It is somewhat unfortunate that Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire and the Leeds ITU weekend seemingly clash year in, year out but that is the fact of life as the racing schedule gets ever more overcrowded. However, that is the current state of play and as such it was a tough decision for many St Helens Tri members as to which race to choose. First of all, however Megan Cowley and Ann Gregory got the ball rolling with the 2 mile swim in Windermere on Friday. Against a backdrop of torrential rain and high winds which thankfully proved less troublesome than first anticipated, Megan finished in the top 1000 in a time of 1:56:12, while Ann, who has been a valued contributor to the club at Wednesday night swim sessions as well as improving week by week on Friday mornings, was delighted with her 1:16:04 leaving her mere seconds away fro the top 400.
Onto Sunday it was then, and the first athletes were out and about at the crack of dawn for the Staffordshire 70.3 with seven club members facing the massed start in the water, a technical bike course and a varied run with flat sections and very tough hills thrown into the mix. Star of the show was undoubtedly Steve Williams, who had only just returned from his top-5 in the ETU championships in the Netherlands, but here he easily beat the 40 minute mark for the swim and kept up a 20mph pace on the bike. The run proved tougher going for him but he still finished in an overall time of 5:53:31, good enough for second in the M65 division. There wasn’t much in it between Steve and Mark Eccleston in the water but a succession of chain snaps early on during the bike course left Mark with a lot to make up in the later stages. To his credit, he made up some time on Steve on the run to finish within 20 minute of his teammate and hold off Lynette Houghton, who has been a revelation in recent weeks particularly at the Nottingham Sprint. Here, she finished in a time of 6:26:31 which placed her in the top 30 F45’s, a fitting reward for months of hard training and regular attendance at club sessions, not to mention her attention to detail on bike position, in collaboration with the fit team at Thatto Cycles. Peter Rawlinson was next over the line in just over six and a half hours having made up a fair bit of time from exiting the water thanks to a dogged effort on the bike and some much improved pace over the half marathon.
If there was a people’s champion award at the club prizegiving (currently scheduled for late November) Chris Forber would surely be a contender; not only has she enjoyed her best season to date, she has never been one to miss a race where her friends and family have been competing and has always been that person for a club member to turn to in times of self-doubt. As such it was only fitting that she should have her day and 9 June proved to be exactly that, as she was out of the water very close to the Steve/Lynette/Mark trio and her previous experience of the bike course helped her no end with her pacing strategy for the run. The video of her coming down the finish chute was one of the most uplifting clips in years and her final result of 7:06:50 put her just outside the top 40 in her age group. Indeed, her route recce “partner in crime” Diane Taktak, who had enjoyed a good warm-up race four days earlier at the Birkenhead Park 5 Miler, also enjoyed a day out to remember as although she was unable to hang with the St Helens Tri leaders in the water, she made up for it with a particularly good run to beat the 7:45 mark with room to spare. Rounding out the participants in Staffordshire was Sean Dalby, setting a similar pace to Diane on both the swim and bike and being desperately unlucky not to beat the eight-hour mark, surely it is only a matter of time.
Memo to the Staffordshire organisers: please choose a date other than June 7th for 2020. That’s an unusual choice of sentence to open the second half of a weekly report, but it’s because the Leeds ITU festival/stadium race/ampitheatre (choose as you wish) race has already been scheduled for that date, and there are some excellent early bird special prices available at the time of writing. This is one event no-one wants to miss, with the swim in Roundham Park often being set to classic party tunes, a bike course which despite the increased competitor traffic is still thrilling to ride, and a run course into the city centre akin to participating in the London Marathon. Up at the crack of dawn were three club members eager to get in with a chance of qualifying for the ITU World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. Mark Turner and Eddie Hirst were the two main contenders for the Saints and both would place 12th in their age group, with both recording excellent swim times mere seconds apart, Eddie having the edge on the bike and Mark setting a blistering 36:21 10k time to actually edge his teammate at the line to the tune of a couple of minutes. Both await the email to confirm a place on the world stage. If Chris Forber deserved the spirit of competition award for the 70.3, Chris Hayes had to get it in Yorkshire, as here he was taking part in his first standard distance event with friends from work and a couple of others who have taken part in Friday track sessions but at the time of writing have not yet joined the club. Coming from a rugby background, Chris has always had power and strength to burn, but the question was, could he maintain it over a three hour race? The answer was yes, as he set a promising time over the 1500m swim and beat the 75 minute mark on the bike. The run proved more taxing as the energy sapping heat started to kick in (or maybe the kids with the water and jelly babies didn’t appear until the sprint distance racers took to the run course) but his final time of just over two hours 50 minutes was one of the off-the-radar results of the year so far.
In keeping with the “spirit of competition” Chris even managed to get back to a good spectating point for the sprint distance race featuring Emma Austin, Paul Austin and Robert Chesters AKA Team Green and Black’s (the colour of their bikes, no reference to the chocolate company!) Emma was always going to be the favourite for grabbing the headlines and so it proved, as another terrific swim despite having to tread water initially had her into T1 in a commanding lead and an excellent bike split gave her every chance of an age group podium. Eventually a faster runner made their way past but Emma was still delighted with second in her division and ninth female overall, as she continues to work her way back from a running injury that took her out of much of the winter training block. Indeed, Robert would match Emma’s “9/2” result despite the running joke doing the rounds prior to the start that Paul, starting five minutes later, would be out of the lake before him, but luckily his coaching experience plus the memories of last year’s “yellow buoy……..oh no that’s a canoe” incident had him gunning for a much quicker swim time. 16:42 was certainly not anywhere near Team Austin territory but was 90 seconds quicker than his 2018 time, and while the bike course proved frustrating as he repeatedly caught packs of riders at the tight corners, he didn’t get mad, he got more than even on the run as a 7.5km time of just over 27 minute saw him make two critical passes on the way into the city centre to match Emma’s result, finishing in 1:24:38. It was also a cracking performance by Emma’s dad Paul, who quite incredibly went quicker than Emma in the lake, and was close to Robert’s time on the bike course. In the end he was just edged out of second in his division by a flying finisher, but his run of just over 35 minutes still cemented third in the M50 category to round off an exceptional week of racing where the star turns came from Ann at the Windermere Great Swim, Steve and Chris in Staffordshire and all six who raced in Leeds. Next week’s schedule is rather more quiet, with the only races of note being the Birmingham Triathlon, the Port Sunlight 10k and 5k and the Flash in the Park 10k at Leigh Sports Village, but there are only five more weeks until the date of destiny, Bastille Day and Ironman UK Day all in one. The date of 14th July is one not to be missed!