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:

1. Hubris
2. Denial

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
water bottle
puncture kit
allen key
bike lock
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.)

Running on the run

I’ve just returned from Dallas, Texas. I say, “Dallas, Texas,” because it sounds better, not because there is another famous Dallas other than the South Fork one. I was at the Mayborn Conference, a gathering of rather prestigious non-fiction writers and journalists. It is held at the Hilton Grapevine Lakes conference centre, which is nice enough: there is a small lake, tennis courts and such. But it’s ten minutes from the airport, next to many highways with no pavements, and it is not the best place to figure out how on earth to stick to my marathon training plan and find a 12 mile running route.

Yes, I’m back in marathon training. I’ve been pretty crap at sticking to my plan so far, and I’m ashamed about it. Partly that’s because book festival season has started and I’m all over the place. I was in County Cork for the West Cork literary festival the other week. It was fun, and a full house of people turned up at 1pm on a Friday to hear me talk, which is always delightful. And on the morning that I needed to run 9 miles, I happened upon a man at the door dressed in running gear, and we looked at each other, and I said, are you running? And he said, yes, and I reviewed your book. It was Blake Morrison, and off we went to run together for a very pleasant six miles. No, I didn’t do my nine.

There are two reasons I haven’t been sticking to my – very carefully planned – plan. The first is the travel. The second is that I can’t stop signing up for races. Jenny is very patient when I say things like, “did I tell you I’m doing the Great North Run?” or, “I’m doing a sprint triathlon on Sunday, did I mention it?”. I’m nervous about but looking forward to the triathlon, though I’ve done no Bric training (i.e. bike then run). I suppose I could rectify that by cycling to Golden Acre park tonight, where I’m doing a relay with my club, and then running 5K, but I’m worried my jetlag will manifest itself as slow legs anyway so I don’t want to give them even more to deal with. So far my swim training for the triathlon has consisted of doing a few short lengths at the hotel in Dallas, thinking, “right, I can still swim,” and hoping for the best. It’s only a 400m swim – 16 lengths – in a pool, but when my club mates say things like, “make sure you kick hard at the end of the swim because blood pools in your legs and you may feel giddy,” I start to get a little worried.

So in Dallas my plan required me to do some fartlek runs, and a 12 mile long run. On my first morning, even though I slept through to 7am when I usually wake up with jet lag at 5, I decided to run around the hotel. I knew there was a half-mile “jogging track,” so I asked the receptionist where it was, and set off on it. But then at the side of the track I saw a track going off into some woods, then another track, then I found another track that led to a paddock with horses (the hotel had a “ranch” bit).



I managed to make a 2-mile loop out of the half-mile jogging track. I was lucky with the weather. It’s usually infernally hot in Texas at this time of year, but a weather front similar to a polar vortex but not actually a polar vortex had brought cooler weather, so that when I sat outside, I had to wear two sweaters. I am not complaining: I much prefer to run in cooler weather than hot. Though with the ferocity of the air conditioning inside, I never got to remove my sweaters even when it did get hot again.

For my long run, I couldn’t face running the same loop ten times, so I did my Kathmandu technique. I searched for Grapevine, TX runners, and found the Lake Grapevine Runners and Walkers (RAW) club. Lake Grapevine was five miles from the hotel, and apparently has a 60-mile perimeter. RAW did 8 and 12 mile runs on Sundays. So I wrote to their email address and within five minutes Joe, the club president, had written back and said I’d be most welcome to join them, and that they met at their clubhouse near the lake, and could I come a few minutes before they set off at 7?

I could. I did. And it was great. The sun was already shining hard by then (the polar vortex was on its way out), and at the clubhouse I found a couple of dozen people in rather fine and colourful running kit – I LOVE buying running kit in the US – ready to run or walk. They were going to do 8 miles, but said I could do another 4 after that. We set off. Joe was a walker, so I set off running with a lovely Parisian woman, 20 years in Texas, named Helene. I carried a water bottle, because after all this was Texas, but then after a mile, lo: RAW sends out a volunteer before every run to put out water stations! How cool is that? I know that we don’t have much cause for water stations in Leeds temperatures, but still, I was very impressed.


The route ran on roads skirting the lake but not on lake paths. The paths were quite busy: early morning is exercising time in Texas. Later when I went to the nearby shopping mall, I was flabbergasted at how many obese people there are, as I am every time I go back to the US. I was also shocked to see two TV ads that starred obese people, but that were advertising products totally unrelated to diet (one was for Febreze). So the obese people were there to denote the norm. That is shocking. It’s so odd, because the US also has such a strong health and fitness culture, which is why so many people were out running, walking, cycling at 7am on a Sunday morning. I know how to solve America’s obesity by the way: cut every portion in half. Every portion of food I was served could have fed three people.

So I had a great run with the RAW lot, and invited them to come and run in Leeds or the Yorkshire Dales (which of course I rarely get to) if they ever come over. I won’t bang on about the tribe of runners, but it is great to know that exercising and running and being outdoors can be something that brings total strangers together. I never did do the extra four miles though.

And it’s always good to come home: