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.



Hardman Heroes 2016


Hardman 2016 winner Cedric Largojolli & Race Director Alan Ryan

The Hardman has a way of making you feel unworthy but in the nicest possible way. The people who put themselves through the lake swim, Ring of Kerry cycle, and Killarney National Park marathon all in one day are made of some alloy of titanium and sheer balls that puts them in a separate, premium class of human being. You would despise them intensely if they weren’t so pleasant and good-natured about it all.


If previous Hardman finishers belong to an elite category of human, the athletes who got through last Saturday’s event are in a league reserved for the kind of people who eat ordinary full-distance triathletes for breakfast.

The pre-race briefing referred to the possibility of high humidity making the going tough If only. Before the event even started, Met Eireann had spread out their Colour Me Beautiful charts and picked yellow for the day’s weather warning. As it happened, their colourful predictions were not enough to prevent the Triathlon Ireland official from giving the all-clear, and the day started with a 3.8km swim across a lake that was compared with various kitchen appliances, ranging from a blender to a washing machine.

The previous five Hardman triathlons had seen just one swimmer pulled from the water. This year, seven competitors made their way back to the shore by boat. Those who did finish the swim described being swept off course by the waves and swallowing gut loads of water, with one man gleefully divulging that he had “puked the whole way around!” And we wondered why the ducks were out in such numbers…

It could have been worse: At one point D.J. Jules announced that we had “lost” six swimmers before Alan intervened swiftly to point out that all competitors were safe and, if not very well, at least very much alive. Those that made it to the bike (and there was a 28% DNF rate) had a blast (literally) on the Ring of Kerry, where the wind made the downhills even tougher than the climbs. Cycle complete, there was just the simple matter of completing three laps of Killarney National Park while dodging slanting showers and droves of jaunting cars (that in an ideal world will some day be shipped over to Disneyworld en masse for a new Oirish theme park).

The run route is where my fellow water dispenser, Darragh, and I got to meet many of the heroes, some of whom were kind and insane enough to remark on how tired we must have been from standing for so long. This was quite embarrassing, coming from people who had been battling the elements for ten or 12 hours.

What is even more embarrassing is that we were dead on our feet after six hours.

Here are just some of the heroes from Hardman 2016:

  • Team Go-Go, the husband-and-wife team who completed the Hardman as a relay team, one thrusting the couple’s five children at the other before getting on with the next leg. And lest you think their offspring are of an age to mind themselves, their oldest child is seven and two get around by buggy.  So, sorry, you can’t use your kids as an excuse for not doing things ever again.
  • Hugh, Siobhan, Douglas, and Dan – former competitors who decided that entering the Hardman wasn’t hard enough, so this year, they put themselves forward as volunteers instead. Dan Fitzgibbon started directing traffic shortly after 5am and was still going, collecting barriers, into the early hours of the following morning.
  • Frenchman Cedric Largajolli, the overall winner, who completed the course in 10:02 (six minutes off the course record), despite falling on the run. Cedric gets extra points for getting away with kissing Alan at the prizegiving.
  • Alison Cardwell, the only female individual to finish the event. Not because she’s a woman but because of her attitude: On being told that competitors were dropping out because of the conditions, her response was “Oh for goodness sake, you don’t give up! You just keeping going!” And with that, she disappeared down the path in her Dr. Seuss tri-suit.


Swim Lessons: Flippers Not Required

swimming triathlon
My breathing

The thing about a full-distance triathlon is that it has rather a lot of swimming in it. Almost 4km of it, in fact. That may not sound terribly taxing when you consider that this jaunt in the water is followed by a 180km bike ride and a 42km trot to cool down, but that 3.8km works out at 152 lengths of my local pool. Add in waves, wind, lampreys, and sharp elbows and it all sounds quite exhausting.

I was thinking about all this last week as another litre of chlorinated water streamed from my nostrils and I watched shoals of ten-year-olds glide past me like begoggled dolphins. Maybe swimming is just not for some people, I thought, like driving or cycling or washing regularly. Maybe I should just rise from the pool like a righted Titanic and admit the truth to Florence, my instructor: I will never be a swimmer. After all, there are plenty of duathlons out there.

I was sick of floats and fins and weird bits of foam you slot between your legs that are supposed to stop you from kicking but just make me feel like some mutant failed mermaid as they escape and bob to the surface, over and over again. I was sick of feeling like I had almost got the hang of the whole breathing thing, only to turn my head and do my best impression of a whale shark trawling for krill.

