It’s not every day do you go to a race with Alistair Brownlee, Richard Varga, Richard Murray and Sebastian Kienle racking only a few metres away, but Saturday, 3rd June was that day. I’d managed to qualify for the inaugural Challenge Championships race based in Samorin, Slovakia (just outside Bratislava). The place itself is somewhere I’d never been to previously, or by that matter not a country on my travel list, but that’s what is so great about this sport – it takes you to places you’ve never been, and provides the opportunity to experience some great venues.
The X-Bionic Sphere in Samorin is a world class venue, with out of this world facilities including a 50 metre Olympic size pool, slides (yes, adults can use them too!), equestrian centre, large gym, cloud nine bean bag cinema(!), bowling alleys, football pitches, athletics track, 200+ room hotel and several restaurants and bars to cater for every athlete’s needs.
The race comprised of a one 1.9K loop swim in the Danube river (iconic in its own right), a fast flat bike circuit around the neighbouring villages in Slovakia, finishing with a 3 loop (7K) run circuit of the X-Bionic centre and pathway along the Danube river. The day before the race was for registration and bike racking, together with an informative race briefing. As this was the inaugural race, the attention to detail was beyond that which I’d ever experienced, even at established Ironman events.
One of the most impressive features was a short visual simulation after the briefing which summarised the course details, with the iconic horse (for which the centre is famous) and the colour-coded bibs with what the volunteers will be holding for all feed stations. The atmosphere was electric, and the organisers had clearly taken the best of all practices to make this a special day for all.
Race day the temperature hit 32C, standing in a wetsuit waiting for swim start was like being put in an oven and grew more uncomfortable by the second. Distractions came in the form of GB elite lady (and race favourite) Lucy Charles standing only 2 metres away warming up, I asked for a quick picture and she was more than happy to oblige! She looked so calm and relaxed which was nice and reassuring. The men, then the women, pro fields were called in, drones circled above as we were broadcast via a live online feed to the world(!), then a cannon starting each wave off.
My swim was fairly smooth, with a few lumpy bits at the end as the river ride could be felt. The transition was good, with beautiful red carpet all the way in- pure luxury – although it was a long run from river to T1.
The bike course was flat so a TT bike was definitely the right choice. For the first time ever they implemented a 20 metre drafting rule. At about the 40K marker, there is a wide pathway, with the river on your right it wasn’t big enough for a car so overtaking wasn’t ideal, so everyone adopted a technique of shout something then overtake. A few girls bunched together so I dropped back, just as a draft buster motorcycle came up (sadly only a warning was provided to all, so it took me a while to get back then overtake some of these girls). This section was only about 5K, so after this normal cycling/ overtaking could resume.
The run was hot and humid (temperature over 30), but they provided feed stations every 2.5K with gels, energy drink, cola, red bull, oranges, bananas and at the end much needed sponges freshly dipped in ice cold water, ah the relief. After collecting 3 coloured bands you turned into a finishing area on red carpets with beautiful potted flowers either side. The finishing chute was lined with supporters and you hit a high, as they called your name on your arrival.
This was by far the best middle distance race I’ve done, and would recommend others to try it. Qualification comes from finishing in the top three in your age group in a Challenge middle distance race anywhere in the world. (I qualified by winning the 30-34 F age group at Challenge Poznan, Poland last year.)
The race result was also reported on the BBC Sport website:
I finished with a personal best of 5 hours 0 minutes and 54 second – 6th in my age group (F) and 32nd overall female finisher (which included a field of 15 female elites/pros) – so 17th overall female age grouper out of 214 female age groupers to start the race.