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Triathlon

My 2019 in Triathlon – From Zero to Half Ironman in 9 months

In the last twelve months, I’ve gone from having absolutely no triathlon experience and barely being able to swim a few lengths, to completing three Sprint, Olympic and Half Ironman races in May, July and September respectively.

I’ve brought my 5k Parkrun time down from 22:02 to 18:37 (a 15% reduction), I’ve lost about 7kg from my peak weight in 2018 (a 10% reduction), and I completed my first marathon in November.

All in all, a great year!

With the 2019 Triathlon season now over and 2020 dawning, I thought I’d reflect on everything I learned in my first season as a triathlete.

I’m writing this article for three reasons:

  1. To provide a blueprint for anyone looking to replicate my progress
  2. To shine a light on some of the subtler difficulties of triathlon training beyond “it’s tiring”
  3. To hopefully inspire more people to get involved in triathlon, running, swimming or cycling!

I’ll break this down into three sections:

  1. What I did – details on my training volume and structure, race prep and outcomes, and lessons I learned throughout the year
  2. Reflecting on the highs and lows of increased training and racing
  3. Some simple advice for anyone looking to start triathlon

So, how have I spent the last twelve months?

By training volume, my year looked like this:

2019 was by far my biggest year ever in terms of fitness!

January
13 hours active
At the start of 2019, I decided I was going to compete in my first triathlon.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this decision was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and made 2019 an incredible year.

Buoyed by a dry January, I started going to Parkrun every Saturday and tried to cover each of the three disciplines at least once a week. Looking back at January, I wasn’t training with any type of structure – when I ran, I’d just head out for a long run and enjoy it, when I cycled, I’d do the same thing, and when I swam, I’d just focus on not drowning.

February & March
Feb: 11 hours active
Mar: 15 hours active
By February, my Parkrun habit was cemented, and I went every week in February. As well as being a wholesome way to start the weekend and a fun and friendly race run with neighbours, Parkrun was an excellent benchmarking tool. I immensely enjoyed chipping away at my PB every week and the sense of progression that came with it. A small personal win every 7-14 days is incredibly motivating.

Same as January, my training in February and even March was unstructured and generally spontaneous. I’d decide a day or so in advance if I was going to run or cycle, and I wouldn’t do any sort of focused training, I’d just head out. This was fun, but I’ve since learned that structured workouts and pre-meditated training plans bring huge benefits.

I really enjoyed my dry January, so didn’t drink any alcohol for all of February and March. This, combined with my increase in exercise, meant that I lost quite a lot of weight quite quickly, dropping from 71kg in December 2018 (damn you Christmas) to 64kg by end of March.

I was sleeping well, I had more energy, and I was getting out of bed every Saturday morning, without fail, to do Parkrun, which got me into a good rhythm and started 2019 off extremely well.

April
20 hours active
April is when the triathlon training started to shift up a gear.

Some members of the local Willesden Triathlon Club came to Parkrun with leaflets about an Aquathlon they were hosting (400m swim, 5km run) and I promptly signed up, keen to get some transition experience and to do my first ever swim race (albeit a very short one!).

Looking back, this was the best decision I made in 2019.

Competing in the Aquathlon showed me how friendly and welcoming everyone at WTC was, and I immediately signed up for weekly Tuesday training sessions.

[Insert email from day after aquathlon]

The biggest benefit of these sessions was the swim coaching and getting feedback on my front crawl, which I knew was weak. As well as swim coaching, I was introduced to proper interval training on the track. I’d never done intervals before and, to be honest, had never done any speed work in my whole life. For some reason I’d resisted the structure, and whenever I had a race coming up between the ages of 16 and 25, I’d just run as often as I could and hope my times would get better (sound familiar?).

This speed work brought immediate benefits – I discovered twitchy sprint muscles I hadn’t used before, and running hard at sprint pace meant that my pace during most 5ks and 10ks felt comparatively easy (or rather, less excruciatingly difficult). I knew when I was pushing hard to maintain 4:10/km during Parkrun that I could go faster if I really wanted to.

