Being a Newbie – here’s how it seemed to me

It all started when I gave up smoking in about 2000, though I didn’t realise it then.
A bit of keep-fit here, a little running there (never before) and a few trips to the pool developed into quite a lot of keep fit, a bit too much running, and therefore some biking, and some swimming. Then I spotted a triathlon on the telly and thought “I do those things, let’s see if I can put them together”. My good friend Ian seemed to be of similar mind, so it began.

Herewith my first few events, reported for my then running club Thanet Roadrunners. I’ll return there when the old injury, caused by running too far, too soon gives me some confidence back.

Event 1
A Visit to the Dark Side – Leatherhead Indoor Super-sprint Triathlon, 16 Jan 2011

Well it was dark when I set off for Leatherhead, 75 miles away and I’m not so used to that, being a night-owl type. I hadn’t slept all night either. Pre-race nerves (fear) I suppose because it was my first Triathlon. I’d been to Whitstable gym/pool in the preceding week for a couple of simulations and to set some benchmark times.

After an extra coffee on the way, to help me join the wide-awake club, I arrived at the modern Leatherhead Leisure centre with time to spare. I registered in the ‘Club Room’ and with race number indelibly marked on the back of my hand, was sent to ‘dry changing’. Wet changing would have made more sense later on but no matter. Of the 36 entrants registered, 33 arrived on the day, with 10 ladies and 23 gents.

At 9:01 the first competitor started on her reserved treadmill, followed at 1-minute intervals by the other seven in the first ‘wave’ of eight. Mike, the race director and organiser gave a count-down and a member of staff set each machine going in turn. Fifteen minutes later, they began transitioning (surely that’s not a word except in America) to the static bikes reserved for the event. Being an indoor tri, the phases were reversed, so that vast amounts of water are not trailed from the pool into the gym and its electrical equipment. It was supposed to be 3k run, 10k bike and 200m swim but the very fancy, modern gym equipment would not do a programmed distance. Instead, we all ran for 15 minutes and biked for 25 minutes, with distances recorded, before a proper, timed swim with a real stopwatch, operated by a human being. Fair enough though, an indoor race in a gym with 33 competitors is not likely to be easy.

After the first wave of athletes were installed on their static bikes, wave two, including me in a posh tri-suit, were gradually introduced to the treadmills, with copious staff helping, directing, instructing and cleaning the equipment between users. They were very efficient. My run was conducted with panoramic views of the park, at around 13kph, with a small tail-off toward the end. Don’t ask me why, it just seemed like a good idea. A fixed, one-minute transition – ‘T1’ – consisting of an eight-foot wobble to the static bike and an assisted adjustment to the saddle height preceded a count-down to the bike start.

The bike was similarly posh and shiny but showed neither speed nor watts of effort, so I pedalled the thing at my usual 90-95 rpm and adjusted the ‘level’ until it felt like something I’m used to. A deliberate tail-off in the last minute made sense this time, as I’d suffered oxygen debt during the swim phase of my last (of two) simulations which had made that swim less than fun. I need not have worried because the fixed, two-minute ‘T2’ consisting of wandering downstairs, parking the bottle and trainers and waiting for the start was a reasonable rest before the swim. The swim was still hard though, being my worst discipline, humble breast-stroker that I am. Eight lengths of the pool and one chap passing me later, it was all over bar the panting.

After a few minutes gathering breath, sea-legs and trainers, a further minute was spent leaving the pool area and wandering around the corridors, dripping and getting a few odd looks, searching for ‘dry changing’. It’s normal for wet people to change in ‘wet changing’ within the pool area. I wasn’t alone though and no-one was arrested for making the floor wet without a sign to say so. After changing and an extended coffee, it was back to the club room for results.

As explained above, run and bike were fixed time but converting the distances covered to average speeds, a time can be calculated in which the required 3k and 10k would have been completed. As I said, my poorest discipline is the swim, where I came 25th overall, 18th bloke, in 4:28. I expected the run to be my best effort, where I came in at 13:53, 18th overall, 14th bloke. I need to do some work there. The real surprise was finishing 7th on the bike (6th bloke) in 17:21, only 6.5 seconds behind the event winner. Fastest male bike, David Freeman was 42 seconds ahead of me but fastest of the day was the winning lady, 42 seconds ahead of him – outstanding.

So I’m very pleased to report an improvement on my training times in all three disciplines and, ignoring transitions because they were the same for everyone, a total calculated time of 35:43, 13th overall, 11th male, 1st (and only) male super-vet. Winning lady, Stephanie Robson (of Full-On-Tri) would have been home in 32:01 and winning man, David Freeman (Pirate Ship of Fools) in 31:25. My target was to be inside 40 minutes. Job done. The dark side was tested and found wanting. The Force was with me. Thanks to Mike of and Mrs Velocity and the team at Leatherhead. A good morning out and I’ll do it again but next time I won’t expect to be last.

