Triathlon from the other side

Last weekend I had great fun helping out my friend Peter who was race director at the Weardale triathlon. A sprint distance event, it took place in Stanhope, starting in the heated outdoor pool where I was one of the lane counters.

It meant an early start, but that’s typical for a triathlon weekend, and it was great to see the event and help out as a volunteer. I’m always really grateful to the organisers and marshals who give their time so that I can enjoy a fantastic race, and I know that triathlon in particular takes a ready crew on hand to get things organised and make sure things run smoothly.

Marshal at Weardale tri
At the poolside for the Weardale tri – photo by Jason Allison

A smile, or a friendly face can help calm nerves and an encouraging comment or ripple of applause can really help lift you in a race. Marshals are most likely there earlier and staying out on the course later than most of the competitors, so next time you’re out racing, give them a thumbs up or a thank you, if you have any breath left!

Anyway, I really enjoyed my stint as a length counter, despite apprehensions that I’d mess it up and miscount. I find it hard enough to keep track of my own lengths when swimming, let alone being responsible for other people’s. But there was a good system with a check sheet to tick off every two lengths, and with only a maximum of four in the lane at one time, it went very smoothly.

It was good to see all the different swim styles and to hear people nervously admitting this was their first tri as they were getting their poolside briefing. Seeing the first swimmers in reminded me of my first events where I spluttered through with a mixture of front crawl and breast stroke and held on for dear life to catch my breath every time I got to the side. Thankfully, these swimmers were somewhat better prepared.

Once the pool had cleared, I stepped over to the transition area where competitors were still heading out on the bike and run and cheered a few over the finish line. The people who run the pool had put on a fantastic spread of cakes and had been frying up bacon and sausage butties all morning, so I was well fed for all my hard work, sitting and counting.

I still think of myself as a tri tiddler, and know there are many more worthy of interest achieving great things in this multi-sport event. But I guess my enthusiasm comes through. So it was great, and long overdue to be able to give a little something back and to help out at a fantastic and tiddler friendly event.

With my enthusiasm for triathlon, I was very disappointed to learn that my next event, the Newcastle triathlon, has had to be moved. Originally conceived as a new city centre tri with a swim in our iconic river, closed bike route and flat course, it had attracted a lot of interest and was set to be a real highlight of the season. But, after two years’ hard work, securing permissions and negotiating with all the relevant authorities, it seems that permission for the river swim was rescinded.

The organisers, V02 Max Racing Events are massively disappointed too. They put on fantastic local events (including the Northumberland tri which I last raced at), all as well as holding down full time jobs. But they have found a way to offer a great alternative and are focused on making it the best event it can be.

I know it will be a fantastic event , as the alternative course is at the QE2 lake, beside Woodhorn Colliery Museum, where I took part in my first open water event in 2012. I’m working on building up my run mileage in training now to give myself a good shot at the Great North Run in September, but I really feel like I want to give this triathlon my best too, as a way of recognising the effort that goes into organising the events I enjoy.

Alnwick sprint triathlon – first tri of the year

It’s fair to say I was quite nervous about doing my first tri of 2014 at Alnwick. My training’s been a bit inconsistent and mainly run focused and I’ve had very little time on the bike. But, having never done this race before, I had no performance targets to compare myself against and approached it as a good Sunday training session.

I can see now why this event gets booked up so quickly. It’s well organised, very friendly, with top marshaling and a great season opener. I’d definitely do it again.

I arrived quite early, but was glad of extra time as a road closure meant I had to take a diversion to get to the Willowburn sports centre. I registered in the sports hall where there were lots of people sorting out numbers and goody bags, so it was very speedy. I checked my number and swim time on the list on the wall – last but one, in the pool at 09:11:40. That meant a long time to hang around and get nervous.

Bike rack at Alnwick tri
Personalised bike racking space – a nice touch

I knew I had to have my bike racked before the race briefing at 07:25, so collected my kit and set it all out in transition. For once there was plenty of space on the racks, and a nice little touch was having your name marked with your number.

