Half submerged, acclimatising to the frigid sea, you hear the starter’s pistol and take off in the maelstrom of thrashing limbs towards the island. You run up the slip, already discarding your wetsuit as you smile at well wishers shouting you on. You find your bike, add your helmet and shoes, and you’re away, cycling powerfully over the hills, overtaking lesser athletes and already thinking about the run. With the cycle done, you jettison your bike and now you’re running to the finish line. It’s much easier than you thought it was going to be. All that training paid off…
This heroic tableau was what my brain projected into my imagination cinema, like a propaganda montage, when I stupidly, and probably drunkenly, agreed to partake in my first, and last, triathlon. I immediately obfuscated the facts that I’m afraid of the sea, only cycle short distances, and hate running. I was wholly unaware that I had been brainwashed by my own brain.
What follows is the absolutely true account of this disaster, and should serve as a warning for untrained fools like me who think it’ll just be a good weekend away with your friends. It won’t be. As they say, Fail to prepare, Prepare to freak out when you get in the sea.
I have a couple of friends who are very into this whole exercise business. They’ve done marathons, multiple triathlons and even an Ironman. They are healthy, driven and disciplined people. I am unhealthy, slovenly and can be easily distracted from any task by a balloon. Driven people like this make their outdoorsy pursuits seem easy, and for some reason, they want you to join in. They’ll describe races as “fun” and their healthy skinny heads somehow mesmerise you into believing them. It’s all a trick. You’re not like them, remember? While they’re out running in the rain before work, you’re lying in bed wondering if there’s an app on your phone that’ll boil the kettle in your kitchen. (There probably is, but I simply don’t have the time to find out).
Somehow, they managed to convince myself and a couple of others to take part in a Sprint Triathlon. It would be a weekend away in Kerry. It would be summer. We would rent a house. We could go for pints on the beach after the race. It’d be fun.
A Sprint Triathlon is a 750m swim, 20k cycle and 5k run. All one after the other, if you can believe that. I imagine that the Triathlon was invented by some S & M enthusiast whose safe word was “More”.
This whole debacle took place 10 years ago. My athletic glory years were well behind me. Time had long since transformed my youthful six-pack into one big soft ab. My athletic CV would simply say Some Football. I remember making a decision to take the training seriously. Unfortunately the following thought was a more realistic character assessment that told me I would under no circumstances take any of it seriously. So, I set about trying to identify what training shortcuts I could employ in order to do as little exercise as possible.
The part of the race that strikes the most fear into first time triathletes. The majority of us were “taught” how to “swim” by our parents, just as they had learned from theirs, and so on. This means the same “good enough” technique was passed down, inbred and mutated, for hundreds of years before it got to you. I thought I could swim. I even thought I was good, because I remember as a kid my Da saying that I swam well. I only swim well in comparison to him. And most importantly, I only swim in a pool, where there are no waves, sea creatures, waves, currents, waves or waves. The swim part of the Triathlon would take place in the open sea.
At the time, I happened to be a member of a gym which had a small 20m pool. Well, I paid a gym a sum of money every month so that I could say I was a member of a gym. It was time to ruin their business model by actually using their facilities. To my surprise, I actually ended up doing a few swims a week for several weeks. I managed to get up to 750m quite handily. Because of this, self delusion and blinkered confidence reared their ugly heads again. I would stop constantly throughout the swim, to heave breath, clean my cheap googles and rest every few lengths. In reality, with the push start off the pool wall I only ever swam about 14m at a time. But when I was able to have gone through 37 lengths in one session, all I could think was “Psh. Swim Shwim. Easy”.
That was until I went for what would be my first, and only, training swim in the sea.
First off, the Irish Sea is for looking at, not being in. It was March, which is still very much Winter here in Ireland. The spiteful Irish Sea had not seen the sun since early September, a fact the water would gleefully remind me of when I finally got in.
I found myself standing by the rocks in a full wetsuit looking at a sea I knew was going to try to kill me. Not because it was mad at me, just because it’s the sea, the giant house for all sea creatures. I would be trespassing. I knew it didn’t want me in it to flail about and mess up its furniture. Imagine a giant salmon fishambled into your living room? What would you do? Sure you’d get a fright, but then you’d think, “What the hell is it doing in my apartment? It lives in the sea. Fuck this stupid fish. You picked the wrong living room this time. Get me my hammer…” You’d attack the creature, and there wouldn’t be a court in the land that would give you any jail time for it. Well, we should expect the same outcome if we go into the sea. Our laws don’t have any jurisdiction there. Look, I wouldn’t go to jail for killing that house invading salmon and neither would a shark go to sea jail for eating me in its garden. That’s all I’m saying.
