How to Con­quer a Triathlon

Record num­bers are sign­ing up to triathlons for the ul­ti­mate phys­i­cal chal­lenge – but what’s the per­sonal im­pact of this high­in­ten­sity sport?

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY LUCY FRY

I’m run­ning through deep, dank mud while the wind blows hard against my face. Blighted by rain, lift­ing each foot takes supreme phys­i­cal ef­fort. My lungs are creak­ing while my mind flip-flops against the pos­si­bil­ity of stop­ping. Is any­thing re­ally meant to hurt this much? I think. My thighs ache from a 40-km cy­cle and be­fore that a 1.6-km swim, mostly spent try­ing to keep afloat amid the thrash­ing limbs of com­peti­tors. Now I face a 10-km run.

No­body does triathlon be­cause it’s easy. Nor do they do it be­cause it’s straight­for­ward – or cheap for that mat­ter. So why, ex­actly, do they do it?

First, a bit of his­tory: the race comes in dif­fer­ent lengths, and can be any­thing from a su­per-sprint ( 400- m swim, 10-km ride, 2.5-km run) to an Olympic (1.5-km swim, 40-km ride, 10-km run), Half Iron­man (1.9-km swim, 90-km ride, 21.1-km run) and Iron­man (3.8-km swim, 180.2-km ride and 42.2-km run).

The first-ever triathlon was an Iron­man, held in Cal­i­for­nia in 1974, and the first New Zealand triathlon took place in Auck­land in 1979. Aus­tralia was quick to fol­low, with the first triathlon held in Port Mac­quarie, New South Wales, in 1985. When the In­ter­na­tional Triathlon Union was formed in 1989, Aus­tralia and New Zealand were both found­ing mem­bers – and by 2000 it had be­come a fully fledged Olympic sport, with Syd­ney’s Har­bour Bridge and Opera House form­ing the back­drop to the event’s pro­gres­sion onto the world stage.

It’s not just for pro­fes­sion­als, ei­ther. Ac­cord­ing to Triathlon Aus­tralia, the num­ber of peo­ple tak­ing part in sanc­tioned events be­tween 2011 and 2014 in­creased by more than 46,000, tak­ing the to­tal recorded race starts up to 181,000. There’s also been a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of ju­niors tak­ing up the sport, with a 109 per cent jump in Aus­tralian ju­nior pro­gramme par­tic­i­pants be­tween 2014 and 2015. New Zealand num­bers are also on the rise, with over­all race en­trants more than dou­bling be­tween 2000 and 2009.

It was ex­actly this surge in pop­u­lar­ity that caught my eye a cou­ple of years ago when – as a run­ner, gym bunny and all-round fit­ness fa­natic – I be­came in­trigued by this young, ­dy­namic sport. It seemed that wher­ever I looked, friends, fam­ily and ac­quain­tances were talk­ing about triathlon: a new hobby that was healthy and so­cial to boot.

At that stage I still couldn’t think of any­thing worse than float­ing about in a wet­suit that stank of sea­weed, yet there was some­thing in the groundswell of en­thu­si­asm for multi­dis­ci­plinary sport­ing events that I wanted to un­der­stand.

I de­cided to jump right in, spend­ing a year im­mersed in the world of ­triathlon with the ­in­ten­tion of writ­ing a book about my ex­pe­ri­ences.

MOD­ER­A­TION IS A DIRTY WORD, LOOKED UPON BY MANY DEVO­TEES WITH CONTEMPT

I QUICKLY LEARNED that triathlon is a life­style and an at­ti­tude as much as a sport, of­fer­ing the op­por­tu­nity to set fit­ness and health goals as well as re­cap­tur­ing lost self-es­teem.

So many of the triath­letes I met had heart­felt rea­sons f or ge tt i ng in­volved in the sport. Katharine Peters, a 40-some­thing part-time nurse and mother of five who did her first su­per-sprint triathlon in Bris­tol, UK, says, “For me it wasn’t about be­ing a triath­lete, more about prov­ing some­thing to my­self and hav­ing a fo­cus. I lost 15 kg dur­ing train­ing and in the race showed my­self that I wasn’t use­less any more. I could do some­thing just for me.”

