Hardman 2017 Revisited

Hardman Full Distance TriathlonAfter three years helping out at the Hardman, the one thing I have learned about this full-distance triathlon is that there is no Hardman. When all you know about full-distance triathlons is that they involve an insane amount of voluntarily inflicted physical punishment, you assume that everyone who turns up at registration will be a testosterone-pumped Colossus with muscles bigger than your head. Nothing could be further from the truth. Registration turns up a motley crew of bodies, some of whom I used to assume were collecting numbers for other people. Now I know better.

In the beginning…

At 5:30 on a Saturday morning in late August, I’m yawning into my high-viz jacket while they are racking their bikes and dropping off the fuel that will keep some of them going until 11.30 that night. I’m staring down a big black lake with slithering dark waves while they are zipping up their wetsuits and contemplate swimming 3.8km around it. It’s good to have your preconceptions shattered every now and then.

By 6 am, the lake has discovered its happy face, and 82 people are lining up to feel it from the inside. Then Jules strikes up the theme tune to The Lion King, and they’re off. Well, some of them are. There is always that instant when you see paralysis set in, those few moments when you see the heads at the back bob for what seems like forever, and you will them to go on, to just put their faces into the black-dark water and do what they have been getting up to do in the black-dark mornings for months now. And, eventually, they do. They strike out for the bright yellow buoy, and you breathe again.

Water Marks

As the first lap approached, it was clear to see there were two clear leaders, the second slashing at the first swimmer’s shoulders, clear water between them and the third competitor. As the second and final lap ended, they remained without rivals, and when we pulled them out, we discovered that the first Hardman out of the water was a woman, from The Beards team. (And not to make a big deal out of it or anything, but the third person to conquer the lake was also female).

I love pulling people out of the water. That is not at all as grim as it sounds: You really never know what you are going to get. Sometimes you see a great white shark powering toward you, and when you hold out a hand to help them onto dry land, they collapse ontothe ramp like a newborn calf. Other times, a head bobs up from the water with a jaunty “how’re ya?,” and some little water nymph skips along the pier as if they had just popped out for the papers. Every time I grab a water-wizened hand and clap a neoprened shoulder, I feel relief and awe for another lake conqueror. My family does not have a good history with that lake, so it always feels good to welcome another competitor back to land.

Park Life

By the 2:20 cutoff, there was just one competitor left in the water, and, once he was persuaded onto the rib, the water section was safely over for another year. Transition is Hugh Carbery’s specialty, something he manages with military precision. T1 and T2 are his territory. My turf is Queen’s Bridge, in the national park. By the time I saw another competitor, it was 12:45 and the third member of the Beard team was passing the water stop that Tess and I would manage for the next eight or so hours. Peter Kern, the hot favourite was second, and then it was the turn of Brian Sexton, runner up and contender for nicest man in Sligo for the past two years. Then there was a very long gap before we see anybody else, besides a constant stream of jaunting cars asking are we serving Guinness/vodka/poitin in our plastic cups. I have never seen so many jaunting cars clogging up the paths, plamásing the tourists with stories of brown trout and leprechauns, while runners and walkers and cyclists try to get around them. Some of them were not that lucky. At one point, we looked up to see a Garda paddy wagon closely followed by an ambulance attempting to negotiate the path leading to the river. We later learned that a visitor had been knocked off his bike by one of the jarveys and had his knee split open. But hey, they are part of Killarney’s culture.

The Hard People

Back to the race: By lap two, Peter Kern was walking. It looked like the bridesmaid might be bumped up the rankings. In the meantime, the great and the good that make up the Hardman pack were rocking up to our station in all their wonderful guises. Darragh from Cork was there, of course; it would be almost rude for him not to turn up at this stage. The ever-smiling Graeme from South Africa had returned after his win in the water last year. And the women! Thirteen female competitors, when the most we had ever had before was three. The farmers at the food stop in Waterville must have been thrilled.

By 11.30, it was getting lonely. Dan, three-time Hardman starter, part-time thespian, and full-time good guy shouted “Runner!” for the last time, and we could go home. 2017 Hardman Brian Sexton had been home for something like seven hours (though, being the nice guy he is, he had come back and stayed late to cheer on the other finishers). The original Hardman, Alan, had another few hours to go, collecting rubbish and signs and packing things away until next time, but for Hugh, Brenda, Sive, Adrian, Trish, Terry, Florence, and the rest of us, it was time to crash, slightly embarrassed at feeling exhausted when we hadn’t even swum 3.8km, cycled 180km or run 42.2km.

