There are many things you shouldn’t do before your most important race of the year; falling off a mountain bike must be high on the list. Having planned my training and racing all year around this one race, I travelled to the ITU World Championships in Rotterdam with little hope of being able to even get to the finish. The day before, I had gone to Worthing A & E to learn that I had “probably” broken a rib, and it would take a couple of months to heal. The pain was intense, I couldn’t breathe deeply, and every sudden movement sent shards of pain through my chest.
Oude Harbour, Markthal Indoor Market, Nieuwe Mass river
With or without the injury, I was obliged to at least start the race. The JTU was paying most of the expenses of all the overall age group winners from 2016, so it was important to at least try. I set off early on Wednesday morning to Gatwick Airport to catch the first flight to Amsterdam, nervous about the race, but more worried about the immediate problem of how to carry two bags and a bike case with a broken rib. Believe me, it’s tricky. Things didn’t get much better once on the plane, as high winds in Holland kept us waiting on the runway for three hours. At least we got the complimentary delayed flight rations from BA: two biscuits and a plastic beaker of water. I discovered that the winds were indeed high when I shuffled out of Rotterdam Central station, to only get a few metres before a gust ripped the bike case out of my hands and sent it spinning across the main road. Fortunately, a couple of passersby rushed out to save it from the traffic; Rotherham is a bike friendly city in more ways than one.
Rental bikes, Rental bike and trailer
Rotterdam is a surprisingly fine place to visit. I only knew it as one of Europe’s shipping hubs, sitting on a massive estuary linking the sea to Germany and much of eastern Europe. There is indeed a lot of shipping, but it is also a warm, cosmopolitan place, with the best cycle lanes I have ever seen. You can ride pretty much anywhere on a dedicated bike road, complete with its own traffic lights, and with priority over cars. Bicycles are everywhere, and of every shape and size. The Dutch are obviously very proud of their bikes, which are mostly stylish shopping bikes of a myriad designs. There are also numerous types of bicycle cargo carriers, as well as ones designed to carry children. I peered into one domed wooden child carrier to see a tiny baby in a crib.
Arriving 4 days before the race gave me plenty of time for sightseeing. Rotterdam is a cool mix of arresting modern architecture, and stylish old buildings, all interwoven with trams and waterways. Our hotel, the Atlanta, was an art deco beauty with many original features inside. However, the most impressive place for me was the Cube Houses designed by Piet Blomand and constructed in 1977. They must be a nightmare to live in, but they are a joy to behold. Elsewhere there are historic harbours dotted around the city, full of magnificent wooden sailing barges over a hundred years old. Despite the weather, there are numerous street cafes hoping for the rain to stop. I was also lucky in that my great friend and rival, Misu-san, was also staying in the Atlanta with his wife, Reiko. We went out for a splendid seafood dinner where they consumed two bottles of wine as I drank sparkling water. Misu has a rather unorthodox approach to race preparation.
Witte Huys and harbour views
Walking with Team JPN to the swim course, the bridge suddenly reared up, together with tram rails, cables and lampposts
On Thursday, I joined the swim course familiarisation session to test both the single-loop course and my body. The only problem was that you could only swim one way – it was not permitted to swim a little way and return. I walked with the rest of the Japanese team to Rijnhaven, a small protected harbour off Nieuwe Mass, the main river running through the city. There I gingerly pulled on my wetsuit as the heavens opened upon us, and lowered myself carefully from the pontoon into the murky 18-degree waters. As soon as I started swimming, I knew it was going to be tough to continue. After 200 metres, my breathing became strained and I realised something nasty was about to happen. I clung to a lifesaving board and explained my predicament. The lifeguard asked me why on earth I was swimming with a broken rib, but I didn’t have an answer that made any sense. The rescue boat was called, and they then had to work out a way to get me out of the water without me yelping even more pitifully than I was. At least I got to ride in a lifeboat.
Swim course familiarisation – an experience best forgotten
Family and Friends
The next day my mother and sister arrived from the UK, which renewed my determination to at least try to get through the race. For the best part of two days, I tried to forget all about Sunday as we enjoyed travelling around by tram, sightseeing – especially in the wonderful indoor food market – and dining at a range of excellent vegan restaurants, including Restaurant Gare du Nord in an old German train carriage. On Friday evening, during a break in the weather, I managed to go out for a quick ride along one part of the course and found that I could at least ride, if not at full power. I still had two days of recovery.
