Brave? or Stupid?

It has taken a long, long time to feel ready to write this. But I’ve had a good day today, so I’m going for it. It will be quite long.

My triathlon was almost a month ago. 4 weeks tomorrow. I was so excited about it, but in the end it didn’t quite go to plan.

In my last post, I referred to a cold. I didn’t realise at the time, but this was more than a cold. It took a long time to get over, I had 2 days off work and went back before I was ready as I wasn’t getting paid to be at home sleeping it off.

I had almost 2 weeks off training – my body needed it, but in terms of the triathlon it wasn’t great. I missed an open water swim training session, the only one I could have attended due to work commitments, because I was just too ill, and this turned out to cost me very dearly.

I eventually got back to training just 4 days before the big day. I went for a bike ride, and it was unbelievably depressing. My chest felt OK but my legs wouldn’t work on the bike. I took a different route, with different (but no bigger) ‘hills’ to what I was used to. (Inverted commas as I have now moved to Scotland and hills up here are a somewhat different concept). I felt awful, and was really down as I knew this wasn’t going well. I decided to carry on and do a short run, just for practice running on tired bike legs, and also to try out triathlon suit number 3, and the run was a bit better. I’ve found running after a bike ride is much easier as I’m already warmed up.

Friday 7th, 2 days before the race, was my birthday and I wanted to go to the Creek to watch the sunset for possibly the last time from this location. I also wanted to run there, as the last one had gone so badly. This was to be the furthest I had ever run, and while I hadn’t expected to spend my birthday alone yet again, let alone running, I really enjoyed it. The sunset didn’t disappoint and I felt very peaceful despite all that was going on at the time.

The day before the race had been the usual faffing and panicking as to whether I had everything I needed and whether I was really fit enough to take part. I worked out what time I would need to get up, shuddered, and decided to try and take things as easy as I could on the Saturday. This didn’t entirely go to plan, as I was renovating my house, moving out, packing, leaving my job etc, but I managed to leave enough time for a little recce trip to the seaside in the evening, to see where I was going on the morning of the race. I looked at the sea, and felt a rush of nerves, excitement and panic all in one. I drove round the bike course and started to relax – no big hills thank goodness.

In my drive to force myself to sit down and rest up the night before (on my dad’s advice), I’d painted my nails a cheerful shade of minty green (to match my motorbike) and to make me smile when I got nervous and looked down. Nail painting happens rarely, but it does slow me down as I have to sit calmly so I don’t smudge anything and then wait for it to dry.

Race day came. I dragged myself out of bed, and my dogs barely stirred as I loaded everything into the car. Their lack of activity was a sign of just how early it was, as we are normally up and out for a walk at 5.45am on weekdays.
It was foggy outside, and I couldn’t see the bottom of the garden or the fields next to it. Driving to the start, I had to really wake up and switch on as the fog was so thick – almost the worst I have driven in. As I got nearer to Clacton, I saw a couple of cars with bikes on the roof, and the butterflies really started up.
The details before the race aren’t that exciting, I flapped lots and didn’t have a clue what to do in what order, but getting my race number inked on was quite fun and I was pleased with my race number – 5. This was one less than my bike racing number 6, and given I’d raced with either 56 or 65 when 6 wasn’t available, 5 was good for me. It’s also Colin Edwards’ race number and he’s a great guy so I was happy about that.
Walking to the swim start took a while, and I chatted to a couple of people about the sea swim element, and triathlons/training in general. One chap I spoke to was celebrating his 50th birthday this year, and he had already done a marathon and was now doing the triathlon. We talked about how we’d enjoyed the training, in particular not doing the same thing all the time. It was a LONG walk and this didn’t exactly calm the nerves.
Finally the time came, and we picked our way over the rocks and dropped into the water. It was surprisingly warm, and considerably less brown than I’d expected. There were about 30 in our wave (the first to go) and I was relieved about this as I had been concerned about getting kicked (see previous blog post), dunked or swum over.

The first part of the swim was to be slightly against the tide, but once round the buoy, we would be tide-assisted. We were encouraged to splash about to get warmed up, which was fine. I got my head in the water, assessed the visibility which was nothing as expected, but the difficulty started when we had to swim back again to start the race. This stirred up the water, and created a bit of confusion as to whether we were in the right place and if we had had started or not.

My heart was pounding, and I was very flustered. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get out of a standing position and get myself onto my front. I flapped my arms, kicked my legs, tried to push myself forward but nothing was happening. Nothing was letting me put my face in the water, but I tried to at least do a few breast stroke movements. Still nothing. Another swimmer, Pauline, had already said hello to the police jetski and let them know we were first timers. She stayed with me for a little bit, but I told her to go as I knew I was struggling and didn’t want her to miss out.