Shortly after I joined WTC, I ran my first ever sub-20 Parkrun at Victoria Park Parkrun in Glasgow. This had been a HUGE goal of mine since 2011. Before getting to uni, my fastest 5k time had been about 21:30, and at uni I met people who could run it in under 20 minutes, which immediately became my goal. Unfortunately, instead of training in a consistent and smart way, I would run sporadically and simply hope that one day I’d run the elusive sub-20 5k.

I vividly remember the moment I crossed the finish line in under 20 minutes, and the sense of immense accomplishment I felt. I’d been running every week for three months (probably the longest streak in my life) and it was paying off!

I became addicted to the elation of achieving a goal following weeks or months of hard, consistent work. The moment everything comes together is utterly magical.

And then you move onto the next goal on the horizon…

May
21 hours active
May was the month of my first ever triathlon!

RACE: Marlow Sprint Distance
I’d signed up to Marlow Sprint Triathlon with my flatmate Geraint at the start of the year, and the five months of training were now culminating in our first ever full triathlon race.

I enjoyed Marlow and all the excitement around it immensely, and finished the race in 10th of 77 overall (Top 13%), which I was delighted with.

My splits were:
* 750m swim: 20:03 (2m40s/100m)
* 23.7km bike: 44:19 (32kmh)
* 5k run: 24:16 (4:56/km)

I’d only been swimming 18 times between January and the race, so I knew my swimming was still weak and wasn’t disappointed with my result.
I’d optimistically expected to hold a higher average than 32kmh on the bike leg, as it felt like I was pushing pretty hard, and I’d been able to hold 35kph for an hour of laps round Regent’s Park.
I was disappointed with the run. At that stage of the year, I knew I could run 5km in about 19:30, so to be nearly 5 minutes slower was frustrating. My legs just felt so heavy and dead by the end of the race. (This would become a recurring theme…)

Lessons learned from my first triathlon:
* I’d been advised to start near the back of the pack in the swim to avoid being kicked, but this ended up slowing me down when I got stuck behind swimmers even slower than me. In subsequent races, I would start in the middle, at the side closest to the first buoy.
* Applying Bodyglide to my arms legs and shoulders saved me a LOT of time in Transition 1. I’d often struggle to get my wetsuit off after open-water training sessions, but with Bodyglide in this race, it literally just slid off me. Perfect.
* I lost time in Transition 2 by getting my right and left running shoes mixed up. Lesson learned: leave them out in the right order!
* I pushed too hard on the bike. If I’d been a minute slower on the bike, I might have been able to shave more than a minute off my run.
* I went out for a long “recovery ride” the day after our race, which was a bad idea, and I made myself even more exhausted for the next week (and almost made myself ill). I took post-race recovery a lot more seriously after that…
* The variety and fast pace of triathlon races is a LOT of fun

June
35 hours active

My first race taught me a lot, and I went into June hungry for my next race: the Olympic distance London Triathlon at the end of July.

I knew I had to do more brick runs (running immediately after cycling) to avoid the feeling of dead legs at the end of a race, and I knew my swimming still had a long way to go.

I also started doing more structured bike workouts on the turbo trainer to work on my power and sprint ability. After being slightly disappointed with 32kmh during the Sprint race, I set myself an ambitious target of 36kmh during the Olympic…

July
43 hours active

July was my second biggest month of the year in terms of training volume.

Annoyingly, I injured my ankle at the very end of June and so had to take two weeks off running, which was frustrating when I had a race less than a month away.

I went on holiday to Krakow in Poland for a week, so in preparation for the Olympic distance race at the end of the month, and because I couldn’t run, I decided to rent a bike and do some big rides. On the first day, I did 67km, and on the second, I almost made it across the border into Slovakia! Annoyingly, I had to turn back when I discovered the border was actually a huge mountain with signs saying “Watch out for bears and wolves!” Even though I didn’t make it to Slovakia, I did manage to cycle 187km, the biggest ride of my life.

