A Socially-Distanced Blenheim Triathlon

In January I decided 2020 was going to be my “Year of the Triathlon”. I was also hoping to get married and go on a lovely honeymoon somewhere sunny. We joined a triathlon club and started going to weekly coached swim sessions, training seriously for my first open water triathlon: Blenheim Palace Triathlon in May.  

It’s safe to say 2020 turned out a little differently to what I was expecting.

When full-blown lockdown hit the UK in March, it felt like everyone in the world had taken up running, or Joe Wicks work-outs in their living rooms. Although exercise has always been something I’ve turned to when life is hard, for some reason I completely lost all of my motivation. I wrote about this very honestly here during early lockdown.

I lost a lot of fitness, and if it wasn’t for running coaching with the incredible ultra-runner Jen Scotney, I’m not sure I would ever have got going again. But having some structure and accountability made all the difference (if you’ve ever thought about coaching, check Jen out – she’s amazing). However, I was so convinced the postponed date for Blenheim Triathlon would not go ahead that I forgot to even mention it to Jen – or go swimming or ride my bike for pretty much the entirety of lockdown…

So, when September the 12th arrived it was a bit of a shock to be dusting off our bikes (there were actual spiders webs on the wheels) and seeing if our wetsuits still fit! But to have the opportunity to do at least one thing from our 2020 calendar was too good an opportunity to pass up. Due to extreme lack of training we made the decision to treat is as a rare chance to swim, bike and run in a beautiful setting – a nice day out kind of triathlon.

However, having been very cautious throughout lockdown, it was fairly nerve-wracking to be attending such a big event. Although the protocols sounded good on the briefing, you never know if you’re going to feel safe until you’re actually there.

We were allowed one spectator each, so my Mum and Dad were able to come as planned which was really nice. On arrival we were asked COVID screening questions and had our temperatures taken. There were around half the participants, and much less spectators so it was a lot quieter than usual, but there was still an atmosphere of real excitement. For most of us, it was the only event we had been able to take part in all year.

The transition area was set up so each participant was 2m apart from each-other, pretty luxurious. Once we were set up we headed to the start: The Swim.

The lake was absolutely beautiful, set against the backdrop of Blenheim Palace. To maintain social distancing, rather than a mass start, we were set off individually at intervals of 5 seconds.  

There are pros and cons of a socially distanced triathlon – but when it comes to the swim start, I am a complete convert! Being a weak swimmer, and inexperienced in open water, the mass start was something I was particularly scared of. Entering the water gingerly (toe first as always, no impressive diving for me!) and in my own space was wonderful. Within a minute or so I felt like I had the lake all to myself and enjoyed the sunshine and the beautiful surroundings.

It was quite a trek back to transition from the lake, and the hessian carpet was still pretty sharp on the feet. I’d already made the decision to use the transitions to rest so I could enjoy each phase as much as possible despite my poor preparation. So I enjoyed strolling back alongside the palace to grab a snack and a drink before setting off on my bike. Leisurely transitions complete with picnic break are definitely the way forward!

I was pretty nervous about the bike section, particularly as I am still quite new to using cleats. The first section was wonderful, with a downhill start past the spectators (and Mum and Dad!) making you feel like a pro straight away!

But after half a mile it turned into a long slow hill. This is where I really felt the lack of bike training in my legs. Somehow I made it up for the first lap, but second (and third!) time round I decided to hop off and push instead. I knew I wasn’t really fit for the whole event, and I didn’t want to completely knacker my legs for the run, so it was a good decision for me. As always, all the other participants checked I was ok as they cycled past – we may need to distance, but we are all still looking out for each other.

Long slow hill aside, the bike course is beautiful, undulating through woodland – which was a relief from the sun. For purposes both of social distancing and to prevent drafting, there was a strict 10m distance between competitors on the bike ride (excluding overtaking, which had to be completed within 20 seconds). Having plenty of space helped me feel confident on the bike, despite my lack of experience in events.

Similarly in the run we kept polite distances, and with only half a field competing there was plenty of room. We had to carry all our own water and supplies as there were no aid stations, meaning there was almost no plastic waste during the event at all.

Although I was exceptionally slow throughout the entire event, I did actually manage to overtake quite a lot of competitors on the run as I had paced myself so steadily. Usually I find the run extremely tough, and pretty much hate every second, so this was a rare pleasant experience!

I needn’t have worried about locating my things in the transition zone – I’m pretty sure I was the last person home…

Overall, I can genuinely say I enjoyed every single minute of my day-at-the-palace triathlon. The lack of training took all the pressure off, and for once I paced each section to where I am at. I’m sure most of us there hadn’t managed the training we’d hoped, but there was a general feeling of immense gratitude to be able to be there, doing the thing we loved, when life has been so hard.

I cannot praise the organisers or the volunteers more highly. We felt completely safe throughout, and there were definitely elements of a socially distanced triathlon that I enjoyed more than a normal one (particularly not getting kicked in the face at the start of the swim!).

It is becoming apparent that life isn’t going to be “back to normal” for some time, so it was a huge relief to know that we are finding ways to carry on doing the things we love safely. It makes the coming months and years feel that bit less scary.

This may well be the last event we do this year, as Winter feels well and truly on its way and cases are on the rise. But I will always have very special memories of my lockdown triathlon, remembering just how magnificent it was to be in such a beautiful place, doing something I love. I couldn’t have felt luckier to be there.

I hope reading this might give others the confidence to take part in some of the events that have been able to make adaptations to keep running safely.

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