Virgin Active London Triathlon

Report from Hamish.

The VALT is the biggest triathlon in the country with 13,000 competitors taking part across two days, over distances from super sprint to Olympic plus, and in categories from elite to age groupers to corporate relays. It all happens around the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands, and with waves of athletes moving through every 30 minutes, some starting, some finishing, others mid transition, all in amongst an EXPO selling every conceivable piece of triathlon kit known to man, it’s an exciting atmosphere. It’s all about mass participation, and with a handful of celebs and even the Branson family in attendance there’s a real buzz in the air.

My race was the Olympic distance (1500 swim/40k bike/10k run) for SVM age groupers. Having entered last year and found the swim a bit of a slog, I knew my big challenge would be to nail a better swim, setting me up for the bike and hopefully a strong finish.

Our age group was first away on Sunday morning, start time 6.30am. Saturday had been a perfect sunny day, but there was definitely an autumn chill in the air when the doors of the Excel opened at 5.30am and around 100 of us shuffled in hoping the Costa would be open (it wasn’t). With over 20 waves of all types racing that day, the transition area is simply massive; row upon row of bikes, towels, shoes, drinks stretching seemingly for miles. As we sorted out our kit, the main topic of conversation was whether it would actually be light by 6.30, let alone sunny.

By 6.15 we were all gathered at ‘swim despatch’, but with little sign of the dawn, the organisers decided to wait for another 20 minutes…not the best thing for jangling nerves! However, we were soon filing down the steps and leaping lemming-like into the black docklands water.

I’ve done a few mass swims now but it’s still a bit daunting when 100 swimmers strike out en masse. You do get a bit of physical contact for the first few minutes, and a couple of kicks to the head followed by a lungful of Thames water certainly woke me up. After a few hundred metres I found some similar paced swimmers and we drafted along together, meaning the rest of the swim flew past, over 5 minutes quicker than last year. I’m pleased to say I also avoided swimming into a rescue canoe like last year – result!

Transition is known as the ‘4th discipline’ and while I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the seriousness with which some take it (practising taking off your wetsuit seems a bit extreme to me) I have to admit it is pretty impressive just how fast some people can get out of their wetsuits and onto their bikes. As I fumbled with clips and velcro I made a mental note to be less sceptical next time…

The bike leg is two laps on closed roads around London, taking in some famous landmarks: past the Dome, through the city of London and all the way along the embankment doubling back in the shadow of Big Ben. The privilege of getting to hammer along empty roads without a black cab or Boris Bus in sight was worth the entry fee alone. By the second lap there were a few more bikes on the course, and this being a non-drafting race, you have to keep your wits about you when traffic bunches up not to get ‘caught’ in the drafting zone.

By the time I headed out on the 10k run I was in 5th, and despite making up a good bit of ground I couldn’t catch the front runners, crossing the line 5th SVM with a 6.30 minute PB of 2:26:08 – pretty chuffed, especially with my swim. Unfortunately, within a couple of hours I discovered that I’d been given a 2 minute penalty for (accidentally!) drafting on the bike, dropping me to 6th SVM.

Great fun though, and plenty of room for improvement. I might even swot up on some of those time-saving transition tips before next year…