Salina Christmas uses every trick in social sciences to become a triathlete within 11 months. But more than a behavioural experiment, triathlon becomes a lesson in courage, friendship and humility.
I am a triathlete. Sort of. I accomplished my event at the the Pruhealth World Triathlon London at Hyde Park, on 1 June 2014. My swim was ugly, all 400m of it, from start to finish. An ugly swim, however, was what it took to get me to complete a triathlon. Sun Tzu does not tell his soldiers to “win beautifully”. On winning a war, he says: “Clumsy, but swift”.
It has been interesting turning myself into a social science experiment. Everything that I learned in linguistics, anthropology and psychiatry, from Chomsky and Labov to Geertz, Huisinga and Goffman, I threw into the ‘project’. Drawing from the sciences I learned at undergrad and postgrad levels, and on the job on behavioural modification, I could confirm that change could not be initiated by one’s will and perseverance alone. It took many people – family, friends, coaches, squad members and colleagues – to turn me into a clumsy triathlete. I said to my coach Beate minutes after I finished my race: “You made a human being”, and that was no exaggeration.
I could not swim last July. I could do it now, never mind how I feel about it.
More importantly, I exceeded my Marie Curie Cancer Care fundraising goal shortly before the competition, by earning 104% of the target. The original target was humble, but the personal goal set was high. I had said I would swim the Serpentine on the back of your generosity and I did. I don’t relish reliving the experience again as I work towards another triathlon, but I hope a visual storytelling of the event will somewhat entertain, if not inspire. And if you’d like to know the gadgets I use for the race, you can check this list.
In a triathlon, there is one discipline that a participant is expected to be weak at. To understand this weakness is good in determining the stage in which one decides to fall apart mentally and physically. I chose to fall apart at this stage. Although my preparation in swimming was poor, my readiness for mental trauma was adequate.
The shock of getting into contact with water without prior warm-up induced my asthma within five minutes. Despite having inhaled Ventolin a few times prior to the race, my lungs just shrunk, compressed further by the new pair of Shock Absorber bras that I wore underneath the Zone 3 Vanquish wetsuit. Short of breath, I switched from front crawl to water polo crawl, which robbed me off my energy. I flipped on my back a few times, had woeful conversations with the ITU canoeists marshaling the water, swore oaths – in short, I was full of self-slander during this phase. A kindly water marshall paddled besides me right through to the end.
I thanked him as soon as I reached the ramp, making a mental note to be generous and kind to all volunteers of sport events in the future. My fear quickly changed into anger, which I could barely concealed. I forced myself to be still and let the rush of cortisol and adrenaline sharpened my senses. It was flight, or fight. Within seconds, the competitors tottering ahead of me, gasping for oxygen as they peel the wetsuits off, came to resemble pieces of steak that I plan to eat that evening. That snapped me back into the race. I sprinted past them.
I wasted 22 minutes in the water. That motivated me to tear down the cycling course. I had no choice but to do what Mario Mola did the day before: catch up in the cycling and running stages. I was told my bike split was good. I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t thinking at that point. It was all instinct.
My legs ached but I was not thirsty or out of breath. I heard the Serpentine Running Club members call my name. I waved because I didn’t have time to look, but I knew them all. An old friend, a film-maker, who was there to support his mate, recognised me and called out. I smiled briefly and pressed on with my cycling.
Whilst I was sure I was not running at optimum speed, I overtook a few runners. This was not an indication of my fitness, however. Two months of not running regularly due to shin splint injuries made me sluggish. My breathing, however, was regular. Perhaps the Ventolin finally – and belatedly – took effect at this point.
As I turned around to head for the Serpentine Bridge, our cycling and spin coach, Kamlesh, rode his bike alongside me and spurred me on. We held a conversation. I told him I didn’t like my swim, and I glanced at the lake as I told him this. “You’re doing well,” he said, as I passed a few runners. Before I reached the bridge, he stopped and said: “You’re more than halfway now” and told me to leg it.
I didn’t bomb my way down to the finishing line, unlike in cycling. I knew I overtook a few people, but I wanted to take it in my stride. Plus, I wanted to be able to walk after putting my legs through this ordeal, so soon after recovery.
As soon as I crossed the finishing line, I gathered my composure. I lost this momentarily, though, when we were offered bananas for refreshment, and when I congratulated my coach. I appreciated the support from my club members and my Sweatshop colleague who were there to cheer us on, as well as my colleagues who had to be at the shop that day. As we left the venue, my twin, who has been behind me since day one, said: “Isn’t London a wonderful city?”. I replied: “Yes, you can be anything you want here”.
I am not strong, that much I learned from all this. I swam the way I did because I saved nothing for the swim back. That’s all.
It took a village, metaphorically speaking:
Donors of my Marie Curie Cancer Care cause
The Serpentine Running Club
The Serpentine Swimming Club
The Sweatshop Fulham Broadway and colleagues
The Sweatshop Fulham Broadway Manager, Boris Bozhinov
Becky Golland and Tech City News
The volunteers, ITU World Triathlon London 2014
The Brownlee Brothers
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A combination of expensive and cheap products used for the race and training:
Trisuit: Serpentine Running Club
Wetsuit: Zone 3 Vanquish
Swimming accessories: Speedo
Goggles: Aqua Sphere
Bicycle: Trek 1.1C
Glasses: Tifosi Optics
Cycling shoes: Louis Garneau Revo XR3
Training base layer: Btwin
Sports bra: Shock Absorber
Running shoes: Adidas Response Cushion 22 Ladies
Shoe laces: Xtenex
Pre-/post-race, and training
Cycling jersey: GLUE
Cycling shorts: Sugoi
Cargo shorts: Mountain Life Men by Mountain Warehouse
Transition bag: 2XU
Energy Gel: High5
Snack: Builders Protein Bar (Peanut Butter)
Drinks: SOS and High5
Training base layer: Btwin
Anything by Castelli
Anything sold at Sweatshop Fulham Broadway
And my tri dream began with these socially inclusive activities