Craig Doyle tries to get his head around the notion of doing 136 Olympic events.
Despite my woeful attempts at navigation (sorry, Caitlin) we made it to the ExCel centre in London’s docklands in time for an interview with the BBC on Saturday. Having established that we had mutual friends in Ireland (it’s a game Irish people and Kiwis play while abroad), Craig Doyle got on with interviewing me, Sascha and Timo about the notion of doing all the Olympic events in general and the possibility of finishing the triathlon in particular. It was great to have Sascha there – he’s an old hand at dealing with these media types – and I was particularly inspired when he told Doyle that I’d been training hard and would finish the race without a problem. Perhaps he knew something I didn’t.
As we stood by the water bedecked in our new Ultimate Olympian T-shirts (brilliantly scrounged from a supplier by Timo) and the camera shifted to Sascha, I had a look up the full length of the swim course for the first time. 1500 metres is a long way when you swim it as 60 lengths of a 25-metre pool, but somehow it looked longer all stretched out to two big lengths of 750 metres.
Another wave of sprint racers set off while I was watching – six hundred wetsuit-clad arms leapt like salmon out of the frothing madness as they battled for space and position. You need to be slightly unhinged to try and do a triathlon, but you need to be a special kind of nutter to want to win one.
Interview done, it was off to rack the bike and pick up my timing chip. In the end, I took Tim up on his kind offer and used his bike instead of the Pale Rider – but more on that decision later. As I waited for someone to arrive at the desk containing my chip, James Cracknell was having a discussion with the jobsworth at the desk next to me.
JC: “I’m really sorry, I don’t have any photo ID with me.”
JW: “Well, I’m sorry Mr Cracknell, but without ID I can’t give you the chip.”
JC: “Yeah but…” (He was trying so hard not to use the expression “Don’t you know who I am?”)
UO: “I’ll vouch for him.” I offered, “Don’t you recognise him?”
JW: “I know who he is, mate, but I can’t give him a chip without ID.” (He was trying so hard not to use the expression “It would be more than my job’s worth.”)
As the double Olympic gold medallist tried to phone his wife for help, his phone battery died. I offered him mine, but he pointed out that unless it had his wife’s number on it, it wasn’t much use to him. I didn’t confirm that I didn’t have his wife’s number (I let him wonder), just wished him luck and shuffled off to rack the bike – my first event with a field containing a real Olympian and I’d clearly gained an early psychological advantage that he’d find hard to shrug off.
After a wander around the expo, it was off to the hotel to check in before heading to Canary Wharf for some excellent cabo-loading (thanks, Caitlin). I climbed into bed at about eleven, convinced I wouldn’t sleep, but as I lay there, sporting my London Triathlon wristband like some escaped hospital patient, a strange calm descended. It’s hard to know where it came from, but I’m sure the Steve Martin film on ITV also helped me nod off.
On Sunday morning, I still felt pretty calm. I ate breakfast, drank my isotonic drinks and generally went through the motions of getting ready without a sign of a butterfly in my stomach. And then I started watching England trying to close out a victory in the second test. By the time we had to leave the hotel, Australia only needed 70 more runs to win. I was no longer calm.
Unfortunately, I missed Timo’s wave starting as I stood in a queue to get into the transition area with the rest of my gear. I got a phone call a few minutes later from his (gold medal winning, world record holding) brother wishing me luck. I was calm again. Sascha had told the BBC I’d been training hard and would finish without a problem; it must have been true.
Ritchie Barber (another gold medal winner) had come down with Sascha from Manchester to watch Timo compete. He’d brought with him a very handy bit of advice for people in a hurry to get into their wetsuits – a plastic bag popped over the foot (or hand) gets that bad boy on there in double quick time.
Thanks to Ritchie's tip, it only took me 30 seconds to get it on this time.
With minutes to go before the start, I studiously listened to my iPod (Evil by Interpol) and ignored what was going on around me as best I could. It worked quite well. Mere seconds from getting into the water, I felt something verging on euphoria – all those weeks of training (or, more often, feeling bad for drinking, smoking and not training) were coming to an end. In a few short hours, I’d be able to relax again.
Trying to perfect your Roger Moore eyebrow raise? Get a swimming cap!.
Those hours turned out to be anything but short.
I was one of the last in our wave of around three hundred to climb down the steps onto the pontoon. I watched with a rapidly disappearing calm as people jumped manfully into the murky, brown water and boldly struck out for the start line. Finally I spotted a couple of people on my wavelength. They were sitting at the end of the floating platform looking into the water. “Whose stupid idea was this then?” I asked as I sat down next to them. One of them looked at me and it was clear that he might be sick through his terrified grimace if he tried to speak. The other one was able to talk all right, but only to himself.
I looked down into the water. I couldn’t see my feet.
