Aberfeldy Middle Distance Triathlon 2016

Time: 7:58:52 (Third from last)

Medal: Yes

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Let me take this opportunity to mention a few key details before I delve into a description of the actual event:

  1. I had signed up as part of a relay team, my job being to swim the 1900m open water section very rapidly, before drinking beer and cheering on the others;
  2. Despite seeing a specialist knee surgeon in Houston and having a cortisone injection in my knee in July, my running has not improved, and a 3k jog as part of a family-fun triathlon saw me crippled for two days;
  3. The runner in our relay (Eilidh) decided to just do the full event;
  4. The cyclist in our relay decided to get knocked up;
  5. I found out three weeks ago that the entry had been updated to a solo entry in my name;
  6. The event was a Scottish Championship event, and the people who had entered seemed to be taking shit seriously.

With zero half ironman specific training, I did some calculations and realised I could probably cross the line before what I thought was the 8.5 hour cut-off, knowing I would likely have to walk the entirety of the half marathon.  As it turns out, there is no official cut-off for Aberfeldy, and they wait until every finisher crosses the line, which put my mind (marginally) at ease.  The forecast of little wind, blue skies, and uncharacteristically warm weather also lifted my spirits, ever so slightly.  But the reality was, I was not pumped about slogging it out on a course I knew I’d get a crappy time at.  However, quitting, as they say, is for losers.

Van overstuffed, bodies belted up, we set off for Aberfeldy on Saturday afternoon, arriving in time to register, watch the Olympic women’s triathlon, and endure the 45 minute briefing.  Then came a Fleet Feet dinner in the apartment we’d booked, before I snuck out in the dying light to walk to the nearest town, Kenmore, for a pint of Schiehallion and a slightly unsteady jaunt back to the apartment in the dark to collapse into bed.

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Swim

After coercing each other out of bed at 05:00, Roz, Eilidh and I readied our kit bags and walked our bikes over to T1 in our pyjamas.  What followed is now a haze of forcing food down our throats, mild panic about where we put our race numbers/goggles/swim caps/etc., and moments of regret when we allowed ourselves to reflect on what exactly we had signed up for (or, in my case, been forced into by deserters).  We mustered at the swim start at 6:45 for our wave start, and a few group photos.  Exhibit A shows smiling, eager faces, ready to tackle the challenge ahead:

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Exhbit B highlights the stark contrast between knowing your photo is being taken, and a candid shot capturing the reality of crushing apprehension:

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The voice over the tannoy announced a water temperature of 14 degrees, but as we edged ourselves into the calm loch as we approached our wave start, it become acutely apparent that this was a new level of bullshittery.  My hands burned with intensity as they were plunged into the icy loch, and I wondered how easy it would be to get by in life without toes.  A growing fury brewed as we impatiently waited for the man in the kayak to sound the horn, furiously slapping at the water with numb digits as soon as it sounded.  So.  I guess this is actually happening, was the less-than-enthusiastic thought that invaded my quickly-dulling mind.  Thus began my now traditional countdown of ’99 bottles of beer’ (Ultimately reaching 6 before the end of the swim).

The water was ferociously cold, and by the time I hit the first buoy I was struggling to keep my fingers together.  My face had started to acclimatise, though I knew it was only a matter of time until my lips went numb and breathing would become arduous.  This happened by the time I reached the second buoy, which I only noticed when I was practically upon it, such was the intensity of the fog inside my goggles.  The final stretch is where delirium set in, and the water became choppier.  I remember looking forward to seeing my squiggly red line of a path when I uploaded my swim to Garmin Connect, but what I didn’t remember to do was actually start my Garmin.  C’est la vie.

Finally, the finishing floats were in sight, and I had to be helped to steady myself out of the water by one of the marshals.  The world was lilting, and I couldn’t feel my face, but I soon realised I was still wholly capable of spitting out expletives, as witnessed by Katherine on support duty (and some young, impressionable spectators – apologies).

The fact that T1 took me over 7 minutes bears witness to the state I was in after the arctic plunge.  I was overtaken by around 50 people there alone, at one point struggling to free my hands from my wetsuit and standing there confused and helpless.  I saw Roz enter transition and grunted some kind of recognition, before finally finding myself organised, and setting off, expecting her to catch me fairly quickly.

Bike

Having not looked at the elevation profile for the bike course in more detail than a passing glance, I thought we’d have a fair amount of reasonably flat cycling before beginning our first ascent of Schiehallion.  This was a mistaken assumption, as the gradual climb began almost immediately, and after much huffing and puffing I found myself looking around me – and down – at the scenery below, realising I’d just finished the majority of the climb.  After a few more undulations I was flying down the steeper side, trying to ignore the fact that I’d later be hauling myself out of the saddle – and my comfort zone – to climb back up.

aberfeldy bike elevation profile

What followed was a section of the Etape Caledonia, circumnavigating Loch Rannoch, during which point Roz caught me, handed over a Werther’s original, and anticipated from my primal grunts that I was not up for keeping pace.  I challenge anyone to go back to work for a week after 6 weeks off and not feel like you’ve been hit by a bus come the weekend – I was done.  And Roz was a speck in the distance.

By the time the second ascent on Schiehallion arrived, I actually contemplated pushing my bike up the hill, but I stuck to my easiest gear and entered that mental place where you just accept suffering and keep going.

At last I was on top, and fully aware that everything left on bike was beneath me all the way to Aberfeldy for T2.  For the final 7 or 8 miles I just cruised on autopilot trying to brace myself for the tedium of my 13.1 mile walk, and the frustration that I would ultimately be overtaken by everyone still behind me over the course of the remaining few hours.  I dismounted, handing my bike over to marshals, and was handed my transition bag.  I changed into fresh socks and trainers, threw a travel bottle of sunblock in my back pocket along with my mobile phone and bank card, and tucked a tin of Jack Daniels and coke into my spi-belt, much to the amusement of the man next to me.  As it was a championship event, I didn’t want to risk it being taken off me by one of the official Triathlon Scotland dragons marshals.  And I needed every ounce of motivation I could muster, including the 12 fluid ounces in that can.

Run

I set off of the half marathon at a steady walk, unmoved by shouts of encouragement to press on and ‘just jog slowly!’.  Once out of Aberfeldy – and the beady eyes of the majority of marshals, I cracked the tab and started drinking.  After about 5 minutes I heard Eilidh’s voice call my name from the rear, and she stopped for a few minutes to walk with me and check I was alright.  I told her I was fine, but may be some time.  After about ten minutes I was drunk.  Having just exercised for the past 4+ hours, and only taken in 2 gels and one bottle of water, I was on cloud nine.

After about 5k I passed a feed station and the marshals offered water, bananas, or rubbish collection.  I gave the universal sign for ‘gimme a minute’, tanked the remainder of my can, and handed it over to her as her expression reflected the horror she obviously felt.  I said, “cheers!” and sauntered onwards with a shit-eating grin plastered across my face.

14114125_10157210530930234_1599404071_oThe remainder of the run is one long country road in the sunshine on and out-and-back course, enthusiastically cheering on people I knew on their way to the finish, and then beginning my lonesome journey beyond the halfway point, only meeting a handful of people left on the course.  I texted ahead letting everyone else know how many miles I had left, telling them they had plenty of time to shower, eat, catch a movie, before I was to be expected across the finish line.  They responded in the fading miles that there were only 4 people left on the course.

Less than half a kilometre from the end, one of those people overtook me.  I finished third from last, and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ started playing at a point where I have never felt less heroic.

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Henley Bridge to Bridge 2016

Time: 4:21:16

Medal: Yes

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There was something about the sheer enormity of swimming for as long as it used to take me to run a marathon that appealed to me back in 2015 when this lingering, frustrating knee issue had already made itself a perpetual partner in my life.  Although my training wasn’t perfect, I built up a strong swimming base throughout the year, and was confident as I dipped my toes into the less-flowing-than-I-would-have-liked Thames amongst other be-capped swimmers.  Having entered the 2016 event without too much thought, however, swimming soon took a backseat as my love affair with my bike blossomed.  The stark reality, as I tucked my hair into my cap during the safety briefing, was that – apart from the River Spey 5k – I had been in the water approximately twice in the 2 months preceding the event.  Not optimal.  Ever confident of my mental strength, however, I resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be a long slog, but I had nobody to blame but myself.

