This past weekend saw me return to triathlon competition after a nearly three year hiatus. My last race was Dalkeith, May 2010, and it was in that race I ruptured my plantar fascia—a particularly painful injury that left me hobbling for 9 months.
The turning point came during a camping holiday in Wester Ross, which I spent barefoot. Lo and behold, I was able to walk again. After getting hold of some Vibram Fivefingers, and with a suitable time for recovery, I started running. Swine flu was another set-back, but after two years of re-learning how to run, adjusting my biomechanics the hard way, and careful training, I felt able to return to racing.
Turrif triathlon, a sprint, was my first since Dalkeith 2010. It was great to see some familiar faces as well as getting to know some new ones, and absolutely super to discover my absence had been noticed on the race circuit. I had really missed racing—not just the competition, or the challenge, or even the opportunity to drool over some spectacularly nice bikes, but also the camaraderie. No matter how fast or slow you are, fellow triathletes will cheer you on and congratulate you for your effort. That mutual support is one of the biggest happy-making things I know, right up there with puppies with big feet, Maru with a new box, non-Newtonian fluids and scale invariance.
I wasn’t expecting the race to be a fast one, and it wasn’t. At 1 hour 32 minutes and change, it was the slowest sprint race I’ve completed. The swim came in at around 13’45, but I can’t be sure what the time was because my HRM broke. Transition (and the timing mat) was 150m over uneven ground from the pool and we were required to put shoes on to get down there. The conditions were abysmal, the worst I’ve experienced. Serious wind, rain and hail made the cycle leg even more difficult than the steeply undulating terrain, bad road surface and flooding would have made it anyway. When I entered T2, after my slowest cycle leg ever (50 minutes is appalling) my kit was floating. I am not joking. My toes were so cold that it was a struggle to get them into soggy Spyridons, and my transition time seriously suffered— T2 should not take 1’50.
Despite all that, I managed a PB in the run and a second in class for my first ever placing.
My utter delight and sense of achievement is tempered only slightly by my sense of annoyance that the above picture is the only one in which I think I look reasonably good. Here’s another, in which I don’t think I look good:
I look at that and think, “Oh gods, I need to lose weight. My thighs look like a pair of canoodling walruses.”
This is so wrong.
In that picture I have just swum 750m in under 14 minutes and was one of the fastest in my heat, having passed everyone else in my lane bar one. I’ve struggled into my bikilas and run across the car park, down some slippery steps, and am on my way to another car park, where I will jump on my bike, ride 20km in absolute filth, then finish off with a 5k run.
Does it really matter that I weigh 67kg and have thighs that touch? What’s more important? That I don’t conform to socially-acceptable standards of beauty (thin, unblemished skin, cheekbones you could shave with, hair as thick as a bear’s), or that I can come back from injury and severe illness and still run faster than I could 7 years ago despite not having shed the relatively small amount of weight I gained during my time off? Should I devote mental energy to bemoaning the fact I can’t even contemplate running without a decent sports bra, unlike some of the more athletic ladies; or spend it considering all the ways I could shave off the paltry 2 minutes that came between me and third lady overall?
Yeah. I don’t need to spend much time thinking about that. In the grand scheme of things, and despite what Dove would have us believe, function is far more important than appearance. I’ll keep on training, and if I should end up leaner and meaner, great, but if I don’t I’m not going to hate myself for it.
My next confirmed race is St Andrews, but I’m looking for others to enter this year. I’ll probably do Inverurie at the end of July, and maybe Knockburn would be fun. Bearing in mind that I like 3-4 weeks between races and don’t want to travel too far this year, any other suggestions?
When I woke up this morning it was clear that winter is lined up in the starting blocks and has its arse in the air, ready for the off. The car was frosted white and there was that sense of sparkle I particularly associate with the first proper cold snap at the end of autumn.
The days are short up here, and the clocks have gone back, so although I rode to work (brrr! tepid!) I wanted to get out and enjoy the glorious sunshine at lunchtime.
I am currently in the base-training stage of preparing to go back to racing next year, after what will have been a two-year lay-off as a result of my foot injury. This means learning how to run again, and learning how to run differently — my foot cannot tolerate normal trainers any more, and so I am running in VFF Bikilas. This is proving remarkably successful, if my heart rate is anything to go by. I’m something of a fast-beater, and I’m used to running an easy 4km loop at an average heart rate approaching 175. As I can maintain an easy 10km/hr pace at a heart rate of 162bpm now, I can only assume the claims of greater efficiency are not exaggerated.