The policeman stayed with me, continually asking if I was OK and reassuring me that there were people around if I needed them.

How are you doing? I’m OK, just struggling a bit and it’s my first time. I have asthma and I can feel myself starting to panic.
Are you OK? Yes. Do you want to come out? No. Do you have your inhaler? (I almost laughed as it’s not like my wetsuit had pockets) No.

Pause.

I thought about getting out, but didn’t want to give up.

Are you OK? Yes. Do you want to come out? No.

Pause.

Again, I thought about coming out, but realised my race would be over and all my training would have been for nothing. However, I wasn’t getting anywhere and could feel my wetsuit constricting around my neck and arms.

Then for the last time. Are you OK? No. Do you want to come out? Yes.

In no time at all, he helped me up onto the back of the jetski and before I knew it, the RNLI rib was over and I was being pulled into it (all very undignified but I didn’t care!).

By this time I was in a proper panic, in floods of tears and devastated I’d had to call it quits so early on. The RNLI guys were brilliant, very reassuring and trying to make me smile and calm me down. Most of all, I was incredibly embarrassed that I had been so stupid and badly prepared. They told me not to be so daft, said that was why they were there and to try and breathe easy.

My wetsuit was still choking me (this was psychological rather than actual) and I asked them to get me out of it. This got some chuckles and at last I started to relax. They told me their names although I can’t remember them now. One of them asked if I was single! I started to laugh, and huffed and puffed that yes I was, but I was moving to Scotland in a week. The non-single one laughed, it seemed the single one didn’t have much luck. I knew the feeling. In the end the whole wetsuit had to come off and then I was able to start to breathe more steadily and relax.

Before I knew it, I was back at the shore, and passed into the care of the race marshals and medical support team. One of the volunteers very kindly went back to the transition area to get my inhaler, although I knew it wouldn’t help very much. It was panic rather than asthma, although the former definitely started off the latter. I had a few puffs from my inhaler, but it did nothing.

I couldn’t stop crying, and thought back to when I broke my thumb racing at Cadwell – a kind marshal had put her arm round me while I had a big sob because it hurt so much and a few people had gathered to see what was going on and I didn’t want them to see me crying like a girl, even though I was a girl! One of the medics asked how my asthma was, I told him about the cold and he said that explained everything. I felt even more careless and stupid, but then he told me that he thought what we were doing was way harder than the Olympics! Full marks for trying to make me feel better, and I understood what he was saying, but I had to point out that I hadn’t done the swim. I could have kissed him when he said he admired people that tried.

I walked slowly back to the transition area, utterly distraught. I was exhausted and had stopped crying by this point. The race director came over and asked what had gone wrong, I told him and he asked if I wanted to do the bike and run. I was so relieved that it wasn’t all in vain after all, even though of course I wouldn’t show as a finisher.

I had a few minutes to get myself together, and headed over to get my bike. Once I was away on the bike, I felt a bit better. I smiled for the photographer, but shortly after this, I realised how hard this was going to be. Everything was burning, my chest was ready to burst and I had to work hard to calm myself down again. I had an idea of times I wanted to achieve, but early on I decided I just wanted to finish no matter what.

I was incredibly tense, and I think this was down to all the adrenaline going through my body after the ‘swim’. I had really bad pins and needles in my right hand, to the point where I couldn’t feel my fingers to change gear or use my brakes, but remembered from my previous racing life that this was probably because my glove was on too tight. I undid the strap completely, and gradually, the feeling came back. My chest was fine by this point, but my legs had nothing in them and even the flattest sections of the course felt very hard.

The first time I heard the howl of a bike with a disc wheel come past me, I wondered what on earth was going on. Soon after this, I noticed a beautiful Fireblade in HRC colours with a For Sale sign on, and this nearly sent me straight into the back of a parked car. I pulled over a couple of times as I am comically unable to get my drink bottle out from the cage without wobbling dangerously. Another marshal asked me how this was possible as surely I could multitask as a woman. I told him that breathing and cycling at the same time were hard enough today and we shared a laugh.

Riders who came past me shouted encouragement, which helped although it did make me feel very pathetic as I really was very slow.

The second lap was harder, but as the end of the bike leg came into sight, I was able to relax and begin thinking about the run. As I came onto the first bit of the ride to the transition area, I saw a blue and white jersey and a shape that looked suspiciously like my Dad. I didn’t recognise the bike, but then my Dad has more bikes than my mum has shoes and handbags so this wasn’t a surprise. I was so glad to see him, but embarrassed as I knew I would have to tell him what had happened. I managed to shout that the swim had been a disaster but that was all.