Not one to break a beautiful tradition, I met up with my old friend Lisa for what should have been a riotous Friday night on the tiles.  She most inconveniently fell ill – and had to be briefly hospitalised – in the days before my arrival, and so while she was housebound, I met an old Aberdeen acquaintance for some beers in Camden, before staggering to the tube.  We did get the chance to spend some time together on the Saturday when she was feeling a little more human, and we grabbed lunch before spending some time sunbathing in the park.

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Rather foolishly, I overlooked sunblock application to my neck and shoulders.  If you plan on spending hours in a wetsuit the following day, don’t get sunburned: it sucks hard.

After a leisurely day in London, I dragged my luggage to Paddington station for a train to Twyford, then ultimately Henley.  I arrived at my AirBnB, had a beer and chat with my friendly host, and then, armed with a good book, went in search of something calorific (and something else alcoholic) to fit the nutritional bill for a pre-race meal before staggering (again) back to my room to sleep.

Sunday morning saw cloud cover and chilly air as I approached registration.  Having entered the slow wave again, I was slightly disappointed to realise the organisers had shuffled the start so that I would be going in the final wave, but I chatted to some of the other competitors to while away the time pleasantly.  Just like last year, there was a great atmosphere as people shared their training (or lack of) and nervously awaited the race briefing.

As tow-floats were compulsory, it was not necessary to swim in groups, so from the offset I focused on steady exhalations and smooth, relaxed arms as the ghosts of reeds whispered at my face in the murky water.  As the clouds arced across the sky, the sun broke through casting shards of light through the river, flickering through each stroke and revealing more of the plant life below.  My lack of training was a minor but constant niggle at the back of my mind, but I hadn’t set off too quickly, and was comforted by the fact I was surrounded by other swimmers.  I began humming ’99 bottles of beer on the wall’, deciding that – for the first time in my life – I would legitimately finish the song.  Keeping to the beat of my stroke, I entered a trance, counting down to zero, hoping that I would reach the first checkpoint before I lost myself to delirium.  I made it with 68 bottles to go.  During the second run through of the song that was to plague the remainder of my swim, despite conscious efforts to sing any other song in the universe.

After the first feed station we had a 6k slog until the 10k mark, and the next feed stop.  I settled back into my rythm, and back into the countdown, running through the song a further four times, and stopping only to marvel briefly at the tree I had crashed into last year.  All I have to say for myself is that my sighting, though lousy, must have been utterly shit last year, as it climbed above the surface of the river and was painfully easy to avoid if you took more than half a breath to look where you were going.  Progress.

The penultimate section was a short 1.5k along moored boats, and at times you could taste the gasoline as you breathed.  The water during this section was also markedly choppier as there was quite a bit of traffic along here.  I only made it once through the song.

Finally I found myself launching myself into the water for the last stretch.  It seemed a shame to break with tradition, so I nearly made it through the song twice before the giant orange buoy appeared on the horizon, and the kayakers instructed us to keep right, and head for the riverbank after we had circumnavigated the buoy.  By this point my shoulders were aching, but I gave a final burst of speed in a desperate final gasp to finish, cutting over ten minutes off of last year’s time, despite the lack of swimming.  Critics could note that the average finishers’ time was substantially quicker than last year, and attribute that to a stronger current, but I’ll choose to remain ignorant of any such facts.

After counting down bottles of beer on the wall for nearly four and a half hours, it was only fitting after I dropped off my belongings in Brixton (after a train back from Henley) to find a suitable place to enjoy one or two.  As luck would have it, the beer garden I chose also had a stall that sold Venezuelan street food, so I was able to indulge in one of my teenage favourites: arepas!

I told all my friends “Never again!”, especially after suffering from some ill-effect of swallowing Thames river water, but now that the shoulders have had over a week to recover, I’m forgetting the pain and considering round three.

For years and years I roamed, I gazed a gazely stare.

David Bowie has, as far back as I can recall, been the soundtrack to my life, though the setting unexpectedly, and seemingly indiscriminately varied, largely as a result of my dad’s work.  From the sweltering heat of Houston, to perching on coral in the warm Indonesian waters at night looking out towards the ominous glow of the child of a volcano whose namesake wiped out thousands of people over a century before; from the lazy summer recesses playing tetherball on an Oklahoma schoolyard to checking for scorpions and tarantulas in warm places before submitting to sleep in Venezuela; from the London flat where the drummer from Motörhead lived (and frequently had parties) upstairs to the rugged, unpredictable, but beautiful, countryside of the Scottish Highlands.  It would be wildly ungrateful to say I had anything but a privileged childhood (I mean, shit, we had maids).

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Anak Krakatau

But one of the enduring aspects I’ve taken away from my transient existence in some of the world’s most spectacular places is that I have always had the sense that I am an outsider looking in; observing the lives and cultures of other people whilst having nothing concrete or persisting or meaningful in my own life.  Friendships were often fleeting, so I learned to be an open book, giving everything about myself away and voraciously discovering everything I could about the new strangers around me.  Relationships with anyone felt like having a passionate love affair, knowing that your days were numbered until you had to leave them behind, ignoring the knowledge that gut-wrenching heartache was ultimately what there was to look forward to when, inevitably, the setting altered.

It was easy to become quite adept at shutting off my own emotions and cutting people out of my life.  Especially in the days before technology became a catalyst for communication with lives lost over the years, itself falling into the trap of being unsure of its place in the world.  The ability to interact with millions of people is both amazing and overwhelming; enabling and restrictive.  In a world where people seek instant gratification, what point is there taking the time and effort to do something considered and thoughtful, like write a letter, when an e-mail or a text message will – ultimately – suffice?  My enthusiasm for writing lengthy cards at Christmas has been noted (but not acted upon) by my friends, but my letter writing ultimately went to the grave with my grandmother, for whom technology bamboozled.

I’m often asked where ‘home’ is, and I usually struggle to answer.  “Everywhere and Nowhere” is my stock reply, but I feel like it encapsulates my both my desire for acceptance and my need to be roam in order to feel in control of my life.  Entering the dating world in your 30s and you’re faced with an overwhelming number of men who allude to wanting to ‘settle down’.  There is no other single phrase that strikes more dread in my heart than this phrase; if anything, it’s a repellent.  When you’re in a relationship you have someone other than yourself to consider, which in the past has translated to feeling trapped – harnessed to one place with one person.  It might sound selfish, but when you have been dealt a single life to live, why accept something that doesn’t make you happy?  I’ve learnt that I’d much rather face the thought of being alone for the rest of my life than resentful of someone – through no fault of their own – for not sharing my outlook on life and my sense of wanting to discover more.

Even the phrase ‘settling down’ has connotations of disappointment – a sense that you’re unwilling or incapable of striving for something you really want.

Ultimately, I think that the majority of people want to find someone to share their life with – a soulmate – and I’m not unrealistic enough to realise that nobody will be perfect, but it should be someone who shares your general view on life.  In my case, someone who doesn’t want to be rooted to a single space until they turn to dust.  Someone who I want to pounce on.  Someone who becomes almost obnoxiously enthusiastic about trying new things, visiting new places, throwing caution to the back of their mind because the potential pay-off for trying something far outweighs the possibility of something going awry, or, worse yet, the regret of not trying in the first place.

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This guy gets it.

Death is something that both terrifies and fascinates me, and throughout my life I have always felt a vivid sense of my own mortality.  I would shoot bolt upright in bed with a suffocating knowledge that I won’t be around on this Earth forever, that life is a flash in the pan, and I’m not even ashamed to admit that sometimes I need to phone my mother or watch old repeats of Friends to quell any thoughts of my transitory existence that happen to be invading my thoughts.  In Bowie’s Cygnet Committee he claws, repeatedly, urgently, “I want to live” in the chilling culmination that has an almost primal desperation to it, and that’s exactly how I feel right in this moment.  I want drama that can’t be stolen.  Memories to bank for my 100th birthday (glass half full).

I used to observe people and enjoy imagining what their lives were like – what made them tick, what they enjoyed, what their scars that can’t be seen are. I’m now making it a conscious decision to stop wondering (but keep wandering) and start knowing.  Open myself up to embarrassment, to failure, but also to success, awe, and life.

