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.



Everyone Says Hi: Trail Running Distractions

trail runningI’m back running 5 days a week now, in my usual, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to training for a new event. This time it’s the Glen of Aherlow Loop the Loop Ultra Trail Run on September 19—except I’m leaving out the “ultra” bit and doing just one loop of the trail run. You would think that a 13.1 mile mountain run with an elevation of 1,369 feet would provide enough distraction for a complete trail-running neophyte, but it hasn’t stopped me noticing things that are utterly unrelated to running. Like saying hello.

I headed out on a 5-mile run last week because it was half way through the week and I planned doing a 10-mile run on the Friday, so I figured going for a run half my longest distance midway through the week was a scientific enough training programme for me. I also wanted to clear my head because I was feeling cranky. I was still feeling cross after the run—partly due to general age-related grumpiness, but partly because I greeted two people on my way around, and neither of them even grunted a reply.

Now, I am not a remarkably sociable person (in fact, that is one of the reasons I like running), and I don’t say hello to every passerby if I’m somewhere busy, but I do think there are far too many of us on this planet to behave as if we lived in our own little worlds. A meeting of eyes and a mumbled “‘Morning”is not going to damage your psyche.

I have been considering whether I am being unreasonable and whether it is presumptuous of me to expect somebody to respond when I squeak out a hello as I lumber past them. Maybe I am. Maybe I should just jam my headphones in and keep my head down. But maybe our shared humanity is just too precious a link to avert your eyes or stare blankly when somebody makes a brief appearance in your world. We’ve seen too much of that lately.

Don’t worry: To any fellow world citizens who wish to avoid my grating greetings, you won’t have to fling yourselves into an accommodating bush; just don’t make eye contact and you’ll be quite safe. I’ll pound past, and my red face won’t be because I’m cross but because I’m starting to discover far too late just how tough training for a trail run can be.

Triathlon Trials

content writer blogWhen several people in succession gleefully announce their relief at not having to see you again, you could be forgiven for being a little upset. I, however, greeted the news with congratulatory smiles and waved them on to greater, Aoife-free things. That’s because they had just met me for the sixth time in a 42km run, which had been preceded by a 180km cycle and a 3.8km swim—all using the same set of limbs that had got them to the lake shore at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club at 6.30 that morning for the 2015 Hardman full-distance triathlon.

content writer blogsI was manning one of the water stops, which also turned out to be a motivational, counselling, and tourist information stop. From flashes of lycra pausing only to raise a hand to indicate that they had no need of such mortal crutches as water, to nauseated wrecks hobbling on their newborn foal’s legs, the human spirit in all its guises passed me at that midge-ridden corner of Killarney National Park. There was Douglas, who had broken his coccyx the previous Tuesday and “shouldn’t really” have been doing a full-distance triathlon, Darragh who promised to name his first child after me (I do hope it’s a girl), and a whole succession of men who revealed that their lovely wives would probably leave them if they ever did another such event.

content writer blogsYes, the winner finished the hilly and difficult course (the cycle takes in the grinding, ear-popping roads of the Ring of Kerry ) in a searing time of 10:06, and there were some thrilling moments when the first riders blasted up to T2 within minutes of each other, but the day belonged to people like Graham Janssen, the first swimmer out of the lake, who basked in his moment of glory, knowing he would be overtaken within minutes of getting on the bike, but also knowing that the previous year he had been one of the last to clamber onto the pier; and Dan Fitzgibbon, who made it further in the triathlon than he had any previous year, wheeling into the Castlerosse Hotel car park in the pitch dark, hours after the winner had gone home; and Siobhan Griffin, the second woman home, who gave up smoking and learned to swim the winter before her first full-distance triathlon last year.

content writer blogIn the end, it’s not really down to €4k Olympia bikes, Garmins, or ideal stroke rates: What is truly inspiring about the 80-odd individuals who took part in last Saturday’s epic event is the way that even the most unlikely athletes can complete superhuman challenges if they have an insanely dogged attitude. And a water-station steward they really don’t want to see again.