Elite men suffering on wet cobbles
On Saturday afternoon, my family and I cheered on the elite men as they battled heavy rain, a chilly wind, and slippery cobbles. It was a brutal looking race which didn’t bode well for us the next day. Later we met Paul Riddle and his family in the Expo, where Tim Williams was doing a roaring trade in woolly hats and winter coats. With the race approaching, I had to get to grips with the logistical challenges that result from having the swim start, T1, and T2 all in different places. It was the first race I had entered where the swim start and finish were in different places. Later in the afternoon, Misu and I rode to T1 to check our bikes into the enormous transition area.
T1 and T2
The bike course probably seemed like a good idea to someone a couple of years ago when they started planning for the Worlds. What could be better than swimming around a harbour and then finishing on a small peninsula, where you run a kilometre to your bike, jump on, ride across a footbridge back over the harbour, do a few loops on narrow cycle lanes, over a huge bridge to the far side of the river, wind through narrow, twisting cobbled streets, up on to an unprotected concrete river bank, join a major cycle lane, do a couple of loops through tunnels, back over the river on another narrow cycle lane, down the opposite river bank, over a series of 10 speed bumps, across more cobbles, along a riverside cycle lane, through another tunnel, up and down a steep ramp, and then back for a second lap, finishing in a couple of sharp turns before T2? What could possibly go wrong, especially as it had been raining off and on for four days?
Putting the swim start, swim finish, T1, and T2 all in different places meant that everyone on the Japanese team was asking one another questions as they tried to get to grips with what we were supposed to do and when. We were given times for checking our bikes in to T1 on Saturday afternoon, putting running shoes in T2 on Sunday morning, bike gear and wetsuit bag in T1, taking ferries across the river, putting gear in the bag drop, and arriving for the swim start. Somehow we all managed to get things right, although a couple of team members got a bit lost on the convoluted run course.
I awoke on Sunday morning, rolled off the bed as my ribs sent out sharp stabs of pain, and tried to think positive thoughts about the race ahead. At least with a scheduled 11:05 start time, there would be no mad rush. After breakfast, Misu strapped up my ribs with taping – it’s handy having a friend who’s an orthopaedic doctor – and we walked to T2 near the finish to check in our running shoes, before queuing for the ferry to T1. There we checked in helmets and bike shoes, and walked slowly round the peninsula to the swim start. The Japan team looked unfeasibly cheerful, but then most of them were there to enjoy themselves rather than get a stellar time – a personal best experience rather than a personal best time.
Paul and I before the swim
Waves of swimmers were going off every ten minutes; my time to enter the water was fast approaching. After a fifteen-minute delay, I found myself on the pontoon ready for the call to get in. The first shock of the now 16-degree water took me by surprise and made me happy that I had decided to wear a neoprene cap at the last minute. My strategy was to wait till after the airhorn for the pack to go off and then swim some way behind. The horn duly sounded, and I was soon swimming at the back, enjoying a bit of a drag from 114 pairs of kicking feet. There is not much to say about the swim apart from it seemed long. Endless in fact. I tried to empty my mind and just put one hand into the water, pull back, and repeat with the other hand. I knew my form was completely shot, but for long moments I managed to pull hard, before having to ease off again. I was sure it would be a dreadfully slow swim, but at least I was gradually getting through it. I even managed to pass one or two people and get well into the draft of a pair swimming side by side. Finally, the far bank approached and two pairs of hands reached to pull me out of the water. I doubled over in pain and fell into the arms of one of them. Broken rib, I croaked, before sidling off Quasimodo-like.
Race day – the swim course looked great
It was about a kilometre run to T1 and it was the toughest part of the race. Every footfall jolted my ribs, and little involuntary yelps slipped out. My mind skipped forward to the run itself; 10 kilometres is a long way to shuffle. I negotiated the sea of bike racks and found my bike which I knew would offer some respite for the next hour or so. Without any mad rush to shave seconds off my time, I fast-walked out of transition, slowly got on my bike, and made my way around the harbour and on to the course proper. The sun was still shining down and the course was bone dry. Both we, the triathletes, and the organisers couldn’t have been luckier. The fine weather had saved us all from a bloodbath on the bike course.
