Pumping Iron? Training for the London Triathlon 2005

Training for an event like the London Triathlon is no easy task. I spent November and December 2004 deciding if it was a good move for me. The key factors I had to take into account were my laughable state of non-existent fitness and my complete lack of swimming ability. I’m not in the habit of quitting once I’ve started something so I knew if I started there was no turning back.

By the end of 2004 I was stuck in a bit of a rut. I was starting to become disillusioned with the weekend binge drinking culture to which most young people in this country indulge. I couldn’t put the pints away like I used to (a sign of getting old?) and the hangovers were taking days to recover from. I was beginning to question the wisdom of it as it just wasn’t making me happy anymore.

I woke up with a hangover one morning in December 2004 and saw a cycling magazine next to my bed. A cyclist called Lance Armstrong (recovered from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times) was one the front cover. Suddenly I was very aware of every ripped muscle and veiny sinew on his arms and legs. He didn’t have an ounce of fat anywhere and every part of his body was honed to perfection in order to make him a ride his bike faster and for longer than anyone else.

December 2004 - too many chins to mention.

December 2004 – too many chins to mention.

My own physique didn’t in anyway compare to Lance Armstrong. I had very thin arms and legs and had acquired a rather nasty case of l’gizzard beaucoup – that’s a beer gut to you and me. I had dark patches under my eyes and a few (well lots) of chins too many. It was at this stage it began to occur to me that if I didn’t get into to shape now then when was I going to?

I was 26 years old not 86 for goodness sake! I’m still young so I thought I should try and take advantage of the fact I can still move my limbs without fear or arthritic pains. In short I didn’t want to be 55 sitting in a rocking chair somewhere wishing I had done something like the London Triathlon.

At that point I knew I was going to have to go for it. I was going to have to change my lifestyle and work like a demon if I was going to have any chance of pulling it off. I took a deep breath, switched on my PC, navigated to the London Triathlon site and signed myself up for the Olympic Distance. I then pressed on to the kitchen for a full English breakfast – this sport lark is hard work I’ll have you know!

I needed to keep the pressure on myself so I decided I would tell anyone who would listen about my plan. People generally reacted in a congratulatory manner as if I already had the medal in my back pocket. I took all this with a pinch of salt. To up the pressure even further I decided I was going to raise money for charity as well. That way if I bottled it I wouldn’t just be letting myself down but also those sick kiddies at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

A bit of local press coverage helped the sponsorship no end.

A bit of local press coverage helped the sponsorship no end.

I hit the pool full of enthusiasm. It only took one visit to realise I was in massive trouble. After announcing that I was going to wow the world of triathlon in six months time, I forgot that I couldn’t really swim. I had no form in cycling or running either but if you’re no good at swimming you can end up dead – or worse. It all seems so easy when your a little kid. I had all the swimming badges but as I was completing the distances, nobody seemed too bothered if I had actually mastered the strokes or not. My body was a good deal bigger and heavier now and no amount of smarties and orange squash was going to give me the head rush it used to. It was back to the drawing board and I was thinking that I might well have bitten off more than I could chew.

At this point I made a really good decision by finding myself a triathlon swimming coach through a company called swimfortri. I chose one on one tutoring with one of their coaches called Terence who described himself as “local to your area”. Terence or TC as he became known, looked like a cross between David Ginola and Superman which made me think he knew what he was doing with all this triathlon malarkey.

He was very insistent that I couldn’t learn to swim in my beach shorts suggesting “Speedos” as a replacement. At which point I nearly called the whole thing off. I had horrible flashbacks to my youth and being made to wear hand me down speedos that were three sizes too small and had a hideous seventies floral pattern that made them look like pants. The taunts from the other children as I stood on the side of the pool are enough to send shivers down my spine even now. “Oi Mullarkey are they your Dads pants?” are words that I hope are never etched on my grave stone. There was no way I was wearing them – nothing was worth that. Fortunately, we compromised on jammer shorts which are a bit like cycling shorts and the whole thing was back on.

