Poor, broken me.

Now that I had done what I previously thought would be impossible, it was time to think about next year. But before that happened, I needed to get my ankles sorted out.

Basically, it was terrible news. I went to the injury clinic where I was told that I had a selection of fresh and healed stress fractures across both feet/ ankles. I was banned from running so that they could have time to heal. He thinks it was from the first race I did, given that I went straight into a 5k with the wrong footwear, unstable park grounds, and no training. It made sense. I had done too much, too soon; exactly what I had hoped to avoid.

A couple of months without running didn’t sound too bad. I’d pick it back up again before Christmas and have a good start to the New Year. Plus, I can still cycle and swim, right? Wrong. The fractures were in such locations that, should I cycle or swim, it could stop the bones from fusing and would set back my recovery. Dammit! What am I meant to do?! Without running, cycling or swimming, I’d lose all my gains from the year! The only thing I could think of was to swim – open-water – without using my legs. So I did.
For the sake of my sanity, I won’t try and recall every swim I did or exact dates for things over the next few months so I’ll sum things up like this:
– I went back every two weeks to see the physio and after a month or so, I was given the all clear for cycling and swimming again. I still wasn’t allowed to use fins (for indoor training) and wasn’t allowed to stand or push/ pull too hard on the bike. That was fine – I didn’t care too much for the fins, anyhow. Also, by this point, we were training on turbo-trainers for the bike so I didn’t have to worry about any extra pressure/ hills if I didn’t want to.
– My ankles healed enough that I was given strengthening exercises to do with a rubber band. They were dull but I did them. There were also some single leg balancing drills which I had to do 3 times a day. I did them at my desk at work but felt pretty stupid stood there on one leg, balancing on a scrunched up towel, with my eyes closed.
– Each time I went, the range of motion in my ankle either didn’t change from the last time, or got marginally better. Either way, not enough to start running again. This meant more time off from running.
– Christmas came and I was keen to get running. I took my family up to Scotland that Christmas and Will would be there too. It would have been really nice to go and hit some snowy trails. Sadly, that was not going to be the case. My next appointment wasn’t until the first week in January so I didn’t dare run a step just in case it put me back anymore.

I had a nice Christmas break with the family then headed back down South and, later that week, went to my appointment. I was allowed to run again! However, to make sure that my ankles were strong enough, I had to take it carefully. Starting with scheduled 10 minute runs and getting longer if I felt alright. Before too long, I was back up to 40+ minute runs and feeling alright. Knowing that my motivation is helped by having an event to train for, I signed up for…


…Ironman 70.3 Weymouth. Hey, why not!


Bagging me that free hoodie!

A couple of weeks after the Duck ‘n’ Dash, Dean was still speaking to me, and it was time for the 3rd Sprint in the series. Free hoodie time! N.b. We all know that if you’re paying for races that things aren’t actually free – but it’s nice to think that you’re getting something for you efforts.

Will was back again for this race; however, he was doing the standard distance, instead. Same as the first race, he came to mine the day before, collected our race numbers, drove the bike route, checked our kit, ate copious amounts of spag and salmon, then headed off early the next morning. Once we had finished setting up our transition areas, we headed off to the waterside. Because he was doing the standard race, he would be starting in the swim group after mine. My group was called into the water and then set off. Claire arrived shortly afterwards, as is tradition, and watched as I came out of the water. Again, the cycle was pretty standard – except for one thing… I had been concentrating on my hill work so when the big one appeared in the middle of the lap, I was ready. I got into a lower gear during the slight incline and spun my legs out a little to make sure they were nice and loose. Before I hit the bottom, I actually went up a couple of gears. This required a decent amount of push on the pedals but was a comfortable level for me to do for a period of time. There were quite a few people on this hill so to get past them, I need some immediate power. I geared up one more time, stood up out of my saddle, and went for it. I was up that hill in no time at all! I had overtaken so many other riders and even a few with the fancy tri-bars who had whizzed past me earlier on when it was flatter. It felt awesome. At the top of the hill, I made sure not to slow down so I hit the gears up some more, tucked down onto the drops and pedaled like fury. I did this for a good 4-5 minutes before finding my race gear again and taking some ‘active recovery’. I also had a gel and a good glug of drink. A few of the tri-bar riders past me eventually but it took a fair amount of time for them to catch up.
Back at transition, I put my bike back and grabbed my running kit. Like at the Duck ‘n’ Dash, I went for the sockless option for running. It saved a bit of time and wasn’t too uncomfortable over the fairly short distance. Now I was used to running (much more than I was at the start!) I got on fairly well. Still only managed a 30 minute 5k but that’s just the pace the running gods gave me. Having said that, this was a full run – no stopping! I did feel, a few times, that I should stop and check my ankle again as it was not feeling great but I wanted to run at least one race without stopping. So I kept going. Coming down the finish line, I finished in 1:43:16. Two and a half minute off race 2; 11 and a half from race 1! I was more than happy with those numbers! Even more happy with my new hoodie!

