On September 29 2012, I popped along to the iconic grounds of Hever Castle on the Kent/Sussex border to witness my first ever triathlon.
Yvonne, from the hosts, Castle Triathlon, had invited me down to do some live pieces for BBC Radio Kent’s Saturday morning output, interviewing some of the competitors, organisers and showing off a bit of the flavour of the event.
Then something unexpected happened.
I was hooked.
Looking at the mix of fear, excitement and determination in the eyes of some of the athletes that Saturday, I knew I needed to give this a go. The eclectic mix of super honed physical machines, to the bloke next door, vacuum packed into his less-than-flattering wetsuit made it so appealing.
I thought, ‘if they can do it, so can I!’
Cajoled by Matthew Davies and boasting to a few thousand listeners on air, I proudly confirmed I’d take part next year.
A day or two later and my place was booked. The Olympic distance (1.5k Swim, 40k Bike, 10k Run). And so began the year long process that was trying to get in shape to at least finish the damn race.
The gym and swim membership was purchased, the less-than-flattering neoprene, the bike, the whole kit.
If I had to work late and couldn’t train, I felt guilty. If I was injured (as happened frequently during the cricket season), I felt guilty. If I woke up and didn’t think about triathlon, I felt guilty. I was, and still am, completely taken in.
I think the technical term is ‘caught the bug.’ And nobody’s found a cure yet.
So the training was undertaken, the first ever sprint distance completed in June and the pathetic attempt at ‘tapering’ finished.
I’d done another recce to Hever the day before to do some similar radio pieces to the previous year. It was the same location, but it was bigger. The water somehow seemed colder. The hills steeper. The grass longer. And rather than taunts on air for taking part, it was well wishes and curious questions like ‘why?’
Race day arrived.
I could barely keep the Rice Krispies down, such was the mix of nerves and excitement. This was later to prove my downfall in a big way.
With the car packed the night before, Em and I arrived at Hever 90 minutes prior to my start time of 1040. Blissfully the second slowest wave. From seeing the km boards from the roads, the butterflies flapped harder, and even parking up, the muffled tones of the tanoy from the adjacent field just made things worse. No going back now.
Triathlon should be a sport for the OCD. A bike immaculately prepared. The transition area prim and proper, everything in a line as it’s required. I tried to match the competitors next to me and was vaguely happy with my efforts. A crumpled towel, a banana tucked into my cleats and socks unrolled. Valuable 10 seconds saved there!
On the start line, I was surprisingly calm. The good will messages and inexperience of the other competitors easing my fears. Even the experienced ones being friendly made it for a great little atmosphere. For the couple of hundred of ‘Blue Caps’ – I felt like Brothers in Arms.
The camaraderie of the sport is one of my favourite aspects. In the months of training in isolation, having others to relate to my plight made everything seem a bit more normal.
Climbing into the painfully cold water, my cries masked my trepidation.
The gun sounded, the legs kicked, the arms whirled. The 2013 Hever Castle Triathlon was go.
I quickly found a rhythm on the swim, completely unsure of how fast I was going, should go or where I was in relation to everybody else. 400 metres to the turn and we’d sorted ourselves into an order to save being kicked in the face or have somebody tug at my toes.
The cold went away and the next 30 minutes passed without alarm.
Around 50 metres before the end of the swim, I could just make out the cheers of the crowd. It gives you an amazing lift. So did the guys picking me out of the water.
After a munch of banana, I was on my way, passing the cheers of the girlfriend and family.
Onto the open road!
The first lap of the bike went pretty well. Not as wet and treacherous as the previous attempt. I was even overtaking some people. On the hills. And the downhills. I found solace and slipstreaming from a chap with a purple and green cycle jersey before my chain came off.
Like Brothers in Arms in every good movie, I told him to soldier on without me.
The odd part of the cycle was the complete inability to compute whether the person you were chasing was on their first or second lap, in your wave or not. Some were just doing the bike as part of a relay. Were they burning past me for a reason? You spend so much time looking at the colour of their race number and rationalising your torture through their speed. In good company, the isolation with your own mind is an odd time.
A second, slower lap completed and another munch on the banana in transition.
Within 10 seconds of my run, I knew I was in trouble. The legs just weren’t turning over as quick as they should have. Others were breezing past. I was slowly running on empty.
The masochistic organisers placed a 1km hill to start the route. Trudging up it like running through treacle, I saw others in pain and took small comfort.
I battled my way around the woods, the fields, the gravel and undulating terrain. Some guy in board shorts passed me twice in quick succession but I plodded on (emphasis on the plodded).
Any time I slowed or stretched or walked, I was asked regularly whether I was OK, if I needed help. Even in the midst of their own agony, people still had it in them to check on others. It was so reassuring and touching.
250 metres from the downhill finish, and with 300 or so cheering spectators lining the home straight, I summoned the last ounce of energy I had to put in a sprint finish and collapse over the line.
Again, the spirit of the event washed over. Struggling to breathe and welcoming the bananas back the way they came, half a dozen people came to my aid, stricken in a foetal position.
Eventually gathering my head again, the enormity of it started to sink in.
Hugs with Em and the family ensued and I even allowed myself a smile. My body in pieces but overcome with a sense of achievement I’ve rarely felt.
On September 29 2013, that year long bug – and I’d found the drug for it.
Wednesday, 2nd October 2013