Castles Challenge sprint triathlon

Another weekend and another tri. Sprint distance again, but for me, the added challenge of my first sea swim event. The venue – Bamburgh castle on the beautiful Northumberland coast. It made for one of the most scenic, testing and tough tris I’ve done so far.

Transition area in the grounds of Bamburgh Castle
Transition in the grounds of Bamburgh Castle

I’m in the middle of a roll of back to back race weekends, and in truth, I hadn’t really given this one much thought. Having set my sights on standard tris, a sprint suddenly becomes a more manageable. And I was amazingly relaxed about this one.

But everything was different. The start time for one thing – 5pm. What a great time to start a tri, I thought, a nice summer’s evening on the beach, with the promise of music and food afterwards. But it was weird, waking up at my usual early hour and not rushing to get into tri gear and go.

I didn’t really know what to do with myself for the morning, just pootled about, getting my kit ready, doing some chores around the house, going for a walk into the village – very much aware I was just killing time.

It was hot and sunny. People were out and about enjoying the sunshine, but I wanted to keep off my feet as much as possible and not be wandering aimlessly. Still I went down to my beach to check out the sea conditions, hoping they’d be similar an hour further up the coast. It was dead calm, barely a ripple of a wave.

What to eat, and when? When to leave? I decided to just go as normal with breakfast and lunch and hope for the best. The heat made me reluctant to eat much anyway, and I kept reminding myself ‘it’s only a sprint’.

In the end, as always I was a little later than I wanted to be, as my chain slipped loose as I was loading my bike into the car. And then I got slowed down by roadworks. So that as I was approaching Bamburgh, I started to see cars with bikes on circling for parking.

But I got lucky, as I was doing a 20 point turn to manoeuvre into a tight space, one of the day trippers  left and I drove straight into their spot. I unloaded my bike and gear and made my way over to registration, knowing that my buddy Lesley would be there.

It was a bit chaotic trying to get through to the cricket pavilion, with day trippers, dogs and kids circling round me and my bike and my transition bag, but I made it. I swear I get more anxious about getting to races and registering than I do about racing.

With my race number, chip and attractive pink swim hat, hugs from a rather nervous looking Lesley and my favourite race photographer Bob Marshal, we went to get set up in transition in the field below the castle.

Path down to the beach at Bamburgh
We ran up and down this path three times

Where does the time go when you’re setting up for a tri? I thought I’d been pretty quick and not faffy, getting my bike and shoes sorted, but suddenly it was 4:20pm and race briefing was only minutes away. I had a brief chat to my coach Ian, and his lovely family, there to support and enjoy the sunshine. And then I had to dash off for a last trip to the ladies before I started wriggling into my wetsuit.

Race briefing was on the green in front of the stage and the instructions were pretty straightforward. But I started to realise what a big race this was. Hundreds of people wriggling into wetsuits, standing with their friends and club mates, getting ready to race.

I went through some arm and shoulder warm ups, took some deep breaths and tried to get myself focused for the race. I finally got the message to my brain that I was about to do a race.

We’d been warned that it was a long transition up from the beach to the bikes – about 400m of sandy paths through the dunes and up a bank before hitting the grass and tarmac of the castle green. It was bad enough walking down it to get to the swim start, thinking we’d have to negotiate it 3 times more between the bike and the run.

Once on the beach, any fears about rough seas were demolished. It was about as flat calm as the sea can be. But there were no sign of the swim buoys, still being dragged into place with the race due to start.

The delay worked to my advantage as it gave me plenty of time to get in the water, to get used to the temperature, bob around and try a few strokes to relax and get my breathing sorted. In previous tris, I’ve never felt like I have enough time to settle before the start, but just relaxing in the beautiful clear sea next to Lesley made this my most relaxed swim preparation ever.

The water was a bit chilly, but I didn’t think it was too bad. It was perfectly clear, meaning you could see the sandy bottom as it was reasonably shallow too.

So, it was a bit of a delayed start as we made our way back out of the water to the start flags, ready to run back in off the beach – another first for me. A quick round of good lucks, the hooter sounded and we were off, plodging back into the water and then swimming out towards the first buoy.

Swim start at Castles Challenge sprint tri - photo Bob Marshal
Swim start at Castles Challenge sprint tri – photo Bob Marshal

It was a bit of a scrum, with 300 swimmers taking to the water at once – my biggest mass start to date. I ploughed straight in, high on adrenaline, wanting to attack all my fears and for once to have a good swim.

It was like swimming in a soda stream. I the cool clear waters of the warm up churned into millions of tiny white bubbles as feet and arms and black rubber clad bodies bounced off each other, looking for space. Somehow I managed to survive the worst of it, with just a few knocks and only a kick to my chest that sent me spluttering to the surface for air.

