A couple of years ago I went to Blenheim Palace to watch some friends compete in a triathlon. It was a cold, wet day in June (I think) and it was my good friend Jade’s first one. She’d told me in the December she had signed up and needed to work on both the cycling and swimming components of the three discipline event. I thought she was crazy. Who signs up for a triathlon if you’re not confident in all three???
Fast forward to 2017 and with two triathlon events and medals successfully under her belt Jade asked me if I’d consider taking part in a teeny tiny one in September. It was a relay event and they needed four for a team, but only had three. She was hoping I would be their fourth member. So, where do I stand with the three disciplines. Running: I can do. I’m training for a half marathon, so that bit I’m fine with. Swimming: swimming I can do. I’m a strong swimmer, I even used to swim for my local club as a child/teen. But this isn’t in a swimming pool. Nope. I’d have to swim in a lake. One that has muck and dirt and possibly fish. I’m not a clean freak, by any stretch of the imagination, but the thought of swimming in water that I can’t see through really freaks me out. Cycling: I had probably been on a bike twice in the last 20 years at this point and as a risk averse human being I found this to be quite scary too. My housemate often remarks that I’m scared of everything. So weighing up all these things what answer did I give? Yeah, sure. Why not. Sign me up.
As I said, I’m training for a half marathon so I’m often out running trying to increase my distance. So as far as training for the triathlon went, I started running to the gym and then swimming (that’s two disciplines in one session, it totally counts!). The triathlon swim was only 250m so I managed that (and then some) after a 5k run. Jade let me borrow her bike for the event, so I went to hers on two occasions to get used to it. The first trip was a ‘this-is-how-you-ride-a-road-bike-and-all-the-silly-gears-type’ thing. Sounds stupid, I know. But I’d never ridden a road bike and the gears are weird. I didn’t even know where I was supposed to put my hands on the handle bar! The second trip was a ‘let’s-do-the-distance- so-you-know-what-to-expect-type’ outing. It was only 8km and took us around 25 minutes. Mainly on cycle paths and we practiced things like over-taking (not that I expected to be doing much of that) and what it feels like to be over-taken (that seemed more likely). Other cyclists scared me and my spatial awareness didn’t quite feel right on the bike, meaning I was giving myself far too much space when passing things like trees and lamp-posts and I was also freaking out when other cyclists over-took, in my opinion, too close. We fully intended to go to a practice lake too, so I could wetsuit up and experience what it might feel like on the day to swim in water that wasn’t a clean chlorine blue colour… But our combined schedules were really difficult to co-ordinate meaning Jade and I traipsed up to the ‘practice lake’ two days before the triathlon event. Only, when I got there and looked at the water; oh it was green and murky and not in the slightest bit clear. I immediately turned to Jade with a ‘oh I can’t do this’ look on my face. We got out of the car to get a closer look and at the bottom of the entry ramp, happily swimming around, were about 20 fish. FISH. Big ones. I could see their gawping mouths laughing at me. No way. I could have cried. In my head I knew I had to do it. Wetsuit up, suck it up and get in. But I just couldn’t. We left the practice lake feeling like a bit of a failure. Jade assured me that the lake on the day wouldn’t be as bad. Her boyfriend had trained in it. He knew. She did her best to allay my fears. There was even an Instagram hashtag; #lake62 where I could go and look at the lake I would be swimming in. I mentally prepared myself for the practice lake, but deep down I knew my team was depending on me getting in the lake. I would have no choice.
Triathlon day came around pretty quick. Jade picked me up at 6.50am on the Saturday morning (that’s earlier than I leave for work FYI) and off we went, stopping for a coffee on route, to the Cotswolds. I’m not going to lie, I felt physically sick. I knew how important it was to eat before the event, but jeezo, my stomach was not welcoming food. We arrived and registered (I had to push the bike from the carpark to the event and felt like a complete fraud; ‘how does this thing work?’) and then after a quick panic pee we set up our transition point. Kitty, bless her, one of our team members was brilliant with tips and advice for me; leave your towel out, trainers on top with socks, race belt with number facing back for the cycle and forward for the run. She was brilliant, in fact all three girls were. Really trying to keep me calm while we waited to start. We then had to attend the race briefing, which consisted of instructions for the swim, cycle and run. Swim out to the first buoy, then round the right of it aiming left towards the next one then back to the start; watch out for the ramp as it’s slippy coming in. Cycle out to the road where you must observe the highway code (we did not realise that the cycle would be on the road with traffic… I was nervous enough as it was without having cars to contend with…), keep turning left, follow the signs. Run round the lake, follow the path. Hand over the timing chip to your next team mate, attach to left ankle. Race is complete when fourth team member crosses the line.
Clemmie was up first. I got my wetsuit on while she did her swim and was back in time to see her run to the transition point to get on her bike. I knew I wouldn’t have to go to the transition point until she was at least on her run, so I had about 20 minutes to wait. People kept asking me how I was feeling. My only answer was ‘I think I’m going to vomit.’
