Half-ironman – me? For Team GB? Just a couple of years ago, I had no idea this was on the cards, but small steps led me, little by little, to the start line of the European Championships for middle distance triathlon (aka half ironman) in GB lycra.
It started with running, when a colleague suggesting that I should join my firm’s team in the City 5km Race in 2011. Determined not to be the slowest on the team, I did a bit of training. Then through my book club, I met someone who had run the London marathon and thought that sounded like a good idea – so after a half marathon in 2012, that was my challenge for 2013. As I crossed the finish line in a little over 4 hours, almost unable to walk, I told my husband not to ever let me do that again. And so far, I haven’t done another marathon – but I’m tempted!
I’ve always enjoyed swimming, and used to go out regularly on a mountain bike in the Surrey Hills with my husband, so triathlon was almost inevitable. In 2014 I bought a road bike and entered my first sprint triathlon. That was fun and I surprised myself by coming 2nd in my age-group – but the pool swim was frustrating, so I bought a wetsuit and entered an Olympic distance later in the year at Eton Dorney to try out open water swimming. Result 3rd in AG, and for the first time I thought that maybe I could be OK at this. For 2015, there was more of a focus on the bike, as I completed the Ride London 100 mile event, and also enjoyed the hilly Blenheim sprint distance triathlon.
2016 was the year to go longer. After a repeat of Blenheim, at which I placed 2nd in AG, I entered the Fugitive half-iron distance at Marlow. This was much more of a challenge, with a hilly bike course and temperatures on the run hitting the high 20s, but somehow I won my age group. On the back of this, I was given a place in the GB age group team. Did I mention my age? I turned 50 in 2016, rather too late in life to take up most sports, but I love the way that triathlon is organized into age groups. It gives oldies like me a real incentive. Time for some serious training….
I’ve never had any coaching (well, not since swimming club in my teenage years), and with 3 children and a nearly-full-time job I didn’t think I could make any regular commitment. I’ve always looked at training plans online, and made it up as I go along. Determined to do my best for team GB, I signed up for a week in Paphos in February 2017 with Elite Training Experience, hoping to absorb enough to see me through to my big race in Herning, Denmark, in June. I had the usual doubts about the camp – will everyone else be faster than me? – will the others be much younger and fitter than me? But I didn’t need to worry. Yes, there were some incredible speedy athletes, and some amazingly fit youngsters, but that didn’t matter. The coaching from Perry Agass was designed to cater for all shapes, sizes and speeds of triathlete, and ticked all of my boxes. From the early morning swim sessions “Forget elegance, Catherine, put some power into it”, to intervals on the bike on a wind-swept dual carriageway, to laps of the running track – I came away with improved technique, and a much better idea of the training sessions I should be doing. And I had a fun week, making new friends as a bonus.
Between February and June, I put Perry’s lessons into practice as far as I could, and saw my swim and run times improve. I also spent a lot of Saturday mornings on club bike rides with Redhill Cycling Club (thanks to everyone in the G5 group for their patience), initially dropping off the back of the group, but gradually getting stronger and improving my endurance.
All this led me to lining up on the lakeside in my GB trisuit, ready to start in the European Middle Distance Triathlon Championship 2017. The nerves of the previous few days disappeared, and I felt ready. The swim start was interesting – in the men’s races, I’d seen jostling to get into the front line, but in the start for women age 40+ , most people were hanging back politely. Not me! I hoped to swim clear of any collisions so took a place at the front and went for it when the hooter sounded. It turned out to be a reasonable plan. A group of about a dozen shot off, and I was at the front of the next wave of swimmers with clear water in front. I got into my rhythm and just swam my own race. I caught up with the front group about halfway round (they must have gone off faster than they could sustain), and by the end of the swim I was passing swimmers from two waves ahead of mine. I knew that the swim had gone OK when I picked up my transition bag off the racks, and saw that hardly any others from my AG had gone. I later discovered I had the 2nd fastest swim of my age group.
T1 was slower than planned, partly because I stopped to release the jammed zip of someone else’s wetsuit. Then out on the bike, for an undulating 90km loop around the Danish countryside. I’d seen all sorts of fancy TT bikes in transition, but was quite happy to be on my road bike with clip-on aero bars in the windy conditions. The huge number of wind turbines along the route gave a clue as to how windy Denmark can be!
We’d been told that a strict 20 metre no-drafting zone would be enforced, and there were several motor-bike marshalls out on the course, but keeping 20 metres apart was impossible for the first third of the bike section, there were just too many bikes. So I tried to keep a sensible distance apart, and free-wheeled a bit when I heard a motorbike approach from behind, just in case. I can’t tell you much about the scenery, as I was pretty much focused on the tarmac in front of my nose… At this point I realised the display on my Garmin watch wasn’t showing me what I expected (ie my speed) and I didn’t want to press any buttons in case I stopped it completely, so the only data I had was the time it took for me to cover each 5km section. I discovered I quite liked that, I just went by feel, and tried to overtake as many others as I could. There were no distance markings out on the course, and without the data on my Garmin it wasn’t obvious how far was still left, so I was very relieved eventually to see a road sign indicating 4km to Herning. I had thought that going sub 3 hours wasn’t going to be possible, so was excited to finish the bike leg in 2 hours 57.
At T2, a steward took my bike, I grabbed my run bag off the rack, changed footwear and nearly set off on the run with my helmet on my head… Lap 1 felt OK, but it was starting to get warm and there was little shade on the route. Lap 2 felt how I had expected lap 4 to feel – I was suffering already, and my pace had slowed. In survival mode, I decided to walk every feed station and to pick up water (half to drink, half over head), alternating with coke for an energy boost. The route was a long out-and-back on a dual carriageway, then a loop around a park and through the city centre, past bars and restaurants, and through the town library (in through the front door, out through the back!). There were loads of supporters on the run route, and it was really encouraging to hear a “Looking good, team GB” or a “Go Matthews”. Thankfully, lap 3 and lap 4 didn’t feel any worse than lap 2, and eventually the end was in sight. I even managed a sprint finish!
In other events, I have wondered if I left everything on the road, or if I could have worked harder. After this race, I felt so faint that I had to spend 10 minutes in the medical tent – it’s safe to say that I pushed myself to my limit.
When I recovered, I discovered my run time was 1 hour 53, taking the finish time to 5 hours 31. Absolutely delighted by that! I’d vaguely hoped to come in the top half of British women in my age-group, and ended up 5th Brit, and 14th overall in my AG. And on top of that, I’d had a brilliant and inspiring weekend, and met lots of amazing team members. I’m already working out what to enter next….
Huge thanks to ETE for their support and inspiration, and to Perry Agass – you probably don’t know how much of a difference one week’s coaching has made to me. Also thanks to Actis LLP for sponsorship, and to all my colleagues for their encouragement and for putting up with me talking endlessly about triathlon at the coffee machine. And of course to Ed, Jo, Andrew and Sarah for their constant love and support.