How have triathlons changed during COVID-19? We raced Outlaw X – one of the UK’s premier middle-distance events – to find out.
Let’s face it, 2020 has been understandably thin on the ground when it comes to triathlon events, with nearly every race wiped from the calendar early on thanks to COVID-19.
In the current climate, safely running a socially distanced mass participation seemed a monumental task. So great that we’ll admit we were expecting a disappointing email from Outlaw X organisers OSB Events any moment. Then one pinged in the inbox. But rather than a race cancellation, it was the news that the Professional Triathletes Organisation would be putting up a $15,000 prize purse, drawing some of the UK’s best professional athletes to the race.
Well, if it’s good enough for Tim Don, it’s good enough for us! And now there was the added bonus of we mere mortals being able to mix with the pros.
Hope was relit and confidence grew that the tireless work of the OSB team might just get us to the start line. And, with timing chips having dropped through the letterbox and online race briefings watched, we were soon on our way to Nottinghamshire’s Thoresby Park for what would be a fantastic event to escape the gloom of Coronavirus.
Thoresby Hall is an idyllic setting for a triathlon. Wide expanses of lush green lawn sprawl out in front of the stately home-turned luxury hotel, sloping gently onto picturesque woodlands and rolling countryside.
Being a private estate, Outlaw’s use of the location means the event retains a sense of mystery. There’s no seeing the lake prior to race morning, let alone swimming in it, while much of the run course is also out-of-bounds until the race begins.
At the venue, the majority of athletes were doing as instructed and wearing masks. In typical fashion, it seemed some triathletes were determined to out-do each other with the loudest colours.
With the exception of registration, which was all taken care of thanks to the organisers posting out packs pre-race, all the usual event trappings were there. Expo stands, coffee trucks, catering and an army of high-vizzed staff building Outlaw’s iconic bright orange finishing straight – all suitably socially distanced.
This meant the buzz was almost the same as any other big race. There seemed to be that shared sense of excitement bubbling around competitors, this time undercut with perhaps a little more nervousness than usual – either from the pandemic or perhaps lack of training.
Transition check-in was actually easier than usual. After a short, socially-distanced queue in one of four entry points designed to spread out athletes, we found at least double the usual space next to our bikes. This made things more relaxed than the usual crushed battle for inches.
On race day the following morning, fears of an hour-long queue into transition were immediately dispelled as we walked down to the venue. We moved quickly through the head-temperature check – one last health and safety hurdle to overcome before being guaranteed a race start – and straight into transition with no fuss.
We sorted our gear and shuffled into the usual pre-race portaloo queue – now ludicrously long due to 2m spacing –to hear that cold temperatures would mean a swim shortened from 1.9km to 750m. The mingled feelings of equal parts disappointment and relief were quickly diluted by the excitement of the pro athletes finishing their swim and thundering through transition.
It’s always a treat to have pros at an event and with the likes of Tim Don, Nikki Bartlett, George Goodwin, Lucy Hall, Adam Bowden and Katrina Matthews – among several others – lining up, this was a battle of the Brits!
Buoyed by the show of the professionals, we pulled on our wetsuits and entered the theme-park-style queue, each athlete remaining a diligent 2m apart. From there, we steadily moved towards the swim start where athletes were being allowed into the water one at a time every eight seconds.
Just like edging closer to a ride on a mammoth rollercoaster, the nervous energy built. Some athletes seemed to revel in it, chatting or making jokes. Others were pensive, stony-faced and silent.
This most civilised of race starts was only marred by the chilly waters. The short drop from the pontoon seemed unbearably long, ending with a shocking icy dunk. Once the gasping shock had subsided, however, it felt like any other triathlon swim, albeit with less of a bundle around the buoys thanks to athletes being more spread out.
One nice feature in the swim is the way the course skirts around the lake’s ornamental island, complete with its decorative urn centrepiece. The OSB team managed to keep this in despite the shorter distance.
The only other COVID-forced change coming out the water was that there were no marshals to help pull athletes to their wobbly-legged feet. Outlaw’s traditional strippers (wetsuit un-doers) and slappers (suncream latherers) were absent too, though given the conditions, it’s hard to imagine anyone missed the the latter!
Out the water there was a long run back to transition – athletes still queueing in the opposite direction.
Once past the mount line, the bike section of the event seemed perfectly normal too. The only difference was really the stop-to-refuel aid station which was empty on passing. While some athletes clearly opted to be self-sufficient and carry all their fuel with them rather than dismounting and selecting their own nutrition, many did use it.
The bike course features a combination of quiet country lanes and less enjoyable but faster main road sections. On the former, there was some stunning scenery to take in while the diligent OSB team appeared to have marked every single pothole over the whole route. Meanwhile, traffic management and marshal support were fantastic throughout.
It was, however, 56 miles of cold, seemingly constant headwinds that necessitated a more than just a tri suit to keep the chill off. Three hours later and with 90km in the legs, it was time to swing back into Thoresby Park for T2.
By the time we got to the half marathon run, the event hardly felt different from any other triathlon – including the fact that the pros were finishing as we got started! Only spectators from athletes’ bubbles were permitted on site but they provided plenty of socially distanced support to create a buzzing atmosphere on the way through the park area on each of the three laps.
Except for masked and gloved helpers giving out water bottles rather than cups, aid stations were hands-off from volunteers. Instead, gels and cups were laid out on tables for a grab-and-go self-service approach. This worked really well – better than having the stress of picking a volunteer with the nutrition you’re seeking.
With the mixed-terrain course following winding rural tracks, there was slightly less social-distancing on the run, especially as the fatigue set in and athletes settled into the usual routine of seeking running camaraderie to grind out the last miles of the day.
It is a beautiful run though, mixing tarmac, concrete paths, hard-packed trails and grass as it meanders through woodlands and across fields, each lap starting and ending with the high-energy boost of the event area.
After 13 miles and a final push back to Thoresby Park, it was on to the orange carpet that sweeps around to the finishing arch with its apt ‘Welcome Back’ signage.
Those familiar and addictive feelings of elation and satisfaction came flooding in and with plenty of support from spectators awaiting their athletes, crossing the line created a sense of occasion as strong as any other finish – even if you had to pick up your own medal.
Wandering around the grassy catering area afterwards, the excited hum of athlete chatter seemed every bit as jubilant as the year before. It was definitely a relief to have had the opportunity to race in 2020 and as thrilling as ever to just be around triathletes and feel the connection that’s so strong in our sport.
If OSB Events’ template for racing during COVID represents the new normal for triathlon, then the changes are small accommodations indeed if we can continue to enjoy great races in glorious locations.
2021 Outlaw events are already open for entries. Head over to the the Outlaw website to sign up.