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 both my desire for acceptance and my need to 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; 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.