(All images courtesy of the amazing Valerie O’Sullivan.)

Learning to Swim in Italian

content writer runningA fortnight after our trip to Scanno, there are two things I want to learn:

– how to swim.

– how to speak Italian.

The Italian bit is easy to understand: As soon as we escaped the gritty heat and noise of Rome for the fresh prettiness of Scanno, I knew I wanted to stay. Given that tourists only trickle into this gem 155km west of Rome, without Italian you are really are reduced to Charades if you want anything other than gelato or vino. Although now that I come to think of it, maybe it’s not so necessary after all.

content writing runningAs for the desire to learn to swim, I can’t see myself getting far in a triathlon by holding my breath and flailing the other competitors into submission. Triathlon? Well, if you watched the annual Xterra triathlon in Scanno, you’d fancy yourself as a triathlete too. Of course, it has everything to do with the setting: Scanno is the kind of place that makes you want to skip down the wooded slopes singing. There is a purity in the air, an absoluteness in the colours, and a sparkle in the lake that makes you believe you would live more completely if you were to just roll your belongings into a spotted handkerchief and set up camp here.

content writer runningSo the desire to do a triathlon has much to do with the sight of horribly attractive Italians (even in day-glo Lycra) gliding effortlessly along the glassy surface of Lago di Scanno on a deliciously hot day, trotting through the tangle of medieval streets carrying their bikes as they climb flights of ochre steps, and loping along forested trails to the finish line. And all I need to do to claim my place among those bouncing, honey-limbed triathletes is learn to swim.

When I do complete my first triathlon, and I am unable to untie my shoelaces because the circulation has shut down in my fingers, I will remember  a golden day in Scanno and decide that the learning Italian bit was probably  more important than the swimming bit.

Generation Gaps

I have a Portugal the Man album, and I think I get away with wearing Converse with dresses, so I sometimes forget that my son and I do not occupy the same universe.

Then something like this happens:

My son sends me a picture of his date’s debs dress so that I can buy him a matching tie. This is her debs dress:

Debs Dress

I remember what I wore to my debs. It looked something like this:



I’m off to knit myself a fetching headscarf with matching support tights.


Sand Gets in Your Eyes

copywriter KerryThe image the organisers of the Brandon Bay Half Marathon use to promote the event depicts a sparkling expanse of blue sea and sky glimpsed from between swaying fronds of marram grass on golden dunes. It didn’t look like that last Saturday. Or maybe it did, only it’s hard to tell when your eyes are squeezed shut against an onslaught of wind, rain and sand.

About 90 of us lined up for the half marathon, although when I say lined up, I mean huddled against the whipping wind waiting for the race to start so we could get some blood flowing and stave off hypothermia. The route is loosely aligned with a series of little red plastic flags dotted 10.5 km along the beach, but everyone has their own personal version of the event, given that you have to negotiate sand that ranges in firmness from pillow-soft to bone-jarring hard, dotted with pebbles and shells in some parts and disappearing under waves and streams in others.

By the time I reached the 3km mark it all seemed very silly. The prospect of scurrying back to the start and wrapping up in warm dry clothes seemed the only sensible option, particularly as the gathering pools of water in my ears had started channeling the wind to create a weird whistling soundtrack to my trudging. The one thing that spurred me on was the thought of the half-way point. I knew from last year that once I reached that magical spot in the sand, I could turn my back on the wind and allow it to carry me like a strapping gazelle back to the finish line. So I bore with the flying snot, the anchor of my sodden shirt, and even the smiling faces of the leaders passing me as I reached the 9km mark, and, sure enough, everything changed on the return leg.

I actually found myself overtaking people and finished just a minute behind the third woman home. Momentarily elated, I downed a cup of soup (soup in July!) and was soon frozen again, my Bart Simpson fingers dead to all feeling. There was little time for the usual post-race chat with fellow sufferers, as we were all in a rush back to the warmth of our cars, and, anyway, chattering teeth and howling wind make it difficult to understand what people are saying.

Will I do it next year? I can’t wait! I think I’ll bring a hat, though…