Starting from the back

I’ve never been at the back of a swim event before. 

At one point, there was maybe only a dozen people behind me, but, I watched a race from a whole new perspective. And it was amazing.

Re e wind. 

My pal Ria, was swimming and running her first race, 5.5 months post baby, and we were doing it together. We know we are at different paces, but today, it was about getting her across the line. It was a start of our future swimrun adventures together. 

Lining up on the grounds of beautiful Hever Castle, we reach the pontoon before our swim start. There was still a lot of people behind us, as we enter the water and the countdown had begun to start the race. We had 20m to swim to the start. 

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Cafuffle aside, the shock of entering the cold water was enough to take your breath away. It was colder than it’s been for months. The stress of making it to the start line without being acclimatised was a mistake from the organiser. In races later in the day, they waited till everyone was at the start line, but there’s nothing we could do about it now. 

Counting to ten, trying to get her breath under control, we start a crawl. I’ve been here before with cold water shock myself, but perhaps with experience on my side, I got it under control quickly. The shock though, was, well, shocking and getting back control was tough for my pal. I could see the desire to get through it, if you know Ria, she’s one of the most determined women I know. But, I could also see a small element of doubt creeping in her eye... maybe it was a tear, maybe it was lake water, but there was definitely a “I’m not sure I can do this” face, 120 metres in. How do I know? I’ve had that face myself before. It would have been easy to stop. But she didn’t. We didn’t. We kept going. We did it together.

It was interesting for me to watch the swim unfold. I could see the front swimmers as they turned the buoy ahead of us and I thought, they’re not that fast... there were a few for sure, there always is someone faster, but it gave me confidence that next year, I’m going to race this... let’s just hope more people don’t think the same! 

My commitment in today’s event though was to help my pal get it done. Help her keep going. And, with some of the games I was playing to help her through the final leg of our 750m swim, I could start to see a group of about 10/15 copying us... breath, count down from 5, then we’ll swim for 15 strokes... I chuckled to myself as it was as though we had our own little session together at the back, but all these folk at the back, who maybe weren’t the strongest swimmers today, needed was a little bit of guidance to get it done. And get it done they did. 

With 150m to go, Ria didn’t stop. Head down, arms spinning, she could see the swim exit. She dug deep and got it done. Next thing we knew, we were on our way to transition.

Just a reminder for you all, this woman is 5.5 months post baby and still posted a sub 25 minute 750m Swim. That’s pretty epic in my books! Actually, time doesn’t matter. Finishing an epic swim in cold water was a pretty impressive achievement itself! 

As we head through transition, I know I can take a little longer... so I was running through the grassy muddy slopes to our kit. I think Ria wondered what the heck I was doing as I was chasing people down to get there more quickly, and she was fighting to get her breath under control, but I knew she would be quicker, so I needed to get it done more quickly myself. 

We jog out of a tight lane, given bikes are coming at us from the opposite direction, and head off on lap one, straight into “shite hill” as the organiser called it. I’m thankful we train so much on hills at this point as I actually found it quite fun... but remember, I wasn’t running at my race pace. If I was, I may be saying something different about this hill! 

Trying to keep just in front of my pal, to give her something to run towards, she kept on. I’m fairly sure we got a smile together with the photographer, you always have to smile for photos, no matter how bad you feel..., as we headed downhill for the end of the first lap. 

We see our pals, Nikki, Nicky, Jaquie and Sam all suited up ready for their first triathlon... we try to tell them to get in the water early to acclimatise. We then run past our wonderfabulous children (and families) and exchange the best high fives and with Ria’s breath getting more in control, we head off with a spring in our step to the start of lap two. Seeing your friends and family on a course always is the best medicine if you’re ever feeling down about racing! 

Going up the hill for the second time, I could see the expression in Ria’s face that I too have used before. It maybe had a few swear words written beneath the skin. It definitely had a “why am I doing this” sort of expression or, can you exchange my calf muscles please type sign. Every now and then when I looked round, I could see her catching a cheeky walk, until she spotted me giving her that headmaster style look of “seriously?” As she started running again.

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We were doing it and we only had 1.5km to go. We had a nice rhythm, we were getting it done. Then we were passing some slower runners from a previous wave. They were struggling. Throughout the race you’d be able to hear me with the “come on pal / well done pal” type encouragement but what got me here was that Ria was doing it down this hill to anyone that needed a boost. Despite her being in the hurt locker herself, she still dug deep, to help some others get it done. She shines RunPals spirit through and through.

Approaching the finish line, the words passed through my lips that her husband Jon has said to me many a time before... “strong finish, big smile, make it look like you’ve really enjoyed the last 10miles”. 

I said “race you” and before I knew it, she’d taken off and I was in sprint mode trying to catch her up! I was stoked to see the fire in her belly lit, to finish the race like a legend that she is. 

I was so incredibly proud of her on this day. I know the fear she has of swimming and that swim was brutal today. I know how much she’s been training to build her run up again and I fear she’s getting close to my pace again. She’s my greatest pal, but also my greatest rival. When she is back up to full strength, I’m going to need to watch out as it will be game ON! 

But today, she got it done. Every single one of us has had those moments of “I’m not sure I can go on” and sometimes sure, they are incredibly hard to overturn, but, what if you did keep going? What if you did manage to reach the line? As Ria said after this race “it’ll never be that hard again”. Whilst I agreed with her, I hadn’t the heart to tell her that we’d be upping the ante next spring.

And to top off this amazing morning of amazingness, we got to watch four more of our pals become triathletes. Enduring the same swim, a brutally hilly bike course and a the same “shite hill” on the run, these wonderfabulous women all crossed the line. They all had worked so hard this summer to get here today and they did it. It was an honour to see them cross the line and prove yet again, anything is possible.

But that wasn’t the icing on the cake. Nope, there was one more thing that melted my heart a little. As we looked over the races for 2020 here at Hever, my son read there was an 8-10 year olds triathlon. With zero prompting from me, he said he wanted to do it. My boy, wanted to enter his first race, entirely on his own. We signed up and he’s not stopped telling people about it since. 

I left Hever yesterday feeling incredibly proud. Proud of our new triathletes. Proud of my mamaPal Ria and what she achieved today. And proud of the spirit of the RunPals that helped my boy see that he could do it too. 

What an absolutely epic day of epic proportions. 

Anything is possible Pals, if you commit your mind to it. 

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Matt Coyne