This may be the first UK indoor triathlon with the three usual disciplines and is an excellent entry into the sport. You may find it fits into your comfort-zone where a more normal event may not, for a first outing. There is talk of another next year. Give it a tri [sic].

I am a triathlete. I never thought I’d say that.

Event 2 – East Leake sprint tri, near Loughborough

I got up at 5 (a.k.a. 4am GMT as the clocks went forward this very night), having gone to bed too late at the bro- & sis-in-law’s in Stratford on Avon and then woken up far too early at least twice. After an hour’s drive and a mad dash on foot around the motorway services for a watch battery, arrived at East Leake Leisure Centre just after 7am and noted the temperature at 4 degrees C. Sharp intake of breath. What do you wear on a bike at 4 degrees or anything like it when you’re wringing wet?? No idea.

I attended the race briefing at 7:30 along with perhaps 50 mostly-first-timers out of the expected field of 400 lunatics; collected my numbers and timing chip; racked the bike, helmet, shoes, fingerless gel-insert cycle gloves and a running jacket, and then faffed around with the race numbers and everything for a while. I had a good look round at the entrances and exits which I would need to find and then went to change into the tri-suit for the swim start.

A short wait and stretch on poolside, then countdown… GO. The lanes were a bit narrow, especially for a breast-stroker like me (and many others) and I was in lane 1 next to the wall, which didn’t help. With starts every 3 minutes but some no-shows, there were 2 other swimmers in my lane throughout and passing them was a bit of a squeeze but didn’t seem to affect my time too much. As the third following batch of swimmers started, 9 minutes after me, I had just one 25-metre length to do which seemed about right, then out of the pool and outside, dripping wet, into the now 6 degrees of Leicestershire morning air for a 150m barefoot run to transition one or T1 as we triathletes (!) call it.

Entering/exiting transition triggers the chip timing. I clocked up 10:57 for the swim including that 150 metre run, longer than I expected by a good 30 to 45 seconds. Time spent struggling, wet, into trainers and jacket plus bike helmet etc is recorded on exit from T1 and totalled another 2:49. Room for improvement there with some practice, and warmer weather means I won’t need a jacket next time.

The bike leg went quite well. They advertised it variously as 20km or 23km but my bike clocked it as 13.0 miles or 21km. I’d mugged up on the route using Google Street View so there weren’t too many surprises although it was slightly more hilly than I expected but not bad. Up to this point, I’d achieved a total of about 35 miles on my new race bike – my first road/racing bike of any kind – and 20 of those were on Fowlmead track. So racing on open and rather rough roads among real traffic, still trying to get a feel for the bike, wobbling as I change from brake-hood position, to drops, to tri-bars and back and trying to remember which way the gears go was a bit scary. It’s improving. Leaning down on the tri-bars helps the aero performance for sure but it certainly has neck-ache potential too.

Toward the end of the bike section, a last drink before the 5k run seemed a good idea but I failed to get the bottle back in the holder and it’s now an item of memorabilia, lurking in a ditch in Leicestershire.

I don’t have real bike shoes, with cleats – nor do I want my feet attached to the bike yet anyway, that’s far too scary for the moment. So I’m biking in the running shoes and of course my feet were wet; and socks would have taken yet more time to put on. My feet are therefore freezing and partly numb in the prevailing 6 degrees minus whatever wind-chill factor there is at 20 mph.

Approaching T2, getting off the bike just before the ‘dismount’ line (potential for disqualification if you miss it) the feet hit the ground with bike and body still moving forward. This is the very last thing with which the legs want to cooperate. It is so difficult and frankly painful making the legs run after miles of hard biking in the ‘tuck’ position. Add to this the blocks of ice on the ends of them which almost don’t care what’s going on as long as they don’t have to get involved. Somehow I made it to my rack position at more than walking pace, hooked the saddle at my spot on the a-frame bar, turned the number belt to face front, dumped the helmet, jacket and gloves, stretched the legs and bum a bit and set off for the 5k run. It sounds quick but it took me 88 seconds from entry to exit – more potential for improvement then.

The run is 3 laps of a 1.66km loop, beginning with a long hill. This is not what ‘bike legs’ want, and the first ascent was accompanied with sounds of ‘Oogh’ and ‘Arghh’. This pain, anguish and audio accompaniment abated after some hundreds of metres and the rest of the 5k was just hard as expected, with cinema-quality heavy breathing and wheezing. The final lap allows a detour to the finish line and an announcement by an enthusiastic commentator to the few dozen spectators who haven’t popped indoors for another warming coffee. Job done.