And if I happen to meet someone who throws the same enthusiasm for learning back in my face, who has that intrinsic yearning to experience everything new, who wants to be my duprass (read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’.  Incidentally, ‘Cats in the Cradle’ by Harry Chapin is a haunting lyrical song – originally a poem by his wife – about life slipping by that tugs at my gut every time I listen to it) – then great!  Hopefully one day I will meet somebody who doesn’t make me feel trapped: who is the David to my Iman.

And so I start my new life with eyes completely open, but nervous all the same.  I want to make mistakes.  I want to live.

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Brixton, August 2016

 

This way, or no way/

You know, I’ll be free/

Just like that bluebird

River Spey 5k

Time: 1:37:38

Position: 16/79 (Gender position: 10/52)

Medal: No

 

Before open water swimming at Knockburn loch had opened for the season, long enough after the brief stint of swimming upstream for the Red Bull Neptune’s Steps, I entered the River Spey 10k.  In the end, there were four of us reckless enough to have entered – Myself, Roz, Jennie, and Simon – and despite less than favourable training, we all turned up by Saturday evening at the hotel near the start, though 75% of us had decided to drop down to the 5k distance.

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Discarding any semblance of dignity, we were all happy to walk about the room in our smalls with the nonchalant abandon of toddlers, though we very quickly established, upon realising the toilet door was a flimsy shower curtain, that anyone with a case of pre-race nervous bowels would have to make alternative arrangements.  We all have our limits.

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We chose to continue the well-established ritual of having a beer to aide sleep, and Simon had already scouted out a pub (in all likelihood the only pub within miles), which was essentially a shack with a jukebox and a pool table dominating half of the interior (to the point that when two men decided to play, we regularly had to duck to avoid being bludgeoned with a pool cue).  We took our pick of beverages from the limited selection, and sat down to question why we had all decided this was a good idea.  I decided to lift spirits by making some jukebox choices (and refusing to allow anyone to leave until they had all been played), and after a sensible amount of sense-numbing we trudged back to our bunkbeds, where I promptly fell into a slumber deep enough not to notice several late night trips to the toilet, situated approximately 3 feet from my face, separated only by a thin film of vinyl.

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A cacophony of alarm tones heralded the morning of “The Big Fucking Swim”, and we all flopped out of bed in a manner that I would struggle to define as chirpy.  We began the awkward dance of getting into our swimming costumes, and furiously rooting through our bags to ensure we all had the essentials: wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, towel, shampoo, gloves, lube… Feeding off the melange of pre-packaged, high calorie snacks, we attempted to use humour to mask our apprehension, before heading to the cars in a resigned silence.

Once parked up at registration we got our numbers, coloured swim cap, timing chip, and slightly unclear instructions about where and when we would be picked up by the bus for transport to the start.  As the 10k swimmers were being taken first, we found ourselves with plenty of time to mill about.  This moment was the day’s eye of the storm – I found myself in a surreal bubble of familiar faces from my running past who – similarly – had turned to swimming as a way to keep up fitness when injury plagued their running exploits.  I found it bittersweet catching up with their lives (which I once did with alarming frequency) and hearing about their triumphant returns to a sport I once imagined I could never live without.

Eventually the scheduled time for the 5k swimmers’ pick-up arrived, and we were all herded onto the roadside to wait for the bus.  Despite the intrinsic positive vibes of a tribe of people who willingly submit themselves to Scottish open water swimming, cracks were beginning to show as the minutes ticked by; We were all keen to be dropped off at the start.  Or, more realistically (as we eventually discovered), an unmarked spot at the roadside that marked a lengthy march through farmland – even navigating some cows – towards to river bank where two support kayaks were waiting.

Once all the swimmers and the race director had arrived, we cheered on the first 10k swimmers to pass before gingerly submersing ourselves in the frigid river, acclimatising by letting water into our wetsuits with a gasp as we were able to stand in some of the shallower sections.

The start was a rather unceremonious countdown, and then the tumultuous regime of swimming over slippery bodies and avoiding being elbowed/kicked in the face ensued.  Once the field had spread out, I found myself in the familiar rhythm: stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke sight.  I marvelled at just how clear the water was, and was soon mesmerised by the ripples of the sand on the river bed and the silky sway of the long tendrils of plant life pointing me in the direction of the current.

Had the water been warm enough to avoid wearing my neoprene gloves I could have chugged away like this for hours, lost in my own thoughts, gliding through the water.  I was even, momentarily, hit with a pang of regret for not having stuck with the longer distance swim, but this thought was quickly interrupted by the river water enveloping my hands and filling the gloves with so much water that it became a chore to lug through each stroke.  I lost count of the amount of times I was forced to tread water and let the water pour out to regain some sort of efficient form, but it was clear that without them I would be reliving the Loch Lomond horror of having my digits rendered useless so I accepted this as a mild inconvenience.  I wasn’t here to set a punishing pace, but to experience swimming somewhere new.

Eventually I happened upon the aid station, 3km along the route.  I don’t know if the other swimmers didn’t see it (it was around a tight bend) or if they were willing to forego it in order to knock a few minutes off their final time, but I was more than happy to stop for a chat and some pretzels before setting off for the final push.

The first kilometre or so continued along the river, and then there was a brief section where swimmers were essentially forced to run over a shallow section before entering Loch Insh with the finish gantry a speck in the distance.  Without the assistance of the current, this final section seemed interminably long, quite possibly, in part, due to my lousy sighting ability, but I locked onto a swimmer with blue and white stripes on the arm of his wetsuit up ahead and made it my goal to overtake him – a task I only achieved within the final 20 meters of the swim.  With the end in sight, I even ripped off my gloves and stuffed them down the back of my wetsuit to get more purchase on the water with my hands.  The fact that they were numb as I crossed the timing mat at the end only confirmed that I had made the right decision in wearing them in the first place.

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I quickly stumbled upon Jennie (who had won her age/gender category), and we stealthily retreated to the heated registration building where we were served a hot bowl of rice and chilli as we waited for Roz to come in.  Once we were all accounted for, we wrestled our way into the changing rooms, eagerly awaiting a hot shower but being confronted with showers that spat out viciously cold water.  As I was heading straight to a dinner party upon my return to Aberdeen, I had little choice but to wince as I washed my hair and rinsed my wetsuit.

Gilded with frost, encumbered with heavy, damp bags, Roz and I made our way to her car and began the drive home, a little underwhelmed by the entire experience, but glad we had done it.  If I can survive 5km in water that leads to symptoms of mild hypothermia, I should yet manage the 14km swim this weekend in Henley, where the water will feel practically tropical in comparison.

Texas Summer and Katy Flatlands 100k

It has been over a decade since I visited Texas in the summertime, and although I thought I knew what to expect, the oppressive combination of heat and humidity ensured that any resemblance of comfort became a distant memory during my stay.  I had entered the Katy Flatlands 100km arrogantly assuming the early start (and, consequently, relatively cooler temperatures) would make it a pleasant outing with friends (an old school friend, Zareen, and her boyfriend, Cameron).  I had not accounted for the following:

  1. The three of us went out drinking the night before, and I ended up sleeping in their spare room as it span around me; and
  2. Zareen, having done the ride before, already expected to arrive late as the event had an ‘open start’, a casual come-as-you-please affair that simpy would not fly in Scotland.

My alarm screech pierced my dreams at 05:25.  I went to sleep at about 03:04.  My eyes were glued shut, my mouth was dry, and the room seemed to rock when I tried to stand up. I’ll spare you the fiasco of getting everyone roused (and angry at me for being “that person that likes doing active things”), swinging past mine to grab something more appropriate to wear than last night’s outfit, and the drive.  Long story short: we arrived with about 15 minutes to spare before packet pick  up closed, and eventually set off amongst fellow latecomers.

The original plan was to cycle with Zareen and Cameron as part of a social ride, but we all cycle at vastly different cruising speeds, so after about ten minutes, Cameron and I had pulled ahead.  I remember, naively, thinking the temperature wasn’t too bad, omitting from my calculations that it wasn’t even 08:30.  The two of us slowly picked off riders until the first aid stop, roughly 15 miles into the course, where we waited for Zareen.