The bike mostly went very well considering, and at times I could even enjoy the fact that I was riding around Rotterdam in warm sunshine in the World Championships. Having said that, it didn’t have much of the feel of a major race as there were barely any supporters along most of the route. At moments, I was alone on the course and wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. However, it was well marked, and well-staffed with volunteers, even if they kept pointing at us to leap up a curb or around an impossibly tight bend. The series of ten speed-bumps gave me my only wobbly moment, as I hit one particularly sharp one while down on the TT bars, which caused yet another inelegant yelp to slip out. As the start times were spread out over 5 hours, with some apparent system for mixing up faster and slower waves, there was little or no bunching of riders. They definitely got this part of the race right.
Half empty stands during the men’s elite
While the course itself was well marked, the organisers seemed to have overlooked the fact that people were going to support the race. There was no information anywhere for spectators, and none of the marshals seemed to know where people should go to watch each part of the race. There were no ferries laid on, no signs, and only those who had paid for the stands could watch the big screen. For my mother, in a wheelchair, it was a nightmare of high curbs, cobbles, cables, and dead-ends. I was shocked that a country like Holland had completely overlooked the needs of people with limited mobility, especially as there were paratriathlon races too. I had earlier written to the ITU two months before race to ask for wheelchair facilities, but they told me there weren’t any. The stands did not have wheelchair access, so we would just have to find our own place to watch. Not really very helpful. Compare this with London in 2013 where they had ramps up to an excellent raised viewing platform for wheelchairs. As it should be. But despite all this, my mother and sister had somehow managed to find a spot on the bike course to cheer me on, which brought a big smile to my face and a boost to my legs.
Towards the end of the bike I eased off and let three people pass me. This was a weird feeling as usually I fight for every second on the road. Instead, I coasted into T2 and disembarked from my bike, as the person next to me sped in and flew over the handlebars. Ouch. From the dismount line, there was another short run to the bike, but it was nothing like the pain of T1. I racked up my bike, slipped on my shoes, picked up my cap, and I was out running…sort of.
Paul finishing strong on the run
There were a few things that got me through the run. The first was the fact that I was passing people regularly, including the three who had passed me just before the end of the bike. The second was my pace. I was holding 14 km/h which was a surprise – not fast, but okay considering my stooped, crouching gait. I found that by bending my knees a little, I could reduce the impact on my legs, and reduce the jolts going through my ribs. We think that we mostly run with our legs, but a broken rib certainly taught me the importance of core strength. The third thing was the location. The course was set in a beautiful park beneath mature trees – a lovely place for running. One day I shall return to enjoy a run there. The final boost came from the spectators at one end of the course. My mother and sister managed to find me on the convoluted course and gave me just the support I needed. I also spotted Shizu shouting from another spot where hundreds of people were cheering us on. Best of all was an Elvis lookalike who I high-fived and got a few bars of All Shook Up in return.
Inevitably the finish came. I spraggered down the blue carpet and crossed the line. I had no idea of my time, but it didn’t matter at all. All I wanted to do was sit on the curbside. I lowered my head and shed a few grateful tears. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to do anything like that ever again.
Me, Paul, and Misu-san after the finish
After my race, I went to the run course in time to catch Paul flying towards the finish. I later met Misu who had lost a few moments on the run when he went up the finish chute before doing his second run lap. None of us seemed to know our time. However, back in my hotel, I discovered that Paul had done an impressive 2:09:53, and for some bizarre reason which I still cannot fathom, I had clocked 2:17:11 and got 14th place out of 114 starters in my age group. The only thing I can think of is that by being forced to go slower than usual, I had also been forced into pacing myself better than usual. Perhaps I usually go out too fast and fade much more than I realise.
That evening, I had a celebratory prosecco with Misu, Reiko, and my family. My mother enjoyed the whole event so much that she even had a glass, which was even more unlikely than me finishing. Of course, we talked much about the race, and in a moment of lucidity it struck me why I had actually gone through with it. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (as is every experience). The pain of doing the race lasted only 2 hours and 17 minutes; the pain of not doing it would have lasted a lifetime. It also tells me that when in doubt we should just give things a try. You never know – it might just end up as one of the best days of your life.
Post-race celebrations with my family