Spain has always been kind to me in my racing career - and I was back one last time for the European X-Duathlon in Castro Urdiales.
This inaugural championship was an exciting event to finish my 2015 season - as it is brand new on the ETU calendar no-one really knew what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised to find a proper MTB course, not just riding round some grassy fields as you can sometimes get in the UK!
I'm glad I arrived a few days before the race so I could get in (and recover from) a few practise laps on the bike course. It was deceptively tough - with a 3km climb averaging 10% gradient straight out of transition! Two sections were so steep or tricky, I suspected most athletes (including me) would be walking. This was then followed by a 4km fun but rocky descent back to transition to be repeated 3 times. The field was also a complete unknown attracting elite Spanish mountain bikers and even former Olympic medallists, as well as top road duathletes (would they be any good on knobbly tyres?) and a few familiar names from Xterra. With no clear favourite, I believed I had a shot at the title; and certainly planned to race it to give myself the best chance of getting on the podium!
Castro Urdiales is also a lovely town for an autumn break. I've been swimming in the sea every day to relax, even on race day (as I'm so used to Xterra, it seems wrong to start any race without a swim?!)
I wish I had done this in my tri suit right before the start to cool down, as it was super-hot (at least by British October standards) for our 4pm race
As the time approached, the sound system was cranked up - along with the atmosphere and adrenaline, supporters lined the course, and we were called up to start! The first run set a quick pace this race doubled as the Spanish champs and the national rivalry was tangible! I knew what was coming on the bike though, so I did my best to stay in contention without burning too many matches. I was suffering too in the heat (27* with no shade) which is often my limiting factor on the run. I knew the course passed some showers on the beach, and was hoping to take a 5-second cool-off before T1, but the showers had been taped off - gutted! I kicked myself for not leaving water in my transition box to tip over my head - as unusually there would be no aid station on the bike (I decided my electrolyte was best saved for drinking not showering!)
I headed out on the bike in 4th place, still struggling with a high core temperature up the first climb. I just had to pace myself and maintain concentration - I was relieved to find I rode further up it than most before pushing! Just before the top I witnessed - as if in slow motion - the girl in 3rd place tumble backwards off her bike and down the slope... Quickly checking if she was OK, I reminded myself keep focussed so you don't do the same! Finally (yes finally!) we reached the top and the welcome descent. Only now could I start to get my body temp back down to something cooler than 'so hot I feel cold and shivery!' The descents were a lot of fun - rocks, mud, puddles, a few hidden ditches that caught people by surprise and had athletes flying over their handlebars, or in my case gaining a little more air than expected!
After lap 1 I had moved up to 2nd place, but with a couple of strong bikers closing the gap behind. On the second lap, the lead age group men began to pass, but I was also pleased to note I was overtaking some elite men (who'd had a 5 minute head start) and lapping some of the AG women (who'd started 10 minutes behind). This actually made it more interesting having to pick lines, yet the course never got too congested - my main concern before the start.
By T2 I was in 3rd place but with the 4th lady tailing me into transition. The final run was only 3km so it was time to all-out empty the tank! I hoped that a hard effort out of transition - up the climb to the clifftops - would be enough to put off anyone giving chase, and I was relieved to open a nice gap. Great, I can relax, I thought, with wobbly legs and burning lungs (which are used to running 10k not 3!) but just then I caught sight of 2nd place 200m or so ahead...
Can I close that down with only a mile to go? Well I know for sure I will kick myself if I don't try! With 400m to go, just before the steep descent towards transition, I caught and moved into silver medal position, and then I noticed the penalty box... There were so many numbers on there - too many to take in at speed with my overheated and confused brain, so I skidded to a cartoon-style halt to double check! I'm 99% sure I'm not listed, and 3rd place is right behind me so I set off again quick trying to sprint but my hamstrings didn't like braking suddenly and aren't responding! I don't dare to look behind but just push on as hard as I can to the finish and hope for the best...
My effort is rewarded with 2nd across the finish line - and now confirmed - the European Silver medal!
The event was well attended by media, with photographers and TV crews wanting to interview us, the race compere quizzing us over the tannoy (always slightly off-putting to hear your own voice echoing out across the arena!) I would have loved to have stayed to cheer in all our GB age-groupers at the finish, hang out and possibly even sample a recovery beer... but all of the elite medallists were immediately whisked off to doping control.
I was to discover that producing a urine sample straight after a hot and dehydrating endurance event, is almost as gruelling as the race itself! Only 2 hours racing, but 4 hours and 5 bottles of water later (enough to make me feel truly sick) - it was a greater relief finally filling that 90ml beaker (after 3 attempts) than it had been crossing the finish line 4 hours earlier! But its great to see anti-doping being taken seriously here.
We were allowed out, under escort, for the medal ceremony (all the ladies were still struggling to produce samples at this point!) but sadly missed all the AG awards I was disappointed not able to support all the GB medallists and athletes who cheered so enthusiastically for me. It was a bit surreal standing on the podium under all the spotlights - I defo need to practise my champagne popping technique though - could anyone spot the rookie?!
It was awesome to be able to end my season on such a high, and the inaugural event itself was a great success which I look forward to see growing in the future. Next year's venue is already set for Transylvania - which sounds like a proper adventure! I'm told its a great established race course, so whether you want to try something different to benefit road tri training, or just aren't a keen swimmer and looking for additional races to add to your duathlon season - I would defo recommend this event. It is in my calendar for 2016!
Be sure to follow @LouFoxTri on Twitter to keep up to date with her training and racing throughout the 2016 season!