Not-Race Week: Surrey Division 1 Crosscountry – Wimbledon Common, or Somewhere at the Bottom of the River

Apologies, late again! Not alcohol this time, I swear; it was the loud shouty music that did it this time. Alcohol is next week, so have a second apology in advance and carry it in your pocket so you’re prepared.

There was a race this weekend: the first crosscountry I’ve done since I was a wee lad at secondary school in deepest darkest Cornwall, diving into the bushes around the first corner for a fag because it looked way cooler than short shorts and neon trainers. Oh, how times have changed. Not being a particularly athletic kid at school (read: maths geek on a perilous decline into hippie waster) I dropped PE as soon as it wasn’t compulsory, so it’s been over a decade since I tried my hand at it.

Over a decade, and for all of my newfound physical gifts (and lack of nicotine; I gave up smoking for this Tri business) I still can’t finish a bloody XC race. The warmup lap was fine: nice easy pace, settling into the new shoes. I started the race well, managing to withhold myself and not burst off from the starting line like a bottle of coke you’ve just dropped a mentos in, meaning that theoretically I should have lasted longer than said bottle of coke.

Unfortunately, theory and practice don’t often marry up in my world. If you’d like evidence of this, come and watch me make any reasonably simple task – baking a cake, changing a tire, ordering lunch – monumentally and fascinatingly over-complicated. I didn’t finish that XC race on Saturday, and there’s still flour and God knows what else all over the kitchen from yesterday.

About halfway around the first lap of the race I felt my hip twinge, which isn’t overly uncommon for me, because despite being relatively young I seem to have the joints of a geriatric former prizefighter. I tried to run it off, but it wasn’t happening. The team captain tried telling me I was looking strong, but quickly busting out the universal hand signal for No I’m Fucking Not Keith I’m Dying Here put paid to that, and I called it at the end of the first lap, bitterly disappointed at the time.

I’d add a team photo at this point just to prove I was there, but I’m not in it because I’m right mardy cow when I don’t finish a race and refuse to in team photos. Case in point: Wimbledon 5k back in August. I’m starting to think that maybe Wimbledon is just a terrible place for me to go running. Let’s not go there again, guys.

In perspective though, it’s not all bad. I probably could have carried on, but thought it was better as a preventative measure to pull out – after all, I started my pre-training training schedule for the Ironman this week, and it would be really shit to properly injure myself in week one. This is some amazing race intelligence on my part, because I swear my IQ drops by about 50% as soon as the gun goes. Usually I’d blindly run on until my leg fell off, then hop until the other one went, and before you know everything’s a bit Monty Python Black Knight.

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This is the loose plan to follow for this month. As you can see, for a hobby writer I have God-awful handwriting so have to write everything in block caps, otherwise even I’d never understand it when I have to read it back. Also as you can see, there’s a lot of swimming in there.

I have developed an odd relationship with swimming in my short time as a budding triathlete. Despite it being comfortably my worst of the three disciplines, it’s also the one I enjoy the most, outside of race days. Race days are a different kettle of fish because of the kicking and punching and claustrophobia and stuff, and I’m competitive so getting an accurate measure of how far behind everyone else I am infuriates me.

When I say it’s the worst of the three triathlon disciplines for me, I really do mean it. Having grown up on the Atlantic Coast and at at various times entertained surf kayaking/gig rowing/bodyboarding/surfing, I kind of just assumed going into the beginner training program I did that I’d be able to swim. We’re swarthy men of the sea, us Cornish folk; we’d wrestle Moby Dick to a watery grave if he looked at us funny with his big whale-y eyes. Maybe the first mistake I made was forgetting that I was born in Peckham, which is slightly further from the sea.

It turned out that I could not swim. At all. I think I could just about manage the not-drowning thing, but you might have well as asked a toddler to build a combustion engine as ask me to move forward five feet in a pool. The first Chasers club swimming session I attended, I couldn’t swim one length of front crawl. I actually got out the water and was prepared to pack it in until the swim coach heckled me to get me back in the water: “You’re not going to learn anything out there, are you?” Swimming wisdom no1.

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After lots of lessons and practice, I eventually got the hang of the ‘you need to breathe out underwater’ malarkey and graduated to the big leagues: Shepperton lake. Unlike many other newbie swimmers, I happen to now prefer open water to swimming in a pool. This did not happen immediately. Immediately I was terrified. The unknown is the primal fear that all humans face, and when you can’t see your hand two feet in front of your face the world is just condensed into one great big wet unknown, full of scales and sharp teeth. The first time I went open water swimming this year, I met two far more competent club mates and we braved the not freezing, but slightly chilly may waters together. Straight away I lagged behind, and they were already happily treading water at the first buoy when I rocked up behind them with as much dignity as a giraffe on a bouncy castle. One of them asked me how I was doing. The other burst out laughing at the expression on my face.

