Twenty minutes before the start of the Pilmuir Aquathlon, and I was ready to give up and go home. I was standing at the boot of my jacked-up car in fine drizzle, trying simultaneously to soothe a howling baby; control an adventurous toddler on his balance bike; apply my Sportstiks tattoo race numbers to the proper bits of skin/wetsuit, and provide some degree of moral support to Ryan, currently halfway under the car changing the tyre. The result: failure on all counts; raised tempers and ruined temporary tattoos all round. This was not my lucky day.
The only bright side to all this was that there was absolutely no time for pre-race nerves. All worries about participating in my first-ever Aquathlon; swimming the second-longest distance of my life in 8m-deep open water, and negotiating the dreaded Transition zone, were banished by more immediate domestic worries.
My Pilmuir Aquathlon journey started back in January, when I was 32 weeks pregnant and feeling big and despondent. The email from Vigour Events popped into my inbox, and this race caught my eye at once. Never mind that I’d not swum in open water since May 2015 (and even then, I was training for 400m – little more than half the Aquathlon distance); no matter that the race was just two months after my baby’s due date: I needed a challenge to set my sights on and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Back in January, the idea of swimming 750m then running 5k at 10 weeks postnatal sounded tough but manageable. As race day approached, the toughness side of things loomed larger and I began to doubt the wisdom of the whole idea. With one week to go, I headed to Bardowie Loch for my first and only practice swim. On the one hand, it gave me a welcome confidence boost: it was a beautiful morning and I clocked just shy of 1k on the Garmin, my longest swim ever and proof I could manage the distance. It was also an unwelcome reality check: it reminded me just how very bad I am at swimming. Race day dawned drab and drizzly, and a new fear struck: I might very easily come last in this race. Yikes.
My only other experience of competitive swimming was in the short triathlon at last year’s Keswick Mountain Festival. I’m nervous in water, and I still vividly remember the panic I felt at the start of that race when the experienced swimmers seethed by, splashing and kicking and crowding my space. On that occasion, panic was followed by a sense of relative calm once I found my own pace amongst the other open-water newbies at the back. At Pilmuir there was one big difference: this time, once the ‘real’ swimmers had gone and the splashing subsided, I realised that there was no crowd of newbies to keep me company – there was just me and a couple of other stragglers, facing a huge expanse of lake. Despair followed panic as reality bit: this swim was going to take a very, very long time, and without my pre-pregnancy running fitness to pull me through, I really might finish last. Perhaps by a long way …
Fear and doubt flooded my mind, sapping my confidence and stealing my breath. The marker buoys seemed very far away: could I actually swim this distance at all? What on earth was I doing in this lake anyway – and why? What was I trying to prove? What would people think, when they saw how far back I’d fallen? I felt out of my depth in every sense. I gasped and spluttered; tried to forget the 8 metres of deep dark water hanging beneath me. Then slowly, slowly, one breath at a time, I mustered the courage to push on. I visualised myself gathering up my panicky thoughts and setting them aside. Replaced fear with certainty: I was going to finish this race. I had to.
Bit by bit, calm and confidence returned, together with a new clarity: finishing last was not a thing to dread. Last means nothing; it’s the finishing that counts. This was never about beating anybody else: from the outset, completing this race was something I had wanted to do for me. It was a challenge that I had always known would be a tough one for me, but I had entered to find out if I could do it. To succeed on those terms, I had to let go all thoughts of the past and future, and focus on the now: tap into my beginner’s mind and just be me as I am now, a new mum again, with my current capabilities, limitations, and – most importantly – my determination. Challenging my own frontiers; not giving up; not saying no; just keeping going all the way to the end.
With new confidence, I took on the swim at my own slow pace, counting my way from point to point: one hundred strokes; rest, repeat; one hundred strokes, rest, repeat. Breaking it down, one set of one hundred at a time, finding the strength to do it again, and again and again. By the time I was half way round the swim, I could see others already out of transition and running on the cliffs above me. It didn’t matter. My race was not their race; my situation was not theirs.
My only competition was with me, and I wasn’t about to quit.
Crowds of friendly volunteers and spectators cheered me in when I finally staggered ashore, encouraging me through a clumsy transition into t-shirt and Hokas and out onto the run course. One of my favourite truths about running is that you can always, always manage just one more step: and that’s really all it takes. At 5k, this wasn’t my longest run since Rosa’s birth, but as I came out of the water, just putting one foot in front of the other felt like hard work. Just one more step, then one more, then one more. Keep counting, a hundred steps, a hundred more …
The front runners had started their final lap by the time I laced up my trainers, but almost every runner shared a smile and a wave as we passed and re-passed each other on the three-loop course. I felt a real sense of fellowship: we were all alone and together, each experiencing our own race; each facing our own battle. The course marshals – many of whom had completed the youth aquathlon earlier in the morning – gave fabulous support, an absolute credit to the Vigour Events community. My own little support crew of Ryan and the children was stationed out on the course with the buggy, cheering me on and boosting my confidence every time I passed them. And as I went on, I grew stronger. I could feel my strength gathering even as my legs were tiring – and my Strava record shows that it wasn’t just my imagination; each mile was faster than the last and I was gaining pace and edge all the way to the finish, channelling determination where fitness ran out.
I finished feeling stronger than I started – and with more than just a medal to show for it. For me this Aquathlon was about more than just a race: it is defined in my memory by the truths that I learned or rediscovered along the way:
- You can always manage just one more step. Count to 100, keep going, count again.
- Finishing first is just one kind of winning. Finishing last is not the same as losing.
- The only losing is giving up.
- I am my competition. Only me.
Lessons learned along the trail are always about more than just racing …