In just over a week’s time, I’ll be taking part in my first standard or Olympic distance triathlon. That’s a 1500m open water swim, 40k cycle followed by a 10k run. Yeah, say it quickly, it doesn’t sound too bad.
Sure, I know people out there do some amazing endurance events. I read enough blogs about ironman or ultra-running to put my efforts into a very small perspective. But still, it’s a big challenge for me.
It will take me longer than any other sporting challenge I’ve done so far. And that’s a fact. Not false modesty that I’ll disprove when I put in a great performance and finish faster than I thought possible. The distances are roughly double those that I’ve done in my sprint triathlons. Individually, none of the three elements phase me. But together they add up to a significant endurance challenge.
Training for it has gone pretty well I think. I always have ups and downs with different sessions and in my confidence levels. A couple of weeks ago in the sunshine after a great run out on my bike and an amazing swim session , I was bouncing and up for it, ready to be at the start line.
Now, I’m a little more measured, realistic. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve dropped a couple of sessions because I felt tired and needed a rest more than I needed the training. I’ve been out on a run and turned back after 10 minutes because it didn’t feel right and I wasn’t enjoying it.
At Thursday night’s open water swim, I took a while to settle into doing front crawl. I had some moments of slightly panicky breathing and had to make a tough conscious effort to keep going, keep trying to get it all together. The little monkey who whispers in my ear ‘you can’t do this, you’re no good, why do you even bother?’ made an appearance. But if I didn’t exactly drown him in the lake, I managed not to give in to his taunts.
I was boosted by some praise from the coach, and keeping his support canoe in my sights as I swam helped me calm my racing heartbeat, control the adrenaline and swim something like a decent session before a touch of cramp made me opt out of the last couple of swim sets.
It was a big difference from my last time in the lake, where I felt almost reckless with confidence and pushed myself into the melee of feet, arms and bubbles alongside the other swimmers. But every swim is different. Actually every training session is different. And there are always lessons to learn.
So, I’ve reminded myself that progress isn’t always linear. You can have a good session, then a bad one. Just as you shouldn’t let one not so good session defeat you, you shouldn’t take one good confidence boosting session for granted.
I was also reminded of something I often say to other people – ‘look how far you’ve come, not how far you think you have to go’. That’s pretty much what the coach said to me on twitter after the swim session and it’s great advice. I am a much more confident and improved OW swimmer now than I was last year.
I’ve also got a lot more bike mileage under my belt and the running’s just had to look after itself. I’m not quite at the best I was a couple a years ago, but I’m not so far away. And if I’d only focused on running this year, I’m sure I’d be closer still. But right now I know I can cover the distance I need to.
I like to have a goal for a race. It helps me focus and can direct my decisions when there’s a lot of thoughts rattling round in my head. But I don’t want to set a time goal for this tri. I have a rough idea in my head about how long it will take me, but I’m not setting myself any limits. My goal is to finish.
Actually my goal is to finish smiling. And really I’ll have no reason not to smile. I’ve trained for this. I’m as prepared as I can be. I will be racing in familiar and beautiful surroundings. And my best and loveliest tri buddy Lesley will be there.
I’m counting down the days. Please let it be sunny.
So, last time I left the subject of open water swimming, I’d blundered and breast stroked my way round my first OW tri of the season, feeling rather unsatisfied that I’d been unable to control my breathing and swim front crawl.
Thankfully, there have been some significant improvements since then.
I returned to the same lake the week after my tri for another evening practice session, determined to get to grips with my breathing issues.
The weather had been kind and the water was several degrees warmer, which I think helped me a lot. I certainly didn’t get the same kind of heart-pounding breathlessness I’d had even when swimming with my face out of the water. Still, it took a bit of mental bullying to get my face in the water and to blow bubbles before I started swimming.
But once I’d bobbed about a bit, relaxed and stuck my face in, it was a completely different experience. I swam front crawl, smooth, easy, without always having to shout bubble, bubble, bubble to myself in my head to get myself to exhale with my face in the water.