Not even a young Harrison Ford could make Speedos look cool.

Not even a young Harrison Ford could make Speedos look cool.

Under the watchful eye of TC my swimming was coming on in leaps and bounds. It certainly wasn’t easy though. When I started in January it is no exaggeration to say that I was struggling to swim 50m of freestyle. Within half a dozen lessons I was able to breath on both sides (bilateral breathing) but I was still finding distances a struggle. I was desperately trying to add one more length and I would start to feel like my chest is about to explode and end up with a mouth full of pool. Although I was progressing really well the swimming was a really hard slog and I would often spend many hours at the pool feeling like I hadn’t improved at all. Of course I was improving as I had become a “fast lane” swimmer rather than a “slow lane” swimmer.

The other disciplines were also coming along. I was getting used to being back in a gym for the first time since I was a teenager and I found it wasn’t quite as intimidating as I remembered it. I was putting in a lot of hours between the pool and gym and I was generally training for one to two hours a day (often more) six days a week. I had become pretty much obsessed. I was eating really healthily, rarely drinking alcohol and generally living the dream. I felt absolutely amazing especially when I was going into work on Monday morning without a hangover.

Terence Collins aka TC - the man with a plan.

Terence Collins aka TC – the man with a plan.

TC suggested that I needed to build up my speed and the best way to do this was to go to a livestock market and buy a chicken. “Chicken is full of protein isn’t it?” I remember saying eager to impress my new mentor. To my amazement he replied “No mate the chicken is for chasing in your back yard – you need speed like grease lightning if you want to get any good at tri”. The next weekend Clive became the newest member of the Mullarkey clan. Every couple of days I would play Eye of the Tiger on my MP3 player and chase the little blighter round the back yard until I was dead on my feet. Chicken chasing is the new skipping, so I’m told.

Clive the chicken - I spent many an hour chasing him around my back yard.

Clive the chicken – I spent many an hour chasing him around my back yard.

After I did the Blenheim Triathlon at the end of May I started to feel the pressure a little bit. The race had not gone as well as I’d hoped and it was a huge wake up call. I’d struggled in the swim in particular and the race was a quarter of the distance of the Olympic distance at London in early August. I started to panic as I knew London would be a lot harder and more competitive.

I had told everybody about how I was going for the London Triathlon and I knew a fair few people would turn up on the day to cheer me on. My ultimate fear was looking like a total fool in front of them all and I having to confess to all the people who had promised to sponsor me that I had failed in my quest. Not having ever done anything like this before I really wasn’t sure if I was on schedule or not and things seemed to be in the balance during most of my training. Fear is a powerful motivator and the fear of failure was what was getting me up early in the morning to train before work and putting in the extra effort. Fortunately, TC was very reassuring in this department by telling me that everything would be OK as long as I continued to work hard.

All of a sudden I nailed my first 1,500m swim in the pool – and I still had four weeks to go. I was over the moon and started to feel really confident. I was training pretty hard at this point and was doing brick sessions (bike ride and then run immediately afterwards) regularly to prepare myself for transition between bike and run.

By the time the race came around I knew I was going to go the distance. I was swimming in my wetsuit at Hampstead Heath Pond on a regular basis where TC would do his best to drown me in an attempt to prepare me for the mayhem that is a mass deep water swim start in a triathlon. The hardest thing was trying not to laugh as he pulled on my ankle or swam across my path in an attempt to put me off my game.

With a week to go I started to taper off my training and I knew that I should be able to go the distance with a bit to spare. I felt well prepared for THE BIG ONE which made me feel relaxed.

The rest as they say, is history. See how I got on.

Thanks: Terence Collins, The General for making my race bike roadworthy, all those who sponsored me and put up with me while I was busy putting triathlon first.

James Mullarkey

I write about the web and digital, mediocre sporting performances and places I've been, for this blog and only this blog.