until a weir a little further downstream. Picture perfect.
Registration was easy – there were only a few competitors for each course- and I got my swim hat and run number. After some faffing and a cup of tea (it’s really not an event if you can’t have a cup of tea), I placed my things into transition… and this is where I began my wobbles. I remember transition from years ago… but for some reason I had forgotten every good piece of advice given or received. I had my kit and laid it out in a sensible fashion, but there were people lubing up all over the place, young children with plastic bags on their feet to make it easier to put on the wetsuit… everyone looked so professional and ready! I did my own routine of wriggling into black neoprene, which would normally only be acceptable in some of the more exclusive member’s clubs of a certain type… and waiting for the briefing: 3 laps of a 500m swim course followed by 2 laps of the run course. Gotcha. Easy. Right?
The first challenge was maintaining any facade of civilised calm when entering the river. Despite the website warning that it rarely got above 15 degrees in the summer, it was a shock after some tropical swims in Box End. It was cold. I mean, shallow breaths and numb face cold. The next issue was the current. Now, I know it sounds obvious, it being a river and all that, but when described as “a mill pond”, you don’t expect to have to keep swimming back to the start before the off. And so, with these small issues plaguing me, the thrashing chaos of a mass start ensued and I realised I was struggling to get breath into my body. Cue head up arm flailing while I desperately tried to get the blood moving to warm me up enough to breathe and swim normally. A split appeared in the group – them at the front and us at the back. I refused to be last out of the water, so I gave it my all. This was a particular challenge swimming back up the river, against the flow. It was exhausting. There was a man close to me, who had tried hard to stay ahead of me for a while, but his erratic swerving and collisions with me meant I pushed on to get ahead of him, leading to a short section where he tussled (yes, it was a tussle); there was a leg pull (not in the idiomatic sense), a hand smack and a full-on arse smack. Needless to say, I kicked hard and got away from him – he was either incompetent (and that’s rich coming from me and the troubles I was having with river swimming!) or some sort of weird fetishist, who perhaps had mistaken me for someone else. I managed to put a good 200m between us by the time I reached the exit point, clambering onto the stone steps and attempting to remember how to walk.
Tottering into transition, I fumbled shoes, donned tri belt and was just swerving my way out again when the rubber-clad demon sped past me. Demoralised and despondent that the arse-smacker had gone ahead, I focussed on not falling over fresh air or hitting one of the many tourists now swarming the main street of the town. Considering they had seen dozens of similarly damp and number-clad runners before me, they seemed shocked to find another weaving her manic way along the High Street. At one stage, the paranoia got too much and I pointed out to one elderly couple that I wasn’t last… I’m not sure they took the intended literal meaning.
Anyway, after a flat and fairly good stretch along the main street, I turned to follow the arrows up into the wooded park and paths on the cliffs above the town. Up. Yes, there was a deal of that. After turning to face another set of steps, I realised the extent of my faux-pas: I had entered the most sadistic fell race imaginable. Disorientated still by the swim, I pushed on, relishing the downhill and the wonderful flat along by the river again… but something was playing on my mind… they had mentioned a section around the castle. I may not be an expert, but I know castles tended to be built higher up, away from the peasants and marauders… and so inevitably, there came another climb. This one was not so bad; not so steep. However, there was something other worldly about the place that made me doubt whether I had actually slipped into unconsciousness and was dreaming the whole thing: lush swathes of different shades of green intertwined above and below, the floor was carpeted in soft moss, mounded over smooth rocks and ferns of every type poked from rocks, trees and other ferns. It was a faerie kingdom, and I knew I needed to have a gel.
With some carbs inside me, I started to come back to reality – flat road leading out from the castle and back along to jink in by the river for a stretch again, before leading out onto the road back into Matlock Bath. Easy, I could do that again. Good job, as I still had one to do. I found out that I was not last, that there were 2 runners behind me (oh, the shame!), so I made an effort to be less of a wuss and push on. The second round was better. Much better. I recognised the route, but as though I had dreamt it the first time (this is not an unusual feeling for me). The ascents were tough, but not dizzying (it was still fell race territory, albeit with steps) and I bounded down with much more vigour than the first time. The faerie kingdom was still evident, and I marvelled that it had retained its magic. I pushed up the hills and pounded down again. The flat was tough, my legs were lead weights welded with iron to my stone butt, however, nothing was going to make me walk now. Through gritted teeth, dragging (literally) my sorry ass along the road to the finish, I bemused a pack of D of E types standing around looking lost. I bore down on the turn into the finish and was surprised that people clapped me in… maybe it was the surprise that someone was still out there. It took a few minutes for my head to register I had stopped and that I should do something more useful than standing and looking about me, so I jellied (valid description) over to gather my things together. I smiled and clapped at the awards ceremony and was pleased to see the other runner come in after me, although not to find out she was a relay team member and so would not be on my list…
Driving back and reflecting on my experience was varied. A blood sugar dip forced a pit stop on the M1 and realised I had worked a lot harder than I had given myself credit for. In fact, it has taken until today for me to truly acknowledge that, even though I felt like I had done badly and was about as fit as an asthmatic sloth, I knew that this had been my first multi sport event in 5 years. When I was a lot younger. And had trained a lot harder. So, with that and the wonderful comfort given to me by lovely people, along the lines of these events attracting those that can do well and win prizes at them; I took my hits, the nauseating swim, the ass-slapping and the delirious fell running and cut myself some slack today. Sunday will be tough, but I will get round, because of all the things I am (keep those to yourself), I refuse to just give up because it was hard. Even if I am last, I will finish and learn my lessons and move on, because the best mantra I have gained from running ultras is: relentless forward progress.