Written by Faye Tudor
Around this time two years ago, I drove up to The Rest and Be Thankful, near Arrochar, with my brand, spanking new bike in the back of the car for a photo-shoot. Triathlon Plus had contacted me to say they’d like to run my comments for the ‘I heart triathlon’ segment and so there I was, dressed in my best gear and ready for the accompanying photo-shoot. It was quite surreal – I’d never done anything like it. I’d suggested the spot to the photographer as it’s a stunning location about 40 minutes from where I live and I knew, if nothing else, the scenery would look good in the photos.
It was snowing and because I’d done my triathlon on a shoe-string (and in summer), I had no gloves, no winter leggings, nothing! There I was, posing in the snow in three-quarter leggings, in gloves borrowed from the photographer and my shiny new road bike. I’d only ridden it twice and so I was very new to the riding style and the pedals, clipless pedals were, I was about to find out, quite risky! I don’t know when the injury to my right calf happened because it was so cold that I didn’t noticed I’d done anything until I was half-way home and felt the blood running down my leg! I had forgotten to unclip a couple of times during the photoshoot, the photographer must have though I was a right idiot.
I went straight back out the following week to practice clipping and unclipping because I was determined I wasn’t going to be defeated by a set of pedals! It was a pretty impressive injury, it went all sorts of colours and the scrapes from the cogs hung around for ages!
My background to triathlon was, as you can see, as complete newbie. I wasn’t an experienced cyclist (!), I was someone who enjoyed running but wasn’t fast, and I couldn’t actually swim when I signed up for my first event. I signed up because I had decided it was time to get over my fear of the water. I was a member of our local sailing club and enjoyed being out on the water but I couldn’t swim. It was putting me off trying out dinghy sailing and so I could see I was holding myself back.
I went to my local pool and signed up for the adult swimming lessons, purchasing a block of 10. When I showed up at my first one, standing awkwardly at the side of the pool, I felt entirely out of my depth – literally as well as metaphorically! The swimming coach took me over to the kids pool and we sat on the steps as she found out a bit about me and my motivations. She asked why I wanted to have swimming lessons and I told her it was for the triathlon. She asked how much I could do at the moment – ‘nothing’, I replied. She later told me that she recoiled internally as she asked when the triathlon was. Not even a glimmer of her reticence at the task I was presenting to her crossed her face. She walked me into the pool and we practiced putting my face in the water and blowing bubbles, so that I’d understand how to breath out. This is where it began. When it came to the 10th and final lesson of the block, I’d decided I wasn’t leaving the pool until I’d completed a length. It took two attempts, but I did it. I was giddy with excitement and would race home after my lessons to tell my husband what I’d managed to do – I was like a child! My coach later mentioned that a lifeguard who’d been at the pool on my first night couldn’t believe what he was seeing as I finished a solo length that night.
But I still had so much to learn. Floating was a challenge because I had to trust the water – I don’t – and I struggled with treading water because I feared going under and not being able to grab onto the side. I was still afraid to swim in the middle of the pool because if anything happened I wouldn’t be able to stop without going under. I found front crawl a real struggle to maintain beyond a couple of lengths. I seemed to expend so much energy getting from one end to the other, in part because I was basically bashing through it as fast as I could just to be able to put my hand up at the end of the pool before I ran out of breath and drowned.
The fear was strong and it’s incredibly hard to battle against that. My coach decided we should work on a new stroke: backstroke. This was the stuff of my childhood nightmares. I have such vivid memories of my Mum tipping me back, promising me that she was holding onto me, and me flapping manically with terror at the proximity of the water to my face. I don’t really know how, but gradually, I found myself developing a backstroke. Before I knew it, I was managing length after length and heard my coach shout out, ‘Oh yeah! You’re definitely a backstroker!’. It was mad – I couldn’t believe the turnaround! It was still hard – I still panicked when the water from a nearby swimmer washed over my face. My instinct was to flap, to stop, to try to breathe and I had to resist it all and just keep swimming. That was incredibly hard.
I realise the picture I’m painting sounds absolutely shambolic. What sort of a triathlete is this? Can barely swim, has done a bit of running, and hasn’t cycled in years. But, however, it may look, I was gaining so much confidence from the swimming, and pleasure in discovering that I could manage it after all.