Whilst slightly tipsy in Krakow, I got an email from the organisers of a Triathlon called the Woburner Half Ironman saying I had a few hours left before the signup closed.
Spontaneously, and fuelled by Polish beer, I decided to enter myself for a Half Ironman. I had originally planned to do a Half IM in 2020, but was looking for my next challenge and decided that 8 weeks was plenty of time to prepare for my first ever middle distance race…

RACE: London Triathlon – Olympic Distance
This was a fantastic race, with brilliant organisation and an electric atmosphere from a pretty large crowd despite some rain and ominous skies.
My performance in this race, however, wasn’t nearly as good as I’d hoped for (particularly on the run), and I finished 388 out of 1204. (Top 32%)

My splits were:
* 1500m swim: 37:32 (2:30/100m – 6% faster than Marlow)
* 40k bike: 1:12:03 (33.3kmh – 4% faster than Marlow)
* 10km run: 52:13 (5:13/km – 6% slower than Marlow)

Apart from getting cramp in the final two minutes of the swim, I was fairly happy with how it went. Again, I knew my swimming was still improving and that it was going to be my weakest discipline.

I pushed hard on the bike, and was disappointed to find out I’d averaged 33.3kmh. I’d bought some triathlon aero bars, and I’d bought some lighter second-hand wheels, which definitely made the bike feel faster. That said, the weather had been pretty bad, so I wasn’t confident zipping round corners when the roads were so wet. I also wrote in my journal afterwards that I probably could have pushed even harder. (Though that may have made the run even harder than it was)
My bike time was 79th out of 1200 competitors, which placed me in the top 6.5%, so I can’t complain too much.

The real problems came on the run when I started getting cramps before I’d even finished the first kilometre. A couple of minutes in, I felt as if there was something in my shoe and actually had to stop to check I hadn’t left something in it. The shoe was empty, so I guess this was my foot cramping up.
I found the run incredibly difficult, with heavy legs and a stitch that got the better of me around the 7km mark and prevented me from pushing hard.

Overall, the race was an enjoyable one. Again, I was let down by my legs during the final run leg of the race, and I was determined to fix this before the Half Ironman 6 weeks later…

The last line I wrote in my race de-brief was:
“Honestly quite scared of the half marathon at the end of Half IM.”

August
46 hours active

August was spent entirely focused on preparing for the Half Ironman on the 6th of September.
My coach, Kristin, gave me a bad-ass training plan which involved roughly 10-11hrs of training per week, more than I’d ever experienced in my life.
A typical week looked like this:

Monday – easy 5km run
Tuesday – tri club swim (1hr) and track session (1hr)
Wednesday – active rest e.g. yoga or easy spin
Thursday – 10-15km run with either hills or intervals
Friday – fast Regents Park bike laps before work (25-35km) or a structured swim
Saturday – Gladstone Parkrun (hard effort), then either open-water swim practice in Hampstead ponds or long bike ride (100km)
Sunday – short bike ride (40-50km), then a brick run (10-15km)

This was the first time I’d ever followed a proper training plan, and I loved the progress I was seeing during this time. I also enjoyed the discipline of ticking off so many sessions in a given week, and I could feel my fitness improving rapidly.

September
22 hours active

RACE: Woburner Half Ironman

Going into the race, I felt nervous about the magnitude of the distance and the length of time I’d be racing (between 5 and 6 hours!), but confident I’d put in a good amount of training in the two months building up to the race.

Without a doubt, the Half Ironman was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.

I ended up finishing 60th of 251, which placed me in the top 24%.

I ambitiously set myself a target of 5hrs30, which I unfortunately didn’t meet, finishing in 5hrs48. My coach, Kristin, had advised against setting a target and told me just to enjoy my first ever Half Ironman race, but my inner competitor got the better of me. In retrospect, I wish I’d followed her advice.