This event also led to an exchange that I’ve carried with me for the year: on being asked if I was okay to continue (once the laughing had stopped), I managed to utter the phrase “Didn’t come here to be a bitch” – swimming wisdom no2 – between gulping for air and trying not to swallow water. The words, inspiring; the delivery, less so. I tend to repeat this phrase before I take on any ridiculous Tri-based activity now, but especially nautical ones. It was certainly on my lips when the ten second countdown for the start of the Hever gauntlet was ringing in my ears – completing that 1.9k swim just eight months after starting my aquatic adventures definitely has to be considered the athletic achievement of the year for me.

What is it about swimming, and open water in particular, that I enjoy so much? I think a lot of it comes down to focus and concentration. Chuck me in some murky water and let’s think about this. One, sight becomes a non-factor for the 90% of the activity where you’re not actively sighting (I should probably sight more often on this estimation). Two, hearing completely goes out the window. Obviously you don’t suddenly go deaf – unless the water is especially minging and disease-ridden, in which case you might have bigger problems – but I don’t really rely on it for anything at all. The same with smell, which is forgotten unless I’m taking lake water up my nose, in which case I’m drowning. Stop reading this and come save me, I’ve only relatively recently discovered that I don’t actually want to die and it’d be a terrible irony if I was to cop it now.

Three senses down. That leaves taste and feel. I much prefer the nutty, earthen taste of lakes to the chlorine of swimming pools; probably another indicator that I’m taking on more water than is really necessary. It’s wise to not try and rank your usual swimming locations based on the flavour of the water (Shepperton, Brockwell Lido, Royal Docks, any indoor pool). That can be swimming wisdom no3.

With two out of five senses functioning normally, it means that I find swimming is very much more focused and clinical. It because just about the movements (and flavour), with little else to distract. It’s kind of like sensory deprivation – very calming to experience for an hour every now and again, once you’ve gotten over the weirdness of it. For someone who’s head has a tendency to rush off in bad directions at a million miles and hour every now and again, I find this focus and singular purpose can be a godsend. I don’t have the think about much else. Just left, right, left, breathe, right, left, right, breathe, left and sight, right etc ad infinitum, or however much feels like enough.

Indoor pools, aside from being heavily chlorinated, also add a couple of undesirable factors. One, it’s really had to work drills when you’re constantly having to manoeuvre around the geriatric breaststroker who’s obviously had an episode and wondered into your lane, unsure of where or why he is. Open water doesn’t have lanes; there is still etiquette, but you have a lot more space to work with. Sighting is also obsolete, which aside from making the whole thing less interesting, tends to lead to the odd distraction now and again. Finally, I have this problem where despite being able to swim upwards of two kilometres non-stop in open water, I can’t finish a length in a pool without stopping for a breather. I’m not sure where this has come from, but it really impedes practise.

I’m largely trying to improve my base swimming technique over the winter because a) weakest discipline and b) it’s indoors and I’m not good in the cold. There are a number of basic errors in my technique that I’m hoping to iron out before the training starts in earnest – chiefly, I don’t rotate enough when I swim, so I’m not very aqua-dynamic. This also affects my stroke, which I don’t think is powerful enough, and finally I’m not sure that my kick is much cop. These are the three areas I want some improvement in before January.

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To work on these I’ve enlisted the help of one of the club coaches. That’s him in the front and centre in the picture above, part of a recent article he wrote for Triathlon Plus magazine. That’s also me just over his shoulder, where you can just see the hovering swim cap and not see the open water terror face discussed above, thankfully. Tim’s an age grouper triathlete and good at motivating and making everything seem awesome (to the point that I sometimes wonder if he’s a living parody of the Lego movie), so that’ll be dead helpful over the cold dark winter where I’d potentially rather be in bed getting fat.

Well, that was a waffle! All going to plan, this is the first of a series of three posts of my thoughts/learnings on the three disciplines of triathlon. In a spate of pretension, I’m going to mix these up fortnightly with another series of three posts on philosophy! This’ll be fun.

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Also, part of the reason I’m doing this is to raise funds and awareness for The Maytree Respite Centre, a small charity in North London that provides support for people going through a suicidal crisis – so if you’d like to support my fundraising efforts, please click here. Thanks so much!

6 responses to “Not-Race Week: Surrey Division 1 Crosscountry – Wimbledon Common, or Somewhere at the Bottom of the River

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