The first aid stop is where cracks began to appear after a night of debauchery.  Zareen decided she would be scaling down to the 36 mile route, and although Cameron wanted to stick to the 62 miles, he eventually also eschewed the full whack, taking the 55 mile turn-off later in the day.  But this is the last I saw of either of them until the end.

Thus began my pennance – hungover, heart rate rising with my average speed (and the unforgiving heat), the burn of an unfamiliar saddle.  And I relished it.  Despite my largely unrooted existence in life, something about the suffering gave me the rare, fleeting feeling that I was never more at home anywhere but in this moment.  The lazy rise of fall of the hiss of the cicadas, hidden but comfortingly present, fell in sync with my breathing and the vibrations of the handlebars wrapped in the death grip of my sweat-soaked hands.

Largely alone, I felt alive.  It didn’t matter that the world was crumbling around me: that my eight and a half year relationship had come to an end, that my brother – a heroin addict – was waiting for a jail bed to open so he could begin a lengthy stint, that my parents were struggling to raise his child when they should be enjoying their retirement years, that there appears to be an increasing probability that Donald Fucking Trump might actually have a realistic shot at ruling a nation, that David Bowie, the one man on this Earth I have been in love with forever, was dead.  I.  Was.  Alive.  I changed into a heavier gear; Changed direction into an oven-breath headwind; Hissed along with the chorus of cicadas, like some kind of visceral hymn.

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Until I betrayed myself.

A new, heavier, almost engine-like hiss emerged to my left as I started to be overtaken by the peleton of the 100 mile riders.  I was 25 miles from the finish, and this train was the chink in the armour of my new identity as the lone rider of the Lone Star State.  The end of the group whipped past, and – instinctively – I was horrified with myself as I found myself  leaving my saddle to push my way into their slipstream, and fresh atonement at a punishing pace.

In fact, for the last hour and a half of my ride, I held a pace upwards of 20mph.  And a heart rate upwards of 177bpm.  Granted, it was not the undulating roads of North East Scotland, but the relentless heat brought its own challenge.  The scenery changed from hay bales to rear wheels and weathered calves, cicadas to snot rockets and squirts from water bottles directed onto the backs of necks.

We ate up the road as one amorphous being, slowly shedding men off the back who couldn’t keep pace until, 5 miles from home, second rider from the front, I looked back to see only three others from what started as a 35 strong group.  After passing the final aide station, the rest peeled off and I was back to riding alone for the final gasp, ultimately collapsing onto my handlebars as I freewheeled across the finish.

A volunteer handed me a towel from a cooler filled with ice and gently wrapped it around my neck, as another handed me a cup of flavoured ice (probably something like “summer berry splash!” or “grape explosion!”) which I promptly inhaled, and which – equally promptly – gave me the worst case of brainfreeze I have experienced for years.  I wheeled my bike inside, and into the school cafeteria (the event was held at a local high school) where I found Zareen and sank into a chair beside her, unable to communicate properly for the time being, instead using the now-thawed towel to wipe the accumulated sweat salt off of my body.

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It was fuckin’ hot.  In case I hadn’t mentioned.

Cameron, looking equally drained of life, staggered in about half an hour later, and once we had each satisfied our craving for salty food by turning ferral at the pizza spread, we piled back into the car for a largely silent homeward journey, save for some of Houston’s finest hip-hop radio stations.

The rest of the week went by in a blur.  I tired my best to regain that feeling of belonging in what is technically my hometown, but felt, as always, like an imposter who happens to have “Houston, TX” listed as their place of birth in their passport, and who happens to be asked, upon meeting anyone new, where “that accent” is from.

Instead of indulging myself any more by reflecting on what I can only assume is a quarter-life crisis (hey, I’m ever an optimist), I’ll close with a few snapshots of my first Texas Summer as a real adult, and my new motto in life: ‘Make mistakes.’

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Antique store treasure trove

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Kusama’s ‘Love is Calling’

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Kusama’s ‘Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity’

 

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Rice University running track

AWCC 12 mile TT

After 2 flat 10 mile TTs – and, more importantly, 2 clear losses against friends – we were back for round 3.  The original ‘undulating’ course planned for the night was apparently covered in chuckies, so Bob made the decision to swap to a ‘hilly’ 12 mile route instead.  What he should have told us is that after being lulled into a false sense of security on the first section of the route, the remainder was practically vertical, but he neglected that particular detail.

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Roz, Ny, and I arrived (in regular cycling clothes this time) and were given the choice of starting off first, second, or fifth.  Roz was straight in claiming first, and Ny took second, which meant I had to start with the big boys.  At least it meant, in theory, that I would have someone to follow.  If I could keep up.  The three of us were feeling confident…

As we hit 7pm, I watched Roz set off, chased a minute later by Ny, and then a couple of the Wheeler guys before I parked my front wheel at the line and clipped in for my countdown.  3-2-1-go!

Straight into a headwind.  Amazing.  Motivation to keep going was provided by the fact that I could see the guy who set off fourth up ahead, and I made it my goal to keep him in my sights.  I managed to make it almost to the left hand turnoff at Crathes before I was overtaken, and then there was a quick descent before the beginning of the hills.

Number 4 was still up ahead, but slowing on the hill, and I caught him about 2/3 to the top.  My new mission was obviously to keep him behind me, and it was about here I was firmly in the heart-attack zone.  There was a welcome descent before the rest of the climb began, and I avoided looking at my speed or heart rate, and focused on getting up faster than what felt comfortable.

By the time I reached the final climb, I still hadn’t looked at my watch.  I was too worried I’d look down and discover I still had miles to go, and I’d rather remain oblivious, but I was starting to struggle.  I was overtaken by one of the faster guys, and had a (minimal) burst of speed trying to keep up, but as I saw him fly up into the distance I also noticed the finish!  With a final “sprint”, I rolled over the line, joining the group of finishers and taking alarmingly long to re-catch my breath and await results.

We didn’t have to wait too long, and the times were music to my ears: 40:22 and my first ‘win’ (against friends) in a TT!  Don’t let the photo fool you.  I definitely won.  I was just too busy feeling like I was going to throw up to celebrate.

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AWCC Time Trial – Take Two!

Apparently, the difference between ‘average’ and ‘starting to not be average’ in a 10 mile time trial involves dipping under the 30 minute mark (and maintaining a minimum average speed of 20mph).  After missing this much-coveted benchmark during my debut attempt a few weeks ago, Roz and Ny both assured me that – for a first go – I did well.  I was shy by 33 seconds, and although it was a sustained, puke-inducing effort on my part, I wanted to see if I could do better.

Keen to give myself every possible advantage – and to beat Ny, who became ‘unshit’ during the previous TT – I started to investigate.  I had already removed my bell and the reflectors on my wheels (valuable micro-grams that would slow me down, apparently!), and lacking the funds to invest in a fancy carbon bike, I felt there was only one option to assist my quest for success: the skin suit!

Unfortunately, time constraints (and budget) meant that my options were somewhat limited.  However, being the uber-resourceful person that I am, I simply “up-cycled” my Hallowe’en costume from 2010:

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Although Roz had opted to ditch us for some open water swimming (possibly after seeing photos of our planned outfits), Ny was thankfully game for a skin suit face off!  We parked up, zipped up, and casually cycled to the TT start point, to a mainly bemused reception from some of the regular guys.

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Taking this shit seriously.

Thankfully, Bob (above in red) had left a couple of blank slots at the front, and I was back in position number 1, with Ny chasing me in 2.  Apparently we didn’t need to pin numbers onto ourselves as he would, “recognize who’s who.”  Go figure! The stopwatches were started, I made my way to the start line, and clipped in – ready to go!

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And then I was off!  My goal being to clock a respectable time in a ridiculous outfit, complete with mane.  And to beat Ny.

During the first stretch I became very aware of the high neck on my lycra suit digging into my throat.  Less than pleasant, for sure, and I couldn’t work out whether I had laboured breathing because I was working hard or because my airway was being cut off.  I felt like I wasn’t hurting as much as the last time, though, and my heart sank a little at the possibility of recording a slower time.  Trying not to think too much about it, and trying to ignore the neck on my suit, I focused on keeping a heavy gear and steady pedaling.

