“Did you sleep well?” asked Rob over breakfast on the morning of the South Coast Triathlon, the day of which had finally dawned after two cancelled years on the trot.
No, I hadn’t slept well. In fact I’d spent most of the night lying in bed Googling “how far are you allowed to push your bike in a triathlon” and checking that my insurance would pay up if I lost all four limbs in a high speed pile up and found myself unable to work for the rest of my life. Occasionally I stopped to check the weather and the South Coast Triathlon page for cancellation notices. To my dismay, there were none. My other triathlon avoidance techniques of leaving my bike chained up with a cheap lock in the middle of a council estate and sitting next to maskless wonders on the tube had also failed and I was still with bicycle and negative on the lateral flow test. Only two options remained: admit to everyone that I wasn’t up to the job and piss off to parkrun instead, or just go ahead and do the fucking triathlon.
I went ahead and did the fucking triathlon.
Laying my kit out in the transition area, I had never felt quite so out of my depth in my entire life. Everyone else looked so slim, athletic, graceful and competent and there was me with my trisuit cutting my podgy legs in half like badly stuffed sausages, trying to hook a 18-kilo hybrid bike complete with bell and panniers over the transition rack. Donning my wetsuit and humorous L-plate swimming hat (I wish they did these in bicycle helmet form) I waddled awkwardly to the beach, hoping that a freak wave would sweep on to the beach and swallow me up. Rob’s wave started 10 minutes before mine, so I watched him start and disappear into the sea, overtaking several front crawlers with his unnecessarily fast breaststroke.
To be honest I was so busy worrying about the bike that I completely forgot that I had to swim too and this was my first big mistake. I didn’t realise that we would actually be starting from the beach and not lined up in the water like the other swimming races I have done and there was a bit of a scramble to get in and get moving. In the first few metres I felt a man come up behind me and touch my lower leg. Because this was the female start I assumed he was a marshal telling me to stop because there was a massive boat on the course or a shark loose in the sea or they’d realised I was an imposter and a danger to the other competitors. When he merely apologised it dawned on me that actually a competitor in the mixed relay which was starting at the same time. I carried on, but then disaster struck. My goggles came away from my eyes and started to fill with water. I tried to close my eyes and ignore it, but I needed to see where I was going. I had no option but to let the water out and pray that they’d stick again. You may know that it is really hard to get wet goggles to stick. I emptied the goggles. They didn’t stick. Now I was stuck. I thought I’d have to swim the remaining 700 metres breaststroke. My breaststroke is very, very, very slow, especially in a wetsuit. On the bright side, at least if it took me forever to complete the swim the bike course would be a lot quieter by the time I got there. But everyone might have gone home. And it might be dark.
While I was floundering I was approached by the rescue canoe who clearly thought he’d have to do some rescuing.
“GOGGLES!” I gasped, worried that he’d think I was drowning and force me to retire. I explained the non-stickiness predicament and this wonderful saint of a canoe man came to my rescue and dried the goggles and my face with his shirt and then tightened the straps around my head. I put my head under again and hoped they’d stick. They stuck! And I was off! I even overtook a few people as I splashed onwards. In fact I enjoyed the swim so much that I forgot about my plan to be as slow as possible to avoid the cyclists and reached the Mandatory Shoe Transition (hereafter known as MST) in 23:03. (The official swim time was longer than this as it included the MST and the 200 metre run to the transition area but I am counting my own times as I see fit). My second mistake was to use the shoes I planned to run in for the MST because they ended up soaking wet. The third was to leave them done up with double knots since I couldn’t get the knots undone with wet hands and couldn’t get them on to my feet properly either.
Mistake number 4 was accidentally hitting lap on my watch whilst struggling out of my wetsuit thus messing up “triathlon mode” and ensuring that my own times would not match the official times. According to the website, I had the longest T1 out of any competitor and this is not merely because of inefficiency at wetsuit removal but because I was also putting off getting on the dreaded contraption.
