Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It's all over!

£2,273 raised so far for Cancer Research UK. My donation page is still open if anybody wants to make a contribution to this fantastic cause. http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/ollydavy

Well, it’s all over. That was undoubtedly one of the finest experiences of my life. Here are the official results;

I was aiming to complete the London Triathlon in less than three hours. In the end I managed 2 hours, 24 minutes and 38 seconds. I was shocked and ecstatic with the time. It seems all the training paid off. Apparently I came 375th out of 4,046 Olympic distance finishers. That seems pretty good to me and I am more than happy, but it’s worth noting that the slowest guy took over five hours to complete the course! Fair play to him for actually finishing. Although receiving his medal from the cleaners tidying up post event must have taken the sheen off his achievement somewhat.

I owe this result to a number of things but here is my top 5 list:

  1. Mum
  2. Training
  3. Notorious BIG
  4. Power flapjacks
  5. Training

For those of you who, like me, love the minutiae please enjoy the details of each leg;



 The week leading up to the big day was uneventful but peppered with bouts of nerves and the sudden emergence of a big deadline at work did little to help my focus and my sleep. I trained for the final time on Thursday with 39 minutes in the pool. Friday was a rest day culminating with a wrestling match; Olly Davy versus humungous steak. I won. And to celebrate my victory I laid waste to half a tin of homemade flapjacks. In hindsight perhaps this night before the night before gluttony was a good idea but at the time it felt like pure over indulgence. I struggled to rest well on Friday night as the possible scenarios for race day ran through my head. Getting a puncture was number one on the ‘genuinely could happen’ list. Being dragged to a watery grave by a hideous dock-dwelling mutant spider crab was firmly at the top of the ‘entirely ridiculous but still keeping me awake’ table. I managed to expend most of the 17,000 cow and oat calories consumed with a furious room tidying session and Mozart did his best to soothe my nerves as the sounds of drunken debauchery wafted up to my window from the streets of Dalston.

On Saturday morning I was up and at ‘em nice and early, surfing away on a caffeinated wave of black gold for an hour and a half of yoga. The benefits of this ancient art form are well understood in the athletic community but personally, it just makes me feel good and gives the body a dam good stretch. Although, the diuretic properties of the magic bean do result in me having to pick my way through the tightly packed yoga mats to get to the toilet at least three times during the first rounds of chakra realignments.

By pure chance my triathlon weekend happened to coincide with my uncle visiting from Boston and as he is a keen runner himself and also married to a sports scientist, a family lunch revealed more intriguing details of the world of endurance sports and the mentalists who populate it. The excitement these discussions generated was tempered by the discovery that I had a puncture in one of my tyres. £50 of brand new Continental Grand Prix 4000S rubber and I had a puncture. This was a cruel twist and did little to calm my jangling nerves. However, it did give me the chance to demonstrate my latest piece of exciting kit; CO2 tyre inflators. One cartridge of compressed gas will pump up a road bike tyre to 120 psi in about 5 seconds, leaving everything it touches freezing cold in the process. Cool, in both senses. I fixed the flat and prayed it was an unlucky fluke.

Popping into Evans Cycles on my way home to buy a new inner tube I noticed that they charge £13.95 to repair a puncture, labour only. Fixing a puncture is five minutes work, which means their grease monkeys are on an hourly rate of £167! Extortionate, but then perhaps those who visit a bike shop to have a puncture repaired deserve to be fiscally punished for their ineptitude. We live in an increasingly throw away culture; if it’s broken, chuck it and buy a new one. If it can be fixed, get someone else to do it; there is no need to learn. I thought approvingly of my old chemistry teacher Dr Schidlow and his ‘keep it going for ever’ philosophy demonstrated in Tuesday afternoon car mechanic sessions, which were filled with tips on how to plug holes in the roof with chewing gum and replacing worn accelerator pedals with blocks of wood. A wonderful relic of a bygone era. You can’t do that with an iPad.

On Saturday evening I cooked myself a large mound of seafood pasta, which I ate suitably early to give myself time to digest before hitting the sack. “Seafood?” My sister had questioned my choice. “Bit dodgy isn’t it?” I had visions of losing my bodyweight in bottom water and pulling out of the triathlon due to infected marine life but I stuck to my guns and enjoyed a delicious supper. Another restless night followed although I knew that the next day it would hardly matter. What was important was the three months of training 7 times a week that had come before.

I woke early to a sleeping flat. My housemates had enjoyed their Friday evening after a busy week at work and so I tiptoed around the place, feeding myself porridge and packing a bag with gear. I initially opted for my courier cycle bag and then upgraded to the huge North Face travel hold all for the luxury of  not having to force everything in that the extra space afforded.

Here is list of the kit I took with me:

Cycle helmet, cycling gloves, sunglasses, 5 energy gels, 3 flapjacks, oatcakes, hummus, running trainers, cycling shoes, wetsuit, tri-suit, tape for attaching gels to bike, race number, swimming cap, tyre levers, inner tubes, puncture repair kit, C02 dispenser, bike, drink bottle, dissolvable isotonic drink tablets, talcum powder, triathlon watch, bright pink towel to aid the spotting of my stuff during transition, warm clothes for after the race and finally the event information booklet for some nervous reading material. As if something new would come to light on the 47th perusal.

My designated driver arrived on my doorstep in a cloud of weed smoke and UK hip-hop. “Great” I thought, “This is just what I need. The exact opposite of a performance enhancing drug”. But the benefits of driving down to the triathlon with supportive friends far outweighed the chances of failing a random drugs test and so I arrived at the cavernous temple of mass participation events that is the Excel Centre. The weather was abysmal, in stark contrast to the sunshine of the day before, and suddenly feeling very lonely, I waved goodbye to my mates who were to join later for the finish and wheeled my bike out of the drizzle and into the spacious halls of the venue. Hundreds of participants filled the space. Whether they had completed their event or were still due to take part was obvious: the happy finishers wore a beetroot hue and were attacking plates of fried meat while the later waves were stocking up on water and looking pale.

I was early. Very early. So early, in fact, I could have registered for the London Triathlon 2011 but decided to stick with the plan and collected my timing chip for that day’s race. Earlier in the week I had panicked at the thought of the technology failing and me not getting an official time. I have deliberately not mentioned a target time to many people in case I should fall short but I knew what I was aiming for and how important it was to me to know how I’d done. So, as a back up, I bought myself a waterproof timing device:

“After a quick paddle down everyone’s favourite internet river to find a watch I am the proud owner of an Ironman Triathlon. Those two words just exude testosterone. I can practically see it leaking from my computer’s screen. At any moment I expect a fist to fly out of the monitor and box me on the nose before a low, gravely voice demands that I “go grab a beer”. In reality it looks like a plastic toy from one of those grab-a-piece-of-cheap-crap machines that children like. But it tells the time and has a stopwatch. It is also the first entry on the list when you search for “triathlon watch” and it gets many favourable reviews. However, this is a device that came on the market in 2006. In fact, when I got mine out of the box the friendly illuminated screen told me it was 2005. 2005! Nobody remembers what they were doing in 2005. The last man who did died last year. There was a ceremony. Have there been no advances in the world of triathlon watches for 6 years? I may as well do the race with a sundial nailed to my face and have the plague-afflicted peasants farming turnips at the side of the track shout out the (approximate) time as I pass.

