Challenge Walchsee-Kaiserwinkl – ETU Middle Distance Championships

This was the main event. Trumping Challenge Poznań as my A-race due to a winter of illness and a spring and early summer of stress!

If nothing else it would be proof, or otherwise, that you can train and travel.

Since the race in Poland I’ve done quite a bit of training; 1,228 km of cycling, 12,577 meters climbed, 108 km of running and 24.6 km swimming. That’s not too bad, though the running is down on where I’d have liked it to be.

Friday was a very restful day indeed. I was, as is customary for me, still asleep when there was a tap on the van window at 10.10am. I jumped up and poked my head out of the door. It was the campsite man asking me to go to reception and finish my check in process with passport etc. Clearly I’d just been woken up and he was ever so apologetic. Rightly so I thought, waking people at the crack of dawn like that. It’s just not on 😉

I lazed about for a while reading and eating then thought I ought really to go and register for the race. I’ve fallen on my feet again with camp location as it is sandwiched between the registration/prize giving area and transition. Couldn’t be more ideal.

The low key motorhome

And I’m parked nearby a variety of friendly, low key, GB team members (Mike, Nigel and Mel in an equally low key motorhome). In fact, this is the biggest middle distance team GB have ever fielded at over 260 athletes so the Brits are likely to outnumber all the other countries participating by quite a margin.

Registration was a simple affair, and I’m now the proud owner of yet another rucksack. In the van alone I have 5 now (more than I need, I know, but I keep being given them at races!) and if you count the ones I have at home then I am the Imelda Marcos of the rucksack world.

I wandered into the village of Walchsee and ensconced myself at a café, ordering some ice cream and a cuppa. Without a shadow of a doubt this was the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted, made using local milk from the cow-bell bedecked herds munching on the alpine pastures. I’m not really an ice cream fanatic but this was out of this world. Vanilla & elderflower and yoghurt & raspberry. Mmm.

Whilst I was sat there, minding my own business writing an article for a magazine, I was interrupted by an Austrian lady. “Helene?” she said. “Yes?” I replied. It transpired that she had been the photographer at the triathlon I’d done two weeks ago in Fürstenfeld and recognised me from then. Her and her partner had been sat nearby going through their online gallery trying to work out if it was me before she approached! She was keen to show me the pictures she’d taken of me and we chatted briefly about the upcoming race, what I’d be wearing and that she would try and capture me on camera again. Good luck I said – I’ll be one of over 260 in GB kit! My only distinguishing feature will be my trademark red cap.

My intended 5km jog around the lake went by the wayside (I thought I’d force myself to do it before breakfast) and I returned to Victor, to dinner ‘in’, and to the techno sounds of the free concert/rave that Walchsee had decided to hold, until almost 1am. Kind of them. But on the penultimate day before a European championship race?

On Saturday I did as planned and went for a gentle jog around the lake before breakfast. Race day is 4 laps of this course, a 5k loop that is fairly flat and very picturesque. A good opportunity for a fast run split if all goes to plan I thought.

Race briefing was at midday, followed by the GB Team briefing and photo.

Team GB 35-39 category

Perhaps my early run did wonders for my complexion because twice I was greeted with surprise by fellow athletes (thanks Nigel and Jack!) when it became apparent I was in the 35-39 age group. Made my day to know that without a scrap of make-up and no hair dryer or other such luxuries I can be mistaken for being younger than I am. I don’t think I’ll bother with a mirror ever again – seems to be working for me, this vanlife look.


My pal Jane, partner in crime when it comes to triathlon, was due to be joining me in Walchsee and staying a week. Her arrival was perfectly planned for lunchtime on the Saturday, and after a bit of persuasion from me, Jane had also entered the half ironman in the open race. I’ve got two bikes with me, so Jane would be riding one of them. We just needed to fit her on it (seat post height, pedals etc) and she’d be good to go. The best laid plans however don’t always work out, do they? Jane missed her flight to Munich. It’s a short story but I won’t share it here. It is hers to tell, not mine!

Thankfully, after what I envisage was some palaver at Gatwick, Jane managed to board a new flight to Innsbruck but her arrival (once you factor in the train and bus ride to Walchsee) would be cutting it fine for bike check-in at transition. Enter Jack (fellow Brit who I’d met in Poznań and was also racing in Walchsee) and his dad who saved the day and drove me to Kufstein to pick Jane up from the station. This ensured all the pre-race admin was done and dusted in time for us to enjoy the pasta party laid on by the race organisers. There was even a jacket potato offering for those unable to carb load on the copious quantities of pasta.

Transition – what a backdrop!

Then it was Sunday. Race day. It was a beautiful morning – misty but the sun was burning that off. The start of the day ended up quite rushed, though I’m not sure why, but with minutes to spare I found myself pushing my way towards the swim start with the wetsuit only half on.

There is a saying in sport (at least I think it’s a saying and not just something I say…), “Nothing new on race day”. Basically, unless you’ve tried and tested it, don’t use a new energy drink/piece of kit/run technique etc in a race because you don’t know how it will perform, or how you’ll get on with it.

