I have been very kindly supported this year by the charity Arctic ONE and they run an annual paratriathlon and triathlon. It seemed like a really friendly event that was open to everyone, from the totally unexperienced and unprepared (me), right through to elite athletes. I was very keen to take part, but had been putting off signing up due to problems with my left knee interfering with my running. That got a lot better and I started running more, but cycling training for London to Paris got in the way big time and training for the triathlon never really gained any momentum.
The triathlon rolled around and I had still only swum about 15 times over the last eight months since having my foot amputated, and although I had meant to arrange it, I had never been in open water. I’ve bobbed around in the sea a lot and dived with a wetsuit on, but had never swum properly in that kind of water or in a wetsuit. I used to swim a lot between the ages of 14 and 17 and was a lifeguard etc., but over the last six years I haven’t really done much swimming at all. So I was pretty scared. Looking back it was quite foolish to do it with so little preparation, but I knew there weren’t many in the race I was doing and it really didn’t matter whether I came last or how slowly I did it. I knew that I know how to swim, even if my swim fitness was way off where it needed to be. The plan was to get into a slow rhythm and just keep breathing.
Running was then put on hold again after a big fall 160 miles in to my L2P cycle which broke two ribs. They were still quite sore and breathing deeply was difficult due to the pain but I wanted to give it a go because it seems to be one of very few events of its kind, so Matt, who runs the charity, arranged for Jo who is a wheelchair racer, to do the run part of the event so we could do it as a relay. I could have walked the run, but anyone that knows me will tell you that I am rather competitive and walking probably wouldn’t have happened (especially as in the actual race I was being chased down by Kevin at the end of the cycle…).
The morning of the triathlon arrived, the wetsuit I’d hired online the Sunday before made it and I whacked some soap in my old goggles that fog up constantly to try to stop that happening. I convinced a friend, Beka, to come along to help and provide moral support, both of which she did beautifully! I racked my bike and sorted things out with the help of the incredibly helpful and supportive volunteers. Whilst waiting to get into the water I found out that a few of the others were doing their first triathlon too which was very reassuring. Matt said that there was someone had only swam in open water three times. That was three times more than me. Oh dear.
I hopped down into the water with an arm to lean on. It was cold. Very cold. Like, I really want to take a nice deep breath but it was too cold. Apparently it wasn’t even that cold, but when you spend summers working in hot countries and swimming in lovely warm seas, it was bloody freezing in comparison. I stuck my face in and it was green. What?! Why can’t I see?!! Freezing, can’t see a thing and don’t know if I’m actually capable of swimming. The one hidden bonus was that the wetsuit helped my buoyancy immensely and made me feel like I was flying rather than swimming, which made life a bit easier. The klaxon sounded. Oh crap. I look at the person next to me, “Does that mean go?” We looked around and people were starting to swim. So I stuck my head into the green bog* and off I swam. The next issue that I stumbled across was looking where I was going. I’d read about it and was aware that you need to look up to keep an eye on where you’re going, but when it came to it, it was hard because I just wanted to keep my head down and keep swimming because as soon as I lift my head, my hips drop and I’m not great at kicking them back up.
As I got to the first buoy I looked around to see where everyone else was and was baffled that I was in the front by quite a way. Oh no. Maybe I started before I was meant to. Do I stop? Do I keep going? I didn’t think I’d started before we were meant to so I decided to keep going. The next issue was turning. In a swimming pool you don’t really change direction like that and I’d never thought about it before. As I came along the next side I was swimming along quite nicely until I looked up and was practically in the reeds at the side of the lake. This freaked me out a bit, alongside the fact that there still wasn’t really anyone around me, so I switched over to breast stroke and kept my head up so I could see where I was going. I’m much stronger at front crawl than breast stroke, so this wasn’t a great move, but it made sense at the time in my head because it meant I could see. Going at my new slower pace, someone came up behind me and overtook me. I saw this as quite a positive thing and moved over for him to get past, as having someone near me meant I was going the right way etc., although then I got even more confused as he went inside some of the buoys. At this point, which was about half way, I took on some of that lovely water and had a little choke, but recovered and ploughed on.
As I got to the third buoy out of four, the nearest people behind me were coming round the second buoy. I felt like breast stroke was a bit of a cop out, so stuck my face in again and carried on with front crawl, but the water was still green. This freaked me out again and I was still rather confused by the whole situation – for some silly reason I’d assumed everyone would swim at the same pace. As there was no one there pushing me on and my aim of the day was to just survive and have a bit of fun, I reverted to breast stroke. I’d like to use the excuse of broken ribs affecting me, but I think the adrenaline was overriding the pain of my ribs and it wouldn’t have been very different if they were all in one piece. I asked the person near me in a canoe if I was allowed to be doing breast stroke and he told me to do whatever I want, which was good. I guess if that’s your stronger stroke and you aren’t hitting or kicking people by doing it, then it doesn’t matter at all which you do. Looking back, it is slightly frustrating because I know I can swim far better than that, but it was entirely my fault for not preparing adequately, I just hadn’t managed to fit it all in.
I came to the end and two people came either side of me to help me out, then as I got out of the water they lifted me and carried me up the bank to my crutches, which was a very welcome treat. (Not the crutches, that was a bit of a shock to the system – I haven’t used them for months, but luckily using them is like riding a bike, and six years of experience makes me a bit of a pro.)
I got to my bike and sat down to struggle out of my wetsuit. (I practised that once at 6am on the morning of the triathlon, but a dry wetsuit is v different to a wet wetsuit…) I chucked some clothes, a leg, shoes and my helmet on and skipped off with my bike.
I really, really love my bike. Cycling is my favourite. My front tyre was pretty soft (rookie error – failed miserably at pumping it up the night before and forgot to pump it up when I’d got there) which wasn’t ideal, but the cycling was wonderful all the same. The one guy who was in front of me got through transition incredibly quickly, gone before I’d even unzipped my wetsuit, so again, I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing because there didn’t seem to be anyone around me. So I had a lovely but lonely cycle around the lake. My legs were feeling it and weren’t amused by the anything-other-than-rockhard front tyre, but it was uneventful and I tried to push on, but without anyone there to race I found that tricky, I needed that buzz of racing someone to push me on.
I got off the bike. That’s quite an event in itself. Not meaning to blow my own trumpet, but I unclipped my right leg beautifully for once. I think I might just have mastered that. My right elbow has no new cuts on it (and is nearly healed from my previous fall) which is a giant step in the right direction. I hobbled over to Jo (moving fast in my cycling shoes isn’t easy), gave her the chip and off she went! I’d finished the swim and cycle in second place out of everyone in our race, which is a load of different classifications of athletes, and as the first female, so for a first attempt I was pretty happy. Jo whizzed around the run in her racing wheelchair and came back holding our second place overall. According to the results we had the fastest time which was brilliant! It was a pleasure doing the relay with Jo – thank you!
It was eventful, challenging and I have a lot to learn, but it was great fun and the perfect place to do a first (2/3s) triathlon. I met some great people – I don’t know many others who’ve had amputations so it was lovely to meet people and talk liners, feet etc., particularly with those at a similar level of activity and who can talk about it all with a bit of banter, it wouldn’t have been half as fun without you guys there! I can’t wait to do another (and the full thing, no broken ribs getting in the way) but only after a bit of open water swim practice…
*It wasn’t a bog, the water was probably lovely quality, I was just being a bit of a drama queen