Anna Henly - Photographer Edinburgh

Virgin Active London Triathlon 2011

In the middle of the night I kept reminding myself: “It can’t be harder than A-level maths”. This no-brainer has never let me down before. So why was I still awake at 5am????

Seven hours later I did feel tearful as I sprang across the finishing line – not the tears of relief that I had expected, but emotional  that this seemingly impossible mission had been well and truly accomplished,  and now what????

Officially a triathlete at last

My lovely husband Robin had a suggestion: darts. I was thinking more along the lines of Pentathlon now THREE sports will obviously not suffice. I’ve always loved “The Three Musketeers” and horses. And comedy is good.

The whole journey to race completion had been a fantastic and stressful time for all of us. We were all triathlon rookies with no idea of what lay ahead. We were all fraught with niggling doubts concerning whether we were fit and skilled enough.

And we were all shouting about it to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. So there would be no sloping down to London on the sly.  

My goals were simple: to not drown in the swim, and to enjoy the race to a happy ending.

Another medal for Muttley

The journey to the start line had been very expensive (flights, hotels, trains –  before Robin had even hit the gear shops) and time consuming (swimming, cycling, running). Hence I couldn’t really see the point of killing myself in the race to get it over and done with as quickly and PAINFULLY as possible. Nor did I want to miss out on the sights of London by spinning past too fast and focused. Next time might be another story. …………

Far too many amateur athletes take themselves far too seriously. As several people had kindly reminded me – you’re too old to make the Olympics!! I was told to look out for rotund middle-aged men with all the gear.

I am easily led astray by people with imagination and drive, and felt it must be fate that my new business mentor just happened to be a rookie triathlete too AND a member of “TT Rookies” . I had discovered Edinburgh Triathletes the previous week. What a coincidence!

Immediately after our first session discussing my photography business I ‘phoned the ”TT Rookies” founder. Angela Paterson had cooked up the idea of taking 25 wannabe  triathletes down to London on July 31st and raising £20,000 for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. They had been training since before Christmas. I now only had three months to get my act together.

 “Fortunately it can’t be harder than A-level maths!” Not one to waste my time thinking about it, I signed up immediately. And to go all the way to London for the shorter Sprint distance race didn’t seem like getting my money’s worth either. So I signed up for the Standard (Olympic) distance race.

Like most novice triathletes we all feared the open water swim. Most of us had notched up a few novice races using swimming pools. We all had a few dips in the local freezing cold murky reservoir which didn’t do much for confidence initially.

On my first attempt I found looking into the murky brown water terrifying, and my head was painfully cold. Everyone else was wearing two swim caps or neoprene head protectors that looked like scrum caps on a rugby pitch. I just couldn’t put my head in the water. And the water had a horrible taste that burned my throat.

Obviously not keen on putting my face in the Thames at the start of the race!

On the second attempt the water was recorded at 10C – and was so cold I could not breathe, let alone swim. I was last out, but only because I was the worst swimmer.

Time for a “how not to drown” swimming lesson in a pool as the panic was definitely beginning to set in. I was beginning to regret entering the Olympic race (1500m swim) when I could have opted for the Sprint (750m swim). Lynne Sturgeon teaches “special needs” swimmers so she was well suited to cope with me, and my very special and pressing need.

We had a lesson under the water and she convinced me that I would float in a wetsuit on my back without doing ANYTHING! I felt much better thanks to her calming influence.

I had a few more swims in the reservoir – one sunny evening when yes, it was delightful swimming past the mountains and I could understand why some hardcore swimmers won’t swim in a pool. This was followed by another couple of attempts where it was very windy and there were big waves. Each time I rolled my head to breathe, a wave seemed to find its way up my nose. And if the wind wasn’t ruining the experience, the Scottish midges would!!!

I was also amazed by how impossible it is to swim in a straight line. Sighting is vital to avoid swimming miles in the wrong direction and wasting energy. By this time I had learned to shut my eyes underwater which helped cut out the murky unknown. It certainly felt like progress was one step forwards, two backwards.

I couldn’t really say I felt confident about open water swimming before we boarded the flight to London. I hadn’t actually opened the race pack either, as looking at it made me feel sick. Oh dear!

Somehow I managed to crick my neck or tear a muscle so badly that I couldn’t turn my head by the time we got to London………….Having registered,  and picked up a timing chip and a goodie bag, we made a beeline  for the massage couches inside the hall of exhibitors.

Physio Peter Storry manipulated my neck so that the pain in my shoulders started to lift and swimming seemed possible again. THANK YOU!!! And he didn’t even want payment??? So I handed over my credit card and booked myself in for a post-race massage too.

Time to rush off to support one of the TT Rookies who was in a Sprint wave. I was glad I had another day to calm the nerves and get into the right frame of mind.

The girls are hyped up before heading down to the water. This is the first time for 50% of us.

I watched wave after wave of 300 wetsuits mass at the indoor swim assembly, and emerge into the raucous crowds. It triggered waves of nausea. There were scared faces, stretched taut by the swim caps. Shadowy rows of brutal black wetsuits and smooth pates. Somehow I was reminded of the Holocaust, and amorphous humanity herded into the gas chambers………..