“It’s quarter of the hour of noon, me Lord”

“Silence! Back to your vegetables!” "

The vast space inside the Excel centre looked much barer than when I last visited for Olympic boxing and wrestling events. The ‘World’s Largest Triathlon Expo’ was an unexciting collection of trainer and bike stands. Handy if you have come to the triathlon but forgotten your bike, I guess. “I knew there was something!”

The rest of the area was given over to the transition zone. The elite athletes enjoyed an uncluttered zone directly adjacent to the swim exit while the rest of us normals were spread out as far as the eye could see. I navigated to the correct aisle in the rows of bike racking and chose a suitable spot. I was clueless as to what criteria defines a good place in the transition zone and I’m not sure it makes much difference so I opted for somewhere the ground was dry and there weren’t too many banana skins. To my left the place seemed deserted, with many earlier waves of participants already finished and in the pub, to my right plenty of other keenos were sorting their gear and arranging it on garish towels.

I had spare minutes to wander around the space and familiarise myself with the surroundings before it was time to squeeze into the neoprene, so I made a mental note of where I would exit the water and which route to take to get to my bike. The last thing I wanted was a mid-race ‘lost in the airport car park’ moment so I walked the course I would take after the swim and after the cycle to calm my nerves. Satisfied that I wasn’t going to find myself pulling off my wetsuit in the supermarket down the road shouting at the shopkeeper “Where’s my bloody bike?” I decided to brave the inclement weather to set my eyes on the first enemy of the day, Victoria Dock.

How deeply unpleasant it looked there, choppy water under a leaden sky, a brisk breeze driving the rain into my face. In a former life I would have been enjoying a late breakfast at this time on a Sunday and contemplating whether the pub is really the only safe cure for a hangover. A mass of bodies floated together in-between two large inflatable buoys, identified as triathletes and not the victims of some hideous ferry disaster only by their violently coloured Virgin Active swimming caps. Race marshals in kayaks held the poor fools in position like waterborne sheepdogs before gliding swiftly aside once the claxon sounded and a demented churning of the murky water began. Hampstead Ponds was the closest I had come to open water swimming during my training and although that did involve bravely running the gauntlet of over-friendly gentlemen, I had little concern that Davy Jones was eager to welcome me to his briny sepulchre. This dock was another matter entirely. On the other side of the water a rusting German cargo ship hulked high out of the water, unladen, full of mystery and romance as big ships always are. Presumably crewed by legions of the undead, this would be my transport to the afterlife. On the shore a huge crumbling warehouse stared forlornly at me from the gaping holes in its disintegrating brickwork. Gone are the glory days of the 19th Century when 850,000 tons of shipping would have passed through these waters and the warehouses’ rooms would have been stacked with goods from across the globe. Now the storage spaces are empty and the few relics of the golden age that survive have only weirdoes in Lycra to keep them entertained.

Before leaving my house earlier in the day I foolishly read an account of last year’s London Triathlon written by a regular participant. He described receiving a powerful kick in the face that jammed his goggles into his eyes and gave him a nosebleed. Marvellous. The anticipation of a size eleven in the boat race combined with the sight of the industrial waste pool in front of me sufficed to raise my heart rate and so I scurried back inside to eat some hummus and oatcakes. My pre-race food consumption was based on a carefully planned ‘no clue whatsoever’ strategy, other than the knowledge that eating a huge lunch 10 minutes before the race would be a bad idea. So, I’d fuelled up with my usual porridge mountain before leaving the house and devoured some flapjacks and oatcakes with hummus dip about an hour before the race. One of my biggest fears was needing to make toilet at some point in the race, and not subtle toilet you understand, but the kind that would bring the eyes of the world to bare on my plight and cover me in shame, and toilet, for the rest of my days. I was confident that my trusty сafetière of Colombian taken early and the subsequent trips to the water closet would prevent this, but we all remember what happened to Paula Radcliffe, and that thought stayed with me.

Zero hour was approaching fast as I re-arranged my running trainers and cycling shoes on the bright pink towel for the umpteenth time and tried to visualise the challenge ahead. Striking up conversation with other participants preparing around me the chat followed a similar pattern each time:

“Done one of these before?”
“Done much training?”
“Aiming for a particular time?”

There were no great revelations or horrible surprises as there could have been, like when chatting before an exam and someone mentions memorising an entire book that you’ve never even heard of. I felt ready, fit and motivated.

With half an hour to go I suddenly felt a wave of sadness wash over me. I remembered exactly why I was standing in the Excel Centre with 84 training sessions behind me waiting to take part in the London Triathlon; because Mum was dead. I thought how excited she would be to see me take part in this event and how much I would love for her to have been there. I could picture all five foot two inches of her bouncing up and down and wooping with delight as I crossed the line, and I knew that I would have to keep that image in my mind because that is the only place it would be. There have been many benefits in sticking to a rigorous training regime and the blog that has accompanied my journey has been an invaluable tool for sharing the experience and helping people to understand powerful emotions that it is not always desirable to discuss in company. Mum valued her privacy and she was careful with who she shared the fact that she was ill. She didn’t want people to label her or treat her differently because she had cancer. She didn’t want people to gossip. That attitude of coping quietly and relying only on those closest to you certainly rubbed off on me and for months only a very few people knew that Mum had cancer. It felt like a very personal situation, one that others were unable to help with, and that spreading the news too widely would sap my energy as a larger group of people enquired about how Mum was responding to treatment and how we were managing as a family. Now that stage is passed and I want people to understand what has been happening. I hope that through my words there is a glimpse of Mum and our love for her and the qualities that she engendered in my sister and I. It is all for Mum. The response has been fantastic as supporters of my triathlon challenge reciprocate with an openness of their own. I have learnt fascinating things about people. People have been moved to share their life experiences, perhaps stirred by the mention of a particular place that jogged a memory, and I have found this method of communicating incredibly rewarding.

It was time to don the second skin and prepare to head over to the swim muster area. I put my headphones in, filling my skull with the sweet 90s boom bap sound of ‘Life After Death’ by Notorious BIG. As the irresistible bass line and crisp snare of Nasty Boy kicked in under Christopher Wallace’s powerfully smooth braggadocio stylings, I blocked out the dull roar of hundreds of chattering Lycra louts and entered ‘the zone’.

A man in pink shorts explains how we should all refresh ourselves from the giant bottle of Gatorade
Penned into a holding area near the huge shutter doors that led out to the dock, I felt less human and more bovine. ‘Perhaps all cows about to be slaughtered think they are going to take part in a triathlon’ I imagined, feasibly. I stood among men of all shapes and sizes and stared at a black wall of wetsuit-clad backs. The 2XU T:2 Team did indeed seem to be a very popular model as there were many on display. The shop assistant in Sigma Sport must have made a huge commission this summer. As I made appropriately professional looking arm rotations to warm up and tried to shed some of my nervous energy by bouncing up and down, I heard a shout from my left “Olly!” It was my sister, Anoushka. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be there until the end of the race but there she was with my uncle Martin and a big hug followed. After a rousing chorus of “Oogie, oogie, oogie. Oi! Oi! Oi!” and an instruction to hug a stranger next to you (I eschewed the hand offered to shake and went it for the full man hug, always satisfying if executed correctly) I found myself slipping off the floating plastic pier and into the inky waters.