A friend of mine had one of those sea balaclava hats that divers wear, and I asked if he had a spare. I put it on, thinking it would keep my head warm. Unfortunately, I had no frame of reference as to whether or not it was too small for me. I figured it was a one size fits all situation, and I didn’t want to seem more foolish than I actually was, so I said nothing.
It was too small. It was very tight around my neck, but sure isn’t that how it keeps you warm I thought. I also managed to put my goggles on over the balaclava, so they weren’t able to make a proper seal over my eyes. Again, no frame of reference. Let’s get this over with. I jumped in. I had made a terrible mistake.
To go from regular cold, to all enveloping sea cold was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. The cold turns most of the departments in your brain off. Only the Panic Department is left, and it has to try to run your entire body, but the numbskull in charge of Panic is wholly unqualified to deal with breathing and motor functions. Talking isn’t possible, so you can only communicate through manic wide eyed expressions, spontaneous limb flailing and involuntary primal howls. And this is all before you put your head in the water.
“Just put your face in. You get used to it”. You’ll hear someone say this to you. Don’t fall for their bullshit. They are liars. I plunged my face into the water and the numbskull in charge of the Panic department set the whole place on fire, shot all the other workers and then himself. I was on my own.
Come on. It can’t be that bad? We’ve all been cold before. Well let me ask you this: Were you ever so cold that people more experienced with the situation matter of factly told you to simply piss yourself inside your wetsuit to warm up? No? Then shut the fuck up. The cold is so life changing that it destroys all semblance of polite society, and all of a sudden you’re actually contemplating pissing inside your clothes as you realise you’re surrounded by adults in whose piss you are now swimming. And they’re telling you to put your face in the water to get used to it. There’s no getting used to this. Cavemen didn’t even behave like this. Minutes earlier we had been in a car for Christ sake. We’re living in the future. Where is my central heating wetsuit?
I was freezing cold, uncomfortable and unable to stop the full body shakes that had taken hold. I needed to swim. Surely swimming would warm me up. I began to follow my friends out to a buoy. It was then I remembered that unlike the pool, the sea has waves. I could only swim breathing to the left, and, of course, that’s where the waves were. Tiny waves, but enough to cascade into my face. I was drinking a lot of seawater, and regardless of the piss levels, I knew this wasn’t good. The cold, abject terror of a possible Kraken attack from beneath my feet, the sea balaclava squeezing my neck like a noose, and my goggles continually letting in water made up my mind: I had had enough. I was done. This whole thing was a shitshow.
I shouted to my friends, who were, surprise, ahead of me, to tell them that I would turn around and swim back. I had gone maybe 200m. When I called out, my friend said, with no little amount of worried realisation that will stay with me to my grave, that actually they all should, as it was “getting a little choppy”.
He was a strong swimmer, and hearing the slight urgency in his voice set off the heebie-jeebies alarm in my brain’s Head Office. I then noticed that the baby waves had become teen waves, and when I turned around to swim back to the shore, all of the street lights had gone on, because it was also getting dark. As I struggled back to land, all I could think about was drowning. I was exhausted, terrified and ferociously angry. I cursed the sea, Poseidon, Ireland’s shitty weather, my asshole friends for getting me into this mess and the fucking sea balaclava that was trying to strangle me as I drowned.
That was it for sea swimming. I would not see the sea again until the actual day of the race.
While the swim portion of the race filled me with dread, I gave the cycle zero respect. In fact I managed to convince myself that the cycle would serve as a rest period, sandwiched between the swim and run. I figured I would be sitting down on the bike, so that was something. I began to brainwash myself into confidence once again.
See if you can spot the holes in the shortcut bullshit logic I employed. At the time I was cycling in and out of work every day. It was probably 2k each way, so that was 4k a day, or 20k a week. The race would be 20k. So with all of this cycling I felt I was already at the athletic level at which I needed to be. I was already doing the race distance every damn week! Plus seeing as I was sitting down, I could freewheel half the race, so really it’d only be 10k I’d be cycling for, and that’s just 5 x 2k. No problem.
That’s right. I’m a lazy fool. Cycling in to, and home from work every day, was my entire triathlon training for the cycle section of the race. Wait, it gets worse…
I assumed that with all the crazy amount of cycling I was already doing each week, my legs were in tip top shape and easily had it in them to do 5k. The run was after the swim and cycle. If I made it that far, I could simply walk it. All I had to do was finish the race. And so, my cycle training (see above) would also be my run training.
I was ready to do a triathlon….
Next time in Part 2 we learn how my exhausting training regime fares on race day.