My new lunch run is a little over 3.5km, which is just long enough to feel worth it while not so long that it forces me to take more than a 30 minute break for lunch. Perfect. Not only is it the ideal length —when I start racing again I can always lengthen or double it— it is also the most scenic of any lunchtime excursion I have had in my working career.
Today’s session was particularly slow because the weather was so good, and the scenery so uplifting, that I kept stopping to take photographs.
While I don’t normally like the Beatles song referenced in the title, as the synaesthesia renders it yellow, which tastes horrible, I thought it most appropriate for this post. I don’t think the synaesthesia is cut-and-pasting from common depictions of the sun as Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun is a deep red, the colour of old blood, and I can think of at least one other song that is the same colour (it’s one of Frood’s Japanese pop acquisitions, but I’m not sure which one).
One of my extravagancies in life is being a member of what I consider to be a ridiculously expensive gym — David Lloyd in Newhaven. I joined this gym when we moved to Edinburgh and I was training intensely for triathlon. I used to be in there four or five times a week, and as someone trying to fit a lot of training into not much time, I figured the premium price tag was worth it for always being able to get the piece of kit I wanted, even at rush hour. Two pools, whirlpool, sauna, the latest exercise machines and plenty of them, light, pleasant, airy… When I was first choosing a gym and went along to take look, compared to the gyms I’d used in the past it was a little breath of luxury. For which, admittedly, I would be paying for the nose. At the time I justified it because this is what I do. I don’t go to the pub, I don’t go out clubbing. The important things in my life* are my friends and my sport, and I deserve a little luxury.
What has kept me coming back, however, is the fact that (a) it has a 25m pool, unlike any other private gym in Edinburgh; and (b) they couldn’t give a rat’s ass what toys I take into the pool with me. Local council run facilities tend to get a bit uppity if you try taking paddles and fins into public swimming sessions, for health and safety reasons, figuring that you might hit someone in the face with the sharp edge of a paddle or kick them in the teeth with a training fin.
With a view to saving money while still being able to train with toys I did once go along to a local triathlon club (who shall remain nameless) swimming session, but it was a quagmire of thrashing and stop-start waiting for the people ahead to get a move on, while not feeling confident an unknown swimmer would be welcome in the faster lanes. As well as that I felt like no one wanted to do more than exchange minimal words with me because I hadn’t proved I could swim a sub-12 minute 750m in race conditions.†
Besides, I didn’t like being pinned down to training sessions that didn’t suit my timetable.
So. David Lloyd at Newhaven it has been for several years. Last year, as you know, was a washout because of injury, so I was paying their extortionate fees for 8 months without being able to make use of their facilities — a fact that grated, as you can imagine.
Recently I decided that I was fit enough to at least get back in the pool‡ and retrieved all my training aids from their storage crate.
I have a silly number of toys. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to sports kit, if you hadn’t noticed. For me a trip to the pool requires a bag so large that the folks on reception grin and open up the disabled access door for me half the time rather than have to rescue me from the turnstile when my bag gets stuck halfway through. I have fins, power paddles and Finis PT Paddles, as well as the usual suspects of kickboard and pullbuoy. I don’t currently have a swimmer’s snorkel, but trust me, it’s on the list.
When I get in the pool I leave all my kit laid out neatly where I can get at it easily for the various sets. The advantage of this is that I only get other serious swimmers sharing my lane. People who might otherwise have chanced it for 10 lengths of breast-stroke will use the other lane instead. Serious swimmers, on the other hand, have no problem sharing. You can always tell someone who competes, by the way: she will have excellent lane discipline.
All of which preamble brings me to my last training session. When I turned up there was no one in the lane but there were a pair of fins, a water bottle, paddles and a kickboard already at the end of the lane. Excellent, I thought. With two of us thrashing around in fins and paddles we should discourage anyone else.
I had just completed my 400m warm-up when the other swimmer appeared. He didn’t say anything, but took to the water, and for 600m we shared the lane in silence, passing each other at progressively different points in the lane that told me I was faster than him. As this was only my third pool session after a 9 month absence, and he was a swimmer serious enough to be bringing training aids, this gave me a warm, tingly feeling.
