What happened when an aquaphobic ultrarunner tackled a Triathlon?

Last autumn I set myself the challenge of conquering my fear of water by taking on a Half-Ironman distance triathlon. In terms of the swimming, I was starting from zero, and I was terrified of the water. A few weeks ago, race day finally came round at the sunny Holkham estate in Norfolk. So, what happened when an aquaphobic ultrarunner tackled a Triathlon?! 

It’s taken a while for me to be able to write this. To get the jumble of thoughts and emotions out into something coherent. They’ve been a rollercoaster, these past few weeks. The pre-race build up was less than ideal. Sharon and me had decided to head down to Norfolk for a few days holiday before the race. We camped on a beautiful little campsite in the tiny village of Morston. We’d stayed there some years ago, on our first camping trip together, so it was lovely to be back. Alas for us, we were both in the throes of very heavy colds. Lots of throat-ravaging coughing and a staggering amount of nose-blowing were the patterns of the first few days. And underneath it all, a sickening nervousness was building in my stomach.

aquaphobic ultrarunner tackled a Triathlon

 

Why did I do it?

This race quite frankly terrified me. I don’t have to set myself stupid challenges like this. So why did I choose to do it? I could stick to running ultras, which used to terrify me – now they just scare me instead! So why take on a triathlon, and why the 70.3 distance? Well, I wanted to prove a point to myself. Years ago, I would never have thought I’d run a marathon. And if someone had told me that I’d run 100 miles in one go, I simply wouldn’t have been able to believe them. ‘Not me. Actually, not anyone! Can anyone run that far?! Surely not!‘ Until I read Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes, I didn’t know such a thing was possible. But when I found out it was, it was a mental game-changer. And somewhere in the soil of my mind, a seed took root…

So, having learned that it was possible, I then began to edge ever so slowly towards running ultras. At each new distance, my self-imposed limits were pushed further and further back, until they were smashed entirely when I ran my first 50-miler. At this realisation, I felt that I’d held myself back throughout my life. In all aspects of it. And so my thoughts began to wander… And I began to wonder… To wonder what else I could do. If I can run 100 miles, I can do anything, right?

Why specifically a triathlon?

I’ve been scared of being out of my depth in water for as long as I can remember. And I’m a very poor swimmer. So, when my mate Burt suggested I have a go at a triathlon with him, it felt like an ideal chance to test my new-found self-belief. I’ve been commuter-cycling to work and back for the past four years, and so combined with my running, I felt pretty confident about two of the disciplines. A 70.3 consists of a 56-mile bike section followed by a half-marathon. I bike 20-miles a day but haven’t ridden further than that for years. The half-marathon didn’t daunt me in itself, but as it’s the last leg of the race, I wondered how my body would be holding up. But the real challenge came from that first leg, that 1.2-mile open-water swim… I could’ve opted for a shorter triathlon, perhaps with a pool swim, but given my current fitness levels, the challenge aspect didn’t feel right. So I settled on the Half-Ironman distance, and we signed up for the Holkham Half.

Swim training

So swimming was clearly the weakest of the three disciplines by far. I set myself a day to start my training and went to the pool at my local leisure centre. I felt sick. ‘Can I pay for a pool session, please?‘ The words stuck in my dry throat as I paid the lovely lady on reception. I went into the changing rooms and the smell of chlorine hit me, reawakening the memories of those horrendous school swimming lessons. I was literally shaking. My heart was hammering as I changed. I fiddled and fumbled with my goggles, delaying the dreaded moment when I’d actually have to get into the water.

I showered quickly, walked through the small trough of liquid, rounded the corner and there it was. The pool. The echoing noise hit me, clanging around in my head which was swimming a race all of it own. I wobbled to the pool edge on unsteady legs and sat on the side, my legs dangling in the water. My heart was beating so loudly I fancied I could hear it echoing around within that cacophony of noise. Could other people hear it?! I started my watch and slid into the water.