I was breathing every stroke, trying to get a sense of where I was, keeping my head up and trying to stay out of trouble. I tried to get into my full stroke, but struggled with a lack of clear water and my brain starting to take over after the mad rush of the start. There was a lot of head up, water polo style crawl which was tiring me out quickly.

As I approached the first buoy, I was stuck in a mass of bobbing pink heads, no space to strike out into full stroke. I resorted to a mix of breast stroke and treading water to negotiate the melee and gave myself a bit of time out to gather my senses.

Once round the buoy there was something like clear water, but I could hear myself hyperventilating, even with my head above the water, no doubt due to the jumble of the mass start and my subconscious swim fears. So I gave myself some time, broke out the head up breast stroke, keeping moving, but giving myself chance to get my breathing under control.

I settled and calmed and looked ahead. The second buoy was a long way away. Time to get moving. And I broke into front crawl, trying to keep it slow, steady, pull through every stroke and give myself chance to breathe.

I counted strokes again to make myself battle through the temptation just to do breathe easy breast stroke. 15 strokes front crawl, then a breather, 21, then 30. After that I stopped counting and just swam as much front crawl as I could.

Beach and Bamburgh castle
Beach and Bamburgh castle

The second buoy seemed like it was moving further and further away. How could this feel so hard after I’d swum such a ridiculously long leg in the standard? I banished negative thoughts with Chrissie Wellington’s tweet to all weekend racers “Race with all your heart and soul, remember your motivation and smile always!”

Head down and more front crawl. Pulling away from the girl swimming alongside me. In clearer water, swimming my own race, starting to relax and enjoy the feel of the beautiful clear water. Still short breathing a little, but keeping it controllable.

I breast stroked round the second buoy and began the home stretch. With shallower waters and the certainty that it would soon be over, this was the most comfortable and consistent portion of my swim. A couple of times I drew level and passed other swimmers. I even tried latching onto some fast feet for a bit of a pull, but quickly decided I’d rather strike out in clear water, than face the turbulent bubbles.

Round the last buoy and swim for the shore. The shallows came quickly and I was unsteadily onto my feet and ploshing up onto the shore. Another hit of adrenaline and my breathing was quick and heavy. I just kept looking a few feet ahead ploughing through the soft sand, moving relentlessly forward. I walked up the steepest parts of the dunes, giving myself chance to drawn in oxygen and settle my breathing, moving my wetsuit down over my hips.

Once at the top I broke into a rough trot over the grass to my bike. Wetsuit came off quite easily, with a bit of a wrestle to get it over my chip. Then helmet, shoes, bike – off I go running with the bike towards the road.

I stay in a low gear to get my legs turning over and give myself chance to catch my breath. My hands are sandy from taking off my wetsuit, and I can feel bits of grit and sand stuck to my wet feet in my bike shoes.

Me on my bike with Bamburgh castle in the background
Heading off on the bike – photo Bob Marshal

I take a slurp of my drink and change up through the gears, but soon the road starts to climb and I drop back, negotiating the hill. The turnover is slow but steady. I’m trying not to burn too much effort yet, still settling from the swim.

The long up has a correspondingly comforting down. A chance to freewheel, find the drops and actually start enjoying this ride on a beautiful sunny evening on country roads lined with hedgerows and further beyond the blue of the sea.

For once, I’m riding with other racers. They are in front and behind and I’m never really out of sight of any. It makes for interesting racing as I start to catch some on the small inclines only to become aware of faster riders coming from behind.

This is a no drafting race, so I do my best to steer clear, riding out as I pass, but it’s not easy when the faster bikes also come by, especially when road and cycle traffic starts to come the opposite direction on the out and back course.

I keep drinking throughout the ride, with the goal of finishing my bottle as it’s a hot day. I keep the effort steady, but not stupid, feeling strong and enjoying the ride in the sunshine.

There’s a rough bit of road and a bumpy patch that catches my breath about a mile or so before the turn around point. I’ve opted just to wear a simple stop watch for this race, so I have no real idea about time or distance, other than how it feels.

Through a fairly scrappy u-turn and back along the same road in the opposite direction. I tell myself to keep up the effort and put a bit more work in on the return leg. The cyclists ahead of me make it easy as I start to chase them down – not something I usually get chance to do in a race.

Soon after the turn around, a vision in red approaches and waves at me smiling. It’s Lesley, looking fast and furious on the bike. But if she hadn’t spotted me and waved, I’d have missed her.

My legs feel good and strong and I surprise myself overtaking a couple of girls on the slight inclines on the return leg. There’s one in a distinctive red and yellow Northumberland tri suit, number 305 who I pass, and then who overtakes me a couple of times and shouts encouragement as she does.

