My First Triathlon

This year, despite all its challenges, changes, and unexpected turns, has been my most successful when it comes to fitness. We’d booked multiple races from runs, to swims, to first triathlons which were all, without fail, cancelled. But the extra time at home and the lack of commute meant I was determined not to lose that motivation I’d somehow found to keep exercising. And last month, I completed my first triathlon – exactly a year to the day since finishing the Couch to 5K programme.

Throughout the initial months of lockdown, I was running a couple of times a week, getting out on my roadbike for the first time on empty roads, doing at-home weights workouts and getting to grips with virtual Pilates. I hit both 5km and 10km personal bests in the same week, and found myself for the first time actually enjoying the motion of running, not just finding it a tortuous activity. Once the pools opened again, I was back in the water a couple of times a week, finding joy in the rhythm and a sense of pride that I’d not lost much in the way of lung capacity.

Some of that dedication wore off over time, but I continued to maintain at least some level of ability that I’d built up the year before.

When events started to tentatively open up again, I jumped at the chance to get some real medals on my wall having completed a couple of virtual races which had felt a bit of a cop-out. A 1500m time-trial swim in a crystal clear waterski park in Wigan was a fantastic re-entry to competitions and open water after only a couple of short forays in the local reservoir to make sure the wetsuit still fit.

Then with just 5 weeks to go, I saw an opening for a triathlon. Originally meant to be in Birmingham, it was moved to Shropshire at a proven Covid-secure site. With no hesitation, I signed up for the sprint – 750m lake swim, 20km open road bike, 5km run as two laps of the lake. Worst case scenario I could walk most of it!

All of a sudden, training had to kick up a notch. Having never done a true multisport day before, I went for a ride in my tri-suit (optimistically bought in a sale in February), followed immediately by a run. Turns out, I’m better at running after a warm up…

I tried to increase the length of my usual runs too, committing every time to 5km without walking and allowing myself just a few metres of breathing space every subsequent kilometre.

I was able to fit in a swim & run day, albeit at very short distances, but again just proved to myself that doing one exercise after the other was completely doable, and even enjoyable.

The triathlon was set for the day after my birthday, so as a mini celebration and for convenience on race morning we stayed overnight in a nearby Air BnB, indulging in pasta (and wine) as pre-race nutrition. The next morning, I woke up with butterflies, triple checking all the gear we’d lugged south before repacking the car and heading to the venue.

The atmosphere was incredible, and intimidating, as we walked through a carpark filled with bikes worth thousands of pounds, sinewed competitors with IronMan tattoos emblazoning their calves, wondering what on earth we were doing here. Sticking numbers to our bikes, hole-punching race numbers to our newly-bought race belts, and stuffing more energy gels than I’d ever need into my transition bag, all I had left to do was squeeze my wetsuit over my trisuit and hope for the best.

Alderford Lake is a stunning venue, with a calm spring-fed lake surrounded by trees. But it was cold. The rain had cleared but the wind was up, and I knew that was going to be tricky to manage. Getting into the water in a staggered start meant there was no warming up – you just dived in and started swimming. My timing chip came loose within the first 30 seconds but otherwise the swim went well. Yes it was cold, but I quickly got into a rhythm and did my thing, the swim being my favourite event. Not the fastest, but I overtook a couple of others to at least feel capable.

Transition was always the area I was going to be most nervous about. Running about 100m from the lakeside whilst unzipping the wetsuit and tugging off goggles, I thankfully honed in on my bike straight away. But the cold had started to sink in and myself and two other women all laughed as we fumbled with shoe laces and waterbottles with numb fingers.

Hauling myself onto my bike having downed half a natural energy bar and just about managing to pull on a jacket over my clammy arms to fight off the wind, I set off for the next stage. I only started road biking in February, so had no expectations for this discipline. My feet had turned to wood from the cold, so my focus was just to enjoy the ride and get back a little energy before the run. We’d scouted out the route the night before which helped enormously, knowing when the hills were coming up (though they were small compared to the Peak District ones I’ve trained on!). The headwind was the worst, and in some sections of narrow country lane I was battered by gusts that nearly knocked me off.

Against all odds, I found myself overtaking other competitors, including a few of the women who’d overtaken me on the swim. The only cyclists who passed me were down on their aerobars, top to toe in club tri-kit and again with that tell-tale M on their calves, so I wasn’t too disappointed.

Cycle done, all that was left to do was the run. In the weeks running up to the event I’d been focusing most on the running as it’s the discipline I find physically and mentally the hardest. Again however, training on hills showed its value as I made my way around the entirely flat course with less effort than expected. I even passed Simon on my first lap as he was finishing his last, giving each other a cheer and a high-five as we ran.

That meant that he was waiting for me at the finish line, and as I came into the final stretch I felt myself welling up. As someone who up until last year couldn’t run for more than a minute, I’m still a little baffled by what my body has been able to achieve.

I never look cool and collected in event photos like other competitors do, looking like fitness models just out for a casual jog. I cannot help the enormous grin that spreads across my face (inevitably popping out my ever-present forehead vein in the process!) – but it is pure joy that bursts out. Not just joy at finishing and it all being over, but every time it is disbelief that I have been able to achieve something that 2, 5, 10 years ago would have seemed impossible.

I could have pushed myself harder I’ll admit, but the key was to enjoy the experience. My first proper multisport event, during a year that was certainly turned against me when it came to training both practically and physically. But I’m extremely proud of myself, finishing in a respectable 01:47:45 including transitions, placing 45/61.

I’ve already signed up for two events in 2021, and have a list of at least 6 I’ve got my eye on… I’m certainly not done yet.

Birmingham Triathlon 2020
Looking super cool as I approach the finish…

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