This blog is dedicated to Claire, Tinners, Jules, Jeffers, Bru, Luca, Debs, Bev, Chelle and the Lady Lund. If Carlsberg did support crews…you’d be it. Thank you for making it all so much fun.
Yes, I went right to the very edge of my capability with that half ironman distance triathlon in Chester a few weeks ago. Or did I?
Well it certainly felt like it in the closing 4km of the run. When you’ve been on the moving constantly for just under 7 hours and everything starts to hurt you’ve got to have a good answer for the question: why am I putting myself through this?
I had entered the Chester Middle Distance Triathlon because I felt I was ready for another challenge that was big enough and scary enough to push me right to the edge of my own limits and as I ask so much of my clients in training, I wanted them to see me work my way towards this race, enjoying the good times and finding ways to manage the more difficult. And goodness me there were some tough times in training. Lots of sweat and tears!
I lost the first 4 weeks of the training plan after a series of problems with my teeth, meaning I could do no activity at all, so my 18 week plan became a 14 week plan and the pressure was on to get race ready in such a short time. There was also a fairly ummm ‘heated disagreement’ (*read ‘angry shoutiness’) with my triathlon coach about how much running I should be doing – he was all about a slow build up with lots of short runs/speed work and no long runs where I was all about a moderate build up with some good solid long runs. We had to find a balance between what would be least likely to cause me injury while giving me the mental confidence that I was ready. Running is the weakest part of my triathlon by far. Then, with three days to go I broke a tooth and had to keep using emergency dental cement to fix it every few hours – really frustrating!
Race day arrived and it was an absolutely stunning morning and at 17.5 degrees the water was the perfect temperature. When you’re going to be swimming for between 40-60 minutes, you can get quite hot in your wetsuit so slightly colder water is useful. The swim was 1900m in total – 1100m swimming upstream against the current and then 800m downstream. You only get about 3-4 mins in the water to adjust so you’ve got to get everything perfect before you get in the water.
Honestly, I was fine until about 5 mins before we got into the water and then I had a really nervy moment, started to feel like the whole thing was just too far for me to go, the training hadn’t been perfect, while I’m a decent swimmer I knew with a field of only 220 I was likely to be coming stone dead last by the end of the race and all those old insecurities come flooding back as my mind whirred around at a million miles an hour. My Heart was racing and my stomach was churning. Was this event one step too far? I feel like I’m going to be the big fat one finishing half an hour after anyone else – will there ever be a day in my life when I don’t feel like that? My support crew are going to get so tired, it’s not fair to ask them to spend the whole damn day waiting around for me. I can’t run a half marathon after nearly a mile and a half of swimming and 56 miles on the bike – it’s just not possible. I started breathing very fast and get a little panicky but my friend Kay must have seen it because she came to stand right next to me for a minute and I was able to say ‘This is a really big ask today Kay’ – a short statement but it said everything I felt in the moment. She just said ‘start with the swim TeeJay’ – simple and effective.
I looked up the river that I’d soon be getting into and it was just so beautiful with the early morning sun sitting just above the horizon and I realised I really wanted to get in the water. I love swimming. And open water swimming in particular – this was not the part to be nervous about at all, this was the fun bit right? The bit to be nervous about was five hours away so why waste all that energy now.
I took my time getting in, making sure to be one of the last in the water and noticed that everyone had grouped together in a bunch on the far bank of the river. Now anyone who has ever done a triathlon or any open water swimming knows that the swim can be absolutely brutal. Generally the water is dark and murky and cold and there are weeds that touch your feet or hands and freak you out for who knows what bitey things lurk in those waters…you have to stop the jaws theme tune playing in your head…especially as you’re in a docile river in Cheshire not off the coast of Cape Town where there are more sharks than people, but your mind plays tricks on you when you can’t see in the water. Most of all it’s the human traffic that poses the most danger as swimmers of vastly different abilities/speeds kick and pull and thrash around and you spend the first ten minutes getting kicked and punched (not sure I’m painting the most encouraging picture of triathlon at this point!) so you have to be quite careful about the lines you choose and where you swim.
