Run, Ride, Sink or Swim
There are all sorts of things that run through your mind whilst treading water just before the start gun of a triathlon. Wriggling about in a lake outside Newcastle last July as I readied myself to undertake the final event of my first triathlon season, I thought of nothing more profound than my lunch - something carb-tastic and containing hot, melted cheese - the ultimate treat to reward my body for what would be three hours of damned hard work: swimming, cycling and running my muscles to hell and back.
At the sound of the sixty second warning however, my thoughts drifted: it had been a year of learning, of personal and sporting growth and right then I felt poised and determined.
By the time I heard ‘thirty seconds to go!’ boom from the microphone across the lake, I’m unsettled; my goggles leak. Twenty seconds remaining and I’ve refocussed, but at ten, I make the mistake of turning around… Behind me hundreds of other swimmers line up, covered in neoprene, their yellow swimcaps bobbing up and down a foot above the surface of the water.
What do we look like from above? I wonder as the announcer yells ‘3, 2, 1!” Perhaps an aqueous art installation - a collection of buoys in a murky green lake that mean something, nothing, and everything at the same time.
I’m going to get mauled, I think, as I start swimming. Why on earth did I drift up here to the front, when there’s a very high chance I’ll get swum over or smacked in the face by competitive triathletes as they charge furiously around the 1500 metre course (before cycling, just as furiously, for around 40km and then running for another 10)?
The answer, I know only too well, is because I wanted to shave a few seconds off my time. Somewhere in the last 7 months, since I first dipped a toe into the weird and wonderful world of triathlon, I’ve gone from nervous novice to ambitious amateur. The challenge - and the resulting memoir Run, Ride Sink or Swim - began with a question, as I wondered how this sport had grown so fast in both popularity and scope? The first recorded triathlon event was held in California in 1974, and yet within less than three decades it had joined the Olympic ranks, appearing in the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000. On a recreational level too, triathlon has given pleasure and purpose to so many; there are now over 10,000 annual events and 3.4 million active triathletes worldwide (according to the International Triathlon Union in 2013) .
The only way to find out was to experience it. First there was a sprint distance swim-bike-run event in November 2013 in boiling hot St Lucia, more like a carnival than a race. Then there was an Olympic (that’s double the sprint) distance in April 2014 in windy Lanzarote and two more sprints in Hyde Park (May) and Blenheim (June). And finally, there was Newcastle, Olympic distance, a chance to put all that training to the test and find out what improvements I had really made.
With regular practice and tuition my swimming (though still far from excellent) altered radically, from beached whale to slippery fish. Road cycling became less of a terror, and my legs adapted to the demands of 90-minute rides. And, whilst injury prevented the kind of training that might make me run faster, I learnt to overcome the jelly legs that follow a long ride, and to harness my mind and canter on.
But the real changes were more long-lasting and weren’t just physical either. The self-confidence and creativity that triathlon training requires and builds is a subtle but surefire thing. I felt my self-belief expand for every race I finished, and realised more each time how little performance actually matters. Yes, finish times can and will improve if you train hard, but ultimately it’s the community you’ll inhabit and the courage of those within it that’ll keep you coming back for more.