The waters of the dock had looked formidable when viewed from above but at duck level they were downright unpleasant. My wetsuit quickly filled with the chilly liquid and I bobbed around, unsure of my place in the universe. The wave before mine set off and the kayak-mounted officials herded us forward. As we moved towards the start line one man turned to me, and over the churning of grey water asked, “Have we started yet?” To which the answer was no.

The start of the swim
Soon enough I found myself treading water and waiting for the sound of the off at the London Triathlon 2012. Holding my Ironman Triathlon watch clear of the water I pressed START as soon as I heard the signal and began to swim for my life. It was impossible to see the massive inflatable buoy that marked the turning point of the course so I kept myself on track by checking for the smaller fluorescent buoys that lined the inside of the circuit. There was little chance of going badly wrong, when hundreds of other flailing bodies were all progressing in the same direction. As I dodged flying legs and wheeling arms it became clear that I had underestimated my swimming ability.

Taking the training seriously had paid off and I was constantly overtaking people. This pleased and also infuriated me as I realised I should have positioned myself further ahead in the group. It was a battle for open water to swim a race free of interference and unwanted intimacy with other competitors. Struggling to avoid thrashing bodies I went wide to carve my own line towards the first turning point, swallowing water as the strong breeze chopped up the water into a salty diesel soup. “That can’t be good for you” I retched to myself, not having a nice time. At the halfway point I had no choice but to cut into the maelstrom. Bouts of breaststroke were unavoidable as the turn caused mass bunching in the group and everyone jockeyed for position. A quick check of my watch revealed that ten minutes had passed as I turned. I knew there was no way that I could be halfway, as a 20 minute 1,500m is beyond my reach but I ploughed on, morale boosted by the surprisingly low time. And now the pack was considerably more spread and I even began to pass some desperate characters from earlier waves. Every man for themselves, and if you haven’t prepared for this, then get out of the way! The feeling of urgency that takes hold of body and mind in a race environment is fascinating. It is far from a matter of life and death but every fibre of my being was compelled to surge forward as if there was no tomorrow without success. I felt a force built of expectation from all the people who had sponsored me pushing me on relentlessly.

The sad surrounds of Victoria Dock

The second half of the swim was easier as I found some open water in which to perform a comfortable stroke. As I passed along the opposite side to the buoys that marked the swim entry point I wondered when the end of the water leg would come. There was one more filth gulping turn before I raised my head and glimpsed the exit ramp where heroic Virgin angels were waiting with a helping hand to pluck me like a baby seal, dripping from the mire. 

Staggering free from the grip of Old Father cesspool, I hurtled confused into an alleyway of cheering. I battled my wetsuit off my body and attempted to pluck the swimming cap directly from my head. Have you ever tried this? It’s like you are being sucked up into a vacuum cleaner by the brain. I noticed the fundamental flaw in my disrobing technique and rolled the offending article over my ears instead. Shoving my swimming gear into a bag and gulping a cup of the proffered Gatorade I was up the steps and into the transition area.

Socks on, cycling shoes on, both nicely coated in talcum powder pre-race to aid the process. Helmet on, cycling gloves on, and I was off, jogging with my bike towards the exit and 2, 20km laps of the London roads especially closed for the event. Outside in the drizzle, race marshals issued shouted warnings about the slippery surface and I made my way gingerly down the exit ramp in the middle of a thin line of cyclists. Once out and onto the flat I was flying. My handlebar-mounted speedometer told me I was doing 27mph. 27mph! This was much faster than my cruising speed during training and I thanked the gods for race day adrenaline and recalibrated my estimated finishing time for a Brownlee brothers busting world record. And then I made the first turn at Tower Bridge.

Heading back towards the Excel Centre, the tail wind that had driven me forward like an invisible gaseous ally was now my foe. My speed dropped considerably as I tucked into the soggy tarmac, the clips on my cycling shoes allowing me to pull on the upstroke as well as push on the down. The cycling speed combined with the wind and rain made for unpleasant conditions. I was working hard but still felt cold in my flimsy tri-suit and there were no cheering crowds on the miserable looking streets of Wapping. Who wants to stand in the wet and watch a motley crew of lunatics career about when you could be in bed resisting consciousness? An empty beer rolled across the road in front of me and I swerved to avoid it.

Again and again I remembered what all the training had been for as I steadily overtook other riders. Several times I passed gentlemen aboard multi-thousand pound triathlon specific bikes, struggling in the unsavoury environment. It was difficult to resist feeling a little smug as I cruised forward onboard my 5 year-old steed. Chucking money at the situation does not make you fitter. The old adage “all the gear, no idea” sprang easily to mind. It’s like putting a granny in an F1 car, or a child on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle. The equipment is only as good as the person in charge and it is impossible for a mere mortal to realise the full potential of a machine designed for elite athletes. But humans have an inbuilt magpie gene and we like shiny things, which is why it is not uncommon to see a 20 stone man on a £3,000 bike.

Ploughing on I thought of all the mornings spent spinning around Regent’s Park and the evenings passed puffing my way up Swain’s Lane. All the social engagements for which I had made my excuses and all the beer I had not drunk. All of the discipline, focus and abstinence of the past three months was condensed and concentrated inside me for this one day. And the guiding hand behind the whole endeavour was the thought of mum and her happy face shouting, “Go on Olly!”

At regular intervals I saw poor buggers at the side of the road fixing punctures and I prayed I wouldn’t get unlucky. With teeth chattering, adrenaline surging and numb hands fumbling, it would undoubtedly take longer than usual to change a flat, resulting in an outburst of rage and a grotesque mess of weeping man and mangled machine.

I kept on rolling, racking up the kilometres, through the deserted streets of Wapping and Shadwell before swooping down into Limehouse Link tunnel at 35mph. Instinctively I let out a massive cheer as I sped down into the dry gloom of the underpass. What a privilege to have the roads to ourselves. Forgetting all the stern talk of discipline for a moment I remembered to enjoy myself. This was fun! I just wished that cycling in London was always this easy. No cars to impede the flow and top speed possible on every stretch. The short minutes spent inside the tunnel were a delightful respite from the wind and the rain, and then I emerged into the elements and onwards towards the second turn at the world’s famous Docklands Light Railway station, Gallions Reach. They must have built this station specifically for the triathlon because I have certainly never heard of it and I doubt any galleons have ever reached there.

In my blinkered zone on the closing stretch of the first lap spinning alongside the Excel Centre, I somehow missed the 50 massive signs indicating that riders should stay left if they were finishing the cycle leg and keep right if they had another lap to do, and so I found myself leaving the main road and cycling towards the centre’s entrance.

