Everywhere around me the water is churning and bubbling like the inside of a washing machine. I can see nothing as cold water seeps into my eyes, up my nose and down my throat. The world is spinning and the surface appears to be below me. I breathe in and my lungs inhale a soup of chlorine rather than air.
And so begins my first triathlon for over 2 years and the laying to rest of a few ghosts.
The swim leg is only 400 metres but after only half a length, all preparation and technique has been forgotten as I proceed in what can best be described as ‘drowning puppy style’ along the pool. Swimming is my least favourite part of triathlon so it’s a relief to get it over with as the first discipline. However much I practice outside of competition, as soon as I get into a race, with faster swimmers chasing behind, everything falls apart. It’s then just a grim and ungainly slog to the end.
Swim done and I clamber out of the pool coughing up water and run, dripping out of the warm leisure centre into the near freezing October morning. Making up a bit of time I sprint past a few competitors also making their way from pool to bike.
In transition (the changing area by your bicycle) cold fingers struggle to do up my cycle helmet and put on shoes and socks before grabbing my bike from the rail and slip-sliding in cycling cleats to the bike start line. Time between exiting the pool and mounting the bike, less than 2 minutes.
Soaked and shivering I try to persuade my legs to pump hard on the bike pedals. Eleven and a half miles to go, my body finally gives up the idea that we can go back to bed and starts settling into a rhythm for the cycle. I’m on familiar ground and know the route well, it’s good to speed along on the bike, gentle undulations come and go and the only hill on the turnaround is done without much disruption to cadence. Passing a couple of competitors, my legs are warming up and feeling strong and I’m almost sorry the ride is over when I return to transition again. Leaping off the bike at the end of the ride, I narrowly miss sprawling in an ungainly heap as my baggy sports top gets caught around the saddle and bicycle and I lurch towards the floor. Luckily a well-placed marshal catches me and I stagger off pushing the bike to the racking, where seconds later and a quick change of shoes, I’m jogging out for the final element – the run.
With muscles that have just gotten used to biking, my legs protest loudly, they feel like they’ve been put on backwards and it’s more of a shuffle than a run as I begin the final element, four laps, 3 miles of a grass track course. By the second circuit my legs are looser and it helps that many of the other runners smile/grimace in sympathy as we shuffle along. It’s a friendly local event and the camaraderie, even between competitors is heartening. Lap 3 comes and goes in concentration and by lap four the end and a warm shower are in sight. In a last burst of enthusiasm I muster a little sprint through the finish and gratefully stop to catch my breath and join the wonderful, supportive family and friends who have braved the cold and the early morning to come and cheer me on.
I can be a hugely competitive and driven person, but for once, I’m less curious about knowing the final race times. This is a special event for me, a return to triathlon and a laying to rest of the ghost of an illness that has dogged me for years, sometimes leaving me housebound and inactive for weeks or months on end. At these times, the ability to cycle and run again seemed less likely (and more effort) than flying to the moon.
So, as I finish now, I am only humbled and entirely grateful that today I have made it to the moon, and beyond and I’m thankful for the lovely people in my life who inspire me to aim that high.
And now, to celebrate, it’s time to go out to eat pancakes!