Last Tuesday, with the one and only race I’d not had to pull out of this summer coming up on the Saturday – at the ITU World Championships, no less (sprint distance (open race, obviously, not as an age-group qualifier)) – I woke up with a runny nose and a sore throat.
I did not react calmly.
I took every cold and flu medicine I could lay my hands on; steamed my head in Olbas oil; asked for (and received an abundance of) suggestions as to how to move the cold on faster than nature intended; and followed every single one of them, including the one that suggested mainlining caffeine on race day, ignoring the cold and dealing with the consequences afterwards. Which goes some way towards explaining why I’m writing this from bed, sporting a ravaged, flaky nose and a really sexy phlegm-cough. Last week, though, I swear the solid combination of vitamins, caffeine, symptom-suppressants and a strong sense of denial had me basically race-ready.
Alas, my bike was not race-ready.
After a great swim, during which Newbie and I managed to kick each other in the head at least once before he pulled ahead, and during which I tried to breathe my own snot only a couple of times, I hopped on to my bike to find that things were very, very wrong.
The bike leg was supposed to be 22.5km long – three laps of the course. After a very slow quarter of the way round one lap, I had established that my bike was giving me the option of two gears. On a relatively flat course, I could pretend I was either going down a steep hill or up a steep hill: struggle to pedal or pedal really fast, and go nowhere. Not pleased, I flicked through the gears over and over again, hoping something could catch. Nothing caught. Worse, in fact, my feet flew off the pedals as the chain jumped. Grind, grind, grind. Kerchunk. Grind, grind. Kerchunk. Chain off. Get off bike, fiddle around, chain on, pedal. Grind, grind, grind. Kerchunk. I was not a happy bunny. I felt as if I’d been riding for ages and covering no ground, but I had chosen to race without a watch, so had no idea how long I’d been going for.
I am sorry, parents whose children I swore very explicitly in front of. I am sorry, nice supportive people who rode past and yelled encouragement that I ignored. Usually I love encouragement, but even I’m not normally as slow as I was going on that lap. I pulled off the course by a crossing point to have a poke around which basically translated to staring helplessly at the chain rings. Frustrated and angry, my eyes were filling up, which made me more frustrated and angry. I cry when I’m pissed off. The marshall was distressed. “I can’t help. Do you want to carry on?”
I decided, sulkily, that yes, I did. One more go, see what happened. Maybe the gears would magically start working? But what actually happened is that, coming up to the end of the first lap, a kerchunk nearly took out me AND someone else. I wasn’t going to risk ruining another person’s race, so I ground into the turn up to transition with gritted teeth, for my first DNF.
I’ve never DNFed before. I didn’t know what to do, so I grabbed another marshall in transition and explained that I’d had to drop out mid-bike leg – what do I do with the timing chip?
“The bike’s broken?”
“But you’re not?”
“Rack your bike and just go for a little run.”
“Really? I’m allowed to do that?”
“No reason why not. Have a run, if you feel like it.”
And I did, so I did.
When I racked my bike, I noticed Newbie (who was racked next to me) had racked his bike too, and had a moment of anxiety that he’d miscounted his laps or that something had happened to him. Swallowed it, trotted off to run the 5k. I didn’t find out until afterwards that his bike was there because it took me 39 minutes to do that one lap on my broken bike. THIRTY-NINE MINUTES. So ridiculous that if you look up my results I’m not even down as a DNF, because the timing chip apparently decided it must have been an error and made up splits for me.
The 5k felt good. A bit difficult to breathe because of the cold and my cold, but I trotted along, waved to friends that had come out to cheer us on, considerably more smiley than when I’d seen them from the bike. High-fived seven kids in a row. The memorable bit happened right at the end – a bloke in football shorts and trail running shoes pulled up next to me. A quick gaspy conversation about the merits of actual clothes over lycra and the need for beer instead of water, then:
“What lap are you on?”
“This is my second, “ I said, “Leaving you here.”
“Start sprinting!” he said.
“Saving that for the turning,” I gasped.
“No, no! YOU ARE A WARRIOR PRINCESS! GO GO GO!”
So I sprinted to the finish with a massive grin on my face and tried not to throw up on the girl who gave me my unearned medal. I took it off as soon as she put it on – but was made to wear it again by the lady at the bag-drop who nicely but wrongly insisted that I had definitely finished, and who also insisted on getting me a bottle of water and checking that I put my jumper on straight away. (I tend to get adopted after races – apparently I look a bit helpless.)
Then I met up with Newbie, Coffee Monster, our cheering friends (including Frozen Margharitas), and Newbie’s bike-guru brother, who looked over my bike, went for a ride on it and came back an official diagnosis concerning the derailleur. Short version, “It’s fucked. You wouldn’t have been able to fix that on the course.” Which made me feel a bit better about DNFing – at least I hadn’t imagined the problem. Then pub, burgers, home.
… and up at 5.30 the next day to deal with the best and worst of people by marshalling a crossing point at Parliament Square until 1pm, and then over to Hyde Park to watch the incredible Men’s Elite race – hanging over the railing 200 yards from the finish, screaming until my voice went, Johnny Brownlee and Gomez just a blur by their last lap; Alistair Brownlee determinedly finishing the run with the entire crowd roaring him on. Just amazing.
It was a fantastic weekend. After the race on Saturday, and ten hours of standing on Sunday, my legs have had it; so have my lungs and nose, for the time being. I’d give up an arm as well, though. As predicted, despite less than clement weather, Newbie is a triathlon convert, covering his first sprint distance in a very respectable 01:28 with very smiley sprint finish, and already talking about next season. Totally worth it.
Even with a cold, I bested my swim PB for 800m by about three minutes, and I equalled my best run. That makes me very happy indeed because that means even with four months off, my fitness levels haven’t completely nose-dived back to pre-triathlon days. It’s kind of a shame (ha! understatement!) that the bike broke, because I think I would have been on track for a PB.
Whatever – I’m a Warrior Princess.
Prizes go to…
- Most asked question: “Do you know where the giant polar bear is?” (Greenpeace parade on the other side of Westminster)
- Most dopey question: “Why are you making us wait to cross?” … as cyclists fly past in a massive Tour de France-style peloton.
- Most awkward person: the shuffling pensioner who insisted the bikes ‘aren’t going that fast’ and tried to push past me into the oncoming wheels. I had to bodily pull him out of the way.
- Biggest wanker: no problem with waiting to cross but (and imagine this in a particularly plummy accent), “These are the world champions? But some of them are a bit porky, aren’t they, I mean what time do they need to qualify? It can’t be that difficult.” Luckily it wasn’t difficult to bite my tongue, because his wife laid into him over that comment. I feel sorry for his kids.
- Favourite person: the girl who asked us, with a forlorn look, where on earth she could go to run 18 miles, because between the race, the parade and the RAF service at Westminster Abbey, every road seemed to be shut. By the time she set off, she was basically set up to do the Royal Parks Ultra.