“INCORRECT!” my brain screamed at me as I realised the error. “This is entirely incorrect. What are you doing, man?!” The pilot at the helm of my brain box frantically pulled levers and mashed buttons, feverishly attempting to get me back on course. He managed to issue a command to the voice department and a panicked gurgle struggled from my throat; “I’ve got another lap to do”, I squealed, my face contorted like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, “Which way is it?”

The obvious answer was; the only other way it was possible to go but my mind was not working logically during this instance of high drama. I swiftly corrected my course, did an about face, and almost rode directly into the path of Bradley Wiggin’s less famous brother, hurtling towards me at a very good clip.

 Somewhat rattled I continued on the final lap which thankfully passed without incident although I did notice a man being loaded into an ambulance which then overtook me with much horn-beeping and wailing of sirens. Fat men in high visibility jackets riding motorbikes were dotted about the place. Often I saw them standing at the side of the road assisting hapless contenders with a bike issue. A large bloke swathed in leathers using a tiny hand pump to inflate a bicycle tyre is an amusing sight. I imagined that he was the cyclist and had experienced a serious attack of overkill when choosing his gear for the triathlon. “No messing about now, motorbike leathers and a visored helmet. It’s got to be.”

On finishing the bike leg, the speedometer on my handlebars had given up and was no longer feeding me information, but my trusty Ironman Triathlon was still going strong and it told me that I had completed the swim and the cycle in just shy of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was way ahead of my expectations. The mental cogs whirred and I realised that if I managed the run in under 50 minutes I could achieve a total time of two and a half hours, or less! Encouraged by my rapid progress I whizzed through the transition area; bike back on the rack, helmet off, cycling shoes off, my hands were too cold to bother taking my gloves off, running shoes on, race number belt spun from the back to the front and I was gone towards the exit for four 2.5km laps. Crowds lined the course and I hoped for a glimpse, or a sound, of the friends and family who had come to cheer me on. And there they were, lining the route as it first exits the Excel Centre and passes alongside the dock. Seeing people you know does wonders for the speed and form. As if pulled by invisible wires my head lifted up, I stuck my chest out, and my stride became longer and more purposeful. My whole demeanour screamed; “What a lovely warm up this is. Once this little stroll is over I’ll strap an anvil to my back and jog to Norway”
Safely out of side around the corner, I resumed my tongue-lolling, sideways stagger, emitting a low, pitiful groan as I went.

I picked my way through the mass of runners strung out along every meter of the course. Some, especially those with very large bottoms or bellies, looked like they had started running, and I use the term loosely, the week before and would be there until the London Triathlon 2013. Others, wearing triathlon suits sporting names like Mitcham Missiles Tri Club, were more impressive as they elbowed the feeble aside, crushing both dreams and bones on their way to the 2 hour glory mark. And then I saw myself in the crowd. I thought Gatorade was simply a sugary sports drink and was unaware of its hallucinogenic properties, so this development was surprising. I rubbed my eyes but the vision did not fade. Three of me staring back, with a fixed smile, in black and white! Friends from work who had the wonderful idea of creating masks from my face to terrify me and make me go faster but sensibly decided that printing in colour would have been a gross extravagance. More high-fives, and on I ran.

On the final lap I knew that, barring a dramatic ankle snap, I was on course for a decent time. The benefit of a training programme that had peaked with sessions much longer in duration than those on race day was that I felt comfortable and so picked up the pace for the final 2.5km. My family and friends were no longer visible on course and I knew they must have moved inside to position themselves near the finish line. I left the elements behind for the final time and entered the light and noise of the Excel Centre. The final 200m meters followed a switch back path designed to allow as many people as possible to watch the closing stages but also presented a hazardous hairpin turn on the damp, shiny floor. 50m to go and Chariots of Fire was playing in my head. 40m, 30m, 20m, 10m, and over the line!

A slave anoints my battle wounds
Bright lights blazed in my face, a medal was hung around my neck and I remembered to press stop on my watch. Sir Richard Branson, in his infinite benevolence, had even deigned to provide each participant with a dishcloth-sized towel. Presumably to blow one’s nose. Beaming with happiness, and steaming with exertion, I gathered with those who had so gamely braved the elements to support me. I felt like the sportsman fresh of the field of play who has a microphone thrust under his nose and is expected to offer up pithy reflections on the contest that has finished only moments before. Photos were taken and I shared my sweat with everyone. Somebody handed me a banana and I bounced from foot to foot with an excited energy. What a day! Before the adrenaline wore off and hypothermia kicked in, I made my way back to the transition area to get changed. My sister caught up with me and we shared a moment looking at a picture she had brought of the two of us with Mum, the entire reason we were standing in the Excel Centre on a rainy Sunday in September.

My sister and I, and the amazing banner
Wonderful moments of pure self-indulgence

Dry and changed, soothing my bike's post-race aches

I explain to my uncle Martin how I caught the bus for half of the bike leg 

Seeing triple: the dangers of post-race excess

Celebrating in a cosy East London pub that evening, I embraced lager with the enthusiasm of a victorious rugby team. It seemed pints were only two thirds drunk before another arrived, with tequila alongside for good measure. I laid waste to a roast dinner and revelled in the moment. And then I woke up. Fully clothed on my bed at half 5 on Monday morning, with the lights blazing and the inside of my mouth feeling like a sandpit. Alcohol, welcome back.

Thank you everyone. It has been quite a journey. If you came on the day, or have sponsored me or read my blog, thank you. It has been a truly remarkable experience and I don’t know how I would have coped if I had not decided to take on the triathlon.

In the week and a half that has passed since the big day I have been slowly emerging from my monastic training cave. Last weekend’s highlight was a party at Mum’s house which we held as a send off as it will be sold soon. In an effort to keep our kitchen hours to a minimum Nush and I asked everyone to bring a dish. There were about 25 people and everyone came with a salad or a cake or some other sweet or savoury delight. There was a lot of food. In fact, I have just eaten the last portion of chilli con carne this evening and I feel I have topped up my reserves of minced cow for a good while.

I have also been experiencing the inevitable post event comedown, and there is a hole in my life where the triathlon was. The excitement has worn off and people are no longer asking me about it in the hallway at work. The thought of becoming a normal person again, without one driving goal and focus, scares me somewhat. Maybe I won’t go back. Maybe I will remain a Lycra-clad, stay at home, training obsessive. I can build a collection of triathlon medals and talk to them instead of the friends I used to have. Two things I have learned from this experience; physical exercise can help you through the toughest times. And if you put the effort in you will reap the rewards. It is impossible to go cold turkey after training so hard and I enjoy exercise too much to just give up so I continue to run often. 

When I bought my wetsuit back in August, the man in Sigma Sport told me that triathlons are addictive. As I write this my internet browser is open on Runners World, search term – triathlon 2013. So the question is, what’s next?

Dedicated to the memory of my amazing mum, Lesley Davy. 19 May 1953 – 26 June 2012

£2,273 raised so far for Cancer Research UK. My donation page is still open if anybody wants to make a contribution to this fantastic cause. http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/ollydavy

Saturday, September 15, 2012

6 days to go...

