My First Olympic Triathlon

By James Ledger

About James

James had been promising himself a crack at tri for years and finally made London 2003 his debut and set about applying himself to the challenge with a lot of dedication and perhaps not a small amount of fear!

Like Andrea Newton, James found inspiration to try Triathlon after succumbing to the charms of a born-again triathlete. His approach to London '03 is his own, but again like Andrea there is a lot of wisdom in his words – particularly for those of you still procrastinating!

I had been meaning to get round to doing a triathlon for at least the last 8 years and for one reason or another had always kept putting off the inevitable. I think basically there were 2 things niggling me – the first that it would be too hard and that I might fail, the second that I might actually enjoy training, meeting new people, developing new skills and finally competing so much I might want to do more and more….

It was a chance meeting with Neil Melville at a mutual friends birthday in November last year that finally pushed me over the edge – we chatted about cycling, then triathlon and then about how he trains, where, who with etc. I had finally met someone who I could ask all the questions regarding Triathlon that I had been storing up for so long. That evening I went home knowing the time had come to get serious, stop procrastinating and go for it.

So it was that I found myself pouring over the Serpie Tri section on the web – reading all the details of training sessions, tips, members reports etc. Once I had read everything on the Serpie website I then surfed the net to read more – the more I surfed the more I found and I realised that there is a bottomless pit of information out there. In fact so much that it became daunting – so much to consider when all I had been concerned with previously was how I would get through the arduous task of swimming 1.5km, cycling 40km and then running 10km in sequence. So I needed to consolidate all this information and relate it to my own circumstances.

I started by considering my strengths and weaknesses in terms of triathlon. My strengths were that I had reasonable base fitness – and I love cycling be it mountain biking or road biking, I also like to be challenged. So far so good I thought – this triathlon lark should be a breeze – or so I thought. I then started to ponder my weaknesses. I realised that apart from the odd length here and there as a warm down after gym sessions I hadn’t actually swam any decent lengths of a pool with decent technique since I was about 8 or 9 years of age – ie a good 21 years ago! Oh dear! I thought how am I ever going to be able to complete a Triathlon if I am completely spent after the first discipline. I needed lessons and fast so through the Serpentine club I heard that there were Total Immersion lessons in Victoria on a Tuesday evening coached by Stephanie Ellis. I went to my first one and was instantly taken with them, the method of teaching really made sense to me and my swimming finally started to improve – after the first set of 8 lessons – I was actually starting to look forward to going for a swim and testing myself either in terms of drills or increasing my distances.

I had been following a fairly sketchy training plan for some time – alternating training sessions – mostly in my gym between long runs, interval training runs followed by weights, spinning and cycling as well as the occasional dedicated swim session. I realised I had to be slightly more organised and methodical – after all sport is like anything else goals are more easily achievable with a decent plan. So I joined Jon Sullivan’s bi-weekly Saturday morning “breakfast club” which consisted of being put through our paces by Chris “ex-polish Olympian” – a very hard core swim trainer indeed, we would move from the swim to a cycle ride – typically around 30 miles followed by a run session where we were shown how to break down running into various movements, how to hold our body while running etc. The first “breakfast club” session I attended I remember feeling terrible after 3 lengths and wanting to get out of the pool after 5 but I knew I had to knuckle down and suffer a little if I was going to seriously think about doing a triathlon. I duly survived the swim and the cycle and the run that day. I was amazed with what I had achieved in the session just through being encouraged and pushed. Thereafter I looked forward to the other sessions – and was actually occasionally disappointed when they were not as tough as I expected! In the interim’s between each session I concentrated on my weaknesses ie swimming and running in a more organised fashion. Most of my running was done on a treadmill apart from the occasional run in the countryside. All of my swimming up until about 3 weeks before my first Olympic was done in a pool.

