The Triathlon relays 2017.

An in depth report from the inside of the mind of Charles Hickman.

“Come to the relays, they said. It’ll be fun. Long experience has taught me to be suspicious of any such statement but after putting it off for the last few years I thought my time had come. Little did I realise that it would take up more time than an Ironman day, require exposing myself multiple times, involve performance enhancing drugs and blowing my peak heart rate to new levels.

I arrived at the venue, Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham, before 9am, just as the male, female and open relay race started. I’d been warned it was chaotic and it didn’t disappoint. Before long, while there were still people swimming in the lake, there were cyclist whizzing around its circumference and even runners dodging the cyclists coming in the other direction. Meanwhile athletes were bustling in and out of the three transition areas in various states of dress. What the hell was going on?!?

Gradually it all became clear. Each team had four members, designated to go in a specific sequence through each leg. All members of the team complete the swim before moving onto the bike, and then finish with the run. The key was to be in the right place at the right time to hand over the wristband in order to continue the race. The distances per leg (and by each team member) were: swim 2(0.5) km, bike, 60(15) km, run 20(5) km.

‘Team Jackpot Racing Men’s 1’, put together by Mika Brown, navigated the race with deceptive ease, actually finishing the swim in first place and impressively holding onto third club position by the end of the run. So, when the morning’s race was over and Jackpot were awarded the bronze medal, mixed ‘Team Jackpot Racing’ had a lot to live up to.

The Jackpot mixed team, in order of the sequence we would race in, was made up of the big man himself, Chris ‘Dad’ Brown, Kathryn ‘Kool’ Dickinson, Helen ‘Kinetic’ Drew and myself in last position. Four athletes born in four different decades; two men, two women. But with one single focus: to swim, bike and run to the best of their abilities. And in my case not to balls it up (Charles ‘Balls-up’ Hickman).

Chris had knowingly given himself the short straw for the swim by volunteering to go first – when the most number of swimmers would be racing at the same time. Chris, of course, likes a good fight so handled the fracas with ease and was soon smoothly handing over to Kathryn. It was not long before she too was exiting the water and passed the band over to Helen, leaving me to take her place in the waiting pen.

While I stood there waiting it occurred to me that, having just met Helen for the first time, I really didn’t know what she looked like – replete with swim cap and tinted goggles, nor her me. I worriedly started to asses each swimmer as they ran up the exit ramp over to us. So it was with crushing disappointment that I spotted Helen on her second pass of the waiting pen looking for me. I’d missed her! I’ve ruined the race!

Fortunately I think it had only cost us a few seconds but it certainly urged me on into the water. There was plenty of room by now on the swim course but there were also lots of slower swimmers to navigate around, which meant quite a lot of sighting. On exiting the swim, Chris was easy to spot in the adjoining bike transition area – no doubt he’d made good use of his elbows to get to the front of those waiting. I passed him the band and he was gone. It felt weird exiting the water after only 500 meters and then just standing there. No bike to desperately find and mount.

The results show we had done well. Our team was the fourth fastest club and 12th overall out of the water. Helen and I got back to the main spectator spot just in time to see Chris begin his second of three laps on the bike, and to pass some encouragements onto Kathryn who headed off to the bike transition ready for Chris finishing. Chris was riding well, deploying the skills and fearlessness learnt from his car racing to gain ground around the four sharp corners of the course. Meanwhile, as last relayer, I could put my feet up and soaked up the sun’s rays – bizarre in the middle of a race.

Some time later, Mika told me to head down to transition – we had just seen Helen complete her second bike lap. Mika was being a great team supporter, keeping us in line and telling us where to go. As I fussed over my bike in transition I suddenly thought I had miscounted Helen’s laps and missed her coming in – yikes! Thankfully moments later I saw her fly in on her ‘radar-avoiding’ TT bike and so was ready for the handover by the time she dismounted and passed the band on to me. Phew!

I’d thought the bike course too short, narrow and busy to be able to get up any real speed but not so. It was quite exhilarating zooming past slower cyclists as I tried to target those with yellow race numbers – signifying they were the last relayer of their teams like me. I’d been warned about the sharp bend on one of the corners of the course around the lake. Haha, I’d said when I’d been told the anecdotes of athletes going too fast, narrowly avoiding crashing or flying off into the grass out of control. Nod, nod, smile, smile. So what did I do? Took the corner too fast, narrowly avoiding crashing. Plonka.

On my last two laps I suddenly started to hit runners coming in the opposite direction. These were the top relay teams who were already out on the run. Although there were teams of all abilities, there really were some top class athletes competing on the day (including current and ex pros). I tried counting the runners to gauge our position; I didn’t count many, and in actual fact we were still in a competitive fifth club position, 16th overall.

The run was the leg that most members of the team were concerned about. Chris had long said it was his least favourite discipline and Helen had crashed in a race a few weeks before, leaving her with a shoulder and ankle injury. Thus far, Helen had raced much more competitively than her injuries and subsequent lack of recent training would suggest. Could she carry it through on the run?

I was in the transition area to see Chris come in, looking spent and sweating heavily – it was a hot afternoon – but he had given his all, and I think even he was pleasantly surprised by his split. There is a tendency, particularly if you are a longer distance runner, to consider five kilometres a sprint. Such an expectation is bound to end in disaster, even at half the distance.

It is perhaps with this in mind that Kathryn began the second relay of the run, looking as cool as a cucumber. As Mika remarked, it was perhaps a little too cool! Afterwards Kathryn said she had realised as much and had quickened her pace, putting in another quality performance for the team. Helen followed, ankle adorned with kinetic straps. She looked pensive, having the weight of performing well on her (injured) shoulders, regardless of the assurances from her team mates that it did not matter. So it was with relief when I saw her complete her run and enter transition. She had done well to retain our position in the club ranking – 7th.

Naturally I ignored my own advice and tried to run too fast. I’d already been warned that the flat, arrow straight run course around the lake was deceptively long on the return leg. You can see the finish but it just doesn’t seem to get any closer. I was blowing hard and knew I was seconds from melt down but I just made it.

Team Jackpot finished the run in 6th place by club, 21st overall. I’m proud to say this gave us a final position in the mixed relay of 21st overall, 6th by club. Total time 03:33:44.

I can see now why people recommend the relays. There’s a party atmosphere and it really gives you a sense of being part of a wider triathlon community, and racing in a team is a refreshing change from the usual lone pursuit of selfish goals. Per athlete, the distances are not very long but it gives you an opportunity to go hell for leather without having to worry too much about pacing. I certainly had that satisfied glow at the end of the day that only a good, hard day of racing brings. Big thanks to my teammates, particularly Chris for putting our team together; and congratulations to the men’s Jackpot team for their bronze. Oh, and thanks to Mika for the pill to make me run faster.”

Welldone to the Jackpotters at the relays and thanks Charles.