Disaster! I don’t mean the event, it’s well-organised and slick, I mean myself. I was an absolute disaster and made a pretty poor show of being a triathlete. Let me explain…
It all started innocuously enough. Steve entered a mixed team in this event, and having enjoyed it in 2014 I agreed to be part of the team. Back in 2014 I was only just learning the front crawl, was still riding a mountain bike (with road tyres) and had been off running due to an injury. I figured that with more pool time in the bank, a zippy road bike and some decent running form at the moment I should be able to perform better. My pride was about to take an almighty fall!
The event is straightforward enough. Each member of the team completes a short triathlon course (200m pool swim, 6km road cycle and 1.2km cross country run) before tagging the next member of the team and so on until all four have competed. The order was to be female, male, female, male and I was third after Ella and John, before handing over to Steve for the anchor leg. There was some thinking behind this: Ella was our strongest swimmer (Steve does a fine doggy paddle and I still swim single lengths!), John is a great cyclist and duathlete, while Steve was our faster runner. I may have just been making up the numbers haha!
I really didn’t think about it too much in the days before as I knew we weren’t looking to be competitive, rather to have fun and complete the course. Having taken part before and spectated the year before that, I felt quite comfortable that I knew what was going to happen.
The event didn’t start until lunchtime so I had plenty of time to lay out my kit and pack it into a backpack as Steve and I had decided to cycle there (it’s only about 6 miles). This would give me a chance to get used to my bike, Trixie, again as to my shame I’ve not been out with her for a year and only just got her serviced in the week before the event. I really needed to ride and get used to the gears again so I would be happy on the bike leg, so cycling to the venue seemed the ideal solution.
It was a nice cycle out and on arrival we met Ella, then Steve went to register the team. Next it was time to get our arms and legs marked with our race numbers and get ourselves set up in transition. This bit caused me a lot of stress last time, and although still a bit jangly, I was definitely better this year!
After a race briefing which mainly served to remind us of the rules regarding passing in the pool (only at the ends) and keeping a distance on the bike (no drafting!) Ella headed off ready to start. We cheered her on each time she came into transition and when John set off I got myself ready.
So far so good, but this was where it all changed.
To conserve energy on the swim, I knew I would have to be slow. I fully expected to be passed and was ok with this as I knew I had to stick to my own race plan. Having collected the timing chip from John, I slid into the water and set off on the first of my 8 lengths. I believed I was going slowly and hoped to settle into a rhythm quickly. The pool was about 5 metres longer than the one at my gym, but I figured that was really only one or two more breaths in each length. No big deal, right?
About halfway through that first length I felt the firm tap on my foot that alerted me someone wanted to pass at the end. No problem, I told myself, just keep going as you are and stop at the end. But from that point on I kept feeling the person behind me grabbing at my feet and it really freaked me out. I felt like I couldn’t kick properly, I lost all sense of rhythm and completely lost my breathing. I don’t know if they thought I hadn’t felt the first tap and kept doing it, or if they were just swimming too close and kept catching against me with each stroke, but it felt horrible. It was like someone constantly pulling at me and with my lack of swimming experience, it really started to cause a problem.
It seemed to take ages to reach the end of the pool. I stopped to let the other swimmer pass and realised I felt out of breath. My heart was pounding and I felt unsettled. Almost as soon as I set off again for the second length, I felt like I couldn’t do it. I was struggling to catch my breath and just couldn’t put my face in the water so switched to heads up breast stroke, but even that felt practically impossible. At the end of the length I stopped and clearly didn’t look good as the swim marshal tapped on the head to ask if I was ok. I said yes, but in all honesty I wasn’t. In that moment I just wanted to cry. I wanted to get out of the pool and say I couldn’t do it. I felt scared because I couldn’t breathe and my limbs felt heavy through the lack of oxygen. I was probably as close to an all-out panic attack as I’ve ever been. And alongside all of that I felt so angry and ashamed that I was struggling to swim just 200m, something I should have been able to do relatively easily. The only thing that stopped me quitting was the knowledge that two other people had already completed the course and I couldn’t let my team down.
So I finished the swim. A further 6 slow, breast stroke lengths. I did try to start the front crawl again, but every time I put my face in the water, I panicked. Every time I saw another swimmer behind me I freaked out all over again that they were going to grab at my feet and I was stopping at the ends to let people pass. It was one of the most awful experiences of my life. Each length felt like a mammoth undertaking with the water seemingly stretching out for miles ahead of me. I hardly seemed to be moving, yet my body was exhausted. I’ve never been so pleased to see the pool steps before!
