ETU AG Standard Distance Duathlon Romania

Rachel Cliff

On July 3rd I had the pleasure in participating in my first Age-Group race in GB colours. I knew the field wasn’t as big as other AG events I’d researched,  but I also knew that I would not be happy if I didn’t do myself justice in the race and therefore the number of participants was almost irrelevant.

Before the flight out, there was a lot going around in my head (not just organising myself in terms of accommodation, flights, bike and luggage transfer, insurance….. but making sure everything was in hand at home for kids and work handover). After double checking my passport for the possibly the tenth time, I was collected by my travel companion Alison and headed to Birmingham. 

Without boring you with details of travel stories and airline/passenger cockups, there was a bit of a delay in arriving at our accommodation and instead of being comfortably settled in our Airbnb in Targu Mures by mid-afternoon on Sunday 30th June, we didn’t arriving until quite late that evening. However, I was surprisingly quite relaxed about this, mainly as all my luggage had arrived, the transfer was easy and I knew I didn’t have anything of particular note to do that night. The accommodation was clean and spacious and I had time to unpack and think about the days ahead.

Monday 1st July

Although, I was planning on getting up to do a jog to loosen up before it got too hot, I listened to my body and let it have the lie in it was craving. I then decided the next priority was to get my bike built and checked over and so I headed off to meet the GB mechanic at the team hotel. He told me to leave my bike with him and return later in the afternoon. 

After doing a bit of research on the logistics of getting out to the race track (both on the recce day and the race day), we bought some supplies and head back to the accommodation. I then decided to do my gentle run. It was midday, it was hot (around 30oC) but I want to get it ticked off before the evening in case I had any bike dramas once the mechanic had looked at the bike. I had also decided that if I was to compete in heat (albeit not midday) then I should get a little acclimatised. I ran just over three miles but kept on the side of the road where the majority of the shade was. It was a nice and gentle run and I felt physically good, other than I was absolutely dripping with sweat at the end of it. 

Later that afternoon, I checked to see how the bike build had gone; all was ok, which was a massive relief.  We had a lovely evening dinner out; the food was great and incredibly inexpensive albeit the restaurant we chose seem very relaxed in the speed of their service. Then for an early night after touching base with home.

Tuesday 2nd July: Recce and registration day. 

It was very hot (35oC). I spent the morning just keeping cool and relaxed in the Airbnb; so lovely to have a cool balcony to sit on. Alison and I then walked to the team hotel for the transfer to the Transylvania Motor Ring at 1.15pm 

Some people had chosen not to recce the course given the time of day and the heat, but mentally I had to do it. Fortunately the motor ring was at the top of a big hill and so the slight altitude shift and a light wind took the heat down a notch.

On arriving at the circuit the reality kicked in about the race itself. Up until then it had felt all a bit of an out-of-body experience with a lot of observational chat in the accommodation about races people had done and their strengths and weaknesses and studying the print out of the route. However now I could really visualise things.

I practised a bit of mounting and dismounting and then we followed the lead car around the race track. We did two laps and I endeavoured to gauge where particular pinch points would be and made decisions on where I would fuel etc. In some areas I did feel a bit out of my depth and nervous as the volume of bikes all bunched up behind the lead car made it hard to flow and I was inadvertently projecting that to race day itself. It took a bit of convincing myself that although it was a recce, it was a false situation as on the day everyone would be spread out across the full 7.5km lap route. 

After the bike, we recced one lap (2.5km) of the run. This was incredibly useful as I was able to get familiar with the rise of the hill which I hadn’t fully appreciated on the profile of the course map.

Although I tackled both courses at a low intensity and took the opportunity to look my bike racking position together with mount and dismount lines, the heat was sapping and a number of individuals moaned of heat stroke. I made sure I drank plenty of water, got on the transfer bus as quickly as possible and generally felt positive about what I had to do the next day.

Unfortunately the GB team race briefing wasn’t scheduled until 8pm and so after returning to the team hotel and dropping of my bike to the mechanic (during the recce I discovered my back wheel was rubbing on the back brake), I headed to the event centre at the medieval castle to register and collect my race pack. 

Given the time of the briefing we decided to head back to the accommodation, get as set up as possible and have dinner (played it safe with the old favourite of pasta, pesto, cheese and ham). As the bike was still with the mechanic I wasn’t able to get my gels stuck on the frame but made sure everything was laid out and number everything else as much as possible.

The race briefing again crystallised things further for me; instructions on non-drafting rules and penalty boxes strike the fear into me but always good to reiterate. A discussion was also had regarding the weather forecast. Thunder and lightning storms were predicted. On one hand we knew it would take the heat out of the air, but equally pending delays/ potential cancellations and a wet track did also create unwanted uncertainty. I reminded myself of the phrase “Control the controllable” and headed back to the Airbnb after collecting my bike which had been tweaked.

We arrived back around 9.15pm and finished off final preparations (including throwing warm clothes and wet weather gear into our race bags).

Sleep wasn’t quick to come but I read all my good luck wishes again and followed the updates on the Lionesses’ World Cup semi-final against the USA (Lost 2-1).

Wednesday 3th July: Race Day

After some sleep, I got up at 5.45am, freshened up, had my three Weetabix, double checked everything again and set off to get our transfer at 7.15am from the team hotel.

We arrived around 8.15am and our race was due to start at 10.16am. This gave me plenty of time to do some more transition practice, get my bike racked and warm up (practising my start into my 10km pace). The sky was clear and the air was nice and fresh……and then came the storm!

