Tears and triumph
Record numbers are signing up for to Triathlons for the ultimate physical challenge – but what’s the personal impact of this high intensity sport? Lucy Fry found out…
I’m running through deep, dank mud whilst the wind blows hard against my face. Blighted by Northumbrian rain, just lifting each foot takes supreme physical effort, let alone continuing for miles on end. My lungs are creaking whilst my mind flip-flops against the possibility of stopping. Is anything really meant to hurt this much? I think. My thighs are blasted from a 40km cycle ride and before that a 1500m-long frenetic swim, most of it spent trying to keep afloat amidst the thrash of competitive limbs. And now I face a 10km run.
Nobody does triathlon because it’s easy. Nor do they do it because it’s straightforward, or cheap for that matter. So why, exactly, do they do it?
The first ever Triathlon was an Ironman version, held in California in 1974 and first British triathlon took place near Reading in 1983.
First, a bit of history: this three-legged race comes in different sizes, anything from a supposed “sprint” (750m swim, 20km ride, 5km run) to Olympic (1500m swim, 40km ride, 10km run), Half Ironman (1900m swim, 90km ride, 21km run) and Ironman (3800m swim, 180k ride and 42km run). The first ever Triathlon was an Ironman version, held in California in 1974 and first British triathlon took place near Reading in 1983. Yet by the year 2000 it had become an Olympic sport, announcing itself across the globe onto people’s television screens and radars in equal measure. It’s not just for the professionals either. According to official participation figures from British Triathlon the number of people taking part in the triathlon between 2009-2014 increased by 75,600, taking the total recorded race starts in Great Britain up to nearly 200,000. There’s also been a huge 63% increase in events held across the country between 2012 to 2016 taking the average weekly number up to 24.
It was exactly this surge in popularity that caught my eye a couple of years ago when, as a runner, gym bunny and all round fitness fanatic, I became intrigued by the hypnotic allure of this young, dynamic sport. It seemed like everywhere I looked, friends, family and acquaintances were talking about triathlon; their new hobby that was both healthy and social to boot. At that stage I still couldn’t think of anything worse than floating about in a wetsuit that stank of seaweed; open water swimming in particular didn’t appeal. Yet there was something here – a groundswell of enthusiasm for multidiscipline sporting events – that I wanted to understand. Instead of taking tentative steps towards it, I decided to jump right in, spending a year immersed in the world of triathlon with the intention of writing a book about my experiences – the people I met and the stories I gleaned.
As I quickly learnt, triathlon is as much a lifestyle and an attitude as much as it is a sport, offering the opportunity to set fitness and health goals as well as recapturing self-esteem and, for many, a childlike love of movement. Of all the triathletes I met there were so many who provided inspiration, each of whom had heartfelt reasons for getting involved in the sport. 40-something year old Katharine Peters, a part-time district nurse and mother of five who did her first super-sprint triathlon in Tockington in north Bristol, says: ‘For me it wasn’t about being a triathlete, more about proving something to myself and having a focus. I lost sixteen kilos during the training process and in the race showed myself that I wasn’t completely and utterly useless any more and could do something just for me.’
For Suzanne, in her thirties, triathlon began with a New Year’s resolution to do an Ironman just seven months later. She had run a marathon once before but knew little of triathlon and had done virtually no open water swimming, nor much cycling. Yet after endless gruelling hours of training (usually twice a day) juggled around her demanding corporate job Suzanne made it to the race start line in Bolton. Weather conditions couldn’t have been worse with the preceding day’s storms leaving the course a total washout. It was the toughest fifteen hours, thirty two minutes and fifteen seconds imaginable but Suzanne did finish her first Ironman that day. Since then, she’s gone on to do many more, as well as other endurance events such as a swim across the Gibraltar Strait which, depending on tides, can be between 16-22km. Suzanne credits triathlon with transforming her life for the better: “It’s changed what I think I’m capable of, where I go on holiday, what I eat, what I look like, who I hang around with and what I spend my time doing. So basically everything!”
Amongst the ultra dedicated, determined triathletes (often those newer to the sport) pushing through physical and mental limits merits respect and fatigue acquires bragging rights.
For me, the first six months were fairly intense. First, there was the pain – multiple training sessions a week left me hungry and tired not to mention time-poor. As I quickly learnt however, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because, for triathletes (and many other fitness obsessed types I’ve encountered) pain isn’t pejorative. Rather, being able to take yourself into what’s known as ‘the hurt locker’ is often considered a sign of strength. Amongst the ultra dedicated, determined triathletes (often those newer to the sport) pushing through physical and mental limits merits respect and fatigue acquires bragging rights. Injuries are commonplace and often treated as a mere nuisance and moderation remains a dirty word, looked upon by many with confusion, even contempt.
It’s hard to remain clear headed in such a fervid, success-orientated culture as that of endurance sport and triathletes certainly, and in particular those involved in the longer distances such as Half Ironman and Ironman, can suffer from disordered relationships to food, body image and exercise.
