In 2013 I completed my first adventure race. It was called Westport Sea2Summit and it consisted of running, cycling and scaling Croagh Patrick in the freezing November rain. It was my first real taste of endurance sport, and possibly the very moment that GAA began to lose the grip that it had on me since I was 7 years old. Yet, with this new taste of adventure came an inkling of regret. I regretted not being able to swim. The adventure race was thrilling, painful, challenging, – fecking freezing -, rewarding…. but it wasn’t a triathlon.
Fast forward four years. November 2017. I have finally parted ways with the GAA and I have sparked up a new romance with The Drogheda Triathlon Club. Before joining DTC, I spent a year pounding the
pavement footpath with my running shoes, going for the odd cycle, and wishing I could swim. Now within 7 months, I am sitting here reflecting on completing my first triathlon which included a 750 swim up and down the River Barrow.
I have decided to share some of my thoughts and reflections on this experience. From some of the preparation that got me here to the many ups and downs of race-day for a triathlon debutant.
Becoming a Triathlete.
To paint the picture, the challenge for me was TriAthy’s Sprint Triathlon:
- 750 meter swim up and down the river Barrow
- 20k out and back cycle from the town of Athy
- 5k run along the river banks.
Before I joined the club, I was:
- a good runner. I ran semi competitively as a teenager, and now recreationally as an adult.
- a slow cyclist. Blaming my bike for not being able to keep up with people well older than my parents.
- not a swimmer. I could swim – if you would call it that – a total of 2 lengths, or 50 meters, without stopping. That’s 700 meters short of what was required for a sprint triathlon.
Reflecting on my training over the past 6 months or so, I can clearly see the value of competence when it comes to being motivated. Being a good runner, I will bounce out the door for a run whatever the time or whatever the weather. Being an OK cyclist, I could convince myself to get out and go for a spin every couple of weeks, especially if it meant having an Indian or a Chinese to refuel afterwards. But being a
shit novice swimmer, I had to drag myself up to the pool each Thursday night for training with the club. I would spend Thursday evenings in foul humour, anxiously waiting to go. I would make 101 excuses not to go but somehow defy myself and end up standing in the shallow end, nervously awaiting the call to start our sixteen length warm up. SIXTEEN LENGTHS? WARM-UP???
Thankfully, due to a healthy mix of stubborness, determination and social pressure – “why the fuck did I write a blog telling the everyone how I’m going to complete a Triathlon” – I persevered and got into the pool at least once a week throughout the winter months.
Having gotten through the winter training, and now sitting a number of weeks out from TriAthy, Brian the triathlete virgin was:
- Still a good runner.
- Now an average cyclist. With special thanks to heaps of horrific indoor/spinning sessions to help develop my “cycling legs” – turns out my bike was fine, I was just shite.
- And a scared swimmer who can now swim around 10 lengths before stopping. This still being 20 lengths short of what’s needed in Athy.
The final prep was as uneven as the previous few months. I ran lots, 3 or 4 times per week. I got out for a few beautiful good weather cycles, some on my own and some quick spins with friends. But when work and personal commitments raised their heads, swimming was the one to lose out. Between 6 weeks and 2 weeks to the triathlon, I swam a grand total of zero times, which means I went a full month of no swimming. Not because of injury or illness, just because I didn’t bother. It was only when I started to question myself and whether or not I will actually do the triathlon that I decided to get catch a grip of myself.
And thank God that I did. I pulled on my wetsuit – that I had bought last year and wore once since – and I met up with the DTC guys out in Clogherhead for a couple of gorgeous open water swims. The first of the 2 wasn’t actually that gorgeous. In total I swam around 400 meters. I drank a good litre of salty sea water. I got psyched out of it by – at the time what seemed like – a viciously dangerous seal. And when I did step out of the water, I felt like the world was circling faster than a spinning top and I was standing upside down.
Out of desperation I went back again a week later. 3 days before the triathlon. The sea was calmer, the setting sun was still hot and there were about 40 fellow participants of all different shapes, sizes and ages. “Come on Brian, man up and just do the fecking swim.” And I did. We swam a 250 meter warm up around a few boats, before setting off to the jagged rocks 450 meters up the coast. A short rest here, while trying to take in the beauty of it all, before starting back with tired arms and legs. So 1,150 meters after my feet last touched the land, I was back, I was alive, I was delighted. Thank god for buoyant wetsuits and stubborn determination.
On Saturday the 2nd of June, my girlfriend Clíona – who also took up the role of driver, coach, supporter, photographer and therapist that day – and I, set off at 6.30am with a packed car. I was a weird kind of nervous. I wasn’t nervous of not doing well. I had NO IDEA what kind of time I was looking to put in and I did not care. Today was all about completing triathlon number one. The nerves were for exactly that, what if I couldn’t complete it? What if I got kicked in the head while swimming? And honestly, what if i drowned? I’d be lying to you if I said that that fear was not there.
Arriving in Athy around 2 hours before the race was due to begin, we headed straight for the transition area. Here I hung my bike at it’s station, layed out my cycling shoes, helmet, sunglasses, socks, running shoes and towel. I had already taped an energy gel to the handlebar of my bike so I could refuel on the road. And then I pulled on my wetsuit and it all got very real.
The Dreaded Swim
Walking over to the start point, I met around 500 athletes who were just entering the water for the ‘Try-a-Tri” event and I couldn’t help but wonder if I should be joining them. A 250 meter sounded so appealing compared to the 750 meter that I had summoned myself to. But I tried my best to block that thought and I took a lot of comfort in the number of lifeguards that lined the river in kayaks. “You’ll be fine Brian.” Another comforting feature of this race was the rolling start that they introduced this year. I had nightmares about the mayhem at the start of the race with heels and elbows flying in every direction as I begged for a breath of air. But this was not the case. The rolling start meant that they would set 2 swimmers off every 5-7 seconds, and your time would begin once you crossed the sensor at the river’s edge.
