How not to run a duathlon (and still succeed)

I am probably not the first person who has found themselves unthinkingly signing up to things for which there is no cooling off period to reconsider when you eventually come to your senses. Whether it is a favour, a request for help or an invitation, sometimes we impulsively agree to do things that make us stop and question ourselves later and say, what was I thinking?! If you are a runner then you will recognise that this typically happens to you every time you finish a race, whether you have done well or not. As long as you have finished the thing without killing yourself, you enter into a sort of suggestive bubble where you are extremely vulnerable to any suggestions of ‘the next one’. It is as if the endorphins that are released when you  cross the finish line and get your goody bag make you utterly agreeable to take part in any upcoming event whether it is realistic or not. In that first 24 hours post-race, the idea of entering a marathon, half ironman or even the full whack doesn’t sound so insane because we still feel invincible. But what happens when the bubble has burst and you come to your senses to realise that maybe you have bitten off more than you can chew?

Last month, after taking part in the Leighton 10 road race and surviving after battling it out against participants from every running club on the planet, I entered that suggestive bubble and promptly signed up for the Althorp Duathlon. I had run the same duathlon once before a couple of years ago and had fond memories of the good atmosphere and very flat course in pretty surroundings. My husband also entered as did one of my sons, who was keen because he had finally reached the minimum age to enter. I knew there was less than 3 weeks to train for it, but I reckoned that the running was mostly sorted and I just needed to get in some cycling training.

However, what I did not factor into the equation, was finding myself ill two weeks before the event. Judging from the many online running forums, there seemed to be a runners’ code which said that if you are ill from the neck up you can safely workout but from the neck down you shouldn’t. With a bad sinus infection, I was technically in the ‘safe’ zone but as I was having to drag myself through work and family life commitments, I decided to opt for just hoping that I could recover in time to train. But it didn’t happen in time so last Saturday, I went to the Althorp Duathlon en masse, not completely confident about starting let alone, finishing it.

This year the Althorp Duathlon was oddly, not at Althorp but took place at Holdenby House but we assumed the course would be of similar difficulty. The unfamiliarity of the new location meant that we arrived a little late and we barely had time to set up our bikes and gear in the transition area before the race briefing began. Minutes later, the Standard distance competitors of the 10km run, 40km cycle and 5km run lined up at the start and they were quickly off before the rest of us in the Sprint category of the 5km run, 20km cycle and final 5km run were corralled to the line. Although I felt miserable, already had a cold sweat going on and knew that this was the last chance to bail the race, I stayed put. Ultimately, I didn’t want to disappoint my son and I was only encouraged further by the race atmosphere. Besides, I had spied t-shirts for sale with all of the names of the participants on it and how could I possibly wear one if I hadn’t done it? So irresponsibly, I decided to give the duathlon a go, full of antibiotics and over-the-counter medication.

I began the 5km ‘traffic free’ run that was routed through the Holdenby Estate but I didn’t realise that it would consist of incredibly hilly farmland only accessible by tractor. It was a cross-country race of extraordinary measure and I could not believe what I had got myself into. By the second km I was already spent and breathing like Darth Vader. Now what?!, I thought. What if I can’t finish? I had no choice but to keep going, being literally, in the middle of farmland. I tried to focus on the runners ahead and but soon the hills approached. My breathing got even louder as I struggled to run up but I was beginning to notice that others were (quietly) suffering, too. Some more hills later and eventually, Holdenby House and the transition were in sight.

At transition, I was spurred on by the cheers to quickly gear myself up for the cycle leg of the duathlon. Upon leaving with my bike, I grabbed a cold lozenge strategically left next to my helmet, but as my hands were still frozen, I had to shove it in my mouth with most of the wrapper still attached. I’d worry about that later, I thought, as I ran with my bike out of transition.

Attached to my bike with the death cleats, I began the cycle route which was routed through several Northamptonshire villages and surrounding countryside. However, like the run, this included many more hills than I expected. The first 10km were extremely challenging and caused me to swear out loud in frustration to no one in particular at several points. I soon dreaded every bend in the road because I expected it to finish with another hill. I thought that I had hit rock bottom upon reaching the top of a particularly steep hill when I was still crawling at the summit and saw a sign that read, ‘Slow—junction ahead’. I was convinced that the sign was mocking me as it was impossible to be going anything other than slowly. But it got worse.

The next 10km had more hills and descents with rarely a flat road to catch my noisy breath. I still sounded like DV and the effect of the cold lozenge meant my nose was also dripping with more frequency. Fragments of the wrapper were finally starting to become unglued from the lozenge and were making me cough as I tried to rid myself of them. I desperately needed to dismount to blow my nose with two hands but before long, my cycle computer told me that I was approaching the last km. I was relieved when I spotted a couple of marshals ahead who directed me towards the transition with a ‘Sprint—ahead, Standard—take a left’. I cycled forward with a last push and as my cycle computer displayed more than 20km, I knew transition would be just around the corner. But after another 2km, I was still in the middle of nowhere and when I passed 24km, I started to panic. I became convinced that they had sent me on the 40km loop and I slowed down to nought as I struggled to hold back my tears. I went over and over again the options of turning around or continuing on the longer route but after wasting several minutes deliberating, I spotted another competitor. Luckily, she confirmed that this was the right direction for the Sprint distance and after continuing another half km, Holdenby House and the transition were finally in sight. After completing almost 25km of the supposed 20km route, I hobbled off my bike to begin the last leg of the race.

The last run of the race took the same route as the first leg but the familiarity didn’t make it any easier. In fact, this is always the most difficult part of a duathlon because your legs are always too tired and wobbly to control. In effect, you do the running equivalent of ‘Dad dancing’ and since everyone else has the same problem there is no point in copying their running coping strategies, especially as it is prime time to get muscle cramp. You just have to carry on and not make eye contact. I cannot describe how tired I felt running the last 5km but I was also starting to feel incredibly relieved because I now knew I was going to finish, even if I had to walk. I crept up and down the hills, through the mud, over the ridges until finally I saw the finish line. I approached half sprinting and saw my son shouting for me as I ran through. I was so happy to finish at last that I didn’t even clock my time.

Many snacks later, we followed the crowd to hear the results of the Sprint distance as we knew that with very few young competitors, my son had a chance at placing. Sure enough, he managed to snag the trophy for his age group but as we were leaving, they started to announce the winner of my own age category. We paused just to hear what the winning time was and it took me a couple of seconds to register that they had announced my name. I was in complete shock to realise that I had actually won my age category because I have never won anything before. Suddenly they were giving me a little trophy as well and the two of us went away with the biggest smiles on our faces. Suddenly, I didn’t care about feeling tired or ill and we couldn’t wait to tell my husband once he finished the Standard race. We had to wait a bit longer than expected, though, as it turned out that he had cycled forward instead of taking the left.

Back at home and resting in the suggestion bubble again, we promptly signed up for a winter half-marathon. Some people never learn…

DSC01896 (1)

Now for some food…one of my favourite things to eat at the moment on a cold autumn day is Grilled polenta with spinach and tomato. It is easy and quick to prepare and full of the right kind of subsistence to make the perfect recovery meal.

Duathlon 2.2
Duathlon 1.1


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