Big Cow Grazing

When I originally signed up for the GB Sprint Triathlon Championships, a Big-Cow event in Emberton Park near Newport Pagnell, it was with the intention of attempting to win my age-group. On paper it looked tough but possible and I knew from my ITU World Championship Sprint Duathlon success in Adelaide I had the ability to focus and train for a big event. However, unlike Adelaide, the months leading up to Big-Cow were littered with obstacles, a few with positives outcomes but others gradually chipping away at my focus and confidence.

In reality by the time the day came I was still a few weeks away from being fully fit but decided I would make the most of the opportunity to race in a different place.

I have several friends and colleagues who think I only have to turn up to races and I win or at least get on the podium but I know the truth is very different – I’ve always had to work really hard to bring out my best performances.

Having recently been diagnosed with depression goes a long way to explain the chain of health problems, lack of sleep and the struggle to get out of bed in the mornings I’ve experienced this year. None of which are conducive to training for British Championships or anything else for that matter! This is nothing new. The surprising thing is why I was so slow to recognise the signs this time around.

During the two weeks before the event I managed to force myself out of bed and experience early morning cold water swims at the Lido on Hampstead Heath plus one in open-water at Merchant Taylor School. I felt so much better for it!

And so to the adventure that is Big Cow…

04:45 my alarms went off. I packed everything the day before so it was quite straightforward getting up and out although always a challenge with bike and bags down two flights of stairs. Fortunately I decided to wear my tri-suit under my jeans and sweater. I had imagined there would be a changing tent but reading that no nudity was allowed in transition was a bit of a giveaway. I lived in vain hope.

Smothering myself in Glide and my wetsuit lubricant while standing on damp, cold grass at 0700 through a mix of sleepiness and slightly blurred vision took on a dreamlike quality. Transition closed at 0745 and, with no baggage drop, all my stuff had to be left with my bike. Without thinking it through, I left my asthma inhaler in transition and glasses too. For the next 30 minutes or so, I went to the loo more times than I can count and wandered around in a bemused state, not exactly race-head in place! Looking akin to a rubber teddy bear performing hamstring sweeps is something that will live with me a long time. My breathing was so laboured during a jog I gave up on doing strides and decided that the swim would set me up for the cycling and running – it had worked before.

Heading to the lake, I was just in time for the women’s wave briefing. Within moments I was sliding into the water for a quick acclimatisation swim –so far so good. We were all called back to the bank for the start. Most the field didn’t make it but the starter noise went off anyway so some had the advantage of being 10 meters or so into the swim. I was one of the few women back at the bank and was a bit slow off the mark as imagined they’d wait for us all to return and was still thinking about it as most the field splashed across the lake. I’m not exactly sure what happened next, a slight panic attack maybe, but I know I really struggled despite yesterday’s open water practice going so well and a year of solid training. Eventually, with probably around 200m left, I found my form and sped on, overtaking a few stragglers but way off the leaders who by now were on the roads cycling.

Out of the water, feeling slightly woozy and without my glasses I couldn’t see the entry to transition. Eventually a voice calling ‘this way’ got through my ear plugs (worn due to a perforated ear drum) and I ran to my bike while unzipping my wetsuit and pulling my arms out. Like magic my wetsuit slid over most my body and a little tug over my feet and I was clear. On with sunglasses, helmet, socks, bike shoes and gloves and off I ran with bike. I was so delighted with my transition time – the fastest I’ve EVER removed my wetsuit – but this was not the moment to be smug!

Aside from numb feet, the cycling felt fantastic as I pushed on; the course was undulating and fast. Most of the surface was fairly smooth and I loved whizzing down the long hills but never stopped pedalling. My thoughts wandered – never a good thing in a race – to how enjoyable it would be to cycle here with friends. I overtook a few people and one person overtook me but I never caught sight of the majority of women. I would love to have continued cycling but at the end of a long downwards slope yellow arrows indicated the return to Emberton Park and transition two.