There’s room for improvement at every stage. I can easily imagine saving a minute in each phase, including transitions, so that should be 5 minutes better if I work at it. The swim time is ok for breast-stroke but I’m working on front crawl already. T1 will be much faster without the jacket to deal with but then it will be faster for many others too. The bike will improve with practice, though I passed several people and very few passed me. T2 will be just a matter of dumping the bike and helmet and getting used to running right off the bat. And the run can get better yet. Strangely, the 5k run this weekend at 25:28 was only 11 seconds slower than my Whitstable Parkrun PB of the previous weekend, despite the swim and bike before it. I’m amazed.

So in summary, I’d wanted to get inside 1 hour 30 minutes and expected to have to work hard to achieve it. I worked hard for sure but the final time of 1:25:24 is very pleasing for a first-timer at this distance, especially an MSV, a male super-vet. I quite like that title.

Overall, I was only 16th out of 20 in my gender/age group (50-59) which is unremarkable but pleasing enough for a first attempt. RAF Wattisham Sprint Tri next, in May. Bring it on.

I placed 213 out of 253 overall in the bloke section but I can do better. In all, 340 competed out of 400 entrants. Some may have baulked at the temperature but injury is often what affects race turnout, as readers of this esteemed periodical will be well aware.

Event 3 – Cranbrook sprint tri, 5 June 2011

400m swim, 21.5k bike, 5k run

Just 2 weeks after my last outing, I find myself crossing to the not-so-dark side again, this time at the Angley Leisure Centre in Cranbrook. Up at 4am for this one, though I could probably leave it half, maybe an hour once I get confident with the process and all the stuff needed. Actually, the seasoned athletes seem to take very little. Some of them turn up (and leave) in the tri-suit plus flip-flops and a tee shirt. That seemed brave this morning as it was about 12 degrees at 6am when registration opened and quite windy.

Most of us missed our coffee fix because the cafe bloke failed to arrive until about 7:50 and then ran out of nearly everything except coffee soon after that. By the time he arrived, I was changing into my super-hero suit, ready to get my electronic tag and queue for the pool start. I was scheduled for 8:10am.

Once the preceding swimmer cleared the first lane, the starter punched my number into his palm-top computer, counted me down and I was off. As before, up and down each lane, duck under and do it again, this time eight lanes. A following competitor had obviously given a generous swim time because he was significantly faster than me and we crossed paths several times. Pest. 9min 43sec including walk along the pool to T1. 1:03 in T1.

I passed just two people on the bike course, one less than the number of dead animals, sadly including a badger. A pleasantly scenic, gently rolling route, barring one notable hill which took me all the way down the gears for half a minute or so. A couple of scary corners to negotiate but all excellently marshalled. Back to transition in 45:44. Rack the bike, hat off, race number to the front and off we go. 0:41 in T2.

The start of the run was hard, as usual. It takes me a kilometre or so to get my legs back, longer for the lungs. Shouldn’t complain, I used to smoke – 60 a day for a while – the most stupid thing I ever did. This time, the run was off-road in Angley Woods, allegedly not flat but not hilly. Hmm, ok. My legs and wheezing equipment beg to differ. It took me most of the run to pull myself together and I dropped to a walk four times. That’s a first for me in a race, except for the old knee injury. More practice required then. 26:47 for the run.

Total time 1:24:00 which is not an improvement, though comparison is difficult with different courses. I’m pleased enough with it. Today’s 20k bike course was around 21.5k for example. I was 101st swimmer, 59th biker, 105th runner. Best performance was the bike leg again then. That must be partly due to the tri-bars keeping my wind resistance down. Recommended accessory. Clips or cleats on the pedals next, enabling pulling of the pedals on the up-stroke.

Another good event, thanks to Mike of Velocity Events and his team, and to Stu Web for the timing, also to the BTF referee, bike ref, marshals, medics and the leisure centre staff. Canterbury is next on July 3. Bring it on. Come and watch, or sign on – there are still places left.


And finally – Diary of a Triaholic

My name is Jerry and I’m a triaholic

June training. Since Cranbrook sprint tri in early June, I’ve been trying hard to sort out my front crawl. It needs work because it’s no faster than my breast-stroke and because my legs are still doing the froggy thing. It must be bizarre to watch. I tried doing just the crawl leg drills using a float but I actually went backwards. Enough of that – someone might be watching! In fairness, I’ve done 40 years or so of breast stroke and just a few weeks of attempted crawl. Lots more work required. I can manage 2 or 3 lengths of crawl at a time, then a minute or more of huffing and puffing. This is supposed to be easier, better, faster. Lots more work required.