In the end, it was the temperature that drove me in. A wetsuit isn’t for sitting around in on a hot afternoon. I slithered into the water and began swimming towards the start line. Well… I say swimming; really I was doing that odd breaststroke that your mum used to do when she’d just had her hair done but you’d nagged her into taking you swimming anyway. After twenty metres of that, I thought I’d chance a head-under-the-water stroke. It took me three attempts before I actually built up the bottle to do it properly, and as soon as I did, I wished I hadn’t.
It was like being plunged immediately into nothingness; the cap muffling out the sounds, the water swallowing what little I could see of my hand as I pulled through the stroke, the ghostly apparition of bubbles appearing from the depths (these were, of course, coming from my wetsuit sleeve, but you’d be amazed how quickly I convinced myself that there was something down there). I gasped. Gasping isn’t generally a useful reaction to anything, but this is especially true if your head is underwater when you do it.
I bolted upright, coughing and spluttering, all the while thinking about the latest surprise my body had encountered – as well as being impossibly deep, impossibly dark and surprisingly cold, the water was salty.
Fortunately, the man with the megaphone at the start was counting down from thirty and I had almost no more time to work myself into a panic. The wetsuit provides enough buoyancy that just sitting there your head stays above the water. I decided that was the position I should adopt to watch the start. The hooter was hooted and the race began. Absurdly, I had Murray Walker’s voice in my head screaming “And it’s go, go, go…” as I continued to sit, sit, sit. It was a ridiculous eruption of white water from hundreds of flailing limbs as the nutters battled for position.
"And they'e off! Apart from the guy at the back, who appears to just be sitting there, Terry."
I found myself laughing – not hysterically, I found it genuinely funny. It only took ten seconds for an area of clear water to open up in front of me. I swam into it at a leisurely breaststroke - the underwater visions experienced when you’re looking forwards are less harrowing.
Fifty metres out from the start, I encountered a screamer. A man with very professional looking goggles was bobbing up and down and literally screaming. I stopped and asked him if he was all right. His response was as English as one could imagine. He stopped screaming instantly and quite clearly pronounced, “Oh yes, don’t worry, I’m just panicking. Carry on” before starting to scream again. I think one of the safety kayaks fished him out shortly after that.
Although the field was now comfortably 100 metres ahead, I wasn’t alone. A few stragglers were around me adopting various tactics. One guy was doing what looked like a very nice crawl, but I was catching him up with my very improvised breaststroke. Another chap was also doing the crawl, but it was like he had one massively overdeveloped hand – he would put his head down and hammer out a few strokes, only to stop, lift his head and realise he had veered violently off to the right. I expect that by the time he made it back to the transition (if he ever did) he had swum about three times as far as anyone else.
Two hundred metres in, I hit my first really low patch. My stroke was awkward, my back was already hurting, the cold water was giving me an ice-cream-headache and the halfway mark didn’t seem to be any closer than it had been five minutes before. I stopped again and bobbed around. A kayak pilot asked me if I needed help. I would have made a joke about psychiatry, but I was too busy trying not to say “Yes, get me out of here.” I started swimming again.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in the next few strokes I realised I had found a good rhythm. Suddenly, I wasn’t in the least bit bothered by anything. I noticed without being happy or sad about it that I had passed the quarter distance point. I just kept breathing and swimming. Before I noticed anything else, I was asking the safety guard at the halfway mark if he knew the way to the ExCel centre. He had the decency to laugh.
The second half of the swim was much better. I started to reel in a couple of stragglers. I got so excited by the prospect of catching and overtaking someone that I risked a bit of crawl. That went well for about eight strokes until I hit a large rope in the water and stopped dead. There was a kayak paddling furiously towards me and the furious paddler was bellowing, “Get back in the course!” It would seem I’d suffered a similar directional hiccup to the guy with the big hand and swum at virtually ninety degrees to where I’d been aiming. I gave up chasing the people in front.
I hit another low about 300 metres from the end of the swim. I’d been able to see the bright blue pontoon quite clearly for ages, but it wasn’t getting any closer. The thought that I’d soon be able to quench the thirst that was building rapidly kept me going. I started to get excited about having a go on Tim’s bike. My concentration drifted off again and suddenly I was being ushered around a huge inflatable of a bottle of the sponsor’s product and pointed at the lifeguards waiting to fish me out at the finish.
[Brian Blessed] "Gordon's alive!?" [/Brian Blessed].
As I climbed out and pulled my hat and goggles off, I wanted to scream with delight. I hadn’t drowned. I shakily climbed up the steps towards the transition. A small crowd gave me a big cheer. It was great. Everyone loves the struggling idiot at the back, and I’ll be honest, I quite enjoyed being that idiot. I stopped to wave at Tim and Caitlin. I spotted Craig Doyle doing an interview with Tim Don and bellowed at him “I thought you were doing the race! Where’s your wetsuit?” He had the good grace to laugh and bellow back “Focus!” while Tim Don just got grumpy about the fact that I’d interrupted their interview.
Tim Don, world number two, laughs at my efforts to get out of the wetsuit.