The two-lap run was flat with the potential to be very fast. My numb feet and how odd they felt running continued to distract me but I also managed to chase down and overtake several people ahead. My run was relatively quick in my age-group, second by a few seconds, but by this time I was minutes away from the leaders and in fact never even knowingly saw them! Congratulations to them all. My age-group position was fifth.

Notes to myself for future reference: take contact lenses, two inhalers, read through race focus points and use my trigger words.

How to be a World Champion

On October 18, 2015 in Adelaide, Australia I became the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Sprint Duathlon World Champion in my age-group. I was absolutely delighted, totally thrilled. I still can’t quite believe that someone like me can achieve something so significant on the world stage and at the first time of trying. The culmination of an extraordinary couple of years and a fusion of circumstances made the opportunity possible. A relentless faith from my coach, Tom Craggs, plus focus, strength and determination from me underpinned it all.

This is an abbreviated version of that story.

As many people my age are winding down, kicking off their shoes and enjoying the fruits of their successful careers, I feel as though I’m just getting started. Following a couple of traumatic years in my personal life I decided that 2015 would be the year to find a different way to channel my energies, and discover a new focus.

With my sister Fiona there to cheer me on, in March 2015 I won the British Triathlon Sprint Distance Duathlon in Clumber Park in my age-group. Hanging around waiting for the results was a bit awkward as there had been a problem with the timing system so no one really knew their position. Outside of London, I was an unknown quantity in duathlon so there was much surprise when my name was called out. It was windy, tough and not enough toilets but my efforts were sufficient to qualify me for the World Championships in Adelaide.

For many years I kept an ‘Australian fund’ with a desire to one day visit the country and one of my old school friends in Sydney. Now was my chance.

And so training began. Having thoroughly researched the competition I needed to get a significant chunk off my qualifying time to put myself in medal contention – eight minutes to be exact. Together with Tom we discussed a training programme, breaking the next six months into three chunks, I learnt what it means to be single-minded and focussed. My social life all but disappeared but fortunately my friends and tiny family were incredibly supportive.

I usually trained six days a week, often two sessions a day, gradually building my strength and speed (and bonding with my bike). Each month I entered duathlon races at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Velopark gradually chipping minutes off my time. Meanwhile I slotted in work when I could and often coached two evenings a week at my running club. Other races became part of my training and I really enjoyed seeing my speed improve with virtually everything that I did. Rest days were always welcome and Swim Club became an important part of my schedule twice a week.

Tom gave me the most incredible send-off speech as I also celebrated 10 years as a member of Mornington Chasers in September.

By the time I stepped onto the plane for Australia I knew I would at least give the international opposition a good race.

Race Day

Despite a sniffly cold on the day, the conditions were perfect and in a wonderful location by the notorious River Torrens. With our bikes racked the previous afternoon there was much activity by 06:30 on race morning as competitors returned to transition. All around the outside of the fenced-off area team mechanics and managers were on hand with track pumps, tool kits and last minute advice. My tyres felt fine so I left them alone. I checked my shoes, my brakes and that my bike was set in a low gear. I added my filled water bottle, not that I’ve ever drunk from it during a race, but just in case. It was barely light and I felt surprisingly calm despite all the hustle and bustle around me. Confident that I knew how to find my bike (we were not allowed to leave any conspicuous markers, such as towels which was a shame when my eyesight with contact lenses is a way off perfect) I headed off to warm up.

An easy run followed by warm-up drills and strides, a familiar routine that helped to settle the building excitement. The team hotel was less than 10 minutes stroll from the start gathering point so I had plenty of time to whiz up to my bathroom – what luxury! I also managed to squeeze in another loo visit: n +1 (where n= number of loo visits before a race).

I didn’t need to use the tactics Tom and I discussed as I led in my age-group all the way through. I had no idea exactly how close people were and didn’t want to waste time looking back so I just kept pushing as hard as I could. I was so overwhelmed and thrilled to be on the podium wrapped in the British flag and totally amazed that I came in ahead of the silver-medallist (in the early nineties she was just 15 seconds off making the Australian Olympic team for the marathon).