After the last “breakfast club” (about 3 weeks before the London Tri – which was to be my first) we had decided that the following day we would cycle the 60 miles to Southend and then do a sea swim. I was totally unfazed by the cycle ride – I had done the London to Brighton with no stops and no problems as well as many other longish cycle rides both on and off road. The swim I was slightly daunted by it was to be my first open water experience. On the cycle ride after about 30 miles I lost all energy completely – I felt drained and agitated – normally I love cycling especially in the countryside looking at the scenery and breathing the fresh air. I was experiencing my first “bonk” lack of energy brought on due to not eating enough and not drinking enough liquid. It was a hot day and I should have realised before that I would need lots more food and drink to sustain me. I came through it and we arrived in Southend and started to don our wetsuits for the swim – we decided to do a lap – out to a buoy that we estimated at approx 400 metres and back. Easy peasy I thought – thanks to Chris’s swim sessions and Stephanie’s technique I will fly out there and fly back. After the first 2 hundred meters I was battling against a slight swell and myself – I was out of breath and inexperienced in dealing with getting into a rhythm and maintaining it for any period of time. Back at the beach I realised if I was to complete the London Triathlon in the way I wanted ie in under 3 hours and feeling good at the end – then I needed more open water experience both from the fitness perspective and from the navigational point of view. So I started swimming in the Serpentine – the first session I decided I had to do 1km without stops. The next one (a couple of days later) I decided I would do the full race distance in order to give me confidence – I did it and felt good. I knew I was more or less ready for action, the idea of the swim still really scared me though.

The weekend prior to the London Triathlon I went to Wales and did some tough mountain biking – I figured the cross over would be good and it was a good opportunity to slot in some serious fun with a last long ride. During the week I did one last long swim and then 2 days before I went for a short run followed by an even shorted swim.

On the Saturday morning I cleaned and prepared my bike – psychological as much as anything – if your equipment is well maintained you have confidence in it and can therefore push a little harder. I then took it down to the Excel Center to have it and my bicycle helmet examined before leaving them both in my space in the transition area. As I wondered round the stands in the center making a couple of last minute purchases. I could feel the adrenaline starting to pump. I went to the race briefing with some fellow “breakfast club” members and we then watched the start of the first sprint. It looked so exciting. I couldn’t wait ‘til my turn came.

I went home and laid out all my kit in order swimming, cycling and run. And then packed my bag – I had already made up my sports drink of choice in industrial quantities. I then spent the rest of Saturday relaxing, getting fully hydrated and planning in my mind the next day.

I rose early on Sunday made a last check to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and set off for the Excel center. I wanted to be there at least 2 hours before to lay out my transition correctly, visualise my entry and exit on each transition and generally get myself mentally prepared for the Triathlon. Before I knew it I was treading water and then I heard the gun and I was swimming. It felt unbelievable to be there doing what I had wanted to do for so long, the swim passed much quicker than expected although I had the old fear of wanting to get out after 200 meters – I had got used to it happening by then and just pushed through until I hit my rhythm. I wasn’t entirely satisfied – I found it difficult to swim my own race – but I battled through without being kicked or having my goggles pulled or being swum over (some horrid stories that you hear from fellow triathletes). I came out of the water and all I could think of was John Sullivan saying get your goggles, hat and wetsuit off quick and start thinking about the bike. Due to my prior visualisation of the transitions I found my bike quickly, dumped my wetsuit, put on my cycling shoes, sun glasses and helmet and grabbed my bike. I was away – the hardest part (or so I thought for me was over) I clipped in my pedals started spinning and settled into the bike ride. I drank as much energy drink as I could and ate a couple of power bars. Before I knew it I was turning back into transition for the run – once again I found my spot without any hiccups and dumped my bike shoes and helmet and put on my running shoes. The first 500 meters of the run felt awful – but because I had trained going from the bike straight to the run many times before I knew it would. It soon passed. The second lap passed as on training running I felt strong and was concentrating on my technique and breathing. By the third lap I was starting to hurt – I kept telling myself one foot in front of the other – keep moving – one foot in front of the other – keep moving. Before I knew it I was running into Excel – I had 200 meters to go – a little sprint finish and it was over in 2.53.52. I had completed the Tri – I felt good and I had hit my time target. I had also learnt a huge amount.

It is now one week after I have recovered nicely – a couple of swims, a run and 2 bike spinning sessions and I feel good – in fact I feel fantastic. I am competing in Seaford in a month and so I have time to practice and consolidate the things I learnt. Before the swim I will swim approx 200 meters to warm up – so I avoid my niggle of always wanting to stop just after the start of the swim. For the bike I will push harder (I held back slightly since I didn’t know how I would feel with the run still to complete) and use gels rather than bars – I felt nauseous eating bars whereas I think I would be able to get gels down more quickly. For the run I am doing lots of speed work now so that I can carry good speed all the way round.

Over the past 6 months I have met so many good people, learnt so many new things and started to really train for something I have found I really enjoy. It beats training in a gym without a reason…

I am due to compete in Bala 2 weeks after Seaford – my aim for Seaford is to be in the low 2.40s and for Bala who knows….