So after a long winter in northern Europe, a few successful warm-up events and many hours of swim, bike, run, we head down to St Pölten in Austria for the first main race of the year.
Just two weeks previously I’d had a great weekend in small town Fulda for a full dress-rehearsal with an Olympic Distance race resulting in a promising 3rd place against a strong field including pro short-course racers.
Full sunshine and 28 degrees greeted us in Austria, a beautiful lake to swim in, fast tarmac and a perfect little apartment in the valley to spend the weekend at. My first taste of summer! However, a storm was coming, literally for St Pölten.
Race morning rolled up with heavy rain and 7 degrees. Pretty much an exact replica of the weekend we’d had in Mallorca last year in terms of the weather. It was miserable for athletes and spectators. Positive thinking required….despite the super slick tyres I’d fitted on the bike after the forecast had suggested the storm would be over by the time of the race.
Before even getting to T1 though I’d barely survived the swim with the calf muscles in my right leg completely seizing up. I’ve had cramp in my legs in the swim plenty of times before, which has only made the wetsuit hard to escape from in transition, but this felt much more extreme. After about 10 minutes it felt like I’d managed to shake it off, but it still felt like there was a problem looming and I could feel the muscles still threatening some sort of issue.
After a slapstick comedy slip while running on the astro turf where the bikes were racked and just about managing to get my feet into the toe covered shoes while riding out on to the course, I was already freezing, soaked and wondering how long I’d stay upright for on the bike. Within 5 minutes, it looked pretty ominous, going past two guys who had already crashed out, with one already on a stretcher. I was seriously considering whether it was worth the risk today knowing the fast twisting roads ahead later in the day and having lost so much time with the swim issues.
The first part of the course is flat and straight, along a highway, so I just got my head down and tried to ride while it was still possible. I’d gone past three riders by the time we went back down off the slip road and now it was going to get dangerous and I was nervous knowing the rubber I was relying on – super fast in the dry – like riding on ice in the wet.
Even accelerating out of junctions I was losing the rear wheel. Conditions were perfect at this race last year and I’d been able to fly through the fast downhill bends. This year was slow and nerve wracking. On top of that, once we started going down hill I was shivering so badly that I could barely hold on to the bike.
The only time I warmed up was about two thirds through when there was a 15 minute mountain climb – unfortunately followed by a long fast descent. But by that point I’d been buoyed by passing another couple of guys near the top of the climb.
Miraculously for my bike handling skills I survived all the way round to T2 without even one spill; one up on Mallorca last year in similar conditions. However, unbelievably having made it, as soon as I put my feet down I could barely put weight on my right leg. I’d almost forgotten about the earlier calf issues, but apparently there was a serious problem.
It was the first big race of the year and I absolutely didn’t want to DNF after the injuries last year so I hobbled out on to the course, optimistically thinking the calf might just loosen up once it had warmed up from running.
Instead it just seemed to disintegrate and I was no longer running in any recognisable form. I’d got about 6km in, had lost a couple of places and there was no way I was going to be chasing any one down today. There was nothing to play for and only valuable training days to lose in the aftermath. It wasn’t worth compounding a bad day by putting performances at the next race at risk, even for avoiding a DNF.
It’s not clear what the problem was that caused the muscles to seize up so irrecoverably, maybe a reaction to the cold is my best guess at the moment, but I’m hoping within a few days it will have heeled and I’ll be back in to full training. There’s a lot of racing still ahead!