After all that training, how was it crossing the finish line at the Blenheim triathlon? Amateur triathlete Susannah Taylor tells all about the big day
They say that the difference between ‘try’ and ‘triumph’ is a little bit of ‘umph’ and I tend to agree. If there’s one way to make yourself feel good about something then it’s to put in a whole lot of effort. I had my trainer Steve Mellor’s words ringing in my ears on Saturday morning as I waited in the green murky lake at Blenheim Palace, waiting for the horn to blast. “Enjoy it,” he said, “And really bloody go for it. You won’t be happy if you haven’t gone for it.” Did I go for it? Yes. Am I happy? Ecstatic.
As I pulled up the blinds on Saturday morning, I wailed at my husband ‘It wasn’t meant to raaaaaiiin!” It was steadily tipping it down (BBC weather, please sort it out, your forecast is useless), and it continued to heavy drizzle all morning. It’s fine running and swimming in the rain (could be fun, I thought), but on a racing bike with wheels about 3cm thick? I was worried about the cycling. All thoughts of the weather evaporated however on arrival at the majestic Blenheim Palace grounds – the thousands and thousands of cars indicating what an absolutely huge event the Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research Blenheim Palace triathlon is. With over 7,000 people taking part, it’s the second largest in the UK – and it just so happens to be on my doorstep. The enormity of it meant my heart began to race.
As we racked our bikes in the transition area (the area where you switch from swim to bike then bike to run in a triathlon) in the huge central courtyard, nervous hysteria started to kick in as my friends and I lubed ourselves up with wetsuit salve (helps you to rip it off faster after the swim). We donned our wetsuits, swimming hats and goggles (don’t enter a triathlon if you want to look sexy) and headed down the bank to the swimming pontoon. In the distance there was a red and white buoy that looked tiny near the far left bank - this was the point we had to swim around and then on about another 250 metres, making it 750 metres in total. Suddenly the sight of the enormous stretch of water expanding in front of me looked terrifyingly vast. Gulp. I'd swum way more than this distance in a pool many times, but swimming it without stopping? Without the knowledge you could put your feet down or touch the bottom and without ever hitting the reassuring end? Now that was another deal entirely.
The best piece of advice I’ve had in tri-training is not to go off too fast if you’re nervous. Last year in the shorter distance I lost control of my breathing and became quite panicky, and ended up doing breaststroke, which isn’t advisable in a triathlon as it tires your legs. Having had lessons and having practised front crawl again and again (and knowing I could do it), I was determined to stick with it. As the klaxon went, I started off well, and I felt good, especially as no one was kicking me or thumping me in the face.
Then, however, I got out of breath and stopped. Bizarrely, instinctively, I did something I’d never done before – I started doing backstroke! I did this for about twenty strokes before becoming paranoid I may get disqualified, and it was then that I had a small word with myself. “Sus, you have learnt front crawl, you can do it, now get your head down and damn well do it.” The personal pep talk worked, and I restarted, breathing every two strokes instead of my normal three. I have never been so happy to see a red and white buoy so much in all my life - it meant I was on the home stretch - so I picked up my pace. I never once thought about how green, murky or flipping freezing cold the lake was, just my stroke, getting through it and the sound of my breathing, blasting hard through the water.
Emerging dizzily out of the water, I was quickly up into transition, and ripped off my wetsuit (you wear a tri-suit underneath – it clearly says in the info pack ‘No nudity in transition area!’), then trainers and socks on, helmet on, quick swig of water before I was off on the bike for three fast laps of Blenheim grounds. I felt good on the bike, especially by the second lap and I was up and out of my seat climbing the hills, out of breath but ok. All those hideous, lung-busting hills I’d practised in training must have been worth it.
It was now that I experienced how wet the course was however. Half way round the second lap there was a woman in front of me who sat in my way (despite my shouts) and her bike sprayed me head to toe in muddy water as I tried to pass her – it got in my mouth, my eyes, everywhere. I was filthy, breathless and starting to feel the burn, but there was no time for rest as I raced back into transition for the last time.
It’s well known in triathlons that when you come off the bike ride and go into the 5km run, your legs literally feel like jellied lead – really heavy and very wobbly. Steve had given me some advice to take short strides to get them working again, and this was a top piece of advice - my legs adjusted faster than I ever remember. I ditched the bike and helmet, necked half a vile tasting energy gel and headed out on the 5km run, now beginning to feel it. Now I'm no Jessica Ennis, but when you’ve swum and biked for an hour and 10 minutes already at full pelt nothing seems to function as you know it.
Steve Mellor had given me some other great advice - to make a plan on how I was going to get through the next 30 minutes of hell. It was to go like this: 1. Distract myself from the fatigue/ the lead legs/ the feeling you can’t go on. 2. Down an energy gel (another). 3. Swing my arms to get me up the hills. The plan worked. I reserved a second energy gel for the final lap (half of it ended up down my chin), and the swinging arm tip is amazing at picking up your pace or getting you up a hill (your legs pick up and follow suit). As for distracting myself, I had grand plans on playing songs in my head, something Lucy Fry author of Run, Ride, Sink or Swim does to get through.
However there was one very simple thing I did that really worked for me. A friend’s husband and regular triathlete had told me recently that when the going gets tough, he says to himself ‘One foot in front of the other,’ over and over in his head. It was something that landed in my head and it became my mantra with every step. Sometimes I heard myself saying it out loud, and it made the running easier, belittled it, distracted me and got me to the finish line 1hr and 54 minutes after I started (and 5 seconds behind my friend Viv I'm here with) - filthy, exhausted but utterly elated. I was 63 out of 120 in my age category. Not bad I thought when most people who enter a triathlon are pretty darn fit to begin with.
How do I feel? Amazing, I haven’t stopped smiling since. Three years ago I was incredibly unfit and to think I could or would do a triathlon would have been utterly unthinkable. I thought people like me could never do anything like that, things like that were surely for the elite? Slowly but surely I have reached a level of fitness I never knew was inside me. Don't get my wrong, it's been tough – swimming in lakes at dawn, running in lunch breaks when work is so ridiculously busy, going out on my bike when I least wanted to, doing hideous 8 am burpees with Steve every Wednesday – but as the saying goes, ‘It’s the hard that makes it great.’ Never were a truer word spoken.
Follow Susannah at @STaylorGTG