For Suzanne, in her 30s, triathlon be­gan with a New Year’s res­o­lu­tion to do an Iron­man just seven months later. She’d run a marathon once be­fore but knew lit­tle of triathlon and had done vir­tu­ally no cy­cling or open-wa­ter swim­ming. Yet af­ter end­less gru­elling hours of train­ing (usu­ally twice a day) jug­gled around her ­de­mand­ing cor­po­rate job, Suzanne made it to the start­ing line. Weather con­di­tions couldn’t have been worse, with the pre­ced­ing day’s storms leav­ing the course a to­tal wash-out. It was the tough­est 15 hours, 32 min­utes and 15 se­conds imag­in­able, but Suzanne fin­ished her first Iron­man that day. Since then, she’s gone on to do many more, as well as other en­durance events.

Triathlon trans­formed Suzanne’s life for the bet­ter: “It’s changed what I think I’m ca­pa­ble of, where I go on hol­i­day, what I eat, what I look like, who I hang out with and how I spend my time. So ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing!”

The first Olympic triathlon race took place in Syd­ney in 2000

FOR ME, the first six months were in­tense. First, there was the pain. Mul­ti­ple train­ing ses­sions a week left me hun­gry and tired, not to men­tion time-poor. As I quickly learned, this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing be­cause for triath­letes (and many other fit­ness-ob­sessed types I’ve met along the way) feel­ing pain isn’t a fail­ing. In fact, be­ing able to take your­self into what’s known as ‘the hurt locker’ is of­ten con­sid­ered a sign of strength.

Among the most ded­i­cated triath­letes, push­ing through phys­i­cal and men­tal lim­its mer­its re­spect, while fa­tigue of­fers brag­ging rights. In­juries are com­mon­place and of­ten treated as a mere nui­sance. Mod­er­a­tion re­mains a dirty word, looked upon by many with con­fu­sion and even contempt.

It’s hard to re­main clear-headed in such a fer­vid, suc­cess-ori­en­tated cul­ture. Many triath­letes, par­tic­u­larly those in­volved in the longer dis­tances, suf­fer from dis­or­dered re­la­tion­ships to food, body im­age and ex­er­cise.

Rob Pop­per, a 51-year-old triathlon coach and sports masseur who ­dis­cov­ered the sport in 2001, ad­mits, “Through­out my long re­la­tion­ship with triathlon, both as an ath­lete and a coach, there have been lots of ups and downs. I ex­pe­ri­enced pas­sion for the work I was do­ing, im­prove­ment in my per­sonal per­for­mance, greater un­der­stand­ing about how the amaz­ing hu­man body works and the chance to mo­ti­vate some bril­liant peo­ple.

“Si­mul­ta­ne­ously I’ve had less time with my kids, my wife, my friends. Ac­tu­ally, less time for me, too. Pe­ri­ods where friends had to sit me down and ask me if I was de­vel­op­ing an eat­ing dis­or­der. Sep­a­ra­tion and even­tual di­vorce from my wife. Launch­ing a very ex­pen­sive busi­ness that went sour and

wiped me out fi­nan­cially. Suf­fice to say I’ve def­i­nitely sac­ri­ficed im­por­tant as­pects of my life to make room for this ob­ses­sional sport.”

WHEN IT’S NOT GO­ING WELL, the world of triathlon is a dark place. Pro­fes­sional triath­lete Jodie Swal­low has blogged about the pres­sure to reach the ideal ‘per­for­mance weight’, as well as the bu­limia and de­pres­sion she suf­fered from dur­ing her ear­lier years in the sport. I came across sim­i­lar sto­ries about triathlon in­sti­gat­ing or ex­ac­er­bat­ing ex­ist­ing men­tal-health is­sues.

“The world of triathlon en­gulfed me as it en­gulfed many,” says for­mer com­pet­i­tive triath­lete Olivia. “I al­ways suf­fered from bu­limia but when triathlon came along it ex­ag­ger­ated my ten­den­cies ten­fold. I saw women who were strug­gling and tried to be­lieve that I wasn’t like them. I saw men who were ob­sessed with their physique and their stamina.

“Train­ing wasn’t just a way of life – it de­ter­mined life. When one race was done you’d book another one to keep up the momentum. Guilt, anx­i­ety and pres­sure, all self-in­flicted, were daily emo­tions. A missed train­ing ses­sion would bring on a de­sire to train harder, push harder, work harder and, of course, eat less.”