I just bumbled round the short triangular course set out in the shallows of the lake, taking it easy with the front crawl. Getting my breath back and gathering my thoughts with a spot of treading water or breast stroking around the buoys and basically keeping out of everyone else’s way.
Some of the other swimmers were just happy to potter along too, and we kept checking on each other. A girl in a white cap came gasping up to one of the buoys and I waited for her to recover before we set out again together to complete the rest of the lap. Although we weren’t swimming close to each other, it felt reassuring to glance up and see her white cap as I took a breath and I relaxed and swam better and more controlled.
I swam for about 45 minutes, with little rest breaks and would have stayed in for another lap, but I’d had a twinge that suggested cramp in my calf on the last swim, so signed out elated after a session I could tick off as ‘conquering my swim demons’.
But when it comes to swimming, I’m learning not to take anything for granted. I thought I’d conquered my body’s natural flight response in the water last season, but found it came back this time round. So another session gave me another chance to test my new relaxed confidence.
The water was apparently a balmy 19C and once again I got in and prepared myself before I started swimming. And as soon as I broke into front crawl I knew I was fine. Remembering my thoughts from the previous week, I tried to make more of the rotation to breathe in (so much easier in a wetsuit) and set out to swim alongside or nearby other swimmers. I barely had to think about breathing out under water at all. It just seemed to happen naturally and I felt relaxed and at home in the water.
These are really good open water sessions run by the guys from VO2 Max Racing who organise several local triathlons. There are always a few different groups for those who want a longer swim further up the lake and one group which is coached by Barry from a canoe, typically doing harder swim efforts round the buoys.
I’d planned to just pootle round and stay out of their way as usual. But feeling brave and happy in the water, I decided to give the session a try. It meant I was swimming with a larger group and as we set off on some 1 min then 30 sec and 15 sec efforts, it was a bit like the melee at the start of a triathlon.
At first I held back a bit, trying to avoid the scrum, but as I grew more confident, I put myself in the mix, testing my open water nerves against a scramble of arms, feet, legs and bubbles. I got knocked, kicked, slapped on the side of the head and on one occasion it felt like someone was grabbing my wetsuit zipper. And I loved it.
There were a couple of gaspy moments, but the brief collisions were soon over and I managed my nerves and breathing to swim, find my space and push myself, kicking hard, shoulders burning and still come to a stop at Barry’s shout with a smile.
I’m still crossing my arms in front when I swim, especially my right one. But I seem to be okay at keeping in a straight line and even started sighting without lifting my head too far. But it was a great confidence boosting session and after 55 minutes in the water, including some decently hard efforts, I still felt good and strong. I can’t wait to get back in the water – and I don’t mean the pool
This race stands as the one I’ve done most often and the one I’ll keep returning to. The addition of chip timing and a very speedy online results service has only improved one of my favourite races.
And so I found myself in the centre of Newcastle on a sunny Sunday afternoon, photo bombing a line up of Fetchies in their distinctive red and yellow shirts, smiling, laughing, catching up with friends and meeting some new ones.
I didn’t know how this race would go. I had very few expectations, having focused my training on triathlon and leaving running to look after itself. But after feeling like I was wasting a weekend of beautiful weather resting up, I wanted to give it a good bash.
I left the chat and photos and went for a quick warm up to get my legs and feet into running form. I could feel the nerves setting in and told myself just to run well and enjoy it.
I wriggled into the starting area near a huddle of lovely Elvet Striders and had a chat with Alister about a possible new parkrun. Anyone in the Ashington area interested in getting one set up?
I was soon joined by the fab Penny and Megan whose chatter kept me calm as we waited for the start, even though I was too geed up to contribute much. There was a half hearted attempt at a verse of the Blaydon Races, and then a few minutes after the alleged start time we started to move forward and could hear the cathedral bells.
