I did my first triathlon yesterday. I never thought I’d ever do a triathlon, despite being a keen runner and, more recently, a keen cyclist. Various friends (mainly the well-off ones) are always banging on about me doing one though, and my hesitancy has partly been around worrying about ending up sounding like this bell-end: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KTEgLKhjIw, but mainly because my swimming is staggeringly awful. Not just bad, but awful. Think about the worst swimmer you know, then slow them down and make them less graceful in the water.
That’s me. So for me a triathlon was never an option because I like to be even mildly competitive when I can, and with my swim it rules it out as an option.
However at the beginning of the summer I decided, with thoughts of my mortality flooding through me, to sign up for one. Because I can’t swear by the maxim: Try everything once apart from incest and Morris Dancing, and not live by it now, can I? I chose the Eyemouth Triathlon because a) It was far enough away from Edinburgh that I might actually not be seen by anyone I knew, b) It was far enough away in the calendar that I could have a stab at improving the dreaded swim, and c) I like doing events that have body parts in their names. <I really hope I can find an event in Cockermouth soon>. I had intended to give the Try-a-Tri distance a go, but I made the mistake of mentioning this to Jim Hardie, a fellow Carnethy, and he ribbed me mercilessly. After comments about ‘stabilisers and sanitary towels’ I was shamed into going for the Sprint distance (750m swim, 20K bike ride and 5K run).
So in July with the triathlon far enough away to not have to worry about it, and my cycling and running in reasonable shape already, I decided to embark on my swim training. The first swim, at Warrender, was to be a benchmark. It wasn’t pretty. I looked like a fawn that had fallen into a rushing brook and didn’t know what to do. Old ladies and people with parts of limbs missing were passing me with ease. I couldn’t control my breathing and my intended 33 lengths (of a 25 yard pool) of crawl soon lapsed into crawl-breaststroke-crawl in order to maintain a semblance of calm. I dragged myself out of the pool some 24 minutes later with my head hanging and knowing there was mucho work to be done.
At this point my friend and, ahem, fellow triathlete Nicky Freedman stepped in with the book ‘Swim Smooth’. This has been the bible for swimmers for some time in learning how to improve technique, lower times and generally, well, swim smoother. Brute force and effort is usually my approach to a physical problem but I sat on the loo and browsed it and realised that I was swimming type outlined in the book ‘The Arnie’:
The Arnie type swimmer is usually a man with a strong build and a history of team sports like rugby or football – the Arnette is usually slightly less muscular. They usually have an abundance of lean muscle especially in the upper body which usually leads to their legs quickly sinking while swimming. As a result the main technique focus is on their body position in the water.
Common Characteristics of Arnie / Arnette
- Fights the water instead of holding it. Has a shorter/faster stroke as a result
- Complains about being out of breath; usually only swims shorter distances at a time
- Lifts head to take a breath
- Bad body position (high shoulders, low hips), weak kick and instable core
- Crosses front of stroke and scissor kicks to compensate
- Struggles to relax in water and holds breath instead of exhaling
- Swimming speed typically 1:45 to 2:10 per 100m.
Anyway, I read this, tossed the book aside and thought: ‘Fuck it, I’ll throw brute force and effort at the problem.’
So off I went to Spain on holiday and swim I did. Things improved marginally but not greatly, but as I was basked in daily sunshine and swimming in an outdoor pool with raven-haired beauties, I cared not a lot. I was doing a power of running in Spain too, and biking, so was feeling bullish about the still-fairly-distant event. Upon my return from Spain, and in good form, disaster struck.
Mishap # 1: Crock-kneed
I decided to do the Baddinsgill Round Hill Race on 24th August. It’s a nice race and I was keen to test out my new-found fitness and, well, show off my tan. But about 4.5 miles in I took a tumble and something didn’t feel right. I was limping, slowing and feeling Not.Right. so pulled out at the halfway point and trotted miserably to the finish down the Cauldstane Slap. As with other knee problems I’ve picked up recently, I assumed it would clear itself with a week or so of rest. But no, this one has lingered and I’m coming up for a month now without any significant running. The physio diagnosed a Sartorius muscle strain and possible cartilage damage behind my knee so the triathlon yesterday could be my last action for a while <wink>.
Anyway, I moved from thinking that I could have a reasonable stab at the triathlon, to considering pulling out. Then last weekend, when away camping, I ran a 5K in a miserable 30 minutes. But at least I covered the distance. I followed this up with a 23 minute one on Wednesday and that made my mind up. I decided to do the tri with the twin ambitions of finishing and not coming last. After all, my cycling has been unaffected by my bad knee (must be something to do with the area and angle), my swimming is bad anyway and if I can just hold the run together as much as possible, then I’ll be in business.
