Tom Wheatley takes part in his first sprint triathlon at London's ExCeL centre
Over the last seven months it's probably fair to say I've been pretty physically active. I've taken part in marathons, done a six week bootcamp course, ran in a 24 hour race and even taken part in an Eighties-themed dance class (link removed for the sake of dignity). However out of everything I've done, none have filled me with as much apprehension as the London Triathlon.
I hadn't taken part in a triathlon until the ShortList event in September last year. The race was a relay covering a distance shorter than a normal sprint. This meant that a) I didn't have to swim that far and b) I could rest in-between each section and not worry about transitions. Even with those points in mind I still found it pretty tough. My weakness in open water swimming became abundantly clear under race conditions and my lack of brick training meant, even with the breaks in-between, that I had a hard time adapting between the three disciplines.
Now, instead of a relatively shallow watersports center in Nottingham, I was invited by Virgin Active to jump into a much larger dock just off the Thames; this time as part of the largest triathlon in the world. It was about this point where I started to question my triathlon dreams and just stick to running.
Unlike last year however I took my training a bit more seriously. I managed, with gritted teeth, to turn down the midweek invites to the pub in favour of trips to my local Virgin Active. Evenings were spent lifting weights, going to spin classes and attempting to get the hang of front crawl instead sitting on the sofa and watching Netflix. But even with the confidence gained from training it was still a daunting prospect.
Whereas most races I take part in where the start time is normally around 9am, my wave was set to go at 5pm on the Saturday. This was music to my ears as I sat watching TV whilst carb loading Oreos at 12pm the night before; but pre-race anxiety on the day meant that I couldn't really relax. So instead of sitting around watching Youtube videos of the 2013 event I decided to head over to the ExCeL centre to set up my transition area.
As I neared the centre it quickly began to hit me how large the event was. I was soon surrounded by other participants heading in the same direction as we began to make our way past the race course. As I stood watching the current wave cycling past me I started to feel more relaxed. Up until then one of my main concerns about the race was that that the level of participant would be much higher than me. During the 2013 ShortList triathlon it was abundantly clear that the people taking part were serious triathletes. I wasn't. As someone who, I'll admit, is somewhat competitive when it comes to sporting events, being one of the slowest is a major concern.
To my relief the race was made up of triathletes of all abilities. Some darted past me with aerodynamic helmets on whilst others happily moved along with smiles on their faces. My fears began to drift away as I actually became excited about getting started.
I wheeled my bike through the ExCeL centre into the enormous area housing the triathlon expo and watched as thousands of people milled around; some wearing medals whilst others prepped for the next waves. With couple of hours still to spare I grabbed a coffee and wandered around to talk to the various exhibitors and trying to top myself spending money on another new wetsuit. Finally I stopped off at the Virgin Active stand for a much needed pep talk to calm my nerves before setting my bike up in transition.
In a matter of minutes I heard my wave being beckoned from the speaker system. I finished setting up my area, pulled on my wetsuit and wandered over to the swim leg starting point waiting for the go ahead to enter the water. We watched and listened as a man with a microphone explained the safety details before finally releasing into the depths of the dock.
Once in my wave lined up in the centre of the dock waiting for the horn to sound. As the last wave of the day we were far smaller than any of those that set off previously. This was good for those hoping for a fast time as it meant there were less people likely to get in the way. For people like me it meant being able to avoid an elbow or foot to the face.
In Nottingham I panicked in the water which meant I had to resort to breaststroke for the whole race. Now, with the fact I’d actually done some training, I was more relaxed. I may not have front crawled the whole distance but there was a marked improvement in my ability to breath easily until the end. My time wasn’t great (23 minutes for 750 metres) but it felt for the first time like I was in control instead of flapping about desperately.
I ran through the transition and jumped on my bike. Annoyingly the pump connector to my frame had come loose on the way in. My only solution was to tuck it into my belt meaning I looked a bit like a Sixties policeman as I set off. I received one funny look from the marshal, presumably worried I might be about to attempt some kind of push bike version of Road Rash.
The bike route for the sprint distance wasn’t the most scenic route I’d seen, but on a Saturday cordoning off central London roads is probably not feasible. The Olympic distance elite course taking place on the Sunday goes all the way to Waterloo - maybe next year.
Cycling isn’t my strong point but I pushed as hard as I could, pulling back a few places lost in the swim leg. My finish time for the route was 43 minutes.
Finally was the bit I was actually looking forward to. In my mind I assumed I’d be able to hit my usual speed for a 5km. Having only done a relay triathlon before however I wasn’t prepared for the muscle fatigue. As I put my bike away and set off on the run I realised my legs felt like they had weights attached to them. For about 1km I dragged my legs into a momentum until they eventually started working again and I picked up speed.
I felt a pang of relief as I ran back into the expo and the MC shouted out my name, picking up to a sprint as I leaped over the finish line with a time of 23 minutes – a few minutes behind my usual time but the best I could do after swim and cycle.
My overall time for the event was far from impressive (1 hour 42 minutes), but for a first time at a sprint I was happy. With only four weeks to go until my next triathlon attempt I felt like I’d taken enormous leaps from where I was a year ago. If I could sort out my swimming it would mean my cycle and run times would be enough to start getting higher in the overall results. I’ll probably hold off my Ironman entry for a few months though.