£2,063 raised so far for Cancer Research; click here to go to my fundraising page

We have smashed the £2,000 mark! Thank you all for helping me to reach this fantastic milestone. It seemed unlikely a month or two ago but we have cruised past the post with a week to spare.

"Dear Lesley Davy

I'm delighted to tell you that Oliver Davy has renewed your Tate membership…"

I have yet to navigate the block capitals, black ink maze of Royal Mail procedures and re-direct Mum’s post from her house to mine, so regular trips to collect letters are a necessity. It’s not a task I mind too much as it gives me a chance to be in her house and to reflect. I feel I must make the most of these opportunities as the house is on the market and won’t stick around for long. So, it was after one of these visits that I sat, confused, with a letter from the Tate in my hands, shiny new membership card attached. And then, with a smile, I remember the birthday present from last year. It must be on a rolling renewal, I realise. The cheeky sods. Nothing for it but to get the name changed and enjoy the benefits on Mum’s behalf.

Friday night ride

I procrastinated about buying a new bike and now it is too late. It turns out that triathlons are an expensive pursuit with various pieces of specialist equipment required but the main cost is the quantity of food I have been buying. With vast amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables being consumed daily, along with eggs, sweet potatoes, chicken, porridge and coffee, I have been spending between about £80 per week on food just for myself. That does not take into consideration the frequent mornings when I leave the house without eating, head straight for a session in the pool, and then enjoy bacon, scrambled eggs, and a mound of beans (no toast) in the canteen at work. Eating at work is not expensive (£2.50 for that little lot) but it all adds up. 

So, my bank balance is thanking me that I never made the time to do the research and test riding necessary to find a shiny new steed. Bikes are wonderful things; an engineering marvel and often beautiful to look at. The genius lies in the simplicity of design and their persistent popularity over the years proves the value of their function and the joy that they bring. From the pure, unalloyed pleasure of a child ‘going solo’ without stabilisers for the first time with a proud and nervous parent watching on. To the cutting edge technology employed in the finely tuned thoroughbred that Bradley Wiggins tested to its limits as, teeth gritted, he powered to glory over the two weeks of one of the toughest endurance tests known to man.

Bicycle messenger; copyright Richard Todd
I have had my bike, a Specialized Allez, since 2007 when I bought it for about £500 with a bonus from work. This one object has brought me more enjoyment and been more useful than anything else I have ever owned. This bike (I have never named it due to a superstition that once you name a bike it is more likely to get stolen. I can think of at least one example where this has happened to someone I know) encouraged me to make the transition from depressed tube commuter, to beaming tarmac chewer; liberated from the confines of the sweaty, metal, human-transporting box to see the sky once more. To feel the sun and the rain, to risk one’s life and breathe the polluted air but also to enjoy the benefits of increased fitness not to mention savings on public transport. No longer shelling out £100 per month on my Oyster card, it didn’t take long for my bike to pay for itself. When I left GCap Media, the bike became my livelihood as I made the daunting leap, or should that be wheelie, into the world of bicycle couriering. It is difficult to explain exactly what is the appeal of enduring the elements and the perils of London’s streets day in, day out, earning a pittance in the process but I think the key to it was a sense of freedom. At first glance this is not immediately apparent. For starters you are no longer known by your name but by a number; my call sign was three-zero. And on the busy days the ‘controller’ will be breathing down your neck if you so much as stop to sniff your sandwiches...

‘Three-zero, three-zero?’

-garbled response through a mouthful of pasta salad-


An increase in the volume of the controller’s voice was normally indicative of indignation at a perceived indiscretion from a rider. In this case, my indiscretion was having lunch. As I attempted to shovel down some desperately needed calories during a stationary moment between jobs, I was fully aware that at that very second the controller was reclining on a chaise longue having a King Size Twix dangled into his mouth by the office junior. This radio-wielding demon is about to send me from Tower Bridge to Notting Hill to collect a filing cabinet, booked as a ‘rush job’ to be in Barnet in 20 minutes. So, I had better eat something first.

Cycling up to 80 miles a day everyday was exhausting. In the first couple of weeks as my fitness improved I would collapse through the door at half 6, eat a pile of food as big as the manure heap in an elephant enclosure and be in bed by half 8. But I got used to it and skinny as a rake I clocked up the miles and earned my keep. I endured many long waits on freezing winter days, thawing numb fingers while nursing an Americano in Costa with my radio turned down low waiting for the magic numbers to crackle over the airwaves. These pauses would be followed by frenzied periods of manic cycling kamikaze at high speed down one-way streets. Recklessly running red lights and weaving through crossing pedestrians. I felt outside of the mainstream hum drum of the daily slog with a righteous obligation to break the rules. The wary stares of security guards and preened receptionists tends to give one that feeling as on entering a polished office block, literally steaming from exertion with oil covered hands and snot strewn chin, you are told for the fourth time that day to ‘go around the back’.

There was a grinding, relentless effort to the job. But there were also moments of pure joy, free of meetings, computers and to do lists. Flying over Waterloo Bridge at sunset, remembering what a beautiful city London is, and catching a lucky run of green lights and gaps in the wall of buses along Oxford street, or tearing down Park Lane towards Hyde Park corner, legs spinning at an impossibly high cadence with a manic grin fixed to my face. Or plunging into the depths of Kingsway underpass at 30 miles an hour, the roar of trucks behind echoing and ominous in the confined space; don’t slip at the corner, Olly. Before emerging into the light, shifting the weight of parcels on my back and powering up the slope and on towards Marylebone Road.

And then I went to work in Africa and my bike was stored under a sheet in mum’s shed for nearly two years. Occasionally I would ask after my bike in an email to mum as if feeling scorned by the lack of use, trapped and unloved at the bottom of the garden, it might have inflated its tyres and escaped in the dead of night to roam the streets as a stray, beholden to no one, surviving on scraps of chain flung from the back door of bike shops and lapping at pools of oil in the road. But it was still there when I got back. And now we are a week away from tackling the London Triathlon together. It has been quite a journey.

Since I bought the bike I have gone through 4 bottom brackets, 3 headsets, 6 wheels, 5 chains, 4 cassettes, 8 chain rings, and handfuls of brake pads. In order to add to this list I took it for a once-over at Push Cycles on Newington Green (highly recommended for friendly service and quick turnaround) this week and, resplendent with bright yellow bar tape, it feels like a new (ish) bike.

On Friday evening I politely declined offers to attend payday-drinking sessions and cycled home to undergo my transformation into a Lycra lout. It is unfortunate that the male appendage is quite so visible in skin-tight sportswear but the benefits of the heavy padding in the seat of my cycling shorts cannot be overestimated as the combination of the aluminium bike frame, tyres inflated to 120 psi and potholed London roads take their toll on my delicate money maker. I weaved my way through the tail end of rush hour traffic along Holloway Road, through Archway and up into Highgate Village before completing 5 repetitions of Swain’s Lane. It is not a long hill but it is suitably steep and a good section of relatively quiet road, passing the famous Highgate Cemetery (the final resting place of Karl Marx) on which to build strength in one’s legs. As the light began to fade I sped down through Kentish Town and Camden to put in some laps around the Outer Ring of Regent’s Park.