Splits:
* 1900m swim: 36:32 (1:55m/100m – 23% faster than London Tri!)
* 90km bike ride: 2:57:08 (30.5kmh – 8% slower than London Tri)
* 21.1km run: 2:08:37 (6:06/km – 17% slower than London Tri)

Somehow, I managed to swim 1900m at Woburn in 36:32 and yet 1500m at London Tri took me 37:32! This was the fastest I had ever swum in my life and I was delighted. I remember getting out the water, looking at my watch, and wondering if I’d missed a lap (I hadn’t). This gave me so much confidence going into the bike ride and I reckon I spent the first 10 minutes of the ride just grinning like an idiot.

The bike pace of 30.5kmh was slightly disappointing, but I think I was tired from the swim, and it was an open road bike course which meant slowing and sometimes stopping for cars, and coming to a stop at multiple junctions. It was also 90km… I’d only been training hard for a few months, so to expect a rapid 90km bike leg was wishful thinking.

Without wanting to sound too dramatic, everything fell apart in the Half Marathon, and this was the slowest Half I’ve ever run in my life. Up until this point, my PB had been about 91 minutes, and so I’d thought I’d maybe run it in 1hr45, 1hr40 if things went well. Instead, it took me over 2 hours, and I had to walk a couple of times, something I’ve never had to do in a race before.

I found the run mentally tough as well. I remember completing the first kilometre and thinking “Oh God, how am I going to do another 20km?” – a thought pattern that repeated itself for the next couple of hours. Not particularly fun.

Looking back, I think my poor run was caused by:
* Slight fatigue from the intensity of July and August’s training sessions (the ramp up was quite sudden)
* Not sleeping enough in the run-up to the race
* Perhaps not eating enough in the weeks running up to the race
* My body reacting weirdly to having 5 gels during the race (I felt slightly nauseous as I had my fourth gel on the bike)
* Pushing too hard on the bike (again)

The Half Ironman was incredible, and I felt an immense sense of achievement (and relief!) as I crossed the finish line. I learned a lot of lessons from the lead-up to the race and the race itself, and I’m really keen to get below 5hr30 and towards 5hrs in a Half Ironman next year. More than anything, I just want to stop crashing out during the runs!

In the few weeks before and after the Half Ironman, I realised I’d become incredibly exhausted. I was frequently needing to have a nap around lunchtime just to make it through the day, and I felt constantly tired. I realise now that I hadn’t been fuelling my workouts properly – often just having water during a workout, instead of bringing a snack on a long workout. I hadn’t been eating enough immediately after workouts, and I hadn’t been getting enough sleep.

I read an excellent article by Cody Beals on his blog about overtraining that made me re-evaluate a lot of my approach to training, and I’m really grateful to Cody for writing so openly about his challenges and how he overcame them.

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

After 7 days of real, proper rest and recovery (I swam once in the 7 days after the race)), I managed to set a new 5k PB at Parkrun with a time of 18:38!

Two days after that, I set out on what I thought would be a pretty standard long training run on a Monday evening, and somehow ran a Half Marathon in 1:25:17 – a new PB and 6 minutes faster than anything I’d run before!

I was totally caught by surprise by these results, and I think the huge amounts of training I’d done over the Summer really bolstered my fitness after I’d allowed my body to rest and recover for a week after the Half IM.

I was on amazing form and I loved every workout I did in September.

October
20 hours active

This good form continued into October. I’d never run a marathon before, and decided in July to enter Athens Marathon, which was in the first week of November.

October was spent marathon training, with almost no cycling and very little swimming. As I built towards my first marathon, I felt great following my first triathlon season and was enjoying the newfound running speed that emerged from the Summer.

My track sessions were getting progressively faster each time, and the long runs (30km+) were still difficult, but not as hard as they’d been in the past.

My training plan looked like this:

November
20 hours

Unfortunately, when jogging to the tube just four days before Athens Marathon, I slipped off the kerb and went over my ankle. I can’t begin to describe how frustrated I was with myself. I’d run over 900km between January and October without any injury, and yet all it took was a lapse in concentration whilst jogging through the street for me to get an injury.

In the days following my fall, I applied ice to the ankle, used a compression sock, and found myself unintentionally limping to prevent too much weight put on the injured ankle… (more on this later)

I was extremely nervous about the marathon – what if the pain flares up during the race? What if I do lasting damage by running 42km on a weak ankle? – but thankfully, the pain in my ankle started to subside on the Saturday (one day before the race!) and come race day it was barely noticeable.

