This was written around 14 March 2010.
“So,” he said, “what do you think of all this stuff?” He gestured to the display of nutritional supplements for serious athletes.
I hesitated. How do I put into words my neurotic, stupid, probably mistaken and likely insulting impression that the triathlon community looks at me with a slightly puzzled expression? I think it waits for me to give up my silly notion to enter this prestigious world, and go away. “I don’t even know where to begin with all this stuff,” I said, meaning more than the nutritional supplements, but he didn’t need to know that.
“It’s all just common sense,” he said, and I felt a tiny little bit better.
However, I was not completely fooled. This casual statement sounded very much like the responses to my tentative questions to determine whether triathlons would be a good idea for me. ‘Just stick a bit of swimming and running onto that and you’ll be all right,’ someone had said on the forum when I laid out my history of touring cycling.
Ha. A bit of swimming and running. And what, Sir, made you forget about core strength training, about swimming stroke drills (do I even call that the right thing?), about brick sessions and practicing transitions?
‘Best place to start,’ another added, ‘is to join the local triathlon club.’ So let’s look into what that means, being a member of the club: you get texts to let you know of club training activities. Theoretically, you can then join these training activities. In practice, you will make a complete idiot out of yourself if you try to join these people unless you have already achieved a certain level of fitness. Even just expressing interest in trying to join a training session of some sort is like a sparrow overhearing a pair of eagles talking about going for a spot of flying, and asking to go along.
Take, for instance, the Masters Swimming. I went to one session, not knowing it was the Masters one. The text had just said: ‘swim training’, so I pitched up, and when I heard it was a Masters thing, wanted to go home but ended up staying.
Beside the pool there were sheets on which exercises were written: I would have had a better shot at understanding Greek than deciphering these things. Again, everyone was super friendly, really. That’s one thing you can always count on with the local triathletes, they are genuinely some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I just always get this mild sense of bafflement from their side, as if they’re not quite sure what to do with me. Most likely I don’t know what to do with me, and I’m just projecting.
I firmly said I will just do laps as I don’t want to force someone else to miss out on their training in order to teach me what to do. That would just embarrass me more. I was given a lane to work in and made to feel welcome. It was great. I watched everyone doing their thing for a while, and at least learned that I know sweet bugger all about the art of swimming.
Back to my conversation with the Iron Man beside the nutrition table. “I’m hopefully getting my road bike this week.”
He looked doubtful. Then he said something that threw me into terrible turmoil.
It’s difficult to remember his exact words now, because they upset me so much. They weren’t intended to upset, don’t misunderstand me. They just came at the tail end of a lot of things I don’t understand and find very stressful. And yes, to me, it’s stressful beyond description to go to the gym and attend an advertised talk about athletes’ nutrition. When it follows two days after the Masters Swim thing, it’s three times as bad.
What were these dreadful words? You’re going to laugh when you hear it. He said: “You must be sure you’re really into the whole thing before you get a road bike.” Sound advice, given in a friendly way.
“Oh, I am,” I replied. “I’ve told you before, I really love cycling, and I’ve been doing it for a while.”
“Ah, but there’s cycling and then there’s cycling. I get a lot of people saying to me: ‘I love cycling’, and then they mean they like cycling into town and so. But there’s a big difference between that and hard cycling.”
He carried on, but now I was too busy dealing with that horrible feeling of pressure inside to listen more. Why?
Interesting question. I think it’s because I feel I am constantly underestimated. I can’t blame anyone looking at my efforts in the last duathlon for thinking I’m a bit of a ditz. Hell, you can look at me anytime and think I’m a bit of a ditz. I’ve given up on trying to look un-ditz-like, because when I look all sizzly and pretty, I feel as if I’m living in someone else’s body.
“…quite another thing to get on that bicycle when you’ve just swum, feeling as if your legs are going to fall off, and still carry on.”
It’s one of those situations in which you have a million memories pouring through your head, but it’s impossible to defend yourself without sounding like an ass. I couldn’t tell the good man that it is precisely that which attracts me to the idea of doing triathlons. That it’s the one aspect of the race I look forward to. I’ve always shied away from organised sports, because I don’t like going fast. I like going and going and going and going.
I liked pedalling up an endless hill in pouring, freezing rain, feeling as if I’d never reach the guesthouse where I was due to stay. I liked seeing the kilometres click over to the most I’d ever done, knowing that the end was still far, far away. I liked sitting collapsed in a bus shelter, knowing I have another twenty kilometres to go and not knowing how I’m going to even get myself back on the bike, never mind pedal any farther. I liked pedalling up the mountainside without a clue where I was heading, feeling as if I was going to puke or cry or both from the exertion. I liked struggling my way up a bigger, steeper, meaner mountain a hundred metres at a time, then fifty metres at a time, dragging myself to the top even though in retrospect I know I was not only not fit enough, I was also not acclimatised for this journey.
I’m not completely insane, I didn’t like these sitautions at the time. But I’d face them, and ask myself: “Why the fuck are you doing this to yourself?” when I rested for a moment in the middle of my effort to reach my goal. The answer would come in contentment and deep-rooted joy which I would never have known if I hadn’t pushed myself so hard.
But all that was impossible to convey to the man standing there with me. In fact, when later I asked myself honestly whether I like ‘hard cycling’, the answer was: No.
I don’t like pedalling simply to pedal faster than yesterday. I don’t like running around and around a track just to do it in fewer seconds than last week. I don’t like swimming like a maniac just to try to swim faster than before.
So maybe triathlons aren’t for me. I dread the presence of other humans when I face the steep demands I like making of myself. I’ve said this before: it’s a deeply private thing for me. I’m tempted to just withdraw, to let go of this goal I’d set to become a part of this world of people who, I thought, like what I like.
Because I was mistaken. Or maybe I wasn’t.
I want to take on the Windy Gap pass and pedal to the top without resting. I want to run to Portadown. I want to click through responsive gears, feel the hard-won strength in my muscles as I pedal, and I want to see that day’s count on the cycling computer reach a hundred miles. I want to explore this country on two wheels, and others when I can.
I want to join a race with no fanfare, anonymous, unknown. I want to swim and swim, I want to overcome the weakness and cycle on and on, I want to conquer the fatigue and leaden legs to run when only the strength of my mind wills my body forward. I want to achieve what I set out to do, then I want to pack up my stuff and go home.
I want to love my bikes and pay attention to both of them. Touring and racing, luxuriating in Ronan’s workhorse strength and in Daniel’s light-footed dance across the tar.
The crow’s nest is almost unravelled. Perhaps my biggest problem is that when I am not alone, I am unable to stop worrying about what others think. And that’s so unhealthy, but I’m afraid it’s a crack in the vase that I’ve been unable to mend.
Swim drills today, for instance, I was trying to figure out how to do these fucking things, I felt like a walrus with one amputated flipper. Spotted someone with the Setanta Tri cap on (well, I thought that’s what it was) and I just wanted to die: why can I not struggle through my initial pathetic efforts in privacy, why can’t you all not just fucking look away?
And yet my preoccupation with getting it right is already erasing any negative thought as I try to think how I can do it better next time. I am not what I have to be to do this sport, but I am fascinated with it. So much so that I can forget how pathetic I am and just try again to get it right.
That’s what the crow’s nest is all about. I really am a bit of a mess.