We were all shepherded into the pit garages and watched as the wind whipped through them and de-racked a number of bikes. The rain came on as if there had been a massive cloud burst. This was all a bit disconcerting but I remained warm and as calm as I could, even when hearing the rumour that the race might be shortened which would not have been an ideal scenario for me. The wet track was also a bit of a concern for me especially on the downhill corkscrew like section.

The ITU officials made an announcement that they were in discussions with the Romanian weather authorities and that we would get an update at 11am, with a potential revised race start time of 11.36am. There was a lot of chat amongst the waiting athletes and a number of questions around postponement/ aborting mid race etc. I just tried to concentrate on making sure I was appropriately fuelled to take account of the delay (the last minute extra banana that I’d packed was a great decision!)

At 11am, the 11.36am time had been set and we were allowed to go back into transition to check everything; helmets and bike shoes were emptied of pools of water and reset. Unfortunately after this and stripping down I wasn’t able to get myself warmed up to where I had been previously but I still tried to get as close to it as possible; it was the same for everyone.

The Race

So we all lined up on the grid. The first wave of men set off at 11.30am and the second wave 11.33am. During this time I was jogging on the spot and establishing myself in the front line of the female wave. The horn blew at 11.36am and we were off.

10km run 

My main focus was to start steady and arrive at my 10km effort pace shortly afterwards. A number of women sped past me but I concentrated on my form and breathing and let them go. Four laps to go.

I knew based on my research I was likely to be one of the slower runners in my age group and so as the majority of the others passed me I did not worry and continued to focus on myself and energy levels. The beauty (but also potential danger) of the course was that we were able to see each other at each switch back. I was able to stay strong to my race plan in sticking to my own pace; one athlete whom I had finished the first run in front of me at a previous event was still behind me. I had a moment of debate on whether I was going too fast but equally, was she having a bad run? I decided that I was running well and that I felt I could keep it going without impacting the next elements so kept my resolve and maintained the pace. I managed the uphill stretches well and was able to stride out on the downhills.  The run seemed to be over in a flash and perhaps the four lap nature of it enable me to manage it well by counting it down rhythmically. My mental nemesis of the duathlon event was over and I arrived into transition with good energy.

Bike – 37.5km (5 laps with two dead turns per lap)

My transition went more or less to plan although one rider did cut in front of me as I was mounting and pushing off. Nevertheless my feet found my shoes easily and I set off with good flow.

The track was a little wet (there had been another rain shower during the run) and so although my cadence was good and smooth, I was incredibly tentative down the corkscrew. It was at this point that the lady whom I had come in on front of the run sped straight past me. My heart dropped and at that point I wished I had been on my road bike. However, I kept her in my sights and when things levelled off I was able to slowly claw her back maintaining a good, steady flow. By the time I’d got to the first dead turn I had overtaken her again and had visibility of where the others in my age group were in terms of position on the track.

It was tempting to drive on to catch them quickly but I maintained my intensity levels and concentrated on executing my plan as well as possible. I drank at the dead turns and fuelled on three of the five climbs.

As each lap went pass I made steady progress through the field and my track positioning improved together with my confidence on the line and the speed that I could take into the corners; the track dried up nicely and when the men were starting on the second run the traffic emptied too. There was one particular lady in my age group whom I knew was an experienced and a strong runner that I didn’t seem to be making any inroads on.  However, I maintained my resolve and half way through the fourth lap I passed her too and knew I was in second place. It was tempting to try and extend the gap as much as possible but again I knew I had to stick to the plan. I absolutely loved the last two laps – I was smooth, relaxed and flowing well.

During the recce I’d made the decision regarding when to get my feet out of my shoes and was able to do this without losing much speed and before the turn into the mount line. I was careful not to overcook it as I knew the matting would be slippery and ran into transition well; bike racked, shoes on and helmet off.

5km run

This was when I knew I could really let things go. Nevertheless, I set off controlled. I have to admit I don’t remember too much of the last run in detail. I could hear spectators encouraging cheers, concentrated on form (and breathing) and then slowly took it up a notch every few hundred yards. I did see that the lady whom I’d overtaken on lap four of bike (and was in third place) was labouring up the run inclines and also heard Alison shout to me “Bring it home”. At the start of the last downhill I turned it up to full throttle. It hurt, but I pushed on and on. The finish line couldn’t come quickly enough but as I turned the corner into to the finishing stretch the cheers gave me one last boost and I overtook a number of athletes on the final carpet before nearly dropping over the line…….

A finishing time of 2hour 25mins 38seconds and a silver medal in my age group, 14th female overall. The winner was some distance in front of me, but equally I finished over four minutes ahead of the bronze medallist. 

The most important thing however was that I felt I executed the race as well as I possibly could based on the conditions faced, and I had no significant regrets. In fact, my last run time of 22mins 38seconds was the second fastest run in my age group and not far off my best ever park run time, so I was thrilled with my overall pacing. 

Such a pleasure to have been part of the event and I came away with the feeling that although there are faster and stronger athletes out there, in terms of race execution I am happy to say that I have shaken off the imposter syndrome that I’ve been carrying for a while!

After the build up to this event since qualifying at my first ever duathlon in September last year, it’s now time to reflect on my efforts to date and work out where to go next over the next few months. However, what I do know, is that I have just had the most fabulous experience and I am excited to do it again next year once I’ve had some time to rebase.