The London Triathlon: Defining Our Own Limits

I am still in awe.  Writing the next sentence humbles me, overwhelms me, and is like a dream. But I know it is not a dream. My hip flexors and quads remind me.

I finished the London Triathlon Olympic distance yesterday.

I completely redefined my limits.  It was a humbling, emotional day.  And I smiled the whole way.

In 2007 I decided I needed to do something to change my life – to take control of my fitness, as I could feel myself deteriorating.  In 2004 I was diagnosed with a progressive degenerative neuromuscular disease, and in 2007 I started to find climbing the stairs a challenge.  No way did I want to look back at my life and mark that moment as the end of my mobility as I knew it.  So I decided to do triathlons.

I set myself a goal – to do an Olympic distance triathlon.  Swim 1500 meters, Cycle 40 kilometers, and Run 10 kilometers.

My friends were doing tris.  My husband was doing tris.  Why not me.

In 2009 I started this site and blog to chronicle my journey to finish my first Olympic distance triathlon.  What have I learned along the way?

Maybe my Twitter / Facebook update following yesterday’s triathlon sums it up best:

“That was undoubtedly a true test of my current physical limits…”

Completing yesterday’s London Triathlon was not the end of my journey.  It was the beginning.  It was a test of what was yesterday’s limit.  And a huge measure of progress compared with a year ago.

I battled my demons on the course yesterday, I hit my limits, and now I know.  I know that *I* am the one who defines my limits.  Sure – I have to work with the hand of cards I have been dealt.  I am never going to be the fastest runner on the course.  But if I’m not going to be the fastest, I am going to be the most fun.  I am going to be the triathlete that thanks the marshalls, that smiles at the supporters, that tries to joke around with the aid station volunteers, that just has fun.  Because I am that triathlete that does triathlon – not for the fastest time or seeking my qualification to worlds or to beat my old personal best time – I am that triathlete who does triathlon simply because I can.

Writing this report is hard.  I find that thinking about what I just completed makes me cry.  No, not because I am sad or disappointed, and not because I am ecstatic either.  Just because the emotion is so raw, I really can’t process it except into tears.  The whole process of pushing and redefining my limits has been humbling. I’ve learned so much about how we really do define our own boundaries. 

Where to start?  Since this is a race report, I’ll start there…

The Race

The London Triathlon is known to be the world’s largest triathlon, with 13,000 participants over two days.  Yes.  13,000.

It is located at the London ExCel Centre.  Imagine transition for 13,000 athletes.

Photo taken by Jarrod Shoemaker from his Tweetstream

I went into Sunday’s race just wanting to finish.  This was my aim – to get my first Olympic distance triathlon done.  My fourth time at London but my first Oly tri.  From here, we can learn lessons, we can build on strengths, improve weaknesses, and assess, evaluate and rethink things.

Bikes racked, ready to race!

That said, I did have two time related goals.

First, the Swim. 

I wanted to get my 1500m open water swim below 30 minutes.  Cracking the sub-30 barrier is a huge event for a triathlete.

And I did it.

On the yucky new course layout with all the turns, and weird finish chute and 500 people on a wave, I did it.  Sighting perfect.  Strokes strong.  Breathing under control.  No panicking or hyperventilation.  It was a perfect swim.

29 minutes, 52 seconds.

And a huge smile!

Next, the bike. 

I wanted to finish my 40km ride under 1 hour 30 minutes.  This may seem slow for some people, but for me this time would place me above 25kph on the course.  I knew that with a time around this average, I would be able to have enough legs left for the run, and that I would be able to enjoy the speed going down into Limehouse tunnel and not work too hard on the climbing back up. 

1 hour 29 minutes 46 seconds

It felt good.  I was pleased.

I got most of my nutrition right – as planned, 3 gels.  My energy felt good.  I rather foolishly had sports drink in one of my water bottles and it is not what my body wanted.  I knew I probably did not take enough water as a result.  But I knew I could compensate by taking more water at the aid stations, making sure to walk through and drink at each one.

My only complaint is my saddle.  Something to replace next year – gosh this is an easy sport to spend money on!

And the run…

I had no goal for the run – just to do it, and try to do it continuously.

I did it.  I had never even attempted 10k before.  I think my max was about 6k in training.  So I knew the run would be hard.

And boy was this hard.  Doing a 10k run is hard. Hard I tell you. And after a swim and bike. HARD. Did I say hard?

I respect the run.  And I will be working on it.

Running has never been my thing, but I am so glad I spent time this year getting my running to a stable state.  I was able to man up and get around the course.  And I knew I wouldn’t be damaged as a result.

To give you some idea of where I was on Sunday…  I cannot describe how appalling things felt at about 8 kilometers into the run.  For some reason I zoned out and forgot to take on energy gels on the run.  I knew I needed one, at least two.  But when I hit about 7km into the run, I realised I hadn’t had one.  I crashed, hard.  Legs empty.  Mind bumping along the bottom – if you that fish, kind of like the lure that you cast and let out the line, before you reel it in.  That was my mind.  Bumping along.  What could I do? 

