Category Archives: Bits & bobs

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.

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.