The Accidental Triathlete: Part Two

As we left things yesterday, I had just (slightly unwittingly) signed up for my first triathlon in September 2010: my role would be to do the first 1500 m swim leg in the luscious sounding Eton Dorney lake, near Windsor.

HSBC Wetsuit

Diving in to the event with some enthusiasm (excuse the pun) I started researching what this would involve, buying a load of triathlon magazines such as 220 Tri, and reading as many websites as I could. I quickly found the following:

  • I did not know anything about triathlon, other than the sports involved, and had never seen one before.
  • 1500 m is 60 lengths of an average pool (it is known as a ‘pool mile’),  but this was an open water swim there were had no sides to kick off from, and it would be the furthest I had ever swum in open water.
  • The lake was less exciting than it sounded, being less crystal clear oasis and more murky wide canal, and was also closer to the significantly less glamorous Slough than Windsor.
  • It was likely to be freezing, necessitating a wetsuit. Although I had plenty of experience with wetsuits from other aquatic sports, I had never swim any distance in one.
  • I only had a few months to get into training for the race!

After this reality bite, my first task was to get myself equipped with a wetsuit – the mighty Wiggle website locating me an Orca S2 (aka the cheapest one available). Amazingly it actually fitted quite well and proved very reliable – in fact I still wear it now. Kitted out, I then needed somewhere to train, and found a small lake about 10 miles away which offered open water sessions on a Sunday morning. It was not the most exciting place, but again did the job, and that summer I managed to get in a decent amount of training.

Come the big day, I met my relay team mates for the first time, and was relieved to found out they knew no more about what was going on than me. I was up first, with the shortest (but obviously toughest) section of the race to complete, and wetsuit on I got myself down to the water.

Dorney Swim

This was to be my first experience of the fabled triathlon swim start. I have probably said this before, but it reminds me of Dan Ackroyd’s line in Trading Places: “Nothing you have ever experienced can prepare you for the absolute carnage you are about to witness”. It is crazy, bodies everywhere, flailing limbs, splashing water, zero visibility. I loved it immediately!

The swim itself did not quite go to plan: all the things I had been practicing such as bilateral breathing, alternate sighting, tight turns on the buoys… went out the window after about 5 minutes! Basically it turned into – just keep swimming – reverting to single side breathing to be able to take in enough oxygen, following the guy in front’s feet with the hope they were going in the right direction, and trying to ignore the massive pain in my side, which was either from being whacked or over-exertion.

Crossing the finish line was massive, and one of my favourite parts of this particular triathlon, as they have a huge inflatable archway to mark the end of the swim. Although I was handing onto my partner to do the bike leg, it did feel like crossing a finish line, and I had a huge sense of achievement. I was even happier when I found out my time, of just over 30 minutes, and the fact I had come about halfway in my wave, a pretty decent result for a first time.

Before the race I had thought that would be the end of it, a fun one-off, but looking at everything going on around me I was enthralled. The transition area was amazing: people flying out of the water, throwing wetsuits and clothing on and off, and barely pausing before zooming out the other side. The  equipment was also awesome, with racing bikes of the like I never knew existed, futuristic looking helmets, strange food and drink that came in squeezy packs, and so on. I promised myself that I would get there myself someday.

Later on that year I received an email saying entries were opening for the 2011 race, and thought ‘why not’. I signed up for the sprint distance, a 750 m swim, 20 km bike ride and 5 km run.

I knew the swim would be fine, having done longer that year, but did not actually own a bike, and had never run 5 km. So as with the previous year, the first step was to get myself kitted out, by signing up for the Cycle to Work scheme, and getting down to Halfords. First mistake, was getting talked into going for a mountain bike by the teenage kid who worked there – perhaps he did not believe I was really going to be racing – the problems with which I have covered extensively in earlier blogs. Long story short, I never had any mechanical problems with the bike, it was just the slowest thing you have ever seen and totally inappropriate for this particular race.


Still, it did the job, and I made myself a training plan to get into shape for the various disciplines – including the dreaded run training. By the time I reached September I was pretty comfortable, and the race went really well. If memory serves I did it in around 1.57, which given the bike I had was a great effort. The particular memory I have from that day was how cold it was, and when I came out of the swim leg my hands were too cold to undo the zip on the back of my wetsuit. As I was running / hobbling to my transition spot I saw a mate, and they helped me get the zip going (lucky I did not get DQd!), otherwise who knows how long I would have been there.

The end of this race saw me begin what has become something of a spiral to go longer. I had this mindset that if I could manage to finish then it can’t have been that bad. Also I did not feel as tired as I had expected, therefore must have had some more in the tank. I know, I thought, next time I will go for the full Olympic distance…

So 12 months later, in September 2012, I was lined up in the same spot for the full 1500 m swim, 43 km bike and 10 km run. I had been so eager to get involved I had replied as soon as the entries came out, and had race number 3 which showed how quickly I must have done it. On the downside, it was a few months after the venue had been used for the rowing at the London Olympics, and with the stadium still partly dismantled someone had kindly extended the bike leg, which was just great.

But once again, the race went really well. I had tried to mitigate the bike issue by purchasing some smoother tyres, rather than the knobbly off-road ones I used in the previous year, and although it was not quick it did help out a bit. I have a feeling my time was around 3.53 that year, and whilst psyched to have finished a full triathlon, it did seem a little slow.

HSBC Finish 2011

That familiar feeling occurred, that I could do more, but it had to hold off a bit as we reached 2013. Spending three weeks in Chile in the summer meant I could not get in as much training, so I stepped back to the sprint distance and this time around got my time down to 1.48.

I also decided to do something different and entered the Birmingham Half Marathon, a massive step up, as even with all the training I had been doing I still was not a big running fan, and had not done more than 14 or 15 km. Being in late October though, meant I had some more time to prepare, and I was delighted to finish my first ever Half in 2.11.

Brum Finish 2013

The voices… Yes they were back, and after completing an Olympic Distance triathlon and Half Marathon in consecutive years, I needed the next challenge. As with all great ideas this one happened on New Year’s Eve, where I decided I was going to commit to doing a half-iron distance race, signed up for the Avenger Triathlon. Realising this would require a lot more preparation than I was used to, I decided to start writing about it to both track my training and keep myself motivated. On that day the Chile Challenge was born…!


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