A walk down the cobbles and turn onto the street, running before I hit the start line, I was off and away, dodging in between the crowds and feeling great.
Round the first few twists and turns, finding space and avoiding the curbs and street furniture, I was soon looking for the wide spaces of the Scotswood Road to open up my run and start chewing through the miles.
But my initial enthusiasm for a quick start soon hit me in the ribs as I felt the twinges of a stitch. I eased back a little, focused on taking some deep breaths into my sides. That’s when I decided to let go of the tension I was holding. I smiled up at the sunshine and just said to myself, ‘Run!’
No clock watching, no thinking other than checks on my form – land light, bound forward, use my arms, keep straight, lift through my hips, smile. I’m racing and it feels good.
I bounce past Tony the Fridge getting shouts and pats and hand shakes from runners all around. I wave and say hi, then turn round and ask him to run a mile for my friend Zoe, before I bound on again. I can hear him for a good while afterwards, exchanging banter with the crowds.
Last year the Scotswood Road was a river. This time it’s a desert with the heat beating down and burning up through the concrete. Runners dodge to the side, seeking shade beside the industrial buildings, opting for cool over space. I jink left and join them for a while, but dodging signs and street furniture messes with my running rhythm and I return to the sun, where all I have to think of is the road ahead.
The band’s finishing Honky Tonk Women as I pass and I manage a burst of applause and push on, driven by the music. At the end of the road, there’ll be shade by the river, I tell myself. Just push on to the end of the road.
But I’m fading a little and I know it. My feet are falling flatter, my turnover slowing. I shorten my strides and ease on up over the bridge. A shout from Kelda gives me a real pick me up. I hadn’t expected to see anyone I knew there today.
On the brow of the bridge I see a girl in a Wallsend Harriers vest stretching out what looks like cramp. I call the name before I’m even sure it’s her, but it’s my running pal Kathryn. I shout out something to encourage her on, but I’m carried away and down before I can see if she comes along. I half expect to hear her footsteps as I’m baulked at the footbridge, stopped by the volume of runners passing through the narrow gap down to the riverside.
I’m slowed again a little as we run through the out and back section, though I’m glad of the chance to regather my focus and I grab a cup of water at the station. I keep one eye out for Kathryn on the out and back, but fail to spot her.
I pick up again as I run through the industrial estates and start picking off runners one by one to take my mind off the heat and the burn in my legs. There are no thoughts now, just targets, the next one and the next.
The next mile or so blurs into heat and colours. Black shirt, blue shirt, white vest – targets taken. But I’m fading again. Fighting to stay on my toes, feeling myself roll sideways. I push with my arms and lift my knees, but start to drift backwards and my targets come back at me. I start to count down the minutes until the finish, without really knowing, but I figure 16 at most. I push on.
I know there’s another little uprise before the finish, but I cannot hold the route for this race in my head. The crowds grow as we turn close by the old finish and a girl in glasses sticks to my shoulder for a while. I push on and take some distance, spotting another target just ahead.
I hear my name shouted a couple of times, but cannot place the voices and don’t risk losing time to look. I know the finish is close now, but I’m really running out of steam and the girl with the glasses goes ahead.
Then I’m onto the field, into the green and the sunshine and I can see the black inflatable finish line ahead. It’s still too far to hammer it, I think and then I hear a shout “Sprint!” It’s Adam, come to support his Elvet team mates on his crutches – although I don’t figure that out until later when I see him after the race. And I go.
It’s a longer run up than usual and I think I’ve overlooked it, but I keep on blasting and overtake a good few runners to the line, including the girl with glasses and the one in the white vest.
I manage to keep moving as the marshals shout for us to clear the lines and the masses pour through the finish. And it’s only as I collect my T-shirt that I actually look to see my time 49:08. I’ve never gone sub 50 before on this course 🙂
In the sunshine, I drink my bottle of water and scan the colourful crowds for familiar faces. I catch up with friends who’ve also had good runs and everyone is smiling. Canny racing.