I rode into the park off Camden Parkway behind a serious looking cyclist on a decent bike but I soon overtook him as he adjusted the courier style bag on his back. As I settled into a steady rhythm at 22 miles per hour, he sped past me and fell in just off my front wheel. He then began to have a conversation with me using only his hands. I am not overly familiar with the etiquette and signals of group cycling and I felt like a weary traveller being denied permission to enter his destination by a furious official shouting in a tongue he doesn’t understand; confused and frustrated. And then a pattern began to emerge and I could see that he was indicating when he planned to move out to avoid another cyclist or a parked car or if he was warning me when the traffic lights ahead were red. How enthusiastically polite of him, I thought. I can see the merits of this sign language when cycling in a large group, racing through the streets, but it is wholly unnecessary when there are two of you going around a quiet park with hardly anyone in sight. I overtook him at the lights and as I indicated to turn left just north of where the Outer Ring joins Marylebone Road I heard ‘Yep!’ from behind me. I hadn’t asked a question, I required no answer and so I was baffled. I enjoy my training as a solitary pursuit, alone with my thoughts and the road, and this unnecessary communication was disrupting my flow. And then followed the most blatantly loaded line I have heard in all of my gay adventures in triathlon training:

‘I can pull you if you like. I’m only doing one.’


‘I can pull you if you like.’

Half expecting the man to get off his bike and head for the nearest bush, gesturing me to follow, it slowly dawned on me what he really meant. By ‘pull’ he was indicating that I should cycle close to his back wheel and benefit from the reduced air resistance, which I duly did before he peeled off grinning with a friendly wave; ‘Have fun!’

Crikey, you do meet some characters.

Trauma release

When a group of people undergo a traumatic event, such as a car crash or bereavement, the body records the incident and stores it as tension, which can later affect our physical and mental health. A man named David Berceli noticed that when a group of adults and children experience the same stressful episode, afterwards the children shake physically but the adults do not. It was this observation that led him to develop his revolutionary theory and techniques to allow traumatised people to release their anxiety and regain equilibrium and strength in their lives. Guided by a skilled practitioner I underwent the trauma release process recently and it is one of the most remarkable things I have ever experienced. 

It began with me standing barefoot on carpet in my councillor’s living room before completing a series of simple physical exercises on his instruction, such as touching the floor with the hands or standing on one leg. Nothing strenuous but simply designed to prepare the body for the end result. I then lay on the floor on my back, feet touching, knees bent and held slightly apart. I lay this way, concentrating on deep and steady breathing, feeling self-conscious and unconvinced that anything was going to happen, for about 5 minutes. I began to notice a slight tremor in my legs but dismissed it thinking I was creating the sensation myself. I was embarrassed at my inability to develop the expected reaction and I blamed the large amounts of running and cycling for creating a stiffness in my legs that was insurmountable by even this unusual process. I was worried that it was a desire not to disappoint that was causing the quiver in my knees and nothing else. 

‘Be patient’ he told me, and so I lay there quietly, breathing in and out and trying not to think about what I was going to have for dinner. As I debated the relative merits of vegetable curry and smoked mackerel fish cakes with myself, something unusual happened. A wave of powerful shaking swept over my legs, rushing up through my body and into my core, before subsiding into a constant but gentle tremor. ‘There you go’, he said encouragingly and I was pleased that I was not immune to the powers of trauma release. The sudden and powerful vibrations rushed in once more and my legs were visibly shaking as if I was standing naked in sub-zero temperatures or trying to maintain my footing during an earthquake. Each time the shaking would subside into a much gentler high frequency resonance, like an electric current running through my body. This process continued for 15 minutes or half an hour, I can’t be sure, and then seemed to naturally come to an end with the waves of vibration becoming less frequent. 

I remained lying on my back as instructed, agreeing that it would be unwise to hurry to standing after such a powerful and unique experience. And then I was struck with great clarity of thought, a feeling of joy and an uncontrollable desire to weep all at the same time. The next day, with the tightness in my legs gone and a new lightness in my mind, I ran a 42 minute 10km; a personal best. Right now I have no desire to fully understand what I experienced, although there are books available to unpick the mystery and it is no witchcraft, but I value it and feel better for it. That is enough for me. And the effect on my body was clear from the fluidity with which I ran.

Expressing pain

I rarely cry in company because I feel uncomfortable sharing my deepest emotions with others. Perhaps this is a male thing but much of my grief is expressed alone. That is when I feel able to unburden myself as I no longer need to put a brave face on or maintain the famous British stiff upper lip. I do cry and I normally feel better afterwards so I don’t believe I am trying to bottle anything up, but I choose my moments and practice an element of control over my sadness so that I can continue to function in this bustling modern world with myriad pressures and commitments. Mum would always say, and this is a classic truism of the type that all departed loved ones have attributed to them, ‘If you’re going to do something, then do it properly’. And that resonates with me now more than ever. It applies to my triathlon training which I have dedicated myself to with a desire to honour mum’s memory by achieving my dreams, and it applies to the shedding of tears. So, if I am going to cry it won’t be a little sniffle on the bus but rather a full-blown, snot bubbling, 45 minute weep-fest, complete with hand-wringing and shouting which leaves my eyes so red and puffy it looks like I have been on a 3 week skunk binge with Cypress Hill. And nobody wants to see that.

Nearly there

There are only 6 days to go now and I feel ready. I will continue to train next week but only for relatively short periods and I will spend most of the time thinking about what I should eat on the day and whether attaching nitrous oxide to my bike is a step too far for an amateur triathlon.

Thank you all, once again, for your encouragement. By supporting me you are honouring mum’s memory and for that I am truly grateful. I will be sure to let you know how I get on.

And finally, let’s hope I don’t end up like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6t2bvP9Qho&feature=related

Sunday, September 9, 2012

13 days to go...

The tube – boy am I glad that I cycle to work these days. The person who coined the phrase ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’ has clearly never spent years commuting on London Underground. My journey to Wolverhampton began pleasantly enough on the Overground service from Dalston Kingsland to Highbury and Islington, still very busy at half past 8 on a Friday morning but not oppressively so. I observed the father of a young boy educating his son with an impromptu, and esoteric, history lesson.

‘Fish and chips was invented by Jewish people’ The boy stared straight ahead, swaying gently with the rocking of the train, probably used to his old man’s bouts of trivia. The man looked up at his wife, who was reading intently. ‘Did you know that Mummy?’ He said, challengingly.

‘Mmm’, came the reply. He could have asked ‘Have you sold that enriched uranium to Iran yet?’ and received the same response.

'Tea became popular in the Victorian era’

The boy was studying the emergency stop lever closely. I looked over to try and catch a glimpse of the ‘Food and Drink Through the Ages’ fact book that the man must have been reading from, but there wasn’t one. Where was he dredging this stuff up from and why did he sound like he was reciting from cue cards? Perhaps his brain had been taken over by aliens determined to fill the world with so many random factoids that we don’t notice we are being invaded by extraterrestrials.

