When I was a child, asthma prevented me from running, so I grew up quite content with walking as my main exercise and cycling for when I wanted to push myself a bit harder and faster.
In my early sixties, however, my life changed. I found myself with a new partner, Ruth, whose family were heavily into triathlons, up to and including the awesome @IRONMANtri. In 6 months’ time there would be a big family participation in the Human Race Garmin Eton “supersprint”, consisting of a 400k swim, 20k bike and 5k run. At first I resolutely stuck to my cycling, but then I fell off and broke my arm. No cycling possible for many weeks, but swimming would be an obvious therapy for the broken arm, so I thought why not also take up running and then a triathlon might after all be possible
Wary of making a fool of myself in public, and also of re-igniting an old Achilles injury, I was ultra-cautious. With my arm still in a sling, without even a pair of trainers, I experimented at home. My flat was in a converted Victorian villa – two large rooms connected by a small corridor. I worked out that if I placed a chair in the centre of each room, then one figure-of-eight circuit around both chairs measured exactly 25 metres. So 4 circuits would be 100m, 20 circuits 500m, 40 circuits a full kilometre. Jogging bare-foot on the carpet, increasing the distance each day, I was able to demonstrate to myself after a couple of weeks that in fact I could run without problems.
Now was the time for a little expense – a trip to Up And Running in Bristol to get fitted with a good pair of running shoes. Then it was out onto the road. I had always been struck by the advice of Countryfile presenter Matt Baker : “Keep a pair of trainers by your bedside. First thing in the morning, put them on, go out into the street and run for 5 minutes, turn around and run home – hey presto, you’ve run a mile!”. So I did just that, exploring the bays and headlands of Clevedon about 3 times a week.
Although I had plenty of encouragement from surprised friends and family, my preference at this stage was always to run alone, so as never to be tempted to run too fast. I measured out a couple of 5k circuits and used a stopwatch to record my times, spurred on by the steady improvements. My sons then took me in hand and got me doing hill-training: run gently uphill for exactly 2 minutes, mark the spot, jog back down, then run back up again a little bit faster, repeat until exhausted. Sure enough, my 5k times improved.
The arm healed, I was able to build up the swimming (simple breast-stroke) to the required 16 lengths of the pool, but there was another hurdle to overcome: my first Triathlon would be at Eton, with the swim not in a cosy heated pool but outdoors in Lake Dorney, one of the venues for the London Olympics. In early May, that would be COLD. So time for more expense – down to TRI UK’s enormous hangar of a shop in Yeovil to buy a wetsuit. I went all that way because in theory you could try them out first in a pool swimming against a current; however the practicalities of taking several suits on and off, and the risk of damage, meant that the shop really only wanted you to try out the one suit that you were likely to buy.
Now came the painful part – testing the wetsuit in open water in April. Mad Mike’s old windsurfing lake just outside Bradley Stoke now advertises itself for open-water swimming. Noting the absence of lifeguard, I nervously asked what one is supposed to do if one gets into trouble in the water – the simple answer was “Stand Up!”- the lake is only 5ft deep . The water that day was 11 degrees. Yes, the wetsuit keeps you warm, but not your feet or hands, and when you try to swim properly the cold water numbs your face. The constriction of the wetsuit, and its unexpected buoyancy, completely bamboozled me at first – I simply could not make forward progress. Encouraged by Ruth’s son-in-law Rob, I persevered. Keeping my head high out of the water, I struggled very slowly round the 400m marked course, then ran for the hot showers.
Spot the grey-bearded author pre race
Finally the big day came for my first actual race. It was my new stepson’s 40thbirthday, and he had invited a large contingent of family and friends to take part, including his mother whose birthday it was too. We had decided to avoid the serious competition by all entering together, young and old, fit and unfit, in a “Mates’ Wave” start.
Wetsuits on, into the water we jumped. Yup, it was indeed COLD. Infuriatingly, we had to hang about treading water for a good 10 minutes while they gave us a race briefing which could easily have been done on dry land. When the Off came, I carefully position myself at the back so as not to have anyone swim over me ( I had heard too many horror stories of what happens in Ironman mass starts) and slowly work my way around the course in my own time. My sons Andy & Malc are on the bank cheering me on, and as I am last in the wave I have my own personal safety kayak accompanying me, so I can chat with the kayaker too. Unbeknown to me, Rob is winding up the crowd at the finish of the swim, pointing me out and explaining it is my first attempt. So as I stagger to try to get out of the water, it is to loud cheers. I find that really heartening.
Relief or enjoyment?
Once on the bike, again big cheers for me every time I come round past the swim finish. Crowd support can make such a difference! I actually manage to overtake one other rider, but am unable to hold on when we hit the wind at the far end of the lake, so I go into the run still in last position. I come up alongside another runner and we encourage each other onward, but then she peels off to finish – she’s a whole lap ahead of me. Somehow I struggle round that final lap to a grand reception committee at the finish and then a nice surprise – despite finishing last, I find out that as I am the only competitor in that wave in my 65-70 age category, I have actually also come first. As one of those other competitors happened to be Jenson Button, I can truthfully say that I raced against Jenson Button and I came first!
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