As I made my way back into the building, Stuart, a Fetchie pal, spotted me and said hello. It was really nice to see a familiar face. Although I know quite a lot of people in North East triathlon, not being part of a club can make you feel a bit lost turning up at a race. I also bumped into a couple of people from my tri coaching course, so started to feel more at home.

The race briefing was straightforward and left me enough time to walk back through transition and get my bearings before the elite women were first off in their race at 8am. I still had loads of time for the nerves to build and to wonder what to do with myself, so I checked into social media and got some encouraging good luck messages.

I went to watch the start of the swim, to see how it worked and to familiarise myself with the pool. The first girl was off like a rocket and soon 100m ahead of the next swimmer. Starting people off at 20 second intervals and keeping them moving from one side of the pool to the other, meant there was a continuous stream of swimmers, and not too much overcrowding.

I’d been unsure what to do with my kit, especially my car keys during the race, but discovered the sports centre lockers were big enough to fit my tri bag, which just left me with one of those locker keys in a plastic holder that straps round your wrist.

My nerves were building with the wait and hearing snippets of nervous conversation from others getting ready for their turn, so I took myself off to a quiet area of the car park and ran through some warm up drills. This really helped settle me before I went to strip off my final layers and wait beside the poolside.

I took some more deep breaths and did some stretches, trying to give myself the best shot at a controlled and panic free swim. It was almost all undone when I finally got into the water and ducked below the surface to get my face wet and practice breathing out, only to come up with a splutter, realising I couldn’t touch the bottom. I didn’t think I’d got it under control when I got the 3,2,1 go!

But I was off and swimming and the adrenaline rush was under control. After a real confidence booster open water swim on Thursday night, I resolved to keep it controlled and easy, making the most of rolling to breathe in and pulling right through my stroke. I’m afraid technique gets a bit lost when I’m racing, but I did my best.

Ducking under the lane ropes after 4 lengths was a new one for me, and I thought it would give me a bit more of a breather, but as I moved into the centre lane, I took on a mouthful of water and spluttered. It gave the guy who had been last in, but who was catching me, the chance to duck in front.

With half the swim done, I was annoyed at myself for losing a place I didn’t need to lose, so I kicked on and managed to pass him in the last 100m. Up and out of the pool and round to transition with no hassle.

I was a smidge slower than the girl ahead of me and the guy behind me in transition as I’d opted for bike shoes and they just went with trainers, but it was still a decent changeover and I was off and out onto the bike and into the unknown.

I hadn’t checked out the course, other than the online maps. This was deliberate on my part, as I didn’t want to over complicate and add pressure to my preparation. I’m not the fastest cyclist anyway, so it was just about seeing how I got on. I knew, from talking to a friendly couple before my swim that there were two significant hills, but was reassured, that despite one being called ‘Heartbreak Hill’, it really wasn’t that bad.

I kept the bike in low gear through the first few twists and turns until I got a clear patch of straight road where I felt confident to hit the big ring. The course is undulating, so I was clicking through the gears nicely, trying to keep the cadence up and grateful for my bike service this week, which meant everything felt smooth and easy.

I almost took a wrong turn, despite at least three marshals pointing me to the right, because I’m dozy, and corrected it by making a wide turn behind a lady marshal. I really enjoyed the route, it had enough twists and turns and up and downs to make it interesting and most of the time I could see a rider ahead, which made me feel less lonely.

I’d opted just to ride in my tri suit, leaving my jacket in transistion, gambling that it wouldn’t rain or that any showers would be short. My shoulders were a little cold when the wind picked up, but I’m always amazed at how much warmer I am when racing than when training – must be all that adrenaline.

I managed to catch and pass the lady in front of me, after working hard up the first real incline. Then I think I must have taken my eye off the ball a bit and drifted into ‘hello trees, hello flowers…’ as she passed me a little later on the straight. But she shouted something encouraging as she went buy and I kept her in my sights.