The Victoria line was packed. I was already regretting my decision to wear a vest under my shirt while the pointless fans whirring above seemed to only add noise to the heat generated by hundreds of bodies. I noticed with a shock that the man next to me was wearing a fur lined body warmer. How is he doing that? I thought, and then realised his hair was slick with sweat. Poor guy, sartorial error, must be a tourist. And then I realised the ‘sweat’ was brill cream and he looked quite comfortable.

The words ‘mum is dead’ – I can’t get used to them. They sound strange in my head and when I say them out loud. I laugh at an unusual sight or funny story in the newspaper and think, ‘I must tell mum’, before remembering a split second later that I can’t.

Loneliness – sadness separates me from others. A feeling that people don’t understand and cannot help makes me want to keep myself to myself. Although paradoxically, sharing the experience with others, and especially those who have been through something similar, is nearly always helpful. My life at the moment involves little socialising in groups and sometimes, with most of my spare time spent training or writing, I feel quite isolated. At work I am surrounded by people but this just heightens the sense of distance that grief has put between me and the ‘normal’ world. I am pretty good at putting a brave face on it and I still enjoy a joke with my colleagues but concentrating on 5 days’ work and keeping focussed on the job at hand is a test. Luckily I have a job that I enjoy, which stimulates me mentally, and an understanding boss.

On the train - a man across the aisle cracks opens a super-size can of energy drink and the sickly sweet aroma floods the carriage. The smell reminds me of days spent working in Thomas Rigby’s in Liverpool. Long shifts endured while suffering from self-induced booze complications. Going down to the cellar to change a barrel, I would sneak a can of Redbull before furiously munching a handful of chewing gum to disguise the scent of my sins.
Caffeine to get going and alcohol to relax. These are the twin pillars of our society. We feel sluggish so we need stimulating but by the end of the day we are wound tight and need soothing. Each drug creates a situation that necessitates the other. Having formed that thought and kicked it around a bit I made my way to the shop in coach C for a crap coffee served at the temperature of molten lead.

The mixed swimming pond at Hampstead Heath (image copyright Stephen McKay)
The Ponds - After the unsatisfactory experience of testing my wetsuit in the River Wye I have relocated two of my three weekly swimming sessions from London Fields Lido to Hampstead Ponds. This remarkable and internationally famous (according to the leaflet) facility is a North London treasure and at only £2 a swim it is also a bargain. The unscrupulous need not bother to pay at all; the entry fee is not compulsory. There are no lockers, the showers are cold and you have to bring your own post swim snacks but the experience of swimming in a stunning setting, in unchlorinated water, surrounded by nature makes such concerns pale into insignificance. I haven’t been to many municipal pools where moorhens make their nests on the marking buoys and swans glide up and down majestically. However, I would be glad to see a goose attack that guy in the fast lane who insists on doing breaststroke.

So, on Wednesdays and Thursdays after work, with a bag full of bananas and my superhero costume, I cycle away from the City to escape into a watery sanctuary.

There are three ponds for swimming at Hampstead Heath; mixed, ladies’ and men’s. I am precluded by gender from entering the ladies pond and the mixed pond is the smallest and very busy in fine weather so I take my place among the other bathing gentlemen. As well as being a great spot for a swim, the Hampstead Men’s Pond is undoubtedly a popular place for gay men to meet and hang out, quite literally in most cases. Being naïve and a victim of my own prejudices I am only slowly beginning to realise that not every man there has made the trip to the ponds to pick up a date, but it does take a while to get used to the wandering eyes and the men who take 5 minutes to dry each leg while completely naked with their foot propped on the bench.

‘Excuse me, I think you can stop drying your leg mate, I can see the bone.’

This experience of being eyed up is one that women must endure throughout their lives and I can only hope the regularity of it makes it less stressful. Squeezing into my second skin for a vigorous circuit I cannot help but feel like I am dressing up for a fetish party. This feeling is enhanced as I struggle to fasten the zip running up the back of the wetsuit and a strange man offers his assistance.

‘NO!’ I say, a little too loudly. ‘I mean, I’m fine,’ I bluster, furiously tugging at the cord attached to the zip, ‘thanks, but it’s good practice’. I manage to restrain myself from the urge to glance down at an imaginary watch, gasp in horror, ‘Is that the time?’ and crash through the fence and bushes and away from the scene of my imminent defilement. I am the victim of my own naivety.

On another occasion I am studiously ignoring the man changing next to me who is looking over while I pour myself into the T:2 Team. My pretence is shattered and I am forced to engage him when he addresses me. 

‘Here we go,’ I think to myself, ‘ you are only seconds away from an invitation to a Nazi-themed sex party, Olly. Brace yourself.’

Looking up to reply I notice that the man is Jewish:

‘Do you need a wetsuit for such temperatures?’ He began, accusingly. As if I was a massive softie who was due a dressing down for wearing protective clothing to swim on a sunny evening in early September.

‘I’m training for a triathlon’

‘So?!’ I read between the lines of this single word; that is no excuse for your ridiculous get-up he was telling me. ‘How far is it?’

‘1500m swim, 40km bike and 10km run’

‘Ha! That’s not so far. I have 9 grandchildren. I should do a triathlon’

'Yes,’ I replied, unsure what the virility of his offspring had to do with anything, ‘you should. They can be your pacemakers’

And then I swam 13 circuits of the pond, about 4000m. This has been the peak week of my training and now my the sessions taper towards race day with a 20% drop in duration next week and a 30% drop in the final week. There are few last minute preparations such as getting some tinted goggles to avoid being blinded by low sun, wetsuit lube for easy removal in transition, and taking my bike to be serviced. I am now also two weeks into my alcohol embargo and there have been some astonishing effects; my IQ has leapt by 30% and I can see through walls. Returning from a show on the Southbank on Saturday night, I stepped over the splattered vomit and streams of urine on Shoreditch Highstreet and it certainly didn’t make me desperate to hit the nearest bar. But, before I get too high on my high horse, I'm sure I will be throwing myself back into the melee after the triathlon with a nice quinoa and vodka cocktail. 

You can see the training run I did today, here http://www.mapmyrun.com/routes/view/134417865

Thursday, August 30, 2012

23 days to go..

Wonderful wooden wagon, near Capel-y-ffin
Arriving at a service station on the M4 after a weekend staying in a wooden wagon in the wilds of Wales was like being clubbed in the head with a bat labelled ‘modern world’. I did not enjoy the experience. There were currents, not the watery kind that had carried us serenely down the River Wye, but of returning weekenders, swirling around an identikit cluster of shops containing Burger King, WHSmith (on the motorway? ‘Thank god, darling. Let’s stop here, I MUST get some ring binders before we get to your mother’s’) and the obligatory amusement arcade.

The weekend had been filled with delightful experiences and, removed from the National Grid and the reach of radioactive mobile phone transmitters, down in the glade accessible only by foot, we spent pleasant evenings reading by candlelight, drying wet boots on the wood burner, and skinning recently caught bears. You know you have had a wholesome weekend enjoying the great outdoors when all of your clothes smell of wood smoke. Either that or you are a serial arsonist ‘up to his old tricks’.