Robin goes gear shopping, but resists a TT bike

Luckily my race was on Sunday morning at 8.30am so we had Saturday to mooch around the cavernous hall with the other 15,000 triathletes . It was an opportunity to get a few things sorted and feed on every brand of energy drink and gel. We pawed a few £10,000 bikes. Robin even tried on a space-age aerodynamic helmet – just to cheer me up!

The Last Carbs Supper

On Saturday night we went out for dinner to an Italian restaurant – for “The Last Carbs Supper”. Some of my school friends I hadn’t seen for 30 years came along to add support which was very special. All of whom were a bit aghast at the prospect of a triathlon. We used to compete for top marks in French exams.  None of them had gone anywhere near A-level maths.

Our girls’ grammar school was not very sporty. No one wanted to be in the netball team and get thrashed by the girls at the local comprehensive school who were huge and aggressive. Our tennis lessons were of the “here’s a tennis racket, now hit the ball” variety.

I was the only one who could even remember walking to the swimming pool where 30 schoolgirls would jump in and thrash across a width and back. You get my drift? We laughed a lot over pasta, and it was a welcome distraction.

I then had the worst night’s sleep of my life. The Premier Inn offers a “Good Night’s sleep guarantee”, but I couldn’t blame the hotel.  I was absolutely wide awake and drinking tea, and troughing oatcakes until 5am. And the alarm went off at 6am.

I was absolutely terrified at the thought of the mass swim start. In the middle of the night even A-level maths held less horror. All those thrashing arms and kicking feet – and me trapped in the middle, nose broken, no goggles, unable to breathe a foot under……………

The sign says: "No swimming". 15,000 competitors would ignore this warning.

I had been in such a state before bed that Robin had had to thread my shoe laces and check my tyre pressures. Both simple tasks were beyond me………….

We arrived at transition by 7am after a breakfast of instant porridge made with hot water (YUK!). Triathletes had racked up bikes already and were laying out outfits and provisions. From an unsuccessful recce the previous day I had ascertained that the directions of “swim out”, “swim in”, “bike out”, “bike in”, “run out”, run in” are moved around at night to prevent anyone from getting  an unfair advantage.

I had heard of an experienced triathlete who had spent a whopping  15 minutes trying to find his bike last year so I wasn’t taking any chances.

I had also checked the toilet situation to be told there aren’t any on the route, and that I was the first competitor to ever ask about toilets? I was advised to pee in my wetsuit during the swim, and YES, to pee ON my bike while cycling??? YUK!!!!!!!!

I found a good spot near the end of a rack and draped an easily recognisable towel “The 101 Dalmatians at bathtime”.  I had found this an invaluable tip – it’s amazing how bikes all look the same once you are wobbly and flustered.

Triathletes were still wriggling into wetsuits and stretching swim caps

The time soon came to go to the swim assembly. After listening to our friends, who had already swum on Saturday, my game plan had changed. I decided not to start at the back, but start at the front and the extreme left hand side. This way I shouldn’t get kicked in the stomach by any breaststrokers at the back. Nor should I risk being crushed in the scrum turning clockwise around the buoys. 

The canoe marshalls stopped anyone creeping forward

The only problem with this extremely cautious approach was that I would be breathing to the left, on the left hand edge of the swimmers. I would not easily be able to see where the race was going, round to the right………

Time for a final wave to the applauding crowds

After the chants of “Oge, Oge, Oge, Oi, Oi, Oi” the klaxon went and we were off. The water felt lovely and warm compared with hard core Scotland, and a bit salty like an electrolyte drink. Nowhere near as bad as I had expected.

I stayed calm by looking at the cheering crowds on the banks to my left and was totally oblivious to the other swimmers once I had got into a rhythm. It was like a pleasant morning training swim and I forgot I was supposed to be racing and concentrating on where I was going.

We were off. I was leading the race for about five seconds, on the extreme left hand front corner!

Eventually I tried sighting to make sure I was going in the right direction. Oops – I was an unbelievable distance from everyone else. No wonder no one had splashed or kicked me……….I pulled back in their direction, aware that the pack was gaining a lot of ground on me. The swimmers who were drafting were clearly being pulled along in the wake.

Proof that I did sight - at least once anyway!

Not that I was bothered. My goal was to survive the swim AND enjoy it. A few of our group had had their panicky moments and clung onto a canoe or two. At one point I too had a coughing/snotting fit and a marshall kindly enquired after my health.

The swim took 40 minutes – very slow – but I had survived and enjoyed it enormously. Only problem was that, try as I might, it was impossible to pee.

I clambered up the ramp, found Robin who looked delighted that there were no tears. A fight to get the wetsuit off ensued, but definitely time for an appreciative kiss for my chief supporter and sponsor. I had repeatedly practised getting the wetsuit off in a rush in my bedroom  –  which I think is how I had cricked my neck. (The curtains had been closed as anyone looking in would have wondered: “What the ^£$&”^*&^ is going on??”)

Time for a strip tease on the red carpet. This was a popular area for well-wishers.