Last year this was my first ever open water triathlon. This year my plan was to really focus on my triathlon training and complete it a lot faster. Well, the plans paid off!
After days of drizzle and temperatures feeling more like October than late May, early June, we’ve finally begun to see some sunshine and heat at the end of this week. And the day was as fine a tri day as you could wish for – sunny, with very little wind and the promise of heat from the sun.
I woke before the alarm and got ready, having set out all my kit the day before. I made some porridge but didn’t feel like eating it, so popped it in a bowl for later and hauled my bike and tri gear down to the car.
The QE2 tri has a great set up in the grounds of Woodhorn Colliery Museum. The old winding wheel from the pit forms a great backdrop, while modern windmills continue generating energy nearby.
I met my PT, Ian and one of his other clients Lee in registration where we got our race numbers and very nice race T-shirts and we made our way to the transition area together.
I don’t know what it is about triathlon set ups, but however early you are, time between arriving and start time seems to speed up. Once I’d got my bike and shoes laid out and run back to the car for my sunglasses, it was time to get the wetsuit on and head for the lake.
I wanted to get in the water early, as I’d been in on Thursday night and it was freezing. I knew I’d need a little time to get used to the temperature, relax and get my face in before the start. I took some deep slow breaths to calm my nerves as we picked our way across the gravelly path and down to the lake and did some shoulder and arm rolls.
I got in the water and floated quite quickly. It had certainly warmed up since Thursday night. But it took me a couple of goes to put my face in and breathe out. It seemed like there was barely any time before the hooter and we were off!
I started swimming strongly, mixing in with the other swimmers, but well away from the front. But I soon realised I was gasping for air when I turned to breathe and was trying to breathe in and out at the same time.
I slowed down to try and get things under control. I told myself to blow air out when my face was in the water, but I struggled, and choked a little. I swam a bit of front crawl breathing on every stroke, but I knew that would likely hurt my neck and tire me out.
I kept trying to get my breathing sorted, but after a few strokes each time, I was gasping. When I saw a man ahead of me breaking into breast stroke about half way to the first buoy, I gave in and did the same.
I did a bit of talking to myself in my head, trying to calm myself and bring my heart rate back to normal. I could feel it pounding and the top of my chest hurting as I’d been short breathing. But I kept on moving forwards with a slow swimming, head up breast stroke.
I did little deals with myself, counting strokes and then giving front crawl another go and kept on doing that to the first buoy. Now it was just a case of swimming back towards the lake side, which I thought would be easier, but the damage had been done and failing to find the right rhythm for front crawl, I carried on around with a mixture of strokes, drifting to the back of the field.
It was frustrating as, when I swam front crawl with my head in the water, bilateral breathing, I was swimming well and pulling away from the other swimmers around me. But I just couldn’t sustain it for very long.
At the final buoy I gave a good kick and did some more thrashing, breathing on every stroke crawl until I was in the shallows and able to stand up and gratefully take a hand out of the water. I glanced at my watch 19 mins – a disappointing swim after I have improved this area so much. But I’ve had hardly any open water experience this year and I’m still fighting my body’s natural instinct to hold my breath under water. I know I can overcome this, because I did it last year. I just need a bit more practice.
Anyway, swim done and I didn’t look back to see how many were left in the water, but I knew there wouldn’t be many. I jogged up the slope, catching my breath and unzipping my wetsuit off my shoulders. There’s quite a long run into transition from the swim at this event, but I was grateful of the chance to get my thoughts together for the bike.
Once at my bike, I shuffled the wetsuit down over my knees and off my feet, took off my hat and goggles and got my bike shoes and helmet on. Then it was a quick run out to transition, where Stuart, one of my fetch pals gave me a shout from his marshal position.
Hurrah, on the bike and it’s a sunny day, warming up nicely. I kept in a low gear turning my legs over as I rode out through the entrance to the museum and onto the road. Annoyingly a few bikes went past me early on. More places lost. But I knew I was only really racing myself and tried to keep focused on the course.
