Thalia Hessey – Cotswold 113 2019

Although I’ve done several sprint triathlons now, and one Olympic distance, this was my first ever attempt at a half ironman. I had done all of the distances individually in training, but I had never tried to put them all together and had very little idea about what pacing I could maintain or what nutrition I would need for such a long race. Needless to say, as the day approached, I was filled with a good deal of trepidation as well as excitement! Lots of people from Tri Surrey had entered, and several more came to support too, so a big group of us all headed up there the day before to register, do a course recce and check in to our rented accommodation, followed by a ‘pasta party’ at a local pub!

The day itself started with a bowl of porridge at 4am, cutting up energy bars into bite sized pieces to have on the bike, making up an energy drink for the water bottles, and final checks of the bike and kit. A short drive from the house saw us arrive at the venue around 5am and we made our way to transition to rack our bikes and set out our kit. Cotswold 113 is an incredibly friendly, family-run event, despite attracting more than 1,000 competitors, and they go out of their way to enhance the race with little touches like racking tri clubs together and putting them in the same start wave. Time raced by. Transition closed at 6am and Tri Surrey were all in wave 3 at 6.20am.

As soon as wave 2 had set off, we were allowed into the water to warm up. Or rather, acclimatise – there were so many of us and so much weed in the water there was very little chance of actually attempting any swimming to warm up! A short count down and we were off. It was a slow start as I kicked free of the weeds and around some of the other swimmers before settling into my rhythm. I often start off too fast in the swim and then struggle with my breathing, but the slower start really worked in my favour (learning point number 1!) and I thoroughly enjoyed the swim. A couple of moments of panic when I couldn’t see the various buoys I was heading for, but I just hoped that as long as I followed the hats in front and beside me, I’d not be going too far wrong! I felt far less exhausted coming out of the swim than normal, yet it turned out it had been one of my fastest paced race swims I’ve ever done. Go figure!

Out of the swim and into transition, pulling off my wetsuit on the way, and searching for my bike with the pink handlebars – always a good easy identifier! Stopped by the bike, looked down at the kit and my first thought was: ‘Someone has stolen my towel! Why would they do that?’ And then: ‘That’s not my helmet! Where’s my helmet gone?’ And finally, the realisation dawning: ‘That’s not my bike either!’ Someone else had a bike with pink handlebars (not really surprising given our club colours are blue and pink and we were all racked together!) and I had stopped at the wrong racking point – d’oh! A short jog further on and there was my bike and kit all exactly as I had laid it out – phew!

Out onto the bike course I settled into a nice fast cadence that wasn’t too strenuous on the leg muscles, knowing I would be cycling for the best part of 3 hours and then had to run afterwards. The advantage of the Cotswold course is that it is very flat. There is normally just one hill on the route (which, compared to the Surrey hills around us, isn’t really much of a hill!) but apparently badgers had built themselves a sett under the road just before the hill and it was causing that section of road to start collapsing so the bike route had to be diverted, removing even that hill. I can’t say I minded too much…

The bike course was two laps and, at the end of each lap, the pink and blue army was in full voice as always, encouraging us on – it’s incredible what a boost it gives you. There isn’t too much to report about the bike leg really – it was very long but thankfully pretty uneventful for me, although I did pass various mechanical failures and one accident where a lady had come off her bike – although thankfully she was sitting up and seemed ok. I munched my way through the bike nutrition, piece by piece, every few minutes to keep my energy levels up. That made a real difference. However, learning point number 2 is that I should have done a few longer training rides in a static race position as my body started complaining about staying in that one position for such a long time. Learning point number 3 is that I need some new contact lenses as they kept drying out and getting displaced when I blinked. Learning point number 4 is that there are some seriously fast cyclists out there and some amazing bikes that I was very envious of – I clearly need to keep training and now I want to save up to improve my bike as well!

So, after just under 3 hours on the bike, it was on to the half marathon run. Thankfully the brick training paid off, and my legs weren’t too much like jelly as I set off on the first of 3 laps of the run course. I knew it would be really important to rein in the speed at the start of the run if I was to avoid burning out. I settled into a comfortable pace and lap 1 was done – but it was a bit faster than I had intended and this did come back to bite me in lap 2 (learning point number 5) . Mentally, I was discounting the lap I was on, so as I started lap 2 I was telling myself that there was only 1 lap to go, but this really was the toughest part of the race. The run course was a vague figure of eight shape and the encouragement from the Tri Surrey supporters, still in full voice of course!, at the crossover point really made all the difference. All the mental strategies I had employed during the tough parts of the London Marathon last year came back into play – counting up to 100 and backwards again in time with your steps is embarrassingly difficult to do when you are physically and mentally exhausted. Making up imaginary scenarios for the people around you is also a good distraction from the pain for a while! And a friend’s advice to run like there’s a creepy guy behind you and a hot guy in front kept me amused too! And then, finally, I was on the last lap and the end was in sight. Those last reserves of energy came to the fore and I even managed a sprint to the line. Well – it felt like a sprint to me but I doubt it looked anything like it to the spectators! I had finished and I was finished! I was actually pretty emotional as I crossed the line – something I hadn’t expected.

Before the race, I had set myself the target of aiming for sub-6hrs, with 5hrs 45 as a stretch target. Well – I’m really chuffed to say that I smashed both of those targets, crossing the line in 5:23:21 and coming 5th in my age group. Much faster than I ever dreamed was possible. It was a gruelling race that was testing both mentally and physically (and has made me even more in awe of those that complete the full ironman distance). But it was also a lot of fun, not least because of the support and camaraderie from the best tri club in the world!

Would I do another one and recommend it to others?… Absolutely, yes!