The advice I received for my first triathlon:
- Start with a shorter distance then slowly build up.
- Pick a triathlon with a lake swim not a sea swim
- Make sure you test your kit before race day
- Test your race day nutrition
- Swim in your wetsuit regularly
- Practise open water swimming
- Get a professional bike fit
- Structure your training to build up to the race slowly
- Definitely, don’t wing it
All excellent advice. I chose to follow exactly one of these pieces of advice.
In 2019 I’d like to do an Ironman, but I wasn’t sure whether I would either enjoy a triathlon or if my body would hold up, so to test this I thought I’d ease myself in with, Ironman 70.3 in Weymouth. At the point I signed up it was five weeks before race day, I had a back problem that was aggravated by swimming, hadn’t cycled more than 20 miles all year, and was coming back from injury so had only run 5km at a time. The not winging it advice was basically out of the window before I even started, this was going to be winging it in the highest degree.
The one piece of advice I did take was to get my bike fitted, as I was pretty certain that my set up was all wrong. I’m so glad I did because it turns out I was in a virtually unrideable position which probably explained why little old men on battered steel mountain bikes would pass me on my beautiful carbon Bianchi road bike with ease whenever there was a slight incline in the road. It turns out that when you’re in the correct position on a bike, it isn’t complete torture to ride up a small hill, who would have known?! I also started using a turbo trainer and doing a couple of rides a week using the Sufferfest app (which is awesome by the way).
So with my bike sorted I just needed to sort out the swim and the run. I got some swimming advice on the same day as the bike fit. I had my swim filmed and was given tips about how to improve. After my swimming technique was described as “drowning forwards” I knew I was in trouble, but I was given a large amount of advice and drills to do in the pool to improve. Unfortunately, this small amount of swimming had aggravated my back again so I decided I would do one quality swim a few weeks before race day and then hope for the best (not my finest idea).
The run was the one section I was happy with. Sure I hadn’t run more than 5km since the start of the year, but running is something I can do, and if needed I’m sure I could drag myself around a half marathon even if it hurt. I started running twice a week and tried to build up my distance a little.
Thanks to some top-notch planning I forgot that my car was too small to fit my bike in and had to beg my best mate to spend his weekend in Weymouth supporting me so I could use his car. Thanks, Ads. I also hadn’t realised I was doing the Spartan Race Trifecta weekend in Scotland the weekend before the Ironman. Good work me! Having raced all three Spartan Races in 2 days I felt my legs were ready for the run at least, so if I could make it there, I would be fine. I was however seriously worried about missing the time cut off to get to that stage. Everything would have to be perfect for me to complete this race as I was so far out of my depth.
The weather for the weekend was what can only be described as stormy. I put my bike into transition and went to our pre-race briefing. The sea was so rough I had decided that if it hadn’t calmed down by the next day I wasn’t going to take part, and I was surprised that everything was going ahead as planned. The organisers were doing everything to make sure it all went ahead despite the sea raging and the wind making it very difficult to stay upright on a bike. We were told that if it went ahead, we should probably get some merch with the race name and year on it because it could end up being legendarily tough. Great, that calmed my nerves. Also, they kept bringing up how we had all been training for six months or more; I was sat there with less than six weeks of training. I was not sleeping that night.
Race day came way too fast! I hadn’t slept for more than a couple of hours, and I looked outside to see that the sea was already looking a little nasty. I decided I would still get ready and then make my final decision on the start line. So there I was, chatting to others on the start line realising just how bad a plan, winging it had been. I had swum once in 5 weeks, not cycled outside, not worn my wetsuit or tri-suit before, done no open water swimming, and I was terrified. The organisers announced that the swim would be shortened due to the conditions, but everything else would be fine. Due to the shortened swim, I decided to give it a shot. I made my way forward and listened to the starting beeps before being released into the sea.
Wow, it was rough! I love the sea, but it turns out I cannot do front crawl in rough water. Over the first 20 meters, I had managed to miss my breathing timings four times in a row due to waves coming over my head. My wetsuit felt like it was suffocating me and I genuinely thought I would drown if I carried on. I was not giving up after 20m however. I switched to breaststroke and carried on making progress while trying to breathe when I was over the top of the waves. I made very slow progress, and everyone was flying past me. I felt quite literally out of my depth.
After somehow making it to about a third of the way around the swim I thought the time had come to ask one of the safety kayakers to get me out the water and back to shore. Just my luck that the kayak I was nearest to was already saving someone else. I decided to switch to a half-arsed attempt at backstroke, by which is mean I didn’t use my arms and just lay on my back a kicked a little. I made surprisingly good progress like this and decided to keep it up.
Weirdly, the safety marshals are very much surprised to see anyone doing this, so I had quite a few come and make sure I was OK, yes I was struggling so badly that they were constantly checking on me. This made me feel better, I knew they had their eyes on me and wouldn’t let me drown, and so I carried on. Before I knew it, I was on the way back to shore. When I finally made it, I was so happy and not last which was a bit of a shock. I saw my friend waiting on the way to transition and told him I was never swimming in the sea ever again, but I was now out and excited about getting on the bike.