The next calamity wasn’t entirely a mistake because it was entirely deliberate but it certainly didn’t help my times. To get from the bike mount line to the seafront where you do your 6 bike laps, there is an awkward tight corner followed by a steep hill. I noticed a few of the other competitors making heavy weather of it and I just knew that I would struggle and maybe lose momentum altogether. A cycling error so early on would probably destroy the one thread my nerves were hanging on by. So (having spent most of the previous night checking this was not against the rules) I wheeled the bike to the top of the hill. I asked permission from a marshal first (more to assure her that this was deliberate and I hadn’t merely forgotten to ride my bike) and got the distinct impression that she had never been asked such a question before and thought I was completely mad.
I have never been as scared in my life as I was when I reached the top of the hill. The cycle course had reached peak occupancy and every few seconds a fancy road bike or bike even fancier than a road bike zoomed past. All the other cyclists were maintaining an aerodynamic position and using things like disc wheels and aerobars to make themselves go FASTER. When I am on a bike all I think about is slowing down and not falling off, doing things to make yourself go faster is an alien concept. The other cyclists were putting in as much effort as I would on a run, grunting and sweating, and more than anything else they were going so fast I didn’t know how I was ever going to wobble on to the course without causing a collision.
I must have stood at the top of that hill, poised but immobile, frozen with fear, for several minutes. My heart rose into my throat, like when you are on a rollercoaster at Wicksteed Park waiting to go over the top. But when you are on a rollercoaster, you know everything will be okay, and this time I didn’t know at all. I wanted to turn and run. The spectators were watching me, a marshal was coming over. He put one hand on my handlebars to steady me like a toddler learning to ride. There was a gap in the traffic approaching. It was now or never. I put my foot on the pedal and screamed as I set off, mentally preparing for the cries of derision as I got in everyone’s way or the impact of an incoming Jonny Brownlee. It never happened. There were just cheers of “you can do it” from the spectators (no doubt happy I had finally stopped blocking their view) and the odd “on your right” from the many overtaking cyclists.
The first lap was sheer terror and I tried to just pretend it was Zwift and that the overtaking cyclists could drive straight through me. The course itself isn’t difficult, it’s almost completely flat except for a small up followed by a small down near the turn point which didn’t give me any trouble. (If you are reading this in an attempt to get tips about the South Coast Tri, or rather how not to do the South Coast Tri, I would add that you should remember to gear down before the cone because it’s uphill immediately afterwards). The turn points at either end (round a set of cones) are the hardest bit but I took them slowly and as wide as possible and was very pleased at how well I did it. There was almost a mishap when a overtaking cyclist took the turn very narrow and then swerved out in front of me, nearly catching my front wheel with her back, but fortunately she narrowly missed me). After that there were no near misses, and with each lap more and more fast cyclists left the course, which made me feel more confident. Rob lapped me a couple of times in close succession very early on and then disappeared. I overtook precisely one person but I think he might have had a puncture. I saw about three other hybrid bikes and one upright bike with a basket on the front (which I am sure was moving faster than me, but at least it didn’t lap me). There was one unfortunate cyclist receiving medical attention at the side of the road, the first time I passed him he looked a bit dead but by the sixth lap he appeared to be chatting to the medics so I hope he wasn’t too ill. I wondered if he’d fallen off and considered somewhat callously that at least, should the worst happen, I wouldn’t be the only casualty.
Three laps was a great psychological barrier because this is the distance of the super sprint and if I had flaked at this point I thought I might be able to wangle a mid race change of distance. I wasn’t sure this was allowed but I figured I could do it anyway and all that would happen is that I would be disqualified and by then I would be halfway back to London with my medal. By four laps there were no fast cyclists left and I actually started to enjoy myself. My pace got a little faster with each lap. The only problem was the dozy pedestrians who were inexplicably starting to wander in the road. I lost count of the number of times I had to ring my bell and shout at people. I bet Jonny Brownlee doesn’t have to do that.
