My First Triathlon

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You could be forgiven for feeling a little nervous on the morning of your first triathlon. You could certainly be forgiven for feeling a little nervous on the morning of your first triathlon just two years after a full hip replacement operation, before which you could barely walk, get dressed or even sit down without your face visibly betraying the pain you are in. Well, this was the position I found myself in on a crisp morning just north of Bristol and, yes, I was a little nervous!

It had all started with a comment made in jest by my wife when, having just caught me before I made that final fall between being awake and being asleep late one evening, she said “Fi’s husband is doing the Bristol Triathlon in four weeks time.. do you fancy doing that?” Despite my semi-consciousness at the time of asking, I woke up the following morning consumed by the challenge. The bug had bitten.

Now, I can’t pretend that, prior to that moment, I hadn’t kept fit. I spend hours in my own carefully fitted out gym…. BUT… I hadn’t run for around eleven years, I hadn’t swam properly for around seven and “cycling”, other than on an exercise bike in front of the television channel “Dave” and endless repeats of Top Gear , meant towing my three year old son in a trailer along a cycle path for a couple of miles before stopping for a drink. So… four weeks to get ready for a 400 metre swim, a twenty five kilometre bike ride and a five kilometre run.

Within two days, I knew that I needed to get a good pair of running shoes and, with a dodgy hip, I also knew that investing in this piece of equipment was probably the single most important thing I could do.

“Why don’t you cycle to the shop in Bristol where they video your running to help find the most suitable shoe for you?” It was my wife again with another one of her infernal challenges. The shop in question is around twelve miles from home, most of which is uphill (although I guess that does mean that homeward bound is mostly downhill!). Well, you might have already guessed this but I like a challenge… especially of the infernal kind. On my bike, therefore, I did get!

The next four weeks went fairly quickly to be honest and the one discipline I didn’t think would be an issue, the swimming, was probably much harder than I had imagined. The first attempt was aborted, after just 50 metres, in a stroppy outburst triggered by just how hard I was finding it.

I knew at that point that I needed to get swimming as regularly as I could and, over the course of the next few weeks, slowly whittled my four hundred metre time down from around fourteen minutes to, say, twelve. I know that this is still pretty sedatory but give me a break!

The running bit was far less difficult than I had imagined… at first. To all you out there who may be considering their first triathlon having done literally no running to speak of, I would give this advice; Do not just jump straight from nothing to a three and a half mile run. It feels okay at first but you soon find yourself wishing that you had built up to it slowly. My first run was fine as was my second. My third attempt was by far my quickest time but, soon after I had finished, I found myself battling an excruciating knee injury. This lasted for two of my four weeks preparation.

What complicated matters here was that the pain I was experiencing in my left knee was remarkably similar to that which I had experienced in my right knee just prior to the diagnosis which ultimately led to me needing a hip replacement.

I would be kidding myself if I told you that I remained one hundred percent focused on the triathlon during this period although it was always whispering in my ear like a little devil that wouldn’t get off my shoulder.

My prime concern, however, was making sure that I hadn’t inflicted any lasting damage so I threw money at the best physiotherapy I could reasonably afford and was very fortunate to get a really good guy who swiftly allayed my fears. The injury would heal itself with rest and he gave me a couple of treatment sessions to accelerate the process. That said, running was off the cards as quickly as it had got on them!

Swimming and cycling, on the other hand, were still fine and, in fact, actively encouraged so swimming and cycling was what I did… at quite a pace!

I would thank, through this article, Nick (husband of the aforementioned Fi) who did a few cycle rides with me. Nick is a seasoned triathlete and it was great to push myself alongside him. I was acutely aware that he could ride faster than I but he held back for my benefit and slowly but surely I got stronger and faster to the point where I guess I was within 10% of his speed.

As a competitive soul, I needed a target of some kind for the triathlon itself and, rather than competing against anyone else in particular, I made my target based on the length of time the event would take. My goal was to complete the race in under two hours. This seemed realistic.

I scanned down the list of entrants a few nights before D-day. I was number 36 and my start time was to be half past seven in the morning. It was a pool swim and to negate the impracticality of 400 or so entrants all filing into one swimming pool, the organisers would start us in order of how long we felt the swim section would take – slowest first. I had cautiously put down fifteen minutes which gave me an early start time.

Then, before I knew it, my alarm was going off at five o’clock on the morning of the event. It was as if the conversation with Lisa during which I was challenged to the whole thing had happened only the night before and here I was, just about to start!

I had been offering up prayers to whichever deity controls the weather all week… I so desperately wanted it to be dry at least and it was for this reason that the very first thing I did that morning was to peer out through the curtains. My prayers had been answered. Not only was it dry, but it was slightly cloudy so I felt confident that the temperature would be pretty moderate too.

Lisa had told me earlier in the week that she was happy to get my two boys (aged three years and seven months respectively) into the car in their pyjamas so that the whole family could be there to enjoy my moment of triumph (or defeat!!) and, despite her really not being a “morning person” (sorry honey, you’re not!!) the process of getting everything and everyone in the car went amazingly well.

Another hour passed which, again, seemed instantaneous and there I was; sitting in the car, hands shaking nervously trying to get my number 36 fastened to my number belt. The boys were awake and Lisa was maintaining order… as always!

I wheeled my bike over to the transition area, leaving Lisa and the boys at the car, picked a spot for my bike and set down my shoes, socks, top, number belt, helmet and coat. It was very odd standing in what was essentially a field where everyone else was getting undressed. It was even odder to join in!

It all made much more sense when we funnelled into the indoor pool area of the manor school that had been commandeered for the event.