I joined my family and we got ready for Will to come in off the bike leg. My ankle was complaining a lot so I just took off my shoes and walked around without anything on them for a while. It felt really nice having the grass on my feet. I didn’t think at the time that this could potentially be a feasible way of sorting my problems.
As Will was doing double my distances (and we were a similar speed on the bike) I knew we had a bit of time to wait. We had to wait a little longer than expected because he got a flat part way round his second lap. I’m still to have that issue (touch wood). When he eventually turned up, I got to join in with the cheering! It’s great fun. He wore his running trainers on the bike so was a speedy transition then off he went on the run. Being a runner, he completed it with ease. We watched as he passed other runners, even lapping a few.
Great celebrations at the end as we had now both done what we had come for and, to top it off, it was a lovely warm day.

Now, what did I want to do next? I know, get that ankle fixed!!

Time for the obligatory post-race photo!

After the race

From that first race, I was hooked. Looking back, I loved every minute of it and cannot recommend it enough to people toying with the idea. In fact, coming from an overweight, lazy person who could barely swim a length, didn’t cycle an awful lot, and definitely didn’t run, as they say, if I can do it, so can you.

By this point, I had signed up for the next 2 races (12th July and 6th September) and I knew exactly where I wanted to improve. Running was the obvious one but transitions were also just important when it came to saving time. Should I practise running along and taking off my wetsuit? Could I lay out my kit in a different order? Did I need to wear socks? How about nutrition; could I practise taking that on the bike rather than doing it at my transition point? I spent a fairly decent amount of time thinking about these, seemingly trivial, things before the next race.

Being in the same location, it was a perfect way to see if I was able to improve anything. To make sure I did, I made the most of my new membership with Freedom Tri, and went to as many swimming sessions as I could, in the pit (3 or 4 mornings per week); joined them during their running practise; and sometimes joined them on long rides at the weekend. I also tried to fit in a cycle to and from work as often as I could.
During the run training, my ankles started giving me bother so I went back to the shop where I bought my wet-suit and got a professional gait analysis to see what kind of shoes I should be wearing. It was recommended that I wear a strongly supported shoe to counteract my over-pronation (feet pointing outwards). I bought these and happily went on my way. They took a bit of getting used to but they did feel much better.
My knee pain was still plaguing me so I decided to go to see an injury specialist. Luckily, there was one which would give discounts if you were a club member. He was able to slot me in pretty quick and give me an evaluation.
NOTE:  I am not a Physiotherapist, Doctor, or biomechanical specialist of any kind so I will probably get things wrong and I will also limit the amount of fancy words used (probably to zero).
After giving me a thorough looking over, he came to a conclusion. It was that I had an imbalance in the strength between my quads and hamstrings (probably due to my training in cycling but not running) which caused my knee to hurt. The fact that I jolted it on the bike may have just sped up the pain coming to the surface. I was given some daily strengthening exercises to do to try and fix this imbalance. He also mentioned that I was a flat footed over-pronator and that to help straighten me out during the run, I would need orthotics in my shoes to support my feet and make them point forwards. I mentioned that I had already been given the gait analysis and that I was recommended the most supportive shoe (which I had taken with me); however, after looking at the shoes, he decided that the orthotic would be needed as well. I went back a week later once the orthotics had arrived. I was given two pairs: one for everyday walking about; and one for running. This meant that I was constantly receiving artificial support for my arches. As I had no basis to argue this, and trusted his professional recommendation, I went off and wore the orthotics daily and during running. They were very strange to start with (never actually got used to them) and was told that I would probably feel a certain amount of discomfort for the first few days, as I got used to them, so I shouldn’t wear them all the time from day one.
They were really uncomfortable but, being the obedient little sheep I am, followed his advice and transitioned into wearing them daily, assuming they would become comfortable as time went by. I think it got to a point where they weren’t comfortable but I didn’t realised they were there. I think the pain receptors in my feet just gave up sending me signals. I also believed what he had told me so I kept training in them (still with my supported shoe, as well) in the hope that one day I’d be running free and easy like Forrest Gump. It wasn’t long before the next race.

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.

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.