Triathletes can’t have any fun at all!

Jenn Hutton
Ironman UK

My IMUK journey started when I saw all the posts on Facebook from 2016 and it just looked awesome! I thought about Outlaw but Bolton is nearer and it had the added benefit of the COLT support and experience. I figured it’s not going to get easier as I get older so I better just join COLT, sign up and get serious. As an athlete through high school and university I had idolised Paula Newby-Fraser and imagined I might one day accomplish such incredible feats (only much slower obviously). I dabbled in sprints and a few standard distances while I did my postgrad in the Midwest but I cannot stress enough how easy it was! My time was unstructured; I could run and cycle pretty much whenever I wanted and the campus had 3 pools just for lap swimming, one a 50 m outdoor pool that I could train in during the summer. Swimming laps was something to justify lying around sunbathing while I caught up on my reading.

When I first came to the UK, riding outside all through the winter was a shock, moving from trail running to fell running was a shock and the first time I went in open water I just about packed in the whole idea of triathlon. In fact after a disappointing Helvellyn in 2009 I did just that. Ullswater was no fun at all, I was over geared for the Struggle and cold a lot of the time. About the only thing I did remotely well was fling myself downhill on the run. So, I stuck with fell running, regularly trashing my quads downhill to make up for my lack of speed on the uphill. I balanced that with cycling but not very well I was either doing one or the other for months at a time. I only ever went in the pool if I was too injured to bike or run.

I contacted Richard Mason early on to speak to him about training and hoping I could put off a ‘proper’ programme until New Year. I planned to hold on to variety as long as I could, do an ultra round Helvellyn in December and get myself in the pool over the winter months try to improve my technique and stamina in the water. I injured my back so the ultra didn’t happen and I managed to procrastinate about swimming until pretty soon it was after Christmas and I had been in the pool once or twice maybe. I hadn’t even been spending much time on the bike apart from spin classes and commuting. I booked my Wattbike test with Richard in January and promptly got the flu. I’ve never been so sick in my life: I couldn’t move and the dizziness and weakness in training lingered for weeks. I was full-on stressed out by the timeframe when I finally did my Wattbike test but Richard was all business. Still doable, gonna have to work hard, not worried about your cycling, just do the training. Then before he even sent my first week through, I came unstuck on the cattle grid before Cross o’ Greet cycling back from Salidburn. Luckily, the bike was fine but it turned out my right hand was broken and was going to be in a cast 4 -6 weeks. So, I managed to avoid swimming even longer and caught up on Game of Thrones doing long rides on the turbo but, the cast, the cast was rank!

Six weeks later, cast gone, no pain in my hand and I was on the schedule. The schedule, you know it, gets progressively more knackering, the couple of cross training sessions get squeezed, gets a bit more isolating as weekend sessions get longer and longer. The part that previously led me to believe triathletes are no fucking fun at all. On the plus side I was sleeping like a lazy teenager and I got used to it, I got organised and managed not to get injured, dropping runs if I felt like it was just a bit much. When I first started to taper it seemed a long way out, I mean really, so little so long before the race? Meanwhile Richard said I should feel like I’m raring to go but I didn’t really, just felt like I had too much time on my hands and I had to try not to spend it eating and drinking!

Race week arrived, I did my tiny workouts and pedalled back and forth to work alert to any sign of fatigue, nervous as hell. Finally, on Friday, although still nervous I was excited. It all becomes more real at registration and briefing, I buy myself a t-shirt and long-sleeve shirt hoping I don’t jinx myself. I weigh the benefit of doing the practice swim session and make note of the downside of doing so from COLT Ironmen and then decide I’d actually rather sleep well on Friday night and late on Saturday than get there for 9am so I just do a short ride on the course have a little jog and rack my bike. God the bikes, there really are some beauties! People are flapping about, cleaning muck off, covering their bikes, faffing with stuff. I really don’t faff with my bikes, I’m out of my depth and I don’t care, I just want to ride, I work so I can pay someone to do the faffing. I hope I won’t have to deal with anything more than a tire or I’ll lose a lot of time. The rain is outside of my control and I’ll be wet anyway so I just walk around making note of where to go and where everything is and clear out before I catch more nerves. Saturday night I struggle to sleep, I’d eaten loads and I could hear the rain on the skylight, my poor bike. I finally have that feeling of just being ready to go! A minute after I fall asleep, the alarm goes off at 2:30 am, I have coffee, choke down some more food, underachieve in the bathroom and check I have everything.

Once I arrive, it’s all go, get on the athlete bus, chat with Ben about training and how we’re both approaching the day and really get this feeling like we’re all in this crazy thing together! It felt like I just had enough time to visit my bike, go to the portaloo and underachieve again, squeeze into the wetsuit, turn in my white bag and get in the line of lemmings hoping I’ve seeded myself correctly.