Velocity Events free sprint tri at Action Watersports, Lydd, June 22.
The swim takes place in the lake and a wet-suit is compulsory. Well I decided some time ago that I’m not doing breast-stroke in a wet suit. It’s just not right, to my way of thinking. So I chose to do just the bike and run section. I said “just”. It was a very windy evening – they have them down there – and all of it was blowing from Camber to Lydd at exactly the same time as I was going in the other direction. Jeez what a hard pedal that was! Coming back was reasonably ok but the legs were used up and I failed to make much advantage of the tail wind on the way back. I did get my head down though and very very extremely nearly rode straight into the back of a parked car. I won’t be doing that again! The run was a laboured plod. It began with difficulty and continued much the same until the end. I think it’s time to consider using a gel on the bike.

June training continues with more lunchtime sessions at the pool but without much improvement. My typical week also contains 2 or 3 step classes, 1 or 2 body pump classes, a fairly hard indoor circuit session, a Monday Roadrunners 5 miles plus and hopefully another 10k run. Must do more on the bike.

Canterbury sprint tri, July 3, Kingsmead leisure centre.
I live quite close to this one so I had already done a trial run of the event, 2 weeks earlier, following my usual body-pump and step classes on a Sunday. The 400m (breast-stroke) swim was ok and unusually only 12 lengths of this 33m pool, so just 6 nice wide lanes for a change. We swim up and down each lane, then duck under the rope and repeat. The 20k bike course is a bit less friendly, with several hills including the one to Broad Oak which is an actual Cat5 ‘rated’ climb. I overtook just a few people, and a few overtook me. My race-number belt fell off on Calcot Hill and almost became knotted in the wheel and chain but I rescued it in the nick of time. Out on the 5k run course with slightly fried legs after the bike hills, very wobbly to start with but improved a bit with the run route being pancake flat. Not much energy left though and a degree of plodding going on. Finished in 81:16, 107th out of 172 and was delighted to find my eldest boy Matt and his delightful fiancée Harriet handing out water, medals and Jaffa cakes at the finish line. Excellent. I also picked up a trophy and a bottle of Chateau Sans-jambes (kidding!) for being first of 4 in my age/gender group (fairly old farts). Result!

July Training continues and the swimming takes a few steps forward. I’m now stringing a few lengths together with a shorter break followed by another few. Soon, it’s several sets of 100m and after a couple of weeks I’m up to a few hundred metres between breaks. It’s not easy, it’s not pretty and it’s still not faster but it’s coming along. Running has taken a hit with reduced mileage but that might help the old knee injury so I’m not too upset. I should be out on the bike more but I’ve yet to make a habit of that.

Medway sprint tri, the Hundred of Hoo, July 31
This time, I’m doing front crawl. It’s just as well because this is the narrowest pool yet but I’m pleased to report no collisions. Some hills on the bike course but only one biggie, which was long, rather than steep, so I just settled in and churned away at the pedals. Starting the run is always the hardest part so that was no surprise but energy was a bit short after the long hill. Maybe a gel would have helped. About a mile down the road, I turned the corner and there was a hill – quite a long hill. Ugh! I stuck at it for quite a while but eventually dropped to a ‘power walk’ for 20 yards or so. Come on then, dig in. I turned a small kink in the road to reveal more of the same. Another power walk required. There must have been a mile of this blasted hill but of course it did end and I did reach the finish, knackered, in 84:49. Matt and Harriet were there again, and my wife, Ro, this time too. Later, my lovely wife treated us to a coffee and cake – and a three hour hike round Ikea. Ikea at least has very few hills. And cake.

August training continues with the same format of classes, running and swimming. The latter improving by distance but not speed. I hit my first kilometre, which soon becomes repeatable, though not in the same session. Of course, decent pool time is hard to get with all the over-50s (hey that’s me) chatting, floating and keeping their hair dry in the morning ‘adult lane’ sessions, and all the kids on holiday swimming across, under or hanging about at the ends of the lane during the lunchlane sessions. Evenings are better but there are few adult evening sessions. On Tuesday 9th, I went to Action Watersports, where they allow a swim session in their otherwise jetski-friendly lake. This is my first time in a wet-suit, which is compulsory in the lake for some reason, so it felt a bit odd from the start. The suit gives a little extra buoyancy and I managed a whole 1k lap in a fairly slow 28 minutes. That’s not too bad, I suppose and I didn’t catch Dengemarsh fever either. Must get out on the bike more.

