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 European Standard Distance Championships – Soria, Spain 30th April 2017

I trained extremely hard over winter for a sporting journey that began in March 2016 at the Clumber Park, the qualification race. Apart from an injury the month before my preparation had gone very well. I was amazed to discover that I had the motivation to get up at 6am to swim before work twice a week. After Christmas as commitments of my work placement year increased, I had to fit in training where I could.

After Clumber Park qualification for the World Age Group Duathlon near Vancouver, I was motivated more than ever as Soria approached. Thursday's training consisted of a hard hill run session followed by a quick cycle round the 10 mile Bramhope loop and a recovery swim. This may seem like a busy evening after work, but I’m not one for lounging around in the evenings watching TV! I love the boost it gives. By Easter I was cycling for 45 miles at a strong pace. To replicate the end run in a duathlon I ran for 5 kilometres. The weekend finished with a 12 mile run and suggested that despite ongoing injury concerns I hadn't lost much fitness.

I spoke too soon. The injury came back to bite me. My shin was very sore when I walked. I decided not to risk training on an injured leg, a difficult decision which resulted in resting up for 5 weeks.

It was only 2 weeks until the Europeans and I was still not running or cycling. It was essential that I got two working legs back. Over the last few years I'd spent a lot of money on physio sessions, massages and bike fits but the issue has still cropped up. So I booked an appointment to have a bike riding analysis to find the cause of the injury. First of all the physio assessed my posture and leg strength and straight away noticed a significant weakness on the right side of my body. She figured that my right 'glute' muscle and hamstring aren't strong enough, so my legs couldn't cope with the intensity of training. With 10 days to go before Spain I couldn't even do a one legged squat. This was a concern.

I was desperate to race because it would be my first European Championships. Before my injury flared up I was smashing training; running 5km and 10km 'pb's' and getting stronger on the bike from some great winter training. The physio was now asking, 'What will you gain from racing?' 'Is it worth it?'

But flights and accommodation were booked, the leave was booked off from work. My name was on the entry list. Everything was sorted. Since it was my first race at an international level I wanted to be there for the experience even if I couldn't race. The decision was made, I would go. The aim of the race suddenly changed from going hard and doing my best to just getting round and if I felt pain I would stop. Pulling out of a race is something I've never had to do before and it is not something I envisaged doing in this race either.

Arrival and the opening ceremony
The weather forecast for sunny Spain was for snow. Luckily I was greeted in Madrid by sunshine and 18 degrees before heading on a 3 hours bus drive north to Soria, a small town with Roman origins, in a region next to Rioja, where tourism is only now becoming a feature. I was looking forward to my first race abroad, a race in a warmer climate, this was no longer in the cards. The race day forecast predicted 7 degrees and 25mph winds with rain expected at lunchtime. My start time is 11:40am. The big decision, do I wear a 'thermal' underneath my trisuit or just arm warmers? After umming and ah-ing I took a 'man up pill' and decided to grin and bare it and just race in arm warmers.

A small army of competitors from Great Britain were joined by duathletes from across Europe and bizarrely, Mexico. The band began to play and the crowds gathered as we set off parading through the streets of Soria with our Union Jack flags. I felt a sense of pride to represent Great Britain. GB athletes among the masses of people who all had one thing in common.

Race day preparation
 Up and at it, it’s race day! I set myself up in transition and took a look at the bike next to mine to ensure I had everything prepared. I noticed the Spanish competitor had dates, as in the edible type, taped to her top bike tube. I’ve seen people tape energy gels to their bike for races but dates were not something I’d seen before. Perhaps I'll try it. Having attended the race briefing, studied the course maps, racked my bike and visualised the motions of transition it was time for the tense affair of waiting. The wind had picked up substantially by the time my race started. Plant pots and metal barriers were falling over alongside the roads and grey clouds were accumulating ready for the rain.
 
Run 1
With a mass start and a course that narrowed very quickly there was certainly going to be some sharp elbows out, so I made my way to the front of the line to ensure I had a clear run without bruises. A Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack was playing before a thumping heartbeat soundtrack counted down to the start. I was certainly pumped with adrenalin. On your marks, *air horn*, and we’re off! I started off well in the lead group for the first run. This consisted of a series of uphill and downhill loops through picturesque avenues of trees in the town's large park. It looked like a flat course but it was deceiving. With an angry headwind you had no option but to dig in. I had to play safe because of being out of action for quite a while. In duathlon or any multi-discipline endurance event you have to try and keep your head and not go 'into the red' or you’ll be paying for it later on. I took it easier than normal to hopefully stop my injury flaring up.
Transition 1 and the bike
 After a 'ten k' run I was first in my age group into transition. I had the fastest first run. A surprise given I hadn’t run for 5 weeks. My transition was executed smoothly. Now onto the '40 k' cycling part of the race which you can really enjoy; closed roads, no traffic, smooth surfaces and fast corners. The ride out was straight uphill, before a nice descent, albeit against the wind. The wall of wind and powerful gusts made staying on your bike more of an ambition than something bound to happen. Had it been a training ride I imagine most sensible cyclists (or fair weather cyclists like me) would have opted for the static indoor turbo bike. I encountered a few wobbly encounters caused by the cross wind on the exposed motorway (don't worry mum, the race was on closed roads). On the return part of the lap the wind was behind you for about 6km, great freewheeling time. Ambulances gathered at the windy downhill stretches as a reminder of the danger. First lap done and onto the second. The hilly stretch out of the Spanish town was enjoyable despite the rain in my face and the big crosswinds. Well, it was enjoyable until I had to do it all again for the third time. Especially as by the time I reached my third lap the winds got up and the heavens opened. The forecast was right! The fight uphill against the wind was tough. Nothing left in my legs. The energy from my porridge and energy gel all used up. 'C'mon Em, you can do it' I told myself. Fighting the wind took a lot more energy than I expected. Sometimes you’ve just got to tough it out.