There is a footnote to all of this: a huge thank you to Tom Craggs, David Hidasi, Jon Train, Jez Cox, Leigh Harvey, my friends (especially Helen in Australia), my sisters, Carol and Fiona, and to the memory of my mother, Isolde Reece (nee Lester) who sadly died in August 2014 – I could never have achieved this without their support. Mummy thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to run a marathon but I gradually won her round and I know she was enormously proud of my efforts. She would’ve loved to see my World Champion’s medal although would, inevitably, have fretted about me speeding about on my bike.

Why I run…

The journey from saying I wanted to run a marathon to actually completing it was one of the most challenging and surprising I’ve ever undertaken. As I approached my 50th birthday my life was relatively comfortable, interesting and packed – my work was challenging, I regularly played tennis to a good club standard and was surrounded by good friends and a close-knit, loving family.  Yet, there was something indefinable missing. As my birthday approached I realised the thing I’d denied myself for decades was the inherent desire to run, not to just venture out for the odd jog but to actually focus on trying to be the best runner I could be, to see just how far and fast I could go.

Why I swim…

Swimming came first. I love being in water and, for as long as I can remember, I always have. On holidays, as a child, I would always manage to fall into any nearby lake or pond, just to be in the water. I dreamt of being a mermaid.

I can’t actually remember learning to swim, nor learning to read for that matter, I don’t think I found either particularly difficult. From my last year at junior school for a couple of years, I would get up very early on Saturday mornings and walk the couple of miles into town to the swimming pool for training sessions.

On completing my first mile I was awarded 40 free passes to the Olympic-sized pool in Coventry (about 12 miles away) and would go there on Saturday evenings for training sessions. I was not a particularly fast swimmer but I was very determined to improve. I joined the local swimming club and swam in club and school galas. I was good but not outstanding. If the excellent swimmers didn’t turn up I had a good chance of winning. But it wasn’t about the winning or the medals – it wasn’t then and it isn’t now – it was about seeing how far I could push myself, how much I could improve.

My brief swimming career came to an abrupt end when I picked up a cluster of verrucas. In those early days this meant I couldn’t swim until they’d gone – it took a year of painful treatment! The return to competitive swimming was a disaster for me – I had completely lost my nerve. I stopped half-way through a race, unable to breathe. Somehow I resumed and got to the end, last, and to a huge round of applause but that was it.  With no one to support or encourage me, I vowed I would never swim competitively again…

…I started swimming regularly again in my mid-30s and twice swam the Swimathon (5000m) before I was 40. Swimming became my regular exercise and at least 4 times a week (usually more) I swam before breakfast. I still had it in mind that I would not swim competitively but then with my running I discovered aquathons. Combining the old (swimming) and new (running) in a very low key way seemed like a fun thing to do – and it is! All my old fears and phobias disappeared with my first race. Of course I still get nervous but I feel safe in a swimming pool now, having swum probably thousands of lengths if not miles and in events that are run like time-trials, I don’t feel exposed.

Why I cycle…

Cycling was my transport as a child and my passport to freedom. I lived a couple of miles from a market town surrounded by villages, farms and today a network of motorways. My friends were scattered around so walking and cycling were common. Many summer days were spent out on long cycle rides and picnics. For a chunk of my London years too my bike was my transport so it feels natural. Increasing speed on my bike is a continuing learning curve, I just need to get my saddle comfort sorted out!

Why I compete…

In most races I am competing against myself, trying to improve or reach a specific time target and to achieve this I’ll use others around me to push or pull me. The most satisfaction I feel is not winning medals and prizes – although they are an added bonus – but in achieving personal best times and the sense that I have pushed myself as hard as I can. This, of course, becomes increasingly difficult as I get older and more experienced so improving my age-grading is becoming my new target. In December 2013 I achieved my first 90% age-grading – it happened to be in 3000m – and I would love to replicate that at other distances. In truth, the endorphin buzz from racing and particularly at shorter distances is probably my main driving force.