51-year-old Rob Popper, a triathlon coach and sports masseuse who first discovered triathlon in 2001 (http://www.triathlonsportsmassage.com/) admits: “Throughout my long relationship with triathlon both as an athlete and a a coach there have been lots of ups and downs. I experienced passion for the work I was doing, improvement in my personal performance, greater understanding about how the amazing human body works and the chance to motivate some brilliant people. Simultaneously I had less time with my kids, my wife, my friends, my family. Actually, less time for me, too. Periods where friends had to sit me down and ask me if I was developing an eating disorder.
Separation and eventual divorce from my wife. Launching a very expensive business that went sour and wiped me out financially. Suffice to say I’ve definitely sacrificed important aspects of my life to make room for this obsessional sport.”
Obsessional indeed. The world of triathlon is a dark place when it’s not going well. Professional triathlete Jodie Swallow has spoken out on her blog about the pressure to reach the ideal ‘performance weight’ as well as her related bulimia and depression. In the amateur circles too I came across similar stories about triathlon instigating or exacerbating existing mental health issues. “The world of triathlon engulfed me as it engulfed many,” says ex competitive triathlete, Olivia. “I always suffered from bulimia but when triathlon came along it exaggerated my tendencies tenfold and I found myself in trouble. I saw women who were struggling and tried to believe that I wasn’t like them. I saw men who were obsessed with their physique and their stamina. training was not just a way of life but it determined life. When one race was done you’d book another one to keep up the momentum. Guilt, anxiety and pressure, all self-inflicted, were daily emotions. A missed training session would bring on a desire to train harder, push harder, work harder and, of course, eat less.”
The average entry to an Olympic distance Triathlon is around £40-£80 and Ironman entries more like £300-500. Then there’s the all-important kit.
The financial costs are hardly insignificant either. The average entry to an Olympic distance Triathlon is around £40-£80 and Ironman entries more like £300-500. Then there’s the all-important kit. You’ll need a tri-suit (base layer), wetsuit, bike, helmet, (alongside optional go-faster extras like cleated cycling shoes and pedals) sports clothes, swimming costume hat and goggles plus some running shoes. Most people also need some kind of coaching as well as a bespoke training schedule. For me, despite borrowing a racing bike from someone for the duration, the kit costs alone added up to over £600. There were also overnight stays in Blenheim and Newcastle before their respective triathlons (around £350), money spent on petrol, flights and train tickets (£700) and the warm weather training camp in Lanzarote (around £800 in total). My original plans to race around a Chateau in France had to be ditched for financial reasons: the ferry and accommodation alone would have come to £400 and since the logistics of triathlon are tricky without anybody to help carry kit and proffer support, I needed a wingman, which meant that cost would be doubled (£800).
And yet, despite being poorer, both financially and temporally, there is something undeniably electrifying about it. I trained for months for that Olympic distance triathlon—spending my mornings, evenings and weekends doing laps in the pool and around the park, sacrificing lie-ins, nights out and almost all my relaxation time —all of it culminating in two hours and fifty five minutes of ceaseless endeavour. I promise myself I’ll finish, swallowing energy gels and water in between remembering to breathe.
Finally, I cross the line, hands held high, before collapsing in an exhausted heap enveloped by a sweet, ephemeral kind of ecstasy. It’s not just endorphins but also an intense and longed-for sense of satisfaction, the kind that comes from tackling three sports in one (not to mention the ludicrous costume changes in between, known as ‘transitions’) and surviving to tell the rather sweaty tale. All around me people celebrate, some grinning some in tears, because they’ve achieved something unforgettable.
Running, swimming and cycling give a respite from existential angst—triathlon training schedules leave little room for contemplation of the bigger life questions—as well as opportunity for personal growth.
Deeper still, there’s the sense of purpose. Running, swimming and cycling give a respite from existential angst—triathlon training schedules leave little room for contemplation of the bigger life questions—as well as opportunity for personal growth. 47-year-old Ali Hendry-Ballard first dipped a toe in triathlon during a difficult period in her life: “It was two years ago and I needed something positive to focus on whilst going through some major life changes,” she says. “Though I’d never before in my life been much interested in sport of fitness, I started with jogging short distances and quickly got the bug. Next I started doing half marathons and then, very quickly found myself training for a triathlon. Now I love mixing up the different disciplines; there’s something to appeal to all sides of my personality. I’ve never felt so in tune with my body, so aware of its strengths and limitations.”
For me too, triathlon has resulted in an increased awareness of what is, and is not, possible – physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually. Combating the fear of being dragged under by other swimmers during an open water start; learning to take a wetsuit off at speed and to trust that I can handle whatever comes my way during the course of any race… All these things have helped me to become a stronger, braver person. There’s a paradox here for me too; triathlon requires of its devotees every bit as much as it gives and yet, somehow, giving more than it requires. It’s a greedy pastime and it attracts obsessional, determined types. Yet it’s also a social, fun-filled hobby that can offer fresh chances to travel, experience and dream.
– By Lucy Fry
First appeared in Reader’s Digest Magazine.