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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Swim, Cycle, Run: The Triathlon Challenge.

Trying on westuits at Cycle Surgery

The first time I mentioned my 30@Thirty idea to my friend Julia, she suggested that I do a triathlon. Now, I'm not saying that she had an agenda, but I'm pretty sure that she was looking for someone to do a triathlon with... This was months before my birthday, and I was gung-ho about the whole idea, so of course I said yes. Not long later, Julia came round for lunch and I found myself  in front of my laptop, debit card in hand, basically being signed up. To this day I'm not entirely sure how it all happened. She's a crafty one. Anyway, Julia had decided on the Nuffield Health Human Race Triathon Challenge, at the beautiful Dorney Lake, and we booked in for the Women's Sprint Tri: a mere 750m swim, followed by 20k on the bike and a 5k run. Child's play.

Most people think of me as an organised person, but I have a confession to make: I'm at LOT better at organising things for other people than I am for myself. If I ask you round for a meal, expect plenty of food, a clean house and a candle on the table. If you ask for my help buying something, expect me to spend hours online researching the best deals, before I drive you to the shop. And please don't ask me to edit anything unless you want it to come back covered in red pen. BUT, ask me the truth about every single exam I have ever taken, every challenge I have ever faced, and I will tell you honestly that 'wings' and 'prayers' have featured heavily in my approach. When it comes to me, I always figure I'll just muddle through somehow. Well, that might have worked back in my younger days, but I think I'm starting to realise that it just doesn't cut it now.

For me, the triathlon was HELL. I didn't train enough. There are no excuses for it, I knew I wasn't doing as much as I should be, and I didn't do anything about it. So, on the day, I suffered.

The swim started badly. The wetsuit was digging in to my neck, almost certainly because I'd failed to put it on properly, and after about three minutes it became clear that I had three options: Give up, undo the wetsuit, or drown. Options one and three being unappealing at that stage, I thrashed about for a while until I found the long ribbon attached to my zip, and I undid the wetsuit about halfway. I could now breathe, but was already at the back of the pack of swimmers. Less than a quarter of the way round the swim, I was wondering seriously if I was going to make it. I came to shore last, almost hyperventilating, and already feeling like a failure.

My transition (the bit where you move from one discipline to another) wasn't too bad. I already had the wetsuit half off, so, you see, silver lining! I got my trainers and helmet on, and grabbed my bike (a truly gorgeous steed, hired from the wonderful Cycle Surgery in Kings Cross - THE place for all your triathlon needs). I started riding. I had always counted on the bike section being the easiest, happiest part of the triathlon for me. I've cycled to work for the last five-odd years, and I was using a beautiful bike, far superior to my commuter. I wasn't wrong about this bit. The cycle WAS the highlight. But it was still pretty awful.

I ALWAYS smile for the camera...
The awfulness stemmed, I think, from the overwhelming sense of alone-ness I felt. The women's sprint was the last triathlon of the day. Pretty much everyone else was packing up and going home. And, having exited the water significantly behind my fellow competitors, I seemed to spend most of my time on the cycle track on my own. It was a strange experience. I had expected tiredness, pain, heat, thirst. I had not expected to be lonely. At one stage, Julia lapped me, shouting cheery encouragement. As I watched her bright pink cycling top disappear into the distance, it really hit me how I had let myself down with the training. She was rocking it, and still had the energy to call out to me. My heart was still thudding from the swim (it took over 10k of cycling before I felt that I really had my breathing under control), and I had NO IDEA how the hell I was going to run 5k. Running any kind of distance has never been my forte.

My dad still remembers coming to watch me cross country running  in Alexandra Park, when I was about 11 years old. (Running cross country in winter is one of the many tortures experienced by most British schoolchildren, I believe). He says that he vividly recalls my face, streaked with tears, a look of pure misery contorting my features. My stubbornness and determination to finish just won out over my desire to be swept up into his arms, bundled into the car and taken somewhere far, far away. Well, let me tell you that eleven year old Jojo was with me on that 5k run, and she wanted to cry just as badly as she had that day. My legs just didn't work, and try as I might I couldn't run for more than a few minutes at a time without having to stop and walk. My attempts to drink water on the fly resulted in a lot of splashing and not much slaking of thirst. 5k might as well have been a million miles, the way it felt to me.

BUT. And here's the really, really important thing. I finished. Stumbling, walking, shuffling, barely jogging, not crying, I finished. And there were Julia and her husband Tom (manager of aforementioned Cycle Surgery and all round athlete extraordinaire) cheering me on. "Sprint finish!" they yelled, and do you know what? I did. I sprinted the last 20 or so meters as if my life depended on it. And, despite everything, I'd caught up a couple of places. I wasn't last. There were others who found it even harder than I did.

I've learned a few things from this experience. For starters, I've learned that triathlons probably aren't my thing. I'm unlikely to ever be a strong distance runner, and I far prefer a leisurely breaststroke on a summer's day to near annihilation-by-wetsuit. I've got the message loud and clear that if I set myself a physical challenge, I'd damn well better train properly for it. But I've also learned that determination to finish can take you an awfully long way. That what feels like crushing loneliness will pass when your friends pat you on the back and tell you that you "rock" just for being there with them.

Jojo, Tom and Julia, triathletes all!

So THANK YOU to the wonderful Julia and Tom for all their support, as well as to Rita and Peter, who came to watch and massively boosted morale. Thanks to everyone who emailed or called me to pledge their support and find out how it went. And thank you to Julia for the idea. Next time she kicks a triathlon's ass, I will be there, cheering her on. I will remember this experience forever, and always cherish the fact that I made it to the finish line.
Two down, twenty-eight to go...


  1. Oh babes I had no idea it was so tough!! I had assumed from the photos that you had found it a doddle! You have a great game face - i imagine yo uare good at poker (or a good bluffer anyways!)

    I felt the same thing with the wetsuit on Monday it was pretty strangly - didn't help that my goggle straps had come undone and had entwined themselves around my neck and were actually strangling me! It's quite a funny situation being against the clock and trying to undo stuff at the back of your head while your arms are restrained in tight rubber!!!

    I think i completely misunderstimate how hard a sprint tri is cos I imagine the individual stages as not being too bad (though too be honest i haven't ridden a real bike for years!) but starting each one is pretty tough and on Monday after 4 lengths of the lido I was seriously worried I had been overzealous in my taking on of the swim but after a few more lengths I finally got into my stride.

    I love the fact that your first transition wasn't too bad cos the wetsuit was already half off!!!! I did a proper belly laugh when i read that - so thank you :)

    You really are a trooper babe and your determination is inspiring - especially through the loneliness stage, awe well done hun x x x

  2. Hi there -
    I got to your blog via Amanda Palmer and am loving reading it. You and I are about the same age (I mean that literally - within a couple of a weeks) and I had a list of things to do before I turned 30. Now I'm 30, the list just keeps going - and it has included triathlon, marathon and physical challenges. I did the London Tri this year (yeah, I also live in London) - the longest length of tri I've ever tried after my efforts at sprint - and I completely recognise the feeling of loneliness and misery you've described here. And I was at the AFP gig which you described PERFECTLY. Fucking brilliant (excuse my language). Anyway - just wanted to say keep writing, this is a great blog and very relateable, too. And congratulations on the sheer guts of getting through the triathlon as well x