Transition locations do not come much more stunning than the courtyard of Blenheim Palace, writes Malcolm Bradbrook.
One of the UK’s most magnificent stately homes gazes serenely down on you as you prepare for the challenge ahead. This year saw a lot of sunshine mixed with some heavy showers at the event in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
I did the Sprint with its 750m swim, 20km bike and 5.4km run (those 400m are important to note when you review your time).
Other options are the supersprint with a 400m swim, 13km bike and 3km run and, for those who want to really push themselves, the ‘Weekend Warrior’, in which you attempt to complete as many sprint triathlons as you can during the two days.
With more than 7000 competitors, it has the potential to be a logistical nightmare, but the organisation of the event is excellent with few queues anywhere on entry or in transition. It is reputed to be the perfect beginners’ triathlon.
A hearty motivational speech from one of the organisers before the swim hit the spot and the bold claim that this was one of the few triathlons to swim in a lake created by Capability Brown raised a few smiles.
I got off to a decent start in the swim. After 10 years of triathlon experience, I know that getting boxed at the back can effectively ruin a race for me so, although I am not the strongest swimmer, I headed to the front and set off at a ferocious pace for the first 100m.
I enjoyed the swim – not something I can guarantee – as I was towards the front and avoided the dreaded ‘washing machine’ effect of the crowds of people. My sprint-start took a toll on my shoulders but after a few extra breaths I was at the turn and heading to the boathouse with a nice steady stroke.
Other than stunning views, Blenheim is famous in triathlon circles for its run up to transition from the swim. It’s just 400m long but up a steep slope, which challenges lungs and legs that have just been suspended in water.
I felt oddly heavy, which was disappointing as the run is normally a strength in which I can make up a few places on the stronger swimmers.
Closed road event
Out on the bike was a glorious feeling. It is a closed road event and, just after 9.30am on the Saturday, the sun was shining with barely a puff of wind. It’s a rolling course which can challenge beginners (it certainly challenged me 10 years ago) but after my recent experience on the Fred Whitton sportive, my legs were up to it and I felt very fast flowing round the course.
It was only on the third lap that the high numbers of entrants became apparent and I was a caught in traffic near the palace. It’s then that you realise that although the closed roads offer safety from cars, the roads are also narrow, and squeezing past people can be tricky.
Into transition again and back out on the run, usually a time to overtake a few people and get speeding along, but this time I felt sluggish and never quite managed to get going. The two laps of the run course take in the Vanburgh Bridge and Queen’s Pool. It contains a gentle descent and rise which are not tough on their own but after a swim and a cycle can challenge the legs.
Running with some Weekend Warriors, I marvelled at the challenge that lay ahead for them and, after crossing the line in a respectable time of 1hour, 20minutes, I wondered if I might join them next year.
So, is it the perfect beginners’ triathlon? Well, yes, as the closed roads and excellent logistics make for plain sailing and the stunning backdrop is awesome. But, and here is the ‘big but’, next year’s event is being run three weeks earlier on May 9 and 10. It may not sound like much but in terms of water temperature, those weeks in May are huge and it is probable that the balmy 18.5C of this year could be replaced by close to 14C in 2020. Of course, you will also have to train in open water in April as well which will be colder still. [update: after feedback from many competitors past and present, organisers negotiated and pushed back the event date to May 30/31].
So maybe look elsewhere in 2020 but stick it in your race calendar for 2021. [update: the extra three weeks should bring the temperature up so if you have the budget, this really is a fantastic first triathlon.]
Follow the link if you want to register interest in doing next year’s event.