First Triathlon - the Dos and Don'ts

Discover the lessons learnt as one novice makes his race debut

Graham Taylor
Graham gets ready to tackle the swim, which was shortened by 500m due to the 12C water
Dambuster TRiathlon
A predictably hectic start forced Graham to swim breaststroke

We’re always trying to encourage our colleagues over on sister magazine Runner’s World to take up triathlon. So when senior designer Graham Taylor expressed a desire to tackle his first triathlon recently, we encouraged him to face his open water fears, borrow a bike and make his triathlon debut. He didn’t listen to all our advice – we’d definitely recommend starting bike training more than a week before the race, for example – but he somehow overcame his lack of training and dismal organisational skills to finish in a fine time.

Graham says: "After two or three pints in the pub, my friend’s suggestion that I join him in his quest to complete a triathlon seemed like an excellent idea, so I agreed. He had chosen the Dambuster, an Olympic-distance (1,500m swim, 42K bike, 10K run) race based around Rutland Water reservoir near the picturesque town of Oakham.

I’d never done a triathlon before, but I’m a reasonable runner over shortish distances and I used to swim as a kid and cycle a fair bit with my friends, so I thought that a step up in training would be fairly straightforward: keep running, remind myself how to swim, learn to cycle in cleats. Boom. Win race, achieve well-deserved glory and go to the World Championships in Auckland. Ahem.

I put off training for a bit, and with only a month to go until the race, I finally made my way to my local pool and plunged straight into the fast lane. After two lengths, I was left gasping for air.  When did swimming become so hard? I managed 16 lengths and came to realise that I had an issue with breathing. My legs and arms worked fine; filling my lungs with air rather than water, on the other hand, was beyond me. Over the weeks, I improved – I could complete 60 lengths without stopping – though I relied heavily on breaststroke.

On the upside, the running had been going really well – I’d been pounding the pavements running to work after my swims and found I could recover quickly and push myself to my normal pace.

I had more confidence in my cycling than my swimming so, as is my standard practice, I put off training until the weekend before the event. Somehow my assumption that I’d be fine was justified, and a 28-mile round trip in Cheshunt was reasonably unchallenging – it took 1:40, and  was three miles longer than the race distance.

Come race morning, I was nervous. Plus, I’d forgotten safety pins, so my (idiotic) plan to tie my race number on with ribbon didn’t help matters. (Happily, I managed to borrow some from the guys on the Total Fitness Nottingham stand.)

Then, there was an announcement that the swim had been reduced by 500m to 1,000m because of the chilly 12C water temperature. This felt like good news, though I was still hoping to somehow avoid the swim (clearly I was in denial). For the first five strokes, there was a lot of thrashing around, and I tried to avoid putting my head under water and swimming properly. At one point, a young chap was bobbing up and down, waving his arms around manically. Fortunately a watchful marshal kayaked over and gave him something to hang on to. A little voice at the back of my head told me this might be too hard for me as well; but I’m not generally one to give up, so I decided to fight back – even if it involved the slight shame of swimming the whole thing breaststroke.

The cycle wasn’t too bad. Beautiful countryside, not too tiring… Hang on, that’s a hill. And another one. And another... I eventually sussed out which gear I needed to be in and the tactic of bombing it to gain speed before the climbs. In the end, I hadn’t practised at all with cleats, so I just decided to just cycle like a normal person and not worry about falling on to my face.

Eventually the run started, and even with my legs feeling like jelly and my feet like lumps of half-melted ice cream, I was much happier. The run took us round the edge of the reservoir and over the dam a couple of times before returning to the start. One direction over the dam was a hellish wind-in-your-face, gasping-for-air kind of experience, but this inevitably meant a wind-aided scoot back across, giving me time to take in the sights – and shout ‘showoff’ at a recreational mountain biker who zoomed past.

I pushed on to the finish. My girlfriend said she could spot me because my shoulders were up to my ears and I resembled a chicken. It was hard but it was finally over, and I’d completed my first triathlon in 2:31.

I am told this is quite a hard course for a beginner, but I’m tempted to go back to and try my hand at the Dambuster again – and this time I won’t need to be tipsy to sign up. The race is in picturesque surroundings so it’s well worth the journey, and overall it was brilliantly organised. Next time, my training will be too."

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