Triathlon is a hobby, for me and many others who will never make a career out of it. A leisure-time pursuit undertaken for pleasure. Some people think that our hobby doesn’t sound very pleasurable. During this year’s Aberfeldy Middle Distance tri I started to see their point. It was an unpleasant struggle and made me question continuously what I was doing it for. Why was I continuing to cycle when I was whole-body shivering and couldn’t work out whether my fingers were frozen solid or just stuck together with energy gel? Why was I continuing to run towards the turnaround point knowing that every step took me further from Aberfeldy – the nearest cuppa and hot shower – while my Achilles ached, my feet were prickling with pins and needles and my spirits flagged? Why was I doing this ‘for fun’ in my spare time? I had no answers.
The struggle was definitely more mental than physical, but the root cause was a poorly-made decision about what to wear for the cycle. That was it, pretty much: one lousy decision. Since completing the same race in 2013 (and loving it: see blog) with only a trisuit on for the cycle I’d convinced myself that this is how the race could and should be raced every year. Then in 2014 the temperature caught me out, forcing me to stop to don a light jacket half way through. Still, in 2015 I was determined that I’d be fine with just a trisuit, even though the air temperature was predicted to be 10 degrees C or below. Caught out by the Scottish summer again. I should’ve known better.
Sure, there were some other contributory factors that meant I wasn’t overflowing with positivity going into the race. My training and motivation had tailed off a bit since the British Championships in June, so I didn’t feel on top form. My cycling confidence at speed had taken a literal bashing when I came off my bike in June too. The swim leg had been shortened from 1900 to 750 m due to the lake being too cold, which disadvantaged me because I like a long swim. Even so, as the race organiser was describing the swim during the race briefing I had a rising dread at the thought of voluntarily getting into cold water – the doubts had begun. I’d also had trouble sleeping the night before due to pain in the sciatic nerve of my right leg. An old issue that I thought I’d gotten over. So I was using ibuprofen through the race to numb the pain, knowing full well that ibuprofen and endurance sport aren’t the healthiest of bed-fellows. My success at Bamburgh just three weeks earlier failed to win out over these niggles: glass half empty syndrome.
I was 2nd in my age group here in 2014, so my aim this year was for a podium position in my new age group (veteran: 40-49). The winning veteran from 2014 – Ashley Pearson – had been more than 10 minutes quicker than me on the bike in 2014 and was racing again, so I didn’t fancy my chances of an age-group win. I was also under no illusions that I could place highly overall, as there were some very quick women racing.
The water in Loch Tay wasn’t as cold as I’d expected (a little psychological boost), and the swim went well. Then I transitioned on to the 90 km cycle. It was 07:40 am and the air was cold. Most other people were putting on extra layers in transition. I ignored them. In hindsight the few seconds it would have taken to put on arm warmers and a gilet (N.B. technical fabric gilet rather than the down or fur-lined versions I used to associate with the word!) would have made the world of difference to my race. Actually, perhaps fur-lined would have been the way to go….
My Strava log for the cycle shows that it was better than it felt. At least Ricky, my trusty steed, had been well prepped by the lovely guys at Leith Cycles. But I found that whole-body shivers were not conducive to good, confident bike handling. Nevertheless I put in my fastest times over many sections of this now-familiar course, taking 5 minutes off my 2014 time and over 20 minutes off of 2013. I wonder how much more I could’ve shaved off had I been enjoying it. And not shivering. It was a punishing experience and one that made me question whether I would continue doing triathlon after this race.
I was in a sorry state psychologically when I arrived back into Aberfeldy to transition on to the run. My neighbours enjoy watching me race for some reason, and have come up from Edinburgh in time for the 2nd transition for the last two years. (Upon seeing me on my bike once my 5 year old neighbour, Jacob, asked if I knew Chris Hoy, so I suspect he hopes to see him at my races!). It was a real boost to see them cheering me on. Supporters really do make so much difference to competitors.
I had no idea where I was ranking in the race – this is common in triathlon, meaning you just have to give it your all and see what placing you end up with. In fact I was 2nd veteran upon starting the run, 2 minutes behind Ashley Pearson. But she pulled out of the race shortly into the run, leaving me in 1st. If I’d have known that the run would have been very different! Instead, there was none of the ‘great, the cycle is finished and the end is in sight’ feeling I described in my Rimini post… this was going to be a slog to the end. (I’m really not selling middle distance triathlon very well am I? Honestly: they’re usually fab, and the Aberfeldy race is usually fab too. This was a blip.)
I didn’t feel as strong as I usually do starting the half marathon part, perhaps because my extremities hadn’t warmed up sufficiently, and because I was in a horrendously bad mood. My pace wasn’t as good as I’d have liked, but I wasn’t factoring in the fact that the hillier start would have brought my average down from last year. Then I saw a red squirrel – a beautiful furry little mammal, that is threatened in the UK by the non-native grey squirrel and habitat loss. A stunning creature that I’d not seen in Scotland before. This should’ve been another boost, but alas this one was roadkill :(. A little further I saw another, also dead 😦 :(. These were not cheery sights. Then, finally, a live one ran across my path :). Final squirrel tally for the race was 3 dead:1 alive. At least seeing so many could indicate that the local population, minus a few individuals, is pretty healthy.
All through the out and back run course I was smiling pleadingly at those going the other way to try to elicit some glimmer of support and solidarity. The frontrunners tend to not make eye contact, their race faces are set and their race plan must not be deviated from. But for me I desperately needed the psychological boost and the palpable energy I got from others (and it looked like others needed the same). I do think that this strategy got me through the run.
The finish couldn’t come quickly enough. I was spent. I did not want to hear or think about triathlon for a good long while. It was only upon getting a print-out of my results 30 minutes later that I found out I was 1st veteran! A complete shock after such a shocker of a race. Disappointingly, but perhaps understandably, my run was 3 minutes slower than in 2014 (Strava log), although with the longer course my pace was only 4 seconds slower per km. Still, should have been quicker. Overall time 4:57:08, 1st veteran and 8th female overall (1st female, the professional Nikki Bartlett, was 4:28:43)
So will I do another triathlon? Of course I will! But what lessons will I take from this experience?
- Take better notice of the conditions and dress accordingly. Don’t think you can tough it out.
- I tried to stay at peak fitness for too long this year, and burnt out. Race seasons need to be shorter in future (or my training needs to be smarter)