I entered the water, turned for the yellow buoy which was 250 meters up river, and began to swim. “RELAX RELAX RELAX”, I kept yelling to myself, “I’M TRYING TO. SHUT THE FUCK UP“, was my reply. But, distracted by this inner conflict, I was swimming, and swimming well. I would take 8-10 strokes, then poke my head up – unceremoniously no doubt – to see if I was still on course for the buoy, and before I knew it I was there. The turnaround point. I joined my fellow beginners in a weird doggy paddle/breaststroke around the buoy, while the more seasoned swimmers would glide around us, cursing as they were forced to swim a further 20 meters around us eejits.
Now for the 500 meters downstream. This is my first ever time swimming downstream in a river, and do you know what? It feels just like swimming upstream. Every single bit as painful!!! I can now really feel myself beginning to tire. And I keep glancing at the same big tree on the bank that I don’t seem to be moving past at all. Another sickening feeling comes now as I seem to be swimming on my own with nobody around me. Am I last??? Of course I wasn’t, as there were still people only entering the water, but I hadn’t got the time or the energy to think rationally. One final balls up was still to come. After going for around 100 meters – although it felt like 4 miles – without stopping, I thought I would reward myself with some breaststroke and some normal breathing for a bit. However, being insanely tired, I forgot to wait until his head was out of the water before taking in that lovely breath. Panic. All swimming and threading techniques are parked as I kick and flap my hands as if my first ever time in water. I’m choking and coughing and making a weird noise as if somehow the weird noises would scare the water back out of me. Eventually, with a few pats on the back from a fellow competitor and a realisation that people on the bank are definitely laughing at me, I set off again. Under the bridge, and to the safety of dry land. My first triathlon swim, and I have lived to tell the tale.
The celebration of not dying was cut short. Although the threat to my life was considerable shortened, the new experience of ‘Transition’ was still a big threat to achieving a respectable time. As I ran from the water towards my bike station, I unzipped my wetsuit halfway and imagined that I was an Olympic athlete. The second half of the stripping was not as graceful. I went from feeling like an Olympic athlete to feeling like a gobshite who’s trying to peel skinny jeans off after having 40 pints. I discarded my – usually precious – wetsuit in a heap on the ground. Dried my toes, slipped on socks, shoes, helmet and shades, and sat on my bike at the mounting line for a good 30 seconds as I frantically tried to clip myself in and get going. All in all, a 4.45 minute transition that could have been done in 2. Oh well, I thought, I am still alive… For now.
The Surprisingly Fun Cycle & T2
The cycle turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the race for me. I was used to cycling. I inherited my first racer 5 years ago in a straight swap with my brother for a set of golf clubs. Since then, I had enjoyed – and hated – many long, short, hilly, flat, windy, sunny cycles. But 99% of them being on my own. TriAthy was my first real experience of cycling fast in a busy group. Even in the adventure races I took part in, the cycle seemed spacious and lonely. This was bunched. At times we were four abreast, cycling at speeds that I could never reach on a lonely solo ride. I found myself caught up in some kind of mini race between about 20 riders. We were pulling away from each other, tiring, catching and passing each other, and all the while, speeding towards the 20k mark and back to the transition zone. Despite these other 20 riders being competitors, there was a definite sense of togetherness, like we needed each other. This very thought was exemplified when I was offered a drink by a fellow rider after he saw me clumsily dropping my bottle a few kilometers back.
Transition 2 was much better. 90 seconds. I ran in, hung the bike, swapped shoes and I was out the gap and ready to show off my running skills.
My Time to Shine – The 5k Run
The first few hundred meters are tough off the bike. Instead of my legs striding as they should, they are still spinning as if on the bike. I have been asked numerous times if I had done many brick sessions (when you train on two or more disciplines one after the other) in the build up to the triathlon. “Yeah of course. I have done a good few” I would lie in response. I’ll be grand I’m sure. And this time, I was right. I was grand.
Being a poor swimmer, decent cyclist and good runner is the ideal marriage of qualities for a first time triathlete. – Unless your good at them all. In which case you can piss off. – There is nothing more demoralising than being passed out by loads of people on your way to the finish line, which I unfortunately experienced during my last bad managed 10k race. So experiencing the exact opposite, like I did here in Athy was very encouraging. The more people I passed, the more confidence I built, the quicker – it felt – I got and ultimately the more enjoyable it became. This is a lesson that I will carry into all my future races. Keep something in reserve for that final stretch and make the finish fun.
It is probably true to say that there is a sense of joy and relief at the finish line of every race, from your school sports day, to a world championship race. But the finish line of TrAthy 2018 brought these feelings like no race I had ever experienced before. To go from tentatively falling into the River Barrow, coughing water from my lungs, peeling off a wetsuit, riding wheel to wheel at 40 kmph, emptying the tank on a run along the river’s banks. To this. The last 100 meters, where I can hear the music, smell the food, see the beer and and feel the party atmosphere. I am fucked. But I am alive. And, more importantly, I have crossed the line, I am now a triathlete.
Becoming a triathlete has been one of the most enjoyable and empowering sporting achievements of my life. I would encourage anybody, who like me has even considered setting this challenge, to give it a go. You will be surprised at how well equipped you are to achieving it. With a bit of determination and the right support around you – in my case, The Drogheda Triathlon Club – you will get there. Triathlons for me, are just how amateur sport should be. Not a matter of comparing yourself to, or competing against others, but a matter of bettering yourself, becoming fitter, becoming stronger and of course becoming healthier. I promise you, that if you start on this journey, the hardest thing that you will do is stop.