Getting into transition, I spent an age getting changed and having some food; I wasn’t going to hurry too much as I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed and besides, I’d never done this before so didn’t want to make a glaringly obvious mistake. I left the transition marquee and made my way to get my bike. I may not have been last, but I was rather close to it. There were virtually no bikes there, and the whole area was like a swimming pool from all the puddles as it was raining so hard. On the plus side, my bike was easy to find as it was the only one left in my row. I jumped on the bike and pedalled hard to try to redeem myself.
Surprisingly I felt really good despite the fact it was raining, cold and windy. My tri-suit and jacket seemed to keep me at the perfect temperature provided I was cycling hard. I had decided before I started I would try to keep my cadence at 90RPM or above the entire time and for the first half of the course, I managed it without feeling too tired. What also surprised me was my hill climbing ability, I never seemed to overtake anyone on the flat and just stayed the same distance back, but once we hit a hill, I was flying past everyone in sight. This helped my confidence, and though my hips were starting to get rather tight and hurt in the second half of the course, I allowed myself to move into a harder gear and let my cadence drop slightly. I feel a lot more comfortable grinding away slowly on a big gear that spinning quickly in a small one, not sure why but it feels more natural to me. However, I also know that’s a good way to burn my legs out which is why I didn’t do it from the start. I started going faster now and picking off more people, on the flat and downhill as well as up the hills. I made it to the top of the final big climb and felt good, I moved into my biggest gear and went for it on the final 5-mile descent to the finish.
Disaster! My tyre popped and I nearly lost control, luckily I controlled the slide and ground to a halt not far from where a policeman was stopped on his motorbike. I knew I was close to the finish and asked him how far was left. He told me I was only about half a mile away so I thought that the time wasted attempting to change my tyre with very numb hands wasn’t worth it and it’d be quicker to just run to transition carrying my bike. So that’s what I did while counting the riders flying past me, I made it to 100 before I stopped counting as it was too depressing. I was now running or walking with my bike on the fastest part of the whole bike course and averaging about 6 miles an hour instead of 35 or 40.
After a while I knew that the policeman might have been just trying to make me feel better, I had already run two miles with the bike and couldn’t see the sea. Maybe I should have fixed the puncture, but it was too late now I was committed. When I finally made it to the seawall, there was still about half a mile left to transition, and I decided to be a bit reckless and cycle the last half a mile on the wheel rim. Probably a silly idea but I wish I had done it sooner. By the time I made the transition I was so angry at all the time I had lost. My friend saw me and pointed out that it was my favourite bit next, the run, and I was easily inside the time cut off, so I was going to be fine. It turns out I made up over 200 places on the cycle, without the puncture that would have been over 300, and my time would have been about 30 minutes faster. It took a few days to get over the frustration, but I’m so proud of my ride.
Trainers on, jacket dumped in my transition bag, caffeine bullets eaten and another packet in my pocket…it’s runtime! “Remember not to go off too fast” and “take it steady” are two things I should have told myself, what actually went through my head was “you have to make up all the positions you just lost because of the puncture” and presumably Jeremy Clarkson shouting “POWER!!” because I set off fast, PB pace fast. When I say PB pace I don’t mean half marathon PB pace either, my first two km were faster than my 10km pace, and If it wasn’t for the fact, my watch told me to stop I would have carried on.
I programmed my watch earlier in the week to make me run for ten minutes and then walk for 2 minutes; this was my sensible way to ensure I would finish and not burn out. I was well into my 3rd km when it beeped at me and brought me back into sensible mode. I kept this up the entire half marathon but was in a huge amount of pain whenever I put my right foot down. I mentioned to my friend when I saw him in one of my walking sections that my legs felt super fresh, and I had loads of energy, but the pain in my foot was making me want just to quit. I didn’t find out until I took my shoe off in the hotel, but the reason for the pain was that I had a lump of seashell stuck in the sole of my foot. He wasn’t going to let me quit, and there was no way I was seriously ever going to give up once I’d made it to the run course. Little by little the miles went by until I heard my friend shout “next time I see you will be at the finish”, and that was all the motivation I needed.
The run course was in laps, and now that I was onto my final lap I knew that everyone I could see in front of me was either already a lap behind or was a place to be gained. I took my last caffeine bullets, decided to block out the pain in my foot and give it everything I had over the last few kilometres. In fact, screw it, how about I go back to 10km pace, if my legs fall off I can always crawl the last bit. Well, it hurt, a lot. But the crowd was amazing, and due to our names being below our numbers you could hear when people were cheering you on. Somehow despite pushing as hard as I could and barely being able to breathe the polite Brit in me just had to shout thank you to everyone who was cheering my name.
It somehow drove me on even more, and I was pretty much sprinting the last couple of hundred meters. I got my medal (such a gorgeous medal) and sat down with a drink in the finisher area feeling amazing (I mean I felt like crap, but so proud of the achievement)!
I said I was never going to do it again, but then after a while, I realised how much had gone wrong and how at no point (apart from the thinking I was drowning) had I ever stopped enjoying it. Also, I missed out on a finish line photo as I sprinted into a large group of people who were blocking the camera, so I kind of need to go back to get a decent photo.
That’s a good enough reason right?! If not then maybe because I now have time to beat, mistakes to make up for, a reason to train harder, and an even bigger goal in Ironman 140.6, maybe the actual reason is I just loved it.
Ironman Weymouth, you were savage, and you battered me, but you were wonderful, and I will be back, only next time I will be slightly better prepared because now I’m a triathlete!