When I lived in London, I was a swimmer. Not a competitive one or even much good, but swimming was the exercise I took, because I lived around the corner from the London Fields Lido, renovated and re-opened in 2006. It is 50 metres long, outdoor, beautiful, and heated. I would go there to swim in summer, but also in winter, when it was so cold that you saw steam rising from the pool. It was a wonderful, wonderful place to swim.
When I moved home to Yorkshire in 2009, I stopped swimming. There was no outdoor heated swimming pool round the corner, I don’t like swimming in crowded leisure centres, and I just stopped. I became a runner instead, slowly, and mostly by doing half of a couch to 5K programme on my container ship in 2010. And I never really swam again, except on holidays or business trips now and then. But even then, there were lots of occasions where I could have swum and I didn’t. I lost heart and interest.
Then I did the London marathon, and signed up for another marathon, and swore to myself that I would become a fell runner. It seems to me that most people who do marathons follow five paths:
1. They never do a marathon again
2. They do LOTS of marathons
3. They do ultra-marathons
4. They become fell-runners
5. They become triathletes
I signed up for the Yorkshire marathon so I suppose I belong in number 2, but I wanted to belong to number 4 and haven’t. And I had no intentions ever of doing a triathlon. I have two bikes and love them. In France, I cycle quite often, though less now that I run so much. But I would never choose to go on a cycle ride when I could go for a run. And I still hadn’t got back into swimming.
Then Janey and Bibi of Veggie Runners told me they had signed up for a sprint triathlon in Leeds, and would I like to join them? I looked it up and said, no chance. £48 for a sprint triathlon? No. But the organisers, Xtra Mile Events, kindly let me have a place and I said I would try to write about it, so I signed up. And then decided to undergo a training programme which consisted of:
Hubris: I used to swim. I cycle four miles to my studio and back frequently, and two of them are brutally hilly. And I know I can run. The distances weren’t daunting: 400m in the swimming pool, a 21K bike ride up Harrogate Road, and a 5K run around Leeds Grammar School, where the triathlon would be based. So I signed up, borrowed some tri kit from my lovely club-mate Marion, and then basically forgot about it, deliberately. I had travelling to do, to Dallas and Cornwall, and a marathon training plan that I still wasn’t doing properly. So I got on with that, and didn’t do any Bric (bike/run or one of the two) training. By last week in Dallas, I thought, I’d better see if I can swim, so I put on Marion’s tri gear and got in the pool. It was only about 10 metres, and not much use. I tried again in Cornwall, where I was staying at a spa with a very nice 25 metre fitness pool. I set off doing front crawl and bam.
I suddenly remembered this from my swims in the London lido. Towards the end of my time in London, I would start panicking when I did front crawl. I would panic that I wasn’t getting enough breath, and then the panic would ensure that I didn’t get enough breath. And here it was again. I did what I did when I panicked in London Fields, and switched to breaststroke. After four lengths, I thought, this is tiring. I did another couple, but I’d intended to do the full 16 and didn’t. That was very stupid, because I spent the next three days panicking about the swim. Last night I slept horribly, partly because of the heat, partly because of my noisy neighbours in their garden, and also because I was dreaming about the triathlon. I was dreading the swim.
I got up at 5.45, with the help of my cat alarm clock. (That is a cat who licks my neck to wake me up, not an alarm clock shaped like a cat.) I ate toast. I showered. And I got more and more nervous. I’d decided to cycle up to Leeds Grammar School, because I remembered it being only a couple of miles up the road.
Up. UP the road.
I’d not really thought about that bit. So when my lactic acid started burning, and I hadn’t even got to the event, I thought, I haven’t really thought this through. This feeling continued when I realised I’d forgotten my photo ID, the first item on my checklist. I’d remembered everything else:
talcum powder to talc my shoes & socks, the better to get wet feet into them
bike bottle cage which I still hadn’t fit on my bike
protein shake for afterwards
towel in a distinct colour so I could spot it in transition (I took the black one I was given after the ten mile Bluebell Trail)
change of clothes
I thought for a minute they were going to make me do a four mile round trip to go and fetch my ID, but they were nice and let me through. Outside, a few ectomorph men were sponging on their tattoos (nobody told me that triathlons are where all the handsome men are). They had the kit, but they said they were all novices too, and a bit nervous, and we all got on fine. I’ve never had a sponge-holder before, so thank you nameless man, who also cheered me when we passed later on Harrogate Road with, “COME ON LOVE!”
Janey and Bibi turned up soon with their partners Adam and Zsolt. Adam has done a few proper triathlons; I asked Zsolt if he was tempted and he said, “god, no.” Adam acted as our bike tech and fixed my bottle cage to my bike. Janey managed to put her tattoo on upside down.
But eventually we were ready and walked our bikes round to transition. This is where all the bikes are racked. There are so many rules to triathlons; the instruction booklet was about 15 pages long. The ones I remembered were that you can’t get your bike on or off the rack without your helmet being in place. It wasn’t a huge transition area, only two rows, so I didn’t have to memorise where my bike was by doing some geolocation with a fixed recognisable object. There were hardly any people there because the whole tri was done in waves, and we had asked for a “mates’ wave,” where you can compete against or compete with your mates. We were in the first wave, and due to swim at 8.
Leeds Grammar School is beautiful and looks very expensive. It has a very nice swimming pool, and after we’d got our briefing – more rules – we got in the water. You can’t jump in (another rule). There was no-one to count the 16 lengths which was worrying, as I often drift off mentally when I’m swimming. There were three people per lane, but our first swimmer hadn’t turned up. I still wasn’t sure what stroke I would do; I wanted to do front crawl but hadn’t done 400m since my London fields lido swimming, and I was already feeling so nervous about the swim. I’ve never liked swimming in crowded lanes, and the rule about overtaking – you tap the person’s foot, then the slower person hangs to the side at the end of the lane so you can overtake – made me anxious.
