Monday, 24 August 2015

Oh, relay?

Organised chaos: that's what the event organisers like to call the Triathlon Relays, held at the National Watersports Centre in Nottingham this weekend. They're not wrong.

The relays have been running since 1991 and have become a popular event in the triathlon calendar; originally held as an end of season championship event between clubs, they were revamped this year to also include teams of participants who aren't necessarily members of triathlon clubs.

On first glance, making sense of the format can be as exhausting as the race itself. A relay team of four people each complete the 500m swim, before the first person starts the 15km cycle and so on, until the last member of the team crosses the finish line at the end of their 5km run. Without a traditional transition, the need for a so-called 'fourth discipline' of triathlon seems to be met with gazebo construction, and many clubs set up camp to make a weekend of it, staying for the Sunday 'elite-style' tag relays too.

I raced on Saturday as part of a women's team with my club, Oxford Tri. Things became even more complicated for our men's team when their 4th member dropped out on the morning, leaving them to pick up an extra leg each, and solve some complicated logistics over their order and timing chips. We all made it around, with big smiles, and without missing a single changeover. That last bit isn't as easy as it sounds.

Here is a bit of the organisation, the chaos, and the fun from the day. If you fancy getting a team together to have a go next year, there is more information here. I really recommend it.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Something to shout about: The London Triathlon

Events are always so much more fun with friends so, earlier in the year, Laura and I asked for people to join us for a triathlon this summer. We had lots of great applications but six lovely people stood out and made up Team Tricurious this Saturday at the London Triathlon. I’d been planning to support from the sidelines until a well-timed retweet won me a very last minute entry to the Olympic distance race and I jumped at the chance to join in with the team and a few friends.

We zipped Becca into her wetsuit in the morning, waved her off to her Super Sprint and went to watch her swim start. As I’d peered at a computer screen the night before, trying to work out driving directions to London ExCeL, I’d wondered why the event is held there – it seemed to be pretty inconvenient whether you lived in London or not - but when you see the swimmers exit the water and run into an exhibition hall that houses the world’s biggest transition area, it all sort of starts to make sense. An aeroplane flew in over the swim wave to land at London City Airport and I wondered if it would be an easier way to travel to the venue next time.

It wasn’t long before we were waving Kat and Laura off to their swim, and I was joining our friend Cathy to assemble for the mixed Olympic wave. An enthusiastic official marshalled us in and handed out last minute tips. His tone was perfect for an event that caters for all abilities – supportive and positive, encouraging everyone to look out for each other so that every athlete had a great day – although, when he asked us to turn around and hug the person next to us, I was never more glad to be there with a mate. We were in the largest wave of the day, with 394 competitors setting off, so they made the call to split it into two halves and slim down the masses in the swim.

London Triathlon is a huge event – around 13,000 participants take part in different distances over the course of the weekend. It’s a perfect race for first time triathletes or anyone wanting to enjoy the atmosphere at such a big event, and there are elite races and faster waves on the Sunday for the racing snakes. It’s obvious the course is going to get congested, particularly on the bike, but at least the closed roads offer a unique opportunity to cycle in London without the buses. The roads themselves have the potential to be pretty fast in places, with some straight sections and only two really tight turns on each of the 4 laps, but you had to stay alert to other competitors and respect each other on the course.

At one point, a man overtook shouting aggressively, and unnecessarily, at anyone and everyone to stay out of his way. I noticed he was wearing a long-sleeved cycling skinsuit and aero booties over his cycling shoes, so I made an assumption that he hadn’t been swimming first. Either that or he’d had to spend a long time in transition (maybe that’s why he was so cross). I hope his relay teammates were lovely and gave him a hug at the end; he seemed to need one. Like him, I rode my timetrial bike but I found enough space to have a good race; there were plenty of people on road bikes and hybrids too, and the majority of people were there to enjoy their race. There are better races to set PBs on the bike than the London Triathlon.

The run course involved four very straightforward out and back loops; at any other event this could have become tedious but there was lots of encouragement from other runners, as well as the crowds in and around ExCeL. I got to see Kat, Laura and Cathy at least once on each lap for a cheer or a high five. We were like our own mobile support crew, finally meeting at the finish line inside the ExCeL each with a big medal and a bigger smile.

Back: Helen, Cathy, Laura, me, Josie, Chrissy, Sarah
Front: Laura, Becca, Kat
With the rest of the team out in the Sprint races later in the day, we headed out on to the course and assembled with cake and beer. Will was in one of the last waves to start and we cheered him on each lap of the run, then waited to support every last finisher on the course at the end of a wonderful day. The man I encountered on the bike seemed to be just one in 13,000: an anomaly in what was an overwhelmingly positive and inclusive event. We saved our voices for shouting encouragement, and for laughing and trading stories with our amazing team of triathletes. Well done, Team Tricurious - you are all brilliant!

