This race report is from the beautiful city of Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain where I competed for the first time as part of the GB team at the ITU World Aquathlon Championships, finishing in 16th place in my age group.

As someone who came late to the world of competitive sport, I was thrilled when I found out I had qualified and then been selected to compete for the GB age group team in this race and I was really excited to make my debut as a GB age-group athlete alongside fellow Tritons Hayley and Emma and my husband Clinton. The idea of representing GB and competing against athletes in other nations was really exciting – something I would never have dreamt of when I first started swimming two years ago.

The Build Up

I did the Boston Marathon only two weeks ago so I was a bit concerned I might not be recovered in time for this race, but as it happened my recovery was far quicker than I expected, and a week after Boston I was already back to running on the track.

With recovery out of the way, I worked on race-specific things like swimming in a wetsuit, sighting, practising transition and running straight after a swim. Clinton, Hayley and I worked on these things together as a team and as far as I was concerned, things were going well. My only concern was the water temp in River Lérez, which was apparently in the low 12-13 degrees – a lot colder than the pool temp I normally train in. But I knew I’d be able to cope with it. I’d swam in colder temp at the docks the previous week (10.6 degrees) so I knew the cold wouldn’t stop me from completing the swim.

On Wednesday morning, Clinton and I caught the 6am flight to Santiago de Compostela and arrived at Pontevedra at 10am. Pontevedra is a nice small city in the north western province of Spain called Galicia. It’s the home town of triathlon world champion Javier Gomez, and previously hosted a number of World/European Triathlon Championships, so they do like their sport. We decided to stay about 15 mins outside in a sleepy town called Combarro. This meant our build up was a bit quieter with less of a buzz.

After checking in at the hotel, we made our way to Alameda for athlete registration, the race briefing then swim recce with a lot of the team. The water was chilly but not too cold and I managed to do a 400m loop easily at around 1:42/100m pace, which filled me with a good deal of confidence.

Race Day

The following day was race day and I woke up feeling very tired, assuming because of the lack of sleep from the previous day (ie waking up at 2:30am to catch a 6am flight).

The race was in late afternoon (after the elites and the U23s) so after having breakfast at the hotel, we chilled out and relaxed at an Italian restaurant in town. The day was heating up, with blue skies and 25 degrees forecast. At 2pm we dropped off stuff at transition, did our bag drop and went for warm-up then we lined up for the race at around 3:45pm.

The 1k swim was held in River Lérez (which involved going upstream for 500m and downstream for 500m), and the 5k run had 2 out-and-back laps and a climb of 30m in total. Hayley, Emma and I chatted briefly before the race as we were lining up for the start. It was nice having some company and reminded me that I wasn’t alone! I really liked the bit when the men were lining up on the pontoon and “Sweet Caroline” was playing.

We then jumped into the water one by one and waited for everyone to get in. As I went into the water I revisited my race strategy in my head. My plan was to use my strength on the run sections to make up time, knowing that I’d lose some time to the fast swimmers.

I’d like to say that everything went smoothly with the swim but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I got into the water really late because I didn’t want to spend too long waiting in the cold water and the horn went off before I was even in position. It was really a Mr Bean moment. I was swimming past people and on my way to the start line when they shouted “ON YOUR MARK” – and before I knew it the horn had gone off! At this point I was facing the wrong direction and some way behind the girls lined up by the buoy.

I pushed very hard at the start, trying to stay on someone’s feet, but the few seconds I spent scrambling around meant I lost the pack pretty quickly. Then when I looked up to sight for the big orange buoy (that was so visible the day before), all I could see was a sea of orange (because my wave all had orange caps). Looking back it’s easy to think: “How could she not tell the difference between orange caps and a BIG orange buoy?” But the truth was, with the amount of splashing going on, it was simply not obvious which was buoy and which was a swimmer’s cap. The other difficulty was that the swimmers ahead of me were spread very wide – which made it difficult for me to follow any single pack.

In addition to all the start delay and the sighting problems, the first 500m of the swim was all upstream and I struggled really badly against the strong current. I went mildly off course and ended up doing wider turns than I’d wanted. Then on my way back someone knocked one side of my goggles off! I debated briefly whether to stop and adjust my goggles but in the end I decided to keep going. I could still see through one eye so why stop and waste precious seconds doing up the goggles. I had a lot of space and when I came out of the river I thought I had an ok swim but not my best as I didn’t feel tired. I looked down at my watch – the swim was 2 mins slower than I’d expected.