We had a coincidental break, in which we had a brief chat. He wasn’t training for anything in particular, he told me, he just liked to swim. Usually he swam for an hour every morning at 06:30, but he had the week off work and so he was trying an afternoon session. He donned fins and paddles. I donned paddles and pullbuoy and indicated he should go ahead. “You’ll be faster than me,” I told him.
“I should think so,” he replied. “I hope to be going quite quick now.”
I gave him a third of a length and then set off after him.
I was easing off to match his pace by the end of 50m, which was no bad thing. I enjoyed 200m at that lazy pace then removed all the training aids. He was still going, and after giving him a head start of a half length I set off after him again
And kept up. Easily. For the next 200m.
There is the wake effect, which means that swimming directly behind another swimmer is easier and requires less effort, but still. I shouldn’t have been able to keep up with someone using paddles and fins. So I stopped and watched him.
Every entry he was making with the hand on the opposite side of the shoulder to which it was attached; and he was hitting the water with the heel of his hand first, as if he were holding it up to say “STOP!” at the water, which, in a way, he was. He was slower with paddles, because he had more braking surface.
If he had been in training for anything I might have said something, but he wasn’t so I didn’t. He was swimming for the pleasure of it and didn’t need some uppity triathlete saying “LOL, U R DOIN IT RONG.”
On the run and the bike technique doesn’t become a significant factor until you are trying to save energy over the longer distances. In the swim, though, you have got to get that technique sorted. Correct technique is the difference between a fit swimmer who can’t get below 15 minutes for the 750m and someone who is blistering through the water at a pace that would make a Dall’s porpoise take notice.
I did offer him the use of my PT paddles, while we were chatting. He declined. It’s probably for the best. I suspect he’d have sunk like a stone.
My technique, incidentally, I owe partly to Zoe, who used to be one of the personal instructors at David Lloyd. If you fancy some personal tuition, Katerina is lovely.
* Other than, you know, obvious survival things like breathing, eating, sleeping and writing.
† I mean, my social skills are not the greatest, but I know the difference between politely friendly and welcoming.
‡ Another couple of weeks and I’m hoping to get back to weight training, but I’ve taken this year off triathlon completely in a deliberate effort to stop myself pushing too hard too fast to meet some arbitrary deadline. I know, I know. Who am I and what have I done with Sam?
There are 101 things they don’t tell you about how your life will be changed when you start doing triathlon. There’s that moment of heart-in-the-mouth trepidation when you sign up for your first race, not sure that you are fit enough or will ever be fit enough, and then a couple of months of frantic thrashing in the swimming pool and the training rides and remembering what it’s like to run because the only running you’ve done since you were a kid is running for the bus. We all get that. That’s expected.
Then there’s the sudden crazy spending on esoteric training kit followed rapidly by the loss of social life, the obsession about getting your shoes on faster than should be humanly possible, the endless tinkering with race nutrition; not to mention the slow descent into carbon fibre and neoprene and compression panelling.
They might not tell you about that up front but, if asked, people will nod sagely and agree and say it’s just part of doing triathlon.
What they don’t tell you is what happens if you post your race photos to flickr. What happens is that every so often you get an email from the flickr bots. The emails say things like:
[Flickr] lycrafetboy2000 added your photo “East Fife Tri 08 End…” as a favorite!
Initially there’s a sort of smug, self-congratulatory feeling that someone favourited a photo. Then your brain registers the username. Then you start to realise that it’s not the photography skills on display that has attracted the user’s attention. And it’s probably not an interest in the sport, either.
And, despite yourself, you find yourself clicking on the username, then following the link to his (it is ALWAYS a him) profile. Then, oh and then you discover that he’s a member of such groups as “My wife’s hairy front bottom” and “Girls in lycra” and “Spandex Fetishists Unite”.
And you feel faintly dirty and want to take a long, hot bath and scrub yourself clean.
A friend of mine suggested I block these users, or set all my photos to limited view. I don’t want to set my photos on limited view and blocking the users won’t stop new ones coming along (I said COMING). It’s not like they’re forcing me to watch them fapping to photos of me on my bike, after all.
The worst thing of all is that it’s not so much that I’m offended or bothered by the thought of sweaty men pleasuring themselves, grunting over an image of me on the screen. It’s just that… Well. So many of them are so indiscriminate.
I should stop looking at their profiles because then I wouldn’t know into what set I’d been placed in the “Total stranger on the internet finds these things fapworthy” category.
I really should. Just stop.
I had just recovered from a two-month near-total lay-off brought about by acute ITB syndrome (that’s runner’s knee) when I ruptured the plantar fascia in my right foot. I talked about this in an earlier post.
