I completed my first Olympic Distance triathlon – The Cleveland Short Course – last weekend. I had a (mostly) marvellous time and I am so happy I womanned-up and took the plunge.
The Practice Swim
My main reservation about the triathlon was the open water swim – having not had a chance to ever practice, I was worried I would freak out and panic in the water. The main consensus was that ‘Yes, open water swimming can be a bit freaky’, so I ought to try and have a practice beforehand. I was working away during the week, and went down to the Liverpool Water Sports centre for a dip in the Albert Dock.
Stepping off the pontoon into the deep salty water, I had a horrible moment of dread. But not about the swimming so much as the dozens of little pink jellyfish bobbling about my feet. After being assured by another swimmer that they weren’t the stinging kind, I felt immediate relief and so felt completely relaxed. Top tip: invent a terrible imaginary enemy, then realise it is imaginary, to feel totally at ease in any situation.
I immediately loved the feeling of the buoyancy in the wetsuit – all I needed to focus on was the stroke, not trying to stay up in the water. Even breathing seems easier in the suit, somehow – you just roll and keep going. As luck would have it, Mersey Tri Club were meeting there at the same time, and so I was able to have good chats with them, and even got to practice a bit of swimming in a pack, and drafting behind them. I easily completed two 500m laps of the dock area, and would have been happy to do another, if I hadn’t been worried about wasting my energy for the race. My mind was made up: I would take part in Saturday’s race.
There are a lot of things to pack for a triathlon. So, I was a bit stressed and nervous before the event, but most of this was actually packing related. I don’t have clip-in pedals, so I had one pair of shoes less than most people, but even still the volume of things to remember (or forget) was massive. I didn’t let the reality of the race sink in until I was struggling to get into my wetsuit in a recently mown field, covered in cut grass from head to toe. By which time it was, fortuitously, too late to give up.
Bobbing around chatting with women from my tri club for our deep water start, it was easy to forget why we were there. Until the starting horn honked and everyone seethed in the direction of the first buoy. Except for me, who seethed alone in the direction of about fifty degrees East of the first buoy, then righted myself after about fifty metres to join the very back of the rest of the pack.
It was easy to find my rhythm with a little “bubble-bubble-breathe” mantra and the distance floated away. I quickly realised that I could either swim at a half-decent pace, or, swim in the right direction. Never both. So, I would swim about 15 strokes chugging along like a train, then lift my head out of the water with a breaststroke kick, and correct my course. Not the most elegant or speedy style, but it worked for me this time.
I can’t believe how fast 1500m seemed to go by. That’s 60 lengths! In a pool, 60 lengths feels like forever and I want a medal and a parade just for rounding it up to 64, which is a full mile. In open water, though, I couldn’t believe it when the final buoy came into sight. It was like time and space had shrank, and I’d been allowed to skip a third of the distance. (I must point out that this perceived speed is all relative – I was sixth from last in the whole field coming out of the water. Duncan Goodhew I am not.)
Sixth from last coming out of the water, over the course of the cycle, I was overtaken by five cyclists. And I surprised myself by absolutely not caring. Like Mum did at Coniston, I popped my ego in a box, and felt all the better for it. I’d managed the swim and I knew that no matter how slowly I did the rest, I would be able to complete the distance. It was a beautiful cycle round North Yorkshire, and I pushed along, digging deep up big hills, and singing little songs to myself on the way down. I shouted thank-yous to the wonderful marshals who were giving their Saturdays to stand out and help. One of my co-competitors had shown me how to gaffer-tape my energy gels to my bike frame, and I felt like like a total pro peeling them off. I even managed to have three whole drinks of water without dropping my bottle or falling off my bike (this is unprecedented).
I have to talk about my bum for a minute. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know my pain. For my usual practice long rides, I always wear my fantastically padded Rapha bib shorts. The minimal padding in my tri shorts did not cut it at all. Holy guacamole. By about 16 miles in, I was in agony, and operating a similar technique to my swim – 15 revolutions, stand up on the pedals, reconvene, start again. I even allowed myself to sob out loud on a quiet country lane, feeling desperate. Dude, how do Ironpeople cope with long rides in tri shorts? Forget all the athletic exertion, the pushing yourself for 140 miles – I have a newfound respect for what literal hard-asses you guys must be.
Last off the bike, I headed out across trails for the out and back run. I was thrilled, to be rid of the bloody bike, and to be doing my favourite discipline of the three. I chugged along, making up some of the time I’d lost before. I felt so peaceful and pleased. I overtook one nice man, and actually felt a little twinge of disappointment – I had made peace with being last in the race, and was quite looking forward to the story of it.
The marshals had left their spots along the swim and cycle routes, and had gathered by the finish. As the event was run by my tri club, they all shouted my name as I rounded the last corner and encouraged me a strong finish. I felt so loved and supported, I welled up as I crossed the finish line. There were so many people, both there at the event, and all around the world online, who had helped me to cross the finish line and I owe a massive debt of gratitude to every one. Thank you to all of you who offered advice on whether to do the race, in person, online, by text and by aeroplane writing. It was so, so, appreciated. I didn’t know whether I was capable of it, and you guys showed me I was. Proud isn’t the right word, as it has too much ego in it. I feel satisfied, and centred.
Have you ever come last in a race, or almost last? How did it feel?