Powerful men on time trial bikes whizzed past me. A British, another British, a Spaniard, an Irish.....a lot of trained athletes. They must have been riding with propellers on their bikes...or maybe I'm just super unfit (I think the latter). The pain grew and I could see the Spanish girl in 2nd catching me up as I pushed out of the apex bend. After a tough 25 minutes of climbing now came the well-deserved descent from the mountains before a slog uphill back to transition. I relinquished the 20-24 age group lead, the Spanish girl came past me up the final hill, she looked strong as she raced past. The words, 'don't leave it on the bike' came into my head. Words that father Beckwith would say to me. Taking into account my injury I didn't try to stick with her. 'Be sensible, don't push it', so far so good.

Transition 2
I dismounted the bike and began the run into transition. Physically exhausted by the climbing and mentally exhausted by the battle with the elements I only had 5km left to run. Wahooo! On the final stage.  People cheering 'Go Beckwith go', 'looking strong'. It felt swift and super fast by my standards swapping from my cycle shoe cleats to my running trainers. I quickly took off my helmet to begin the final run. Or at least tried to. But hang on, I was stuck, I had a wardrobe malfunction. My helmet was stuck to my helmet. I couldn't leave transition, 'Come on Beckwith' the spectators shouted. ’I can't’ I wanted to shout back. My hair's caught in the fastener of my helmet, One yank, still attached, two yanks, still attached. I can't possibly run with a helmet on my head. Imagine the comments, 'who's that numpty running in her helmet?’ One last pull and…I was detached! Hooray! Albeit with a sore head and a good few strands missing. Now I can finally get on with the final stage. It may have resulted in a delayed transition but nevertheless I was away. As the saying goes, 'More haste less speed'. But not necessarily a helpful saying in a competitive duathlon!
 
Run 2
Onto the final run. The Spanish girl who overtook me at the end of the bike stage was pulling away from me. I had a quick decision to make - do I go with her and fight for first place, or do I take it easy and get round. Given I haven't trained for 5 weeks? With dad's wise words 'be sensible' in the back of my head. I decided to not let the race adrenalin get the better of me and avoided putting myself at risk of doing serious damage. My legs were fatigued from the bike. I wasn't letting this put me off, 'dig in Emma' shouted a spectator from the crowd. It spurred me on to keep going. 'Vamos!' as they say in Spain. Back to the grandstand for the final time before the finish. The final lap saw me struggling on the final incline. I was so close to finishing my first international race. I’d exceeded expectations, up to now. Still in 2nd place, I kept putting one foot in front of the other and hoping. As I approached the final 200m I was handed a Union Jack flag to carry to the finish line.  The crowds cheered, ‘Go Beckwith, go Great Britain’. I was extremely grateful for all the support which encouraged me to push on.
 
Finish
Gasping for breath, I did not want a repeat of the National Champs when I was still recovering from a virus and ended up in an ambulance having had an asthma attack. A combination of feelings rushed through my head, 'wow I've finished and got round' and ‘gosh, I was winning up until 2 hours and 25 minutes, the total race time was 2 hours and 56 minutes’. You feel physical pain and emotional elation all at the same time. In discussion with fellow GB athletes, it seemed to be a race with, not only some of the most extreme conditions, but some tough terrain. At a high altitude, the bike was on the hilliest course I'd experienced. Extremely difficult challenges were faced head on and I’m glad it wasn’t just a case of me finding it tough.
 
Closing ceremony
On to the award ceremony and the after race party. There was an amazing turnout for Great Britain, we pretty much dominated every age group podium. The closing ceremony was a reminder that I have many more years competing. One competitor in particular amazed me. He was the only competitor in his group. Perhaps because he was in the 80-84 age group, Maurice Young, yes that was his name! If I'm still racing at his age, I'll be pretty pleased.

Well, what a fantastic experience! Given the ongoing injury which is still loitering, not only am I a little surprised that I finished the race, but I was winning up until the last 5 minutes of the bike stage and managed to come away with 2nd place. Despite not being at my fittest for the race it has made me realise anything is possible. Fully fit, there's real optimism for the future. Overcoming the injury has made me stronger and more determined. Some people may call it 'bonkers' running a total of 15km, jumping on a bike and cycling at speeds for 40km, but I love it. I love the challenge. And most of all love the satisfaction and sense of achievement post-race. I have made a lot of progress since last year but there is still more to do, especially on the bike. Onwards and upwards.


Time to get on top of this injury, no resting on my laurels. Next race, a triathlon. Swimming in Holme Pierrepont’s rowing lake at the Nottingham Sprint Triathlon at the end of May. Bring it on!
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