Shock and Awe (Mainly Awe)

That’s why I say there is no Hardman. They are all Hardmen—from “the young bucks” from Barcelona who cycled here to compete (and then stayed in a tent) to Billie McSweeney from Killarney, who knocked almost an hour off his best time without a single member of his tri club to witness it, and Bernie from Loughrea with the luminous nails who borrowed my head torch but left it with her run gear and almost lost her life when a red deer leapt in front of her in the dusk. Short tall, ripped, or well-upholstered, they prove yet again that the human spirit is what gets you over the line.

Can’t wait until next year.



Tri Tried

“Try” is not a great word. You don’t hear kids declaring they are going to “try” to be an astronaut or a truck driver when they grow up. Nobody was inspired to support a leader on a promise to “try” to make a country great. And then there’s the whole other meaning: We’ve all met our share of “trying” people. That’s just one reason why entering a Try a Tri sounds so lame. The other reason is the numbers: A 250m swim, an 8km cycle, and a 2.5km run? You’d have that done while planning what to have for breakfast.

So when we arrived in Fenit yesterday morning for the Tralee Triathlon Club‘s annual triathlon (Alan was TO), I was quite happy to let people think that I had just come for the drive. And when Alan told people I was competing, I was quick to mumble that I was “just doing the baby one.” The truth is, entering a Try a Try was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. Oh, I had blithely announced last year that I was going to go the whole hog and enter the Hardman full-distance, but, despite being able to swim a mile in the pool, one experience of open-water swimming was enough to shut me up and put me off the whole idea of triathlons for life.

Well, for a year anyway. Something just would not let go in my head. I had to make an attempt, give it a go, try a tri. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like I would die or anything.

“A man drowned during my first triathlon,” Susan, a swim coach and experienced triathlete, informed me as we both stewarded the Waterville triathlon in July. Surely that’s because there were hundreds of people in the water, and nobody saw him go under, I protested.

Susan shook her head. “His friends raised the alarm immediately.”

I waited for her to reassure me, to tell me that this had been a freak occurrence, that I would be perfectly safe, that I would not be kicked in the head or have a panic attack or sink.

“They didn’t find his body for a week and a half,” she said at last.

I dismissed Susan’s cheery reminiscences as I waited for the start of the swim on the beach in Fenit yesterday. After all, the tide was coming in, so if the worst happened, at least the search and recovery mission wouldn’t take long. There I was, standing at the edge of the water on a beautiful day of baby waves and breezy sunshine, and, had I not been hemmed in by 50 other nervy newbies, I would have turned tail and ran as fast as my neoprene legs could carry me. The buoys looked very far away, and the last-minute instructions merely added to the frantic buzz in my head that was telling me to do the sensible thing and just have a heart attack or at least faint— anything to avoid having to get into the water. But my heart insisted on thumping, so I had no choice but to wade in and set off.

It was then I made my biggest mistake: Spooked by slithering kicks from the shoal of swimmers around me and intent on not losing sight of the buoy, I failed to put my head into the water immediately, and after a few minutes, I found it difficult to put my face into the waves at all, so I floundered for almost the entire 250 metres, head up, half the Atlantic in my belly, and breathing like 40-a-day Sweet Afton smoker. The man doing an intermittent back stroke beside me did not help matters. The girl on the other side of him eventually spluttered at him to stop hitting her, and a kayak had to intervene.  I could not get out of the water fast enough. Alan was on the shore cheering me on. “Never again,” I announced cheerfully as I tugged at my wetsuit zip in disgust.

It was a pleasure to hop onto the bike, a warm wind drying the back of my new tri suit, the sun sparkling on the sea that I had cursed just minutes before, stewards cheering me on. “I’m only doing the baby one,” I felt like whispering, but, as each kilometre creaked by, I was growing seriously and more disproportionately proud of myself and my successful efforts to not die in the sea.

The run was a surprise. I hadn’t even factored it into all the reasons why I should not do a triathlon, even a “baby” one. After all, 2.5km is hardly a challenge; I had run almost 17 times that distance in Copenhagen in May, and I do two or three times that distance most days of the week. It’s a different story when a gallon of brine is sloshing around in your belly, however, and your legs feel like they have been packed with sand. I was just starting to find my rhythm, and I had even start overtaking people when the finish line appeared. I crossed the line, accepted my medal and that was it.

Never mind the “Try” bit—I was a triathlete.