So how do you break yourself into triathlons gently?

How do you build up stamina to a full ironman?

You jump in at the deep end with a half Iron Man, of course, then everything else will feel easy! After all, if you can do a half, you are almost there?

That was my mentality with my first tri. I was of the impression that I would be able to turn up, take my time and see how my body will react to 7 hours or so of exercise through the disciplines to gauge what needed to be worked on over the coming months. To an extent, this worked. To an extent, it did not.

Number one fan, Mum Potts chummed me to the Big East Tri event so we set off at a ridiculous hour in the morning to get to the North of Essex nice and early, mainly so I could figure out exactly what the hell happens at a triathlon. We arrived with 70 minutes to spare which originally felt like a good idea; it materialised that I ended up prepping for 10 minutes and spending the rest working myself into a panicking mess.

Registration was like any OCR event, simple. Except when I went to ask for safety pins for my number the women laughed and said “urm do you not have a number bib holder?!”  `it turns out triathletes have special bands to hold their numbers on for a quick turn around at T2 (transition 2). After the lady explained that these were an important item of kit I went to the stand conveniently placed next to her for last minute panic buys.

With all the gear and no idea, I trundled over to the transition area to leave my kit. Being the first person there I took my time laying everything out as I had learnt at tri club transition training. Everything in a neat line under your bike in the order you plan on putting things on, HELMET ON FIRST! I asked the marshal if my set up was ok and he said it was okay but my timing chip was to go on my left ankle, not my right (picky people these triathletes!). I sat and spoke to him for a bit while watching people come through to place their bikes at the transition point.

Humans were arriving with boxes full of gear, bags the size of camping kit and a lot more stuff than I had humbly placed under my bike. I went back to my station and glanced at my modest layout of trainers, cycling shoes, glasses, socks, gloves and a helmet.
“What am I missing?” I asked the man next to me.
He gazed at me, white as a sheet and looking like he was about to vomit. “I have no idea this is my first event, sorry.”
“ME TOO!” I shouted in glee “we are SO brave!”
He nodded in a confused manner and hurriedly unpacked his stuff before running away, I suspect to be sick, though probably it was to escape the weird enthusiastic girl.
I marched back over the marshal, “what am I missing” I asked pointing at my sparse transition point.
“Ego” he replied, “these people think the more money you throw at things, the better you are. You will be just fine with what you have. Do not worry.”
Feeling slightly better I thanked him, and we continued to watch people bring in expensive bikes, alien helmets, and enough lycra to sink the Titanic. I was a little out of my depth, but I had to start somewhere, although I was regretting the life decision of that start to be at a half Iron Man distance race.

With 40 minutes to spare, I found Mum, and we went for a walk down to the swim start about 300m away from the transition point. It turns out it was a sea swim, whoops! Again I failed to research the race. I had never swum in the sea beyond bobbing on holiday, but surely it would not be that different from the lake swims I had been doing? HA! Wrong!

At this point nerves began to take hold, seeing people arrive, the set up all in place and the start line at the water I felt very very ill. Being the voice of reason, Mum said “you are only here for a training session, not to race. Just take your time, who cares if you come last? You are here for a different reason; you are here for the greater goal of Bolton, do not lose sight of that” She was right, I needed to lose the pressure and the race mentality and take the day as it came.

Back to the car, wetsuit on, looking like a sperm in all my swim gear I was hot to trot. People began to amalgamate at the start. “Well, I guess we had better go” I sighed “let’s wander down.”
I can only describe this walk to the start as a walk of death. My stomach was churning, my breathing rapid and my hands shaking. I was genuinely scared and felt sick to my stomach, not a feeling I am overly familiar with. Mum kissed me and went to stand in the spectator boxes. The event organiser called forward the people doing the Olympic distance race, and a huddle of green hats danced off to the start. It was an in-water start, so the group of competitors swam over to the start line in the water. “GET BEHIND THE LINE PLEASE!” the organiser shouted at everyone in the water. Sure enough, the green hats were all drifting down the water past the start line; there was a massive current that was washing them all away!
“Shit” I muttered to myself “there is a current”
“Of course there is a current you are in the sea!” A man said next to me “You will be fine swimming with it on the way down, but the way up will be very hard, have fun!”
My stomach lurched and I mini vomited in my mouth, but before I could turn around and look to Mum for words of encouragement the gun had gone off and the Olympic racers were off. They flew down the course, the current serving them well at the moment. It was when the front runners turned around the end marker buoy to come back that it was evident how strong the current was. They swam and swam but were going nowhere, inching forward with the navigating kyack halving its speed. Full panic mode had now set in, these people were seasoned swimmers, and they were struggling.
“Are you ok?” a lady next to me asked looking at my face “you do not look great.”
“Urm I am fine I think, thank you though” I replied and saw the other first-timer from transition just behind her, he now looked ten times worse than earlier. At least I was not the only one I thought.

