We just got back from our whirlwind Benelux trip, which started with a ferry over to France then a drive to Luxembourg where we stayed three nights at a great little holiday apartment just outside Vianden. On Saturday we headed north to south Limburg in the Netherlands for my long distance triathlon race in Stein on Sunday. Despite weather that always seemed to be threatening rain, we had two 100km cycling days in Luxembourg: home of colourful and immaculate little houses and farms, great climbs and descents, and quiet well-paved roads. The weekend included an obligatory trip to Albert Heijn, and we got to see some of my Hellas Triathlon friends who were racing in Stein as well. The only downside was the 22-hour day we had getting back to the UK yesterday after the race was over, though it was much worse for Jim (who did all the driving) than for me (who raced, then got to sleep on the ferry).
colourful houses in Bettel, Luxembourg
Hills and valleys of lush farmland as far as the eye can see
The Stein long distance race is billed as being in the "Dutch Mountains" which is kind of cute -- it'd be like saying a race in the North Downs is in the Surrey Mountains! With a cheap entry fee of €85 and huge prize money open to everyone (not just pros), it's surprising that this race isn't more popular especially amongst British women who I think would be very competitive here. I've done it three times now (twice as a solo racer, once in a relay) and would recommend it to anyone who wants a low-key, well-organised and spectator-friendly race not too far from home in a very hospitable part of the Netherlands (Stein is just north of Maastricht right in the middle of Amstel Gold country). The race weekend also has a bunch of kids' races on Friday evening and both a sprint and a draft-legal Olympic distance Saturday afternoon. The long distance race is all day Sunday.
Waiting for the swim start
Running out of the water to my bike
The swim is 3km in the port of Stein (water was 20 degrees and calm, though a bit "industrial"), two loops with a quick exit/entry between. The day was unusually cold and rainy early on, making it a bit hard on the spectators, though Jim toughed it out despite having no rainjacket or umbrella handy. I got out of the water in 48 minutes, knocking a couple of minutes off my previous best time for that course. I can probably chalk it up to being very comfortable in the water and getting on some good feet, I think. Transition was slow as I pulled on a bike jersey over my trisuit for extra warmth.
Absolutely pouring rain!
Nonetheless, I was pretty happy with my new P3C
The bike is four laps of a twisty 27km mostly flat course with the three Surrey-like hills, one made of big cobblestones. The northern Dutchies with their 11-23 cassettes were weaving all over the road trying to get up the 14%er by the last lap, which made for an interesting sight. It took me about a lap and a half to get comfortable on the bike, as my legs were feeling the kms we'd ridden in Luxembourg. My plan was to ride at Ironman pace anyway so that I could put in a strong run and treat the whole race as a training ride, so I was okay with that. The rain started to pelt down hard by the second lap and I saw more than a few folks by the side of the road struggling with flat tires. Two of the female pros dropped out due to the cold and two guys managed to crash their bikes on the tricky descents leading to the climbs. I was able to pick up the pace in the third and fourth laps as the sun finally came out and I warmed up a bit. With a time of 3:35 I came in to T2 about 100th place of 200 competitors but with lots of energy in reserve.
By the time the run started, the roads had dried up and the sun was coming out
Very light-footed on the run, which was a nice feeling
The run is also four laps with two steepish hills winding through the town of Stein, each 7.5km lap finishing in front of the grandstand in the middle of town with the announcer calling out names. The entire town gets into the race, what with people sitting in their front garden cheering everyone on, and little kids collecting and distributing sponges and water. My target for the whole race was sub-7-hours (having done 7:30 in 2007) but my running was even better than expected, and with a 2:19 for 30km I ended up with a 6:46:47 final time. Good enough for 7th place woman and 48th place overall, overtaking many guys who had blown by me on the bike then blown up on the run, as usual. Three of my Hellas buddies put in a solid performance to take first prize in the mixed relay race, with another three Hellassers forming a second team who just beat me by 17 seconds. Three other teammates who were racing solo finished strong as well.
I had hoped to go sub-7 hours so this was a great time
The prizes (€2700 for the winner down to €550 for 5th place in the women's race and €200 for 7th place in the men's, plus €100 for each age group winner) attracted quite a few pros this year. The men's winner was Fraser Cartmell of Scotland, the women's was Natallia Barkun of Belarus who also picked up another €500 for breaking the course record. I was disappointed to see my time 11 minutes out of the money, considering the same time woud have earned me 3rd place two years ago, but happy with my performance seeing as I didn't taper for it and used it as a race rehearsal of sorts for IMLP. There's talk of Stein trying to get a 70.3 franchise which in some respects would be great but in other ways would ruin this quaint small-town race, not least by tripling the entry fee I'm sure.
I've now got five weeks til IMLP and it's a great relief to know that my swimming and running are where they need to be. The P3C performed really well too, though I'd still like to get a bit lower in front (adjustable stem maybe?) and tweak my position to get more comfortable in the neck and shoulders. And I can clearly see my goal for these last few weeks of hard training: to squeeze every last watt out of my FTP so I can push that tiny bit harder on the bike and still put in a solid run. Tomorrow I finally get to pick up my Powertap 650 wheel so with a few Club 10 TTs and some time spent riding hard laps of the park I can ride myself into good form, I'm sure (I hope!)
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