“Last lap?” asked the marshal at the turn around, who was steering people around the aforementioned collapsed cyclist.
“We’ll be here!”
He asked the same questions at the end of the next lap. I wondered if he was asking everyone, or if I was actually the only person left.
By the end of the fifth lap I couldn’t see another bicycle at all and I felt like king of the fucking road. Triathlons would be so much more enjoyable if it wasn’t for the other competitors.
At five and a half laps I passed the turnaround marshal again and finally got to answer “Last lap?” with “YES!” and got a big cheer, presumably because he could finally go home. This was the point when I actually started to believe that I would complete my triathlon – after all, even if my bike fell to bits at this point I would be able to walk its remains back to transition and continue with my run. I returned to the transition area without incident, dispensing with the contraption and on to the run. I accidentally double pressed my watch button at this point, thus ensuring that I would not record an accurate time for any of the three segments, and it seems my chip didn’t work at this point either, so the best I can give you for my bike time is “about 1:20”. This was the slowest bike time of any participant by quite some way.
At this point I felt like I’d actually completed the triathlon, because the difficult part was over and short of taking a wrong turn up a cliff and ending up in Eastbourne, there was no way I could not finish now, with merely a parkrun to go. On the other hand, my legs simultaneously felt like jelly and bricks (and still looked like sausages) and a parkrun seemed like a very long way. I was followed out of transition by the Tail Cyclist who shouted at some other official that he was with “the last lady off the bike”. I wasn’t surprised that I was the last person off the bike course but still didn’t appreciate this level of attention being drawn to it, and dreaded being out on the seafront run course all on my own being trailed by a bicycle (a contraption I never wanted to see again, ever). Much to my relief, when I reached the run course, there were still a few people out there – mainly Olympic distance participants on their third or fourth lap – but this meant that even though I was going to be last in the Sprint, I wouldn’t be the last person out on the course with all eyes on me. Some of the Olympickers looked utterly shattered and were walking, so to my delight I managed to overtake about ten people. I know overtaking people who have done double your distance isn’t actually much of an achievement, but at my level you have to take whatever little victories you can get. The alternative would be to have been overtaken by said people, which wouldn’t have surprised me either.
Despite the fact my legs had been abducted and replaced with lead flippers, I finished the run section in 38:30 which was marginally faster than I expected and five minutes faster than the slowest runner. If it hadn’t been for the contraption I wouldn’t have been last. But if it wasn’t for the contraption I wouldn’t be a triathlete.
People always come up with some nonsense about “well at least you finished! you’re lapping all the people on the couch who didn’t want to do it and probably would be been faster than you if they had” when you finish a race in a slow time but on this occasion I really and truly just felt happy with finishing and didn’t care that I was last or what my time was (2:30:02 for the record). My swim and run times were faster than I’d hoped and the cycling, well, who wants to be fast at cycling anyway? The faster you go, the more it hurts when you fall off. Cycling has always been such a huge mental block for me, from my childhood failure to grasp it which was the source of much bullying and teasing from other children, to my ex boyfriend buying me a bicycle to taunt me precisely because he knew I was ashamed of my inability to ride (this may seem like an uncharitable assessment of his motives, but if you knew him you’d understand), to painstaking teaching myself at the age of 37 using YouTube videos, the bruises on my legs, my first feeble pedal round Lloyd Park… I used to have dreams of riding a bike and wake bitterly disappointed that it wasn’t real. I thought I was fundamentally incapable, that the part of my brain that stops me being able to balance or judge where my body parts are would stand in my way forever, and I was wrong. Physically, the triathlon was easier than running a marathon, but mentally, much harder. I’m not sure if I will do another (though I have been eyeing up the London Tri schedule, just in case) but I’m happy in the knowledge that I can and I did.
Now does anyone know any good aquathlons?