Last month, I took part in my first triathlon, an Olympic distance, consisting of 1.5km open water swimming, 40km of road cycling, and 10km of running. I had prepared for it reasonably well, although I felt worried about putting it all together.
Over the summer, I had been swimming in lakes, cycling on roads, and running on trails. Often, elements of this were in excess of the triathlon distances. So, I entered the race feeling confident that I was physically fit to complete it. I had even run 30 km which took me about 4 hours, so I was also confident about the duration of the activity.
So, entering the water on race day was a moment of excitement and I was full of desire to get going. I had no idea that, within the first 5 minutes of the competition, I would be considering giving up.
Having spoken to people afterwards, I learnt that this happens a lot. Such is the beauty of sports’ unpredictability, I now look back on my experience and find value in having been forced into an unexpected situation and how these features of performance may create the best opportunities to shape our character. By pushing us into circumstances for which we are not prepared and for which only the space of competition can really reveal, sport — and perhaps other kinds of performance, too — allows us to discover more about ourselves.
Confronting these uncertainties compels us towards trying to overcome them. Now, I look back on that first 10 minutes of my first triathlon as one such moment, but it very nearly went terribly wrong.
First of all, it felt like it lasted much longer. The swim was anti-clockwise — as I think they often are — and the first buoy must have been around 300m from the start line. It was quite wonderful getting into the water with everybody and seeing them begin their journey, each one of us on our own trajectory. While waiting to start I asked somebody if they had any advice and they said:
“go at your own pace”.
I thought I was doing that, but, within a few minutes, of starting my front crawl I started to feel uncomfortable.
The night before, I had felt a little asthmatic, nothing major. I have had asthma all of my life, but in a very mild form. I hadn’t felt asthmatic while exercising for a very long time. In fact, back in 2004, I wrote about how asthma medication had allowed me to feel more capable as an athlete. I barely ever take my inhaler these days, but in this moment, in the water, my breathing was very clearly becoming erratic and I was beginning to panic.
I can’t tell which came first, the panic or the asthma, but both became intertwined, making matters even were worse. I was not expecting to have problems with breathing and the feeling created even more anxiety. Was I having an asthma attack after never having had one in my life?
I also felt that my wetsuit was not on correctly. I couldn’t pull my arms forward enough for front crawl. It felt as though I were pulling against elastic and my arms were not strong enough to extend. I tried to reach behind my neck and fix it, which just made it worse as I tried to tread water while struggling to breathe, swallowing water in the process, which also made it worse.
As the other swimmers started to fade into the distance, I found myself thinking
“this is not going to work. I am going to have to ask a marshal to rescue me”.
I had not even made it to the first buoy and to contemplate getting round even one lap of the water course, let alone two, was unthinkable at this point.
I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that I was not going to complete the swim and accept the possibility that I would not finish the triathlon. I faced feelings of failure at having not even been able to complete the first 15 minutes of the competition and, upon doing all of these things and considering all of these facts, I decided that none of it mattered.
At this point, the easiest thing would have been to call for assistance, but it occurred to me that I needed to figure this out on my own, because what if it happened in a situation where no help was around?
So, I forgot about completing the race and instead focused just on breathing. None of the other things mattered, compared to the possibility that I would not be able to breathe and may then be in quite serious trouble. I thought of my son and imagined him there watching me and got myself into a place mentally where I could not allow something to happen to me. I could see a kayak marshal nearby, so I didn’t feel like my life was in danger. But I really did not want to have to be rescued. It would have felt so demoralizing.
So, I told myself not to worry about time, not to worry about speed, and not to worry about finishing. Instead, I told myself to focus on breathing. I switched from front crawl to breaststroke, slow and steady, thought about my breathing, and focused on each one.
And, eventually, I made it passed the first buoy.
This was a huge achievement, perhaps the biggest achievement in my sporting life. And I have done a lot of competitive sport in my time. I’ve always been reasonably fit, reasonably capable, and reasonably confident with sport. But, this was something else.
