Today’s wonder woman is Steph, who triumphed in her first triathlon despite not being able to swim or ride a bike just this time last year! Here’s her story –
Long story short, I signed up for a triathlon, with plans to train hard and get into cleats and be brave. In reality, in the last 4 weeks before race day, I was away at a hen party, in Munich for 3 of the weeks and ran a marathon on the other week. Not great triathlon training.
As I am only an aspiring triathlete, the Berkhamsted Triathlon looked perfect for me, sprint distance but with a longer run (my strong point) and with a pool swim. Having learnt to swim only recently, I’ve not braved open water yet. You’d think being a pool swim this would be marketed as a novice triathlon, but I would put it in the ‘lumpy’ category. Berkhamsted is not a flat place.
One week after London and I would have given the world to have traded the weather with all you marathoners. In the week(s) leading up to the race, I told my nearest and dearest I wasn’t going to do the race, I hadn’t really swam, I hadn’t seen my bike, nothing had gone to plan. I told myself that if the forecast said rain I wouldn’t do it. I don’t really know what made me change my mind, my stubborn side came out, my cheap side came out, I didn’t want to lose the money, and Zena offered to come with me and look after me through the anxious bit of arriving and getting set up.
Deciding to race a few days before, it was all systems go. Race prep-pep talk from triathlon-wizz Kate, last night hair dilemma texts with Zena and then we were in the car at 06:30, coffee in hand and on our way to Berkhamsted.
On a cold and drizzly Sunday morning, we arrived at the sports centre where registration was quick, easy and warm! Between the two of us, and the assistance of some other competitors, we worked out what to do with all the numbers they’d given me, fixed a last minute panic with my race belt (too big!) and headed out to the transition zone in the drizzle to set up.
For non triathletes like me, “transition” is the in-between bit. It’s the place you go to sort out your swaps between the three sports. So T1 is swim-bike and T2 is bike-run. But the “transition zone” is also where you store all your equipment for the whole race. At Berkhamsted, this is in a field. On a drizzly, windy day in April this presents it’s own issues – will your socks blow away? how many layers could I need? and issues I didn’t expect until during.
I laid my kit out nervously. Shouting the items across to Zena to check I had everything. You can’t leave a bag in transition. So it all has to be right first time. Then we were hustled out of the transition zone and inside for the race briefing.
A benefit of being a newbie and slow swimmer is that the slowest swimmers go first. Swim times are released in advance, but as it’s a pool swim, we just got in line and went when they blew the whistle. Although swimming is my weakest sport, in the triathlon I enjoyed it the most. The pool was warm for starters and I just took my time and paced it out. I’m sure our swim coach would say I could have (and should have) done it faster, but I finished the last 100m a little faster with confidence as I’d paced it well. The lanes were a little narrow as they’d squeezed 8 lanes into a 6 lane pool, but aside from a small kick to the ribs by a breaststroke-r I was catching. The swim went by without a hitch. I don’t know if it was intentional or not but all the rings and sticks they throw to the bottom for children were on the bottom of the pool and I found it a nice distraction.
Up out of the last lane and boom into the cold in my swim bikini! I’d decided on the swim bikini, so that when I put my cycling clothes on over the top it would feel just like a sports bra and pants. I struggle with costumes being long enough and didn’t want to get the tummy tug all race that you get when a costume is too short!
I actually found hitting the cold from the pool side exhilarating. They’d laid out matting to run down outside the pool, but not on the grass. So I arrived on my towel shivering and with muddy feet. T1 is all a bit of a blur, trying to towel off, trying to rush. Luckily Zena had got me to talcum powder my socks and shoes which made them easy, but pulling my leggings and tops on was a struggle. I got my cycle cap and helmet on and trotted over to the “mount line,” another bit of triathlon jargon. You must not get on your bike before this point. I think it’s for the safety of other competitors to stop you cycling around the transition zone where they are struggling to get into their clothes. The Mount Line was on grass and followed by a puddle and a hill. The marshals were telling everyone to run to the top so I did and jumped on my bike. Hearing Zena screaming down the road behind me.
If you were good at that race on sports day where you had to put as many clothes on as possible, you’ll be good at T1.