We were due to hold Dumb Run IV last weekend — the 4th incarnation of the League‘s annual nocturnal coast to coast century ride. First one of our regulars pulled out, citing time trial commitments, the cheek of it. Then last year’s hero of the 86″ gear had a work emergency and had to pull out as well. I’d been in two minds as to whether I was fit for it and, with us down to three (because no one has heard from Tom in ages), we decided to cancel. This was a bloody shame, because I started on the weather gods early this year, and it was damn-near perfect.
Dumb Run IV shall henceforth be known as the Dumb Run of which we do not speak. Obviously in a full-on grump over last year’s success, the ride acted backwards in time to cause emergencies and injuries to stop us. That’s 3-1 to the Dumb Run, but are we broken? NO. Are we defeated? NO WAY.
Dumb Run V has been set for SATURDAY, 18TH JUNE 2011, 8PM DUMBARTON CASTLE. No excuses.
Sadly my ongoing injury means I won’t be competing in the Galway Triathlon this year, either. It occurred to me today that I’ve now been off proper training and racing for getting on for six months as a result of injury, which explains my foul temper, irritability and moodiness. Lack of exercise is affecting me the same way as really bad PMT, only with the additional joys of stiffening joints and loss of fitness.
I’m now faced with the awful decision of whether to enter Bala and hope for the best; or to scratch the rest of the season on the assumption that my foot will get better in time for next year, but not if I succumb to the temptation to train on it. While the latter is probably more sensible, I’m finding that my motivation to take part in the sport at all is waning the longer I’m forced to sit it out.
How long does the PF take to heal anyway, FFS? IT HAS BEEN 2 MONTHS ALREADY.
By some peculiar quirk of genetics I was born without some of the traits commonly associated with others of my sex. I don’t like gossip magazines, I see no good reason for television soaps to exist, clothes shopping is to be done only if there is no sane alternative, and Jimmy Choo sounds to me like a dogfood brand. (“Jimmy Choo to keep his teeth healthy. Because your dog is worth it.”)
I own two pairs of footwear that would be considered ‘proper’ shoes, and that’s only if you count the Lara Croft replica boots.
However I do own a lot of sports shoes (especially if you count the two pairs of fins, but let’s not go there). My current collection includes three pairs of cycling shoes (road, tri and offroad) and five pairs of running shoes.
The latter is excessive, I admit. But, you see, there’s the old pair of Asics I’ve had for about ten years and they’ve been retired from both racing and training but they’re still good for general purpose wear. There’s the old pair of Trabucos that I’ve trained and raced in to the point where the orange has turned muddy and the uppers are wearing through. There’s the new pair of Trabucos that I bought to replace them but they don’t fit as well because they changed the last and put a stone-plate in there. There’s the pair of Inov8s I use for lightweight hiking and will be used for running if I ever remain injury-free for long enough to get out into the hills.
And there’s the pair of Salomons. I bought these from Run4It on Lothian Road, to replace the Trabucos with the stone-plate when it became clear that no amount of use was going to break them in to the point where they were comfortable. Back in my competitive ski-ing days I used to wear Salomons and I have a pair of Salomon walking boots, as well as a Salomon Raid Revo running pack and some of their running tights. I like their stuff. It’s usually built well and thoughtfully and suits my needs.
In the shop there was a slight niggle in my left foot, but that was the one that had been playing up with the Trabucos, so I figured that it was just bruising. On the treadmill they felt fine. I ran 20k in them on the treadmill in the gym just to be sure. With some lace adjustments and the right socks they seemed okay when I finally took them outdoors. For about 100k.
Then the pain started. Excruciating. It felt like I was landing on a spike every time my left foot went down. Eventually I took them back to the shop and they sent them off to Salomon. Salomon said they’d found a slight flaw and sent me a new pair.
I was even more careful. I checked them in the shop. I checked them at home. I checked them in the gym. No niggle. They felt great. They felt like I had hoped they would feel.
For about 30k. Then exactly the same problem. It was, oddly, relieved either by removing my socks completely —although I ended up with the interior seams chewing the tops of my toes, so I had to race my first of the season with my feet decorated in compeed— or thick off-road socks. Nothing in-between.