What happened next, I wouldn’t describe as swimming, but I did spend an hour in the pool. There’s a chance that I may have even got my hair wet. But I got in. I’d taken the hardest step. Or so I thought…

Stroke choice

I tried to swim once a week after that first foray. It got easier, especially when I bought a pair of buoyancy shorts (skinny gits like me don’t float well). After speaking with a mate who had also been terrified of the water and who did his first tri at Holkham in 2016, I decided that instead of learning to do front crawl, I’d stick to the less tiring – but much slower – breast stroke. It had worked for him, and it made me feel better. So that is what I practised. I was slow but hopeful. By the end of my training, I was perhaps 10 minutes shy of the 1 hour 10 minutes I needed to do on the day to make the cut-off time. I was in with a chance.

Thankfully, the day before the race, my heavy cold miraculously lifted. I could breathe normally and felt good. Some days of resting up in the sunshine had made me strong, despite the cold. I was as ready as I’d ever be…

So, what actually happened when this aquaphobic ultrarunner tackled a Triathlon?!

I’d packed and repacked my gear for the race the day before. There was so much stuff to remember! There’s one massive difference between ultras and tri – the ultra is a far simpler beast.

The morning of the race came round. I was awake for almost every hour of it. At 2 am I woke up needing the loo, and just couldn’t get back to sleep. I lay in the tent, my heart hammering, my stomach churning. The same thing had happened when I did my first 100-miler, so at least this part of the build-up was familiar! At 4 am, the alarm went off – it was an early start for us both and poor Sharon hadn’t recovered from her cold as well as I had. I guiltily made her some coffee and porridge. My own coffee went down a treat. My porridge took every effort to eat. I felt truly sick with fear.

We arrived at Holkham Hall and I headed over to where I’d racked the bike to dump my T1 gear. Burt spotted me there and came over to help me into my wetsuit. I was in Wave 2, my swim starting at 6.30am. He was 45 minutes after me, so I was glad to see him before I set off. He gave me a huge hug and said ‘If you can run 100 miles, you can do anything!’ I felt a small nugget of resolve forming inside me.

All kitted up for the swim, I headed out of the Transition zone, where Sharon was waiting with our dog, Billy. We slowly walked down to the lake…

Before entering the water, Holkham Half 2017
Just before heading into the holding pen. It was here that the most potent mental demon paid me a visit. Thankfully, we were called into the water before it took hold.

The race begins

I gave Sharon a kiss and hug, and Billy gave me a big smelly lick. Then I was into the holding pen. A few minutes later, the elite wave shot off, their gold swim caps glinting in the early morning sun. This was the hardest part of the whole journey for me. I was having huge mental battles at this point, and I was so relieved five minutes later when our time was called, the white caps. The mental demons didn’t quite have enough time to paralyse me with their poison.

There was no time now to think. I followed up from the rear, felt the water envelop me, and then all of a sudden, the entire world seemed to stop. I was in the water, wholly in the water. The white swim caps of the rest of my Wave were bobbing in front of me, the length of Holkham Lake stretching out into the distance where the pale dawn sky blushed above the trees.

I was in the water. I’d actually got in! I’d only done one open-water swim in prep for this race and still felt edgy about it. But now I was in, there was only one way to go. 3-2-1, we were off!

An aquaphobic ultrarunner takes on a Hlaf-Ironman
When I got to this point, I knew I’d conquered my fear. Finally!

A swim of two halves

My plan had been to start at the back of the pack and stay there. I didn’t want people near me, splashing and hitting me in a melee of arms and legs. And the plan worked pretty well, to begin with. I was clearly much slower than everybody else in my Wave. There were a lot of lovely support crew out in canoes and on paddle boards ensuring the swimmer’s safety. One shouted over to me straight away to ask if I was alright. I shouted that I was fine, just slow. And the reply of ‘That’s OK, just keep going, you’ll get there!‘ was one that was echoed by all of the support crew as I slowly crept around that lake.

Sharon and Billy were shouting and barking their support from the path which follows the lake edge. I was struggling to see my watch clearly through my goggles, and as I got to the half way point, I shouted to Sharon ‘How long has it taken me?‘ I thought she said 45 minutes and my heart sank. There was every chance I’d be slower on the second half, so knew that at this rate I’d be looking at a time of 1 hour 30 mins. 20 minutes over cut-off. As I approached a girl on a paddle board, she asked how I was. I explained that I felt good but slow, and she, like the rest, offered encouragement. I asked if she thought I’d get pulled out of the race and she said she didn’t know, but to keep going and finish the swim and see what happens.

Holkham Half 2017 support
Champion support crew of Sharon and Billy Dog. It was a huge comfort to know they were just off to the side.

