On Wednesday 26 April I flew from Manchester to Madrid, staying overnight before early morning catching the clean comfortable spacious train to Soria. I was amazed how empty the Spanish countryside was, lots of cultivated small fields of various shapes & contours, but hardly a dwelling in sight for miles. Sprinklings of snow on the bare earth were more noticeable as we travelled north.
Soria is the smallest provincial capital in Spain with a population of 39,000. It has a large pedestrianised area in the centre, very people-friendly, and is full of historical cathedrals & Romanesque churches & ruins The river Duero runs along the eastern side of the town, with beautiful picturesque walks along either bank, where I spent some of the day after the race.
Very few local people spoke English, so speaking a bit of Spanish was really useful, even though mine was really rusty & decidedly sketchy. Exploring the local food was a great adventure. Quite a different Spain from the beach & booze that defines the Spanish experience for many.
The event totally dominates Soria for the weekend. A large start/finish area with blue carpeting & a grandstand took over the centre of town, with lots of supporting events in various places. The racing itself started on the Saturday, with the junior (18/19 yo) races followed by the para duathlon then the elite races. GB’s Alex Yee won the JM event by well over a minute, having led from the start & held off the chasing bunch during the cycle phase. In the elite men, GB stars Mark Buckingham & Philip Wylie came 4th & 8th, while Richard Allen won the U23 category in emphatic style. Really exciting for spectators.
We had all been looking at the weather forecast with some degree of trepidation. At an altitude of over 1000m (about the same as Snowdon) the air was cool, but the sun shining through clear blue skies gave welcome warmth. Sunday 30th April started dry & breezy but the wind picked up through the morning, making cycling extremely tricky. The Sprint distance (5k-20k-2.5k) duathletes set off in age-group waves from 8 AM, followed by the Standard distance (10k-40k-5k) waves from 11 AM. By this time it was seriously windy, blowing over barriers & large plant pots in the centre of town.
It was such an amazing experience to be standing in the pre-start waiting area, trying to keep warm, surrounded by a wall of sound dominated by The Pirates of the Caribbean theme, which gave way to a rhythmic drumbeat leading up to the starting horn. And we’re off! The 2.5 K running course consisted of three long straights up & down a moderate incline with 180° hairpin bends at each end, before looping round through the start/finish area to begin the next lap. However, at this altitude, the 12th uphill section (on the fourth lap) felt not quite so gentle a gradient. All along the course, the spectators encouraged each competitor. Amongst the many calls of “Come on, GB” or “Come on, Robinson” I heard “Come on, Croft!” It was Eliot Taylor! I finished my first run of 10k in 48m 36s, not far behind the French world champion & the British champion. By this time, however, the wind had become a gale and within minutes of starting cycling I decided that survival was the order of the day. We had to complete three laps of 13.6k, each one containing three climbs & three descents. The climbs were into the teeth of the wind, with gale force gusts playing havoc with bike handling. I spent very little time on the aero bars, needing to have my hands wide apart to control the wild wind wheel wobbles. Going downhill with the wind behind was obviously much easier, but at speeds of 40-50 mph was even more dangerous, so I erred on the side of caution. Along with the tempest came rain, making life even less comfortable. My cycle time was 1h 39m, about half an hour slower than I might have hoped for in ideal conditions. I breathed a sigh of relief on entering transition. Not everyone was that fortunate, a few came off but thankfully no one was badly hurt.
The final 5k run is often my strongest phase & at 24m.00 for the two laps I was the fastest in my age group, passing a Spanish rival to finish 5th overall in 2h 57m. It also means that I achieved my goal of prequalifying to represent GB at the next European Championships in Ibiza in October 2018. Both my runs were better than the bronze medal competitor, but I lost out on the bike. In better conditions I might have got closer to him.
By the time I had retrieved my bag & got changed, the rain was fairly torrential. Others were still out there, including 80yo Frenchman Guy Daudet, who finished in 4h.00. I was called on by a friend who was looking after one of the crash victims, for whom I did a quick bit of osteopathic first aid to get her walking again. She was gutted, having been in the silver medal position until sliding out on the last roundabout.
After a shower, a superb late lunch & 40 winks came the post-event party & medal presentations. Overall, GB was the most successful nation with 11 gold, 10 Silver & 8 bronze medals, one of which was Jonathan Barnes. The hosts were in second place with 10 gold, 7 Silver & 8 bronze. Amongst the other nations, Ireland achieved one gold & one bronze, but oh boy, do they know how to celebrate, clapping & cheering & one of them dancing a jig across the floor with a giant flag as a cloak over his head.
For me as a first timer, it was an amazing experience & I’m looking forward to doing it all again. Meeting old acquaintances, making new friends, immersing myself in the local culture, the exciting atmosphere of the event both as a spectator & a participant all added up to a really enjoyable stay.