During this time I developed acute ITB syndrome in my left knee. This cost me a couple of hundred quid in physio, three months off training and racing at Tranent. My second race of the year, in April, ruptured the plantar fascia in my right foot, which was probably compensating for the restricted motion in my left leg. More physio, not to mention podiatry charges, and more time off training (I managed 15 minutes on the treadmill yesterday and have spent most of the last 3 weeks with my foot taped).
After analysing the various factors that could have contributed, I can only come up with one thing: the shoes.
I’m a mid-foot striker, landing just behind the ball of my foot. What this means is that most trainers are ill-suited to my gait. They have too much padding in the heel and not enough at the front. I’m also a mild over-pronator, so I need late-stage motion control. These are things that competent staff at a good running shop should know about and it’s why I go to a specialist running shop instead of buying my shoes for half the price over the internet. I value the additional service of knowledgeable staff.
I shouldn’t have been sold these shoes. It’s not that the shoes are bad shoes: they’re just not suited to my style of running. Unlike the Asics, which have the built-up heel but also have a fairly generous amount of forefoot padding, the Wings save weight by reducing the padding at the front. This means that, not only is there insufficient padding to protect the foot at impact, the heel is about 50% thicker than the forefoot. In a mid-foot striker this limits ankle flexion through the stride, putting undue strain on the calves and the windlass mechanism in the foot. Because of the lack of padding in the front, eventual compression of the insole meant that when the ball of my foot landed on one of the knurls in the sole I could really feel it.
I’ve had to find out all this for myself by careful research and a lot of reading, which I’ve had time to do because I CAN’T BLOODY TRAIN DUE TO THIS STUPID INJURY.
I’m a bit grumpy from lack of exercise.
There have been suggestions recently that barefoot running techniques, including non-heel striking, increase the chances of plantar fasciitis. I’ve been running this way for five years now and this year is the first of me having an injury of this nature. While it’s true that barefoot running isn’t for everyone, because everyone is different and biomechanics are not generic enough for one technique to suit all, I can’t accept that my running style has caused this injury when I’ve been fine with it for a number of years and thousands of kilometres.
I think the problem is more that most shoes aren’t designed for these techniques, and mixing the two is what is causing the problems. If you’ve got a runner who has heard about these techniques and decides to give them a go in his ordinary running shoes, and those shoes are designed for heel-strikers, then he’s going to suffer the same issues as me: the shoes promote a heel-toe movement and he’s running with a toe-heel movement. Seems fairly obvious to me that this is not a good thing.
Although Run4It has the best selection of Hilly socks in Edinburgh, I’m not best pleased about the service I’ve received there and won’t be going back. I did go in and explain the situation, however their response was to thank me for letting them know and say they’d make a note of the feedback for future customers.
That didn’t help me at all.
I’m trying to look on the bright side: I am now far more knowledgeable about shoes, feet and running than I ever was before and am in a better position to assess whether the staff in a shop are able to offer me competent advice or not. I have finally found a good reason to spend the money getting a biomechanical assessment from a podiatrist and have external verification that my obsession with technique and stretching has paid off.
However, the shoes cost me the best part of 90 poorly molluscs, the combined physio and podiatry costs are in the region of £350, I may need custom orthotics to stop this happening again because of the weakness in the foot; and I currently have only a very slim chance of being race fit for the Galway Triathlon, which wasn’t exactly pocket change to enter.
And I still need to replace my trail shoes. At least I have a very good idea of what to avoid.
I won’t be running in the Salomons again. Size UK 6.5, ladies, blue, have done about 50k and look brand new. Any takers? I don’t have the gene that codes for “wanting to keep a pair of shoes that don’t fit me properly and I’m never going to wear”.
So you’re thinking about doing triathlon.
Maybe you’re a runner, bored of marathons, or a swimmer who fancies doing it in a wetsuit —legally— for a change. Maybe you’re a cyclist and the challenge of PBP or L’Etape isn’t doing it for you any more.
Maybe you’re having a midlife crisis, or looked in the mirror one day and realised that the sleek, youthful figure maintained by partying and late nights is starting to sag around the edges.
Maybe it’s a dare. Maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
Whatever your reasons for taking up multisport, there are a few things you should know before it’s too late. By ‘too late’ I mean preferably before you have pointed your browser at EntryCentral and estimated your 400m swim time for your first novice race, but definitely before you have applied for your race licence from your applicable home nation association.
I’ve been at this for four years now. That’s long enough to have become resigned to it without being so long that I can’t remember there was ever any other way: trust me. I know these things.