I seem to catch her on the hills and then she catches me napping on the straights. But the friendly banter really does help me stay focused and I’m grateful, even if I am surprised to find myself climbing so strongly. I cycle pretty flat routes in training and never think of myself as much of a climber.

My lower back is starting to niggle a little as it sometimes does on longer rides (I really do need to get myself a proper bike fit). But it’s manageable and I know it will go once I’m off the bike onto the run. I take advantage of a bit of downhill to drop as flat as I can to stretch it out and whizz past another rider – result!

One last climb and one last descent and the castle approaches swiftly. In fact so swiftly that I forget to change down and spin my gears, but still I manage some sort of dismount and run back to transition. I overshoot my bike place at first, but soon sort myself out, ditching the helmet and slipping into my trainers.

Running on the beach at Bamburgh - photo Bob Marshal
Running on the beach at Bamburgh – photo Bob Marshal

I’ve decided to go sockless for this one. It’s a bit of a risk as the run’s on sand. But I’ve been doing so much more barefoot stuff recently and having run in London on horribly blistered feet, I figure I can just get on with it and save myself a few valuable seconds in transition.

Out across the green and back towards the sand dunes, my legs feel good, quite bouncy and I have to cling onto the fence to round the corner to stop myself going flying down the bank. The soft sand down and up over the sand dunes is a leg sapper though, but I push through it onto the beach, heading for the edge of the sea in the hope of getting the hard packed sand we’d been promised.

It isn’t there. It’s just soft sand. The kind that melts each footfall and sends you slipping and reeling.

My run is a shuffle. Little steps, just moving forward, with no bounce, no spring, no hard fought for forefoot form. Just keep moving I tell myself. It doesn’t matter that your steps are small, you’re still making them. Keep on going with the relentless forward motion.

I spot Bob on the beach and being such a photo tart, smile and pick my feet up into something approaching good form. It doesn’t last much beyond the camera shutter click. Onwards, onwards – it’s only a 5k.

But it’s a hard 5k. As I come to terms with the soft sand and stop looking for firmer ground, settling with myself that this is as good as it gets, it does begin t firm up a little and finally I can start to pick up my feet and try to bounce off my forefoot. But the impact of the shuffle on my hips and my knees is making itself felt.

Running on the beach at Bamburgh
Back up the beach on the home stretch – photo Bob Marshal

Day trippers on the beach shout out to the runners “Come on number 36 – well done”. I don’t know if they are here to support someone or have just stumbled into this strange world where sweaty people stumble through the sand, but I welcome their cheerful encouragement.

Eventually there’s the flag, the turn around point. Just the same run to do again. I push on over the harder packed sand, trying to make the most of it, knowing the softer ground lies ahead.

The return leg is brutal on legs and knees and hips. I jink up the beach in search of firmer footing, but realy it makes no difference and just means I run further. There’s a hot, sore spot on my right foot, where the sand is rubbing against my skin. My face is covered in sweat. I see it through my peripheral vision, dewing up my eyebrows. This is relentless, like some Dantean trial.

And there she is again. My vision in red. Smiling, bouncing and high fiving as we pass on this beautiful stretch of beach. I love racing with Lesley. We always have so much fun. It’s a small high spot that keeps me going.

On the softest sand, I allow myself a little walk on the basis that I’m barely moving any quicker than walking pace anyway. Just 30 paces and then I run, or attempt to run along the rest of the beach, looking for the gap in the dunes which marks the turn back towards the finish.

Sand dunes at Bamburgh
The sandy slope back up from the beach

It is a steepish, sandy slope. I use my arms and power up as far as I can. But I feel a jolt in my left knee which has been nigglesome for a couple of weeks. With another standard tri next weekend, I go easy on myself and walk up the steep slope. Even the encouraging shout from one of my workmates can’t summon up a run just here.

I save my energy for the final flourish at the finish. Sand bank and dunes behind me, my shoes still carry pockets of the soft sand. But my feet fall on short, dried out grass and I can run at last. One lap of the outskirts of the green, bouncing out, finally finding my form. Chasing down the last corner, breaking into a sprint for glory with 20 metres to go, arms aloft over the line, smiling!

I take off my shoes and empty out buckets of sand. I’d been longing to do that. I skirt the green, trying to decide whether to drop them back in transition or keep a look out for Lesley finishing. I spot Bob running up with his camera and he tells me she’s on her way.

And so I run the last leg with her. On the other side of the barrier, carrying my trainers, barefoot across the grass, round the last corner, yelling her on through the finish. That feels good! And even better as we pose for our post race smiley photo.

Me and Lesley - Castles Challenge Sprint triathlon 2013
Me and my best tri buddy Lesley – photo Bob Marshal

That was a hard run. Harder I think that the 10k at the end of my standard. Harder mentally as I couldn’t rely on my form or any of my usual cues. At times it just felt like a relentless slog. Normally the run is my home stretch, the easy section, the one I can rely on. Today I had to dig deep for something special.