If you'd like to read more about Team Tricurious and how they each got on at the London Triathlon, have a look at the Tricurious blog.

Back: Will, Laura, Josie, Helen, Chrissy, Anita, Sarah
Front: Laura, me

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Crowded 'round: an alternative London marathon

I was lucky enough to run the London Marathon last Sunday. It was an incredible day, with crowds lining most of the route, and it felt like a 26.2 mile party. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to gain an entry to the event so I recently tried an alternative way of running a marathon around the nation's capital. There was no ballot to get in but, as it turned out, the crowds were just as big.

I counted my urban jogging adventure as
an emergency and evacuated the station
as quickly as my legs could manage.
The London Underround in an 'anytime' challenge, dreamt up by performance coach, Rory Coleman. Taking in 42 underground stations in Zone 1, the route covers more than 20 miles overland but don't expect to stay outside in the open: the real challenge is that you have to touch the yellow line on the platform in each of the stations, and exit using the stairs or escalator.

I thought 9.30 on a Tuesday morning would offer the perfect window to set out from King's Cross: just late enough to miss the morning rush, just early enough to be back before the evening one. By the time I reached the third station and encountered another hoard of people piling down the escalator, I started to wonder whether I'd be the life and soul of the commuter party at both ends of the day, and struggling to beat the last tube home.

Rush hour was starting again by the time I reached some of the later stations in the City that afternoon and, as I weaved my way around the maze of Bank station and the people who filled it, I marvelled at the current record for the route. Standing at four hours 36 minutes, it's only half an hour slower than my marathon PB at Berlin: a flat and fast course, where world records are often broken. A man did a wee on my leg in the start pen of that race and, however long I took to complete the Underround, I figured that if I made it out of the crowds without that happening, it would be a performance I could be proud of.

The crowds weren't the only thing slowing me down: I don't live in London and my sense of direction isn't the most reliable. I received the route from Rory the day before and printed out my booklet of maps to help me find the stations but, running the route by myself, the navigating took me more time than I expected. I was very grateful for a friend's company for 2 miles in the West End, not only for his witty repartee, but his local knowledge too: entry to Covent Garden tube station was closed and only accessible by train but he had a plan ready that involved a quick sprint to Leicester Square and short tube journey back. Enjoying a 20 second sit down between stations, I proudly declared that, at 260 metres, this was the shortest tube journey in London. Phil looked at me sympathetically. If it weren’t for the fact we were underground, I suspect he would have abandoned me there.

The only major navigational hiccough happened after Sloane Square, where I ran for 15 minutes in completely the wrong direction. A local newsagent shook his head when I asked him for directions back to Victoria, and he suggested I get on a bus; instead, I bought a bottle of water from him and carried on running. The route itself was spectacular, taking in some beautiful parts of London; with my GPS showing nearly 26 miles, it looked like I'd also seen some bits of London I wasn't supposed to.

If you want to try the Underround, you can find out more on Rory's website. I've also written about it over at the Guardian Running Blog and recorded a podcast for Lazy Girl Running.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Crossed legs


It was enough to give anyone stage fright. Seconds later, two women in brightly coloured club vests emerged sheepishly from the undergrowth to a large crowd of onlookers – who knows if they managed to go. Just moments into lining up for my first race I was learning that cross country is a serious business, and going to the loo in the right place even more so. I could only assume that shouting at the top of your voice attracts less attention from the locals than two women quietly having a tinkle in a bush and, after a series of complaints from residents last year, the hard-working race organiser was taking no chances. Luckily, I’d read that bit on the website and knew this wasn’t the done thing.

I’ve had the local cross country league on my radar for a while but had yet to make it along to a race; the people I’ve met at my running club love it and I think “are you doing the XC this weekend?” might come a close second to “how was your week?” in the questions most frequently asked at the club run. Today was the last round of our local series and so, inspired by the antics of my friends Laura and Laura, at the nationals last weekend, I decided to give it a go. Besides, I had a pair of leopard print spikes that I’d bought in a sale last year sitting there gaining suspicious glances from my boyfriend; space in the shoe cupboard is at a premium in my household and I needed to justify their existence by getting them as muddy as all of my other shoes.