Once again I passed her, working up a bit of an incline, and she shouted, “You know there’s a big hill coming up?” I did sort of, but it was good to know that would be it. I pushed on, dropped down through the gears and told myself I was strong. I was compensated by a really nice stretch of downhill, onto the drops and feeling quite daring, not touching the brakes through a dip and a turn. My bike was handling beautifully.

Unfortunately numpty head was on, and in trying to move the plastic wrist strap holding my locker key so that it didn’t dig into my hand, I managed to undo it. ‘Argh, don’t drop it’ I though as I made a grab for it. But of course I did. Stop the bike, turn round to see a car and cyclist fast approaching; backtrack a few yards pick it up, put it in my back pocket. Back on the bike, but having lost that place. “Bad luck,” she shouted as she passed. Nice lady.

Numpty error number two. There wasn’t going to be a number three. I knew I could catch her, so I put the effort in, gave it a bit of a sprint and pushed on. It was actually a blessing in disguise, as it stopped me drifting into easy cycle mode and made me up my game for parts of the course. Now the aim was to keep her behind me to the finish and see if I could gain ground on the rider ahead.

I never did manage to make up the distance to the one in front, but tried to make sure I put as much between me and the lady behind, before I dropped down the gears coming into the sports centre car park and got ready to dismount. Back round into transition again, bike racked and shoes changed. She was a fraction of a second ahead of me, due to her position in the racks and not changing shoes as we set off for the run.

Out across the road and into the fields. I knew this was an off road run, and was expecting it to be tough, but I hadn’t realised I really needed to do cross country training for it. The first part was pretty much all grass, round the edges of the playing fields. And after the recent rain, wet, soggy and muddy grass. And it was uphill.

Legs still in changeover mode, it was pretty brutal and ‘little steps, little steps’ went through my mind hundreds of times. As we turned onto something more of a trail like path with slightly better grip, but a steeper slope, the woman ahead started to walk. ‘Not walking. Not today’ I said to myself, even though I was barely above walking pace. She gestured me past, no doubt hearing my huffing and puffing, and I checked she was okay, not injured. “No, just shattered,” she replied good naturedly.

The up was relentless and it got steeper as we passed into a farm yard, so although the ground here was firmer, loose pebbles meant you still had to watch your step and keep your eyes upwards. I was convinced that was it, but there was a bit more, a more level path out to the turnaround point at which my running companion passed me.

I kept her in my sights, thinking it’s all downhill from here, and that if I stayed within 20 seconds of her, then that would still gain me a place. I really hadn’t enjoyed the run out and up, but the route back down made it much more bearable. Here, at last I was able to find my legs, stretch out a little and let go. It started to feel like I was running something like my current pace.

I didn’t manage to catch the lady in front, despite a Scribbler style short sprint to the line, but I had the honour of being the last competitor to cross the line and resounding cheers all the way. It felt great. And I remembered why I do this crazy sport. It does make you feel good. It is a friendly and supportive atmosphere. And it is a challenge.

I messed up the Garmin recording (again) so won’t have accurate times until they’re published by Alnwick tri. And I’m pretty confident I won’t actually be last when the results come out as they mixed in a wave of slow swimmers after the elite women. But today wasn’t about times or even feeling self conscious at the back, because I didn’t. It was about getting back into the swing of things, enjoying myself and taking on something I was a bit unsure of.

Yes I made some numpty mistakes, but it really didn’t matter. I’ll confess, I’ve had doubts recently, questioned why triathlon, why not just run? But I do still love it. It does still fill me with a much-needed buzz. And now I’m ready for the rest of my season.

Race results

My times:

Overall 01:37:28

swim +T1 12:02 (estimate 10:30 for swim)
bike + T2 57:08
run 28:18

134th out of 148 (back of the pack)
44 woman out of 56
20th in my age category

 

First open water swim of the season

I’ve been looking forward to and been anxious about this for a while. Grey skies, rain showers and a generally chilly outlook have not inspired me to get into the water. But knowing I have a couple of open water events coming up later in the year, I need to get the practice in.