So I’m standing on the swim start line in a brand new wetsuit new out of the packaging, never worn by me or anyone. Good start. I had asked Jane to bring it over for me. I ask Kylie (also GB 35-39) to ‘do me up please’ and the wetsuit feels good. The neoprene is thinner on the shoulders than my old one and hence more flexible. A faster suit, essentially. Though the speed depends on the swimmer inside it, of course.

In my rush to get into the throng before the rolling start for the swim began, I realise I’m right at the front, in perhaps the first 40 or so swimmers out of maybe 900 athletes in the European race. Now my swim is ok, but it’s not that good. There’s nothing I can do about that now. I’m there and the gun has been fired. We’re drip-fed into the water, 8 at a time every 5 seconds. Apparently it’s a safer and less aggressive way to start the race than a mass entry swim. I prefer the latter personally, but most long course races are going this route now, with a rolling start.

In I go. Can’t say I found it any less aggressive. The first 400m or so were a bit of a wrestle but clear water came soon enough and by the first turn buoy I was surprised to not have to fight my way over anyone to get around it. The new suit felt great, and the lake was warm. From then on the swim passed without much to say and the exit, after 1,900m, went smoothly. I’d not been as quick as I can be, but my time was ok.

On to the bike. 90km through some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever ridden. It was a testing bike course with almost 1200m of climbing, and some technical descents, but it was possible to maintain a good pace on average. The sun was beating down and the wind low, so great racing conditions for cycling. And there were plenty of fellow competitors to race – many Germans, Austrians and Brits, then a smaller number of French, Italians, Irish etc. There was a para race ongoing too, so there were hand bikes on the course as well as tandems. I felt a bit weak at the start but warmed up into the ride and on the second of the two loops managed to improve my placing in the field, though was getting a curious bit of cramp in my left hand, which I’ve never had. I made sure I kept drinking and eating knowing that in the heat I’d be losing quite a lot of fluid and salt. I was pleased with my ride though there is still plenty of work to be done on the bike – the speed of some of the fastest girls is phenomenal.

Then the run. I must have started this around 12.45pm, lunchtime and coming into the warmest part of the day. I think it was about 34°C. As I’ve already mentioned in my previous blog, I don’t fare so well in the heat. Almost immediately I knew I was I trouble. I exited transition and started the first kilometre of the half marathon gingerly – this first km is always a weird one after spending nigh on three hours on a bike. But this time was different. Every muscle in both my legs – hamstrings, quads and calves – were on the verge of cramp. I’ve never really suffered this before, so it was an odd feeling. I stopped after about 800m to stretch them out and try and get rid of it. It was as if, had I tried to run properly, with a decent stride, my legs would have set solid and I’d have fallen over. Most peculiar. Anyway, long story short, I spent the next 20 kilometers trying to ‘manage’ the situation by not over extending my muscles and hoping that on each foot fall they wouldn’t cramp. As you can imagine, this doesn’t make for a decent run style nor one that has any speed to it. I was so disappointed. For the want of a bit more salt perhaps my legs might have turned up on the day to run me round that course in a half decent time, but it wasn’t to be. Thank goodness for the fantastic support on the route from plenty of GB team mates’ families and other supporters. That made it bearable, along with the beautiful backdrop.

I came in to the finish line grimacing. It was becoming almost impossible to hold the cramp off. I’m sure the event photographers have captured this in minute detail (unfortunately). I crossed the line, delighted that it was over, gutted that I’d failed to achieve what I know I’m capable of nor done all my training justice.

And then I collapsed. My right leg decided enough was enough and set solid, cramping. The pain was excruciating! I now understand my grandfather’s reactions to cramp when he used to get it sometimes at the dinner table and me and my siblings all laughed when he’d scream out, jump up and hop about the room. I fell over. My legs were done for and I could not move. I was immediately attended to by a nice looking Austrian race official who helped stretch my leg out gently, right there on the finish line. I was probably there for about five minutes swearing and writhing around in agony. The stretching helped a little and Mr Good-looking Austrian helped me to my feet asking if I needed medical attention. I declined, feeling rather embarrassed and limped very slowly away, with a cloud of dejection and disappointment hanging over me.

Gluten free offerings!

Turns out I’d done the race in 5 hours 32 minutes. A good 20 minutes off target and all lost on the run. No surprise there. The only thing that bought a smile to my face in the ensuing hour or so was that fact that the superb Austrian race organisers had seen fit to include a whole gluten-free section in the athletes’ finishers area so, for once, I had something to eat post-race.

Jack showed up. He’d finished a good while before me but had suffered a similar fate – good swim, good bike but poor run. Turns out a lot of the Brits had the same story – the run was a killer in that heat. For me I think it was down to lack of salts and that in itself is a good lesson. Just a shame I had to learn it at the European Champs.

Jack and I wandered back to the finish line to see Jane in. She’d started in the open race 45 minutes after us, and came over the line, smiling, in a very respectable time of 6.02. She looked fresh as a daisy and within minutes was hoovering up watermelon in the finishing tent.