I had hoped it would be a bit like learning to drive: One day you’re sure you’re going to die because there’s no way the oncoming car and yours are going to fit on the same road at the same time, and the next you’re changing gear, turning on the windscreen wipers, and  cursing other drivers’ incompetence – all at the same time. If I stuck at it long enough, I decided, I would get high elbow, underwater stroke, over-water recovery (just moving your shoulders!), turning the head to breathe, kicking – without having to stop and splutter between every movement. After weeks of getting some bits right but never being able to put them all together, however, I was starting to suspect that Florence’s ever-more ingenious efforts to counter my incompetence were mere pity and desperation. I didn’t know that Florence had her own reasons for believing in me.

swimming triathlon
One of my paddles

That day in the pool, I had a breakthrough. I was so angry with my failure to grasp the whole swimming thing that I gave up. I stopped focusing on my stroke and I just charged through the water, arms pushing through on either side, head turning, not always getting air, but floundering along just the same. It was not beautiful or clean or terribly efficient, but it was swimming, and Florence was delighted with me.

She told me afterwards that she knew I was on the verge of getting it, that sometimes it is just as people are about to give up that everything finally clicks ,and they start to make real progress. Then she told me that I was going to be a really good swimmer.

“I mean, look at your hands,”she exclaimed, holding her own palm up to mine, where it hovered like a child’s in the shadow of a lumberjack’s giant paw. “And you have such big feet too. You were made for swimming.”

I hope she’s right. Those manual monsters have let me down before: My music teacher in school thrust a cello at me when he saw my hands, thinking I would be the next Yo Yo Ma. Then again, if the swimming doesn’t work out, I can always try kayaking. After all, I have built-in paddles.

Triathlon Entry Fees: Method to the Madness?

triathlon entry fee
Alemu Gemechu has just won the Dublin City Marathon (2:14:01) and Nataliya Lehonkova took the women’s race (2:30). Well, at least I’m exercising my fingers…

To distract myself from the fact that I am sitting at my kitchen table instead of nursing gratifyingly sore muscles and a well-earned sense of smugness after the Skyline Mourne Mountain run, I’ve been browsing through triathlons. Not all are created even slightly equal. And I’m not talking about locations or distances or elevations; if you take the full-distance triathlon as your baseline, triathlon entry fees vary enormously.

Oscillating Wildly

Let’s start with the daddy of them all: Ironman Kona. As if it wasn’t bad enough that you have to prove to them you are a worthy entrant by qualifying for the event, you have to stump up a juicy $850 (about €770) for the privilege. Staying within the Ironman family, the 2016 Australia event will set you back Au$775 (about €511).

Then there’s Challenge: If you had entered Challenge Bahrain (commiserations  it’s just been cancelled) it would have cost you between $280 and $350 (€254 to €318), whereas the Challenge Galway full triathlon entry fee is between €414 and €444.

I know it costs  money to close down sections of roadway for biking and running, to cordon off a safe swim area, to have ambulances and medical staff on standby, to provide abundant food and water stops, to shuttle people and equipment between transition areas, to pay and feed staff (though many are volunteers), and to give prizes.

triathlon entry feeSmaller full-distance triathlons have to do those things too, yet they seem to be able to run highly professional and enjoyable events without massive financial outlay. Last year’s Arran Man in Scotland had 35 competitors, who paid £225 (€313) for the full distance. Norseman is limited to 250 participants, who enter a lottery to pay NOK 3000 (€326).

Triathlon Ireland’s Long Distance National Championship event for 2016 is the Hardman in Killarney. The swim takes place in the Lakes of Killarney, the bike route circles the Ring of Kerry, and the marathon is set in Killarney National Park, so you can’t really fault the surroundings. Yet the entry fee for this race is between €150 to €225, half the price of Challenge Galway or any of the Ironman events.

The New Golf

I understand that international corporations can charge a premium for the cachet of a logo that people will tattoo on their calves, but that aside, even within the big tri companies themselves, there does not appear to be any consistency in the entry fees being charged. Even if you accept that Kona is the peak of triathlon achievement and thus justified in charging any entry fee it likes, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the big triathlon companies are just rubbing their hands in glee at the public’s willingness to fling credit cards at them. Given the lack of any consistency in the entry fees charged (apart from the fact that they are ridiculously high), triathlons at the corporate end really are the new golf, where the higher the price, the better the course is perceived to be.

Could it possibly be that these corporations just charge as much as they think they’ll get away with? Surely not.