Just a little bit nervous!

The Swim

The organiser called the half Iron distance competitors forward to start. Into the water we went, at thigh height, I could feel the force of the current. Swimming over to the start line was busy, salty and full of seaweed, but I had no time to think about that as the gun went off. The swim down to the buoy was lovely in the sense that I was putting in minimal effort and still whizzing along. However, this was the first time I had swum in a group of people. Granted it was not a large group, 30 – 40 people maybe, so I was not being punched in the face by people, but I was acutely aware that I might hold someone up or get too close to other racers. I slowed down, dropped back and carried on when most of the field had taken over past me, bar the breaststrokers behind; I was not going to be going that slow I hoped!

Turning at the buoy, everything changed. The amount of power I had to put into swimming against it was insane. I kicked as hard as I could and though about using the full range of my arms and shoulders to drag the water back. I was shattered after 100m and had to stop to breaststroke, unfortunately, once you have lost momentum in front crawl its more exhausting to get started again. I had got myself into a bit of a vicious circle, have a break from front crawl as the current was tiring me out, but then using more energy to get back into a front crawl as breaststroke was not sufficient enough to get back to the shore. One of the men behind me caught up, and I remembered an article I had read on drafting during swimming. If I could get behind him for a bit, it might make my life easier! I got behind this gentleman, alas he was only doing breaststroke. This was almost as exhausting as the current; I could not win.
Looking ahead there were people in front slowing down, tiredness I assumed; if I could catch one of them up and hop from person to person, then I might get somewhere.

And they are off!

Biting the bullet I left my free ride and pushed hard to catch up with the people in front, everyone around me was moving at a glacial pace. I would drift behind someone to get my breath back and then push on to the person in front of them to gain a bit of ground. By the time the first lap was done, and I was back going downstream I had made up five places. Chuffed with myself I sped off to do lap two. However, in all my excitement I forgot to check where I was swimming and ended up in the shallows with all the seaweed. Legs tangled and tired I got myself into a right state. “You alright love!?” yelled a kayak man at me. “Urm I think so” I gasped, treading water trying to kick it all off. After zapping a lot of energy and getting free, I carried on swimming downstream. I was very much on my own now. The people behind me were a long way behind, and the people in front had left me for dust during seaweed gate.

I decided that I just had to get on with it, 400m or so upstream and I would be done. Arms aching, hip flexors feeling they would snap and throat burning from heavy breathing in salt water I was feeling totally screwed physically, but of course if you stop during the swim you do not really have a rest you just use energy less efficiently so mentally I told myself to man up and get this done, or it would drag.
“Keep left! Keep left” another kayak man shouted at me. “You will be disqualified if you come past the buoy!”
“I am bloody trying I thought to myself, the current does not exactly help!”
Anger and a degree of hunger sped me on to the shore, where an excited Mum Potts waited. “GO EMME!!!!! YOU SUPERSTAR!” she shouted. Well, at least she was happy with everything so far! Stripping my wetsuit off as I ran to the transition point my throat was burning and I felt light-headed, I was not a happy bunny.

At T1 I scoffed flapjacks and a sandwich, drank a lot of water and put all my cycling gear on, there were a handful of bikes left so I was in high spirits that I might not be last. “Leaving T1 now is Emmelia Potts at her first ever triathlon, doing the half ironman distance for Maidstone Harriers. Well done Emmelia, nothing like breaking yourself in gently eh!” the commentator announced.
“Nope straight in at the deep end!” I yelled
Hopping onto my bike the old legs felt heavy and I was still light headed despite having eaten a lot of food. ” well-done dear, how do you feel” the line man at the transition asked.
“lightheaded” I replied, ” I do not feel overly great.”
“That will go when you get cycling, its just because you have been in effect laying down for so long an have got up quickly and run here. Take your time you will feel better.”
“Thank you” I nodded and off I went to devour the bike leg.