The first lap goes all right I don’t get bashed about too much but I swim quite wide to the right to minimise my chance of involuntary encounters with other swimmers. I reach the pontoon to get back in the water for the second lap and look at my split for the first, 44 minutes. So I decide that on the second loop I’ll stay to the left as close to the buoys as I can. I actually enjoy it, I don’t feel tired and I think I’m much straighter but my split time is a minute and half slower. So much for being faster on race day! I run out of the water, it seems like a long way, jogging from water to tent to bike to mount line must be like 3 minutes of the total time. I’m very methodical in transition I’ve memorised the order I want to get all my bits and pieces in order but it still takes me over 10 minutes. Finally, it’s gray and raining and I could be a bit warmer but I’m in the heart of it. Get through the bike and you’ve broken the back of it, all you have to do is plod through a marathon; it really is all about the bike! People stream past me on the bike, I don’t pass many and it’s still gray and damp but COLT alley is buzzing and I have a little burst of excitement up the hill before I settle back in. I’d only reccied the loop once before and knackered so I was feeling a bit apprehensive heading up to Sheep House Lane. It was nothing like as bad as I remembered; I felt pretty strong and passed quite a few just spinning my legs up the hill. The ride is really beautiful, I chat to a few people and my Garmin gives me 5 mile splits so I can stick at 15 mph average and focus on fuelling and staying comfortable. More people start appearing on the course and there lots of cheers for COLT. I feel good but I’m aware of how quickly that can change and I could have ridden more over the winter so I’ve been worried about the bike. I keep myself calm and contained. The only other time my heart rate really gets up there is climbing Hunter’s Hill but it’s only short and I have a proper granny gear. I spin up past quite a few again. The second run through COLT alley is electric, there are loads of people now and it’s loud! It’s the closest I’ll ever get to what it must be like to be a professional athlete. I can’t wait to go back through. Since I know the loop better now, it feels a bit shorter, but it’s windier and when we hit that exposed section I think about the drag coefficients of some of these poor fuckers and wonder why a little breather behind a testosterone wall is not an Ironman thing. People are friendly, there are loads of first timers and we bond over the struggle. The last 40 miles, my back gets progressively more sore and I cannot wait to get off the bike. I sing to myself, “today is the greatest day I’ve ever known…” I tell myself it’s a sunny summer’s day and I’m just pedalling to a big party and I’m planning on dancing for hours. Finally, the last run through COLT alley and I perk up massively and pass the few riders around me. It’s pretty much the end of the ride by then, it’s mostly downhill into transition, I’ve nearly done it, I don’t know how I’m gonnna run!!

T2 is a bit of a low point, on the plus side the portaloos are not quite the disaster zone I was expecting and I finally achieve, but my back is killing. I’m sitting on the chair with ibuprofen in my hand but I left my bottles on the bike and I can’t face jogging back out there to get one. A guy next to me gives me a bottle so I take them, a couple of endurolyte tabs and caffeine. I’ll be ok in 30 mins. Run kit on, feet smeared with Vaseline, cap, gels and I shuffle out. Just get through the next 10 minutes, I tell myself, Nick shouts at me to walk up that first hill out of the transition, I don’t think I could run it if I wanted to. It feels baking and oddly quiet in the neighbourhood. I’m still just on my way to the party I tell myself. After a few miles my legs loosen up and I start passing people. The canal is lovely and I start to feel much better, off the bike my back is fine now and I tell myself I can plod all day long. My feet hurt, no they don’t, this is not training I’m not listening to any nonsense from my body. I walk the little hill coming away from the canal and start running again before I have to, this is an override, I tell my legs, I don’t care what you think, there’s plenty left in the tank, we are running! I get to the loop, I have arrived at the party and oh wow is it something. It’s brilliant, all the other runners, spectators everywhere, shouts from other COLTS, plenty of distraction. I use all of this, plaster a smile on my face and plod along. The first lap band takes ages to get and I don’t allow myself to count down distance until I reach 17 miles, I walk through the aid stations but run all the rest. I tell myself I can walk up the hill on the last lap if I need to but then on the last lap I don’t really need to, it’s the last lap! In a few miles I’ll be an Ironman, it’s been FUN, I haven’t had any bleak moments, I’m so happy, I’m busting, I even pick up the pace a little when I hit the city centre. It’s such an amazing feeling passing that sign to the finish my left arm punching the air. Jennifer Hutton, YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN. I get my medal and forget to stop my Garmin but a volunteer reminds me and have I? I have to double check with Nick, he has a snap of me crossing the finish with the time and I have! I’m under 14 hours, hurray! In the weeks before I had looked up average times for my age/gender at Bolton (14:22) and although I tried not to pressure myself, I’m not fast and Richard emphasised how that didn’t matter, only the converted understand etc., I had secretly parked it in the back of my head. Jenn you should at least be average! But Sunday, I felt extraordinary.


One Response to “Triathletes can’t have any fun at all!”

  1. This is a superb report, Jenn. Two phrases I loved: ….” Underachieve in the bathroom…”, and ……”I felt extraordinary …”. You deserve to: a great achievement.


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