I still don’t know how I completed that first lap of the swim, but by the end of it my breathing had steadied. I had removed my goggles to feel more clearly my senses and I was gradually able to contemplate the possibility of completing another lap. I told myself to look forward to the bike ride. I love cycling. It has been a way of life for my entire life and I relished getting on two wheels, the open road, and leaving the water behind me.
I was perhaps the last swimmer to finish. I haven’t checked but it’s possible. I came into the final stretch of that swim alongside competitors who were far older than me, feeling more affinity with these fellow competitors men and women and more respect for their accomplishment, than I have ever felt before within a playing field. It was a great lesson in humility and a great lesson in respect for what happens within sport. It was also an important moment in my own sporting life.
However, the unexpected challenges of this triathlon did not end there.
Getting on the bike was an amazingly, wonderful and beautiful experience, a kind of ecstasy that I only get from being on two wheels, flying through the landscapes, feeling like this is the way humans are supposed to move around the world. The famous naturalist Louis Helle said once that ‘Bicycling is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of birds. The airplane simply carries a man on its back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own.’ I remember this especially as it was referenced in the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. I share this view and I couldn’t wait to be on my bike.
And I went for it! I went as fast as I could, not thinking too much about my pace, knowing that I had this in me, knowing that I can do these distances without any problem. But, I was significantly fatigued by the swim and this made it harder than I expected.
About a third of the way into the ride, my left hamstring began to cramp. This had never happened before. Here I was, again, contemplating having to retire from the race, wondering whether I could ride a bike with one leg. I had pedal cages, so I could imagine doing that. It would have been preferable to quitting, but, instead, I decided to slow down, not push myself, and see if things could even out. And they did. The cramp subsided and I managed to recover my pace. The rest of the ride went mostly smoothly, but it was hard, harder than I had expected.
Upon arriving into the transition zone with my bike I had the most wonderful moment. You see, what I haven’t told you yet is that my partner was doing this triathlon with me. She and I had talked about our plan. I knew she would be faster than me in the water, so we’d planned that I would catch her up on the ride, and we would stay together for the rest of the race.
But, I never caught her up.
We learnt subsequently that she had done an amazing swim of 36 minutes for 1,500m, while my swim had been an abysmal 46 minutes — although not nearly as bad as it could have been. After all I think I had only been swimming times of about 42 or 43 minutes in training. So, despite all of my struggles, my overall time for the swim was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.
In any case I never caught Naomi in the ride.
But, there she was, all of a sudden, in the transition zone, just as I was pulling in. She had been having a nightmare trying to find her bike in both transitions and was flapping about trying to get organised.
Seeing her was an extraordinary moment of relief, both for having made it there and for knowing then that we could then complete the final stretch together. And so we began our 10k run, but this was not the end of the story.
As we began running, I felt the cramp in my left leg return and it never left for the entire 10,000 metres. I learnt that it’s quite possible to have a moderate cramp in one leg and to keep running. You try not to bend your leg too much and hobble along as best you can. That was my strategy and it worked well enough. The run was slow, slower than I think I’ve ever run 10k and around 10 minutes more than my training times. But, we made it and I knew we would be able to once I’d found a way to manage the cramp. For what felt like an eternity, we ran together to the finish line and I felt grateful to have made it there. It could have gone so very differently.
And that was my first triathlon.
I would do it again, absolutely. Afterwards, Naomi mentioned that she had heard about the problem of panicking at the beginning of a triathlon, while in the water. It’s not so uncommon. There is a sensory overload, coupled with the adrenaline, which can just be overwhelming, especially for a first timer. There’s lots of advice about it online.
So, if you find yourself in my shoes, then this is my advice:
Take your time, focus on breathing, don’t worry about your pace, and just keep going.
Oh, also, get yourself a proper swimming wetsuit, not some stupid, thick surfing one! That would help too :)