Did someone say open water?

A few weeks before the race, my brother mentioned that Lidl or Aldi (I can never remember which one’s which) were doing a triathlon/ cycling sale and that they had tri-suits available for £15. Bargain! So I bought one for me and one for him then went home and eagerly tried it on. I was looking like a real professional. That is, if the professional in question was a professional pie-eater comically squeezed into a skin-tight one-piece. Nonetheless, it felt good. I wore it to swimming the next week then, halfway through a length (I was doing quite a few by now!), I made the link between open water swimming and the need of a wet-suit. I’m not sure if it was the tri-suit that triggered this thought or if the weird looks I was getting was making me want to cover up, but I knew that I needed to get one. I’m not sure why it went so long without putting 2 and 2 together. Not only did I need a wet-suit, but also I needed some experience of swimming outside of a swimming pool. To remedy this, I went on the hunt online for a wetsuit and somewhere to swim outside.

The wet-suit world is much larger than I was expecting. Also, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a surf wet-suit which is definitely not something you want to try and swim in. Swimming wet-suits are specifically designed to have thinner neoprene under the arms to allow for a wider range of motion, and they tend to have thicker neoprene in the shins so that it helps to hold your legs up, giving you a better position in the water. After a good few hours of looking online, I gave up. There were too many wetsuits to choose from and the only place I could find for outside swimming were some outdoor pools (and after the weird looks I got wearing a tri-suit in a swimming pool, I can’t imagine what it would be like to wear a full wet-suit!). What I had found, however, was a triathlon shop (Trisports) in Letchworth Garden City which was only about 15 minutes away. I immediately got up and drove there. When I got there, I explained my predicament and that I may or may not continue with triathlon past this point so I was advised to get an entry level wet-suit. I followed their advice and tried on the suit (Zone 3 Advance, perhaps? I can’t quite remember). It fit well so I went ahead and bought it, along with some nice new goggles and some lube. It sounds funny, but some form of suit-lube is crucial when it comes to swimming in a wet-suit, unless you like chafing. As I was buying the suit, I saw a flyer for the ‘Duck ‘n’ Dash’, an aquathlon organised by local triathlon group, Freedom Tri. It turns out the club have a good relationship with Trisports so I asked a few questions and found out that they do proper open water swimming in the Blue Lagoon in Arlesy. What a stroke of fate! As soon as I got home, I found their website and enquired about swimming with them.
After exchanging emails for a week or so, I was invited to join them at the Blue Lagoon to watch one of their internal aquathlons. They have various club races during the season. It gave me the chance to meet some of the club members and to see if it’s the kind of club I see myself joining. Their tagline is “Hertfordshire’s friendliest triathlon club” and they definitely lived up to it. I had a great morning! Watching everyone setting off in a mass start; swimming a lap of “the pit”, as it’s lovingly known; remove their wet-suits; run up and out of the gates and off on the 5k run. Apart from all the standard safety rules everyone has to follow, there was one particular rule which, if broken, would mean immediate disqualification. You MUST high-five everyone. If you go past a single person without a high-five, be they spectating, racing, or otherwise, you will be marked with a big fat ‘D’ on the time-sheet. It really brought a sense of fun to the race and after about 4 or 5 high-fives, I knew that this was the club for me. So I signed up and mentally prepared myself for swimming in “the pit”.
Due to insurance and liability reasons, there were certain things you had to do before going in the pit: you had to be able to swim at least 900m unaided; be a member of the club; have an induction swim with one of the swim leads; and sign a waiver. After sorting all of this, I found a swim lead who was able to take me out on my first swim. Due to my lack of planning, or failure to think about swimming outside, the first they could fit me in for my induction swim was Saturday June 6th 2015. The day before the race. I made it around, though had to stop several times (there are buoys marking the route – useful as hovering spots). I had done over 900m in the pool, once or twice, but it was very different in the open water. Even though the wet-suit gave me added buoyancy, I still felt quite uncomfortable being so far from an edge and in such deep water (apparently there’s an old double-decker bus down at the bottom for the local diving club to play around in). When I got out of the water, though, I felt great. I was comfortable in my ability to swim and really glad that I had done some open water swimming before the race. Now it was time to go home, carbo-load and get some rest.