Mishap # 2: Forgotten Road Shoes
I arrived home on Friday night and realised that I’d left my road shoes at work. Damn. However, I did have my Salomon Speedcross and they would have to do. At this point I took it upon myself to pack my ‘box’ like a real triathlete, and ensure that I had all I needed, given it was an early start yesterday and I was spending most of Saturday doing birthday party and Equinox run duties. One realises, when embarking on a triathlon that the reason that a lot of athletes are put off by them is the kit and faff factor (which, conversely, makes them attractive to the middle classes) and for this event lasting less than two hours, I would need:
- A bike (with pump, repair kit, water bottle, oiled chain and tyres inflated to 100psi)
- A helmet, glasses, gloves and peaked cap
- My Carnethy bike top (for bike and run) – I was offered a tri suit but politely declined (see ‘bell-end’ above)
- Lube, talc and towel
- Socks, running shoes and bike shoes with cleats
- Gels (just in case)
- A number holder (it turned out not to be needed on this occasion)
- Knee support (just in case – didn’t use it in the end)
I packed all the kit on Friday night and embarked on a slow 7 mile trot over the Pentlands from Hillend to Carnethy Hill on Saturday where I met my club mates, dressed as a Bavarian serving wench. But that story’s for another day. After a bit of fun, I headed home and had a good night’s kip in anticipation for the early start.
Seona (my friend and, ahem, fellow triathlete) picked me up at 8am and, between us, we just about managed to get my bike up onto the roof of her car and into the rack before heading down the road to Eyemouth.
It was over an hour’s drive and we were a bit tight for time, and knowing that I would probably be in the first wave off given my slow swim time, made it a wee bit stressy. On the way down I picked Seona’s brain for all the tactical stuff and again you realise that there are a lot of rules in triathlon – no drafting, overtake or drop back 10m on the bike, touch the foot of the swimmer ahead if you want to overtake, rack the bike with helmet on, and so on. The swim was going to be the stressful bit for me, especially as everyone was gathered to watch while they waited for their waves to begin.
Mishap # 3: No sign of me on the start list
We’d already had an extra bit of stress to deal with as the Police had blocked the road into Eyemouth because of a crash, which involved doubling back into Ayton and then faffing with directions until we managed to get parked. The area around the leisure centre was already busy. We trotted up to registration to find that neither of us had our names listed. Seona had a fairly late entry off the wait list so understandable but I entered weeks ago (I mumbled to the lady). This isn’t ideal as you can’t get your number, or swim cap, or rack your bike or set up your stuff and adds to the stress, especially for a first triathlon. It then dawned on me as I again scanned the list, that I was actually there but down as a 15.20 swim. WTF?!! FIFTEEN TWENTY? It’s Michael Lynch here, not Michael Phelps. Did I put that down in a haze of optimism? Or stupidity? Either way I wasn’t sticking at that. The process involved in pulling aside after each length to get passed after a foot tap was already awful enough in my head and I wanted to minimise this, which involved swapping myself into the SLOW wave, of around 23 minutes predicted time. After a little wait, we got registered and were given a coloured swim cap (which dictates the start order, a slip of paper (which tells you your wave and lane) and we were branded with the biggest numbers ever seen on our left arm and right leg.
We then went to set up in the transition area, with Seona kindly explaining everything to me as she would a small child. At this point I discovered:
Mishap # 4: Forgotten Garmin – a time-less classic
My Garmin wasn’t there. I hadn’t packed it. Grrr. While I was never going to be wearing it during the swim (I never did get round to testing its waterproof qualities), my intention was to leave it switched on at transition during the swim and stick it on as I emerged from the pool for the rest of the race. Not so. I would need to bike and run blind to the time. That threw me a bit. Anyhow, I laid out my stuff and got myself ready for the swim, knowing I was in wave 1.
At this point we had only a few minutes until the race briefing and I tried to take in the points where I’d need to emerge from the pool and later into the run.
The race briefing kind of passed me by as I chatted to Seona and perhaps the key bit of information I needed passed me by too, which I’ll come on to. Then it was time to rumble. We headed into the pool and I stripped off to my cycling shorts, which I was going to swim in, put my cap and goggles on, lubed up and emerged, blinking, into the pool. What I hadn’t realised, is that the later swimmers all seemed to want to sit (in their numbers it seemed to me) and watch the remedial class of which I was part. To be fair, they were shouting encouragement too, so it wasn’t all bad. Eyemouth pool is a 6 lane job, of 25 metres in length, so I knew it was going to be 30 lengths.