After a few months of swimming lessons, I started building in some running, and then I added in the cycling. I had a hybrid bike so nothing fancy and I rediscovered the joy of cycling – that sense of freedom, the wind in your face, the ability to go wherever you like, stop wherever you want, take photos, have a snack, carry on – it was great! I’d been reading Triathlon Plus and knew I’d have to build in brick sessions. The first of these was hilarious as I dumped my bike and toddled along the street on my wobbly legs! I was initially frustrated by not being able to run as far as I wanted on brick sessions. The event I’d signed up to was 800m in the pool, 10 miles on the bike, 5km run – these were all do-able distances but it was hard to join them all up at first.
In the end my breakthrough came when I decided to slow my running pace by 0.5 of a mile and suddenly I found myself able to run the full 5km. Slowly, things came together and I was ready.
The night before my event, I laid out all of my gear: running shoes, an old pair of trail shoes to wear on the bike, my trusty hybrid, my new tri-suit (what a terrifying garment), and the Macmillan Cancer running vest I’d ordered to wear on the bike and run. Part of the way through my training I’d decided I wanted to make this experience more meaningful and so, in memory of my father in law, I raised money for Cancer Research. I attached my number to my tri-belt and popped a tiny bag of Jelly Babies in alongside my water bottle. I was ready.
My dreams were full of terror – I had an intense dream in which I drowned in the pool on the swim segment of my event. In the morning, giving thanks to my subconscious, I got myself ready. My husband put all my stuff in the car and helped me prepare once we arrived. I’d chosen this event purposely because of the pool swim – it was an outdoor pool and I felt this was within the realms of possibility for me.
It was an amazing day. I chatted to the lady who counted the laps before the swim, explained the reason behind my nerves, and after our briefing, we were off. I did the swim backstroke knowing I was stronger and more comfortable this way and it worked. I was last out of the pool but I expected this. What I didn’t expect was the huge cheer and applause as I swam my last length – my husband later told me that the lap counter had run round to the audience and told them I’d just learned to swim, hence the wonderful roar of support that echoed round the pool as I dragged myself out. I was last off the bike too, and fell over in my haste to get off! But as I rounded the half-way point on the 5km, I realised I could catch some people. I didn’t have to be last!
In the end, I caught a few of my fellow competitors and finished my 5km in 25 minutes – my best time ever . In the end I took 27 minute for the swim, 40 minutes for the bike, and 25 mins for the run. Including transitions, I ended up with a time of 1 hour and 36 minutes with which I was delighted.
It was an incredible experience and I’ve never felt as strong or as fit as after my triathlon. I love the overall conditioning it provides. Since then, I’ve tried some different things. My experience at the photoshoot indicated I had much to learn on the bike and so I signed up for a local 30-mile cycling race that included a few miles of 20% gradient hills. The weather was horrendous with driving rain and gales – I was almost blown off my bike at the top of a hill – but it was great! Buoyed by this I signed up for Etape Caledonia a couple of months later but soon found out this was too much, too soon!
I went on a 60-mile training ride with a super-fit cyclist friend. As she blasted her way up some truly awful hills, I ended up having to trudge up them, trashed my cleats and ended up having to call a friend to rescue me in their car as I couldn’t clip in with my ruined cleats! I still have much work to do there.
I then started to focus on my running – I signed up for a half marathon – a distance that I had found intimidating in the past but, still brimming with confidence after my triathlon, seemed achievable now. I left that decision a bit late too! I had only 7 weeks to prepare and so the furthest I’d managed before the event was 10 miles but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the last three miles being hard.
I’ve continued with more running recently because I’m struggling with the swimming. Strangely it’s not my lack of skill that’s stopping me – it’s repeated sinus infections! Every time I swim, I get a sinus infection! I’ve bought a salt-water nasal spray as I hear that this will help with the sinus issues, so we’ll see.
There’s so much work for me to do – I need to build strength on the bike and I need more stamina. I also need to learn the proper technique for riding hills as there’s a lot of very, very steep climbs in beautiful Argyll where I live. And swimming – I am determined to crack the front crawl. Proper breathing technique practised over and over is what is needed here.
As ever, I am determined to keep going. I enjoy it, even if I am not very good, so that’s motivation enough for me to carry on.