But that’s oddly satisfying and I actually enjoy the race more for providing a real challenge, and not necessarily the one I’d expected. I expected to struggle with the swim, and while it wasn’t completely stress free, the favourable weather conditions meant it was one of my better race experiences.

The mass start was a real eye opener and has given me something to prepare for at bigger races. But I’m definitely getting better every time I do an open water event. And my bike was strong, surprising even as I managed to pass a few competitors and I enjoyed it.

This is definitely the most scenic and probably the most challenging tri I’ve done to date. And it’s a good candidate for the list for next year. Post race shower, stretch and clean sheets on the bed never felt so good. And today I ache more than I did after my standard, but it’s a good ache, a worthy one.

With another standard tri at Allerthorpe to look forward to next weekend, I reckon the Castles Challenge sprint has been great preparation.

Swim 750m: 24:42 (was out of the water in 20 mins- rest is long run into T1)

T1: 01:29
Bike 20k: 47:10
T2: 00:54
Run: 00:32:56

Total 01:47:13

My race stats

Great video that gives you an idea of how scenic this event is:


Race results
Race photos – Bob Marshall
Event website

Update: Sadly the Castles Challenge Middle Distance tri which was due to take place the day after the sprint had to be cancelled as heavy rain meant the sea swim and bike course were not safe for competitors.

Back to the Olympic stadium

It’s a year since the Olympics and Paralympics, and it was time for me to follow the path to the finish straight, raced in victory by Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, David Weir, Hannah Cockcroft and Jonnie Peacock.

I was going back to that glorious cauldron of sporting entertainment – the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Park to run a five mile race, finishing on that amazing, historic track.

It seems so long ago that I anxiously tried to get through the scrabble for a chance to run. But I got lucky and with 12,500 others got excited about running in the venue we’d seen shine on our TV screens last summer. And on Sunday I was there.

Me at the Olympic Stadium
Mobot on the Olympic track

I’d been worried about the heat. I was worried about getting through security with our bags. But on the day, the clouds covered the sun and we were checked and waved through quickly. And once I was there, sitting in that grand stadium, looking out over the red track and the green field, seeing the seats fill up with runners and their friends and family, I felt calm.

One thing I wasn’t worried about was running. And that’s quite a thing to be able to say. The changes I’ve made to my life since 2008 mean that a 5 mile run holds no fears, no anxieties for me. That’s quite something.

This was never going to be a race for a time. It was about the experience of being there in the moment, doing something I enjoy and creating long lasting memories. My plan was to run easy, but not too easy and to relish it.

Still, I went through the motions of warming up, to get my mind and body ready to run. Welcome clouds had taken some of the heat out of the sun, but it was still sticky and humid. And my legs had taken a battering from London sightseeing the day before. My poor feet were already blistered more than they’ve ever been through running.

I bounced and hopped and stretched, watching the crowds of runners gather in their blue shirts, before heading to my starting spot. For once, I really am calm and there’s no temptation to race this, just enjoy it.

We follow the mass warm up. A heaving crowd of arms and legs and nervous laughter. We cheer the ‘elites’ as they’re introduced on the big screen, with a rousing roar for starter Sir Chris Hoy and distance running legend Paula Radcliffe.

And then after a short count down we cheer as the first wave of runners sets off, waving, smiling, stopping to take pictures of Chris Hoy. And soon after we start to move forward to follow them, walking at first then jogging and running over the start line, a mass of smiles and waves. In the stadium Gary spots me mugging for the cameras like a loon as I laugh at the joy of starting this run.

The path swoops, twists and turns. In the first few hundred metres the surface changes from smooth tarmac to rough gravel to parched grass and back again. There’s a park area to the left with trees strung with brightly coloured paper lanterns, but we run past on side roads and access roads, past traffic cones and plastic tape.

Me running in the Olympic Park
Passing by The Orbit

Up and round the side of the beautiful velodrome, scaffolded and changing, no longer as fresh and new as when I first saw it. Runners around me who have been here during the Olympics, remark on the landmarks that have disappeared. “That’s where we sat near the big screen, remember?” There are patches of bare ground now, sanded squares and heavy machinery the only evidence that there was something there before.

I catch glimpses of scenes from the park. The crayon like structures that poke up from the river. The green banks and paths. The barges and river boats alongside the river, cut off by the metal fencing. On the other side a runner in a yellow t-shirt passes in the opposite direction and is greeted by shouts of  “You’re going the wrong way!”

But for the most part it’s like running through an industrial estate. Black tarmac and grey concrete. Empty and waiting for its life to begin again.

The route is busy, crowded. But I pick my way through with few problems, running a steady pace, looking for faces as we pass fellow runners on several switchbacks.

