From tri-phobic to tri-hard. My year in the exhilarating and addictive world of triathlon

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First appeared in Saturday Telegraph ‘Weekend section.

It all started with a tropical open water swim where I beat one of Britain’s greatest female freestyle swimmers to the finish. Admittedly, ex Olympian, Becky Adlington, had leapt into the Caribbean waters as an afterthought. Terrified of the sea, she had travelled to Palm Island in the Grenadines to coach a group of journalists (including yours truly) from the safety of the resort pool.

But when it came to our biggest challenge – a tough swim through 1.2 miles of choppy sea – she couldn’t stop herself diving in halfway through and offering encouragement to some stragglers.

What Becky did that day back in August 2013 – face a lifelong terror of the sea – was pretty inspiring, and it was a result of her bravery, my half-stolen victory, and some very careless talk, that I first started thinking about embarking upon triathlon.

“You know there’s a triathlon taking place on a nearby island – St Lucia – in November,” I heard someone say as the sun dried us off, leaving a layer of salt upon our skin.

“Triathlon, here? What?” I grimaced. “Really, are you sure?”

… everywhere I went, men and women of all ages, from all walks of life and of all fitness levels and sporting abilities, waxed lyrical about the life-altering nature of this tripartite sport.

But, yes, it was completely true. I don’t know why I was surprised either; these days everywhere I went, men and women of all ages, from all walks of life and of all fitness levels and sporting abilities, waxed lyrical about the life-altering nature of this tripartite sport. First there was the London 2012 Olympic triathlon, which I watched in awe as UK triathletes the Brownlee brothers won gold and bronze medals and Helen Jenkins continued an uphill battle against injury to take fifth place, all on good old English soil. Then, the following spring a couple of my friends (yoga teachers) returned from a 10-day triathlon training camp with the kind of bulging pupils usually reserved for illegal activities. Next, my big sister mentioned a couple of her colleagues were swimming, biking and running their weekends away. Then I heard about the family friend who had recently completed a super-sprint event in North Bristol, fitting in her training around her five children and part-time job as a district nurse.  And yes, the final straw was my mum: though not (yet) a practising triathlete and forever puzzled by my sporting endeavours, she suddenly seemed, at 60-something, to have gleaned an impressive understanding of triathlon after sponsoring some neighbours to do one.

Thus it was that, still recovering from the nausea (a common by-product of ingesting salty, polluted water), my mind lingered upon a question it had previously skimmed over: what was it about this sport that was enticing so many, both on the professional and amateur circuits? In 2013 according to the International Triathlon Union the number of triathletes active globally reached 3.4 million, with over 10,000 events worldwide. Since 2007, says Multisport Research, there has been an 111% increase in international triathlon participation. All this from a sport whose first recorded appearance took place in California in 1974, and whose British debut was in 1983. Yet it joined the Olympic line-up at just 27 years old in Sydney in 2000.

Perhaps triathlon’s pulling power was its accessibility, its many options from 30-45-minute ‘super sprints’ to 2-3 hour Olympic distance events or monstrous all-day Ironman events. Maybe it was that training for three disciplines left more space for prolonged motivation and interest than training for just one. Or perhaps triathlon spoke to another – far deeper – part of us, feeding a space in our souls that craves pain, purpose and a reason to push ourselves to new places, both physically and mentally.

Whatever the answer, I needed to know: when faced with my own limitations, would I choose to sink, or would I swim? Did I really want to continue sitting on the sidelines, making assumptions about what was so addictive – so exhilarating – about triathlon, whilst keeping my fears safely trapped in a box upstairs… Or did I want to get my cynical rear end to a triathlon start line and give it a go? If I could drag myself through 1.8km of salty water with no help whatsoever from a boat, a board or a bounty, then surely I could get around the 1.5km swim part of a triathlon? And since that had always been the bit I most feared, I wasn’t sure any more what was stopping me. Except for nervousness on a road bike. My inability to fix a flat tyre. And my phobia of mass swim starts.

But what was all that, if not a reason to get stuck in? Now the idea had been planted, I was unable to uproot it. A year in triathlon, I decided, would give me a better insight into the sport, it’s community and its character. I’d need to do more than one event – five perhaps – starting with sprint (750m swim, 20km ride, 5km run) and building up to Olympic (1500m swim, 40km ride, 10km run), spreading them out across a year.

For 12 intense months I performed the juggling act – between relationship, job, social life and training – that I learned was typical of triathletes, and devoted myself to this demanding sport.

So that’s exactly what I did. For 12 intense months I performed the juggling act – between relationship, job, social life and training – that I learned was typical of triathletes, and devoted myself to this demanding sport. During that time I lived through the various parts of the triathlete’s year, otherwise known as the ‘off season’ (ie. winter, much booze, less sweat) ‘pre season’ (ie. spring, some booze, some sweat) and the ‘season’ (summer, all sweat, no booze), morphing from  tri-phobic to tri-hard.

During my year I met all sorts of inspirational people, each part of the friendly, diverse and dedicated international triathlon community. I was whipped into shape by an Irish amateur triathlete who fitted her training in around a demanding job in banking. I spent time with a Scottish woman in her 40s, whose battle against neurological pain was made bearable by its facilitating her representing her country as a paratriathlete. I received expertise and encouragement from an insightful 40-something tri-coach, Rob, whose mantra “you are awesome, you will be awesome, you have always been awesome” is still one that I use in tricky times.

And there was training – oh so much training. Not just leisure centre pools during the winter but also blistering temperatures at the St Lucia sprint distance triathlon and then, a few months later, a 35-40mph headwind during the Olympic distance – Volcano – triathlon in Lanzarote. And yes, my body changed: I developed some twinkling shoulder muscles (from all that swimming), some impressive thigh muscles (from cycling and running). But I also took an ego-bashing,  twice turning up to group swim sessions with my wetsuit on the wrong way round and then in the transition zone, unable to master removing soaking neoprene without looking like a dung beetle in distress. More postiively, with a little instruction and perseverance, I progressed from a sinking-potato-sack swimmer to a floating-rotating swimmer and my 1500m time improved by about 10 minutes in as many months.

Let us be clear. Triathlon is a fairly all-consuming pasttime and the risk of addiction is high. At its most basic level it’s laughably simple, so much so that I’ve watched children as young as five take part, and yet however much one does there is always more to do. It’s thanks to the endless endeavour available to any triathlete however that allows it to be so rich in meaning and metaphor.

I took many life lessons from triathlon, which taught me a lot about the importance of perspective. Take mass swim starts for example. When stuck in the middle of tens or hundreds of swimmers all jostling for space, you’re likely to get smacked. At first I panicked, became angry and fought for breath (or at worst fought back), until I learnt to take a moment to roll over onto my back (where it’s almost impossible to be swum over) look up at the sky and smile. A similar paradox applied, I discovered, to my performance; setting ambitious goals was all well and good but investing them with profound importance turned out to be the most certain route to failure. Put another way – hold on to something too tightly and your grip will fail. But hold it with a lightness of touch – and approach triathlon that way – and suddenly it can be managed far easier.

Too much, too little; too technical and too primal; triathlon is full of contradictions; it is everything that is great about endurance sport and everything wrong with it. Accept and embrace this fact and you will flourish. Reject it, wrangle against it, and you could miss the point entirely, which may not be your steadily-improving race times and physique but more your self-knowledge and your self-belief… And in just one year, both of mine skyrocketed.

– By Lucy Fry

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