I asked Janey if she wanted us to stick together or if we were going to compete. She looked hesitant, and then we both said, “let’s see what happens.”
Then the whistle went, and ten seconds later the second whistle went, the man in my lane set off, and then ten seconds later off I went. He was doing breaststroke, which I was delighted about. I set off front crawling, I think, but soon switched. I intended to switch back, but the breaststroke was really comfortable, even with all the tall ectomorph men around us (Janey, Bibi and I were the only women in the wave) doing Alpha Male Crawl, so I carried on with that. I’d put down an estimated time of 12 minutes, having no idea how long it would take me, and that was one of the things making me anxious. I remembered when I went running Kathmandu with X (I suddenly can’t remember her name), who told me that she had done a triathlon in Islamabad (because she is an amazing woman which makes it even worse I can’t remember her name), and she was the last person swimming in the pool. This is what I pictured. My co-swimmer finished before me, but he would: he was about 20 years younger and he had longer, stronger legs, even doing breaststroke. But I was only two lengths behind, and though for a minute or two I thought I was the only person in the pool, I then thought, I don’t care, and just carried on swimming. I was so little concerned with getting a good time that I had no idea what a good time should consist of.
I finished, I got out, I walked to the far end of the pool, then I ran on the gravel to the transition point. I didn’t even think about stopping to wait for Janey, so obviously I do have a competitive spirit hidden beneath the phlegmatism. I put on my helmet, put my feet into the talcum powdered shoes and socks, drank something, got my bike, and dawdled a bit. I just wasn’t going to be stressed out by losing time in a transition. I’ll save that for my next triathlon. And off I went. I haven’t done a bike ride longer than about 5 miles for ages. In France I sometimes do a 20K loop, but I hadn’t done that for a while either. Before race, both Janey and Bibi had said, with some horror, “have you seen the elevation of the bike route?” I hadn’t, but I could imagine it. I knew it was uphill to Harewood. I didn’t realise there was loads of uphill after that too.
One of the rules that the organisers were very firm about was no drafting. You can’t cycle in someone’s slipstream, but you have to hang back and then overtake within 15 seconds. I didn’t think that was going to apply to me. I was the first woman out of us three to leave, but I knew Bibi wasn’t far behind, and I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. But then I could, and he got closer and closer. He was slow on the hills, so that’s where I caught up with him, and that’s exactly where I didn’t want to have to overtake. So I hung back, and I hung back and then I thought, sod this, and overtook. My legs were sorely taxed, but there were enough downhills and sort-of-flat bits to recover from the hills. The man caught me on the downhill and overtook. On the way up to the roundabout a few miles north of Harewood House, the other men in the wave started coming back on the other side. That’s where I got my COME ON LOVE. So I did. I went on.
And I overtook the slow-hill-climber again, and he didn’t catch me. I saw Bibi on the other side, and she told me later she thought I wasn’t very far ahead but she couldn’t catch me. Thank goodness for my hockey/Hoy thighs. The turn-off for the school came quite quickly, and I cycled to the dismount sign, dismounted (unlike one bloke who kept cycling at top speed and then had to do a comedy brake-screeching stop, apparently).
Bike on rack. Helmet off. Frantic search for gels. Fast mouthful of a fruit bar. Drink of electrolyte drink. Off.
In my moments of tri-panic, I’d read lots of newbie tri forums. One tip was to let your legs hang straight on the final strait back if you can, so that your hamstrings get used to the different muscles that are used for running. I remembered this, but there was no time to do it, and I didn’t want to contravene some rule that said you had to have your feet on the pedals at all time, so I didn’t. But when I set off, I got the predicted jelly legs, but it was my calves. They were tight and complaining. For a while, it felt like I was running on someone else’s legs.
The course was two laps around Leeds Grammar School grounds, which are large and have nice grass paths. I didn’t see any other runners until someone passed me on his second lap. I’d left my Garmin in my bag and had no idea what pace I was doing. It felt like I was trudging, but actually I did it in 25 minutes, which, when my 5K PB is still 23 minutes, isn’t bad. I said “shut up legs” a few times, out loud. I looked at the posh housing, and the nice playing fields, and just kept going. I felt tired, and my stomach was rumbling. I should have had a gel, but I just felt hungry rather than having dead legs.
I kept going, and I got round, and I was the first woman back. I know, only out of us three in the first wave, but still. I’m pleased. And I won’t dread my next triathlon. Because there will be a next one.
Bibi wasn’t far behind me, then Janey. There was some confusion over our times, which you could print out as a receipt. How cool, I thought, until I noticed I’d done the swim in 5 minutes. I had no idea how long the swim took but 5 minutes seemed ridiculous. Finally the man in the timing tent realised that someone had written down that we’d set off swimming at 8:08 instead of 8:03. So I’d done it in ten minutes, which I was delighted with. And I did the whole thing in about 1:35. I was shocked by my bike time. I would have said I’d been on the bike for half an hour, but it was 56 minutes. That wasn’t particularly slow: a big strong man next to me had done it in 53. I supposed it just passed fast.
Afterwards we went for protein breakfast at Filmore & Union in Moortown, and the food was delicious. Then I went to bed and slept for two hours, happy.
(Thanks, Marion, both for this picture, and for turning up to cheer and take pictures. I was pointing at my shorts and saying, “GREAT KIT” as I passed her.)