I’m not sure what went through my head at this point. I think I was in shock then in denial. Surely the time couldn’t be right? I’d been able to do 17 minutes 1k in the lido just a few days ago – surely my time couldn’t be 20+ minutes? Then it finally dawned on me that I had a bad swim. I was gutted. But then I thought the race isn’t over yet. There were still loads of people in the water and on the course – maybe I could still catch up on the run. It was a desperate thought – one that kept me going even though all I wanted to do was curl up in shame and embarrassment.

I came out of transition and started to push hard on the run. The course consisted of 2 laps of 2.5km with a hilly bit at the end of each lap. I was happy to see Clinton and Kit cheering and I picked up the pace every time I heard someone say “GO GB!!” It was also great to see Hayley on the run each time and I knew judging by how far she was ahead of me that she was doing really well in the race.

I finished with my best post-swim run (21:10) and finished 16th in my age group overall! I was really happy to finish with a decent run as I had a half-stitch the whole way around and struggled to push the pace on the last lap. I didn’t think I had a great race as my swim time was well off my target time but I’m happy to have done a great run off a brutal upstream swim.

In all honesty I’m a little bit disappointed by my swim time, but talking to other people after the race I realised that everyone was 2-3 minutes slower than their expected time, so it sounded like people were universally affected. But I still think I was more affected by the current because I’m one of the weak swimmers and my stroke is less efficient. For every additional second I spent on the water, I had to push twice as hard as the faster swimmers, so I had to fight a lot more. For instance – in comparing times with the faster swimmers, the current slowed them down by about 20 secs/100m, whereas the current slowed me down by 1 min/100m. Over 500m it really made a big difference.

So I am not going to be tough on myself or complain. The triathlon season has only just started and I didn’t have many opportunities to practice open water swimming over the winter. Maybe on this day I didn’t perform to my best but sometimes this is how it goes. I was competing in a strong field of athletes and the truth is I still have a lot to learn when it comes to racing in open water, swimming against current and general racing tactics. The only way I’ll get better is by putting myself out there and experiencing this and learning from it. I’m happy that I was able to produce a strong run despite knowing my race wasn’t going well, and I’m really happy to have shared this experience with my husband and fellow teammates Hayley and Emma, who came 7th, 4th and 3rd in their respective age groups! The race itself and the support was amazing, an experience i will never forget and I was honoured to have been selected to be a part of it. I will certainly aim to compete for the GB age group team again.

I want to thank everyone for all the support and advice (esp Scott!) and I have achieved so much since I started doing triathlon. When I have a tough race I always look how far I have come. 1.5 years ago I was someone who needed a life jacket to go snorkelling while on holiday. I was terrified of swimming in the open sea and couldn’t imagine anything worse. My swimming is not perfect now and I’ve still got a lot of work to do but I’ve come a long way from being someone who struggled with breathing while swimming. It’s really a privilege to represent GB for my age group and hopefully my blogposts and updates of my journey inspire others.

Just last week I watched a documentary on Netflix, called “Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young”. It’s a fascinating documentary about an annual ultramarathon trail race in rural Kentucky so arduous, so hard, that only 15 people managed to finish the course in the last 30 years. The race consists of 5 loops (each loop being the distance of a marathon, with 3000m of elevation), and runners need to complete all 5 loops within 60 hours, by self-navigating. No loop is the same with runners going clockwise and anti-clockwise, in daytime and through the night. Each year only 40 people get to attempt it and the race is invite-only.

When I began watching the documentary I couldn’t believe that people would want to even do it. Why enter something when you’re almost certainly going to fail? Then I realised why. Ultramarathoners are there to test their limits, and it’s about confronting the point at which we fail. Life nowadays is easier than it used to be. Entertainment is everywhere. There are tons of things to watch on Netflix, food gets delivered to us. Shopping is all done online.

And it made me realise: Maybe we do things like ultramarathons, triathlons, open water swimming, because we want to feel challenged. Maybe it’s the threat of failure that appeals to us. And maybe the feeling of “being challenged” just locks us in this cycle of training and racing.

Going forward I am going to try to improve a little more across swimming, cycling and running but the main focus now will be on the bike. I have started looking at my races for this triathlon season and I’m sure it will be an even better season than last season. I think I am naturally motivated and so it’s about developing strategies that let me harness that motivation and get the most out of myself. I may have had a tough race this week but I will take all the learning points with me to the next race and hopefully the next one will be better!

– Jess