The fi­nan­cial costs are hardly in­signif­i­cant, ei­ther. The av­er­age en­try to an Olympic- dis­tance triathlon is around $ 100-$ 135 and Iron­man en­tries can be as much as $800-$1000. Then there’s the kit. You’ll need a trisuit (base layer), wet­suit, bike (along­side op­tional go-faster ex­tras such as cleated cy­cling shoes), hel­met, sports clothes, swim­ming cos­tume, hat and gog­gles, plus some run­ning shoes. Most peo­ple also need coach­ing as well as a be­spoke train­ing sched­ule. De­spite bor­row­ing a rac­ing bike from some­one for the du­ra­tion, my kit costs alone added up to over $950.

There were also overnight stays be­fore two of the triathlons I com­peted in (around $550), money spent

Char­lotte McShane com­pet­ing in the women’s triathlon at the Rio Olympics

on petrol, flights and train tick­ets ($1200) and a warm-weather train­ing camp that I at­tended (around $1300 in to­tal). My orig­i­nal plans to race around a château in France had to be ditched as the trans­port and ac­com­mo­da­tion alone would have come to $650. Since the lo­gis­tics of triathlon with­out any­body to help carry kit and prof­fer sup­port are tricky, I needed a wing­man, which meant that cost would be dou­bled.

And yet, de­spite be­ing poorer, both fi­nan­cially and tem­po­rally, there’s some­thing un­de­ni­ably elec­tri­fy­ing about it. I trained for months for that Olympic-dis­tance triathlon, spend­ing morn­ings, evenings and week­ends do­ing laps in the pool and around the park, sac­ri­fic­ing sleep-ins, nights out and al­most all my re­lax­ation time – all of it cul­mi­nat­ing in two hours and 55 min­utes of cease­less en­deav­our.

I PROM­ISE MY­SELF I’ll fin­ish, swal­low­ing en­ergy gels and wa­ter while re­mem­ber­ing to breathe. ­Fi­nally, I cross the line, hands held high, be­fore col­laps­ing in an ex­hausted heap ­en­veloped by a sweet, ephemeral kind of ec­stasy.

It’s not just en­dor­phins but also an in­tense and longed-for sense of sat­is­fac­tion, the kind that comes from tack­ling three sports in one (not to men­tion the lu­di­crous cos­tume changes in be­tween, known as ‘tran­si­tions’) and sur­viv­ing to tell the sweaty tale. All around me peo­ple cel­e­brate – some grin­ning, some in tears – be­cause they’ve achieved some­thing un­for­get­table.

Deeper still, there’s the sense of pur­pose that triathlon of­fers. Run­ning, swim­ming and cy­cling give a respite from ex­is­ten­tial angst – as the gru­elling train­ing sched­ules leave lit­tle room for con­tem­pla­tion of the

big­ger life ques­tions – as well as an op­por­tu­nity for per­sonal growth.

Ali Hendry-Bal­lard, 47, first dipped her toe in triathlon dur­ing a dif­fi­cult pe­riod in her life. “I re­ally needed some­thing pos­i­tive to fo­cus on while go­ing through some ma­jor life changes,” she says.

“Though I’d never been in­ter­ested in sport, I started jog­ging short dis­tances and soon caught the bug. I started do­ing half marathons and very quickly found my­self train­ing for a triathlon. I love mix­ing the dis­ci­plines; there’s some­thing that ap­peals to all sides of my per­son­al­ity. I’ve never felt so in tune with my body, or so aware of its strengths and its lim­i­ta­tions.”

For me, too, triathlon has re­sulted in an in­creased aware­ness of what is and isn’t pos­si­ble, phys­i­cally, men­tally, emo­tion­ally and even spir­i­tu­ally. Com­bat­ing the fear of be­ing dragged un­der by other swim­mers dur­ing an open-wa­ter start, learn­ing to take a wet­suit off at speed and trust­ing that I can han­dle what­ever comes my way dur­ing the course of any race – all these things have helped me to be­come a stronger, braver per­son.

There’s a para­dox here for me, too. Triathlon takes from its devo­tees ev­ery bit as much as it gives and yet, some­how, you end up giv­ing even more than it re­quires. It’s a greedy pas­time and it at­tracts ob­ses­sional, de­ter­mined types. Yet it’s also a so­cial, fun-filled hobby that can of­fer fresh chances to travel, ex­pe­ri­ence and dream.

Lucy Fry’s Run, Ride, Sink or Swim: A Rookie’s Guide to Triathlon is out now.

Rob Pop­per has made dif­fi­cult sac­ri­fices for the ob­ses­sional sport

Lucy Fry spares a mo­ment to smile at her dad, who’s come to sup­port her

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