Waiting at the transition point was awful. Clemmie was on her run and was probably due back any second and I just had to stand there, looking at the water, trying not to heave. I’m sorry, Clem, but I’ve never been so upset to see you. When you came round the corner and caught my eye I actually swore. It was my turn. The lake was beckoning…
I was expecting the lake to be colder. As I navigated my way down the ramp, trying not to slip, my bare toes entered the water. Relief that it wasn’t ice cold, was my first feeling. It wasn’t going to take my breathe away when I was submerged. I waded till about waist height before throwing myself into swim and immediately snorted the water. I breast stroked till I cleared the water out of my nose, but my breathing was quick and shallow. I dunked my head under the water and again, to my relief, I could see. The water was green tinted, but clear. Why could I still not breath? I decided to do front crawl with my head above the water till my breathing relaxed, but that’s actually quite hard work so I settled on breaststroke (head above water) till I could take deep breaths. It didn’t happen. At no point during the swim did I feel like I could swim properly. In a pool I think nothing of front crawl with my head under the water popping my head out under my arm every third stroke to breath. But in this lake, with the wetsuit on, swim cap and goggles, I just couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. After passing the first buoy I started to feel a bit panicked; like I wasn’t going to make it to the end. With my breathing all over the place and not enough oxygen getting to my muscles I started to feel tired (which is ridiculous, I’d been doing breaststroke at a fairly leisurely pace for about 4 minutes at this point) and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep swimming. I might have to call over the support canoe and be toed in… At this point my fear of flying and the multiple long haul flights I’ve taken over the last 12 months really helped (hang on, there is a reason for this, I swear!). You see, on all of those flights when the anxiety started to take hold I concentrated on my breathing; deep breath in, long slow breath out. It’s calming and slows your heartrate. I also try to take my mind to a happier place; when flying I always go back to when my nephew was about 10 months old and refusing to sleep. I can remember standing in my brother’s living room with my nephew in my arms and feeling the hot weight of him against me. His little hand curled round my neck and holding on the my hair at the nape. I remember feeling this surge of love for him. That he trusted me, in that moment, to sleep on me. It’s such a sensory memory, the weight of him in my arms, the heat radiating from his body, the smell of his hair, the swell of love in my chest. Obviously in the lake it wasn’t peaceful or quiet enough to take my mind to that memory, so instead I thought back to the week before when I was swimming in the pool at my gym. Feeling my buoyancy in the water, the push forward after every kick, the power in my arms as I pulled myself through the water. Remembering that I CAN swim and I AM good at it. This kept me going and before I knew it I was at the end. I have to say too, that there was a woman behind me doing front crawl, head in water an’ all and she never gained on me despite my leisurely pace!
Wow, I waffled on a lot about the swim, didn’t I?! You’ll be pleased to know I have less to say about the cycle and run!
Getting to the transition points Jade and Kitty were on the other side of the barrier asking me if I was okay; they’d obviously watched my half baked attempt at the swim and knew how worried I’d been about it before. I quickly explained that I just couldn’t breathe properly, like the weight of the wet suit on my chest had felt suffocating. They told me not to worry and that they were so proud that I’d done it. They then talked me through the transition from wetsuited swimmer to streamlined cyclist; ‘Put your helmet on, wait, are you putting on that tshirt? Right, now wipe your feet on your towel and socks on, now trainers. Good. Don’t forget your belt. Take it easy, no rush.’ You wouldn’t think this was a race, would you! I loved that they were on hand to help me though, I was so disappointed with my swim performance that my brain couldn’t compute basic tasks such as putting a tshirt on before my cycle helmet!
The cycle itself was okay. I was incredibly nervous about cars on the roads and was sorely disappointed by the lack of signage warning motorists that an event was taking place and to look out for cyclists. I quickly got into the swing of it though and actually felt like I was going quite fast. The three other cycling triathletes who whizzed past me quickly put me back in my place though; I am a novice cyclist who will keep left so all you other pros can easily pass me. I even started to feel like I enjoyed it, but was still relieved when it was over. Finally, I was on to the run. This is the bit I can do. This is my strength (I never thought I’d say that!) and I’m not afraid of it. I dismounted the bike and grabbed the handle bars ready to jog to the transition point. Never, ever underestimate how wobbly your legs are after riding a bike. I couldn’t persuade my legs to run, so I walked to the transition point. I think I walked quickly, but without looking like a bum wiggling power walker. I hung up my bike and by then my legs had acclimatised to the biped method of transport and I could successfully run again.
The run itself was only a kilometre and a half. Easy. Even after the swim and the cycle. It was off-road though and the rain the day before had made it quite muddy (not thrilled to be running through mud in my Nike running trainers, but oh well) meaning a couple of times I had to walk to get around the mud puddles. Rounding on the last corner I saw Jade in the transition point ready for her go. At this point I was buzzing. I had just done a triathlon. And I didn’t drown or fall off the bike. Two things I was genuinely quite scared of…
The triathlon was short, I know. And to many people it wouldn’t have been too much of a challenge; 250m swim, 8km bike ride and a 1.5km run. To me, the distances weren’t the challenge either. Swimming 250m in a pool is easy. Yeah, I don’t cycle often, but I’ve done plenty of spin classes to I am familiar with the burn of a hill climb (even a static one!) and last weekend I ran 8 miles (~12km), so what’s a 1.5km run?! And, even doing one discipline after the other, I was only exercising for about 45 minutes. My fitness level allows that relatively easily. So yeah, this wasn’t a physical challenge for me. It was a mental one. I had to face my fears and get on with it. My housemate (the one who tells me I’m scared of everything) said I seem to be facing a fear a year, which could be a blog post in itself! Last year was skiing and a long haul flight, this year it was four solo long haul flights with apparently riding a bike and open water swimming thrown in there too. I think it’s good to challenge your fears though. I don’t want to live my life limited by what scares me.
When I told people I was doing a small triathlon, most of them said I’d get the bug and want to do more potentially bigger ones. I laughed. Nope, definitely not. I’d hate it. I was convinced I’d come out of the lake crying as I headed for the bike. Now that it’s done and I have a huge shiny medal for it? Yeah, maybe I’d do another. If nothing else but to redeem myself on the swim. I should have done better. Next time I’ll know what to expect and maybe won’t panic as much. I’m so glad I’ve done it and I do feel inspired to train harder and better for the next one.
So yeah, I am that person who signs up for a triathlon knowing I can only really do one of the three disciplines. But, I think that just made it more of a challenge and apparently I like a challenge…
The event was run by LPS Events, in case you’re interested!