I reached the left hand turn and crossed the river before the second left hand turn onto the finishing straight (that happens to be several miles long). Although I felt like I wasn’t giving as much as the last time (despite being able to give no more) I didn’t let that deter my determination!  In fact, it was only about half a mile from the finish line that I was finally overtaken by one of the guys, and I busted a gut trying to keep close to him, even coming out of the saddle to gain some final second speed!

Ny crossed the line uncomfortably soon afterwards, but we cycled back to the waiting spot to find out the damage.  After everyone was finished, Bob came over to read out the results.  The boys might have been chuckling away, but I managed to finish in 29:55!  Ny gave me a solid high five, and then heard her result: 29:10!

Although I didn’t win, I can’t be too upset at my time, and I’m  secretly openly delighted that my first sub-30 came when I was in fancy dress.  Verdict: (fake) skin suits get my vote!

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Midsummer Beer Happening Sportive (Undo)

Time: 4:01:47

Medal: No, but again, we got a commemorative beer glass (and beer token), t-shirt, and goody bag

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2015 and 2016 glass

Having originally signed up to do the redo route for a second time, I had my arm twisted by Ny (top 5 cycling friend) to trade down do the 52 mile, still hilly, route on offer instead.  I then assisted in twisting Roz’s arm  (who is also easily one of my top 5 cycling friends), into dropping to the shorter distance as well.  My need to beat my time from 2015 paled in comparison to my memory of how desperate I felt in the final 20 miles of last year’s monster, and a social Saturday cycle was born!

Saturday morning arrived, and we found ourselves at the train station milling about with several other lycra clad humans.  Before we even got on the train, Ny managed to stumble and fall onto the platform floor, much to the amusement of anyone with a pulse.  Thankfully we safely boarded the train without any further incidents (apart from an unimpressed tutting at the number of bikes being loaded onto it), and found a table.  What could have been an average 15 minute train journey turned into an event in itself when Roz’s husband James, upon hearing the train would be passing by their house, leapt from his slumber to wave us off ceremoniously!

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Train selfie!

Once in Stonehaven, we followed everyone else to the beer tent and queued up to register.  The event was much bigger than it was last year, and registering took a while (but allowed me to catch up with a few people I hadn’t seen in a while), and eventually we were kitted out with our numbers and timing chips, and made our way to the sea of cyclists shuffling slowly towards to start line.

We were let off in waves, being briefed as we approached the start.  After clear instructions, we were off.  And, just like last year, up.  Ny shot on ahead a bit, and Roz and I chugged steadily up the first climb.  Eventually, we caught up to Ny, who had tucked in behind a Stonehaven CC rider who was providing a sweet tow. We tucked in behind them and stuck with the group for the first wee while, but eventually we found ourselves climbing the Garrol as a threesome.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that this climb felt almost easy, especially considering last year I would climb it – with quite some exertion – in my easiest gear.  This seems like as good a time as any to include the route profile:

MSBH Undo Profile

13407023_10157572092430131_9110925869010679279_nWe stopped at the top of the hill for some flapjack, and bike seat adjustments, and were shortly joined by Katherine.  Then it was flying downhill, past Knockburn Loch, and creeping closer and closer to the AA box that marked the start of the big climb.

And then?  It was upon us.  The grunting started and the chatting stopped as we climbed our first steep section, only to lose all the height we’d just gained before the main climb.  Agreeing to meet at the top for a photo, we all settled into our own rhythm and got stuck in.  Ny made it to the top, with me and Katherine close behind, and Roz just slightly further back.  As if to acknowledge our mighty feat, Mother Nature split the clouds and we basked in sunlight and glory at  the summit of Cairn o’ Mount!

Unfortunately for our legs, this only marked the halfway point, distance-wise, of our cycle, so we began the white-knuckle descent, during which I maxed out at an eye-watering  43.4mph.  As a reward for our efforts, there was an aid station at the bottom, and we filled up on water and snacks before setting off again into an immediate incline that made our thighs question their ability to get us to the beer!

Thankfully the jelly legs were only temporary, and we soldiered on to the Undo turnoff, giving the marshal a little cheer as we began our homeward journey.  Though not exactly hilly in comparison to the first half, the second half was not flat, and we took it in turns drafting off each other as we were all starting to struggle.

I managed to get a second wind, however, when I realized we were on the (old) Stonehaven half marathon route, and I calculated that we only had about 6 miles left, and that they were predominantly downhill.  The second wind gained momentum when I saw female riders up ahead on the Slug Road descent, and I took an extended turn at the front, before Roz eventually took over on the home straight.

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Finish line selfie!

We crossed the line finishing in 7th, 8th, and 9th female, and Katherine was not long behind in 10th.  Not bad for a day’s work!  We parked up our bikes and got our goody bags, beer glasses, t-shirts, and beer token, then parking up at a table with our adult beverages and food van lunch.

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Our original plan was to stick about at the beer tent for a few hours and mingle before cycling back to the train station, but our free drink was pretty much our limit and we had to phone for very much appreciated pick-up assistance.

Overall, the weather was kind, and I’m glad I was talked into the shorter distance.  I was much faster on all the sections I covered than I was last year (and felt much stronger), and more importantly, I wasn’t alone this time, but surrounded by good friends.

Staffordshire Ironman 70.3

Following her amazing achievement at the Staffordshire half Ironman, Eilidh was invited bullied into sharing her experience, which I very much enjoyed living vicariously through.  It just goes to show how much can be achieved in a relatively short space of time with commitment, dedication, and hard work!

***

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12th August, 2015, I spent a lot of the day logging in and out, and in and out again of the Ironman website pondering whether or not to enter the Staffordshire 70.3 race.

Rewinding slightly, I had watched Triathlon at the Olympic and then the Commonwealth Games with no real knowledge of the sport but decided I wanted to give one a go.  I had dabbled in some running, kept generally fit but couldn’t swim (like really couldn’t swim – after a few near-miss drownings as a kid I just never learned so had a fear of water that I couldn’t touch the bottom of and generally steered clear of it), and didn’t own a bike.

I had joined the facebook page of Fleet Feet, the local triathlon club, but just watched from afar for months until I spotted a post about beginner’s bike skills. So off I trotted almost a year to the day of Staffordshire for what was my first outing on my new bike, yes I should probably confess it sat there for a few weeks with me being too scared to get on it.

A few weeks later, I’d been to a running track session and finally plucked up the courage to go along to the first swim session.  I had taken a few private 1-2-1 lessons, basically just to get over my fear of the water, the first of which consisted of me using a kickboard to get as far down the length as I could until I could no longer stand up, then turning and coming back.  By this point, I had signed up to the local Westhill Novice triathlon which included a swim of 400m, a 15k bike and a 3k run.  Easy, right?

Westhill was a disaster, I breast stroked after panicking in the water, got sent on the wrong route on the bike and basically walked the run because I was so disappointed.  This was the extent of my triathlon experience sitting staring at the screen pondering if I’d be able to do a half ironman distance in the 10 months that I had before race-day.

One thing I will say about Fleet Feet, the people there make you feel like you’re 10 feet tall.  Despite not being able to front-crawl more than a length, being one of the slowest people on the track runs (despite actually being a not too bad runner), and not having a clue about anything bike related, they were welcoming and made you feel like anything was possible.  So Fleet Feet: I blame you for making me click on the enter link.  A couple of $$ lighter and I’d entered a half-ironman.

Fully understanding the enormity of what I had just done, I quickly sought out a training coach, I knew myself well enough that if I downloaded a plan from the internet I would make every excuse under the sun not to do it, I’d bimble along until about April then make some sort of excuse and pull out of the race.  I have never really stuck at anything, I dabble in things until I get bored and then find something else to do. I’d quickly gotten to know fellow Fleet-Feeters quite well so armed with my training plan, and some training buddies I was off on my merry way to being a half ironman (not a full ironman).

