It’s 6:05am on a cold and drizzly morning and I’m standing half naked and barefoot outside a swimming pool, racking up a bike I’ve never ridden and wondering why the hell I signed up for my first triathlon…
“Just entered a baby tri on with a pool swim. Up for it? There’s a few of us doing it in Hatfield.”
He tells me it’s a 400m swim (“8 minutes”), 20K bike (“you’ve been biking since 8 years old”) and 5K run (“meat and drink to you”).
I dismiss the idea but must admit I’m a little intrigued until I find out that the start is this Sunday – in just five days’ time – at 6:30am. No chance. Another friend also has a go at persuading me, but I couldn’t possibly do it. Could I?
I may have ridden a bike since I was a kid but I’ve used one only about twice in the last year – to go to the shops.
As for swimming, I’m in a pool every week but that’s just to take my daughter to Water Babies.
Yes, I run twice a week and 5K should be easy for me, but with zero training in the other two disciplines and being the wrong side of forty I’m extremely doubtful I can pull it off.
In fact, the more I think about it, I’d be crazy to attempt it.
I like a challenge. I like the idea of doing a sporting event with friends.
I don’t like 4am wake-ups and wearing Lycra pants in the cold while soaking wet before jumping on a bike I’d have to borrow.
By Friday, I’m flip-flopping between seeing just how far I can push myself, to having a nice, warm lie-in. I enter the registration site to have a look at the details.
Yes or no? Braveheart or chicken? Chump or challenger?
The sign up
By Friday night I’m ready to commit. Let’s do this, let’s pick up the gauntlet and have something to discuss with my friends for years. Credit card at the ready, here goes nothing…
I’m too late. I’ve procrastinated too long and now I’ve missed it.
Lazy Andy says “Phew! Got outta that one!” Determined Andy says “Maybe there’s another way…”
Cunningly going back to my browser session from yesterday, I continue my registration and somehow I’m in. But am I really? Or did they just take my money? A quick email to the organiser confirms that I’m the very last entrant.
What the $#%! have I done?
The pep talk
It’s 10pm on the night before the race and I’m with a friend in the street loading a bike into my car. It’s not even my bike – my one’s old and heavy so I’m borrowing a hybrid. He gives me some tips.
“When you get off your bike, your legs will be mega wobbly. You’ll fine after a K or so, though.”
Great – my one and only guaranteed discipline will have me handicapped from the start. I head back to my house to finish the preparation.
My wife, Michelle, is supportive in the latest chapter of Andy’s Ambitious But Slightly Crazy Ideas, as long as I don’t seriously injure myself, which of course I can give no guarantees. After coming back from a family party (does Prosecco count as training?) I’m a bit late sorting my stuff, but by 11pm it’s all ready. Unfortunately it’s 12am before I stop going through transitions in my head and get to sleep.
03:00 I’ve completed the triathlon! Oh, it was all a dream. Back to sleep.
04:10 Alarm goes off. I’ve had 4 hours of broken sleep. Excitement is overriding tiredness, though.
04:30 2 slices of toast with Marmite, plus orange juice.
04:45 “Wtf?” My bowels tell me it’s too early.
05:05 I leave to pick up Steve.
05:15 We leave home.
05:35 We arrive at the starting area, surrounded by lots of people who look like they’re professionals. Me? I’ve got a bike complete with mudguards and stand, plus I’m rocking a skating helmet.
05:40 We can’t get my wheel on. What way round does it go? This could be a disaster.
05:45 Wheel is on and we meet up with the others. There’s 7 of us doing it and I’m definitely the oldest, least fit and least prepared of them all.
06:00 I have no idea how to set up my transition area. The bike won’t even fit in the railings, so the stand actually does me a favour. The lads help me sort out my race number then I gingerly strip off. Standing there in just my new black jammers, contemplating my first triathlon, I feel like Jonny Brownlee, but compared to others I probably look more like Johnny Vegas.
06:10 I’m starting in 25 minutes and I need a poo. I know from running races that toilet timing before the start is crucial. Let’s hope there’s no queue.
06:15 Relieved and just in time to hear the briefing. It’s well organised but…So. Many. Rules.
06:20 I’ve realised that Steve and I are the only ones here without some kind of tri top on. I try not to be self-conscious about what I’m calling my Man-made Objects Of Buoyancy (MOOBS). Could I look any less like I belong here? Least there aren’t any photos. Oh wait – here’s Steve’s uncle wanting a group shot.
06:25 We file into the pool. Shit just got real.
06:30 Number 1 goes off. It’s started!
06:34 I lower myself into the water. The boys cheer me on from above. 16 lengths ahead of me. The whistle goes…
First length: I’m actually doing a triathlon!
Second length: Get that push off and glide sorted, Andy.
Fourth length: I’m a quarter of the way through, but I don’t know what rhythm to use. When do I breathe? Left or right? Wish I’d trained now.
Eighth length: Half way. I’ve been tapped on the foot and as per protocol I’ve let them overtake on the turn. Git.
Tenth length. I gasp a few extra breaths at the end of the pool. This isn’t easy.
Twelfth length: My form is all over the place. Head up, down, sideways – I don’t care now. Just get me to the end. A couple more overtake.
Fifteenth length: I’m in the last lane! I’m vaguely aware of Steve cheering me on. I’m not quitting now, this swimmer’s coming home. I even manage a cheeky foot tap of my own and overtake someone.
Finish: I’m almost there! I then have a horrible vision of my pool exit. No-one is using the sensible option – the steps – they’re hauling themselves out of the pool. What if I don’t have enough arm strength? I could be stuck in here for a while. Somehow, I flop myself out of the pool. I almost raise my arms in triumph until I realise I’d better save my energy for the next stage.
