‘Would you like to do a triathlon with us?’’ my colleague Abbey asked.
That’s how I was tempted to dip my toe into the ironman sport.
To be clear, I’m at the wrong end of my competitive running career. Abbey was at the right end.
‘I’d never manage the swim,’ I bleated.
750 metres was a distance so impossible it was almost laughable. Abbey came back a few days later with the news there was a women’s only event, called a Try-athon. Leave out the L, slash the distances and there you had it: a 300-metre swim, six-kilometre cycle and a mere two-kilometre run, the swim in a lake they promised would be clear and clean. No jellyfish then. It was two and a half months away, in Loughrea.
A 300-metre swim was still twelve lengths of a pool. Fine in theory, but open water is colder and there are no safety rails. I started by covering the distance in my local pool. Then I got so I could do it twice. I kept up my usual few runs a week and lugged the bike out of the shed a few times for a spin. Next, I had to get into the sea.
A regular sea swimmer agreed to me at Seapoint but, taken aback by the terrified woman in front of her, suggested I start by swimming from one sets of steps to another. She set off with smooth strokes towards a distant rock. I hovered, dithered and eventually took the plunge. Shock alone, I reckon, got me across to the steps and, before I could change my mind, I swam back but I was so grateful she’d got me started.
After that I pushed away my childhood fear of the sea, got in about once a week and slowly realized, if I stayed calm, my arms and legs would get me from A to a nearby B. Even the distant rock began to look less terrifying.
Abbey and another friend from work were committed to doing the full ‘sprint’ distance of 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre cycle and 5-kilometre run. I listened to talk about bike gears, wetsuits and changeovers – a whole new vocabulary. My other half, ever the gallant helper on my off-beat ventures, rooted out the bike rack that hadn’t been used in years. Abbey kindly offered to lend me her new super-streamlined wetsuit but suggested I try it out first.
One sunny lunch hour in late summer we drove to the sea and, with plenty of laughs, I squeezed into her wetsuit. Suddenly I was higher in the water, and with her company, I kept going. And going. I finally made it to that rock. We still had to get back. I eventually made it to the nearest steps. Maybe I would manage 300-metres after all.
Loughrea was awash with bike racks, wetsuits and lycra, the lake dotted with inflated orange markers. My bike, with its straight handlebars and front basket looked overweight alongside models whose tyres were barely thicker than my finger. It was as we were walking down to the small pier for the off that a woman quietly advised me I might have the wetsuit on inside out. It wasn’t a good start but too late to rectify.
Just to belittle our nerves, the junior race set off before us in a flurry of tiny wetsuits and even tinier splashing arms. Then I saw the smallest children standing up in the water: it was so shallow they couldn’t swim the last bit. That was encouraging.
Then it was our turn. Mercifully the water wasn’t too crowded. Out past the end of the short pier I went, eyes on the orange marker, round it and in towards the shore. I stood up and started walking when the water got too shallow, glad to be still alive even if I had just stood on a sharp stone. By then most of the other women were in front of me and very few behind and I had a serious difficulty: unzipping an inside-out wetsuit while you’re wearing it is not easy. I asked a steward who helpfully gave it a yank. Technically, that could have disqualified me I learned later. After a few minutes squirming and wriggling I got the thing off, started putting on my socks and shoes, realising I’d cut my foot on that stone. By the time I got onto my bike I could only see officials in the car park. I was last. The good thing was I couldn’t drown on the second leg so off I set, enjoying the undulating cycle, the kilometres rushing past in a breeze of sheer relief until I finally caught up with a couple of people just before it was time to dump the wheels and start running.
I had got to the bit I knew. I’d been warned my legs would feel rubbery after the bike but it was peculiar all the same and the run was short. I needed to make the most of it. My leg muscles adjusted and I even passed a few women before the turning point, a few more on the way back. Then I finished, I’d done it.
My other half gently pointed out that I needed to work on my changeovers. As we watched my friends doing themselves proud in the sprint event swim, he suggested, I forget the training next time, and just practice getting in and out of a wetsuit. I told him there would probably never be a next time. I’ve never swum out to that rock again either.
(c) Mary Butler
About Born to Die? by Mary Butler:
Mary Butler went into labour prematurely with her second child. The baby was born two days later with a rare congenital abnormality. One of the more distressing aspects of the baby’s condition, was that it had no properly developed sexual organs. It was two weeks before Mary knew for certain that it was a boy. This book tells the story of this rare baby: his life in hospital care; the struggle to keep him alive; and the surgery carried out by a dedicated medical team. It is also the story of Mary, her husband Rick and their families, and how they tried to cope with the emotional trauma of this period.
Order your copy online here.