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While working a contract for the RAF in England a couple of years ago, my manager, age 61, completed his first Ironman! At 61! I knew as an ex-army major he must have been in pretty good shape, but a full Ironman at age 61?! Man alive that's impressive, and it inspired me. I wanted to train for, and complete, an Ironman.
At the tender age of 26 at the time, and having always been a relatively fit guy, I felt like I may have just found the perfect challenge. I’d been looking for something to provide some direction to my training. Plus, everyone is always going on about people losing the plot when they turn 30!
I didn’t feel this would be too much of an issue for me (as I am both intrigued and excited by the prospect of transforming into silver fox), but I did think it would be a great way to keep the plot within my grasp: by being the fittest I’ve ever been when turning the big 3 0”… so… here we go!
Having played football (And I mean football, a game where you can only touch the ball with your foot – football) pretty much every day of my childhood, I naturally became a half decent runner. When I could no longer play as much football at university I turned to running as a means of preventing my waist line from going supernova, courtesy of the copious amounts of English Ales and pies on my door step.
At uni I’d trained up to half marathon distance without any real idea of what I was doing (both with my running training and in life in general), so I was fairly confident that now being a fully-fledged Physiotherapist AND having a special interest in running injuries, I’d be able to put something together for the marathon component. One box ticked!
A few years later when living and working in London, I turned to cycling in order to avoid paying the $1,000,000 it costs to use public transport in the capital, and ended up getting quite into it.
In hindsight, I may have been addicted to the adrenaline rush of narrowly avoiding death on a daily basis!
If you think tram tracks are bad, try coming up against a Pigeon from Hackney… I’m sure some of them carry pocketknives! Or maybe it was the freedom cycling brought to my life: being able to cycle for 30 minutes and be in the beautiful Surrey Hills, away from the big smoke.
Either way, it was safe to say I was now one of those YEMIL’s (A new phrase I’m coining: “Young English Man in Lycra”).
Swimming on the other hand is a different story! For those of you reading this who didn’t grow up in a small English town in the middle of the countryside, our “swimming lessons” consisted of being dragged to an outdoor pool in the middle of autumn, where temperatures could reach the dizzying heights of 5 degrees. Then, being thrown into the deep end in your speedos and told “Don’t drown!”
My experience seemed worlds apart from what some of my Australian comrades describe as their school swimming classes. I have learnt that if an Australian says they’re “not a good swimmer” it means that they only placed 4th at the last Olympics, in stark contrast to myself who could barely even swim 50m without having written my last will and testament.
So it was very obvious where I needed to start on this long road to IRONMAN-ness… a sprint Triathlon!
I managed to convince one of my soccer pals to sign up to a sprint triathlon with me, because who wants to train by themselves (slash, I felt as it’s my first one, I’d aim to beat someone, rather than just a specific time). So this “friend” was carefully chosen because he had told me he also “wasn’t a strong swimmer”… and he’s English… so I presumed this statement had some truth to it…
How my heart sank when we arrived at the pool. I asked how he’d gotten on in his first swimming attempt, and his reply was “well, I only did 750m but I was quite slow”… Oh dear…
Having contemplated ways to punish said “friend” for his deception, all was forgiven when he told me a work colleague of his was a qualified swim coach and was offering her services for free… Cher-Ching! So off we went to Prahran pool.
The swim coach had told us she wanted to “see what we’ve got”… a relatively confusing phrase to hear when stood in a pair of swim shorts so tight you could see what I had for breakfast. But this was my opportunity to represent the English nation to a naively optimistic Aussie Swim Coach. My only aim for this first of MANY 50m lengths was to make sure I made it to the other end! Which I did, by a fingernails length.
What was the first thing I saw as my exhaustion-induced tunnel vision settled and I clutched to the side of the pool gasping for air? The swim coach burying her head in her hands as if she’d just received the news of a loved one passing… I’m sorry Australia, so very sorry!
However motivationally devastating this experience may have been, it was also game changing-ly useful. And, possibly the sole reason I am still alive and not lying at the bottom of the Tasman! There seems to be a big difference between what you THINK you are doing, and what you are ACTUALLY doing…
A few highlights from the assessment of my “technique” are as follows. These aren’t direct quotes but I’m fairly certain it’s what she really meant:
- My frequency of breathing was comparable to that of a Blue Whale
- My ‘kick’ could be more accurately described as two wind socks on a mildly breezy day
- My arm strokes were so far away from my body it looked like I was doing an impression of an aeroplane, and so deep that you could be forgiven for thinking I was trying to dig my way back to England… which I did contemplate doing after this ‘character building’ exchange
With all these things in mind, I knew from my daily experience of trying to correct peoples’ running technique, the fewer things to think about the better! But again that was easier said than done when you knew the list of things to correct was longer than the list of X-Factor contestants I wished didn’t exist!