I got into the transition area, and as there was no pressure to get a result, I could take my time and not rush. I had another drink, and a couple of biscuits, and then headed out to start my run. I debated whether to wear my yellow running vest, but in the end I’m glad I did.

The start of the run was awful. I’d practiced the bike/run thing before, although the distances weren’t quite the same. But my legs felt so sore. My calves were so tight, and though logically I knew this wouldn’t last, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to complete the run. I also knew that the furthest I’d ever run was 4 miles, 2 days before the race. It was also unbelievably hot, and all in all it was not looking good.

Shortly after the start of the run, I saw a guy running just ahead of me, at a similar pace. I remember speaking to him briefly although I can’t remember what we said to each other. He started walking fairly soon, so did I. I decided to try running on my toes for a little bit, in an attempt to change how I was running, hoping this might help stretch things out. Gradually things eased and I settled into some vague running/walking routine. I ran as long as I could, then walked a couple of lamp posts and then ran again. I saw my Dad a couple of times, he was encouraging although I continued to feel rather daft.

Again, lots of people shouted encouragement as they came past which was great. Lots of shouts of “Come on number 5” and “Keep going number 5” – I shouted back “still alive” in a feeble voice when I could. People clapped in between eating their ice-creams and enjoying their beach huts. I was grateful to reach the halfway point of the pier. It was getting really hard, but somehow I felt confident I would make it to the end.

Soon after the half way point, I started to focus on the shadow that the railings cast on the path, just for something to concentrate on. This was dead straight and followed the edge of the path all the way along the promenade. If I looked away from this, I started to lose the plot a bit, and started to lose control of my breathing. On the return stretch of the run (to the pier then back), Lee came up to me with some encouraging words – he headed off and it took me a while to get myself back together again. Back to looking at the shadow…

We got near the end, and more and more people shouted nice things as they came past me. I saw the 2k to go marker and started to think about why I was running – not for long as the breathing started to go again, but it was very emotional. It was made more so by a guy coming past me who shouted ” A fine charity – keep going! ” and I felt very proud (and glad I had worn my vest!).

The end was in sight and I was determined to run the last stretch. I crossed the line. (Photo by Neil Williams)

All I wanted to do was go and hide in the toilet for a year, but my Dad had ridden a long way to come and get me. He has been there to help me through some very hard days, and I know that he wouldn’t have minded if I had collapsed in a little heap of wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I felt I wanted to leave that in the past.

I didn’t want to look at my times. I had a rough idea of how slow I’d gone, and didn’t want to face any more disappointment. We got home, and while I tried to stay awake while my parents did various DIY bits on my house, in the end I had to give in and go to bed for a while. I think this was partly due to the sun, and of course when adrenaline leaves the body, there is always a tremendous crash in energy levels.

It has taken the best part of a month to write this. My colleagues at work asked what had happened, but I had deliberately posted a summary on Facebook so I wouldn’t have to tell the whole story. Just giving a brief version to my new boss proved almost impossible.

I raised a terrific amount of money for the Lymphoma Association, and I am proud of that. I am sad that I didn’t complete the whole event. Mostly I am angry that I got so ill so near the race.

The next day I woke up and my chest felt awful. I went straight to the doctors and was given steroids to try and settle my asthma down. This is only the second course of Prednisolone in more than 15 years, and I was devastated. It’s easy to use the virus as an excuse, and I really didn’t want to do that.

In hindsight, should I have pulled my entry? Absolutely. Am I glad I went ahead? Yes.

Would I do it again? I’m not sure. I have a long, long way to go with my swimming before I will feel confident enough to try in open water again. I hope to give triathlon another go next year, but with a lot more practice next time.

But I have loved the running and the cycling, and the whole focus of the training. It took me outside my day-to-day life at an incredibly stressful time, when I really needed something else to thing about. I met some amazing people and (cliche ahoy) learnt so much about myself along the way.

Yes the asthma thing is a huge thing to tackle, but really, living such a sedentary lifestyle (working in an office, long commuting to my day job, sitting down to play the harp for hours at a time on background gigs and driving to and from those) was not sustainable so I needed to face it at some point. I now live close to some amazing scenery and I hope to enjoy this on my bike and in my running shoes.

I will be making a donation to the RNLI.

If you would like to donate to the Lymphoma Association, my Virgin Money Giving page is here.

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/harrietheharpist

Thanks for reading if you’ve made it to here!

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3 thoughts on “Brave? or Stupid?”

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