Velocity Events’ Midweek Tri, Action Watersports, Lydd, August 17.
Good old Mike threw this one in by popular request, with a 6:30pm start. Challenging to get to after work, so I took time off and got some other stuff done too. While getting changed on lake-side, the heavens opened and a few competitors left, not fancying their chances on the bike in what had become pretty foul and gloomy weather. A vote was taken as to whether to leave out the bike leg altogether but it fell in favour of the full event. The weather cleared a little and we got it all done safely enough. My time sounds poor at 91:26 but it’s a bit over distance, certainly a 500m swim and 14 mile bike, so I’m not unhappy. Finished 18th out of 21. Good enough – most of the others looked pretty fit and keen and a few seemed to live permanently for/in the sport.

The holiday. Training was almost stopped for our camping holiday in Cornwall but we both got out for a run and a bike ride and I took in a beach-based boot camp session. Strewth! Running barefoot in the soft stuff for a warm-up soon made both Achilles sore from the outset. He made us jump for a minute in and out of a two-foot hole which had been left by some evil kid. On a bleep-test course in the soft sand, we ran it, bear-crawled it, commando-crawled it, crab-crawled it, he put weighted harnesses on us and had people dragging us back with ropes. We did that twice, just for fun! On the wetter, flatter, tidal bit of the beach, we did 10, 9, 8,… reps of burpees, spotty dogs and star jumps, and then we ran knee-deep in the sea to finish us off completely. The last to complete each event had to do burpees, sit-ups or planks for a minute as well. Happily, I was only last once. In fact I did rather well, despite the others all being about half my age. The best performer was probably the only girlie, in her late twenties at a guess. A good session and probably one of the hardest I’ve ever done.

Tunbridge Wells sprint tri, guess where, August 28.
The usual silly-o’clock start sees me driving to the event, in no hurry at all, checking the sat-nav, and obviously not spotting the 30 speed limit. The blink-blink of a GATSO speed camera in the mirrors brings the error to my attention. Rats! Nothing in the post yet though – I might be lucky for a third time. Quite narrow lanes in the pool again and this time I exchanged a few thumps and minor kicks with one or two people but nothing serious. A long jog to transition, hopping over a low wall on the way. Pushing the bike uphill to get off the site should have given a clue about what was to follow. The course description: “… a double-climb presents a real challenge!” might have given it away too. Before that feature, a couple of hard turns, marked (mercifully) by flag-waving marshals, following speedy downhill sections also provided a challenge, where I saw several people walking. I supposed they had thrown their bikes at the scenery and retired hurt. I only just avoided that fate, with both wheels skidding at the same time on the second turn. Then there were the hills. OMG, as they say, some serious pedal work in the lowest gear with rasping windpipe got me up two of them but a third was just too much. It was a long, hard-enough hill, leading straight into a steeper ‘challenge’. It was too much – I had to walk. I think the lady behind me fell off. Killer geography! Back to transition, pause for breath and out on the run course. It was supposed to be off-road but 36 hours earlier, Mike had been told he couldn’t use the field because it had been wet and we would churn it up too much. Derr! He managed to pull a 2-lap street course out of the bag in the nick of time. This was 50% due up and 50% due down and not very fried-leg-friendly for your humble scribe who returned an overall time of 96:50. It was a longer race than usual but half of the extra time was lost on “that” bike hill.

September training. So that’s about it – almost the end of the tri season. Training continues with a need to up the speed and distance in all disciplines, not least because I intend to race my first Olympic distance on the 25th of this month – Velocity Events’ Windfarmer – and I have yet to swim 1500 metres in one go, let alone in a lake and a wet-suit. Gulp! Wish me luck. Must get out on the bike more.

Jerry from the dark side.

So there it is. If you think you can’t, you probably can’t. But imagine that you can or that anything is possible, and you’ll probably succeed. I’m a very average bloke, of more than average age but I’ve now done about 30 events since that first one, 3 and a bit years ago and loved every one. If you’ve got body image issues, you needn’t, we’ve all got one. They come in two flavours and several sizes and triathlon training is one of the better ways of getting an upgrade. If you’re afraid of coming last, don’t be, most of us have been there and actually the last finishers get about as much applause – and respect – as the first finishers. You might say to yourself “Never again” but within a day, you’ll be looking for your next event. All are welcome at every event and every training session and if you look hard enough, there’s always a training session of some sort if you don’t like doing it alone. Everything is suitable training: step, dance, running, walking, swimming, body pump, zumba, the list is endless. Come on in, the water’s lovely.
Jerry – triathlete – hooked.

See my FAQ in the Velocity site for how to actually do an event.