In the run up to Christmas I started to get fitter on my bike, started to swim better after a video analysis pointing out the very obvious flaws in my stroke, and I had somehow found some real speed and endurance whilst running.  Rachel, Roz and Ny were my faithful weekend warriors, rain, hail or shine they were out with me on a Sunday morning pedalling through icy cold temperatures.  I had signed up to do a few races in the run up to Staffordshire as ‘training’ – 7 in total (Monikie Duathlon, consisting of a series of 3 Duathlons, Balmoral 10k, Baker Hughes 10k, Lumphanan 10k, Turriff Sprint Triathlon and Loch Loman Standard distance triathlon).  I was making steady progress, had a really good race at the first of the Monikie Duathlon series but had done something to my foot/ankle/calf which didn’t quite feel right.  Rachel has talked about my gimpy running in a few previous posts – my gammy foot/ankle/calf put paid to any of the fast running I was becoming accustomed to.  In fact it was pretty much the end of any form of run training for months to come.

Any race distance, 1500m to a marathon to an Iron Distance triathlon has such a focus on the physical aspect of training.  Put the hours and the miles in and you will see results, but no-one really talks too much about the mental aspect of training.  At least not that I saw a huge emphasis on.  This was by far the most challenging for me, training with buddies is good, but when they all start to get faster and fitter and you seem to be getting left behind it is very difficult to stay motivated to do training activities, everything starts to feel like a chore and the fun very quickly gets sapped out of it.  Rachel, Roz and Ny have pretty much listened to me moan, complain and whinge for 8 months about not being able to do anything, I’m getting slower, I can’t swim, my foot hurts, I’m putting on weight, I’m tired.  They deserve a medal for sticking with me in the run up to the race.  They have mopped tears after training and races, and encouraged me to keep going and basically man the f**k up consistently and regularly.

My run training had become such a hit or a miss that the 8 of my training races quickly became 1 DNF due to gammy foot, pulling out of 3 due to gammy foot, completing one but with a massive swollen gammy foot at the end and 1 near death experience (slight exaggeration) swimming in Loch Lomond in freezing temperatures finishing with a swollen foot.  So pretty much – not the easiest of rides in the run up.  Thankfully my swim and bike were making reasonably good progress.  I wasn’t fast in either but I was consistently seeing gains in the distance I could swim or bike without feeling like I’d been battered at the end or without having to stop several times.

Before I knew it, 10 months had flown by and it was race week – having pretty much felt like I would never be able to complete it I somehow sailed through the first few days of the week feeling great.  I was sleeping like a log, very much enjoying the lighter training load and feeling good about the weekend.  I’d taken Thursday and Friday off work to get organised and travel. Packed with a kit-list the army would be proud of, a sports massage to give me a boost and I was off.  Everything seemed to revolve around this weekend, I’ve missed social engagements, not seen nearly as much of friends and family as I should have done and I almost felt a little sad that it was going to be over soon.

My awesome chauffeur, travel companion, race manager and boyfriend was with me for the weekend.  Having raced longer distances more times than he’d care to admit – who better to keep me on the straight and narrow for a few days and calm my nerves on race day?  Travel plans, agendas, etc. had been joint decisions, but when it came to race prep it was pretty much all orders must be obeyed and I was to do as I was told.  Which for anyone who knows me, will find quite hilarious but I took on board the wisdom and set off excited and nervous.  I’d booked us a hotel in Gretna Green for the Thursday night to break up the journey, which I found highly amusing but also very conveniently across the road from a Nike Factory Outlet.  Friday morning, armed with some new sneakers and sports attire from the neighbouring outlet village, but with absolutely no shotgun wedding we made the second part of our journey towards Staffordshire.

At the start of this journey, I was presented with a water bottle and informed that I must fill it up at least 4 times for the day.  Yes sir.  Without knowing when I had signed up, only reading it afterwards, the race was a split transition meaning that Transition 1 (Swim to Bike) and Transition 2 (Bike to Run) were about 15 miles away from each other, so pretty much a logistical nightmare.  Our plan was to go to T2 on Friday, register, go to the race briefing, drop off my run bag in the T2 tent, have a wander round the expo and then not return seemed great.  Arriving in a monsoon and thunder storm quickly changed that however, having to shelter in the expo for around 40 minutes I made a run for the briefing tent and then found Alan making friends with the cake stall (good lad).  I was too flustered to think about my run bag and just wanted to get out of there, get checked into our hotel and sort out my transition bags without the stress of being rained on, struck by lightning and trying to hurry.

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Saturday had a similar theme, I had one final training session to do.  A very easy bike, with a 10 minute run to get my legs moving.  I was awake super early, was up and out of the hotel by 6.30am and back in time to have breakfast by 8am.  There were a few MAMIL’s outside the hotel on my return with very expensive looking TT bikes and pointy TT helmets, feeling sprightly I gave them a ‘MORNING’ and informed them that I had encountered quite a lot of standing water on my outing due to yesterday’s rain so to watch out, I was greeted with a cross between a snigger and a grunt and off they went on their bright shiny steeds.  Oh well then – miserable gits.

Again we had a well laid out plan for the day, go to T1, rack my bike and bike bag, scope out the swim course, head back to T2 to drop off my run bag (which in hindsight I admit was annoying), and then I was under strict instructions that I was to sit down, nap, watch a film, read a book whilst Sergeant Race Manager went out for a cycle.  Deciding that I maybe wanted to go for a walk, the threat of locking me in the room put an end to that so I did as I was told and did chuff all for the best part of 4 hours.  I napped a bit, watched a bit of Game of Thrones but eventually I was relieved of captivity and ready for my debrief of the cycle course which Alan had gone out and cycled.  The jist of it was: it’s rolling, a bit uppy in parts.  General wisdom and advice was take it easier on the ups, push on the downs and the flats.  I am somewhat of a bike wimp however, so pedaling and getting up to any sort of decent speed on downhill’s, especially on corners is a challenge.  If there is a rock, gravel, sand, pot hole, I slam on my brakes and go round them like cycling Miss Daisy or in the case of cattle grids at Loch Loman decide I’ll go over it, change my mind at the last minute and unclip both feet to then trundle over it at low speed praying that I don’t fall over.

We met Chris who was also doing the race, had a champion’s dinner, and I was tucked up in bed by 8.45pm.  Thanks to the 24 degree temperature, and the hotels AC being on the blink our hotel was like a sauna but I did manage to get a good few hours of quality sleep.

A 4.25am alarm call on the Sunday. Race day was finally here.  The hotel breakfast opened at 5am but due to feeling like I was going to puke, breaking out in a sweat at the mugginess and temperature in the hotel I forced down an instant porridge pot and then just moaned and complained until we got in the car and set off.  The car park was around a 15 minute walk to the swim start so we piled onto the courtesy bus (I wasn’t allowed to walk – needed to conserve vital energy sources).  My poor bike was soaked from the rain overnight, so I gave it a good rub down, lubed up the chain, put bottles and my nutrition for the bike on it, and then left to watch the pro swim start and get organised.  Chris was off in the wave before me so we wished him luck and waited until I was called forward for my start.  By this time, I had no chat – my chat is pretty bad at the best of times but even more so when I’m nervous.

I had hoped when I set out on this journey that I would be able to not just complete the distance but do it in a respectable time.  As the race got closer, and my hit or miss run training dragged on my calculations had me finishing somewhere between 6.45 and 7.00.  All being well, if I encountered any problems, I had every chance of taking that well into 7 hours +.  I had wanted to do the swim in around 45 minutes, my target bike was about 3.45 – 4 hours and the run was pretty much survival but I thought if I ran/walked I might be able to do a 2 hour half marathon.

The swim was a 1900m swim, straight line to the first buoy, a sharp left turn, a huge long straight line to a second buoy, and then some navigating round another 2 buoys to make up the total distance.  The swim was a rolling start, not deep water as is traditional in triathlon.  I thought this might work in my favour, as the deep water starts are nothing short of carnage and I tend to panic in the water anyway.  I need my own space and if anyone or anything touches me I freak out, and get angered fairly easily.

You were required to line up along a fence, which had pens based on your estimated swim time, 2.5 minute increments from 25 minutes up to 1 hour.  I put myself at the back of the 42.30 minutes, thinking that I’d be able to draft someone for a while and maybe get pulled along – what an idiot, I can’t swim even remotely close to people or objects so this was a ridiculous plan.  You were shimmied along a jetty to wait for the clock, once the hooter went the fastest swimmers entered the water, crossing a timing mat and that was it, the race had started.