It was around then that my legs began to cramp up. That horrible flickering of muscles passed up both legs, calves and thighs. I stopped using my legs until it passed, just using my weakening arms to try to go quicker. It was at this point that I began to adjust my thinking from getting round 70.3 miles, to getting through 1.2 miles. I honestly didn’t think I’d be allowed to carry on in the race. But I was absolutely determined to get round that swim. This challenge had always been two-pronged. Conquer my fear, conquer the distance. I’d conquered my fear now – part of me was even enjoying it! But it seemed that on this occasion the chance to finish the race was going to be denied me. Rules are rules, after all. What happened next took me by surprise though.

Nearly there

I continued in this half-cramped state for the remaining 0.4 miles. Everyone on the canoes and paddle boards was so supportive. Just keep going, they all echoed. So I did. Finally, finally, I got to the big orange buoy which marked where I turned for the last 50 meters to the finish. A chap on a canoe came over and asked if I was ok. I told him I’d cramped up but was ok otherwise. He said to keep going, but hung around near me in case I needed him. He was a really nice guy, and I told him it was my first tri, and that I’d had to get over my fear of water. I’d done well, he said, and I really felt that he wanted me to finish.

Then, the guy had a call on the radio. He’d been instructed to get me out of the water and asked me to head over to a waiting boat. I reiterated that I felt fine and that I really wanted to finish under my own steam. Really wanted to climb up the steps onto that inflatable pontoon myself. I was less than 50 meters from the finish now. I could see Sharon and Billy in with the other supporters. The guy relayed my message, and it seemed that I’d been allowed to continue. I was so relieved.

A final twist

But then, a minute or so later, he told me that he’d been ordered now to get me out of the water. Apparently, the organisers were worried about me and wanted me to go to the medical tent. Despite reiterating that I felt fine, I wasn’t going to be allowed to finish. I was going to be deprived the emotions of getting out under my own steam. He told me to grab the canoe and he paddled over to the waiting boat.

Two young folk in the boat asked me if I was able to get in myself. I explained that my legs had cramped, so they told me to turn around with my back to the boat so they could pull me in. As they did so, I felt something catch. I asked them to stop pulling me. They lowered me back in a little then pulled up again and there I was, laid on my back in a boat within spitting distance of the finish line.

They steered the boat over to a place on the shore, away from the finish, where another chap was waiting for me. He asked me the same questions the guy in the canoe had. I told him that I felt fine apart from cramp. He looked a little surprised ‘So, you don’t need the medical tent, then?‘ he asked. No, I told him. I never had. It was then that I felt the hole in the back of my wetsuit where the two others had pulled me from the water. I asked the guy if I had a hole in my wetsuit. He looked and confirmed I did. He then asked if I had some warm clothes in my drop bag. I said I did and he told me to go and put them on. That was that. The end of my race.

Holkham Half 2017 so near yet so far
This is how close I was to finishing under my own steam – I’m the swimmer in the white cap.

 

Ripped wetsuit after being pulled out of the water at the Holkham Half 2017
This is the rip in the back of the wetsuit. I’d only worn it twice.

 

How do I feel now?

To be blunt, I feel pretty angry at the whole thing. I want to know why I was pulled at such a late place in the swim. If the cut-off is 1h10m, and they’d pulled me out then, I’d honestly have had no complaints. So why wait until 1h40 – when I’m so close to the finish – to pull me out? I can’t see the logic. There were other swimmers from later Waves still in the water, so it wasn’t like they had to shut the lake operation down. I told them I felt fine and didn’t need to go to the medical tent, and clearly they felt the same thing once I was out of the water, as I never was sent there.

It would have been better by far to have let me finish the swim myself. If I’d then been told that my race is over, it would have been easier to swallow. I’d have tried to see if they’d let me carry on, just for the experience of the race, albeit knowing I’d ultimately be given a DNF. But if they’d not have allowed that and insisted my day was over, then really I would have accepted it fair and square. I was well over cut-off, so really would have had no qualms.

