Summer 2017 will always be the summer of the triathlon. I took part in the Hebridean Triathlon at the end of July and it’s gone right under my skin.
It was three hours of my life and a month of hard training — but the impression it made will last for a very long time.
My Heb Tri story starts two doors down on Portrona Drive. My friend and neighbour, Ep, had signed up for it but decided she didn’t want to do the whole thing and would I be a team with her? “It’s just sitting on a bike for couple of hours and then a run,” she said, trying to sell it to me. That would leave her with just the swim, which is her real love.
Yeah, why not. It wasn’t for a couple of months, plenty of time to train, surely manageable…
But I didn’t start training when I should have and, before long, I was properly fretting. I was also aware that I didn’t have a suitable bike as mine was a hybrid and rusty and old.
I even tried to bale out before changing my mind again and saying that would do it after all. But I kept dithering and putting off the training for so long that my husband had to stage an intervention.
It was Friday, June 23 and the Hebridean Triathlon was on Saturday, July 29.
“You can’t pull out now,” he said. “It’s too late for that. You had your chance to pull out. Now you’d better just get out there and start training…”
I got my running shoes on and I started training. My first run was the three miler out to the mouth of the Creed and back. I would have to run 10K in the triathlon after a 40K bike ride — the Heb Tri is the ‘standard’ or ‘Olympic’ distance triathlon and begins with a mile swim — but it was a start.
From that point, I was committed and with the exception of one week when I had the kids away on holiday by myself, I took my training seriously. I had to! I only had a month!
For the first time in my life I was setting my alarm for 6.15am and going running or cycling by 7am, fuelled by coffee. I’m not particularly fit — I’d say I’m average — but I have done enough distance running events in the past to know the principles of hard training and rest and recovery.
I exercised six days out of seven and took part in the sprint triathlon, organised by the Western Isles Triathlon Club at Coll on July 1, to get a taste of what I was in for.
I finished last. It gave me the uncomfortable realisation that I don’t like being last but it also made me realise that I was going to have to do something about a bike.
I’d used my old one (it creaks when it goes uphill, seriously) and it was painfully apparent that it wasn’t fit for purpose. Other riders were cruising past me and it also looked a state, which was quite embarrassing.
I did some research and came up with a plan — Highland Bikes in Inverness. They do finance so I paid them a visit when we were across during our holiday.
“I’m self employed,” I said, explaining that the man from Del Monte might say no. “Annual (pay)?” they asked. “Not much…” I replied. But they approved me — woo hoo! — and that meant I was in business. Cinderella could go to the triathlon after all.
I have to say, I absolutely love my bike. It’s a Liv Avail, not terribly expensive in the great bicycle scheme of things, but would have been unaffordable to me if it wasn’t for finance plans. It’s a great way to get yourself a bike and I have recommended it since to several people.
Woody’s took it home for me and after a couple of shaky rides – the gears made no sense to me at first — I was soon smitten. Having a decent bike completely transforms the cycling experience and I’ve become almost evangelical about it.
The day I did the Achmore loop — 18 miles out the Pentland Road and back to town via the Lochs Road — was a highlight in my triathlon training.
The sun was shining, the Harris hills were before me, and the wind was behind me as I bombed it downhill. There’s nothing like learning to cycle again as an adult and building up the confidence to go really fast. It’s good old-fashioned fun.
A couple of days later, I did the 30-mile loop of the Pentland Road to Callanish and back to town via Lochs. When I was coming through Callanish, a guy pedalled up alongside me and started chatting. Turns out he was an ex pro-cyclist, up here on work, and he had lots of friendly advice.
Most of it was technical — seat height and leg length, that kind of thing — but he also talked about attitude. I’d told him about the triathlon and he said: “Remember, it’s all in here” (while tapping his head. “You don’t have to be the fittest. You just have to want it. You have to be the looniest.”
With that, he peeled off at Garynahine and sailed away to Uig.
When it actually came to triathlon day, a week later, I was a nervous wreck. I was flooded with adrenaline.
The swim section was supposed to have been staged in Loch a’ Bhaille in Shawbost but the organisers moved it to the sea as there was too much algal bloom in the loch. The sea was quite calm, fortunately, and they covered a mile by doing two triangles — out to sea, across and back in.
It began at 11am and Ep was out of the water in 34 minutes — she was the third woman out, well done Ep! — and handed me the yellow rubber team wristband that I had to keep on till the end.
I felt really panicky at this point, to be honest, and I was at Doune Braes before I started calming down. We had to cycle to the Callanish Stones, via the wee loop and that incredibly steep hill near the visitors centre, before retuning to Shawbost, where the car park at the old school was the transition area for the run, which was round the village of Bragar.
It’s a very scenic route – the cycle past beaches Dalmore and Dalbeg is particularly inspiring — but the weather was awful. It was very wet and we were completely into the wind on the way out.
It wasn’t so bad on the way back but we were completely soaked through and I changed my clothes, which tells you a lot about how inexperienced I am at triathlons. I didn’t want to run in my bulky cycling shorts and I hadn’t realised there was such a thing as ‘tri’ shorts…
When I did start running, it felt so incredibly hard and anyone who does triathlons or duathlons will know all about this. When you try to run immediately after cycling, your legs feel like they don’t belong to your body.
It was so hard to get going and there were a lot of uphills. One guy passed me right away and a few minutes later I was aware that there was somebody else behind me.
This was Diane, who was doing the event as a team with swimmer Megan. She passed me at 4K and I thought she would leave me for dust but I passed her again about 10 minutes later and for the rest of the run we were only a few metres apart.
It does keep you going, knowing that there’s someone right on your heels. At one point, when we were close to the end, we went past her children and her mum. I was in front – but only by a whisker — and her wee fellow was going daft.
“Beat her mammy! Beat her mammy! Beat her mammy!” He was yelling his heart out and very cute. You had to grin.
We were nearly finished but I had nothing left. “Good luck if you’ve got a sprint finish in those legs,” I said to Diane. “We’ll cross the line together”, she said, and I admit I was relieved.
“That way everybody’s mammy wins,” I said. My children were there too, waiting at the finish line for me.
When you’ve been racing for three hours and unless you are a rock star after a podium place — our final time was 03:38:51 (both mine and Ep’s and Megan and Diane’s) — it doesn’t matter who crosses the line first. Corny as it sounds, everyone really is a winner — and that much shared pain has to be a bonding experience!
Afterwards? I felt shattered. When I got home, I brewed a strong coffee and mixed a strong vodka and couldn’t decide which one to drink first so I drank them both at the same time.
That night, some of us hit the town to celebrate — there were multiple Harris gins and cocktails upstairs in the Crown – and there were some slightly blurry selfies to mark the end of Team Portrona’s big day out at the Heb Tri. It did feel good.
Now? I’m sad that it’s over but I still can’t quite believe I did it. It was transformational. I wasn’t sufficiently prepared but it goes to show that we humans are capable of a lot more than we think we are. If you never push it, you’ll never know how far you can go.
I’m definitely in for next year.
Oh, and good luck to everyone doing ‘The Scarper’ at the Isle of Harris Mountain Festival next week. Apart from the squelchy trainers, I reckon that combination of swimming and running will be great fun!