As I gazed around waiting on the jetty, I realised I was the only female, everyone round me was male and pretty big.  Oh sh*t.  I was right to be worried, as I took my turn to ‘walk’ down the jetty the force of people around and behind me in the rush to get in the water was complete carnage.  I tried not to panic, kept my head down and just kept swimming.  This lasted for about 50m before I had to lift my head up and break out some granny breast stroking, the melee of splashing arms and legs meant that I was swallowing water every time I turned to breathe, if I panicked this early on I knew it was game over.  I could get round the distance breast stroking but it was a long old way to go, I likely wouldn’t have made the cut off and it would have sapped a huge amount of energy doing so.  I kept my granny breast stroking going until the first buoy, which was maybe 150-200m.  I needed to compose myself, not panic and throw away months of training.

After I passed the first buoy, I managed to settle my breathing and heart rate and get back into front crawling.  Bubble bubble breathe, bubble bubble sight breathe.  I was ok, I was moving forward and I was comfortable.  I had started to catch up with some people and overtake others.  Open water swimming is a nightmare I’m sure when you’re in a fast pack, but when you’re a weak swimmer and you’re at the back with people who alternate between front crawl, doggy paddle and breast stroking it can be tricky to steer clear of flailing arms and legs.  I got swam into a few times in quick succession by the same person, getting irate I lifted my head to shout at him to get out of my way, and put somewhat of a sprint on to get passed him and clear of his random diagonal swimming.  When I say sprint, I mean a few quicker turns of my arms to propel forward – my sprint swimming is only a few seconds per 100m faster than my endurance swimming.

I’d made the second buoy which you couldn’t even see from the swim start it was so far away in the distance.  The waves were 15 minutes apart, so I knew that at some point I’d be caught by the fastest swimmers of the wave behind me.  It was inevitable.  I managed to hold out for a quite a while, before I was engulfed by a spear head of Michael Phelps-esque swimmers from behind me.  Give them credit though, they parted like the holy sea and went round me without too much bother, so thank you black caps for not swimming over me – courteous swimmers.

There was a sharp right turn to get to the exit which I had scoped out the previous day, but I for some reason thought there would be some sort of arch or bright banner at the exit.  Nope it was a concrete ramp that you couldn’t see particularly well, but eventually I figured out which direction to go in, got to the ramp, found my feet and I was out.  1900m in 48.09 – slower than I had hoped but not by much.

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I tend to get a little motion sick swimming open water, so took a second to determine if my legs were alright and then ‘pranced’ up the carpet towards transition.  I stopped to take a call on route (I dropped an ear plug).  Having raced a few weekends ago at Knockburn I watched a lot of the fast people in transition, and noticed that the trick seemed to be cap and goggles off in one swoop, pull arm of wetsuit off and leave cap and goggles inside, pull wetsuit to waist, do a stampy stampy dance to get the legs off and Bob’s yer uncle!  My wetsuit stripping consisted of cap and goggles off – check.  Pull opposite arm that I’m holding my cap in off – fail.  Pull the other arm out, get it stuck on your watch, drop cap and goggles, try to pick up with one free arm and one stuck in wetsuit, keep running with one arm attached for a while, decide you can’t do it like the pros, walk for a while to rectify arm situation, sit down, roll around on the ground to remove rest of wetsuit, realise you’ve lost ear plugs somewhere on the way.  Wetsuit removal – fail. [Haaaaaaaaaaaaa!!]

Ironman events give you a colour coded bag for your bits and pieces so you have to find your bag on a rack, and then put everything back inside and drop it back off at the exit of the change tent.  Cycle kit on and time for some more prancing to find my bike, my point of reference was the first red skip.  Lovely. There was a bit of congestion at the exit to bike racking but some nice gentlemen held back and let me through first.  Cue my awesome bike mounting skills and I was off.  Garmin on, timer set.

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The first km or so on the bike was to get out of the park, along the dam wall and over some speed bumps.  Here we go: pedal, brake, pedal, brake, oh gravel, brake, pot hole, brake.  Once I got out onto the open road, I took my time to get into a rhythm, ate a power bar, and set on my merry way.  Alan had warned me on his recce that there were some hills and a bit of gravel on the first part of the course, old English houses with giant hedges on either side meant that it was difficult to see round corners, an uneven road surface and steep down hills meant I was in trouble for the first section.

I had set my garmin up so that I had the course elevation on the screen, and my heart rate on my watch, plus a time alert every half an hour to eat.  It was hot, and I drink a lot generally so I was very strict about when I needed to finish a bottle to swap it at the aid stations.  I knew once I had passed this relatively horrid section and joined the main road, it was fast and flat for a while and I could afford to push quite hard until the next steepish hills.  I had Alan’s voice in my head, easy on the ups and push on the downs and flats.

In the run up to the race, coach Ken had me doing the most vile intervals where you pushed until you puked for about an hour and then rode easy for a second hour.  I am quite lucky that my heart rate recovers relatively quickly so I knew I could push pretty hard initially and take it easy later on before pushing again to the finish.  I kept my eye on the elevation graph and the time alerts, but managed to spill more of my first scheduled gel over myself and my hands than I did in my mouth so was clarted in sticky energy gel, snot and sweat as the first hour ticked by.

I was very clear with myself before the race that I was not going to look at the speed or distance I had gone.  I knew the aid stations were approximately 12 miles apart so decided that was how I was going to gauge where I was, or how far I had to go.  When my time alert went off at 1 hour, the screen on my watch changes as well as vibrates when the alert happens, I glanced down and it said 34km. I thought I had looked at it wrong, it must have said 24km.  Curiosity got the better of me and I eventually looked a little while after that and was right – it had said 34km and I quickly realised that at 1.5 hours I was pretty much half way through the bike course.  Where the f*ck had that come from? I can pedal away but I am not fast on my bike, I had been over taking people but mostly on uphill’s, they would catch me again on the downs and people were consistently pushing then easing up to eat or drink so I just figured it was the nature of the race/distance.

This gave me a massive boost of adrenaline and I decided to keep pushing, I felt amazing, my legs felt good, I wasn’t tired so hunkered down and pedaled and pedaled.  My plan had been to take it easy on the ups but to hell with that, I was flying by my standards, so decided to push harder on the hills.  Men don’t like it when they realise they are being passed by a female, they speed up and pedal faster.  Even more so when they are on a flashy TT bike with a pointy hat and dick [not a typo, I changed it] wheels. ‘Oh hi there, I like your disc wheel, yes I’m a girl on a road bike, overtaking you.’ My run was going to be vile regardless so I may as well enjoy this part.

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People had warned me that when you started to race longer distances you inevitably hit a low.  About 2 hours in after I’d had my fun overtaking people the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed it down.  Oh bugger, it was all going so well until now.  Thankfully it was still pretty warm so the rain didn’t cool you down too much, but it did make my cornering and descending somewhat slower than it had been the previous hour.  I tried not to panic as I passed several people who had obviously been a bit gung-ho in the wet conditions and had come off their bike.  First aiders were out in force and road rash a plenty.  I was slightly worried by the design of my tri shorts that I’d be a bit exposed as I bent over on the bike, displaying a slightly sheer ‘breathable’ panel across the bum, I had nothing to worry about as I passed a victim of road rash who had completely ripped his shorts and was limping round the course with an entire bum cheek of material missing, and a gash on the exposed flesh!

The last out and back loop of the bike had a fairly hefty hill on it, which had people barrelling down the other side of the road.  Oh brilliant – a fast descent in the wet – my favourite.

The spectators on the course were brilliant, I suppose when you’re told you’re confined to your house for the best part of the day so Ironman can close the road what better to do than have a party, and get drunk on your front lawn.  Which is what most people did.  The final climb was pretty relentless, it was long and steep but about half way up there was a little old couple sitting at the end of their drive way shouting ‘Welcome to the Birches Valley – we’re John and Mabel and we welcome you to the Birches Valley’.

I had been playing cat and mouse with a guy in a University of Dublin trisuit for most of the last 20 or so miles, I’d overtake him on the hills, he’d get me on the downs.  He’d overtake me then pull in hard in front of me, so once I was passed the final aid station I decided I was fed up of the back and forth so went full gas on the flat to get past him.  I was coming to the end of the steep down from the loop and I hadn’t seen him again so thought I must have lost him, but just as I turned back in towards Shugburough estate the bugger went flying past me, splashed through a massive puddle and completely soaked me! So my arrival back into T2 I was clarted in mud!