Just before the water station there are volunteers with megaphones, shouting encouragement, the human contact making us laugh as among the runners there’s little chatter.

It is hot and humid, although the sun is still shaded and my shirt is soaked through with sweat. I grab a bottle of water and sip a few mouthfuls before throwing it away to one side. Some of the runners are walking now. Coins jingle in runners pockets, heavy breaths fall behind me as I push on, focusing on bouncing off my hot feet, keeping my run light and easy.

Round and round the paths turn. Snatches of music from steel bands, bangra drums and a sound system that blasts out the start of Elbow’s ‘Day like This’ as I run by. I know I will run this, all of this. My legs feel strong and move freely, even in this heat. In the end I do stop just once, pulling over the to the side over a small rise to take a photo of the stadium and the twisting structure of the Orbit as I pass by.

Each time the stadium comes into view, the path twists and turns away again, until the last turn takes us up a small rise and down again, snaking into its dark underbelly.

I’ve been here before. I know what to expect. But last time this dark corridor under the seating was cool. Today it’s stifling. Muggy with the sweat and breath of thousands of runners who’ve run four and a bit miles to get here. I start a chant, the one we shout in the underpass on the Great North Run ‘Oggy, oggy, oggy!’ The response echoes through the corridors.

Me approaching the finish line at the Olympic Stadium
Approaching the finish line

And there it is. The entrance of the gladiators. The whole stadium opens up before us as we run onto the track. The surface bounces below my feet. I wave and clap and look round at the stands, marvelling at all the people, hearing the noise of their cheers.

This track wants my feet to go fast. It bounces me along. But I want to savour every moment. I look up into the stands, seeking the marker that will show me where Gary is sitting and wave and blow kisses like a crazy woman. In seconds he is behind me and I’m cruising round the last corner into the last straight, just 100m to go.

I pick up my feet and pace it out as a couple next to me unfurl the union jack between them to a huge cheer. I do something approaching a sprint to the finish line, hoping I’m still managing to smile and wave as I cross the line.

That was an amazing moment and I scrabble to collect it, to preserve it in my mind forever. As I bend over to get my breath back and gather my thoughts a man taps my shoulder gently and asks if I’m okay. It’s another runner and I look up and smile at him saying “Thank you.” Runners are good people.

Gently encouraged to keep moving away from the finish line to let the hordes of finishers through, I pause to take in the view of the stadium, take a photo of two girls together who return the favour and I mug up a Mobot. There’s a huge ‘awww’ from the crowd and I turn to see a couple hugging with tears in their eyes on the big screen. I think there’s been a proposal on the finish line.

Slowly I make my way out of the stadium to collect my goody bag with medal and water and walk back around to find Gary in his seat in the stands. Still the runners pour through, smiling, waving, sprinting the last few hundred metres, catching the attention of friends and family in the stands, taking photos. Often the end of a race is a struggle, a desperation for it to be over. But not this one. There is nothing but a shared sense of joy and delight, of doing something special, of just being there.

Later I catch up on facebook and twitter, seeing joyful status updates and a real sense of pride and achievement from those who set themselves the goal of being there, of running this race. For some it’s the furthest they’ve ever gone. The prospect of following in the tracks of the champions tempting them out on training runs. The reward for their efforts, a chance to  experience something of what it feels like to be the best you can be.

For some it may be a one off, a unique occasion. But others I’m sure will be inspired to keep on running, training and entering other races. There’s  your Olympic legacy right there.

To tri or not to tri – my top 5 reasons to do a triathlon

Are you thinking about doing a triathlon? Or is it something you think you could never do? I’ve recently been talking to a lot of people about the challenge and excitement of taking on triathlon. So here are my top 5 reasons to take up triathlon. Plus, my answers to the top 5 excuses people give to avoid it.

1) It’s a challenge.
Triathlon’s a fairly new event, that started in the 1970s in Hawaii and was first included in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. If you’re already quite sporty, it’s something a bit different from the usual marathon, half marathon or fun run. If you’re not already sporty, it’s a great challenge to train and get fit for and you might find you’re really good at it. Four time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington did her first triathlon aged 27 and went professional aged 30.

Me and my friends about to head off on a bike ride
Cycle training with friends

2) It’s fun and friendly.
Triathletes know that everyone starts somewhere and are usually keen to encourage others to give it a try. Going from swim to bike to run might seem like it involves a lot of kit and rules and regulations, but actually it’s all pretty straightforward and if it’s your first event, marshals are there to help you. I’ve had shouts of encouragement from competitors and great support from spectators and volunteers at the triathlons I’ve done, and I know I’m not alone in that.