There are two choices in bad situations.  Be miserable, or make the most of it.  I chose the latter.  I decided to stick a smile on my face, keep on shuffling, and to do my best with the hand of cards I was dealt.  So I did. I thanked everyone I ran past for their support. I tried my hardest to keep picking my feet up.  I grabbed a cup of Gatorade and hoped it would work.  I knew the end was close, and that no matter what, at the end of the day, I would finish.  It may not be pretty but it would get done.  I knew I had the mental strength to do this, even if physically I was touching the limit, I knew it would happen.  And I was damned sure that I would finish the triathlon smiling.  I focused on the fact that just being on the course was a privilege and a pleasure, and I wasn’t going to waste a single moment.  Nutrition error or not, nothing would stop me from having fun and doing it my way.

And with that I finished.  I joined 13,000 other people who did the London Triathlon on the weekend. Including the fabulous Vernon Kay, who was generous with his time and indulged me in a photo – a lovely guy.  I think he has the tri bug – I mentioned Barcelona in October to him, and the idea of post race tapas seemed to appeal!

Vernon Kay and I with our medals – he had nutrition issues too (vom in transition – NICE!)

What Next?

Since I finished, I have had so many people ask what next.  First is recovery.  A lot of water, stretching, and light activity this week.  My legs did more yesterday then they have ever done on one day before, so they will need some time.  I know I will need to find sleep and good food this week too.

Then, back to training.  The thing is, with a degenerative nerve disease, you can’t really stop.  Getting my head around this is a constant struggle.  I would love to “take time off” but I just can’t.  Activity and an active lifestyle has to become second nature.  So later this week, the training schedule resumes.

As for races?  I am not sure.  Perhaps Barcelona.  It is very tempting to do a sea swim and have a do-over on the 10k run in October!

Paratriathlon classification?  Possibly.  I lined up as a paratriathlete yesterday, and to be honest, I am not sure it makes sense yet to me.  Maybe next year things will become more clear.  But now, I am not sure.

One certainty?  Yesterday’s success is just the first stop on what I am sure will be a lifelong pursuit of redefining the limits I place on myself.

The Thank Yous

Triathlon may be a solo sport, but it is impossible without a team.

I really did take each and every good luck wish, tweet along the journey, and message of support with me on Sunday.  I felt like I had the wind of so many supporters in my sails.  I will go through and do a separate post to thank you all.

Probably my biggest thanks goes to DH.  He has to put up with me day in and day out.  During training highs and lows.  When I become uncommunicative, or conversely, obsessive about rehashing each detail of training.  We were super fortunate to start in the same wave on Sunday, and a huge congrats to him as he smashed his previous race best by 20 minutes and went sub 3 hours for the first time! 

Just the two of us, clowning around, before the wetsuits were zipped up on Sunday!

Others have made my journey possible. 

The folks at the National Hospital for Neurology, especially Alex and Gita in physio, Elaine in orthotics, Georgie who always answers my emails, and Matthew Parton my neurologist have been supportive, helpful, progressive and willing to let me push my boundaries while keeping an eye on how I am responding physically – keeping me safe and stable along the way.  I am super lucky to have access to simply the best medical team I could imagine.  And I also need to thank my elbow doctor Simon Lambert with the National Orthopaedic Hospital who put me back together again in 2007.  The elbow is working great Simon and I am finally using aero-bars as you suggested!

Michael “Magic Hands ” Collins is my friend, swimming buddy, sports therapist, and mobility maker.  Michael has kept me moving for 3 years, and keeps helping me to bounce back from physical challenges to meet the next test I set for myself.  I know he hates accepting praise, so what to do but to praise him on this site? 

Coach T.  Through trial, error, countless hours on the track and in the pool, I have been able to make it around the course at the London Triathlon without doubting that I would finish it.  With Terry’s coaching I have established a base that has kept me off the injury spiral and helped me to find the joy in doing triathlon just because I can.  Seeing him at the Excel Centre on my run lap helped me to stay in my happy place as I found a nice meditative plod on the run course, all the while smiling and keeping my spirits high.

And Christine.  The newest part of the team that I have built for myself, Christine has been helping me to understand nutrition and its impact on me.  I still have a way to go on this part of my journey, but her simple common sense approach and tools have already helped me enormously.  And I can hand over heart say that without Christine’s vital advice to bring along a cut apple and some almond butter for post race nutrition, I am sure I would have just passed out on the side of the road with my bike on the way home!

Thank you, thank you, thank you. What a fantastic first stop on the journey this has been…

24 responses to “The London Triathlon: Defining Our Own Limits”

  1. WHAT? I am in awe of you. Olympic distance triathlons are serious business. Makes my sprint triathlon seem like child’s play. LOL!Congrats. Wow! That is amazing.