F**K ME IT’S COLD. I had originally planned to do the whole race in my sleeveless tri suit, but with the forecast I switched to cycling jersey and a long sleeve fleecy cycling jersey and my full gloves. Let this be a lesson to you, if it is 8C and windy and you have wet pants on this is not enough layers, especially when you have Reynauds.
The course starts with a right turn, uphill, at a junction, which I was really worried about, but I just slowed down and accelerated when the lights changed, it was a quiet Sunday morning, so not too much traffic. The roads remain open throughout the race, but I didn’t have any problems with cars. Arseholes on aero bikes – yes, cars – no. The route takes you off the A roads in town and into rolling uphills and downhills of the Berkhamsted countryside, you go past Champneys, up short hills that just keep coming, with very little flat between the up and down.
Rolling down one hill, teeth gritted against the wind chill, I saw the upcoming ascent and decided to change down to my little cog in preparation. To change gears on bike, you have to peddle otherwise the change doesn’t happen, so I freewheeled the pedals round to get the change and then carried on down the hill. I didn’t need to start pedaling until halfway up the ascent but as I did, I had a few loose turns, with no grip. I’ve had this before as you and the bike are adjusting the gear to the gradient, but it just kept happening, the pedals are turning and there is no resistance. Queue expletives. I looked down. Yup. My chain had come off. I hopped off and just starting running with the bike while I thought what to do. Probably the highlight of the ride. I told myself I was a Brownlee, running with a bike and thanked my stars I was in normal trainers.
A guy with a speed helmet and aero wheels zoomed past me, and then my knight in shining lycra came to my rescue. NB: I know I should know how to do my chain myself, but I don’t and I must learn.
Said knight put my chain back on, got himself absolutely covered in my bike grease and was charming about it all. I think I may have ultimately beaten him on the run, apologies!
I didn’t enjoy the ride at all, on a sunny, warmer day, this would be a beautiful ride, the undulating hills are the right side of challenging, the roads quiet but wide. But on the day I chose to do a triathlon, the wind got me. I was shaking by the end and desperate to warm up. I spent the last few miles free wheeling as my hands were so cold I couldn’t change gear. I was in survival mode rather than race mode and I’m almost 100% sure I could knock off up to 10 minutes on a better day. Rolling back into transition, another guy on an aerobike rode straight through set of traffic lights on the wrong side of me and almost took out a poor girl coming the other way. I think I shouted at him, but I was too cold for my jaw to work.
I was so relieved to jump off my bike, but marshals were shouting things at me, asking questions. I think I looked cold. I think they offered me a foil blanket. I really couldn’t tell you. Survival mode had kicked into completion mode.
Being a baby who is not clipped in has it’s benefits. I ran, stumbled, through the Transition Zone to my spot. Unlike the duathlon, no one had stolen my spot, so I racked my bike, took my helmet off and kept my cap on – I can’t french plait so I’m never going to be a pretty looking triathlete!
I looked down at my towel and realised I had nothing else to do. I was already in my trainers, I was too bloody cold to take any layers off, or my cycling gloves, all there was to do was run. Marshals were shouting things at me, I think I looked dazed, I think they told me to run. I ran.
When I did my duathlon, Sophie shouted something at me, that has stuck with me ever since.
All you have to do is run, this is the easy bit.
Even if running is not your sport, remember this for triathlon, when you’ve got to the run, all the complicated bits are over, no more transition, no more rules about helmets and mount lines, no more apparatus that can go wrong like goggles and bicycles. All there is to do, is put one foot in front of the other.
I was trying to stop my teeth chattering and as I turned the first corner out of the sports centre we hit a big hill, complete with steps, so I warmed up faster than I thought. The run is almost all on grass or gravelly trails. With a short section of tarmac to cross a roundabout. Again it was a lovely route and as I caught and passed runner after runner, I started to enjoy myself again. I started to smile again. The route is almost out and back, which I love, and the last section is downhill. Endorphins kicked in, I managed to nip in front of two people in the last 200m and put on a bit of a sprint finish across the finish line. I could hear Zena shouting, I could taste the hot chocolate I’d been dreaming about all day.
And then it was over, my first triathlon.
This time last year, I couldn’t swim or cycle, I think I glowed all day.