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Even though I said I wouldn’t, after I’d looked at the time and distance in the first half, I kept a close eye on the time the whole way back in.  I had slowed slightly but was pretty consistent.  I passed Alan at the mount line wearing a fetching rain poncho, with a bike time of 3.21.17, total race time of 4.15.39.  Well within my target time.

The run was the bit I was most scared about, I had swim anxiety but the run was where it could all fall apart.  I had run maybe 30 miles in the run up to the race, I had only managed to get up to 9 miles in one training session and I had no idea if my gammy leg was going to hold out.  I had tucked away some paracetemol in my bike bag to take before the run in the hope that it might give me a fighting chance of getting round.  Trying to pop tablets out whilst on your bike ends in them crumbling, and you having white powder stuck to the energy gel which is caked on your face.

I spent a little bit of time in T2, squirting water down my legs and arms to get rid of some of the mud, changing into dry socks, giving my nose a good blow and composing myself for the trauma that was to come.  The run was a three loop half marathon, with a hill in the middle of each lap.  I knew that there was an aid station around about every 1.5 miles so my strategy was to walk the aid stations but run as much as I could in-between.

I hit the first round of the hill and was already struggling, only about 1 mile into 13 long miles.  The aid station was at the top and I was bursting for a pee after a failed attempt to go on my bike.  There is nothing dignified about triathlon, but people very openly talk about peeing on their bike whilst in a race.  I took the rain as perfect opportunity, closed my water bottles in anticipation, but got stage fright and couldn’t go.  So there I stood waiting for a free portaloo, with my gammy foot throbbing, wondering how on earth I was going to get round 3 laps.

It felt like I spent forever in that first aid station.  I had a few cups of water, took a gel, stretched out my legs, calves and feet and gave myself a talking to, and about 2 minutes later I was off.  There was a good fast downhill from there through a village where you passed a pub which was hoaching with drunk people cheering you on in the street.  I continued to run (pretty slow but it was running) high-fiving kids in the street.  I didn’t manage to stick to my aid stations walking, I had to take a few walk breaks in between, but I was limiting myself to only walking for a minute at a time and then running again.  First lap down, I ran passed Alan in the same spot, still sporting his fetching rain poncho.

When you ran through this area, you also got the smell of the bbq in the finishers tent wafting across the run route but it was lined with spectators and I refused to be seen walking in an area that was filled with people! The rain had meant it was muddy, I tentatively stepped around puddles for the first mile or so but after a while I was trundling through puddles and mud so was filthy.

The laps were good because you could pick off milestones: the hill, the pub with the music, lap band station, where Alan was standing.   My second time round, I ran towards him and he was looking down at his phone so I very jokingly shouted ‘PAY ATTENTION’ as I went through which came out as a high pitched shrill shriek to which he looked thoroughly scalded, and the guys around him burst out laughing.  He blamed the girls however, texting him constantly asking for updates! [Guilty]

I’d made it to the third lap but about halfway through I really started to tire; there was more frequent walking and comically an older man caught up to me and said ‘I’ve been chasing you for miles, every time I catch up to you, you start running again,’ which made me laugh.  I had to walk for a fair bit after mile 11 so he sailed passed me, but when I caught him again at the mile 12 marker he gave me a pat on the back and laughed.  When I passed the marker at mile 12, I sneaked a glance at my overall race time.  It was 6.20 by my watch, so if I could do the last mile in less than 10 minutes I would beat my 6.30 goal, this gave me a massive boost and I somehow found enough energy to pick up my pace.  I got my last lap band and turned towards the estate where the route funnelled towards the finish line.  I passed Alan and Chris (who had since finished the race) and barrelled round the corner like a woman possessed.

Much to my dismay I hit the finish chute at the same time as some twit who went down it impersonating a jumbo-jet.  Get the hell out of my way you idiot I want my 10 seconds of fame!  I couldn’t get past his weaving so crossed right behind him which meant the boys couldn’t actually see me finish!  I have no idea where that last mile of speed came from as I crossed the line, I was empty.  My legs were like jelly, I wasn’t sure I was going to puke, faint or cry but I’d bloody done it. Run time of 2.10.14.  I stupidly forgot to stop my watch as I crossed the line, it wasn’t until I’d made a quick trip through the finisher’s tent to join the queue for my t-shirt that I looked down and it was still going so I had no clue if my final sprint had made the difference.  As it turned out, my swim was about a minute slower on my official times than on my watch, the starter timing mat was further back on the jetty whereas I had started the timer once I hit the water, so I was never going to make it in less than 6.30!

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My overall race time was 6.31.08.  Not too shabby for someone who bought a bike, learned to swim and had an injury in the space of just over a year.  In the triathlon community, forums you read, Facebook posts and all there is a certain amount of credibility around longer distance racing.  ‘Oh you only did a HALF ironman’ and ‘what was your time’.  I was concerned by the numbers, I had a target in my head and I thought I would have been disappointed to miss that.  It’s easy to say now that I was well within that target, but I can honestly say on reflection, if I had crossed the line in 5 hours or 8 hours I would feel the same elation as I do now.  I needed a challenge in life, something to set my mind to and every hour of training, sweat and tears was worth it to feel the sense of achievement and accomplishment that I do now.

When training was going badly, when I finished every training race feeling disappointed and deflated, when I was knackered, cold, wet and having to cycle for 3 hours so the training peaks box didn’t go red  – I hated it.  I’m not going to lie about that, but it was all worth it.  I have realised that the challenge was not in the numbers, it was in setting my mind and body to do something that I had not done before, and wasn’t sure if I was capable of doing.  The challenge should not be determined by how it stacks up against other things/events/races, it should be determined based on the individual and the time, effort and road traveled to achieve it. No matter how big or small, a challenge is personal and it may not be challenging to another but it is important to you.

Aberdeen Wheelers 10 mile Time Trial

Though not technically an official event, I feel that the suffering experienced during my first bike TT warranted a short post.  Surely something that leaves you feeling, as Roz delicately puts it, unsure of whether you wanted to, “shit, puke, or orgasm at the end” is worthy of a mention.

The Aberdeen Wheelers host a range of different events, time trials being just one.  They range in length and in elevation, so I was more than happy to choose a flat, short circuit for my TT debut.  Roz and Ny had both done it before, and the idea of just gunning it for half an hour appealed.  Both of them were hoping to dip under 30 minutes for the first time, and my aim, essentially, was to avoid embarrassing myself.

Ny picked me up and we drove out to Drumoak, where Roz was waiting, nice and early.  We parked up, then cycled back to the layby to give our names, get numbers pinned on, and chat to the guys who were already there before a quick warm-up to Drum castle car park and back.

As the start time grew nearer, my nerves started to show, but a very enthusiastic offer to assist me with push-off distracted me in my final moments of rest.

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As soon as I heard go, I was off (to a ripple of cheers from everyone else).  Within seconds I was rapist-breathing, and immediately regretted leaving my water in the car.  Oh well, half an hour or so to go!

Going first, I had nobody to chase, but thankfully Ny had pointed out the route at the weekend so I had a rough idea of where I was going (and it was clearly sign-posted).  Even this did not calm my nerves after the turnoff, and second left turn onto the road back as I was fully expecting to be overtaken by the faster riders.  I was starting to wonder if I’d somehow gone wrong, and I was thrashing myself to go as fast as I could in the wrong direction.

Just as I was about to start checking behind me for signs of life, however, the first of two riders to overtake me came flying past on my right, and I put my head down and pushed on into a headwind until I saw the sign up ahead that signaled the end was nigh!  I picked it up a bit (at least I did in my mind) and crossed the finish line thoroughly spent, pedaling slowly to a point where I could turn around and head back to the drive for a seat on the ground.

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Working so hard even the camera is sweating.

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I’d say I was working reasonably hard

Once all of the riders had finished, the two organisers walked up with the results.  With an average speed of 19.6mph (and an average HR of 182bpm), I’d managed to finish my first 10 mile TT in 30:33, behind Roz, who frustratingly crossed the line in 30:11, and Ny, who totally won in a time of 29:49, which likely explains the smile on her face:

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Me, Ny, Roz – TT professionals