Stories from a Slowcoach Triathlete

I usually prefer to be behind the scenes, or in the back of photos, slightly out of focus or obscured by someone else’s arm. I have never felt confident enough to share my blog posts alongside those of Joe (UTMB and Glencoe skyline runner), Natalie (super-fit mountain adventurer) or Siân (outdoor swimming expert). But recently a friend took a photo of me that I am really proud of. And I thought maybe some people might like to hear about someone at the other end of the outdoor adventure spectrum.

I'm small and blurry but I like it that way
I'm small and blurry but I like it that way

I'm Hannah and I'm the Marketing Manager for Cicerone. I love the outdoors and I enjoy being active and giving things a go. However, I am perpetually overweight, still labouring under the delusion that doing Parkrun every Saturday will give me the body of an athlete despite the vast quantities of biscuits and cake I seem to need to keep me going. I also inherited asthma from my dad and a bookish indoors sort of nature from both my parents. Essentially I am not a natural. At anything.

In a somewhat odd juxtaposition to these characteristics I have a very strong internal competitive streak and a desire to challenge myself. My level may be lower than most people's but my drive and determination is pretty high. So when, twelve years ago, I decided to do a triathlon, I was pretty much unstoppable.

It's been a long slog to get here.

Thirteen years ago I had just moved back to my home town from university. Following a break up, and having a post-university "career break" I had nothing much to fill my time apart from work and playing pool. After a few months of getting really, really good at pool I joined a gym and got really really good at that. I went most days, cycling there straight after work and doing two or three hours of classes before cycling home and having the student's supper of cereal or somesuch. Luckily I was working in a café in the daytime and had vegetables and stuff there.

I loved the gym, and how it made me feel. I felt strong and capable and, for the first time ever, started viewing my body as having these positive attributes. My whole outlook changed and I stopped viewing my body as something to starve, hide and diminish. I even started running. It was all going so well. And then two things happened that both served to scupper my plans:

  1. I met a girl
  2. I quite catastrophically broke myself

I'm not sure how to apportion blame here but, seeing as I am now married to the girl, I should probably spare her a little. Anyway, suffice to say she did not enjoy dating someone who went to the gym for three hours a night, had a bowl of cereal for tea and then went to bed. We had to arrange dates around my inflexible gym timetable and by the time I got to them I was usually aching and tired and not great company. In fairness to her she only suggested a little more balance but I've never been good at that. As I was slowly introduced to the joys of lazy Saturdays and Costa hot chocolates with cream I started skipping the odd class here and there. It became shockingly easy to spend time with Jemma.

I was still very active and fit - it takes a while to fully adjust to a new hot chocolate filled lifestyle - and was aiming to do a triathlon in the summer. I didn't have a car so I cycled everywhere, even up the enormous hill that Jemma lived at the top of. I had been running most mornings before work and had done the pinnacle event in the sporting calendar - Race for Life - the year before. The only thing that I was concerned about was swimming but I had been a strong, if slow, swimmer as a child so I wasn't truly worried.

For some reason I decided that, on my first visit to a swimming pool since school, I would start with butterfly. The ridiculous stroke that makes even professionals look a little like they are drowning. I partially dislocated both my shoulders about 7 metres in.

My shoulders sorted themselves out with a modicum of pain. I wasn't even sure what had happened but I got out of the pool and managed to cycle home. I forgot about it until it happened again a few days later, in an Asda changing room. I was trying on a shirt. They didn't have it in my size but I reckoned I could manage a size down. I couldn't and I also couldn't get it off. Whilst wrestling with the shirt my shoulders popped out again. This time it hurt a lot but the humiliation of having to call an assistant to help pull the too-small shirt over my head acted as an anaesthetic of sorts. Once the shirt was off, my shoulders helpfully went back in, as if satisfied that I had been sufficiently chastised for my over confidence with a size 8.

My humiliation was rewarded with a diagnosis of hypermobility syndrome and an absolute ban on any exercise for two months. I responded by doing almost nothing for about 8 years.

So, when I signed up for a triathlon at the end of the 2017 season, I had bones to pick, bugs I had borne and a score to settle.

My relationship with Jemma had settled down to the point where she actually quite liked me leaving the house for a few hours in the evening. Encouraged it almost. I had started going to the gym again but was nowhere near as committed (obsessed) as I had been a few years before. I had the carb loading nailed but the rest of my training plan had gone somewhat awry. When I arrived at the starting line for the triathlon I had done one or two twenty minute runs with the dog and a bike ride where I desperately tried to remember which lever made the gears harder or easier. Oh with a break for icecream halfway. I had done the Great North Swim earlier in the summer so had then pretty much ignored swimming seeing as "I could do that". I wasn't exactly well prepared.

The triathlon went as well as can be expected. I was slow, of course, but I finished it and didn't stop to walk on the run. There was a sad moment where I arrived at the transition point after the bike leg to see my two friends there - hooray I thought, we can run together! I then spotted that they had medals on.... Nevertheless I plodded off on my run leg feeling tired but confident. I was, after all, doing it. As I came round the final corner I spotted my two friends and couldn't help triumphantly raising my arms - "I'm doing it, I'm really doing it!". They cheered me in and I finished the race feeling like a winner.

And I am a winner. For me the triathlon meant over a decade spanning several injuries, fitness followed by a slovenly disregard for fitness, the sort of fitness achieved by someone who until recently had a slovenly disregard for fitness, and the underlying intention that someday I would do it. It's nothing compared to the achievements of others - my colleagues leave me for dust with their activities. But it's a personal victory and I'm letting myself be proud of this one.

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