So, last night, I was back for the opening of the open water season at QE2 lake in Ashington. Run by the VO2 Max Racing guys, it’s a great way to get used to open water swimming in a safe environment with canoe support and coaching if you want it. 

Me about to enter the lake for the open water swim
I’ve been very nervous about open water swimming

I usually suffer from the shock of the cold and really struggle not to hyperventilate, so my first swim of the season has been a bit of a struggle. But I warmed up a bit on land, then took my time just getting used to the water, splashing it on my face and trying to relax before I swam and I was fine.

It was really nice to feel relaxed and not have to tell myself to calm down all the time. I swam nice controlled front crawl with my head in the water, breathing steadily and managing not to veer too far off course. Previously I’ve counted strokes, aiming for 6 then 12 and building up, but I was straight into swimming between buoys without a rest.

It did help that the air and water temperature were similar about 12C I think and a good deal warmer than my first dip last year. And I tried out my neoprene cap for the first time too.

I swam two loops of the course, roughly 400m with rests at each buoy, and was tempted to do another lap. But I’d decided that 20 minutes would be enough if I was struggling, so I thought it better to get out after 20 minutes and leave with a good experience, than push on and risk tiring myself into a bad one.

Next week, I’ll try swimming with the coached group and plan on staying in longer. But it’s the best start to open water swimming I’ve had in the past two years.

Other posts on open water swimming:
My first open water swim

Making progress with open water swimming

Triathlon training in sunny Scotland

Saturday, sunshine, blue skies and a trip north, over the border to Scotland for the first tri day of the year, hosted excellently as ever by my fab tri buddy Lesley.

These often happen midweek, so despite it being the weekend, I still felt like I was skiving off as I put my bike in the car and drove north on a practically traffic free road, casting admiring glances at the calm blue seas off the coast. I must have had about three complete changes of outfit packed in my huge tri bag, in anticipation of any kind of weather, but it was very kind to us.

Four runners in red tops
On the run with my tri buddies (Photo Bob Marshall)

With me, Lesley, Al, Lucy and Cat  all arrived safely, we headed off for a pool swim at Haddington. With the pool shortened, it was a good chance for me to try out some of my coaching and Swim Smooth tips and to suggest drills that would help improve the efficiency of swimming strokes. It’s amazing what you can learn from watching other people swim and see all the different styles and learning techniques.

I had them doing doggy paddle, sculling, torpedo push offs and swim backs, and I did some 6-1-6 and catch up drills using a High 5 tube, which I passed from hand to hand. It worked very well, but I’d forgotten how hard those drills are. I need to make sure I spend a bit of time doing them.

I did get a bit of a swim in, but no great distance. It was just lovely to be in such a bright, airy pool. And reminds me I do need to make time for my swimming as I do enjoy it.

After a bit of a refuel with flapjack from the cafe, it was back to base and change into cycling gear for the main part of the day. Much faffage and discussion about how many layers and pumping up of tyres, but we were soon on our way out onto the quiet and largely traffic free roads around North Berwick.

Cyclists ready to roll
No one gets dropped on a tri day (Photo Bob Marshall)

The best thing about these rides is that no one gets left behind. We all enjoy a nice cycle, stop and regroup at junctions, push on and fall back when we need too. This time everyone seemed to be at a similar level of cycling and it was very pleasant just moving along, spotting swathes of yellow daffodils, passing a couple of horses and chain-ganging down a lovely smooth stretch of road.

Last time I rode this route, we got hit by a horrendous head wind in the last 3 miles, which was so bad one of our party actually got off and walked. It wasn’t quite so bad this time, but still tricky enough to slow us down and send me rattling down to my lower ring. I can still feel a flush in my cheeks and on my forehead today from the wind burn!

But we all made it back in one piece and us girls did a quick change around for a bit of a run while Bob took some great photos and Al made sure we’d have soup ready for our return. It was great all running together in our Fetch tops and we stuck together for one lap of the trail loop and did our best Runner’s World pose at the end for another photo.