If you take up this sport seriously, even if you confine yourself to pool-based sprints (and Huntly), you will need a suit, shoes for running, shoes for cycling, a helmet, a bike and various ancillary gubbins including goggles, training devices (kickboard, pull-buoy), number belt, elastic laces… It all adds up. Races cost between £25 and £40, depending on what goodies and facilities the organisers have laid on. Then there’s travelling to races, particularly if you choose to race abroad.
If you decide to extend yourself to open water and longer distances —and you will— then you will need a wetsuit, anti-chafing creams, specialist sunblock etc etc. Oh, and the race prices go up as well. Entry into the branded races can set you back more than a hundred quid.
This expenditure assumes that you are not, as in fact most triathletes are, a gadget whore. If you happen to like toys, and any excuse for buying new kit is to be pounced upon like a kitty with a catnip mouse, then the list is almost endless. I have objects in my training kit that wouldn’t look out of place in a BDSM fetish club.
Fist gloves, anyone?
If you are the sort of person who likes to go out with his or her workmates for a pint on a Friday night, and maybe on a Wednesday; and there’s always curry nights, don’t forget Orange Wednesdays at the movies… forget triathlon. Triathlon means not training for one sport but training for three, so if you currently run for an hour three times a week, or go to four hour-long classes at the gym, assume you’ll end up trebling it.
Twelve hours of training a week doesn’t leave much room for drinkies and dinner parties.
There are training programmes out there that claim to get you race fit in four hours a week and if the only race you ever plan on doing is the New Year’s Day, just the once, just for a bet, and all you want to do is finish, then the title probably isn’t too misleading.
In fact, the New Year’s Day is probably the best race to go for if you only want to do the one. It’s a miserable bloody experience, and should put you off. If it doesn’t put you off, and you get to the end thinking that March sounds like a good time to start your racing season, then you’re exactly the sort of person who needs to pay close attention to every point on this list.
At my last race I was standing at poolside waiting for the previous heat to finish. It was my second race of the year. Standing next to me was a chap who had been in my lane at the previous race as well. We’d been chatting at that one, and I’d told him that I wasn’t looking for a great performance because I’d been injured and had only been on the bike twice and running three times in the last couple of months or so, all in the last ten days. This time he asked me how I got on. “It was pretty rubbish,” I told him, “But I was expecting that. Looks like I’ve got a stress fracture or something this time.”
He grinned at me. “But you’re racing anyway?”
“Sounds like a typical triathlete to me. Shouldn’t be racing, doing it anyway.”
That’s triathlon. Triathlon is topped only by serious adventure racing and ultra-endurance in the “doing it anyway” stakes. A friend of mine wrote something that sums it up eloquently, after successfully completing IronMan Switzerland:
When it’s cold, and wet, and dark, and windy out, and you still go and train. When work is unbearable and after it’s finished you just want to go to bed, you still go out and train. When someone is having a drink, you say great, I’ll come along later after I’ve trained. When it’s early and the alarm goes at the weekend, and other people are staying in bed, and you’re flying later that day, you get up and train. When you’re exhausted because you’ve been away all weekend, or haven’t slept enough, or ate enough, or have a cold, you go out and train. And no, you don’t “just this once” skip it. You deal with the conflicts with work, and home, and socialising, and family, and everything else that goes with daily life. And you make room to train. How much you give in that year running up to the event is what determines what you get back at the end.
This is more true for long-distances than short ones, but the last sentence holds true for all events: how much you give in the time running up to the event is what determines what you get back at the end. Triathlon isn’t a fun run. Triathlon isn’t enjoyable if you haven’t put in the work. So if you’re not going to put in the work there’s no point in doing it.
Add the following to your list of expenses: physiotherapy and sports massage.
Now don’t get me wrong: for plenty of people this might seem to be a plus point. Some athletes, I’m sure, get a kick out of folk in the staff canteen giving them kudos and respect for running, swimming and biking 3 – 4 times a week (each) and getting out of bed at 5am every few Sundays to spend between 1 and 3 hours beasting themselves under the critical gaze of the race marshals. Personally I get a little tired of the “You must be so fit!” comments. This is mostly because it is, almost without fail, phrased exactly like that. “You must be so fit!”
On the other hand, short of an unlikely encounter with a radioactive spider, a black ops super-soldier project, a childhood spent under the tutelage of a parkour guru or all of the above, it’s pretty much the closest you’re likely to get to being a superhero, funny-coloured lycra suits and everything.
