Saturday, November 09, 2013

The London Triathlon 2013

I signed up for the Olympic distance London Triathlon at the end of last year. The prospect of a 1.5 km swim, 40 km cycle and 10 km run around the monuments of London excited me. Every so often I need a new challenge and I find that things of this nature give an additional focus to a year and provide a helpful incentive to get off my arse and be a bit more healthy. I had added incentive this year, hoping to raise funds for a charity dear to a very poorly friend of mine (the fantastic Royal Marsden). There was therefore no turning back.

The challenge of a triathlon is balancing the training and race effort on the three very different disciplines. I have done quite a lot of cycling, run the odd half marathon and the solitary full marathon, so I made the conscious choice to concentrate nearly all my training on the swimming. In this choice lay future pain…

I have always considered myself a reasonably strong swimmer, being the water baby that I am, but the truth is that I have never been all that good at freestyle. I am fine over a very short sprint, but I have never been able to get the breathing quite right. Triathlon obsessed friends had recommended doing a bit of coaching, but I could not quite bring myself to spend the money. So I just practised.

Weekly swims at the local pool shook the rust off and got me going, and I finally became a half competent freestyle swimmer going back and forth and back across a bay in front of my Greek house. A month of 1 km a day swims put me in better shape than I have been for years. Better still, covering so much distance just above the sea floor turned into a surprisingly fruitful Mediterranean wildlife safari. Squid, snails, flatfish, flying gunard (check them out on google - very cool), octopus and a dozen other variety of fish. The most remarkable and surprising encounter was a 5 minute swim next to a trumpet fish. These long, thin, alien looking fish are not even meant to live in the Med. It appears a few have slipped through the Suez Canal!

As for runs and cycles, let's just say I went for the minimalist training approach... and as for combining these disciplines with each other in training the very minimalist approach. 


My thoughts of an idyllic race around the landmarks and prettier parts of London were dashed on arrival. Setting off from the Excel centre in the east end docklands, the route stuck resolutely to unattractive parts of the capital. The swim was to be in the sloppy green water of the dock, the cycle around a loop of an East London dual carriage way and the run around the Excel centre itself. Not exactly inspiring.
That is where my complaints of the event cease. So much effort goes into arranging the biggest participation triathlon in the world and they do a great job. There is a carnival, if a bit corporate, atmosphere at the Excel. Thousands of people milling around stalls which are selling (and occasionally giving away) everything triathlon related you could imagine and a lot more besides. I felt a real amateur with my knackered old hybrid bike, borrowed wet suit and speedos. Everywhere I looked were hardcore triathletes with top of the range break the bank road bikes and tri-suites.

The scale of the place and occasion struck home when I made it through to the change over area. Rows upon rows upon rows of change over lanes, complete with parked bikes and kit. This is a key part of the logistical nightmare of arranging a triathlon. Shepherding huge amounts of people at varying times in and out of a confined area to prep for the swim, transition from dripping wet wetsuit into cycle gear and then finally get ready for the run. This vast hall had room for a couple of thousand people at a time. I was not sure I was ready for this!


If you want to do “hopeless amateur” at a triathlon, I doubt there are many better ways to line up at the start line then with your wetsuit back-to-front. Having only tried on the wetsuit once before since borrowing it from a mate (thanks Ramsay), that is exactly what I did, triggering an embarrassingly ungainly torso tustle with neoprene in front of the crowds.

Now sweating and a bit perturbed, I joined in with the rest of my start group in the MC prompted high-fives and manly war grunts. Then out the door and into the disconcertingly green Thames water in the Royal Victoria Dock.
Thanks to Virgin Triathlon for this pic
I had heard many a horror story of triathletes beating the shit out of each other on the swim, all punches, pulls and half drownings. Whereas there was the odd inadvertent heavy contact with those around me (usually I imagine at my doing), overall I found the swim a pleasant experience. This is the part I had trained for and to my satisfaction it all went smoothly.  Trying to save something in the tank for legs 2 and 3 of the triathlon, I did not push myself too hard, but still finished the 1500m in the better half of the pack in just under 32 minutes.