All smiles at the end (even if I didn’t feel like smiling) [Jack, me and Jane].
Then things went downhill. I was walking slightly better by this point, the gluten free grub doing its work, but Jane was starting to feel decidedly dodgy. We went back to Victor and changed then had the joy that is post-triathlon tidy up – retrieving kit bags, rinsing wetsuits, collecting bikes.

I went back to transition to get my kit and returned to a Jane who was feeling no better, in fact worse. We had to get the bikes cleaned and back in the van that night as heavy rain was forecast and we were due to leave the campsite the next morning.

I sorted my stuff then returned to transition a second time to grab Jane’s kit. I only had 5 minutes to get there before the kit pick-up cut-off time so I ran. In flip flops. My legs were recovered enough to go faster than they had in the race. This made me angry and more disappointed in equal measure.

Then the rain started. Pathetic fallacy is what it was. This is an English Literature term I remember from my GCSE days, where authors make the weather mirror the atmosphere in the story. Certainly that was happening now. Clouds had rolled in, the wind had picked up, it was getting colder and the rain falling more heavily. It matched my heavy mood.

Leaving Jane in the van to rest and sleep I went to the campsite bar to meet up with Jack and a whole load of the GB team. I had wine. But it didn’t help me feel any better. Some days it just doesn’t go your way. And this day was one of them.

I slept poorly that night, listening to the rain, contemplating my next move, already thinking about what race I might do next to prove myself, to myself. There is one in mind (after all, this is meant to be a training AND racing adventure around Europe) …. Watch this space!

Nothing had really improved the following day – not my mood, nor Jane’s feeling ill, nor the weather. My right calf was, and still is, in agony where the severe cramp has damaged the muscle. But that doesn’t mean sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. So we left Walchsee behind and drove to Zell am See in the pouring rain (passing a curious bit of roundabout art on the way that I can only assume was the artist having a joke…?)

Relieving himself as she looks on?

I had some admin to sort (dull stuff I should have done months ago like house insurance) so we whiled away a couple of hours in a café in Zell whilst enjoying Austrian fare of Tiroler gröstl. Jane wasn’t up to eating much so I had half of hers. I’m a good friend like that 😉

Then to making a plan for what next. Due to the hefty toll fee of €34.50 for the Grossglockner High Apline Road, and because of the weather, we opted not to drive this pass touted as the most picturesque alpine drive. Shame really as the one we chose still had a toll fee of €11. Still, we got some good views of the Austrian Alps and arrived in Lienz, under the shadow of the Dolomites not long after 7pm. En route we’d also had to search out some gluten free beer for me as it was high time I drowned my sorrows in a bottle.

Parked up by the Tristacher See in a quiet spot on a dead-end road leading towards a very exclusive hotel, we had a relaxing couple of hours walking around the lake, drinking beer (well I did, Jane still wasn’t well enough for alcohol), playing Cycling Stars top trumps and rummy. There was a minor issue when Jane and I disagreed on the exact nature of the rules of rummy when it comes to considering the Ace card as high or low but Google quickly told us that basically anything goes in that regard.

It was a delightful way to spend the evening and after a few beers it was time to call it a night. A bit of a ‘walk’ outside was required so we both stepped out of the van. The sky was littered with stars and, in order to see them properly, I wanted to cut out of the light pollution from the van door light so I shut the door.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Though as I write this now I’m laughing.

Earlier I’d locked us in the van using the interior locking button on the driver’s door. This means the alarm doesn’t go off if there is movement inside. If you lock yourself in using the key then any movement inside sets it off, as I found out at Helenesee in Germany at my very first campsite spot. So I use that door button instead.

What I wasn’t aware of is that if you use the door button to lock yourself in, then open a door and shut it again, the van remains locked.

So here we were at gone 11pm at night, in the pitch black (albeit with a posh hotel around the corner), with keys and phones in the van, locked out. I tried all the doors. All were locked. I started shaking. I could not believe what I’d done. I have been so religious at always taking the van keys with me when I leave it. Blame the beer.

Jane kept repeating, “don’t panic”. I kept saying, “I can’t believe this!”. We considered our options. The roof was open and thank goodness it was else things would have been certainly very different. I figured I might be able to prize open the zip from one of the side windows. Jane gave me a leg up. I hung onto the roof, the pain in my legs suddenly gone as adrenaline replaced it. I found the zip and started trying to open it, it budged, a tiny bit. Then stuck. I persevered and after a few minutes had a finger through the hole. There is a second black-out blind also secured with a zip and I thought I’d have to try twice to get this one open as well but with a stroke of luck it seems I’d left it slightly open last time I’d used it. Phew. Eventually I had the window open enough to clamber in through the roof canvass and into the van. Hurrah!! We were all smiles and nervous laughing then… but it was a good lesson to learn about the intricacies of the locking mechanisms of Victor. Needless to say I will always take my keys with me from now on. Always.


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