I decided immediately that I was definitely not going into the middle of the pack jammed up against the far bank and went to where the line of buoys was running down the centre line of the river. I could feel the current pulling at my feet as I tread water in the deepest part but the current on the surface was light and there was practically no one swimming there. Right, that was my strategy decided then: swim the shortest line, staying close to the buoys as possible and let everyone else get into the bun-fight along the banks. I’m a strong enough swimmer to cut through the lighter current.
When the hooter went it magically took all my nerves with it. This was my playground! I love the water, I love swimming and I love triathlon – Yes! Come on girl, lets goooooooooo! I set off at an easy pace concentrating on counting each alternating stroke. I’d worked out in training that every 250 strokes carried me approx. 450 meters. So, I set off aiming to count to 600 which should get me close to the turnaround point at about 1100m. I can’t remember ever feeling so good in the water. My breathing settled quickly and my arms just never got tired. I was well within my comfort zone all the way and was out the water in the top 25% of competitors and feeling amazing. My nerves were completely gone and the first bit of this challenge was over.
Out the water and a fast run up to transition with high fives from the support team – you can always spot them in red hoodies
It was such a boost to see my friends and family as I got out the water. No other athlete had a support crew of 10 all to themselves I can tell you. And goodness me they are loud. I had earplugs in and a swimming cap on and I still heard them. If anyone needs a support crew, I’m going to be hiring them all out – I might also just sell them to Carlsberg. I’ll make billions either way!
Quickly onto the second part of the triathlon…the bike ride! I love my bike and I love riding it fast! It’s the best bit of the triathlon normally. Well, it should have been the best bit but I got about a third of the way in and really felt I had no power in my legs? How can this be? I’d worked my ass off in training sitting on that ‘turbo trainer of death’ for hour after hour after hour and sweating gallons of sweat in each session (please allow for dramatic licence to enhance the dramatic flair of this story) and I’d done some brilliant road work too, keeping my heartrate low but my speed and cadence high on the flatter sessions and generating as much power as possible on the hillier training rides. I mean, I live and train in Yorkshire where flat is never really flat and the hills are long and steep and grinding but I was having my ass kicked by the gently undulating roads in blooming Cheshire? Why wasn’t I riding better? Did I go too deep in the swim? Had my decision to swim the midline in the water been a mistake? Gah, it was feeling so hard!!!
So, I went back to my mental checklist to try and problem solve: Have I eaten enough? Yes. Have I drunk enough? Yes. Am I comfortable on my trusty bike Benji? Yes. Are tyre pressures okay? Yes – I checked before the swim and just before I got on at transition? What’s my speed: 26kph – about avg? What heartrate zone am I in? 4!!! Why is my body working so hard that I’m in HR zone 4 when at this avg speed I should be in zone 2??? Well I still don’t know what the answer is but I had two choices: push on and sit in zone 4 and fight my way to the end as fast as possible or back off and get back to zone 2, sacrificing some speed and just give my body a chance to settle down, ensuring that I’ve got enough left in the tank to run a half marathon. I had to make a quick decision because this was not sustainable for long. I’d rather sacrifice some time on the ride and be a little more comfortable on the run. So, I slowed down and stayed at that pace until the end of the ride. 3h50m for 56 miles is pretty slow for me but it was absolutely the right decision.
The legendary support crew making me smile back into transition…
Coming back into transition I was thrilled to see all the smiling faces of friends and family – the boost it gives you is incalculable. As usual, I heard them before I saw them. God, they create a beautiful cacophony of noise (Carlsberg – I’m hiring them out cheap this season…but the price doubles next season). I got off my bike feeling happy and comfortable albeit a little jelly-legged and had a little giggle to myself as I momentarily thought ‘I’m supposed to do a half marathon now? Really? That’s ambitious!’. My five year old nephew was at transition and he was shouting his head off and clapping like mad so I smiled and shut my eyes allowed myself a minute to just stand still and take a few deep breaths before setting off at a comfortable pace, porkpie in hand. I’d read somewhere that it was a good source of energy in the last stage of a long triathlon and it was exactly what I was craving at the time – fatty, salty and a mix of quick and slow release energy.
High fives from my nephew are the best…
I can’t stomach gels or energy drinks or anything sweet and much prefer real food along the way so porkpies will now be added to my kitlist for all big events…it was delicious even if I was a little dubious eating something that had been sat in the sun for five hours – eeeeeek – it’s a wonder I’m still alive!