RACE: Athens Marathon

My first marathon! The marathon involves waking up at 4.45am to catch a shuttle bus at 5.30am, and then standing around a stadium in Marathon from 6.30am to the starting gun at 9am, where there’s a palpable energy of excitement, nervousness and “oh my god, I’ve pee’d five times in 2 two hours and I think I need to go again, just to be safe”

As soon as I started running, I felt no pain in my left ankle, which felt like a gift from the Greek Gods. The weather was a toasty 30ºC, which tired me out and meant I was throwing water on myself at every water station, and we also got rained on during the 2nd kilometre for about 10 minutes. Quite an eventful morning.

The route takes runners along the original route that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens. I knew it was going to be hilly, but I had no idea how much pain was in store…

Honestly, I’d say it was simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst running experiences of my life.

The first 25km felt relatively easy and I flew along at a slightly faster pace than planned, on track for a 3h7m finish (my target was 3hr15). The mountains of Marathon loomed over us on the right, and the coast flanked our left, which made for an incredibly scenic first half…

At 25km, after 15km of constant climbing and with more climbing ahead, I met The Wall for the first time.

Though my legs were fine, I suddenly experienced a stabbing pain in my abdomen that forced me to walk, and the harder I tried to push, the worse it got. This lasted almost an hour and took me to a dark place in my mind I haven’t been to before.

Thankfully it passed, and the finish inside the Panathenaic Stadium was nothing short of legendary. The crowds of Athens were incredible – bravo! – and I’m so grateful to all the volunteers who made the race happen.
Ultimately I’m just glad to have finished, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t give a shit about finishing position or time, which I found liberating.

Finish time: 3:37:49 (5:08/km)
My 85minute Half Marathon had been run at a pace of 4:02/km, meaning my Athens pace was 27% slower.

Overall, I was glad to get my first marathon under my belt, and I resolved very shortly after the race to work hard for a sub-3 finish at London Marathon in April 2020.

Now back to the injury…

Unfortunately, the limping before Athens to protect my left injured ankle had put a lot of stress and strain on my right glute and hip, and during the Marathon, I felt some niggles and mild pain in my right hip.

I had booked my first 50km ultra marathon for the 23rd December, so after a couple of weeks of Marathon recovery, I started running again only to find that I was having to stop because of the pain in my right hip. This was my first experience of an injury preventing me from training, and I hated it.

On the plus side, I did get a gorgeous new (well, third-hand) bike in November!

December
16 hours

Unfortunately, the pain in my hip didn’t go away, and so on the 14th of December, with just 8 days until the 50km ultra, I decided to pull out of the race and book in an appointment with a physio.

I was told that my right ITB (iliotibial band) was strained and that my left ankle was still weak, and was given roughly 30minutes of strengthening exercises, balance work and foam rolling to do every day.

December was characterised mostly by recovering from the injury, and cycling around Scotland over the Christmas period.

I was also humbled to receive the “Most Improved 2019” trophy at my Triathlon Club Christmas Dinner!

The great aspects of Triathlon

Radically improved fitness

I’ve felt fitter in 2019 than I’ve ever felt in my life, which is an amazing feeling.
I’ve never once been overweight, but I felt noticeably light and healthy this year. I’ve never once been out of breath when going up stairs or running for a train, something I noticed in 2018.
I think my natural physique until this year had been quite skinny and lean, and swimming at least once a week has helped me build some upper body muscle, which wasn’t one of my goals, but has been a nice bonus.

I’ve enjoyed racing immensely.

I’m a naturally competitive person, so racing is a perfect outlet for my competitive streak.
I’m still improving my swimming, and I need to figure out how to get to a point where I can actually race the run leg of a triathlon rather than breaking down and just trying to survive it, but I loved zipping past other riders on the bike sections of my races this year and towards the end of the year, I felt like one of the fastest cyclists in my races (I ranked 21st out of 251 on the 90km bike leg of the Half Ironman in September!)

