Why Triathlon?

Why Triathlon?

1900m swim or 76 lengths of a pool; Yep I can do that, 56 mile cycle, again tick and 13.1mile run, no worries. Altogether? Why not? That was my thought process, or at least lack of thought process when I discovered the Cotswold 113 middle distance triathlon, total distance - 70.3 miles. Only in triathlon would 70 miles be termed a middle distance. I paid my dues and started the training. I’m not going to labour on about the training as that’s not the interesting part, instead I will jump forward to the actual event.

I arrived at the registration the night before; as is normal for triathlon events, found the tent next to a picturesque lake in the middle of the Cotswolds that held race registration. Then spoke to a harassed official and received my goodie bag with my race numbers, some none descript crap and leaflets for companies I’d never use. As I turned to leave, I thought I’d confirm the location of the campsite.

”Mate, that the campsite down there?” waving my arm in the general direction of the site.  

“Yeah” was my reply.

Off I trundled into scouting hell. Alarm bells should have rung then as I set up my tent in the middle of a jamboree. Top tip, look for other bikes that indicates other triathletes! In my defence I was tired, nervous and not really too concerned as I headed off to find food.

Midnightish: Bang Bang “Hello, Tent!”’

Me sleepily “what?”

“Are you a member of …… scouts or not?”

“NO! I’m doing the tri”

“You have to move!!!”

“What? Its midnight and I’m up in 4 hours and covering 70 miles. Couldn’t you have done this in the 4 hours of daylight we had? The bike kind of gave it away I might not be a scout”

This conversation went on for about 10 minutes, before I gave up and left. So, very disgruntled, I found myself with my tent under my arm and bag across my shoulder pushing a bike across a field in the middle of the night. The scoutmaster did, in his defence, offer to help but if you know me well enough then you can hazard a guess as to what my reply was! Not one of my most eloquent of outbursts.

Luck was in as I found the admin team from the race and was shown a place to pitch my tent, 3 meters from the finishing tunnel. It was 1 am before I settled down to sleep but to my surprise, was already awake when the alarm went off just after 4am. I tucked into a bowl of minibix, gathered my belongings and headed off to the transition to the sound of sleepy triathletes waking up.

The transition area of a triathlon is a very complicated affair. To put this in simple terms; there are 3 entry/exit points during an event. Athletes will enter the transition from the swim at point A, leave with the bike at point B and exit for the run at point C. Only Athletes doing the event can enter and only after the race number on your bib is checked against the number on your bike. As you take your bike into transition to rack it ready for the race basic safety is checked. i.e. you have brakes and helmet that fits.

The transition area itself comprises of a fenced off area with what looks like long clothes racks in lines. These racks have race numbers on them so it’s a simple matter of looking for your number and hanging the bikes saddle off them.

This is where the rituals begin. I start with checking energy gels in my bike bag, opening the first ready for after the swim. Next, socks placed into my cycle shoes and a towel laid out just in front of the bike. I’m constantly looking at the sky thinking ‘Is it going to rain?’ My helmet is turned upside down with the straps open for ease of wear. Running shoes are then placed in front of the cycle shoes. These shoes have elastic laces for ease and speed. Finally, I pin my race number onto my race belt and lay this across my handle bars.

I’m the king of faffing so I spend the next 30 minutes worrying. Do I wear gloves? Is it going to rain? (again and again) Do I wear a waterproof jacket? And about a million other minor points.

Other athletes around me are doing the same, there’s a nervous tension/excitement in the air. It’s a flat course so it brings out the ‘PB’s’(personal best) with their bikes that cost more than my car and the aero helmets (which look like jar jar binks ears) and a multitude of gadgets. People can be seen visualising the race, walking their way through each stage and the route they will take to each exit. Me? I look for a coffee and pray the queue for the toilet isn’t too long.

After lubing up my shoulders and calfs in baby oil to aid the removal of wetsuit. It’s not advisable to use baby oil as it rots the neoprene. Well, as I got mine off ebay and it has a dirty great hole where no one would want a hole I personally don’t care. It’s time to don the wetsuit, over the top of a tri suit. Now, a tri suit is the most unflattering of garments ever invented. If you think skin-tight lycra on men, either one in need of a good meal or could do with missing a few, you would have an idea.

I wade into the lake which has now taken on the air of zombie lake. A light mist rolling across the surface of the lake with a distinctly menacing air, (or that could be nerves). The air horn blew and we were off. Have you ever seen film footage of a carcass being lowered into a piranha infested river? You have? Well that’s what an open water swim with 500 people all doing the front crawl at the same time looks like.