Running up to transition in my swimming costume, wetsuit in plastic bag, I spied some toilets – which I had been told yesterday were definitely locked.God helps those that help themselves – doesn’t He? To my great delight they were UNLOCKED. When I emerged seconds later there was a marshall on the scene being ticked off about not manning his post. Was he guarding the toilets from intruders???

It seemed a long run into transition to fetch the bike. No wobbles – just a huge sense of smugness that I hadn’t drowned AND had found a toilet. No problems locating my bike and the 101 Dalmatians. On with my lovely new SPD bike shoes and Honeystinger cycling top awarded at the Gullane Beach Tri (for bravery not athleticism). “Sting or bee stung!”

The bike ride through London was a complete joy and over far too soon. It was 26 miles (40km) and I had allowed 2 hours. It took 1 hour 17 mins…. In Scotland we are used to dodging potholes and rough roads in rough weather. I now found myself in a heatwave with smooth black tarmac and no traffic to contend with. I couldn’t stop laughing. The bike was rolling on its own.

I did smirk at the turnaround loop as I watched a few hotshots in aero helmets shoot past me and coyly have to turn back again. There were a few long tunnels to negotiate which were a blast on a bike and a bit eery. Descending quickly into a dark tunnel of still air, pedalling madly in top top gear was thrilling. As was emerging from the tunnel into brilliant sunshine at the foot of the Tower of London.

That was a “wow” moment. I thought briefly of Henry VIII and all the historic drama that had taken place a stone’s throw from  today’s racetrack. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, SURVIVED”. Poor Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, and lucky Anna Henly.

I certainly felt like a survivor at this stage with the swim over………..We whizzed past the London Eye, along the Thames and the Embankment, reaching Big Ben where there was a tight turnaround . I was flying past cyclists and cyclists in aero helmets, riding weird flattened bikes with solid wheels were “whooshing” past me.

We retraced our ride back to transition where there was a nasty steep ramp back into the hall. Time for a comedy moment.  I wasn’t entirely sure which entrance I should use.  A marshall asked me whether I were in the “Junior Elite” race. I nearly fell off my bike laughing – he obviously hadn’t seen my face!!

Time for a fashion moment back at the rack, and to remember that we were racing for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. Off with Honeystinger bike top and on with a fuschia pink Breakthrough Breast Cancer running vest.

Still smiling - pain is NOT gain!

Again I was expecting the transition wobbles and running seemed hard – but it always  does. All that lay ahead now was four 2.5km laps. Running 10k usually means keep moving for just less than an hour at my speed. I thought I would see how the first lap went before I knew I was home and dry.

Hundreds of folk were  cheering  us on – especially our supporters at Breakthrough Breast Cancer. They were making more noise than the rest of the charity groups put together. Various friends on the route were counting the four laps for me………Would it have been worse to have done three or five?

Our fantastic Breakthrough Breast Cancer team

In no time at all the finishing post was in sight and I had plenty of energy for a final flourish of a flying leap through the arch.

I had survived the swim and every camera would definitely have recorded a huge grin. It was hard not to smile on a sunny day. I’m not a breast cancer patient after all.

"Try-my-Patience" AND tri-athlete

I wasn’t even interested in my finishing time. Robin, however, was interested and rushed off to get a printout.

So for those that are interested:

1500m swim: 39 min 47 sec,

 40k cycle: 1 hour 17 min 22 sec

10k run: surprisingly speedy (for me!!) 52 min 3 sec.

Plus some fairly leisurely transition times, including toilet stops and fashion moments. This all added up to a grand total of 3 hours and 50 sec.

On the podium with Angela Paterson

Another medal – my first for a triathlon. I wasn’t planning on taking it off for a long while.

I now had a few hours before my massage session. I had seriously overestimated how long the race would take so there was time to play in the “Endless Swimming pool”. Speedo was there to lend competitors wetsuits and give some coaching advice.

Although high on life, I soon found I WAS actually tired. I didn’t know it until the current was switched on and I was suddenly fighting for my life. Thrashing wildly like a hooked salmon, I kicked enough water out of the pool to send the amused spectators scurrying.

The machine was stopped for my first tip – don’t kick so hard!!!  Apparently it takes 20 minutes to get used to swimming in the current and unfortunately  I was seriously tired after 10 minutes. It was hard to swim without trying to “beat” the current.

It was time for my massage and to give Peter Storry a grateful and sweaty hug for mending me the day before.  He asked me if I had been worried about my credit card??? It turned out that I had left it with him when I was reserving my spot. I had rushed off to yell for one of our gang.

Worried about drowning – Yes.

Worried about my goggles being kicked off – Yes

Worried about having a nose bleed – Yes

Worried about having cramp – Yes

Worried about not finding my bike in transition – Yes

Worried about getting lost on the bike – Yes

Worried about being knocked off – Yes

Worried about knocking someone else off – Yes

Worried about needing a toilet – Yes.

Worried about having to walk the run – Yes.

Worrying about a credit card I hadn’t missed – did not even make my top ten!!

The masseur massaged and pummelled, but at last, I was ASLEEP!

If you have enjoyed reading this, there is still time to visit my and make a wee donation to Breakthrough Breast Cancer.  THANK YOU!

Photos: Sportcam

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