“One sport is not enough.”
It’s a compelling mantra by Triathlon Plus magazine, and it’s an idea embedded in the minds of triathletes who seek the ultimate endurance competition. I shied away from the demands of the sport for many years as a poor swimmer - growing up watching my two sisters glide up and the down the lanes of our local lido while I thrashed around, getting nowhere. I was an impatient kid that sought thrills, not the chlorine-soaked verruca-encrusted poolside. Ten years later and I fell into the sport again by accident.
Swimming in the spring of 2012 was an activity designed purely to compliment other sports: a cure for shin splints, for recovery and flexibility in climbing, to cross-train for running and cycling. So I never anticipated it would become a sport for me in its own right.
The summer brought a jewel box of sporting history, with all the hype and glamour you could ask for. From an office in Warwick, I watched as Alistair Brownlee finished the Olympic Men’s Triathlon in 1st place, taking the Gold medal that he duly deserved with Jonathon not far behind, a brilliant moment. Yorkshire lads too, I was rooting for the home boys and it’s hard to deny the Brownlee effect, giving the sport a popular face (or two) and a great media story. Sport England recently increased the funding for triathlon by 30% for youngsters and it’s no wonder why (BBC News).
Yet my imagination was really taken by open water swimming. The call for ripping up coastal waters around the UK still abounds in me but experience and training has to come first. In October this year I enlisted the help of a swim coach to learn freestyle technique, the first step on a path I hoped to becoming a wildswimmer and triathlete. What came next was hard, gruelling even, and I’ve never had such a mental challenge trying to feel comfortable in the water.
Each coaching session raped my cardio-vascular system for all it was worth. My lungs screamed for air and my mind logically said bring my head above the surface. Forcing myself to push on and attempt another length was difficult. It's a wonder that I survived nine months swimming in amniotic fluid before birth. Practising freestyle by myself in the mornings before uni, the experience was at times miserable if not a little stressful, full of negativity like, “I’m just not a swimmer. It's probably time to give up.” Why take up a sport that you don’t enjoy and you’re no good at?
Because life will throw up the same challenge eventually, and we all make choices whether to turn back for the comfort of mediocrity or to stand our ground.
The Brownlee effect remained still, and I was researching a story for the Leeds Student on their upcoming race in Auckland (heavy editorial bias), which meant I had my finger on the pulse of elite tri competition. I kept putting the hours in at the pool, wanting to ‘feel’ the water. Another lesson from my coach and things started to fall into place. There was a consistency and a smoothness to my stroke which all adds to efficiency. Eventually I started to make serious gains and was putting power through the glide, which had been there all along but I never harnessed it thanks to poor technique.
The cool feel of the water rippling over your body as you pull deep into the pool, rotating, propelled forward and smashing out the next stroke like Michael Phelps. Your cardiovascular is in overdrive and your muscles are reaching new levels of endurance in calm and controlled showmanship. This is the lure of the swim.
In late November, an opportunity came up that continued to play on my mind. The Edge’s ‘Super Sprint Triathlon’ for Children in Need involved a 400m swim, 10k ride on spin bikes and 3k on the treadmill. 400 metres equates to 16 lengths in the pool, which is easy for an average swimmer. For me, it would be the culmination of weeks of work. So I entered the day before and didn’t tell anyone about my attempt, except for my girlfriend - she used to swim at county level and that was pressure enough! But without too much expectation, it was just me and the pool and the clock.
There’s a buzz at the start of any race. Adrenaline, hopes and fears all play a part. I was proud to finish the Super Sprint with a respectable time of 41 minutes, including a fast time on the bike. So there’s promise for the real triathlon experience in spring next year and open water tris are the real goal.
Until then, good luck with winter training folks, be it in the pool, on the roads or high mountain.