How could 4pm have come round so quickly? It felt like we’d only just got started, but we were all hungry and soon devouring soup, bread, spreads and cake and flapjacks. Yum!

They say time flies when you’re having fun. It certainly did for me. Even cycling, which I usually get bored with in less than an hour, felt relatively easy and carefree. The chat flowed, the sun shone and it was all over too soon. But, as always, it was just one of the best days.

Swimming with the tiddlers

The forecast was not favourable for Newcastle parkrun this morning. Overnight rain and freezing temperatures bring ice to the exposed moor and just after I parked up, I learned it was off. I’d arranged to meet my friend Tove for a post parkrun swim, so I walked over to the start, spreading the word to those arriving and catching up with her as she appeared on her bike.

Neither of us fancied hanging around for two hours before the nearby pool was open for public swimming, so we deferred our session for another time. I could have done a freedom run I suppose, and a good few did choose to take their chances over the slippery paths, but I decided to save my legs for a long slow run tomorrow and went to swim at my gym instead.

I fancied a long slow swim. There’s been a 1500m set sitting glaring at me from my plan this week. With the pool nice and quiet and the lane empty, it looked like a good shot.

So, slow and steady was my mantra, a few easy lengths warm up and then into the big swim. I swim in a 20m pool so 75 lengths was the order of the day. I broke it down into 3 x 20 plus 15 but I wasn’t intending to stop, just to use this as an easy way to count up the distance without it becoming overwhelming.

During my first 20 lengths, I spotted a man bringing out floats and swim noodles and other bits of kit and putting them at the side of the pool. I figured there were some kind of lessons or an aqua class about to start. So, after my first 20 I stopped and asked him if I needed to move out of the lane. He explained that it was a babies swim session, so they’d be using the swim lane and I moved into the main pool.

I started again, reasoning to myself that if it was hard going or I felt particularly achey, I could count that first 400m provided I swam the rest continuously. But I settled into a nice easy rhythm, kept it slow and steady and by the time I’d done 1000m, I knew I could manage the last 500m to make it a genuine continuous swim.

Swimming up and down to the sound of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ and ‘Wibble wobble, jelly on a plate’ as well as baby noises from the next door lane was quite a new experience. But I just focused on my swim,  visualising a smooth blue ocean and swimming in gentle waters. I let myself really relax, which meant my form was a bit scrappy and I went back to lifting my head further than I need to, but I’m trying just to focus on one thing at once when I swim. This was about keeping going over the distance. Next time I’ll do some shorter sets and be stricter about my form.

With the additional 400m and a bit of warm up and cool down, it meant my swim overall was just over 2k in 51 mins. And the 1500m took 34:35, which I’m pretty chuffed with as that was a very comfortable effort level and I know I could increase that to go faster.

I know people who regularly run 100 miles a month and see my friend Nicki who logs 30km runs at the weekends and think, ‘how do you do that?’

But it’s all about building and training for whatever it is you’re focused on. I can still remember the achievement of running 2 miles non stop and my first continuous 400m swim which I guarantee left me more out of breath than today’s 1500m.

So today, I’m really pleased that I can get in a pool and do 1500m front crawl. That I can relax and control my breathing so that I don’t have to think about it so much. I know that not so long ago, I couldn’t do that.

So, fellow swimming tiddlers, I just want to say you can do it. I’ve been there, coughing and spluttering and clinging to the side like a fresh-landed haddock after a length or two. It takes time and practice, but if I can do it, you can too.
Each swim is a lesson and each stroke a movement forward.

2013 – my training year review

It’s been another good year of training and competing in triathlons and road races for me. And it’s good to look back at what I’ve achieved as well as planning for the future.

Let’s start with the numbers:

Swim: 42.1 miles/ 36 hours – only just a bit less than last year’s swim mileage
Bike:956 miles / 86 hours – that’s the most I’ve ever cycled in one year (hours to miles don’t quite add up as there were a lots of indoor bike sessions where I logged time but not distance)
Run: 526 miles / 85 hours – not my biggest yearly run mileage, but I didn’t have a half marathon to train for
Cross training: 76 hours – including boxercise, yoga, weights and PT sessions

That’s a total of 283:48 training or racing hours in 2013. It’s the most I’ve ever trained in one year.

