Sink or Swim…A First Triathlon Diary

There is something oddly vulnerable about huddling at the side of a pool with a bunch of swim suit clad strangers.  We smiled nervously at each other, shivering, partly from the freezing temperatures that greeted us that April morning but mostly from nerves.  We swapped congenial stories of where we are from, finding camaraderie in downplaying our preparedness for the task ahead.  After a few minutes, the huddle of comrades dispersed and it’s each man and woman for themselves. This is my first triathlon.

I never would have seen myself as a “sporty” person and certainly my school years would have been spent attempting to duck out of PE class anyway possible!  An interest in running began a few years back when I watched my brother cruise over the line in the Cork City Marathon.  The atmosphere was buzzing with so many people cheering and clapping and I remember being so inspired watching all the triumphant faces crossing the finish line. I started to get moving and get my arse in gear, even if all that meant was a trot around the block with the dogs and slowly my fitness started improving.

Two years ago I was talked into taking part in the Dingle Adventure Race by the race organiser Noel O’Leary.  Participants would complete a 43km course by running, cycling and kayaking various parts of the route. The Dingle Adventure Race was one of the most cracking challenges I’d ever taken part in.  It proved to me that anything is possible once you keep putting one foot in front of the other and though I crossed the finish line totally spent, I was looking for my next event and challenge.  I completed several more adventure races in the company of some good mates and every finish line saw us aiming for the next one and the next.

September last year saw my friends barrel over the finish line at the Crosshaven Triathlon.  I was there at the finish line, cheering myself hoarse, so proud of what they had achieved but there was a little part of me deep down that was so disappointed that I wasn’t crossing that finish line too.  You see, I couldn’t swim, more than that I’d a fear of water that barely allowed me to wade out to waist height without panic.  I’d a better shot at taking on Everest than swimming a length of a pool!

I sat and thought about it long and hard, my fears kept throwing up what if’s and memories of a near drowning incident. I had two options, I could sink or I could swim.  Challenge accepted, I booked myself on a one-to-one swimming lesson last November and I literally started by jumping into the deep end!  It wasn’t an easy lesson, I was fighting panic and fear as I learned to tread water and keep myself afloat in two metres of water.  By the end of the lesson, I was more determined than ever to face this challenge straight on and I knew I needed a goal to keep me focused.  So I scoured the internet and came across Portlaoise Try-a-Tri.  It is a triathlon aimed at encouraging new participants to try out the sport and so has a shorter swim than a sprint triathlon.  I knew I’d be able to hop on the bike and complete a 19km cycle and a 5k run once I got back doing a bit of training.  But the swim section…400m pool swim, 16 lengths total…I’d better get my ass in gear!

I booked myself into adult swimming lessons learning how to swim widths of the pool at first before graduating on, huffing and puffing, to swim lengths.  On New Year’s Day, I could just about manage a front crawl for one length of the pool.  My triathlon was just 15 weeks away, could I really do this??  I knew I needed more time in the pool if I was ever going to get my confidence and endurance up so I joined a pool close to work and set myself the task of swimming at least 400m every morning before work.  Some mornings I swam double that distance, other mornings I struggled with every length but every week saw an improvement.

In the evenings I’d go for a run in the park with my dogs or fit in a yoga session to make sure I was stretching enough to remain injury free.  A few weekends I took the bike out of the shed and went for a spin just to remind the legs of what being on a bike was like!  Honestly, the bike and run sections were at the back of my mind and I poured all my energy into focusing on how to get through the swim.

As time ticked on and the day grew closer, the little things started to niggle at me, should I wear clip in shoes on the bike section? Prescription glasses or my contacts? What kit do I need in transition? Hang on, what should I wear on the swim?! It struck me that my usual swim suit wouldn’t be ideal in transition…changing from a swimsuit into cycling kit would just be time consuming and cumbersome in transition so I decided to splash out and get an all-in-one tri suit that would let me go from pool to bike without having to strip my kit…combined with my Queen B Sammy sports bra for extra support I was feeling fantastic, fit and ready to take on anything!

The morning of the Portlaoise Try-a-Tri, I wheeled my bike to my spot at transition, set up my kit next to my bike, socks, shoes, towel and cycling kit all neatly laid out , ready to grab as soon as I was out of the pool.  I made my way to the pool side with my fellow competitors. I was in wave 1, the first group to start the race.  The pool was split into five different lanes, six swimmers in each lane and my nerves were building with each step closer to the side of the pool.

On marshal’s orders, we dropped into the pool and race nerves caught up with me and hit me full force, what was I doing here?? The pool was deeper than expected and I could feel that old familiar panic rising in my chest.  With no time to adjust my thinking and calm down, the whistle blew and we were off.  My first few lengths were a disaster, I struggled to control my pace and breathing and despite only being minutes into the race, I could feel my heart sinking and all I wanted to do was quit.  This was hard, much harder than I thought, had I bitten off more than I could chew?  I turned to the marshal who informed me I had six lengths to go.  Six lengths and I could be hopping on my bike or I could quit and walk away disappointed.   I took a few seconds breath before kicking off again and finishing my lengths using back stroke rather than front crawl.  I was slower than I expected to be on the swim but I had finished it and was finally running across the astro turf pitch to pick up my bike.

It was freezing cold and I was glad I chose to bring my Queen B Daisy Dee leggings and a top to throw on over my tri suit before I took off on my bike.  It felt pretty good to be back on the bike and the cheers of the marshals on the course really bolstered my spirits and I made back some of the time I had lost on the swim.  My second transition from bike to run went reasonably smoothly and the carnival atmosphere around the transition area kept me going.  Just five more kilometres and I’d be crossing the finishing line.  My feet were numb from the cold cycle and my legs felt heavy and lifeless for the first 2km as the run took us out of Portlaoise along a gentle uphill route.   I was exhausted by the time I reached the half way point but I was now on the home straight and managed to pick up my pace and stretch out my legs for the final push to the finish line.

It was such a special moment to turn the last corner and seeing the finish line just 200m away.  It suddenly hit me, I had made it and was about to cross the line to complete my first triathlon.  I could feel tears prickle the back of my eyes as I sprinted over the line to the cheers of the spectators and the back slaps and hugs from the race marshals.  I had done what I had set out to do, miraculously in a faster time than I had expected too!  It was such a deep feeling of pride, a little flame that still hasn’t faded weeks later.

I’m already training for my next challenge.  Dingle Adventure Race 2016 is on the horizon as well as a few more endurance races later in the summer.  I’m still not overly comfortable in deep water but short dips in the cold, calm waters of Myrtleville are slowly building my confidence.  I don’t know if I will take on another triathlon this year.  Open water swimming out of my depth is a daunting task still, not to mind adding the extra pressure of race day!  If there’s one thing I have learned from my first tri however, it is to never say never and keep pushing forward inch by inch to gain the miles.  Take every challenge as it comes and meet it head on with determination.  Remember, when the whistle blows, there is no place for a princess!