So so happy to be cycling.

The Cycle

It took a long time to feel better and not light headed. My head became normal around mile 4, but my legs were still heavy and not wanting to peddle. I tried everything, high gear and fewer rotations to save legs, low gear and hardly having to peddle but nothing seemed to work. I stopped at mile 10 and had gels and water to see if that was the issue. It was not; my legs did not want to work.
“It is ok Emmelia this is your first time cycling after a swim its bound to be hard, just take your time,” I thought to myself.

The course was flat and dull, the roads full of pot holes and rough making the journey uncomfortable and harder than it should have been. The people I had beaten in the swim flew past and over took me, massively demoralising, once right at the back I had no motivation to keep going. People made up their swim times on the cycle in triathlons; maybe I needed more time in the saddle.

Cycling through the local towns I decided to take my time a bit and just use the day as experience to see how my body reacted to the whole thing, my goal of not coming last had flown out the window. On my own, no music and not many cars to keep you entertained I was quite sad. Meandering around the roads, I eventually came to a hill which was a welcome change of scenery. Once at the top of the hill I knew I was on my way back to the event village and my spirits rose. I peddled a little faster and started to enjoy the flat roads with tight bends if nothing else I could use this for practice on going at speed around country lanes. People began to lap me, but I did not mind too much, they offered encouraging yells to me as they flew past in their alien helmets which kept me going. On the second lap, I was mentally in a better place. I knew the route and how far I had left so stepped on the gas a bit and cracked on, knocking 30 mins off the first lap time, result! It turns out this cycling lark is more a mental battle than anything.

Coming around the corner of the event village Mum was sat under a tree looking anxious. She saw me jumped up shouting words of encouragement. I un-clipped from my metal steed (without face planting) and ran to T2 to get to the bit I was good at, running. The friendly marshals all spurred me on saying I was doing well and that I was mental for doing this as my first tri. I was beginning to agree with them, I was not doing well, not at all but I was doing it, and that was what counted at the point in time. I trotted off towards the run start for the final instalment of the day.

The Run

The thing with running is I am quite happy to jog forever providing I have music. In triathlons, you are not allowed music, and you are already shattered so need the extra motivation. On top of that, you can not feel your legs immediately, so everything is telling you to stop really and that you do not want to go for a run, let alone a half marathon.

I jogged around the corner of the event village to save face and make Mum proud then immediately stopped to a walk to eat and get the feeling in my legs back, hitting my glutes at all opportunities. In the distance I could hear the commentator announce that people were finishing the half distance, now that was a kick in the teeth and something I could have done without hearing. “That will be you in two hours Em, keep going,” I thought.

Adopting a walk, jog method for the first 2 miles to get the feeling in my legs back I caught up a gentleman in front of me. He was on lap 2 of 2 for the run but had slowed to a walk as his legs were battered and sore, he told me he could just not run anymore. After seeing him I felt a little more motivated that I did not feel like that, so I must be doing something right, or maybe given a few more miles that would be me!

I elongated my stride a bit to be more efficient, remembering my running drills, which helped focus the mind on something and gave me something to do to stop being bored. Eventually, I was running 1k, and walking 100m between over and over, hunting people down that had battered their legs on the bike leg. I caught up with another racer on their second lap and asked if he was ok.
“I am fine thank you” he replied “I went out too hard on the bike and now cannot run, so I have walked the last lap. How are you getting on? You look quite fresh!”
“Thanks, I am only on my first run lap though” I noted, “I will probably be a mess in a couple of miles.”
“You look a lot fresher than most people were on their first lap, well done you have paced yourself well.”
After my 100m rest I said my goodbyes and cracked on, overtaking the man in front of me also on his first lap, he was struggling and did not look good at all. “Keep going we only have one lap left, we have got this!” I shouted at him.

Feeling uplifted that I was motivating people, still running and a lot of others were struggling, where I was not for a change, I carried on at a decent pace making sure I had my well-earned rests to keep me fresh. Looking at my watch, I knew I had run the first 7 miles in an hour exactly if I could do the same on the second lap I would meet the cut off and not be dragged off the course. I could do this!

Running past the finish line to start my second lap there were a lot of people tiding up their bikes to go home. “Do not worry that they are done, we will be done in one more lap, and then we can eat and sleep?” I thought.
More commentating from the man about my first triathlon meant that everyone around the finish line cheered and applauded me on, on top of more screaming from Mum, I felt like a celebrity, I COULD DO THIS! Although it was getting rather hot so it might be a slightly slower lap than the first.

