In some ways, this post is has been one of the most difficult ones to write. Why? because in some respects it represents a personal failure, and would have been easier just to not write about. But having said that, it also represents a moment in my life which I will never forget and one that I want to remember.
It all started in June 2015 when having finished the Four Peaks Mountain Bike race in Austria, my friends and I were discussing what to do next? After mulling around various ideas we finally agreed on doing a triathlon together. At that point, which triathlon? and where? had not been decided.
Over the next few months, my best friend of 25 years Mursel Rexhepi, suggested that we should do the Mallorca Olympic Triathlon. In his words ‘the water would be warm and clear, the scenery would be spectacular and it gave us plenty of time to train as it was in April 2016’. The thought sounded appealing and despite some concerns over my swimming ability, I signed up and set about preparing myself for the challenge.
Having been a lifeguard for some 20 years my swimming was OK but easily my weakest event, I knew I wouldn’t be confident swimming in the sea and was unsure I could cover the Olympic distance of 1500m. I joined the local pool and worked my way up gradually so that I was doing 1500m once a week. My times gradually came down from 48 minutes to 36 minutes for the distance, so things seemed to be going to plan. Until one night after an intense session in the pool, I was having difficulty breathing. After struggling all night to breathe, next day I booked myself in to see a physio. He advised me that I was suffering from costochondritis, a condition which had most likely been caused by the repeated pulling action, and over-breathing. This did knock my confidence but fortunately with a few weeks rest and some exercises, I was able to build up the swimming again to 1500m.
For the last ten years my primary sport has been cycling, so for this part of the event, I just carried on doing my normal training which averaged about 70 miles per week. As it would turn out, the biggest challenge for the cycle leg would be to get my bike in competition shape. I noticed one week before the race, that the bottom bracket was seizing, after two bike shops had told me that they couldn’t replace it, as they didn’t have the tools, I was beginning to think I was going to have to hire a bike to race. After talking to some people ‘in the know’ my last chance was to take the bike to ‘Lifecycles Lowestoft’, who assured me that they could change the bottom bracket before Sunday when I was due to fly out.
After ordering a special tool on an overnight carrier it took the force of four men to free the bottom bracket, which was ceramic and had been in place for about 10 years. When it finally broke free I was told it sounded like a gun going off and they thought they had cracked the frame. They hadn’t. I got my bike back the day before my flight and was starting to feel ready to race.
I had a long history of achilles tendinitus so I knew that this leg was also going to be a challenge. For months, I did physio exercises to strengthen my right achilles, then I tried to run. Good news, I was pain-free. Over the next few weeks, I built up to ten miles on the beach. In hindsight, this was probably too much too soon and the tendinitis appeared in my left leg. It was so painful I was hobbling for a whole week afterward. I persevered for a few weeks, but quickly decided the only way I was going to race was if I stopped running and did the physio exercises on the left leg too.
Unfortunately, this just made it worse, causing me to rest it completely and ice it every night for the six weeks leading up to the race. I could at least start the race pain-free, even if afterwards I would be in pain and limping for a week. Oh to be young again!
Mallorca is a beautiful island off the Spanish coast. To arrive ready to race with all my body parts working and a bike ready to race was a big relief.
Pictured: The salt lakes in Collonia Sant Jordi, on the first night.
I had already decided not to run in the week before the race because of my delicate Achilles, so the key things to do were to familiarise myself with the bike course and get used to swimming in the sea. The bike course was a dream. Long straight roads, through old Spanish towns and with a surface to die for. A puncture in the first 20 minutes didn’t amuse me but was fixed with the help of friends and we were soon off again.
The swimming was a different matter. Having not really swum in the sea and never in a wetsuit, it was a new experience for me. It was windy during the week so quite choppy in the sea. I practiced swimming up and down the beach with my friends, trying to get used to the salt water, waves, and fish. I was finding it difficult. The fear of swimming out into the unknown was quite overwhelming.
I desperately needed a confidence boost. I needed to convince myself I could swim 1500m in a wetsuit. So next day I visited the ‘Best Swim Centre’ an elite 50m swim centre just down the road from the hotel, which had been set up by two former Olympians. I’d never swum in a 50m pool and even with the added buoyancy of my wetsuit, I was making hard work of it. My arms and shoulders ached like never before and I stopped swimming after 900m. I later worked out that the wetsuit wasn’t fully pulled up and consequently was restricting my shoulder movement and making it difficult to swim. I must take the time to make sure the wetsuit was fitted properly I kept saying to myself.