Races
I’ve completed 6 run races of up to 10k distance and enjoyed many more timed runs at parkrun
And I completed 6 triathlons in 2013, including my first two Olympic distance events and my first sea swim.

Qualifications
I studied for and passed two fitness related qualifications – Level 2 Gym instructor in March and Level 1 triathlon coaching in November

Highlights
My swimming improved thanks to some training sessions with my PT early on in the year as he trained for his coaching qualification. I’ve spent more hours and done more miles on my bike than any other year and enjoyed it more than I have before, especially when I’ve had the chance to go riding in Scotland with my tri chums.

I have walloped time off in my second season of triathlons, including a 10 min PB at the QE2 sprint triathlon, with improvement in all three sections. 

There was another memorable day at the Olympic Parkrun. It was an amazing experience to do it the first time, so to go back, post the Olympics, with my expectations high … well they weren’t disappointed.

And the Blaydon race is still my favourite event, particularly as I managed to go under 50 minutes this year.

I’ve enjoyed volunteering at parkrun and I know I’ve inspired a few people to dip their toes into triathlon.

With no races longer than 10k, it’s inevitable my run mileage was down on previous years, but that will change as I take on a half marathon again in 2014.

Reflections and aims for 2014
I wanted to find a better balance in my training and to give myself a season with a true tri focus. It did pay dividends as my tri times improved and I felt more confident swimming in open water and taking on the longer distance events. But, as always, there are areas for improvement.

I did miss taking part in the Great North Run in 2013. It was lovely to see all my friends and shout encouragement from the Tyne Bridge, but I did feel like I was missing out on the party, even on a cold and dreary day.

So I’ll be back in again in 2014. The challenge will be to switch from tri focus at the end of July to get myself in shape to run 13.1 miles by the beginning of September. I’ll see how I feel nearer the time as to whether or not I set myself a time goalIn 2014 I want to maintain a good balance of training hard but not putting too much pressure on myself, and most importantly to enjoy my training. I’ll pick my key races to go hard, and others I’ll do for the experience or the fun. There will be a good mix of challenges, including my first ever river swim in the Tyne.

My first race isn’t until April – and right now that seems a long way away. But it will soon come around. I’ve entered a few popular races already and I’m sure I’ll fill up my calendar with a few more as they open up for entries. I’m looking for another standard triathlon – preferably one that I can easily travel to from the North East of England, so any suggestions are welcome.

I’m also currently on 76 parkruns, so only 24 away from 100. It would be great to achieve that in 2014, but I need to balance them out against other training and races. And of course, I’ll be doing my fair share of volunteering too.

Getting fit, starting to run and then taking on the challenge of triathlon has really changed my life over the past six years. I’m sure I never imagined achieving a fraction of what I’ve done when I first stepped out onto the beach and tried to run a length of the sands. It’s taken me to some great places, given me some amazing experiences and brought me life-long friends. Oh, and made me fitter and healthier too!

So if you’re thinking you want to make some changes to your life, I can thoroughly recommend it. Just remember, start small – I couldn’t run a mile when I first started. Find something you enjoy, but that challenges you. Commit to make it a habit and go out and get moving!

My 2013 tri season review

So, my 2013 tri season is over. Time to take some time out and reflect on how it’s gone and ponder on what I’d like to achieve next year.

I completed 6 triathlons, including my first two standard/olympic distance events and my first sea swim.

I improved my time massively at two events I’d done the previous year, taking 10 minutes off my time for the QE2 tri which had been my first open water event in 2012.

And although you can’t really compare the two olympic distance events, I did improve on my time by 15 minutes at my second attempt.

So, I reckon that’s a win for my triathlon season. I did what I set out to achieve, stepping up to the longer distance and enjoying the events I entered. Of course, no race is ever perfect and there’s loads I want to improve on for next year.