There I was, then, being referred to when the organiser announced “can I have all of the triathletes with a seven thirty start time over to this end of the pool please?” – I was a triathlete at least for now.

Chatting to the girl stood next to me, who was due to start at the same time as me, may have been the best thing I did or it may have been the worst. It certainly took my mind off the task in hand but her telling me her target time of one hour fifty minutes instantly woke up “competitive Phil” and suddenly my two hour target was a distant memory. My hastily revised target was to beat her… number 35 had become my opponent without even realising it.

“Thirty seconds to go” the chap at the side of the pool yelled above the noise of the place. “Fifteen seconds”. I was in the pool with my swimming cap on (coloured so that I could be easily identified by the lap counter) and number 35 was to my right. “Five, four, three, two, one, GO!!”

The next twelve minutes or so were much more uncomfortable than I had anticipated. I had not swam in or expected such congestion. My breathing went for a burton, my focus on which stroke to do and for how long just vanished and I had a very real moment where I wondered whether I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was probably only five minutes in and my mind had already wandered towards giving up!

That reality was quickly replaced with the sentiment of “just don’t panic… forget your target… just finish the swim as quickly or as slowly as you can and then re-establish your focus in the transition area”. I was mildly disappointed when I saw number 35 getting out of the pool when I still had two more lengths to swim but I just plodded on undeterred.

Sadly I had not started my stopwatch, as had clearly been the plan, when the swim started so, as I basked in the relief of having finished that part of the event, I left the pool not knowing how much time had elapsed.  This was a bigger problem than it would seem since I would now complete the rest of the event, hopefully, with no way of accurately saying how long I’d been “at it”. I allowed myself to swear as I ran bike-wards!

Getting my cycling gear on was interesting. It is tight and I was wet. I struggled through it and even managed to have a chat with another triathlete who was getting ready to start their swim. I had to make my excuses as I realised there was still a race to run!

The feeling of elation as I rode the first few tenths of a mile, passing my wife and boys cheering me on, is impossible to articulate so I won’t even try… you’ll just have to imagine!

I had dragged myself over one psychological hurdle and now I settled down to the section that I felt would be my strongest.

I’m not sure what I expected here but the bike ride was a fairly lonely experience to be honest. I passed a few bikes and a few bikes passed me but, on the whole, I didn’t feel like part of a triathlon. A couple of times, I even wondered if I had taken the wrong turning which would have been pretty impressive given the fact that marshalls were positioned at every junction at which a decision was required.

I hadn’t taken the wrong turn and, about four and a half miles from home, was delighted to see number 35, my nemesis for the day, in the middle distance. She was close enough to catch and, spurred on by this metaphorical carrot at the end of a few hundred yard long stick, I pushed a bit harder.

I passed her going up what I knew to be the last of the climbs that I was expecting to have and even managed a cheeky “hello” as I was alongside! I was in the lead of my little battle!

My legs felt great, I was barely out of breath and I hadn’t really broken a sweat. That painful swim section felt like an age ago and here I was, about one mile from having to start the run.

I glanced down at my bike computer and my stopwatch, which I had started somewhere in the transition from swim to bike. By my reckoning, having estimated a swim time, I would have about forty-five minutes to do the run a still hit my original target of two hours. This seemed easy but you have to remember; I had not run since my injury two weeks or more previously. I had no idea whether running would aggravate it again to the point that I would have to walk or, worse still, stop altogether. This was a worry.

All of this worry was, of course, in addition to my natural anxiety of running with my artificial right hip – something I knew that my surgeon would have cautioned me against.

I bounced. I didn’t run. My legs were as fresh as if I had not done any exercise leading up to this moment. My knee felt amazing, my hip felt great and my confidence soared.

The run itself took you through a small run section, two laps of a big undulating field and finished by a run back up the road and across the line. This layout was helpful for two reasons. Firstly, I could see lots of other competitors so suddenly it felt more congested again and this drove me on. Secondly, the fact that the field run was essentially a circle meant that I could keep an eye on my one competitor… number 35. To my surprise, she was dropping away from me rather than catching up as I had expected.

Coming around the last corner before that final bit of road was quite emotional actually. I found myself holding back that desire to “well up” as it happens. I had just a few hundred yards to go and my watch seemed to indicate a run which lasted somewhere around thirty two minutes. Aside from my uncertainty regarding my swim time, it seemed inconceivable that my two hour target had not been beaten and I knew that number 35 was some way behind me.

Seeing my wife and boys as close to the finish line as a spectator could reasonably get was one of the most amazing moments of my life, as was crossing the line around thirty seconds later. I had done it and the published results revealed a finishing time of one hour and forty three minutes give or take a few seconds. To top it all off, I was eight minutes ahead of number 35.

I didn’t collapse across the line either. In fact, I stopped briefly to fully immerse myself in the moment before jogging back to my bike in the transition area. My next goal was finding my family to get some very welcome kisses and hugs!

I guess it’s hard to convey my emotion at having completed the triathlon. There are, after all, an awful lot of people out there who do them regularly and take their ability to do so for granted. These people would have been very disappointed indeed with a finishing time anywhere near mine which placed me something like 300thin the order of finishers.

Equally, however, there are a lot of people who take their health for granted but couldn’t do what I did for the life of them. This apparent desire to waste an opportunity to be fit and healthy where there are no obstacles is one of the most infuriating things to me.

What I am trying to get across is that nature seemed hell-bent on taking this opportunity from me but I grasped it back. I owe that desire to my wife and kids to be honest who’ll also be at my next triathlon which is only a few weeks away now…. time to beat; one hour forty three minutes (or number 35, of course!!)



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