Triathlon: Clumsy but swift

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”.

Seconds before I cross the finishing line. Eleven months of training, two years of planning. Photo: © GLUE
Seconds before I cross the finishing line. Eleven months of training, two years of planning. Photo: © GLUE

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.

A child shared the glory of the triathlon with his dad. I am grateful that our father dragged us to his competitions such as cross country, orienteering and shooting, although as kids, we used to dread them. He refused to buy us games but made us go camping instead in the jungle. Photo: © GLUE
A child shares the glory of the triathlon with his dad. I am grateful that our father dragged us to his competitions such as cross country, orienteering and shooting, although as kids, we used to dread them. He refused to buy us computer games but made us go camping instead in the jungle. It paid off in the end. Photo: © GLUE

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.

Swim

At 5,15pm, we set off. A few days before, my mother asked me how I would be able to swim in an open lake. I had no idea. If I could survive army camps for 15 years, surely I could do this. Photo: © GLUE
At 5.15pm, we set off. A few days before, my mother asked me how I would be able to swim in an open lake. I had no idea. If I could survive army camps for 15 years, surely I could do this. Photo: © GLUE

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.

Falling off the bike is expected in training and in races. It's part of the game. Photo: © GLUE
Falling off the bike is expected in training and in races. It’s part of the game. Photo: © GLUE

Bike

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.

Yes, doing the triathlon with the same old bike that I used for commuting, training and London Duathlon 2013. The Trek 1.1c is my lesser vehicle to a better self. Photo: © Kenny Scott
Yes, doing the triathlon with the same old bike that I used for commuting, training and London Duathlon 2013. The Trek 1.1c is my lesser vehicle to a better self. Photo: © Kenny Scott

 

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.

Dismounting. I get a lot of practice cycling on London roads. Photo: GLUE
Dismounting. I get a lot of practice cycling on London roads. Photo: GLUE

Run

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.

Start of the run. I am feeling tired, but my legs can't stop moving. Photo: © GLUE
Start of the run. I am feeling tired, but my legs can’t stop moving. Photo: © GLUE

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.

Two months of shin splint injuries take the speed out of me, but I have enough in the gas tank to carry on. Photo: © GLUE
Two months of shin splint injuries take the speed out of me, but I have enough in the gas tank to carry on. I plan to increase my speed for the summer, now that my legs are getting better again. Photo: © GLUE

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.

Is it over yet? No.... Photo: © GLUE
Is it over yet? No…. Photo: © GLUE

Post-race

I stop running once I cross the line. The show ends here. Thanks for the applause, folks. Photo: © GLUE
I stop running once I cross the line. The show ends here. Thanks for the applause, folks. Photo: © GLUE

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.

That was fun. Can I have a drink now? Photo: © GLUE
That was fun. Can I have a drink now? Photo: © GLUE

Acknowledgement

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
Dominic Rohan-Gates
My friends
My twin
My dad
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My good luck charms from work: Wenlock and the Sweatshop Running Club tag. Instagram: © GLUE
My good luck charms from work: Wenlock and the Sweatshop Running Club tag. Instagram: © GLUE

Tools

A combination of expensive and cheap products used for the race and training:

Swimming

Trisuit: Serpentine Running Club
Wetsuit: Zone 3 Vanquish
Swimming accessories: Speedo
Goggles: Aqua Sphere

Cycling

Bicycle: Trek 1.1C
Gloves: Bodyglove
Glasses: Tifosi Optics
Cycling shoes: Louis Garneau Revo XR3
Helmet: Mavic
Training base layer: Btwin

Running

Sports bra: Shock Absorber
Running shoes: Adidas Response Cushion 22 Ladies
Shoe laces: Xtenex
Socks: Kalenji

I like my twin cycling base layer and Primark dungaree. They make me feel comfortable when working on my bike. Photo: © GLUE
I like my Btwin cycling base layer and Primark dungaree. They make me feel comfortable when working on my bike. Photo: © GLUE

Pre-/post-race, and training

Trisuit: Zoot
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

Rollapaluza events
Rapha Cycling Club rides

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