Let’s look at each discipline:

Swim:
Oh boy, I still do have my moments when I swim in a race. There are times when I hate it, when I swear to myself I am never doing this again. And yet, I’ve finished them all and got back into the water and raced again each time.

So as one of the OW swim coaches advised me, I’m going to look at how far I’ve come and not how far I think I have to go.
And that means the swim is a big win. Each time I get better at handling the panic and the stress. And in my last race swim in the pool at Haddington I had a lovely, controlled and totally non-stressed swim.

I’ve tackled two 1500m open water swims, including one that measured closer to 1800m and survived my first sea swim (which I actually enjoyed). And in training, I have learned to enjoy open water swimming, particularly when the water has been clear and relatively warm. I’m actually sad to put my wetsuit away as I don’t expect to be able to do another open water swim this year.

I’m well on the way to logging more swim time and distance than any previous year.  And I’ve been back in the pool already, working on my technique and speed, which I’ll continue to do over the autumn/winter.

Bike:
I’ve already logged more bike mileage than in previous years, thanks to indoor sessions on the turbo or spinning classes early in the year and more miles on the road thanks to the good weather.

In the two comparable sprint races, I’ve improved my bike time and I’ve gone longer with the standard distance events. But still I’m passed more than I’m passing on the bike and this is the area where I’m most likely to make speed gains.

So the plan is to get myself a proper bike fit, look at aero bars for my road bike next year and get a cyclocross bike to ride through the winter.

The rub is that I don’t LOVE the cycle. I have glimpses of loving it sometimes in training or racing on a nice day, or on the few occasions when I’m out riding with my tri buddies.  Over the winter, I’ll hit the turbo, and spin trainer when I can’t go outside, but it’s really not my favourite session.

I’m toying with the idea of doing a long cycle challenge next year and there will be opportunities to do things like the C2C ride. But, it becomes a commitment in itself and I fear it would detract from other training. If I was out doing 60-100 miles on a bike on a Sunday, I would be expecting too much to be running a training 10k or doing a mile in the pool the following day.

Run:
Hmm… poor old running. I still love it, but it doesn’t get the love and attention it used to. And that was the deal this year. It just had to look after itself.

In comparable tris, I’ve run a little faster than last year, but last year I was coming back from injury, and I haven’t reached the potential of my best year of 2011.

I’ve managed the endurance, confident I can run a 5 or 10k off the back of a swim and cycle. But I haven’t quite got up to speed. I had a freak glimpse of form with a 25:10 run at parkrun when I was building up to my first standard distance tri, but I’ve come nowhere near that again.

But I’ve done what I needed to run for triathlon. Now, over the winter, I can do more speed work and give it a bit of focus again.

Next year, I’d really like to have a go at getting a sub 50 10k and still doing a good number of tris. So I need to think about how best to do that. One thought is to put myself in for a half marathon in the off tri season, to get the miles in and repeat the kind of training that helped me to my previous 10k PB.

But I need to avoid the temptation to take on too many different goals.

Transition:
Mixed and inconsistent – some good, some slow and this is an easy place to sneak some time. So I will aim to make this consistent and faster in 2014.

Mental focus:
I’ve got strategies to combat the race adrenaline nerves and they do work, but I need to make sure I don’t neglect these. Mentally I’ve proved I can stick at a tough long race at Allerthorpe.

Things I do want to do next year:

  • A couple of standard distance tris – it would be great to really target one of these and maybe do a big, or iconic race
  • The new Newcastle triathlon –  a new race in my home town and my first river swim
  • Blaydon Race – just love this one

Things I have to bear in mind:

  • I’ll be doing tri coaching training in September and October so  will need to make time for studying, volunteering and coaching.
  • After limiting the window for possible holiday time this year by booking races, I need to pick my events carefully
  • I can’t do everything 🙂

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.

Links:
Find out more about triathlon events and clubs in the UK

Triathlon England
Triathlon Scotland
Welsh Triathlon
Triathlon Ireland

Olympic countdown begins

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.

Further adventures in open water swimming

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