Have you ever had a race where everything just falls in to place and it all just feels ‘right’? I had an experience of this recently, when I travelled to Kazan, Russia to compete for Great Britain’s Age Group team in the European Championships.
Lead up to the race
This year was my second year trying my hand at age group triathlon racing, having raced in Glasgow last year. My first big race of the 2019 season (Weert, Netherlands – standard distance) went well and I came 8th in the 30-34 age group. I was left feeling that I could have done better though; I had struggled with my confidence on the bike and my pacing during the run was not as good as it could have been. Based on this, I made a very last minute (comparatively speaking) decision to go to Kazan for the sprint distance event in eight weeks’ time. This left me with some homework. First, I had to sort the logistics; travel, where to stay, a Russian Visa and insurance! Second, my coach and I had a plan to work on some of my (perceived) weaknesses from the Netherlands.
Before I knew it, the end of the school term (I’m a teacher) was here and it was the summer holidays. My taper week during the first week of the holidays passed in a haze of nerves as I made my final preparations; I had never travelled to such a complex location to race and I was doing so on my own! It was some comfort to know that I would be meeting other familiar faces once I got there, alongside two fellow members of my triathlon club. Strangely, as soon as I landed in Kazan on Friday (very early in the morning!) these nerves disappeared; I was ready.
Arriving in Kazan
There’s a lot more to preparing for a European Championship event once you arrive in the host city, compared to doing a UK or local triathlon. I had to register and sign a disclaimer confirming my participation on Friday, attend the ‘Parade of Nations’ and official opening of the Championships and go to a race briefing at the team hotel on Friday night.
On Saturday morning, I collected my bike from “Tribike Transport” who had transferred my bike overland from the UK (way less stressful than travelling by air with a bike, even if I had to do without my bike for two weeks beforehand and two weeks after the race!) I then did a recce of the bike route before attaching my race numbers and racking it in transition during the afternoon. There was an opportunity for a swim recce, however I passed on this as the water looked less than appetising and I didn’t want to risk picking up a bug the day before the race!
There was also the opportunity to watch the elite women’s and men’s races which were on throughout the day, and pick up some tips ready for the next day! Saturday evening was spent preparing for the race itself; laying out kit so it was organised, putting on race number tattoos and making sure I ate and rested.
Sunday morning dawned grey and overcast, with temperatures considerably cooler than the previous few days. Despite this, it was confirmed that the swim would be non-wetsuit as the water was higher than 22°C; this suited me as the swim is probably my strongest discipline and not wearing a wetsuit doesn’t bother me. I feel that when the officials make this decision for me, I’m happier as it levels the playing field and I’m not left wondering whether I’ve made the right call to wear or not wear my wetsuit!
Other than that, it was a standard set up in transition, warm up and get to the starting pens ready for the start. This was a great opportunity to suss out the competition; I was already familiar with the other Team GB girls (Sarah and Ty) in my age category as we had taken the time to meet and get to know each other beforehand.
Before I knew it, it was time for my wave start; we had to get into the water from the pontoon and await the start signal. Ty and I had come up with a plan to try and get out of the water together in order to work together on the bike, however as soon as the whistle went I lost her in the confusion of the start!
I got a good start and found myself out at the front drafting another girl, however we quickly ran into the back of the men’s wave in front and I lost her too in the confusion. From that point on I was on my own in the swim. I paced it well and got out of the water feeling as though I had made a good start, although I had no concept of where I was in the field. I made my way along the long swim out route (almost 500m) and clocked into transition in 12 mins 55 secs.
I was quick out of transition and did my best bike mount to date to get out onto the bike course. I quickly caught up with Siobhan, a girl from a different age category, whom I had gotten to know before the race. As a draft legal race, the rules had specified that we were allowed to draft anyone of the same gender regardless of their age category, so Siobhan and I clubbed together to push each other through the first half of the bike course. We worked well together and soon managed to pick off several men ahead of us, although we did not see any other women!
As we approached halfway, I got the feeling that my pace needed to increase, so I was pleased when another group of girls caught up and we could work as a bigger draft pack. I quickly clocked that none of the girls in this group were in my age category, therefore we were able to work together without directly impacting on each other’s finishing position.
I was feeling really strong at this point and knew I could go faster; fortunately another girl (Holly) felt the same way so we agreed to push on and leave the main group behind. Holly and I worked brilliantly together, forging ahead and opening up a gap between us and the girls behind. Whilst we didn’t know it at this stage, we were also closing the gap on the girls in front too. I clocked into transition at 33 mins 34 secs and an average speed of 34.73kph!
As I ran into transition it was at this point I realised I was in the lead for my age group as mine was the only bike racked; all I needed to do was hold onto the lead and the win was mine for the taking!
Another quick transition and I was out on the run; I felt stiff to start with but soon eased up and settled into a strong pace. The support on the run course was fantastic; having spent the days leading up to the race with various members of the GBR team and their friends/ families, I was certainly not at a disadvantage having travelled out there alone!
So many people were cheering me on and this really helped to get me into ‘the zone’. I focused on picking people off in front of me; most were men and irrelevant to my race so I just concentrated on maintaining the pace I had set. The 5km course felt like hard work towards the middle, but as an out-and-back course I was able to see how far ahead/behind the competition was.
As someone who likes the thrill of chasing and being chased, this really suited me and before I knew it I was at the finishing straight. I had a tough sprint finish and a head to head with a Russian girl from another category but finished strong and in 5th place overall; I had achieved a run split of 19 mins 42 seconds and an overall time of 1 hour 9 minutes 24 seconds, meaning I took GOLD in the 30-34 age group!
The rest of the day passed in a blur; there were my team mates to cheer on, photos to take, cola to drink (after that swim this was essential!) and most importantly of all, the medal ceremony to attend! It was a fantastic experience to hear my name read out “The European Champion for the 30-34 age group is… Anna Larkins!” and to go up onto the podium to receive my gold medal. I still can’t quite believe it was me! Ty and Sarah had done well too, finishing 2nd and 4th respectively.
Some races go well enough, some go ‘ok’ and some you just want to forget. This race was in a class of its own. Everything went to plan; I was mentally and physically prepared, I played a good tactical game out on the course and raced well. It was an experience I will never forget regardless of how any future race goes! Age group racing may not be elite level, however it gives anyone who is willing to put the time and effort into their training the opportunity to experience a taste of what high level sport performance can be like.
I’ve made so many friends through my travels to Russia and the Netherlands this year and I have made memories for life. Whilst Kazan has been a highlight, it has been a huge honour to wear the GBR colours in all of the races I’ve done and I hope this continues for years to come!
About the author: Anna Larkins is a Team GB Age Group triathlete and Sundried ambassador