I walk out as instructed and into the cold air again. The whole thing seems surreal – I’m dripping wet and now have to dry myself outside against the clock and get on a bike still in my swimming shorts? And I can’t even ride it yet – I have to run with it for a hundred yards before I’m allowed on. What kind of sadistic event is this? I’m still on a high after completing the swim and not drowning myself, so I don’t exactly hurry as I sort out my kit. I’d quite happily read a Triathlete Monthly, take a nap and then go on.
It must be about 9 degrees C so will I be cold on my bike? Steve suggested I wear my tracksuit bottoms, although I’m not keen on them flapping around as I cycle. I wrestle putting them on my wet legs when the bloke next to me says, “Don’t bother mate. You won’t need them.” Clearly a more experienced triathlete, I ditch them, don my helmet and gloves and grab my bike. In the meantime, my friend Lee has come out of the pool behind me and is already running with his bike ahead, so I follow his more urgent lead and we’re soon leaping on our steeds at the designated – if far away – mount point.
Good news abounds – my legs still work, the bike’s gears seem easy to use, and despite having a soggier bottom than a Bake Off disaster, it looks like I’ll be fine. The roads are empty and the marshals are doing a fine job directing us at every turn and roundabout. Being one of the first twenty or so out, there aren’t too many bikes around. My next question is the same as the pool – how fast do I go? A little late, I press a load of buttons on my Garmin, find the never-used cycle option and start it. I’ve no idea how long it will take me or what the course is like so I decide to take it easy.
2 miles: The swimmer who started behind me (18) is ahead but slows right down as she has trouble with something. Do I stop and help? What would Wiggins do? I ride on past.
4 miles: Riders are starting to overtake me, not gradually either – whipping past me on bikes far superior than mine. Yeah, but do they have mudguards?
5 miles: Oh here’s a hill. I’m still in energy conservation mode. My speed reduces. Would I be quicker getting out and walking? I overtake a woman cyclist like a snail overtaking a slug.
8 miles: Lots of cyclists are now streaming past on the opposite side of the road. I’m shocked at their speed. At this rate, they’ll catch me up despite my head start. Suddenly I hear my nickname being shouted as one whizzes by, “G-Money!”
“See you in five!” I reply, resigned to being overtaken in the too-near future. Undeterred, I push on.
10 miles: Bluebells! I can see bluebells in the woods. This ain’t a nature trail, Andy. Get a grip.
11 miles: How much further? After all this time, I realise that my watch not only shows how long I’ve been in transit but shows mileage. Duh. And it’s showing 11 miles…so I’m nearly there! Soon I’m coming in to the dismount part, wincing as I wrench my bottom off the saddle. This time I’m running fast with my bike. Am I allowed to overtake in transition, or is it like the F1 pit lane?
“Glad that’s over! This is my first one!” I announce excitedly as I overtake a woman.
“Me too!” was all she offers in response.
Time for my speciality…
My transition is simple – bike stood up, helmet off, warm top off. I’m ready to go. Where do I go though? It’s a little unclear as I approach a marshal who belatedly points me round the corner. I was expecting to have the legs of Mr Jelly after the ride, but surprisingly I’m in good form. I don’t think I’ve got a lot left in the tank but I start at a steady pace that’s not too far off my usual pace. I down my last gel, anything to give me some fuel to complete it.
Once again, due to my early swim start there aren’t too many competitors around, so it initially feels like a jog through the countryside. I pass two people (men for once) who are barely doing more than a trot. I’m carrying a half-empty bottle of Lucozade Sport but I take a cup of water to wash down the gel. Being the litter-conscious man I am, I hang on to the cup.
The ground is very uneven, following deep tractor trails, but it’s something different to my usual cycle tracks and I quite like it. One or two runners catch up and pass me and I then come to the first of the two kissing gates that border a field we have to traverse. It’s a weird thing for a race route, but doesn’t bother me, as long as I don’t get chased by any bulls. Could do with a litter bin, though – I’ve still got the cup until I deposit it at the feet of a marshal.
Two miles fly by at a comfortable pace before I get to a long stretch of concrete that I can see is leading me back to near start. Halfway up, number 18 goes past me, and it’s all I can do to keep in sight of her. Round a corner and suddenly there’s the finish line! Give me max power! I sprint to the line, beaming a huge smile as I jump over the line.
I’ve done it…I’ve completed a triathlon…I’m a triathlete. It feels amazing.
Time for the free stuff. That banana’s got my name on it, the water barely touches the sides. The shiny medal will maybe stay round my neck forever.
I congratulate a couple of the boys who’ve come in ahead of me and wait for the others to finish. They’ll probably have beaten me in total time, but to me it’s a secret victory. I didn’t buckle, I didn’t crash by the roadside, drown or fall down a ditch. My muscles – as shocked as they were – held firm when I needed them. The last of the group come in and we have a team photo. I’m cold, I’m hungry but I’m smiling.
We head back to Stevenage and hit a restaurant en masse. WAGs and children descend to join in and listen to tales of triumph and struggle as we pore over the timings, comparing transitions and events. My daughter, Amber, wears my medal, Michelle is proud but also glad I made it in one piece.
Bring me coffee, juice, meat, potato, beans – hell I’ll even devour a fried tomato. The waiter struggles to keep up as the plague of Lycra-clad locusts consume everything in sight.
My effort could have been more and I’ve been pushed harder in other runs, but this feels different. I’ve completed three marathons but this ranks up there in my achievements, purely due the lack of training and the but-can-I-actually-do-it element.
I swam, cycled and ran. Whether that makes me a proper triathlete or someone that’s just dabbled I don’t know. What I do know however is that I feel a sense of great accomplishment…and that I’ll be back for more.