3) It’s honest.
The only person you’re really competing with in triathlon is yourself. Whether your goal is just to get to the finish line, to beat a time limit or qualify for a World Championship race, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses in triathlon. The challenge is to be the best you can be on the day. Often races have staggered start times or lapped courses, so it may not be clear who’s ahead of you. And with the distances involved, you’ll often find you’re out racing on your own. So it’s a mental as well as a physical challenge. At the elite end of the sport, triathlon is trying hard to maintain a clean, no doping image. When drugs cheat Lance Armstrong wanted to play, the authorities said no.

4) It’s great for all round fitness.
A lot of people come to triathlon after injury, particularly runners who are dispatched to the pool or bike to try and maintain fitness without putting pressure on knee and ankle joints. With triathlon, pretty much anything you do counts as training. You need physical and mental fitness, endurance, strength, speed and skill.

5) Three times the sport = three times the buzz.
For an adrenaline junkie like me, a triathlon offers three shots. Each section comes with its own triumphs. A bad swim, doesn’t mean a bad race – make it up on the bike. Tough bike section – hammer the run. And the feeling when you do cross the finish line? It’s amazing.

Excuses people give for not trying triathlon

1) I can’t swim/I only do breaststroke
If you really can’t swim, then learn. It could save your life. Seriously, swimming is a great life skill and it’s great exercise too, easy on the joints but a great workout. And yes, it can be hard to learn, but it’s well worth it. As for those of you who only do breaststroke – there’s no rule that says you have to do front crawl in a tri. Most people do front crawl because it’s faster and less work for your legs which have to cycle and run afterwards, but breaststroke is perfectly acceptable. It’s my chosen stroke if I get into a bit of a fluster in the swim.

Me on my bike at Ashington triathlon
I did my first triathlon on an ancient, heavy mountain bike

2) I don’t have a road bike
Now there are triathletes who will spend a huge amount of money on the latest go faster carbon fibre, streamlined machines that weigh less than a bag of sugar. But you don’t have to. I did my first tris on an ancient old mountain bike. It actually made it really easy for me to ride confidently and I got loads of encouragement from the racers as they sped past. I do now have a lovely road bike, but I guarantee it’ll not be the most expensive piece of kit in transition. My attitude has always been to have a decent bike, but to really put the work in on the engine.

3) It’s expensive
Triathlon can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Like all sports there’s always a new fancy bit of kit, gadget or gizmo that promises to shave seconds off your best time, but really you only need a few basics of a bike, helmet, running shoes and something that you’re comfortable to wear to swim, bike and run in. For open water swimming, you may need a wetsuit, but you can often hire these for a day, week or season. I actually hired my wetsuit for a season with an option to buy at the end.

Entries to triathlon races may cost a bit more than your local club’s 10k run, but that’s because they usually need more people and kit to deal with safety, marshals, transition, timing and sometimes even road closures. Most races are a similar price to some of the big organised run events in the UK, so pick a target event and take up the challenge.  Local clubs are always eager for volunteers to help out on race day, which can be a good way to get involved and see what goes on. You may even get free or reduced price entry to another event as a thank you.

4) I’m too fat/too unfit/ too old/ I’ll come last
If you feel fat and unfit, what better way to change that than to add some exercise to your lifestyle and start training? Having a goal or event to aim for is a great motivator to get out there. You don’t have to start with an Ironman, there are triathlons of varying distances, including novice or super sprint events that give you something to aim for, but ease you in gently.

If you’re worried about how you’ll look –  don’t. The truth is, hardly anyone looks their best  in a tri suit. But no one cares about your flabby bits. Everyone’s too focused on swim, bike, run to give it a second thought. And if you don’t fancy a tri suit, you can throw on a T-shirt and shorts before the bike.

You’re never too old to tri. The world’s oldest triathlete is Arthur Gilbert, still going strong at 91 and showing it’s a great way to stay healthy. There are often a great range of age categories at races and some will even award prizes for different age groups, so getting older doesn’t have to mean you’re at a disadvantage.

If you think you’ll be way behind the rest of the field, remember, the only person you’re really racing in triathlon is yourself. For races with staggered or wave starts, you may not even realise you’re flat last, and even if you are, I can guarantee you’ll get a bigger cheer that the racing snake who came through in first place. So give it a go, what do you have to lose?

5) I’ll ruin my hair/make up/ get dirty
In triathlon, no one cares what you look like (see point 4 above). If you’re a slave to your appearance, and never seen without your hair out of place, then maybe this isn’t the sport for you. But ask yourself this. Would you rather look great or be great? Triathlon is a great way to shape a fit and healthy body from the inside out. You can build speed, stamina and self esteem from challenging yourself to do something amazing and unforgettable.

Thanks to new and wannabe triathletes  HannahGareth and Carrie who inspired me to write this blog post.