The first aspect I decided to address was my breathing… I thought I’d capitalise on my amateur status as a swimmer and try to learn how to ‘bilateral’ breathe, as I was as close to starting from scratch as you could be without wearing a pair of floaties.
The thing that kept catching me out was the build-up of subconscious panic that came with the build-up of fatigue in my body.
It was a panic I really struggled to control at first. There’s something about being out of breath in water that triggers a kind of fight or flight response. Well, at least for an inexperienced Englishman. But with practice this improved massively. With this under control, I began swimming 3 days a week and slowly but surely I was able to do 2 whole laps without stopping!
Once my breathing pattern had been tamed, the next aspect I focused on was to stop my arms looking like the wings of a trapped bird and actually try to use them to help propel me through the water. My swim coach advised that rather than thrusting my hand deep into the water beneath me, I should try to reach forward as if reclaiming a football from underneath a parked car – the bane of my childhood! – and rotate through my mid back to help achieve this.
Now… as a sporty individual, and someone who likes to pride themselves on not giving his patients exercises he can’t complete himself, I felt like I had half decent core strength…
HOWEVER, not when trying to lie prone in water and move my mid back separate to my pelvis. Good god is that difficult.
My first attempts of this looked more like a killer whale performing a belly dance at SeaWorld. Part of me wondered if anyone had ever completed the swim section of a Triathlon doing the “roly poly/corkscrew” technique… probably not. Fortunately for me, working in a gym environment means I was able to brainstorm with my colleagues and come up with some wacky and wonderful ways of recreating this with gym kit, to try to improve my rotational core control.
Breathing easy, swimming well.
6 weeks in to training… I am now able to do 800m in the swimming pool in 100m shuttles, with a very brief 20sec rest before each shuttle. I am so sickeningly proud of myself it’s like I’ve won the Nobel peace prize!
Unfortunately for me, triathlons aren’t done in swimming pools, and they’re certainly not done in 100m shuttles where you can hold on to something to recuperate.
So now, even with all this progress, I still faced the small task of swimming in open water! Something I’d only ever really done in order to retrieve my swim shorts after attempting front flip bombs whilst on holiday in the Mediterranean, and that must have been 30m maximum!
I figured out that so long as there was at least one other person with me in the water, I could keep the annoying voice in my head screaming “SHAAAAAAAARK” at bay for the most part. Until one warm evening in January, whilst swimming in Brighton. I rotated my head out of the water to catch a now perfectly Zen-like breath (one that even the most enlightened of yoga masters would be proud of).
I caught sight out of my pal flapping his hands around in the air like a drunken uncle performing the YMCA at a family wedding.
“Davo! What the hell is that?!”
What we saw was some kind of stingray/shark crossbreed. A terrifying prospect I think you’ll agree! It turns out this was totally harmless marine life, frolicking in Victorian waters. Gotta love Australia. Once my heartbeat had returned to normal, we cracked on. Gradually we built up the distance, 400m, 500m and finally 750m.
As I sat on the eve of the Triathlon, I felt incredibly proud of what I had achieved over the last few months! Going from being unable to swim 50m in a pool to swimming 750m in the open water, I feel like I have really accomplished something.
Now all that I had to do was exactly that… while surrounded by hundreds of people. I don’t know if you’ve seen an open water swim competition in the flesh, but I’ll try my best to paint a picture for you… just imagine the Pamplona Bull Run… in water.
The 61 year old Ironman once told me he LOVED the open water component of the Ironman for a “good old fashioned scrap”. The thought of being punched in the ribs by a 61 year old ex-army major whilst in the middle of the ocean is not one that I find appealing.
Further confidence was gained the morning of the event whilst attending the Gatorade tips and tricks session, with the front of the swim being described as “punchy”. This was followed by an intimate description of being “swam over the top of” whilst everyone tries to get the inside line for the turn around.
Deep, unimaginable joy! I always knew one day my WWE wrestling addiction as an adolescent would come into good use later in life, little did I know it would be in the Tasman Sea!
Things were certainly going to be interesting…
Stay tuned for Part 2, where David writes up his experience of his first step to becoming an Ironman – a Triathlon!