On yer bike!

Now, cycling was something that I wasn’t a total novice at. I had learnt to ride as a child, as most children do, and had owned several bikes since then, mainly for getting from A to B (short distance). About a year before my brother mentioned the triathlon to me, I had bought a ratty old road bike from eBay in an attempt to get fitter. It worked a little bit and would occasionally ride the 14 miles round trip to work so I wasn’t too worried about the distance in the race. Only the speed.

My birthday is in January so I bought myself a present – a Pinnacle Arkose I from Evans Cycles. It’s a cyclocross bike (which I aimed to use as such in the winter months) but I bought some slick tyres to make it smoother on the road. It turned out to be a pretty useful present to myself; not only for the race ahead, but also because the present from my brother that year was.. entry into the Cambridge 100 cycle ride. 100 miles! Crikey. That was so much further than I had ever been before. I wasn’t even sure if my arse would be able to cope sitting for that long, let alone my legs! Well, if that was good training motivation, I don’t know what is. So I got to work.

Short evening rides and longer weekend rides became the norm for me. I had recently moved jobs so the the cycle to work had changed from 14 miles to more like 60 miles. It didn’t seem like a feasible option anymore. The weekend rides were quite enjoyable; I began with 10 miles, then 12, then 15, 20, 25, etc. 15 miles became my evening ride and I started really enjoying the ride. I tried to go out most evenings but with a wife and young son at home, wasn’t always so easy. After a point, it became too much to fit it all in, and I needed to get more miles in; so I decided that I had to ride to work.

I toyed with the idea of getting a train to work then cycling home; or driving to work and cycling home then getting a train the next day to collect my car; or cycling to work and get a train home whilst leaving my bike there over night. None of these options sounded particularly great. So I decided just to do it. There and back again. No trains, no leaving cars or bikes. Just going for it. But I didn’t want to do it totally blind. No, I wanted to have an idea of what the route was like and if there were any routes which Google Maps didn’t tell me about. So, one weekend, for my long ride, I set out on the route to work. I didn’t take much with me, a bottle of water and a couple of gels (I had decided these were necessary when I went past the 20 mile mark – totally not necessary) as I thought I’d only be out for a couple of hours. A couple of hours later and where was I? Yep, I had cycled all the way to work. Bugger. I had run out of water and didn’t have any gels left. I also forgot to take any money out with me (NOTE TO SELF: ALWAYS TAKE SOME MONEY!) so wasn’t able to buy any snacks. I hunted around campus and finally found a security guard who could let me in to fill my water bottle. After a brief rest, I got back on my bike and headed back home. It was getting hotter so I was consuming more and more water as I went along. It didn’t last particularly long. As I cycled through one of the towns, I stopped at a petrol filling station. With no money, I wasn’t able to buy anything to eat or drink but fortunately, the clerk was kind enough to fill up my water bottle. What a champion. After having a quick drink, and getting the bottle filled up again, I thanked him and got on my way again. Even though my sugar levels were somewhat hugely depleted by now, the kindness I had just encountered (even if it was just some water) fueled my legs for a good few miles. I only had 12 left to go.
There was a downhill section that I remember cycling up when I went the other way. I was looking forward to going down it very, very much. Any kind of respite on a journey like this was hugely appreciated. Dreaming about this moment, I concentrated all my energy on reaching it. Finally, rounding a corner, the downhill section appeared. Thank God! I sat comfortably (not interested in ducking down and going fast), giant grin on my face, and went down. It was all going well until.. Uh oh. I must have been enjoying the wind in my face so much that I put my head back a little and closed my eyes. I don’t remember doing it but it’s the only explanation I can think of. Either way, I lost concentration and ended up coming off the road and hitting the undulating dirt path on the side. My left knee took the brunt of the first knock and then I, somehow, managed to control the bike and stop without falling off. My knee was in quite some pain. Instead of doing the wise things and calling my Wife for a lift home, I rested for a minute, had a drink of water and carried on. “It’s only another 10 miles or so,” I remember saying to myself, “I’ve done this most evenings for a while now.” It was unlike any of the evening rides I had been on. It was painful with each pedal stroke and, as a result, I ended up using my right leg for most of it. I had never done any 1 leg drills before so this was it’s own kind of agony.
Finally, I made it home, rested my bike down, and slumped on the sofa. My wife got me some lunch, then I fell asleep