Find out more about triathlon events and clubs in the UK

Triathlon England
Triathlon Scotland
Welsh Triathlon
Triathlon Ireland

Northumberland Triathlon – my first Olympic distance tri

And so the day dawned for this triathlon tiddler to start swimming with the bigger fish and take on a tri that’s double the distances I’ve done so far.

Enjoying the cycle - Photo courtesy of Bob Marshal
Enjoying the cycle – Photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

The Olympic or standard distance triathlon is what all my training has been focused on this year. From building a good base and working on my swim over the winter, to hitting the bike and building up the mileage as the weather improved.

A big challenge. But I was ready for it thanks to a great training plan from Ian and Inspire Fitness.

Kit sorted the night before and a decent night’s sleep, although I really didn’t appreciate the car/house alarm at about 03:45. But up and dressed and making porridge and packed up the car, ready to go.

It was set to be a scorcher, but I was grateful for the clouds that kept the searing sun back a little as I arrived at Druridge Bay Country Park.

This is a great venue for a tri, with the still waters of Ladyburn lake for the swim and the smooth trails of the lakeside path for the run. The bike course is a simple out and back along major roads and is pretty flat. And the organisers Vo2 Max Racing Events put on a great, well organised race. It was a very professional set up with a largish transition area, and everything was very well organised. Marshals all around transition and the course did a brilliant job, being cheerful and helpful on a very long day, when I’m sure many of them would have loved to have been racing.

Immediately I arrived, I saw my friends Bob and Lesley and although I wanted to chat, I was anxious to get set up in transition. That meant a long, nervous wait in 2 different queues to pick up my race pack, then my timing chip before I could go back to the car and get my kit into transition. Thank goodness for Lesley’s help or I’d have forgotten my drinks bottles for the bike

But I was soon set up and able to concentrate on getting myself mentally ready to race. A few shoulder rolls and some arm swings, some deep breaths and listening to the race briefing. Then, after a final round of good lucks, it was off to the lakeside.

I wanted to get in early, to acclimatise and calm my nerves and I did get a few minutes to float about and try to get my head in. But the shallows were weedy and I didn’t quite manage to control a good out breath under water.

With one minute to the start, I moved towards the back of the pack, whereupon someone I think I swim with at QE2 lake said “I think I read your blog the other day.” Quite how they recognised me in wetsuit, cap and goggles, I’m not sure, but hello, and you’re welcome 🙂

Anyway, we were off on the swim and I was determined to crack it. I mixed in with the pack and started okay, but soon became aware I was short breathing. I was breathing out under water, but not fully and fighting the urge to hold my breath. I got a couple of knocks and then someone really scraped down my side and caught my Garmin, tugging at my wrist.

I spluttered to the surface, did some breast stroke to centre myself and tried again. But I was short breathing even doing head up breast stroke, so I needed more time to settle. Part of my game plan was that if I did find myself in an adrenaline fuelled breathing fix, I’d allow myself 10 strokes of breast stroke to settle and try again. I lost that deal before the first buoy, doing more breast stroke and dropping right back off the pack.

The distances seemed huge. I was still being a little harried by swimmers nearby, including some really erratic sighters who basically swam sideways throughout and kept the canoe support busy shouting at them.

I couldn’t get into a nice rhythm. The fear kept holding me back. I kept trying to crawl and then got flustered, splashed with water, or just the demons in my head. I tried thinking of Lesley’s beautiful clear lake and tried to enjoy the warm water and the sunshine, but could only hold it for a while.

I decided to start counting my strokes. Do 12 strokes front crawl, settle, go again, do 15 and repeat, adding more strokes each time. That was quite successful until I hit a weedy patch in the middle of the long stretch. I resorted back to breast stroke to get through it, panicking my breathing even more when I got a long piece tangled around my neck.

Running laps around the lake at Northumberland standard triathlon - photo courtesy of Bob Marshal
Running laps around the lake at Northumberland standard triathlon – photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

Two laps of this seemed a big ask. But I just kept moving forward as best I could, kept trying to get my face in and crawl, but ultimately, I let myself off with a lot. Swimming seems to be the one thing I can’t bully myself into. Or maybe I just need to develop even more mental toughness.

The fast swimmers from the sprint came charging through as I headed towards the end of the first lap, almost lifting the top half of their body completely out of the water with each stroke. I tried to stay out of their way and kept swimming as best I could.

By the second lap I was with the stragglers, a girl and a couple of guys. They were swimming consistent front crawl. When I got my head in and counted strokes, I easily outstripped them, but then I’d go to water polo style or breast stroke and they’d catch up. I must have really cheesed them off. I just wished I could stick with it.

I was more relaxed on the second lap, but having let myself off with the swim, I’d determined how it would go. The patch of weeds once again disrupted my rhythm, but I swam through slowly then struck out for home.

