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Road to Ironman UK: "What have I got myself into?"

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Read the next installment from Mara on her journey from first-time triathlete to Ironman Bolton.

We’re into months six and seven of Ironman UK training. February and March feel a lifetime ago. My routine is settled: eat, train, sleep, repeat is my new mantra. 5am or 6am alarms on the weekends are now my life - weekend brunches with the girls? Nope, these days it’s all about the bike rides with the cake and coffee stops followed by more cake and coffee (refuelling for that run afterwards). Ironically, I usually get my lie ins on the weekdays. And oh boy, I’ve never been so grateful for rest days.  

By the first week of April, I am itching for my first triathlon, which would be the Woking Sprint Triathlon on the first Sunday in April. But the weather had other ideas: the heavens opened and the rain poured and poured, forcing the organisers to cancel the triathlon; parts of the bike and run course were flooded. You know what that meant? My first triathlon instead was going to be the half-iron Grafman Middle Distance Triathlon in May. Slightly feeling bad-ass that a half iron distance triathlon will now be my race where on completion I finally can call myself a triathlete. But also feeling so nervous - I haven’t even completed an open water swim yet. Uh- oh: What have I got myself into? 

As soon as London Royal Docks opened up their open water swimming sessions and level 1 courses for open water beginners for the year, I hit ‘purchase’, quicker than Usain Bolt could run 100m. Of course, buying a wetsuit is maybe a good idea. And off I went to try a hundred different wetsuits on before finding ‘The One.’

It’s a cool spring day when I go to London Royal Docks on an early Saturday morning. A handful of non-wetsuit swimmers have just completed their morning swim and their first open water (OWS) session of the year. ‘How was it?’ another newbie asks them. “Bloody cold, but you warm up,” he says smiling with thumbs up, in his speedos. Oh dear lord, I do not bode well with cold temperature. But I pretend I’m not at all nervous. I pretend I’m not going to wet myself with nerves. (And well, even if I do, I’ve heard people wee in their wetsuits during the swim). I pretend I’m not thinking why am I doing this? And what have I got myself into?  

Georgie from London Royal Docks gives us an overview on how to put on a wetsuit and what accessories we need or may want in OWS sessions (anti-fog spray for the goggles, goggles with different tints for different lighting, gloves and footsies for cold water). All wetsuited up, we head to the docks and slowly get into the water following Georgie’s instructions. The water temperature is nine degrees. Prior to this if you were to have given me a water temperature, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you on a scale of one to ten how cold that is. I don’t think I am ever going to forget my first OWS experience - despite being told my wetsuit was buoyant, I didn’t feel buoyant. The water is freezing - as we swam (note: swimming = me flailing my arms attempting to swim), my feet felt like blocks of ice, my legs were sinking, the water was murky (and grimy - well, it is the River Thames). And I was supposed to swim and sight at the same time? How is this even possible? And I’ve got to do a long bike ride after this? How? I was out of breath after swimming for about 10 minutes. I didn’t understand how up until then I’d been able to swim upto 3.5km in the pool but 10 minutes into an open water swim session left me feeling like I had swum for several hours. And everything I had worked on in the pool upto then felt like it had gone out the window. I felt like I couldn’t swim. I felt like I was drowning. I think I’m going to have to defer my Ironman UK entry for next year.

I try to ignore this feeling. It’s making me a bit grumpy and stressed. I’m not progressing. I’m regressing and I don’t know what to do. I focus on the cycling and running. I’m beginning to enjoy the long bike rides with the club though! My average speed on the bike is slowly increasing and I’m beginning to like these routes that have all sorts of hills. It gives the ride a bit of added excitement compared to a flat route. Did I also mention the cake and coffee stops involved? Well, refuelling is a necessity...

 

The running part of the long weekend brick sessions are steadily building up. The feeling in your legs as you begin a run after a long bike ride feels massively different to the feeling in your legs after a short ride. It’s no longer like a jelly feeling. Your quads feel like a hundred hands are punching you along your upper and inner thighs. But oh, the satisfaction of completing these long brick session. It adds to the excitement that maybe, just maybe, I can do this Ironman this year. 