The run played to my strengths really – 3 x 7km loops with each loop made up of 2 x 3.5km out-and-back stretches along the uneven pathway at the edge of the river I’d swum in earlier. I’m quite good at compartmentalising things so I didn’t think about it as a half marathon, I concentrated on 6 x 3.5km blocks and ticked them off one block at a time, rarely allowing myself to think beyond the one I was working on at the time. I ran at my slow but steady pace and as I went into the end of the 4th block of 3.5km I realised I still had two left to go and I was already stone dead last by over ten minutes and that everyone was having to wait for me to finish. I’d like to say I went faster at that point. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. There was no ‘faster’ left in me. There was only the idea of finishing in my head.
Cruising through the run at a nice steady pace and still smiling…
I cruised along trying to ignore all the negativity and insecurities building up in my mind and grumbling away just under the surface. To drown them out I started counting each step I took from 1 to 100, over and over and over and over again until there was nothing in my mind but numbers repeating again and again. I was going to finish come hell or high water. I was smiling, I was concentrating and for the most part I was having a bloody brilliant day. The kilometres ticked by steadily and I got regular boosts from seeing friends and family at various points along the way – ready with a hug of a high five.
But then all of a sudden it was just 4km to go and I went completely flat. It was one of those situations when just for a moment, the gremlins you’ve been distracting yourself from come to the foreground. Your energy levels dip, your shoulders drop and that concentration and mental toughness you’ve locked in for the last seven hours suddenly disappears into thin air and you feel like you’ve got nothing left. Your inner monologue switches from ‘it’s only four more km’s to go, that’s less than a parkrun – come on TeeJ, you’ve got this girl’ to ‘oh god, it’s still four km to go, that’s almost a full parkrun, that’s aaaaaaaaages and the next person who says it’s less than a parkrun to go is getting a slap’. It happens in a millisecond and you can do absolutely nothing about it. That was a very dark ten minutes.
But, as if they knew, some of my support crew popped up at the 3km mark and I perked right up. I had someone to talk to briefly as I’d been out the back end of the race on my own for quite a while and they were a wall of absolute positivity around me. That dark moment ended and I realised that in seven and a half hours of constant exercise, if I got away with only ten mins of it being really hard then I must a) have the best support crew in the history of support crews (Carlsberg – you’ve got my number right?) and b) be much fitter and stronger than I gave myself credit for. So I smiled because I knew I’d finish strong now. I felt great and I felt proud and thankful and happy and sore and strong and every other emotion you can feel in a moment like that. It was one big emostorm – but in a good way.
Yes, I was going to be the final finisher of the day but I hadn’t come here to race, I’d come to finish. This was the first step in a three year long journey to full ironman distance triathlon. Times and positions were not important. I was going to cross the finish line. And that’s just what I did, they had started taking it down already but my support team were there making an absolute racket as they had been all day long and I crossed the line with a smile and a grimace or maybe a mixture of both.
In the moment I crossed the line I felt like I was right on the limit, that’s why I started this whole blog with that statement about hitting my limit. But actually, within a few minutes, I knew that I’d been well within my limits. I’d cruised round comfortably all day apart from a tough ten minutes near the end of the run. The swim was strong, the bike was harder than I’d anticipated but my km splits were pretty even and I‘d run the half marathon 2 minutes faster than I had run my last stand alone half marathon with really even km splits right up until the last 4km. When I’d had a problem on the bike I was mentally capable of taking a step back to solve the problem and manage my effort making sure I got to the end comfortably. With the right training, I know there is much more in the tank. That’s the best possible result for a challenge like that.
A huge thank you has to go to Chester Tri Club for a really well organised event, the best marshals I’ve ever known on course and a brilliant goodie bag at the end. I particularly loved the quality hoodie from Bonk Athletic I’d recommend this event to anyone. They are such a friendly lot!
It had been a really fun day for the most part and managed the difficult bits really easily and I had managed to smile most of the way around. I deliberately took some time away from the whole experience before I sat to write the blog because I wanted to make sure I understood and could express what I learned from it all. Next week’s blog will focus on the things I learned from the whole experience.