And that last point is pretty much the one that makes the rest worthwhile.
I have argued on numerous occasions that I am not a geek. Except, let’s be honest, it’s a lie. OK, so I don’t go into orgasmic quivers over the latest mobile phone OS, and the iPad release left me utterly cold. The thought of playing Arkham Asylum in 3D doesn’t give me goosebumps and I can turn off The Gadget Show as easily as I can turn off Iron Chef.
And yet, at the same time, I spent about half an hour obsessively comparing saddle-mounted hydration systems only last week and I have a shelf full of books that go into painfully anal detail about everything from wheel building to running technique.
I confess. It’s way past time. I’m a sports geek.
Not a nerd, not the sort of person who can recite which teams won what in which league in which year from the relative safety and comfort of an anorak: the sort of geek who makes it her business to know the latest thought on technique and performance and kit and gets excited about training aids that other people can’t even identify at first glance.
(I also like computer games, and I don’t mean Nintendogs. I mean The Darkness, Wolverine, Bioshock… you know. All those girlie games.)
So it will come as little surprise to those of you who understand the performance sports geek mentality to hear that I like my swim training aids. Of course I have the everyone-has-those pullbuoy and kickboard, but I also have other things, things that most people wouldn’t recognise. I own a pair of fist gloves. How geeky is that?
The latest toy to take my fancy was a set of the Finis PT paddles. PT stands for “Perfect Technique” and the aim is rather similar to the fist gloves: they are designed to force the swimmer to learn to use his entire body rather than just his hand for propulsion:
PT Paddles are shaped to deflect water around your hand, effectively removing the hands from the swimming equation. By removing the hand as a paddle, swimmers have to find other methods of generating propulsion.
Because your hand can no longer ‘grip’ the water, your body will need to adjust your stroke. The elbow is positioned higher, the hips roll a little further, and the forearm is activated earlier, allowing you to catch and pull yourself through the water.
Wearing the PT Paddles overtime increases your body awareness and muscle memory. Then when you swim normally without the paddles, you will feel stronger and faster in the water.
I thought I’d take to them like a duck to water (ahem), being a veteran user of the fistgloves. What I wasn’t expecting was for them to be buoyant, nor the effect of the additional weight. While fistgloves are not too dissimilar from simply making a fist when swimming, and make your hand slip through the water with alarming lack of resistance, the PT paddles somehow manage to keep the feel of arm speed through the stroke the same while still removing the hand from the propulsive effort. They are also an additional weight to carry through the recovery part of the stroke.
I didn’t find them as tiring as the fistgloves, which makes me think that I’m floundering less in the water and making better forward progress, despite the feeling that I’m not. That in turn tells me that the PT paddles are more about feel and I think that might work for swimmers who can’t cope with the loss of propulsion that comes from fistgloves. They might, indeed, be a worthy intermediate step for someone training on his own, without the benefit of coaching, who wants to try some of these more advanced techniques without resorting to fins.
In terms of construction they are fairly soft, so you might get away with them at the local pool, especially as they seem to be contained within the area of the hand. Adjusting the straps is a bit fiddly, even more so than normal swimming paddles, and it took quite some time to get them to the point where I felt they were workable. Comfortable is still some way off. They are certainly more robust than fistgloves (I’m on my third pair). Of course they are also good for anyone who has a latex allergy.
For what you get they are expensive, and I’m not sure they are worth the price. On the other hand, fistgloves are almost a tenner and are as fragile as a fragile thing called Little Miss Fragile from Fragiledonia, so if you’re as tough on gear as I am and want to try teaching yourself to use more than your hands for propulsion, give them a go. Or take a couple of squash balls into the pool with you — just don’t let go.
I happily confess I didn’t want to do this race. An extended bout of insomnia, a lupus flare, injury issues and sheer despondency over my training progress this year left me severely lacking in motivation. However, one of the defining characteristics of the institutionalised triathlete is a tendency to get on with it despite a total lack of motivation; indeed, in some cases, when the state of one’s health would preclude it if one were of sound mind.
Registration was between 7am and 8am and Dalkeith isn’t too far away so we were out the door at 06:50. I’m always amazed at how many people are up and about at that time on a Sunday morning. What are they doing? Why are they there? There’s an entire world that seems to exist in the realm of very early weekend mornings and while it’s incredibly sparsely populated, it is populated, which never ceases to surprise me. The cars with bikes on the back were obviously up to the same mischief as us, but what about the others?