As I emerged from the pool Steve and Ella were waiting to give me a cheer, but all I could do was pant, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t swim.” At that point I really wasn’t sure what had happened, but it had already affected my mental state for the two disciplines to come. Even as I made my way towards my bike I felt overwhelmed with the noise. I felt like people were shouting things at me, but had no idea what. Were they giving me encouragement? Shouting advice? Telling me I was doing something wrong? I had no idea. There was just a swirl of noise and me walking mechanically towards my bike.
Somehow in my brain fog I remembered to put my bike helmet on first. I pulled on the socks I had sprinkled with talc earlier and slipped on my pre-laced Ultra Boosts before taking my bike off the rack and wheeling it to the mount line. I was so stressed that I couldn’t get my foot into my pedal properly, and the more the marshals shouted about other cyclists coming up behind me, the more I struggled. Eventually, I set off, heart already hammering, and followed the path down to the main road where I found myself cycling straight into a headwind.
I just couldn’t settle throughout the cycle. I felt on edge, my heart rate was probably too high and I was cycling into a wind. It was only towards the end that I started to feel a bit better and as I made my way back up the path towards transition, I was trying to turn my attention to the run, the bit that I should be best at, and willing my legs to carry me round the short course without incident.
Back in transition I racked my bike, grabbed a quick drink and removed my helmet before heading off to run. Despite knowing I had to turn my belt round so my number would be on my front, I still managed to forget and a nice marshal had to remind me, but at least my legs didn’t feel too shaky.
Ella had warned me that she just about went head over heels down a hill at the start of the run, so I set out carefully. I wasn’t using a Garmin so had no idea of the pace I was running, but it felt pretty hard. There was another runner alongside me so I just tried to get into some kind of rhythm and keep on going. The hardest part was coming back up that hill again, but at least the run was over quickly and I was able to cross the line and transfer our chip to Steve. It was over. I still want to cry, but it was over.
I collected my goody bag then found Ella and John who wanted to know how I’d done. I told them the swim was awful, but I don’t think anyone on the team realised just how hard a time I’d had. I was really disappointed in myself as I felt like I’d let everyone down and had been wasting my time going to the pool every week if that going to be the result, and just couldn’t shake that awful feeling for the rest of the day. All I wanted was to grab my bike and go home, but transition didn’t open until the last competitor was done so I had to stay and put a brave face on it until I could get my stuff. Ordinarily I would have taken loads of photos, but didn’t even manage to really do that.
Eventually, the buffet was eaten (I barely touched it), the prizes were awarded, and it was time to head home. Another 6 miles on the bike when all I wanted was to curl up into a little ball and feel sorry for myself, but I made it home and sat quietly for the rest of the day.
It took another 24 hours before I could reflect on the event more sensibly and realise that it was nothing to so with my swimming ability and everything to do with how I coped in that situation when my legs were being constantly “attacked”. I may be disappointed in the times I posted, but the fact that I managed to finish, despite every fibre of my being wanting to quit, is what I need to focus on instead. I even went for a swim the following day as I knew that if I didn’t get back in the water straight away, I probably never would again. I had no problems at all and swam 20 lengths perfectly comfortably. I know my swimming still needs a lot of work, but that one session has given me back a bit of the confidence I lost that Sunday afternoon as I panicked in the pool.
I was actually in two minds about whether or not I wanted to write this post at all, but then when I read this post by Hels Bels, I knew I had to. Helen’s post reminded me that things don’t always go perfectly, and knowing that someone else experienced something similar made me feel better. I’m sad that this happened to her as I know how dreadful I felt, but I think we both learned something about ourselves from it. It also reminded me that it’s easy to gloss over the tough stuff in a blog post or on social media, to paint a rosy picture of life and make every event sound like a success. Life isn’t like that, and races certainly aren’t. There are always tough moments and some days things just don’t go your way. The more people share those moments, the more we can help others to realise that they are not alone when those things happen to them. And so my post, this very post you’re reading, was written after all.
And those times? Hard to say. There are no transition times listed so I can only assume they’re included in some of the other sections. That means I have no idea how it compares to last time. I think the bike was a bit quicker as I had a Garmin set up on the handlebars and the time I recorded is a minute or two faster than the time listed, so I’m guessing transition is included. The run looks slightly slower than last time, but I have no idea how long I was in transition so if a that time is included there, then it was probably a faster run too. At least there was some improvement! In the name of honesty (and embarrassing myself online), here they are:
I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone if the swim had been more successful, but there’s no point dwelling on that now. It happened, I survived and now I’m motivated to get back in the pool and keep working on my swimming.
Would I do it again? Who knows. At the time, it was a definite no. I decided that triathlon wasn’t for me and vowed to stick to running and the odd cycle. A week further on, I’m less firm in my resolve, but know that I would need to do A LOT of work on my swimming before I felt able to have another go. Let’s see what the next year brings…
Have you ever had a bad race experience? How did you handle it?
Any advice to help me improve my swimming and feel more confident?