That afternoon I decided that to swim right out to sea was beyond my capability. I’d made up my mind. I wasn’t going to race. I got on my bike and went to find my friends Mursel and Kathy to tell them of my decision. Of course, they tried to persuade me that I could do it, but I was frightened and had made up my mind. That afternoon I punished myself for my lack of bottle. I rode out on the bike like a man possessed. Thirty minutes later I was at a lighthouse called Cap de Ses Salines. I was a lonely thought provoking place. A place where over many years people like me had remembered the dead by piling rocks into little towers.
Pictured: My bike at the Cap de Ses Salines Lighthouse
I was very emotional. I thought of my late father and built a little pile of rocks in his memory. I looked at the waves crashing all around me and looked deep into my soul to ask myself whether I could do the swim. During the ride back I decided that I should wait until Friday afternoon at the technical briefing before making my decision.
During the next two days, I thought about all the obstacles and challenges I had overcome previously. There were many. I thought about my nephews, and about how scared they were each time they went to a big competition, and about how they looked up to me for an example. How I always encouraged them to do their best, to have a go. If I didn’t start this race, could I really say that I had done those things? No was the answer I came up with. I must face my fears.
At the technical briefing, I asked one of the former Olympic swimmers for his advice to me as a very nervous first-time sea swimmer. He said to me,”Wait until everyone else has run into the water, look up every ten strokes so you can pick out the buoys, stay calm and take your time. Swim near someone if you can. There are rescue boats, and if you get into trouble just put your hand up.”
This sounded like sound advice and I decided to do the race. My friends were pleased that I had decided to join them.
With 1 hr sleep that night, race day had come. I must have swum the channel and back in my head that night, and now I just wanted to get on the start line. After breakfast, I met my friends on the beach, and we arranged our kit in the transition area, put on our wetsuits and waited for the ten-minute call.
Men were to go off first with women 7 minutes later. I remembered the swimmers advice, and on the hooter I waited for everyone to run into the sea. I followed slowly and tried to relax into a slow rhythmic pace. I was near my friend Mursel, who encouraged me with regular shouts. The water got deeper and deeper, the shore got further and further away and the buoys gradually came closer and closer. We had to negotiate 5 buoys in a semicircle clockwise around the bay. Up until buoy three, I was feeling fine. My confidence wavered as a wave hit me and knocked me off my rhythm, I switched to breast stroke for a while, to catch my breath. Breaststroke, crawl, breaststroke, crawl. I was going to get round one way or another.
Suddenly I felt something hit me on the back of the head. I quickly realised it was the elite women. The lead group swam right over me. I coughed and spluttered a bit and carried on, but I was starting to feel weaker and the buoys weren’t getting any closer. Soon I was alone, no swimmers were near me and the waves were getting bigger. I started to panic and decided that NOW would be a good time to put my hand up. But nobody saw me. I rolled over onto my back to try and get my breath but waves were coming over me. I kicked my legs and raised my arm again. Still nobody. I could see a lighthouse, I thought it was on the shore where I needed to swim to, and starting swimming crawl again towards it. More waves came over me, I put my hand up again. This time, a lifeguard in a kayak paddled over to me and told me to hold on.
I was breathless and panting like a dog, he tried to pull me on board but the kayak nearly turned over, so we waited for the rescue boat. Four Spanish men hauled me on board, I sat coughing and wheezing, just looking at the floor of the boat and trying to gather my thoughts. Yes, I was relieved I had been rescued, but at the same time felt such a feeling of failure.
Once I’d got back on dry land, I went to cheer on my friends Mursel and Kathy. Both first-time triathletes they were going well, and not known for giving up on anything. My sadness became joy as I saw them coming round lap after lap of the run, they were going to finish and in excellent time (Mursel 2.33 & Kathy 2.54). I was so pleased for them and so proud.
Pictured: Mursel and Kathleen Rexhepi
What did I learn?
I learned that especially in a sea swim it’s important that your competence is equal to your bottle. An Olympic Triathlon is not to be taken lightly. My intention for the future will be to improve my swimming, practice open water swimming, build up with shorter distances and be very sure of myself before doing another 1500m swim at sea.
In the end, you are the only one who can make the decision to do it, or not do it. You are the only one who can motivate yourself to train. But having the support and encouragement of friends makes it easier and much more fun. I am looking forward to the next challenge.
Race winner was Rickard Carlsson in 1.50.52, overall second and first woman was Emma Pallant (GBR) in 1.52.03. Full results.