3am. “You’re doing what this morning?!” My brain shouts me awake.
“I’m doing a swim and a run. 500m swim, 5.7k run,” I reply. “Now shut up and let me get back to sleep.”
Individually neither of those two feats feels that difficult to me now. But putting them together is a whole new challenge. And one I hadn’t been able to practice.
Last November I took some swimming lessons to learn to breathe doing front crawl. Back then I had a triathlon in mind. I still do. But 400m was the goal. And it was hard getting there. It was hard enough swimming one length breathing properly. Far easier to continue thrashing about turning my head from side to side than to suffer the choking shock of getting it wrong and filling my nose and mouth with water.
But I learnt, with the help of a patient teacher, to quell the panic, swim slowly, breathe. And gradually I began the link the lengths together. 20m, 40, 60 then 100. It took more time, practising on my own, getting frustrated and stopping in the middle of the pool when my body wouldn’t do what I needed it to. Until one day I did manage to string 400m together. Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! It would be months before I could string it out to 500m – race distance for Killingworth.
I’m shaking as I make my porridge in the dim early morning light. The now familiar race day routine is not quieting my nerves.
As I drive towards Killingworth, the car dings an ice warning. “Hell’s teeth, it’s less than 3 degrees out there. What are you doing?”
I take Ian’s advice and begin long, slow pilates breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I keep it going through the whole of the journey.
Into the Lakeside centre and follow a group of four women who don’t know where to go at first either. We laugh nervously and say it’s our first time.
Into the sports hall to register. Number 20 marked on my arm. We’re in the first wave, so we’ll need to be ready to go in time for the race briefing.
Spotting a friendly and familiar face in the briefing room, I acknowledge my nerves and am calmed for a minute or two. Ian has led me to this place with his passion and enthusiasm and his expertise in getting the best out of the people he trains. I’m reassured for a minute or two. And then it’s really on.
I feel like a fake in my tri-suit. All the gear and no idea. “Who the hell do you think you are?” I block out my brain. I’m not listening.
Calm down I tell my reflection on yet another trip to the bathroom. I check off what I’ll need carefully, methodically, pinning my race number to my Fetch shirt. Deep breaths.
The pool is wide and clear and it has a deep end. That’s something unfamiliar of late too. At the end, I fold my shirt so I can see the red and yellow clearly. No new dubbed knight ever placed his armour with so much care and reverence. That is my standard, my courage, my pennant today.
Lining up at the start, I’m last to go in my lane. Good, there’ll be no-one tickling my feet, unless I’m really slow. Close my eyes and breathe some more.
The first swimmers are in the water and off we go in 10 second intervals. I jump in, sink down and the whistle goes. I’m off.
Panicky, panicky breathing. My chest is tight. I’m thrashing around like a fish on a hook. At the end of the first length I cling to the side for a moment and take a deep breath. “Slow down, deep breaths,” but my brain’s gone off in a huff. Serves me right for ignoring it earlier.
I carry on, determined to keep my head down, keep trying to find the smooth easy lines of training. I bash up against the lane ropes and swim a few strokes with my head thrashing from side to side, trying desperately to bring my breathing under control.
I gain it briefly, in patches. But then I struggle again and again. The end of each length is a sanctuary. A brief respite where I try to do battle with the panic and calm myself for the next set.
And then on length 8, the alarm goes off. I hear it and catch a glimpse of the red flashing lights as I turn to breathe. What now? Keep on swimming. I expect it’s a false alarm. They’ll tell us what to do.
At the end of the length, nothing. Keep on swimming. But the alarm continues and as we reach the deep end a marshall says “I’m sorry, you’ll have to get out. Swim to the end.”
Our rhythm disrupted, the swimmers in my lane take their time. I switch to breastroke for a stroke or two thinking, “I’m going to have to do that all over again.”
But there’s another announcement. It is a false alarm and we’re back in the race. I pause for a moment to collect myself and allow the swimmers ahead to stretch away up the pool. Okay, time to start again.
It’s better this time. I’m a little calmer, making more of an effort to breathe out under water and finding my rhythm more consistently. But I still wouldn’t say it’s good.
Half way and there’s no way I’m not finishing this. It’s just survival now.
“Remember, you’ve got to get out and run after this,” taunts my brain as I count down the last few lengths. It distracts me from my usual two length sprint finish, so that I only power down the last 25m. Glance at the watch – 12:50. Duck under the ropes and up the steps out of the pool.
Goggles and hat off in one move, but I’m grateful for the walk. A chance to catch my breath. Socks on, shoes on. A chance to gather the air in my lungs. I’m still pulling down my red and yellow breastplate as I head out of the door.
I’m on home ground now. This is running. This is what I do. And it feels good at first until my legs catch up with me. Then it goes a wee bit wobbly. But nothing I can’t handle. I’d been warned about this. Control the breathing, catch your breath.
I expect to feel a smack of cold as I run out along the road. But I’m fine. My legs feel a little stiff. But I’m okay. I try to push on through the stride. Just recce this first lap and see how I feel.
Runners come whiffling through the trees, steam billowing from their noses. I will not slay these Jabberwocks today. I let them go past and galumph on alone.
I focus on the trees. Once I turn through here, it’s the home straight. Except there are five in total. I ease off the pace a little, settle the breathing to somewhere comfortable. My strides shorten, but I don’t care. This is just about finishing.
Back around to the start and down the road again. I hear a car horn beep and there’s Ian, waving. Off to his own race. It gives me a boost and I run the rest of that one with a smile.
Just laps to count now and cheery marshalls willing me on. I become obsessed with the lap number, counting 3,3,3,3 at every step to make sure I don’t miss one.
This is really hard. Harder than the Great North Run? Hmm, I’m not sure. I’m already committed to a triathlon next year. And now I really recognise what a challenge that will be. But at the same time, I know I can build up to it.
The marshall at the road crossing tells me I’ve got faster each lap. I doubt it, but push on for the last one, with a nod or a thank you to each of my loyal squires as I pass.
Finally out of the trees and a right hand turn back towards the centre. No one ahead of me to chase down, but pride will not let me finish this without a flourish. I spur on my legs for the last 50m across the damp grass and cross the line.
Back in the centre, refuelled on water, banana and a couple of squares of finest 70% cocoa, the pain and stress quickly evaporates. I actually quite enjoyed that.
The swim felt awful, but 12:50 is only about 40 seconds more than my training time and given the disruption and my panicked breathing, it’s not that bad. And the run won’t win me any records either, but I did it. I wasn’t cold. And I even managed to smile for one camera.
In the shower, I’m careful not to scrub too hard. I want to keep that number 20 for a little longer. It’s a badge of honour, a hard fought prize. I’m no Lancelot or Gawain, but I hope you deem me a worthy champion today.
Nana – that one’s for you. Sorry it was a bit of a shabby swim, but I know you would have been proud of me. Thank you for your very precious final gift. I’m making it last. Love you and miss you, always xxx
Stats and stuff (official times)
500m swim: 12:51
5.7k run plus transition: 31:45
total time: 44:36
spot prize: 1 bottle of Shloer (it will taste like champagne)
self awarded reward: chocolate brownie and hot chocolate shot at my favourite local chocolatier