If you know don’t tell me. I prefer the stories I imagine.
We got there about 7:20 and the car park was already looking full, which Frood found remarkable: the last time I did this race we turned up half an hour after registration was due to open and there was no one there except for a couple of other triathletes looking lost and confused.
I made a dash for race registration for body markings and timing chip. The freebie this time was a mug, which pleased Frood no end (not). I’m in my fourth year of triathlon now, and have developed some very strong opinions on what constitutes a good race. One of the criteria is the quality of the freebies, and by quality I mean relevance. It’s not cheap to enter a triathlon — you’re looking at around thirty molluscs for a sprint, fifty to sixty for a standard, and the longer distances go up into three figures — and 95% of the athletes taking part are not competing to win. They don’t expect to go home with a prize and probably never will. All they get for their money is the opportunity to race and whatever freebie is on offer. If I’m stumping up that amount of cash it’s nice to be given a memento that’s a bit more appealing than a mug with a logo on it. Galway last year was great, with a technical t-shirt for every competitor, including some in girlie sizes. Haddington the year before last gave us multi-tools. Even the ubiquitous water bottle is at least something you can use on the bike. I’m hardly going to stop for a cup of tea in transition and, even if I were, we’re not short on mugs at home. I’d prefer to keep my swim hat rather than get a mug, and that would be cheaper for the organisers, too. Just get a bunch of swim caps printed up at about 20p a shot and let us keep them. I like getting to keep my swim cap. It’s very handy to have race caps when training. Wearing one dissuades slow people from getting in the same lane as me.
Being given my own swim cap would also have prevented the horrible, awful moment at the start of the swim when I opened the cap to put it on and found a mass of someone else’s thick, black hair, swarming over the inside like some sort of parasitic worm colony. That I have a phobia about unattached hair is beside the point. Just EW.
I turned it inside out.
I took a chilled attitude in the swim. In past years I’ve become impatient when I’ve been close enough to touch the feet of the swimmer in front, but I’ve learned to relax and take advantage of drafting. I had a slight moment of panic when I was hit in the face by water on an in-breath and it looked like I was going to do a repeat of East Fife. I reacted more quickly this time and could therefore swim through it. I had also made a decision to try to be “in the moment” for this race, and not let how I was feeling at any given time push me into assumptions about what that meant for the rest of the race or even how I was performing. That helped a lot, and when the indication came that I had two lengths to go I was genuinely surprised.
This attempt at triathlon Zen failed on the bike. Dalkeith has the long descent with the vicious surface and sunken manholes that nearly had me off three years ago and gave me the Fear. After Cupar I thought I was over it: sadly not. I couldn’t make myself take my fingers off the brakes on that part, especially as there were some new, very nasty potholes and lacking any depth perception meant I couldn’t see how far away they were. The second lap was better, but even so I was overtaken by athletes who were braver than I was.
Back into T2, which had me struggling to get my running shoes on because I’ve got a gammy foot right now, and then more application of Zen to the run on the back of an article in the latest Runner’s World: concentrating on my breath and on my posture, acknowledging when thoughts about painful feet and tight hip extensors and people overtaking me — not to mention fretting about this year’s Galway — intruded and then focusing on the breath again. Sounds great in practise, but when the breath is laboured it’s also a great way to remind yourself that you’re suffering.
Still, I was in pretty good shape when I crossed the line, not the wheezing heap that I was in Cupar. My times, as dispatched to me by text message while I was still on my way home (which, I have to say, almost makes up for the mug) were:
Swim: 00:14’33 (including run to mat — I made it 13’36 for a PB)
The cycle and the run are suffering from injury-induced lack of training, but if I’m honest my run hasn’t improved all that much in the four years I’ve been competing and I really don’t know what to do about that. My goals this year, up until I had to take time out, were a sub-13 minute swim, a consistent 35 minute or less bike and a consistent sub-25 minute run. I think I can make my swim goal, but even this early in the season I’m having doubts about the other two because they’re not showing much sign of improvement.
It was a good race though. As it turned out I enjoyed it. The pool was cold, the weather was cool and dry and I didn’t feel under any particular pressure. I suspect that’s the right combination for having an enjoyable race, if not for breaking any records: but then, as I don’t enter to win because I know I’m not fast enough to win, enjoying a triathlon is as much of an achievement as a finishing in a new fastest time.
Now I get beer and home-made pizza. Nom!