It’s a straightforward and flat bike ride, so I focused on turning my legs over, enjoying the sensation of drying out quickly as I rode into a light headwind, counting the roundabouts until the turn that would take me down the coast. I got passed by another couple of riders but kept them in my sights for a long way.
Skimming along beside the sea, remembering landmarks from last year’s race, I really started to relax and enjoy myself. Reminding myself to keep my shoulders relaxed, just looking ahead, down through Cresswell towards Lynemouth, with the power station chimneys and windmills acting as distant markers.
I got down on the drops on a nice smooth piece of road, but more often than not I had to keep my wits about me as there were lots of potholes. And I took the turn back inland a little faster than I expected, but managed to stay in control.
Heading back in, I re-passed the guy in a blue cycle top, realising as I did so that he wasn’t actually racing as he didn’t have a number. Probably just out for a nice ride on the coast. Still he was a good target to chase down and he lead me to my next one, a lady in a pink top who I also overtook.
Coming back towards Woodhorn Village, knowing I’d soon be turning back into the museum grounds there was another cyclist up ahead and I started to power on and chase him down. A cyclist standing watching at the side of the road, shouted “You can catch him,” and I did, just as we turned into the road back to transition.
For once I managed a moving dismount, right on the line and a fast rack of the bike and change of shoes out for the run. The route takes you round two laps of the lake. It’s mostly paved track, with a couple of sections of grassy paths and a loop around the back of the museum that goes up and down over some long grass.
My legs didn’t feel too bad off the bike, but I stuck to little steps and just moving forward as once again my breath was all coming from the top part of my chest and I wanted to get it under control.
The faster runners were coming pounding past and I tried to keep out of their way and give them a clear path t finish their races. Just over half way round, Lee passed, saying Ian was just behind me. That made me focus on my running form. I didn’t want Ian to see me shuffling when he’s worked so hard to get me bounding off my front foot.
A couple more runners went through. Each time I was thinking it was Ian and trying to put on a good show while bringing my breathing down into my lungs and getting it under control. He passed eventually, encouraging me to think of our running drills before bounding off to catch up with Lee.
A couple out walking beside the lake gave me an encouraging shout of “Well done, you’re nearly there,” as I approached the museum area. But I was not quite half way through.
Coming round for a lap and seeing the finish line so close, but having to run past it for another go is hard. But once I was back round by the lake again, I felt more settled. I’d controlled my breathing and was running a bit more freely. I knew I wasn’t fast, but I felt okay.
I was pretty much on my own for the rest of the run. I couldn’t see anyone ahead to chase or hear anyone behind to give me the hurry up. I just had to keep focused and race myself.
The second lap went quickly. I’d expected to fade a bit as it was getting hotter, but my legs stayed strong and after the last rounding of the museum I was able to pick up a bit of speed down the grassy bank and into a sprint and celebratory finish.
Ian and Lee were waiting, and I think a bit surprised at how much it had taken it out of me. But after a few deep breaths and a bit of race analysis I recovered enough to look at my watch and see 1:55:xx
Last year it took me 2:05:xx to do the same course, so that’s a huge personal best. And now the official results are out I can see that I improved in every single area swim, bike run and the transitions. Even though my swim was a lot slower than I have the potential to do, I still shaved 30 seconds off last year’s time.
So, I am really happy with that. I came into 2013 with a definite triathlon focus and all my training has been focused on multi-sport events. Ian has coached me to be a better swimmer, stronger on the cycle and changed my running style, as well as putting together all my training plans that have got me this far, so it’s great to be able to go show him that it’s working.
So, not everything was perfect and there are lots of lessons to learn. But there always are after any race. This is just the start of the season and I’m already looking ahead to my next challenge, my first standard distance event, with confidence.
Swim 750m 0:21:08
Bike 24km 0:54:50
Run 6km 0:36:48