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Triathlon Plus senior writer Tom Ballard prattles on about a crisis of triathlon faith.

Tom Ballard Triathlon Blog

I’m sorry triathlon gods – I’ll never doubt you again!

I’m sure lots of triathletes out there would share my sentiment that 2012 was far and away their biggest year in the sport.

Unlike some of those who have achieved stratospheric success, overtaking pros at races around the world, I remain – quite happily – in the middle ranks, so while I’m still a long, long way away from the dizzying heights of the GB age-group team, Las Vegas or Kona, the season was my most race-packed ever and filled with firsts.

These included surviving my brush with Ironman 70.3 UK’s 1800m of bike climbing, watching the Brownlees in the flesh at the Olympic triathlon and losing my trainers for (a harrowing) 6 minutes in the giant transition of the London Triathlon. On the whole then, there were far more ups than downs.

It was also the first time I’d completed a full summer of racing and managed to keep a decent consistency of training into the winter that I then took into 2012 season. By the end of the year I’d completed two Olympic-distance races, two middle-distance races and a sprint as well as competing in the furiously fast National Club Relays. That’s not a packed schedule by some athletes’ standards, but the combination of smashing myself in training and races as well as moving up to middle-distance for the first time was taking its toll. It just hadn’t caught up with me yet.

So as the elation of beating the rest of Team Triathlon Plus-Boardman in the London Triathlon faded at the end of September, it was replaced by a feeling of bone-deep fatigue. This was, I kept telling myself, perfectly normal; I’d been training longer and harder, had completed more events than ever and upped the distance too.

For a time I tried to train through it. Swimming so sloppily that it felt as if the swimming pool had been filled with sand, the look on our club coach’s face said it all. Then he spoke it out loud just to make it clear. “Stop training. Take some time off and relax.”

These are possibly the most simultaneously thrilling and horrifying words a triathlete can hear. The mind immediately began to race – I can’t stop training, I’ll lose it all. But then – think of all that free time! A few days couldn’t hurt could they?

After a more than few days of luxurious 7am lie-ins and wiping the clear centimeter of dust off the Xbox, it became all too easy to slip back into the pre-triathlon Tom’s shoes. But easy as it turned out to be to forsake training for a while, there was a little voice that started questioning why I wasn’t training. To my horror, I found the answer was that I just didn’t want to.

Thus began a crisis of faith in between me and the gods of triathlon that Steve Trew so eloquently describes. This in turn caused a counter attack by the triathlon side of my brain that left me wanting to do nothing but exercise my thumbs via the Xbox controller, yet I was feeling intensely guilty about it. Even so, I stayed in, ate, slept and lazed.

After a while, I began to wonder whether my passion to train, and by extension my love of the disciplines, would return or if it had been extinguished forever (dramatic pause).

The answer came from an unlikely source; Assassin’s Creed III, an Xbox game that I’d been virtually inhabiting for more hours than I’d care to admit. One day, as my character, Connor, dove into the water and stuck out to sneak aboard a ship, I found myself critiquing his swimming stroke. There’s no way he was pushing all the way to the back of his stroke, nor did his catch phase appear at all efficient, and why weren’t those billowing robes holding him back? This got me thinking about the pool, stroke per length and how much time I’d save in the water if I shaved my head completely.

The next discipline to resurface was running. As my character ran through the luscious woodlands around his native home, it struck me just how quickly the distance-to-target counter was ticked off. Now, I admit to this being very sad, but I got out a stopwatch and timed him. I couldn’t believe the outcome, the digital chappie was making off at 30-minute 10km pace without showing any kind of fatigue. I reckoned the Brownlees would still have him though. I looked longingly at my trainers, which lay forgotten by the door, and felt a pang to slip them on.

The fact that there wasn’t any replacement for cycling in the game (unless you count a horse) soon made me start to miss my own bike. So I put the controller down, set about rejuvenating my still-gorgeous 2006 LeMond Reno and went for a ride. The love had returned, the fitness still hasn’t!

I suppose I shouldn’t really have worried that it was the end of the triathlon road, but at least if the triathlon gods really were testing me, I’d eventually managed to scrape a pass.