Visceral sense of improvement.

I’ve been clocking new PBs across running, swimming and cycling almost every month of the year, and I’ve loved the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing the numbers improve, and achieving things you didn’t think were possible in the past.
There are no fuzzy lines in any of these sports – either your pace gets faster, or it doesn’t, and my inner nerd has loved analysing every workout and figuring out how to go faster in my next session

New friends

Joining Willesden Triathlon Club was one of the best decisions I made in 2019, and I’ve loved meeting so many new people from all walks of life through the sport!

Getting scouted to be an ambassador for Sundried

I posted about my triathlon journey roughy once every week or two on Instagram throughout 2019, and in the Summer, I was contacted by a brand called Sundried asking if I’d like to be an ambassador their brand. I’d seen people wearing their kit in races, but had never worn any myself, so decided to buy a running vest and yoga mat to test out the quality before becoming an ambassador and putting my name to the brand.

The kit was fantastic, and I ended up racing my Half Ironman race in a full Sundried tri-suit which was incredibly comfortable and gave me no problems.

As a keen amateur, it was flattering to be chosen to represent a brand, and exciting to be given a discount I can share with friends. Just use the code MCAULAY at checkout to save 50% on everything on the website!

The hard aspects of Triathlon (beyond the obvious physical exertion)

Time management

Fitting in 10-15 hours of training/racing per week around a full-time job and other commitments can sometimes feel like a precarious juggling act. The trick is in waking up earlier, spending very little time lazing around by yourself watching Netflix, and trying to combine commuting and cycling or running.
I found it quite difficult to balance triathlon with my work when work was particularly busy, and there were a few parties I had to miss or leave early in order to make it to an early session the next day.

Eating all the time can be costly!

All the training means you work up quite an appetite, and I found myself snacking a lot and eating huge meals. This is fine if you’re prepared and bulk buy affordable snacks or batch cook affordable meals, but the costs quickly add up if you find yourself nipping out to Sainsburys every afternoon to satisfy a craving for large amounts of food.

Feeling exhausted

I mentioned earlier in this post that I was shattered for a week or so after my Half Ironman, and I realised I hadn’t been eating properly or getting enough sleep. I’ve learned the lesson and am paying much more attention to nutrition and sleep now.
However, even when you’re doing everything right, training 10-15 hrs per week can be pretty exhausting, and you often get home at the end of the day no energy to do anything. In 2020, I’ll be resolving to sleep more (I probably averaged 6.5hrs in 2019 – not great) and eat more nutritious, slow-burning meals.

I reached levels of fatigue I’d never experienced before in 2019:

Cost

Triathlon is not a cheap sport. The races themselves are expensive (a full official Ironman race costs just over £500 – I’m paying for mine in instalments…) and then there’s travelling to the races and booking accommodation, buying new kit (running shoes, cycling kit, a wetsuit etc) and keeping on top of your nutrition (electrolyte powders, energy gels, protein powder etc)

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that can be done about this. I saved money by buying second-hand wheels for my original road bike, and then buying a third-hand triathlon bike for less than half the RRP price.

I also became an ambassador for Sundried this year, which means I and friends can save a huge 50% on everything on their website, which is really helpful. Just use the code MCAULAY at checkout.

Advice for anyone looking to start triathlon

I’ve got three simple pieces of advice for anyone thinking about getting into triathlon:

  1. Join a Club

    As I said earlier in the article, joining a triathlon club was one of the best decisions I made in 2019. Aside from meeting a lot of friendly and supportive people, you’ll absorb so much knowledge and wisdom just by chatting with people about their training and races. Swim coaching is especially useful, because swimming is one sport where you can’t really see what you’re doing, which I always thought made it difficult to improve without any feedback. I enjoyed the track sessions a lot as well – doing speed work in a group adds a fun competitive element to your training when you’re running with people equal to and better than you, which would often push me to speeds I hadn’t achieved before.

  2. Book races
    1. Good forcing function
  3. Do it!
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By James McAulay

Encore CEO, Triathlete and Musician

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