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Triathlon: How it feels to be an Age Group Athlete

An insight into a competing athlete’s thoughts and feelings before, during and after an event.

An endurance race is about mental strength as well as physical ability. The days leading up to a race and especially the night before are a mixture of nervous excitement and energy.

You know you have prepared but there are always doubts swirling around your mind:

Have I trained enough? Will the sea be calm? How will the weather hold up? Can I even do this? Can I be better than I was last time? Can I make it through without injuring myself? and more…

So, it’s the night before the race.

You have checked your bike and your kit a thousand times, made sure you have all your nutrition organised, your bottles are filled and in the fridge ready to go, you’ve prepped your breakfast and your pre-race drink to make sure you get that fuelling before the action starts for real.

All that is left is to go to sleep and wait for the alarm to sound at some ungodly hour signalling the start of what is going to be for you, an epic day. An epic challenge of endurance, strength, and mental perseverance.

You get out of bed, it is time. You take a shower, get dressed and pick up your after-race clothing in one of the famous white Ironman Streetwear bags and make your way to the start area for the swim.

Final checks of your bike, ensuring tyre pressure is correct. You mount your bottles and your Garmin and fuss over the detail of how your setup is arranged in transition. All the while observing the other athletes, their bikes, their kit, and thoughts like, are they faster than me? are they fitter than me? float around in your head.

You exchange pleasantries with your fellow athletes, and you can feel the nervous energy in the air. The announcer is going over the information for the day which you can hear but don’t really tune into. You stand in the long queue, one last toilet stop before the start, why are the queues always so damned long?

Transition on race morning is an experience and there is nothing quite like the smell of it. You soak up the atmosphere and feel the sense of expectation that you have placed on yourself. “You can do this !” you tell yourself over and over again.

As you exit transition, leaving your bike and kit in its place, neatly racked waiting for you to return (soon you hope) and make your way to greet your supporters.

At this point, let’s spare a thought for your supporters. They too have gotten up early, helped you to get to the starting line, put up with you and tolerated you during the long months of training. But all that is ok, because they get you and they’ve got your back and want you to race well and to do your best returning to them in one piece and not pieces.

It is time for the swim warm up and you make your way to the water and feel the coldness for the first time. It is always good to get in the water to feel the sensation of the water, the cold, to acclimatise and to activate the muscles that are soon going to be put into action.

5 to 10 minutes is all you need, and in some respects it brings a sense of calm and stillness to your body as you watch the other athletes do the same, splashing back and forth in the warm up zone.

You exit the water and say goodbye to your supporters. One last hug or kiss, one last “you’ve got this”, “make yourself proud” fist bumps before you enter the starting pen where you wait your turn to reach the line and to hear the infamous beep, beep, beep, beeeeeep before it is time to launch yourself into the water.

Your race has begun, there is no turning back as you set off on your quest to finish the course in your best way possible. For many, the swim start brings about high levels of stress and anxiety but 10 minutes into the course and all of this is forgotten as you get into your flow, and rhythm and get the job done.

You check your relative position in the water: where are the buoys? are there other athletes around me? why am I going in this direction (as you get tapped by a paddle boarder informing you that you’re heading off course)?

Open water swimming is a skill, and one which is hard to master and requires constant attention when you are in the water racing.

You get everything back on track and emerge from the water to the cheers of the crowd and you spot your supporters for the first time since leaving the shore and give a high 5 as you run past, sliding off your wetsuit at the same time.

You change, wheel your bike out of transition and you make your way on to the bike course which is perhaps the quietest aspect of racing triathlon. Away from the crowds and the buzz of the event you follow the marked course, the other athletes ensuring you remind yourself to eat and drink to remain hydrated and fuelled.

As the time passes by, you monitor your essential statistics: how far have I left? what’s my average normalized power or speed? which heart rate zone am I working in? am I pushing too hard or not enough?

You dismount from your bike and run across the line back into transition. Those first few steps are the hardest as you begin using different muscles in the legs to take you forward and you feel like jelly for a few minutes.

You rack your bike, change into your trainers, grab a drink and some nutrition and now you are out on the run course.

You may have swum and biked well, but the run is where the real test comes. Not only have you been racing for hours by this point, but you now also need to keep going, keep pushing to finish the course.

You have a plan, and you do your best to execute it as you count down the KM markers on the course looking all the time for inspiration to keep you going. You find this from the crowd of cheering supporters who have gathered along the run course to shout your name and to tell you “You’ve got this”, to “keep going” and to “not give up”.

You now look forward to the various aid stations dotted through the course. You approach them like an all you can eat buffet consuming as much as you can and as quickly as you can whilst still running, throwing water over your head to try and cool your hot body.

You see and pass other athletes; you recognise their tri-suits and they become a familiar sight along the course. You see their suffering and you share it, you’re all in this together, and you must keep moving forward despite your brain telling to stop and walk, just for a while, you need a break.

Many athletes give in to these mind games. They are difficult to control, and you just ask for peace in your head so that you can continue doing what you are doing, ignoring what messages the brain is sending to your body.

Because you can do it, and yes it hurts, but if it were easy then we would just call it Football and be done with it.

The last few KMs of the run course can be the hardest as you know you have done the work and that you are going to make it but a switch in the brain makes these last minutes seem to drag by, whilst at the same time you’re begging to finish, you’re done, enough already.

You approach the finishing line chute, it is time to recover, collect your medal and feel proud of what you achieved today. Your supporters are waiting for you, they are ecstatic to see you, to hug you and to tell you that you did well today. Whhooo-hoooo! Way to go!

No matter your ability, the journey of racing triathlon is the same for most of us. It is a battle of wills between you, your body, and your mind. Your ability to control and manage these aspects will in part determine your success on the day.

The training effort you put into preparing for an event can be all consuming and both time and energy hungry. Take your time to thank your supporters because they have been part of your journey and without them you would not have been as successful as you have been today.

During the race you may vow to never race a triathlon again but all that passes soon in the aftermath of the event, and you will soon be trawling the race calendar looking for your next race as you know you have to do it again.

There is nothing quite like the experience of a triathlon. It is an emotional journey which requires hard work, dedication and determination to succeed. But it is also something which anyone can do… with the right approach, the right mindset and training anything really is possible.

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