All too often I sign up for things thinking they are no big deal and everyone does them, brushing them off as nothing. This point in time maybe suggested that doing this as my first tri was a big deal and that people were genuinely impressed, perhaps I was doing myself proud rather than being pathetic for coming near the back. Mind set changed completely, and I went on to the second lap.

Knowing I had a man behind me I stopped taking as many stops and just carried on jogging determined not to come last he was spurring me on to keep running without knowing it. I ran through the fields apologising to the marshals that I was out for so long and thus so were they. Once on the home stretch of 4 miles, I stopped to look behind me to see where the man was, I could not see him, and you could see a long, long way. Funny, I thought, I was not running that quickly, and he was not that slow. I looked around the run route; it was along the seafront on a wall, you could see for miles as far as the eye can see across the fields to your left and the sea to your right. There was nothing and no one. At this point very very hot, I was already running with my tri suit stripped down to my waist and was struggling to find any reason to carry on putting myself through this torture when I was apparently so crap at triathlons and not as fit as I should be.

A mile or so on and I could hear a quad bike. It was the sweeper coming to find me to see how I was getting on. “Ah well there she is,” said the man “well-done love no need to sweep you, you are doing well!” he yelled, “watch that sunburn though!”
So surely this meant there were people behind me! Whoopieeeee!!!!! Given that at this point in the day, you are relying on mental strength rather than physical fitness to get you through this put me in a fantastic mood, and I practically sprinted to the event village.

On arriving at the line there were not many people there, and the organisers had started to pack up which was a bit naff, but I was just so happy to finish. The commentator announced to, well no one apart from my Mum that this was my first triathlon and I was amazing for doing a half for the first time out. I must say I did not feel particularly fantastic seeing as I had come pretty much stone bonking cold last!

All the lovely marshals that had been cheering me on all day came and gave me hugs and congratulated me which was lovely. I went and found Mum and plonked myself next to her. After chatting for a bit, I noted that the man behind me on the run did not show up at the finish line, so I asked Mum if he had carried on.
“Oh no, he dropped out after the first run loop, he started it, got to the end of the road and turned around and came back, a lot of people did, you should be proud that you finished Em.” So technically I had finished last, but I had not dropped out, so that is something I guess.

Wandering back to the car I got talking to a man that had finished not far in front of me and was having a rest before his journey home. “How did you find that?” I asked him, eager to see how difficult it was compared to other races.
“It was good apart from that swim. I have done the Escape from Alcatraz swim and the currents today were far worse than that. It was the hardest swim I have ever done regarding brute strength needed to get through the water” He replied “a few half distancers got out after one lap, I was tempted I must admit.”
Slightly more chuffed that I had not given up and just done one loop of everything I skipped to the car rather chuffed.

Lesson Learnt

  • Do not get to an event too early or you will psych yourself out
  • Do get there with enough time to plan and ask questions if you are a beginner
  • If in doubt ASK, people are dead friendly and helpful
  • Do not assume everyone there is a pro, ask event organisers and marshals for help, not the poor sod next to you that is white as a sheet as it is also his first event.
  • Safety pins in the world of triathlon are not a thing; you have special bib holders for pacey turn overs at transition.
  • Timing chips are a left ankle job in triathlon; not a put them on any limb you fancy like OCR.
  • Listen to your parents they are right.
  • Look up whether a race swim is a lake or sea, they are worlds apart
  • Learn to sight before a race to avoid situations like seaweed gate.
  • Do draft behind people in the swim where you can it saves a lot of energy, especially in currents.
  • You end up being light headed after the swim because of being horizontal for so long and then being upright again. Like all good things in triathlons its just a case of getting used to it.
  • Flat cycle courses are harder than hill ones; you get no break for your legs!
  • There comes the point where mental strength overrides any physical fitness. If your mind does not think you will finish your body will follow suit, and you will slow down or stop entirely, be positive!
  • Maybe do not do a half iron man as your first triathlon, not my best idea!
  • Do not get wrapped up in the competitive side of things for your first few events. You are a beginner, you are learning, and you will not be the best, nowhere near in fact. You have to make small improvements and beat yourself. Let’s be honest it not like I will be racing Iron Man!