Big Lime triathlon

I drag myself out of bed in the dark. My phone is blinking with alarms somewhere off in the room. I haven't really slept. It's like half four in the morning and I've kinda been dozing since around eleven, somewhere between dreaming and hallucinating. This sleeping experience, or lack of it, is basically the same as the last time I did a triathlon.

I pull on my t-shirt and a pair of bright orange shorts I bought earlier this year, in Florida. I'd laid them out explicitly earlier in the evening, foreseeing that my brain'd be operating at like 25% when I had to get up. My backpack is already packed. Foresight. I hoist it on and head out into Whitby, a little pre-dawn chilly.

Up the hill to where we stashed the car and I break back out over the Moors. The sun's coming up over the sea somewhere behind me. No one else is on the road. I cycle fitfully through a number of albums on my phone, trying for something familiar enough to sing, which will help me stay awake. My mouth tastes bad. My stomach is uneasy. My eyes hurt.

I get back to Wingate by and by, pick up my bicycle, check on Mo, and head back out. I'm one of the first ones to arrive at the designated registration point—the Mecca Bingo across from the McDonalds in the Hartlepool marina—despite registration being open for like 45 minutes, at that point. I wander around the car park looking for the way in: the front doors to the bingo hall are locked. Registration, it turns out, is on the other side of the building, facing a big ramshackle-looking field serving as the transition area. I register, collect my things, and haul my bike into transition. The man standing at the transition gate asks me to prove that my brakes work. Would I be here if I wasn't sure they did?

I meet up with a friend called Stephen. He's someone I know through Sam's dad and who has participated in this triathlon for a few years now. He doesn't seem impressed. I fumble with my gear and nearly walk out of transition with my running shoes on. This would have been a catastrophic error: once we've left transition, we're not allowed back in until after we complete our swim. I thank him for the heads-up.

We slide into our wetsuits. Stephen gives me some vaseline to rub around my wrists and ankles to help the wetsuit slip off faster. I don't know how to tell him that I don't expect to finish in a competitive enough time for that kind of thing to matter. I apply the vaseline anyway. The sun's coming up, and it starts to get very warm inside my wetsuit. The water in the Jackson Dock is glassy and almost totally still, deflecting the early morning sun directly into our eyes. Stephen's goggles are tinted, and also polarised. I'm very jealous: my £3 Decathlon goggles barely keep water out at the best of times.

I run into another friend from Striders and meet her husband. We share pre-race jitters and bond over the anxiety of open-water swimming. They're both in the same wave as me, so we enter the water together. I chat on a little frantically, mostly to keep my nerves down. The Wingfield Castle, a rusty old ferry from the thirties now kept as a museum ship, lurks in the background. I've always been afraid of being near big ships, I don't know why. An early experience standing next to a cruise ship in dock has put me off for life. A pair of swimmers stroke back and forth across the bow of the Wingfield Castle: my body reflexively convulses with terror. I turn away, unable to bear watching.

The starting horn goes with little notice or fanfare. I don't even realise that it's the starting horn until everyone around me suddenly takes off. I sprint, a little, to try and get ahead. Someone wraps their hand around my ankle, and then quickly lets it go. I wonder idly if it was an accident. I'll never know who it was. We round the first buoy and get the sun out of our eyes, then the second, and the third. It occurs to me well after the fact that I've crossed the channel between the docks. Last time I was here, I was being bollocked by a man in a dinghy.

Open water swimming, especially when there are buoys to sight by, becomes a sort of treadmillish spaced-out activity, after a while. There's no scenery to watch go by, really: your face is in the murky water, so all you really see is a homogenous greenish-yellowish-blue, most of the time. You watch the bubbles go by when your hand enters the water, and you catch glimpses of shoreline or dockside. Then the buoy arrives, and you twist in the water, and sight the next one, and get back to it. Stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe. Consider changing breathing sides if one arm is starting to get a bit tired.

Then I'm done, swimming well over the rubber mats laid out on the slip, swimming until my hands touch the bottom. For some reason, I instinctively look both ways before crossing the closed road on the way to transition. I run, and I only stop when I get to my bike. I pass like three people walking; I'm not sure why people get out of the water and then walk to transition, instead of running. I strip my wetsuit off and leave it in a heap on the grass. I put my helmet on, and then my shoes, and stuff some snacks in the pockets of my tri suit. One of the snacks is a pouch of electrolyte dust, meant to be mixed into your water, pre-race. I don't realise this; I think it's a gel. I grab my bike and run to the mount point.

The ride is uneventful. There's an awful headwind on the way down towards Seaton Carew, just before the turn. I suspect that I'm slowing down too much on the hairpins at either end of the long lap up and down Coronation Drive, which is hillier than I'd realised. I make good ground on the steep hills, where my bike's easy gearing makes light work. My big body and high-rolling-resistance touring tyres, however, rob my momentum on the straights. When the faster triathletes, from the first wave, pass me, their bikes make deep whooshing sounds, like fighter jets flying high overhead. More than once I suspect I'm about to be passed by a motorcycle only to be overtaken instead by a man riding an aerodynamically immaculate carbon fibre contraption and wearing a long tear-drop shaped helmet that looks ridiculous in any situation other than a full speed tuck. Maybe that's just sour grapes. I dig what I think is a gel out of my pocket, tear at it with my teeth. A bunch of electrolyte dust flies into my face. Numpty. I fold the top over and stuff it back in my pocket.

At some point in the ride, I'm passed by my friend from Striders as well; I hadn't realised I was ahead. We finish the ride nearly neck-and-neck, and I exit transition first (doing both the ride and run in the same pair of shoes), but she overtakes me again early in the run and disappears into the distance.

The lap out along the promenade is miserable. The heat of the day encroaches, the sea glitters with reflected sunlight, and that southerly wind drags on my every step. My legs are a little wobbly from the ride, unaccustomed to impact. I check my watch: I'm on pace, but just barely. No slacking.

The run does get a little easier as I go; when I turn back towards Hartlepool, with the sun and wind at my back, I pick up like ten seconds per kilometre, out of nowhere. Pleased with that, I press onwards. I pass a couple of folks on the way, picking up steam. Just over a kilometre from the finish, I check my watch and see that I've made good time. I suspect that this realisation causes me to slack, just a little bit. Come to think of it, this whole thing actually hurts quite a lot. My body would really like to stop running. I try not to give it the option. The spots on my body exposed to the wind are caked in a thin layer of salt, probably a combination of seawater and sweat. There's no shelter out on the promenade. I try to imagine getting a cool tan, getting cool tri suit tan lines. I won't be in the sun long enough. The path briefly ducks into the shade behind a block of apartments; a man is standing on his third-floor balcony and clapping for us as we make our way by.

I run directly over the middle of a roundabout, and then past a fence lined with folks cheering and looking out for their family members. I spot the finish. The announcer, calling out the names of the finishers, says, "Aaaaand number one-forty-two, coming in now, that's, uh, that's Chris Harries—or, ah, Harris, or Harries!" He's the third person this month who has, unprompted, called me Chris. The Lord Mayor of Hartlepool, his gold mayoral chain glinting, puts a medal around my neck. I finish in an hour and twenty-seven minutes.

Triathlon Hartlepool


The Wager


Birnam Wood