  2. Brilliant! Well done Donna. You have achieved so much and should rightfully be hugely proud of yourself. Keep going forwards with new, higher goals and you’ll keep surprising yourself, for sure.

  3. Donna – just read your report, fantastic, puts mine to shame when the only thing I had to complain about was being kicked in the face and biting my tongue !So glad I saw you on run course and I can verify you were smiling all the way.Keep going ( after a few days rest) and best of luck in the future with whatever you achieve and manage – just keep smiling winkZoe (from DailyMile)

  4. Donna, I am so happy for you. You are amazing. In 2007 you chose to not accept that you would have less and less mobility. So few people make this choice. What an awesome race. Great swim, great bike. and AMAZING 10K run. Yes, 10K *is* hard, but you did it! Congrats again!And yes, this is an easy sport to spend money on. I’m currently shopping for a new saddle myself!

  5. I cried reading this post (knew I would before you wrote it).You make me so very proud big sis!!! I totally want to learn to ride a bike so maybe someday I can do a tri too. Your dedication and perseverance are amazing!!!  Great job!!! Continue to push yourself and inspire others. LOVE YA!!!

  6. Don’t sell yourself short! A sprint is awesome. I love that distance and want to improve there too!

    I had no idea how hard an Oly would be.  I recommend doing one as it pushes the dedication you make to yourself and your fitness.  But I completely totally and 100% see triathlon in a new light now.  In awe of the sport, really.

    Thanks for reading!

    Donna x

  7. Zoe it was absolutely brilliant seeing you on the course! I was trying to keep an eye out for folks around me, but found myself just trying to stay calm and focused!  As it was I forgot to eat, it was all too much!

    Yes I’ll keep smiling.  And awesome results from you – I bet you are smiling too!


  8. Oh Scoopie now I am tearing up again too!  We just have to teach you to ride.  Next visit…

    Love you too!  Hugs, and wish I was there to hug you for real!

  9. Sheila, you know when I was on the run I found myself thinking about the tweet exchange we had in 2009, when I said I went for an early morning run and my knee felt weird.  I thought “my god how things have changed. Sheila wouldn’t recognise me now my knee doesn’t hurt at all!”  Your tweet support, suggestions, and encouragement were with me the whole way.  I cannot thank you enough for being with me for the past year plus on this journey…

    Oh, and send me your saddle recommendations.  I really need to sort that out!

  10. Thank you so much Ian.  And congratulations to you too!  Well done on raising funds and awareness for homeless charities along the way…

    It has been great following you on Twitter and meeting up before the triathlon at London Fields.  Will you be doing it again next year?  Regardless, looking forward to catching up over a meal and beer soon to properly celebrate!

  11. Oh Maria! There was just no other option except to smile! I couldn’t believe I was doing it! It was not fast or pretty but this was just amazing – maybe because it was the first time, but for some reason I just don’t think so. It was amazing because we have the privilege to do it! I guess you felt the same awe inspired feeling when you were on the Lake Placid course?

    I’ve finally stopped weeping, and am enjoying the glow.  I am amazed at how resilient my body has now become.  I feel muscles ache, and stiffness, but honestly, no pain.  This is simply thrilling.

    I can’t wait for the next race.  To keep smiling!

    Donna x

  12. Amy thank you so much for this. I guess it is like you say, we all need to find something to hang onto. For me it is staying fit and mobile.

    Wear the Twitter swim cap not just for me but for everyone else who has CMT.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a cure, to give more people a chance to experience the thrill of doing things that are seemingly impossible? 

    Thanks again and I can’t wait to see your photo in the cap!

  13. Hi Matt.  You will so do that 40km bike ride.  You will.

    I am deeply honored to be a part of your blog.  I will let you know when my website migrates and the link changes.  It will be soon, as my fitness year is coming to an end.  I feel reborn, like I have discovered a new life. The life is all about making this physical activity a permanent part of me. It is a struggle but one that just needs to be second nature. 

    Thank you so much for your support.  I love the CMTUS list for the positivity and information we all share.  We are all different, but facing so many similar things. 

    All the best,

  14. Hi Donna, I read your story on CMTUS and of course had to comment.  I created a post on my blog linking to your since you are such an inspiration.  I hope you don’t mind, please let me know if you want me to change anything.Cheers, Matt

  15. Donna,First off – I love, love, love that your focus was on FUN!!!  How awesome!!  What a bright light to everyone you are!!And – so awesome what you have accomplished.  You are a triathlete.  And even more than that, you shine what is good and right in our world…

  16. Well Done, She has achieved a lot, and rightly should be extremely proud of yourself. Continue straight ahead for the new, higher goals, and keep surprising yourself, for sure.

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