Just before we entered the pool for the warm-up lap, we were given ankle chip timing strips to put on. They were paper bands and looked very flimsy to me. We then swam to the other end of the pool, were explained the start orders (based on cap colour) and told we’d be tapped on the head with a stick when we had 2 lengths to swim. I was ready! At the signal I started my swim and around 3 lengths in I was already in trouble with my breathing so had to throw in a length of breaststroke. It was okay though as this seemed to be as fast as my crawl (why didn’t I just stick to breast stroke in the first place?) and from there I threw in a few breast stroke lengths all the way. Then, though:
Mishap # 5: Lost chip
About halfway through my swim I saw the chip timer come off my ankle and float to the bottom of the pool. At the next turn I informed the timers and asked them if I should retrieve it. They said not to and to keep swimming. Just after, I noticed them relaying this to one of the crowd, who dived in to get it for me. Meanwhile, my swim was coming to an end and I felt like my time was okay, but I didn’t really know (as I don’t think we’d started bang on time). I emerged from the pool and was handed the chip and tried to reattach it. It just slid off my ankle. I carried it outside (throwing my cap into a tub on the way) and ran outside to transition. In the meantime, one of the helpers ran off to try to get me another timer. As I fumbled into my cycling top, helmet, socks, shoes, glasses, gloves it felt like an eternity and finally someone emerged with a velcro timer. This was more like it. I unracked my bike, ran with it to the mount line and I was off. I had left my bike in a loose gear as I knew there was a killer hill to start with.
What I didn’t realise was that the killer hill lasted for 6 and a bit miles, until the turn. But at this point I was enjoying the bike ride as I knew that climbing on a bike is the one thing I’m decent at. My breathing was surprisingly laboured after the swim though and I tried to control it as I adjusted my clothing and helmet in motion. I had stuck a couple of gels in my back pouch and decided to neck one just to give me a little boost. The bike route climbs out of Eyemouth, through Coldingham and north. There was a bit of traffic around but the marshals were doing their best to control things. I overtook a couple of riders who had emerged from the pool before me and was going well and approached the marshal at (what I didn’t know not having paid attention at the briefing) was the turn.
Mishap # 6: Caravan park chaos
Now you’d think he would do some kind of signal to say that I should cycle around him and go back the way I came, but no, he pointed right, down a road, so I took that road. Mistake. He probably did shout after me, bless him, but I didn’t hear him. A bit like all of those marshals who shout after me in hill races when I go wrong, and I never hear them. Sigh. Anyway, I was beginning to think that the road was in bad repair at this point, with pot holes and speed bumps, and as I climbed up towards a caravan park I expected to see another marshal, as there was a choice of roads here. I took the left one and realised (finally) that things weren’t right, as the road turned into a trail which turned into an overgrown trod. Not. Suitable. For. Road. Bikes. It was then I realised what I’d done, and tried to get out of there as quickly as I could. I turned and emerged from the site and back on the road from whence I came. At the junction, I saw the marshal and he asked me if I was doing the triathlon. I saved my rage for later and got on with it. (It turns out, because I was first to him, after me, he stood in from the road to the right to prevent the same thing happening – and as I was first at that point I had no-one to follow). I tried to calculate lost time and reckoned on about 9 minutes. Dammit. My ‘good’ bike leg was blown now.
However, keen to finish I carried on and the descent was very fast and I flew past the first rider that I overtaken me as I had gone wrong, and saw the second in my sights as we entered Eyemouth. The dismount area was at the bottom of a sharp hill and I had to skid on the brakes to prevent me from shooting past.
I ran into transition and threw off my bike kit and swapped shoes for my Speedcross and I was off for the run, with Seona shouting words of encouragement. I had no idea where I was going on the run (there was some criticism about the lack of marshals later in the section) but I seemed to navigate okay using the orange arrows and sort of followed my nose.
Anyhow, I was more concerned about keeping my knee together which, although loose from the bike ride, was still painful. I overtook the guy who had overtaken me on the bike section when I went wrong, so at that point I was on my own. I seemed to be going a reasonable pace and the route was pleasant enough. I came back into Eyemouth and descended towards the harbour where the finish was and crossed the line. It was over! I had completed my first triathlon and, although littered with errors I was pleased, and actually really enjoyed it.
There was a van with a machine where you could get your time immediately, which was great. I was pleased with my swim time (better than all my training swims) and my run time (nothing special in 5K terms but considering my knee, decent enough), but not so happy with the bike leg (for obvious reasons) and the transition time for swim/bike.
I think the Sprint distance is perfect for me and I’ll certainly consider doing more, although there will need to be lots of improvements in the areas outlined above. Easily done though. I just wanted to use this one as a learning experience and I certainly did that. And I didn’t finish last either. In fact I was 85th out of 115.
Results here: http://www.stuweb.co.uk/events/2014/09/21/1846/
The receipt of shame.