70.3 and me
I stood pretty much glued to the floor looking out at the lake, trying to watch for someone who was floundering like I do. Of course nobody was, this was the ironman distance swim, and they were all professionals. My heart sank. I wanted to run away, but I knew I couldn’t. I knew what it would mean if I did. That this was all over. That bit of me, the tiny bit of me that didn’t want that to be the case. That’s the bit that has been keeping me going all this time. God I love that bit.
I was mostly nervous because my 3 attempts at open water swimming thus far had all been full of panic. Something to do with the temperature and wetsuit pressure on my chest I think. I would start each practice session by being sent in to a whirl of panic, to the point where even putting my head in the water seemed like a physical impossibility, not the ideal starting point for a 70.3 distance triathlon. My first triathlon none the less.
The briefing started and it was extremely jovial. I felt a little lighter as we laughed as a group of wetsuited weirdos, up at 430am to exercise. The race director asked if it was anyone’s first time racing in the New Forest and about a third of the hands went up, then he asked if it was anyone’s first triathlon. I tentatively raised my hand to cheers and whoops. It felt nice for people to be excited about that for me, maybe they knew something I didn’t, maybe they knew I’d be ok?! Being told that if you can manage the logistical nightmare that is the forestman you could manage any triathlon was both incredibly unnerving and weirdly comforting.
Before long we were ushered into the water, my panic alarm was off in about a millisecond as I dipped my head under the rope to get to the starting point of the lake. I kept repeating over and over again, you are here and this is now. A little meditation mantra I use when I’m having a panic on dry land. I was using it here to a) try and calm myself the fuck down but b) as it was true. You only get one first chance at something, and this was mine. It was here and now. Only I could do it, and only I could get in the way of not doing it.
Off we went. Kicks and splashes and me floundering around somewhere near last place, I couldn’t catch my breath so I just kept my head out and breastroked along the best I could. Repeating my mantra over and over, trying to slow everything down. I was so grateful that there were people around me in the same boat. The lake is flipping beautiful, a perfect setting for an open water swim and the temperature was actually not that bad. Still I was a mess and I just knew I had to get through it. I waited till about half way round to try and put my head in the water, I counted down from 20 stokes (about what I take to do a length in the pool) and then allowed myself back up to a head out breast stroke for 10, and then go again. I did this for the whole second half which meant I caught up with some people, exiting the water about 6th from last. I’d done it! Well the first bit. Only another 56 miles of riding and 13 miles of running to do yeah?!
The swim transition was on a sandy patch of ground. Wet bodies and sand do not go well together. I was covered in the stuff and having to put my trainers on to run to the bike transition with feet covered with grit is not the one. The forestman is a little different as the swim is about 2km from the main transition area, so you have a slightly shorter swim but then an additional run to get you to where you need to be.
I was so happy to be out of the water and was excited about getting on my bike. I knew the bike course would be tough for me, it was hillier than anything I’d ridden to date, and I’d have to run a half marathon after. My transition went smoothly if not a little slow. I said hey to Jim and the dog and I was off in to the countryside. It was insanely beautiful, the New Forest is a dream of a place to ride, but it is not logistically simple. Cattle grids everywhere, and then actual cattle everywhere. I had to slow down for countless horse, deer, donkey, tractor crossings. It was funny and beautiful and I sang to myself to keep myself going.
The headwind however was utterly relentless, at the top of all the climbs you are super exposed and headwinds, sidewinds and all other kinds of unhelpful winds battered me. It was kind of scary at times to feel like my bike might actually blow out from under me. I was pretty sure I was dead last on the bike, I was lapped so many times, but I couldn’t care less, I was out there doing this crazy scary thing. I didn’t even have a bike a year ago, well I did but it had a basket on the front and wouldn’t have been triathlon suitable, although good for holding snacks….
I chatted to every single person I saw, they wished me well and off they rode much slicker and quicker than I ever could. Everyone said I was a bit mad for choosing this distance, and this difficulty of triathlon for my first. I didn’t want to admit that I’d only booked it a week ago as a way of deciding on if I should pull out of the ironman or not. I was desperate for a wee, Chrissie Wellington had told me (via her book) just to piss on my bike, but I’m super pee shy at the best of times. I was so concerned someone would see what I was up to I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Before I knew it I was back where I started and the marshall told me to dismount. I told him I couldn’t and he asked me why in a very bemused way. I showed him my watch and told him that I must have gone wrong out on the course as I’d only ridden 35 miles. He broke the news to me that I’d only done one lap. All of those hills, all of that headwind I would have to do again. A little heart broken I set off again, but soon settled in to the second half of this ‘undulating’ ride.
I was pretty pleased to get off the bike, I knew as soon as I had racked my bike and switched back in to my trainers that I had done it. I was off on jelly legs, setting off too quickly as is always the case for me off the bike. 6.5 miles of climbing up a hill followed. I was super desperate to pee now. I found a hidden bit of forest and finally went for that wee I’d been holding on to all morning. I was pretty ecstatic at this point, freshly relieved of some bladder pressure, and 100% certain this thing was mine.
I just kept going, even when my pace slowed to a shuffle on the steep climbs. I chatted to all the marshalls, drank some flat coke at aid stations and just styled it out. I was doing it. Triathaloning!
It was probably my slowest ever half marathon, again do not have a care in the world for that. Coming down the 6.5 mile hill I’d just climbed, was not the delightful dreamy glide I’d hoped, my knees hurt and I was a little under fuelled. I started to cry about 500m from the finish because people were cheering for me and I was so incredibly proud of myself. There were countless moments on the day I could have quit, but more than that there were countless moments over the last few months I’ve been certain I’d quit.
As I crossed the line people said how fresh I looked, and continued to be as lovely as they’d been all day to me. I’d done it, I was a triathlete and a 70.3 finisher!! My body felt good and my brain felt like if I had to do that all again, if I really really had to then maybe, just maybe I could!
So I guess it’s on!