It feels like whoever decided that my race was over was embarrassed that I was still in the water. As soon as I got within sight of the crowds, that was when I got pulled. I may be wrong, but time will tell. Through a somewhat bizarre and very fortuitous meeting of some new-found friends, I’m currently trying to get answers to those questions… I’ll let you know how it all pans out as the story continues…

What have I learned from my first triathlon

When I first ran 100 miles, the reactions I got from people for succeeding were very powerful, very emotional. Running that far, the last 11 miles with an excruciating groin injury, were really the making of me. And the reactions of friends and family were truly astounding and very touching. I was initially very surprised that it was exactly the same this time. Despite the fact that the outcome of the race is completely different, the reactions from people have been as intense and personal as when I first ran that 100-miler.

People who have been following my swim story since last year know what I’ve gone through to get to the point where I could walk into a lake and try to swim 1.2 miles round it. We all have fears, and when someone digs deep to try to conquer theirs, it does touch an emotional chord for people. In one of my Facebook posts, I said that I’d ‘failed’ in my attempt. A few people pulled me up on this, saying that there’s no failure at all.

Conflicting emotions

On reflection, I feel massively disappointed that I was too slow on the swim to have been allowed to do the bike and run. I know that once I got out of the water, my dry-land pursuits would have clicked into gear and I’d have done well. But, it’s a triathlon for a reason and I was not good enough on the first discipline. Simple as that.

However, I’m immensely pleased with myself for having a go. I tried! I beat those negative voices in my head that would have contrived reasons for me to not be on that start line. And I really did try. And for that, I can go to sleep with a huge smile of satisfaction on my face. As a friend of mine said ‘Training is the journey of strength and self-discovery. The race is just the start of the next training programme.‘ (thanks, Lainey) That’s how it feels. Conquering my fear of the water was the bigger thing, and the journey I took to even be on that start line is priceless.

Mixed emotions
Feeling disappointed but philosophical after the race.

What do you think?

A huge thank you to all of those many people who helped me on that journey. You know who you are, and I’ve thanked you all already – all of those words of encouragement and physical help with gear and bikes is massively appreciated. I felt like I had a team behind me all the way round that lake. Well done to the individual winners – for the men, Craig Twigg in 4h09m, and the ladies, Debbie Moore in 4h42m. Finally, a massive well done to Burt, who was several shades browner after 7h 21m in the sun. One day mate, we’ll cross one of those lines together.

So, what do you guys think? Should I have been allowed to finish the swim and then been told I was out of the race? Or were the organisers right to pull me out at the point they did? Also, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve conquered one of your fears! Let me know what it was and how you beat it!

Burt finishes Holkham Half 2017
I was super-proud of Burt at the finish line.

 

Overall individual winner of the men’s Holkham Half 2017, Craig Twigg.

 

6 thoughts on “What happened when an aquaphobic ultrarunner tackled a Triathlon?

  1. Yes I think even though you had missed the cut off and was so close to the finish as long as there were other people still in the lake and safety teams near you for the sake of 50m I would have let you carry on and then explained due to missing the cut off you were pulled or at least got that message to you why you were in the lake and let you make your own mind up. It sounds you did remarkably well for a person who also have a fear of swimming you are an inspiration and will do it just as I will do my 100 mile race one day I am now on my 4th attempt.

    1. Thanks, Neil, I really appreciate it. That’s my point exactly. I’ve no issue with being pulled out for being over the cut-off. But I’d been over the cut-off for 30 minutes and been urged to continue. When I was so close to the finish, it was the timing of the pull that was so galling. Good luck in the conquest of your 100 – which one are you going for next?

  2. Great effort, amazing that you conquered your fears. Like you I’m an ultrarunner, and although a strong swimmer have no desire to swim that far!!

    You should have been left to continue, you time out at a cp. it not like anyone comes to find you and pull your race before you get to a cp in an ultra!!

    Good luck with the future 😃😃

    1. Thanks for your comment, Leon, I’m really grateful for it. I hadn’t done anywhere near enough swim training, that I knew before I even got in the water. But I’m of the mindset to have a go anyway and see what happens. I never felt ready when I did my first 50-mile run, and certainly didn’t feel ready for either of my 100-milers either! I read a quote somewhere which said ‘If you only ever do what you know you can do, you won’t do much.’ Better to try and fail than to not try at all, in my book. I’ve learned a lot from this attempt, things that will be very useful to me in the future, so despite me DNF’ing, I’m feeling positive about the whole experience. Good luck with your ultrarunning – what do you have lined up?

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