Sadly, the knock to my knee put me out quite a bit. I didn’t get a chance to cycle to work for another few weeks and there was constant pain when walking and cycling. As a result, when the day came for the 100 miler, we decided that it was probably best to do the 50 mile option instead (no, of course we didn’t consider not doing it at all!). It was a fairly wet day but was a really good ride. We took it easy and made it round in just over 3 hours. My knee held out pretty well but I think that was just the adrenaline of my first event. As soon as we got off the bikes, it fell to pieces and, as a result, I didn’t do anything except rest it for the next 2 weeks.

At least I had done plenty of training for the rather small (in comparison) 20km ride; and, with my swimming coming along, I felt like I could rest for the rest of the time and still be ok.

Dipping my toe in the water

January 2015, I started training for the triathlon. I had never swam a serious length in my entire life, let alone 750m in a river! I had bought myself some inexpensive goggles (mistake) and some trunks then headed out to the local pool. I thought getting there early would have meant that it would be quieter – but I was wrong. Each of the 5 lanes available were packed with swimmers. Either way, I decided to keep to the edge just in case I needed a quick break (or to stop myself from drowning!). My stroke was very awkward, with arms and legs in no particular rhythm, and I had to stop several times to empty my goggles of water, but I powered on and eventually made it to the other end. To get an idea of how slow I was, there were a couple of old ladies in the same lane as me chatting as they breast-stroked down the pool. They had done 3 lengths in the time I had reached the end of my first. Despite all of that, I was pretty happy with myself. I made the return journey (similarly awful) and got out of the pool.

As soon as I got home, I went onto my laptop and watched YouTube videos teaching me proper swimming form. I was convinced that I had taken it all in so I went back a couple of days later and tried again. Yep – those videos had done nothing to my stroke. I was still a mess. I did, however, manage to swim a 3rd then 4th length. 100m! I was on the way. Just 26 more and I’d be on the mark. 26. 26 more lengths, and I was only on 4. But I had almost half a year to train so, as long as I went often enough, and pushed myself hard enough, it would be fine.

Let’s start from the beginning…

I’ve read so many books and blogs from people claiming to be new to running, new to triathlon, or new to endurance events in general; however, they so often start off with something like “I was a cross-country runner at school and now only run casually”; “I’ve done 100 mile bike rides but I’m not running fit”; or “My last marathon was five years ago”. It’s very rare to find one that follows someone from their very first step. Sadly, mine will be much the same. Last year I completed IronMan 70.3 Weymouth. That said, I definitely started from nothing before that. So, before I get to the barefoot stuff, I’m going to start at the beginning.
Until 2015, I was very unfit. Very unfit. I would walk cross-country at school (if I was forced to do it); I would prefer Mat Hoffman’s BMX on the PlayStation rather than cycling outside; and I had never, not ever, done anything close to a marathon! I was also hitting about 19 stone on the old weighing scales. Not somewhere I wanted to be.
My brother had taken up running a few years before and was really getting into it. He’d been fairly active beforehand but mainly with team sports (American football, rowing, etc.). His enjoyment of running lead to a more broad interest in other events and one of these was a Triathlon. He lived in London and had found a sprint triathlon which was taking place close to where I was living at the time (Bedfordshire) so he asked if he could stay at mine the night before. Which he could. He then asked if I fancied joining him. Which I did. So there began my journey.