“Top of the morning to ya” may not have been an offer from the weather yesterday morning at the Top of the Mourne triathlon, but it was more than made up for by a great race and exemplary race organisers. I love this event, not just for the brazen irony in the title but because it is simply a stunning setting and an expertly organised event. Make no mistake about it, this is a challenging course. A glance at the elevation chart for the cycle route leaves you in no doubt as to what you are signing up for, but as with any decent challenge, top the Mournes and you will top your morn.
Carlingford Lough, Rostrevor, Co. Down and the Newry Triathlon Club play host to the Top of the Mourne olympic distance triathlon event every summer. The swim takes place in the sea in Carlingford Lough, the cycle heads up into the Mourne mountains, taking in the Spelga mountain and the run consists of a 3 lap course in Kilbroney Forest Park, with Kilbroney caravan park acting as the transition area for the race.
I rarely travel to races that are more than a one hour drive away, just being aware of travel costs and also convenience, but having done this race last year, it was a no-brainer and made its way into my diary ahead of nearly every other race. This Co. Down race is a lovely size, with just over 200 people taking part this year, which looked around about the same size as last year. Not too many to be massively intimidating but enough to make it feel like an event.
The weather yesterday was brutal. The weather forecast lady told me this the day before but being an eternal optimist, I just put this aside and chose to believe that there might be a nice heroic wind to blow the nasty weather in the opposite direction or some other philanthropic earthly element that might just make it disappear. Ah, no. As the safety officer in her race briefing informed us, it looked like there might be “a squall” coming in from the sea. “What’s a squall?”, I heard the fella next to me ask his mate. He knows now. We all know. There was drizzle, then there was a nice drizzle, then there was just a lot of rain, then a good strong belter of a head/ cross-wind and then… the sun came out as if to say I told you so! (Note: the sun is not part of a squall!)
The swim started in two waves via a slipway out into a fresh Carlingford Lough and followed a triangular route, bringing racers around in a clockwise direction. Due to the winds, the water was quite choppy and the current seemed to be going against us on the first leg which meant for hard work at the beginning just trying to get out into the sea and get a rhythm going. My plan was simply to go easy, remain calm and get into a nice rhythm, with my priority on the swim always being to avoid getting kicked (seriously kicked that is… obviously it’s unrealistic not to kicked at all!) or panic. Once I got around the first buoy, we had to swim parallel to the shoreline to the second yellow buoy to complete what seemed to be the longest leg of the swim section. Although it felt long, I felt okay in the water and was comfortable enough to just keep swimming along. The water was quite murky, which I put down to the choppy waves, etc and there was some seaweed which I occasionally had to shake off. I also kept feeling like I was hitting little lumps in the water but thought maybe it was just the cold of the water, the feel of the wetsuit or perhaps just seaweed that I couldn’t see… Yes, I know how ridiculous this sounds now but it’s amazing what you will try to convince yourself of when you’re trying to blank out the fact that you’re swimming through a shoal of jellyfish.
There really are times when you are better off not knowing until afterwards!
Out of the sea, we had to run back up the road to transition before doing the wetsuit-shimmy-wrestle-while-not-looking-like-a-complete-idiot-or-accidentally-getting-completely-naked and then skilfully slinging oneself onto one’s bike and heading out onto the bike course. Sadly, the rain had started to pour down while we were swimming which meant that my socks, towel, shoes, etc were good and soaked when I returned to transition. Grand, except that it meant a serious wrestle to get the socks on. Socks are typically shunned by triathletes because they take too long to put on but I wear insoles in my runners so kind of a must for me. Lost a few seconds here playing with my socks.
The first 5-6 miles ran along the shore road which was largely flat and treated riders to some great views, even if they would have been more impressive without the grey skies. Despite the rain, it was pretty humid which I was grateful for given that it was getting quite wet and I was just wearing a light tri-suit. The course took a left turn up into the mountains where the real challenge began 😉 ! I did a big cycle a couple of weeks back up the Wicklow mountains as practice for doing difficult climbs and I was so happy I did because there were a few tough climbs on yesterday’s course. There was a series of gradual, rolling (is that the correct term?) hills for about 10km and then there were 2 serious climbs. It was slow going but I was among a group of other cyclists at that stage so got a little boost of encouragement from not being last 😀
After that, there were some incredible descents. Frickin awesome. Reaching speeds of up to 57 kph, it was probably the fastest I’ve ever gone a bike and it was absolutely exhilarating. There was a fair amount of woohooing going on around me… However, by that point the roads were very wet and a left turn back towards the coast meant we were now cycling into a strong headwind. This combined with a number of serious hairpin turns made for some very tricky moments and a few hairy moments in the saddle. I love my descents on the bike but using the brakes yesterday were an absolute necessity and between braking, cornering and descending at speed, I had a good lesson in how the pros must feel riding those insane descents on the Tour de France, though clearly on a lesser level! Total exhilaration Vs. fear of flying off the side of a mountain on a corner.
The last 7-10 km of the cycle were a drag and I thought the rolling hills would never stop. It was probably a combination of being properly wet and cold at that point and accumulated tiredness from the marathon the week before so I wouldn’t blame the course 🙂 But there was a point where I was swearing out loud, when no one else was around me, obviously! What’s great about cycling is sometimes you see some really crazy stuff in middle of nowhere. So there I was pedalling along, wishing for sight of the sea, when out of nowhere, a man came walking up the road with his dog and two reindeer on a leash. ON A LEASH. REINDEER. What’s even more funny was that further back up the road, I had seen a sign for Santa’s grotto. This little man also had a grey beard…
The end section of the cycle was downhill and flat which was a great boost to leave me feeling on a high when I got off the bike and started into the run. On with the wet runners in my now sodden socks and I was off! Like the jellyfish, I just blanked out the the squishy feeling hugging my feet and all the squelching and thought “homeward bound!”. It had dried up at by then, which was great and as the run was a 3 lap affair, I met up with various runners at different stages of their last leg, which made for good company and a nice lift for the spirits! I’m usually okay on the run but I found it tough going yesterday on what was quite a hilly, forest trail affair and was happy to get it done. I ended running 51.56 for the 10km so was happy out given how crap I felt running most of it.
I finished in 3.28.27, knocking 3 minutes 24 seconds off my time from last year. I was delighted just to be able to do it, because with having ran a marathon last week, I really wasn’t sure about whether I’d be able for any of it so to finish faster than last year overall was a nice bonus. However, in comparing my results to last year, I was 4.09 minutes slower on the swim this year, 4.5 minutes faster on the cycle and 4 minutes faster on the run. Raging when I saw this (despite not caring at all earlier in the day when I was basking in blissful ignorance…) because having made great progress in the run and the bike where it’s arguably harder to make big improvements timewise, I ended up losing a good chunk of time to the sea. And what’s worse is that I had no idea! I was swimming along, thinking I felt more comfortable in the water than last year… Eh, I’m gonna put it down to the jellyfish getting in my way!
One thing is for sure. I was properly done by the end of this race and felt that I had left everything out there. When you put in a big effort and get that utter feeling of satisfaction at the end of the race, you know you’ve done a good day’s work and really, I couldn’t have cared less about the time. Especially when a nice northern man came up to me at the finish line and patted me on the back and told me “That was some super running, you looked great”. I looked a mess, but that’s something every girl likes to hear when she’s just finished a race 😉
Great race. I had a great day out. I signed up for this race because I knew it was a challenging course and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be back for more of the Mournes next year.