I try to settle into an easy stroke, 1,2,3 breathe, 1,2,3 breathe. I glide my lead arm out to the front trying to avoid the thrashing feet. A sudden thought hits me ‘I’m going to get my fingers broken by a foot’. I settle on trying not to think about it. I turn to breathe, water floods down my throat. I cough and splutter and carry on. I feel a hand close around my ankle, a sharp tug and I’m pulled back and once more under the water. I kick out and feel a satisfying thud as my heel connects with a chest. Revenge. I pull a little harder, someone swims over me again pushing me under. I use the anger to fight the panic. I’m disorientated but settling into a rhythm as I round the first marker. The group has spread out and as we swim in our twos and threes, I see the stage and with a final effort my feet touch the ground. Thank God.

Up out of the water I go, trying to run. With numb feet, while pulling down my wetsuit zip, praying my arms don’t get stuck as I pull them free or I’d end up looking like an escape artist wearing a neoprene straight jacket. With the suit around my waist I find my bike so I kick off my wetsuit, click on my race number, put my shoes on and then finally my helmet. Triathlon rules state the bike must not be unracked before helmet is secured on the head.

Yet another rule of triathlon you must not get on your bike before you are told to. Normally it’s a line on the ground with an official. That’s what cost Jonathon Brownlee the silver as he got a 30 second penalty for doing just that during the Olympics. So off I ran, jumped on the bike on command and off I went. Thinking its 6.30am and I’m wet and cold. (Not for long). The bike course is fairly uneventful and the day starts to warm up before it gets to be bloody hot.  (Hottest day of the year I later found out). Take a lesson from me here about hydration. I took on about a pint of fluid in the next 2.5 hours and suffered on the run. It only takes a 2-3% drop in hydration to seriously effect performance. At this time I felt good and strong with a good ground speed.

Interestingly the only people I passed that had any problems with their bikes were those on the mega expensive dream machines, wonky wheels, poor gear changing, and punctures. God bless us poor people.

As I came to jump off the bike, my legs suddenly felt like a 10 minute old fawn, BUT in a lot of pain. Hamstrings and lower back felt like they could spasm at every step. I knew I was in trouble as the 300m to the transition area felt like 300 miles. I racked my bike, had an argument with an official that resulted in a 2 min penalty, had another Energy Gel which I take at set intervals throughout the race, and set off.

Did I mention it was hot? My brain was cooking. The running part of the course is 13.1 miles which thankfully was shaded for the majority. The course was a 3 lap affair around the lake with a short dip into the woodland. I ran expecting to get into my stride and the subsequent easing of my back and leg pain however, this increased, a lot.  I ran for an eon, whole families were born lived and died. The first marker came into sight…. Lap 1, 1 mile! So on I ran about 200m beyond the first was another sign lap 3, 11 miles.

How do you keep going? Various people use various tactics. For myself I always use the mantra ‘I’ve done harder’ but more importantly I never dwell on the total. I break it up. So I don’t think 1900m, 56 miles, 13.1 ,miles. But a swim, 2 Laps of the bike, 3 laps of the run. These are further broken down into manageable lumps. So all I was thinking was I have 1 lap to do, that was easy, I can manage another and then it’s finished.

On the second lap there was a portion of the route that meant we passed other competitors going the other way and as I came to this stage, I was bumped into. I absorbed the blow and kept on running. I wish. I was hurled, yep hurled, back like a petulant child throwing a rag doll and into a nettle filled ditch

I hit the ground and rolled to the bottom of the ditch. At this point I was just thankful it was dry, but did I mention how hot it was today? Up I leapt and off I sprinted with no one none the wiser….in my dreams! I’d chosen the only spot on the course that was packed with spectators and to add insult to injury, both my hamstrings chose this exact moment to go into cramp pulling my heels up to my backside. Wonder how I got out? On my belly, pulling myself up with the aid of nettles.

Off I went again very embarrassed and trying to pretend it didn’t hurt with the by now smirking spectators watching elephant man trundle off; but at least my back wasn’t playing on my mind.  Third and final lap over I headed for the finishing line to the sounds of more spectators shouting words of encouragement like ‘Don’t stop now’ 20 meters from the end. This always makes me grin.

Final time, I think, was 5 hours 7 minutes. Why do it? Well this is simple, because I can. Having a young veteran in a wheelchair clap and say ‘Well done mate. Keep going’ is very humbling as was watching the Team True Spirit guys doing the same event, but with no legs. If they can then I, quite frankly, have no excuse.