Having taken part in the team triathlon with my friends and colleagues from Hiscox, my appetite had been whetted to take on a solo. I was routinely endurance spinning as well as cycling, swimming most weeks, and ran 5K once or twice a week.
My first triathlon
I signed up for a SuperSprint at Eton Dorney rowing lake, and set about upping my training, time-trialling from Compton to Peasmarsh as the thing closest to the event itself. I arranged to borrow a wet-suit from one of my spin instructors, not wanting to buy one in case I didn’t take to triathlon.
In the days running up to the event, anxiety about the swim started to set in. I’d never open water swum in an event, and had never worn a wetsuit. I started to back out, looking for excuses not to take part. A couple of weeks before the event, I wimped out, cancelling spinning so I couldn’t collect the wetsuit.
I felt awful. I felt like a fraud. I felt like a coward.
On the Monday before the race, I grew a pair, and arranged to collect the wetsuit, and while my stress levels went up, my sense of pride went up much further.
On the Friday before the race, I put the wetsuit on. To describe it as snug would be an under-statement. It was like a second skin… Or even a first skin…
Saturday arrived, and I found myself at Eton Dorney rowing lake – completely decked out and ready for the 2012 London Olympics, which were only a few weeks away. I sorted myself out in transition, and after a 90 minute wait, most of which was spent in the portaloos, went to the marshalling area for the swim.
We were ushered into the water – the first time I’d been in a wetsuit, and the first time I’d been in a triathlon. There were about 100 other competitors. We bobbed our way to the start line. “Who’s doing their first triathlon?” the marshal asked. I raised my hand, along with half a dozen or so other competitors.
“Right then” he said. “Three things can happen to cause a panic attack.
1. Your adrenalin is already up, so your heart-rate and breathing will be up.
2. You’ll set off faster than usual, so your heart-rate will rise further.
3. Because of your raised heart-rate and raised breathing, and the wetsuit, you’ll feel constricted round your chest.
Just set off at the back, and go easy.”
With these very wise words of advice scarcely 60 seconds old, the hooter sounded and the washing machine got going. The whole experience was entirely new and alien. I was wearing standard goggles, and so couldn’t see the marker buoy easily. There was bumping and kicking, and I was expecting to get submerged at any minute.
With what was probably only 50-75m gone, I panicked. I had a complete brain-fart. Even writing this, I can’t rationalise what I was thinking, just that I was hating it. I found my way to a safety kayak, and clung on to his tow-float. He was an older guy who knew exactly what I was going through. He reassured me, said that the wetsuit was probably too tight, and un-zipped my suit slightly.
With things slightly more under control I made myself to the first buoy, resolutely rounded the second, and tackled the home straight. With unsteady legs and an unhappy mind, I gratefully hauled myself out of the water, and into transition.
All I wanted was for this to be over
Bike and Run
Instead of quitting, I sorted myself out. Dried myself, composed myself and set out on the bike, and then the run.
My time was 01:27.
I made so many mistakes it was almost comical. The experience lived with me for a long time, and at some level the swim experience still does. I should have had a lesson in open water swimming before taking to open water. That way I’d have been more confident, particularly on the point that you basically can’t drown in a wetsuit. I’d also have bought prescription swimming goggles, allowing me to see where I was going.
I started it.
I finished it.
I wasn’t last.
And this has formed part of my triathlon mantra – I finish what I start.
It was a good couple of years before I donned a wetsuit for open water swimming again.
My advice would be:
- Have an open water swim lesson with a coach
- Swim a few open water sessions before competing for the first time
- Wear a wetsuit that fits you, and that you have swum in
- Wear prescription goggles if you need eye correction
- Start at the back
- Enjoy the experience!