 

And by the by, if you’re wanting to date during Ironman training, forget it. By the time I come home on a Saturday, the only thing I want to do is shower, eat, rest, eat and sleep. A night in with the foam roller and Deep Heat or tiger balm, while watching Neflix, followed by a good night’s sleep is what it’s all about these days. 

 

But back to swimming. London Fields Tri Club’s swim technique sessions have been a massive help in improving my swim technique (“arms at 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock”).  I’ve got less than two months to crack OWS before the Grafman Middle Distance Triathlon.I try going back and swimming 1km, but it’s just not happening. 200 metres feels like a million miles. How am I going to swim 1.3miles? I enlist the help of Swim Open. Becky analyses my stroke technique. She is the first British person to swim the Bay of Bengal (10 miles) so if anyone, she knows how to deal with a long open water swim. We go through some drills and go through how to acclimatise to the water and then I swim a few laps. The water temperature is about 10 degrees. Okay, that absolutely horrible but a little bit better than my first time. *Maybe* I can do this?

 

A few more 1-2-1 sessions with Swim Open and I am gradually feeling more confident in the water. But since my first OWS session, I haven’t tried to do any long swims - something about it scares me. I join the Thursday evening session of Swim Open’s Tri Squad, where we do a 750m lap, swim drills focussing on technique then other drills focussing on things like mass starts and drafting during the swim. That’s when I do my first 750m lap. The added pressure that people in Tri Squad know I’m training for Ironman forces me to successfully complete it. “Okay, maybe I can do it.” 

Sean asks me during one of the Tri Squad sessions at the West Reservoir,  “have you done any long open water swims on your own?” We are two or three weeks out from Grafman. Erm, not properly. So I force myself to the London Royal Docks. The water temperature is rising now. About 13-14 degrees. More people are coming back to the Docks for this year’s OWS sessions, and I see them putting a toe in the water and saying “oooh, the water is cold.” If you’ve swum when the water temperature is nine degrees, 13 feels tropical.

The 1-2-1 sessions have helped. I can just about swim two 750m laps, though I feel like death warmed up afterwards and need a break in between. Open water swimming is a completely different ball game to pool swimming. It looks like I won’t be swimming any fast times at Grafman and will be a case of swimming to survive the cut off.

Before I know it, Grafman Middle Distance Tri comes round the bend. Despite the nerves about the swim, I’m feeling excited and ready. I know I can do this. The morning of the race, I’m supposed to be meeting my coach, Jon, whose also doing it, but my mind is buzzing with so many other things, I forget until last minute. 

As I enter the swim start area, a cheerful volunteer marshall asks me about my other triathlons. I tell him this is my first: “Oh” he says with a look that says it all. I seed myself to the far back: I know the swim is going to be tough for me. And it really is. By the second buoy on the first lap, most people are far ahead of me and I overhear a safety marshall guy say on the radios “watch out for this one, she might be struggling.” I’ve blocked out all memory between that buoy and the second lap - it was painful. I had to constantly switch between freestyle and breaststroke or stop at a safety kayak. This is never-ending. It’s a fight for survival now and to meet the cut off. There’s only one other athlete in the water in front of me. I think I’m the last. An angel is sent to me in the form of a marshall on a safety kayak who shouts out motivational quotes to me until the shoreline. I know that once I’m out of the water, I’ll be fine. And I am. Where I’m slow in the water, I make up on the bike and run. I’m left feeling exhilarated as I cross the finish line. I’m a triathlete now. I want to get faster! I see why it’s addictive.But there is work to be done on the swim. As I’ve learnt with the bike, practice creates confidence, so I need to get in the water more and more before I see light at the end of this never-ending pitch black tunnel. Ironman UK is in one 1.5 months time. 
 

 You can catch up on Mara’s training on Instagram here and on The Fit Londoner blog.
 

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