Running on the Black Mountains

As life affirming experiences go, this ranks very highly. On Sunday morning, as dictated by my training schedule, I put on my running shoes and headed out into the unknown. There is a great joy in going for the first run or ride in a new place. A sense of imminent discovery that removes any feelings of duty or routine. The Black Mountains did not disappoint. My t-shirt and shorts felt very flimsy in the cool morning air but the sun was streaming down into the valley and, knowing my own body, I was sure that in no time at all I would be generating as much heat as a geo-thermal vent and sweating prodigiously.

Up and out of the glade by the stream where our wagon sat, I ran. Across a steeply sloping field, through dew covered grass watching rabbits scatter at my approach, I jumped the gate onto the track, and followed the path upwards where we had ridden when pony trekking the day before. The way was muddy, with large puddles and protruding rocks, causing me to watch my step carefully, keeping me present and preventing me from sinking too deep into reverie of the natural beauty all around. Across another gate and I was in to Brecon Beacons National Park. Running along one side of a steep narrow valley, carpeted with battered bracken, I could hear nothing but the rushing of the stream and my own heart pounding as I gulped the cool air and climbed the treacherous, twisting path upwards. Once or twice, as I splashed through the deep gooey patches, cool mud coating my calves, I even cackled manically to myself with joy. It’s good to be alive, I thought, dancing a merry waltz with a giant, buxom, cliché. Embrace it and enjoy it to the full because our time is short. Live for now and whatever it is, get it done. Anything is possible.

I was motivated to sign up for the London Triathlon before mum died, as a way to transmute some of the sadness into something positive and raise money for a fantastic cause. Her death has strengthened my resolve and given me focus like I have never known. I wouldn't recommend loss as a desirable accompaniment to achieving your dreams, and there are many stages of emotion that different people experience at different times, but I am determined to give this triathlon the best of me and to make mum proud.

Wild pony and foal on the Black Mountains
 Upwards, the winding track took me. Looking back I could see the lush valley falling away, below, the wild untamed parts of the National Park giving way to a patchwork quilt of farmland. Sheep ran ahead of me in mini-flocks, needing only to turn left or right off the path to escape the onrushing muddy freak, but determined to be unwittingly herded to pastures new. I imagined an angry farmer on a quad bike searching the hillside for his woolly beasts, only to find them running before me, as I staggered along behind with strings of saliva swinging from my mouth shouting, ‘this is living!’

Wild ponies, a legacy of Roman occupation and less flighty than the sheep, paused in their grazing and watched me cautiously as I blundered on. As I thought how excellent it would be to come for a walk up this very path, even take a picnic, I ran out of the morning sun and into thick low cloud. Visibility dropped dramatically and I could see not more than 20 metres in front of me. I crossed a stream and as the track lead away from the water it merged with the grassy surrounds and became harder to follow. Rabbit holes and rocks lurked about, waiting to snap my ankle if I misplaced a step.

‘This is how those mountain rescue shows start,’ I thought to myself. ‘Nobody knows where I am. I don’t even know where I am. I don’t have a phone and I am inadequately dressed for exposure at 600m up a Welsh mountain.’

Best not break anything then, I decided, and plunged on. Running through the whiteness I had the feeling of being in a dream, the only human left, floating across a wild landscape in a cloudy womb. A remarkable experience and one sadly not equalled by running past kebab shops on Kingsland Road. The fading track turned north along a ridge and the wind whipping up from the unseen depths brought me back to reality and, after 21 minutes exactly, it was time to turn back.

Out of the window of my room at the hospital in Abergavenny I have a great view of the mountains where I was running just the other day, and the wifi is good enough for me to update my blog from my bed, though the cast on my leg makes balancing the laptop a bit tricky.

That could have happened, but happily it didn’t. I ran back to the wagon, feeling like one of the first men returning from a successful hunt, invigorated and alive. I showered next to the stream in icy water poured from a watering can, which was suspended from a moss-covered tree with a rope. More of this, please.

See the route of my run in the Black Mountains here 

Canoeing on the River Wye

The smile belies the terror
I have rafted down the Zambezi in Zambia and the White Nile in Uganda but it was with trepidation that I listened to the briefing from the instructor at Wye Valley Canoes, before reluctantly accepting a paddle from him, while exchanging a worried look with my sister. We were expecting a pleasant day on a picturesque waterway and were not prepared to learn that a section of the river is known as ‘the Rookie Butcher’ or to hear phrases like ‘body recovery’ and ‘impossible’.

As it turns out, the toughest part of the day was deciding which to eat first, the dried dates or the dried apple rings. And debating whether or not shouting loudly would encourage the herons to come closer.

We paddled our canoe ten miles from Glasbury (pronounced Glays-berry) to Whitney-on-wye and with my expert knowledge born of almost watching my sister drowned on a grade 5 rapid in Uganda, I sat at the back to steer and we (I) paddled languidly down-stream assisted by the strong current. I almost choked on a fruity snack when I heard my sister remark, while lying back in her seat, with her feet resting up on the gunnels, ‘Oooh, our muscles are going to ache tomorrow’

Wetsuit Test in the River Wye

Swathed in neoprene, the wetsuit test
Feeling fit and strong after plenty of training I was looking forward to donning my new 2XU T:2 Team wetsuit (the most popular model of the season according to the man in Sigma Sport) and piling into the river for a test. We found an accessible spot near Hay-on-wye and, much to the bemusement of the canoeing day-trippers, I attempted to swim up river against the strong current. Oh dear. It was hard work and disheartening so I angled myself to compensate for the flow and swam widths instead. I stopped to remark to one gawping paddler, clearly confused by the sight of a fish-man waste deep in water that is perfectly good for floating on,  'I've lost my car keys’, by way of an explanation. He kept on staring, while scratching his head, and then crashed into a bridge. 

Since last Sunday I have swum twice more in my wetsuit and I am starting to get used to it. I think being comfortable with your equipment is key to avoiding a panic on the day. The sensation takes some getting used to; it is obviously very tight and puts pressure on the muscles. A good wetsuit shouldn’t restrict movement of the arms but it feels like it is doing exactly that and the buoyancy of the neoprene causes you to float higher in the water. This should ultimately help you to swim faster but you have to get accustomed to the altered position. And damn and blast it, if I wasn’t just 3 laps into a 4000m swim around Hampstead Ponds when I heard the call of nature. And not the kind that can be answered subtly in the water.

Sometimes, like when I am swimming for over an hour in cold, murky water, on a cold, rainy day, dressed like a superhero gimp, I wonder why I am doing this. I remember in an instant and it drives me on for the next 100 or 1000 metres. Few things in my life have meant as much to me as this triathlon does. It has become symbolic as an attempt to wrestle back some control from the inescapable reality that there is only one certainty in life, death, and it is coming to us all. My mum’s body was taken over with disease and let her down so I want to train mine to run at its peak. Mum lost her battle against cancer but I am taking on this triathlon to win. Not in the sense of coming in first place, but by overcoming the challenge. This is my fight.

Next week sees me reach the peak of my training with 9 hours and 16 minutes of swimming, cycling and running to complete.