A very pretty lady started telling me to get my wetsuit off. I grinned at her and did as she told me to, all the time telling her “I didn’t die!” I think I was slightly delirious. I half- walked, half-trotted into the transition hall, found my bike, had a drink, got my gear on for the cycle and headed out. From the times I’ve looked at, an average transition from swim to cycle for an amateur duffer is around two minutes, tops. I took more than eight, but I couldn’t have cared less.
I was moving so fast, I started warping the zebra crossings.
The cycle itself was hard. It was a procession of bottoms whizzing past me at speeds I couldn’t comprehend while I wrestled with the gears on Tim’s bike that I hadn’t been sensible enough to work out how to use properly before the race. It was one long slog from beginning to end, only improved occasionally by being overtaken by a good-looking lady’s bottom or by passing a little pocket of enthusiastic spectators (everyone loves the stragglers).
Wet bottom + 96 minutes in the saddle = ouch
The most depressing bit was looking at the odometer and seeing I only had a kilometre left to go. This was depressing because when I looked up the road it was clear I had at least three more to do. Perhaps the course was longer in the slow lane. By the time I did wobble back into transition, I was glad to get off the bike. Despite the wonderful design of triathlon shorts, wet bums and bikes aren’t made for each other.
If my legs were slightly wobbly after the swim, they now felt roughly the consistency of Angel Delight as I trotted my bike back to its rack and rummaged around for my energy bar. I had run out of drink during the second lap of the cycle and was starting to feel a bit parched. I kept thinking about the advice to be found on the side of most fluid replacement sports drinks “By the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated!”
Sunglasses inside - one of my favourite looks.
I set off on the run at a blistering pace. At last I was doing some overtaking of my own. In the first hundred metres alone I overtook three officials sitting in chairs, and a table (although the last one might have been bolted to the floor to be fair). In truth, my running action was what Peter Kaye describes as “That running your dad does, where everything is moving around, but he could get there quicker by just walking.”
I got a cheer from my entourage (swollen by the arrival during the cycle of my housemate, Kate) as I exited the transition phase and hit the run course. The first kilometre was the worst. I did quite a lot of straight-off-the-bike-and-out-for-a-run training, so I had some idea of how my legs would feel, but they were worse than I’d hoped they would be. They ached from toe to (still damp) bum as I waddled past the cheering crowds. There’s nothing like looking pathetic to get you a (sometimes ironic) cheer from a bunch of complete strangers.
As I slogged around the cycle, James Cracknell was finished (he was 4th in our age group) and on his way home. Git.
I stopped for some water at a water stop (my first attempt at drinking while running having resulted in a mild choking fit) and probably drank too much at once. I burped my way through the next two kilometres around the dock before noticing a little speedboat with a camera team in it filming someone who was obviously coming up behind me. I had a look over my shoulder and saw… Craig bloody Doyle.
He threw a sweaty arm around my shoulder and dragged me along for a bit, chatting away. I hope he wasn’t wearing a microphone because I believe I may have sworn more than once when I finally managed to ask him how on earth he had caught me up. I knew I hadn’t been fast, but I was out of my wetsuit before he even put one on. He just laughed and told me I was doing really well and to keep going before powering off after the speedboat.
I discovered the next day that he was only doing the run stage of a BBC Celebrity team relay, but as he waved again passing me in the other direction I couldn’t have been more demoralised.
The run was physically the easiest bit to be honest, after the pain of the first kilometre wore off. The crowds and the prospect of actually making it to the end made the mental challenge easier too. That said, I was still dreading returning to the finish line to start my second lap. I had built that up in my mind as being the most likely moment for me to just give up – it seemed cruel and unusual to make us run right past the finish and do it all again.
In the end though, that moment was maybe my favourite of the whole race. I bobbled up the slope outside, feeling the hill bringing back the pain in my legs. I reached the top and turned into the building to be greeted by Timo and Sascha yelling at me like no man has ever been yelled at. I could feel a massive grin spread all over my face as I deviated off the racing line to congratulate Timo for finishing and wallow in the encouragement. It was three more kilometres before I remembered my legs hurt and by then, I was only two more from the end and starting to get demob happy.
The muscle wastage over the course of the race was astounding - when I started, I looked like Arnie.
I finished in just over three and a half hours. Almost a week later, I’m still slightly choked when I really think about the fact that I finished it. To be honest, despite everything I’ve been telling you all for the last few months, I was almost convinced for most of my training that this one was going to go down as a valiant failure – just too hard for mortals with weaknesses.
I finished in a mere 16 hours, 40 minutes and 39 seconds.
The BBC’s coverage of the event will be shown on Grandstand tomorrow (Saturday) from about 2:45PM I think. I don’t know whether or not they’ll use the interview they did with us, but even if they don’t I’m looking forward to seeing the programme.
Huge thanks to all of you for your support (and money!), but special mentions for Tim, Caitlin, Kate, Timo, Sascha and Ritchie – without you lot, I’d have been fished out of the dock screaming most likely.
My first medal!
Friday, August 12, 2005
Posted by John McClure at 6:55 pm