I tried to make more of my leg kick as I approached the shore,  but really it was too little, too late. But, hey, it was my first Oly distance swim and I’d done it. I didn’t look back, but I would have been one of the last out of the lake.

Out of the lake with some welcome helping hands from the VO2 Max Racing crew, and up the grassy slope to transition. My left leg cramped as I ran up the hill and I ended up sitting down to ease my suit over the chip on my left ankle. The rest of the transition was fine and I was soon out and onto the bike.

Easy, easy out through the park entrance, side stepping the speed bumps, then up onto the big ring and out onto the road. I allowed myself to settle, made sure I started drinking my juice early and just relaxed into the ride.

A long out and back, passing by the park entrance twice, it’s a relatively flat ride, so the focus was really about keeping the focus and trying to keep the cadence high. I glanced at my watch a couple of times to see the turnover, pushing myself on, when it felt good.

Me on my bike at the Northumberland standard triathlon
Out of the swim onto the bike course – Photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

At times my thoughts drifted back to the swim and I told myself ‘just be here now’. I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could make sure I had a decent ride. I had a few mantras on that ride, notably Chrissie Wellington’s ‘Keep your head held high and don’t stop’, although I did make sure I kept down on the bike and hit the drops on some of the smoother straights and slight downhills.

I tried not to pay too much attention to the riders passing by on the opposite side of the road, not wanting the distraction. But unbelievably, as I passed over one of the two roundabouts on the course, a group of social cyclists passed across it, including

I can’t say I pushed on the bike. I kept it steady, within myself, unsure how I would handle the challenge to come. I managed to overtake a couple of riders on hybrids, and got quite excited to catch a guy on a road bike, until I saw he had a flat and would soon be out of the race.

I spotted Ian on the bike twice, just as I was setting off and then again on my last lap, when I was starting to lose my focus and feeling a twinge in the lower right of my back. It gave me a boost, just when I needed it. I stretched out my back, moving back on my saddle and focused on getting to the end.

Finally back round to the park entrance and the road seemed a lot shorter than I remembered. A short run into transition and a decent changeover into the run. Heading out on the lakeside path, I got a shout from Lesley and felt good.

My legs were a little stiff and I just kept the stride short and steady until I eased into it. On the first lap I passed and then was passed by a guy from Cramlington who was a lap or two ahead. He had a bit of a chat, which helped me settle and push on, before he found his race legs and outstripped me.

Last lap of the run - photo courtesy of Bob Marshal
Last lap of the run – photo courtesy of Bob Marshall

The run was warm, but with the sun still behind the clouds and a nice section between the shade of wooded trees, I managed really well. Again, I chose to run well within myself. The aim is to finish, I told myself. My other little mantra for this one was “I do 10k before breakfast!”

I really did feel at home here, running round the lake. I kept my focus on my form, trying to bounce along like Alastair Brownlee.

I’ve done some training sessions of 40k cycle 5k run, so I was confident I could get half way comfortably. Being a multi lap course really suited me, getting an encouraging shout from Lesley each time round and walking through the water station to make sure I got a couple of mouthfuls before running on.

Although I’d worn my Garmin, I resisted looking at it, just running to feel, keeping as light and easy as I could on my feet. The lower back ache disappeared as soon as I got off the bike, and although my left knee felt a bit tight, it didn’t upset my rhythm too much.

The field was well spread out and most of the time I ran on my own, grateful for the cheery marshalls who clapped and encouraged on every lap. I looked straight at the guy at the top of the incline every time, imagining he had a rope round his waist and I was pulling myself up it.

On my penultimate lap, I passed a Cleveland tri runner limping quite badly, and told him to keep on trucking. He seemed cheerful enough and kept it going to finish.

Round to lap number four and with Lesley saying “Just half a parkrun to go”, I knew I’d be fine to get to the finish. No bullying needed when it comes to running this kind of distance. I guess I did all that in my earlier running days.

Bouncing over the finish line - photo curtesy of Bob Marshall
Bouncing over the finish line – photo curtesy of Bob Marshall

Just another time through the wooded greenery and onto the gravelly paths. Just once more up the little climb then down again.Just one more time spotting the finish flags only for them to disappear as the path snaked round the lake. Just on more time to thank the cheerful marshals.

And then it was a turn onto the grass for the finish and heard my name as I came in to cross the line. Struck the now traditional tri finish pose of arms aloft and smiled my way across the line.

My first Olympic distance tri – done. And I’m more hooked on tris than ever. I love the challenge and the cameraderie. I love the way I feel when I cross the line.

<pLots of things to think about. Loads to improve. But that doesn't diminish how chuffed I am today. My goal was to finish smiling and I did.

Official race stats:

Swim: 1500m 45:30
T1: 02:02
Bike 40k 1:29:20
T2: 00:57
Run 10.5k 1:03:59
Total time 3:21:45