Scrambling out the water and back towards the change-over zone, the enthusiastic crowd provided a real buzz of an atmosphere. Eventually finding my rack, I had to strip down and out of my budgie-smugglers and into my cycle gear without any stewards spotting my momentary nakedness (for some hyper-moral reason the powers that be at this triathlon have a real issue with people showing off their bits). That small feat achieved as part of an exceptionally unimpressive change-over time, I clipped into the bike and rolled out onto the road.
To my surprise and annoyance, I was climbing a hill before I knew it. One of the reasons I had chosen the London Triathlon was out of a misguided notion that London is flat and therefore I would not have to pant up and down inclines. I was wrong. The organisers had seemingly specifically chosen a route that goes up and down and up and down a series of tunnels and bridges, replicating some not inconsequential climbs. The impact of this on my performance was made clear as over and over, having past riders on the flat, they would then fly past me on the climbs on their multi-thousand pound feather light road bikes as I struggled with my chunky knackered old hybrid.

This impediment did though bring rewards. Over the three laps of the course which lead from the Excel centre up towards (but not close enough to see) Tower Bridge and back again, I inadvertently played tag on repeat with another rider. We must have passed each other a dozen times. It was a really nice touch that he pulled alongside as the cycle came to a close and said, given that we had raced together for 40 km, we should finish together.
In toe behind my fellow rider, I made it up the ramp in a pretty average 1 hour 16 minutes for the ride. Not an awesome time, but given I had not really trained for the cycle and was riding the bike equivalent of a Volks Wagen (while most people were riding Porsches), I was relatively happy.

So to a quick change of shoes and onto the run. Only 10 km to go, comprising 3 short laps of a meandering course in and around Excel. As it turned out, a big “only”.

From the second I started jogging out over the start line, I knew I was struggling. Vengeful cramps wrenched my lower thighs and I really struggled to keep lifting my legs. I suddenly realised why everyone recommends that you combine different parts of the triathlon in your training schedule. The pumping of the pedals up and down the hills had left my upper legs shot and not prepared to run. As I hobbled along in significant pain I vowed to myself that I would train properly next time...

Being the bloody minded bastard I am, there was no chance of me not finishing, but on that first lap it was all I could do to alternately drag my legs into a faltering jog before falling back to a few seconds of walking. It is at these times that the crowd and other competitors really help. The triathlon has oodles of good will and camaraderie and there is mutual encouragement from all angles that spurs you on.

By the second lap the pain was still there, but I could feel the cramps starting to recede, replaced by sheer tiredness. I pushed on into a slow non-stop jog accompanied by a grimace. It felt like a long time before I crossed the line for the start of the final lap. I had thus far not concentrated on the time, but allowed myself a quick glance at the clock over the finish line. Given the trouble I was having with the run, I had long ago given up any idea of getting a decent time and was just looking to finish the race. To my serious surprise, on calculating my race time from the clock, I realised that if I got a move on I could still make sub 3 hours. All I needed was a 19 minute last lap.

As it turned out, this was just what I needed to get my arse into gear. With further grimaces and a self promoted fire up my arse I left every bit of energy I had on the route of the final lap. Running through the finish straight with the crowds cheering was a feeling of heightened exhilaration. The last surge of adrenaline drained out the pain and tiredness, leaving this fantastic buzz of endorphins and relief.
Crossing the line in 2:57 I was pretty chuffed. I even allowed myself an indulgent arms outstretched moment before the pain took back over and, hands over hips and bent double, I sucked beautiful oxygen back into my system.

In the immediate aftermath my thoughts veered between... if I just train properly, purchase a road bike and triathlon gear I could get my time down to 2:30... and... thank god that's over!

Despite the rather uninspiring East London location and inherent pain, the London Triathlon is a great event. A lot of people getting together with passion and a sense of common purpose to do something a bit different. An addictive buzz, but whereas I definitely plan to do a triathlon again, I don't think I was ever in danger of falling for the all too common pitfall amongst triathletes of obsessing over the sport to the point where other interests dwindle away and you have little else to talk about (I always have something to talk about!). If a friend of yours has ever done an iron man you will most likely know what I mean...

So to next year and a new challenge yet unknown. A final thanks to all those who sponsored me and raised money for the phenomenal Royal Marsden (
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