I spent last weekend with my friends from the online running forum I’m part of. We rarely meet in a big group, but last week more than 20 of us went to Stratford-upon-Avon to run in circles round an airfield.
I surprised even myself – the last few weeks is the first time ever that I’ve run regularly and consistently, and I knocked over eight minutes off my 10k race time to finish in 1 hour, 1 minute and 21 seconds. I was absolutely delighted (and my sister was not at all pleased that I’d beaten her time too).
We had a great time, but it’s dangerous, this online forum business. You chat away merrily, talking about life and work and pets and people, and sometimes even running, and then occasionally you find yourself doing some ludicrous race without even realising how it happened.
And so, in early 2007, I found myself signed up for Stratford triathlon.
I’m still not sure why I thought it was a good idea. I’d done running races before, but never trained regularly, and had always been in the last five people to finish. I owned a bike – a folding hybrid that I pootled around the park on. Before I had a car I’d cycled quite a bit, but always slowly with a book and a bar of chocolate in my handlebar bag, ready for a picnic. By 2007 I lived in a hilly city and barely cycled at all.
And I’d never learned to swim. I remember going to the pool with school, and learning the ‘mushroom float’, but I never progressed to the group that actually learned swimming. I didn’t like getting my face wet.
One of my forum pals had done an Ironman, and was busy trying to recruit all and sundry to the joys of triathlon. There must have been some kind of discount if she signed up so many people. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and quite a few of us agreed…
I diligently wrote out a training plan and stuck it on the wall where it sat, largely ignored, for a few months. I occasionally ran round the block, and very occasionally went for a bike ride. And I signed up for swimming lessons at the local school pool.
The instructor seemed a little alarmed that I was planning a triathlon so soon. After all, I could barely swim one width, let alone 16 lengths. Once a week she tried to teach me front crawl, but I never did get the hang of breathing out underwater.
Still, I progressed a little. A few days before the race I went to a different pool by myself. This pool had a deep end (unlike the shallow school pool my lessons were in), and I was so scared I only did one length before coming home with my tail between my legs.
When I filled in the race entry form, I had to say how long I thought the 400 metre swim would take me. I, rather optimistically, put ten minutes. This was not based on actual information, but it did mean I was in the pool at the same time as many of my forum pals.
Race weekend dawned, and on the forum we were all nervous and over-excited and worrying about what to wear. A few of us had bought triathlon suits (like swimming costumes, but with legs and a zip down the front) from Aldi (yes, the food shop – it occasionally has a sportswear promotion). A sports bra under the tri suit, and a t shirt over the top for the bike and run sections, of course. But socks inside trainers? A coat in case it rained? What would we wear before, and after?
On race day I felt (kind of) like a proper athlete, with my swimming cap and my race number written in marker pen on my arm.
I got in the pool, did one length of front crawl, swallowed a mouthful of water, and had to sit at the end spluttering and panting while lots of people passed me.
How I got through another 15 lengths of doggy paddling breast stroke I’ll never know. The only thing that kept me going was the occasional familiar voice encouraging me on.
I think they were all surprised when I emerged alive. It took me 25 minutes to swim those 16 lengths, but I damn well did it.
After that, I didn’t care, and the rest of the race was a doddle. I cycled 15 miles in the pouring rain, singing as I went, knowing that I never had to get into a swimming pool again in my life.
The run was wet too, but again, I didn’t care. One of our running pals was a marshall, and another had brought his two young girls to support, and they were the best cheerleading team ever (their lovely dad took this picture of me, soaking wet but with a smile on my face).
I’d blocked this from my mind, but reading back on the forum it seems that I sneaked behind a bush on lap two of the run, and had a right old time trying to get out of my soaking wet t shirt and all-in-one triathlon suit.
Despite my swimming fiasco, I had a marvellous day. Because I am now a running nerd, and like to keep track of these things, I can tell you that the 400 metre swim took me 25 minutes, the 15 mile bike ride took 1 hour 14 minutes, and the 3 mile run took nearly 48 minutes (including loo stop). Add in the time spent moving between the different sections, the whole thing took me 2 hours and 27 minutes.
All this waffling is just a preamble to saying I’m going to do it again. Properly, this time. Now I’ve done a few weeks of regular running, I’ve convinced myself I can train properly for anything.
I’ve joined the gym. I’ve added a little bit of cycling and pilates to my running, I’ve ordered a book about swimming, and last Friday I went to an aquarobics class.
I know, aquarobics is not one of the disciplines in a triathlon (wouldn’t it be fun if it was?). But I am such a scaredy cat when it comes to swimming… Signing up for a class meant I could ask the old ladies how to use the lockers and showers. And I got in the pool a bit early and swam two whole lengths before the class.
Anyway, you’ve got to make these things fun. The sight of 20 middle aged ladies (including me) sitting astride those noodle floats as if we were riding camels, pedalling furiously from one end of the pool to the other to the sounds of ‘Johnnnyyyyyyy, remember meeeeeeeee’ is not one I will forget in a hurry.
Ironman in 2015 anyone?