Serious face, serious accessories.
(Photo credit: Emma Carter)
Thanks in part to all the shouting and, possibly, the misfortune of the two ladies now waiting to run with their legs crossed, the chat at the women’s start was all very light-hearted, with different clubs mingling happily. That was until the gun went, reminding us all we were there to race, and sending us on our way around the 6.5 km course. The Lauras had told me how cross country works: places matter, not times, and that’s why it’s such serious business. I wasn’t just racing for myself but for everyone wearing my club’s distinctive yellow vest; I was glad that I’d taken the time to pick out a hairband that matched in that case.

The course was less muddy than I’d expected. There was a large, fairly dry field to run around, with some bumps and long grass that got caught up in my spikes if I didn’t lift my feet. A couple of tarmac sections made me wish I’d spent less time accessorising and more time finding out about the course. Still, at least I’d read enough to know I should have a wee before leaving the house. There were two steep hilly sections, with enough mud at the bottom to vindicate my footwear decision; while tough on the legs, this tricky part of the course also attracted the most supporters. “You can catch her and work together,” came a cheer from a man in the crowd, reminding me that this was a race and every position counts. I’m a bit passive competitive at best, normally preferring to set my own targets than race others, but I tried to stay with the runner in front, and to push hard on the downhills. I even sprinted the last 100 m to try and hold off the girl behind me; I didn’t quite manage it but maybe I’m more competitive than I first thought.

I’ve rarely raced an event with all women. Ignore the drama in the bushes and my misplaced priorities over a hairband: standing at the start surrounded by club runners of all abilities, seeing the leading woman charge through the end of her second lap, and shaking hands with the girl who overtook me before the line, I realised that there is probably no better demonstration of strength in women’s amateur running than at a cross country race.

Forget my shoe choice – my only regret is not doing this sooner. I’ll be back. As long as we still have the venue.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Three degrees of celebration

“Whose silly idea was this?” came a text message from my friend, Laura, on a very cold Saturday morning a few weeks ago. In the interests of honesty, I admit the word ‘silly’ has been used to replace a word I don’t say on this blog. You probably get the picture.

A couple of hours later, we were both sat giggling and shivering in a hot tub, ‘clinking’ our paper cups of hot blackcurrant squash, mostly in celebration and partly in disbelief. The silly idea had been to swim across Tooting Bec Lido, an unheated outdoor pool in London, as part of the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. Swimming in 3oC water does sound a bit silly but it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to some of the other ideas one or other of us has come up with in the time we have been friends.

In October last year, Laura and I travelled with some other great friends to run Snowdonia Marathon. We then hopped on a ferry and ran Dublin Marathon with just a day in between. That seemed quite silly but we did it, singing and laughing as we went. We celebrated in much the same way, with some dodgy headwear, a drink in our hands, and lots of giggling at the end.

I don’t really know what my expectations were when I started this blog a few years ago; I think it seemed a good way of making myself accountable for my attempt to run another marathon after becoming really unfit. And it did just that. What I really didn’t expect was that I would make some incredible friends along the way: people who ‘get me’ just as well as those friends I’ve made in other areas of my life; people who say “go for it” when I mention some silly challenge; and, even better, people who ask me to join them when they have their own ideas and opportunities.

Tricurious by Laura Fountain and Katie King
Published by Summersdale
About a year and a half ago, Laura pitched an idea to me that seemed quite silly at the time. Her idea was that I would join her to co-author a book about triathlon. A book that would tell Laura’s story our how she went from a non-swimmer to completing an iron-distance triathlon, and that would provide practical advice to people starting out in the sport. I suppose it seemed silly not because Laura would write it (she’s got form with this kind of thing) but because she asked me to join her. But I’m so pleased she did.

Like training for a marathon or ironman, the book took time, patience and a lot of hard work. We both like a challenge though and, just like training for a marathon or ironman, it was also made a lot of fun by having a good friend to share it all with along the way. We hope you’ll enjoy reading  Tricurious as much
as we enjoyed writing it.

Tricurious is officially out in March but we learned today that Amazon have started to send out the pre-ordered copies. This weekend, I’m joining Laura and her friends to run between some of her favourite pubs across London for her birthday. It’s another idea that I suspect will be accompanied by the clinking of glasses and a lot of laughter.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

It's now or next year

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May lots of great things happen, whenever you choose to make them.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Summit to be proud of

“At midnight, we walk,” said our 70 year old guide, Fataeli, last Tuesday evening.

Over the course of 3 days, we had trekked with our leader and his team of guides and superhuman porters through lush rainforest, across moorland, and up to sparse alpine desert to reach an altitude of 4700 m above sea level and a hut where we could rest for 4 hours before the final ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

We had been given three main pieces of advice before we left days earlier: “Drink lots, apply sunscreen, and go slowly”. Dehydration can contribute to the effects of altitude sickness but, sticking rigidly to the first piece of advice, I was beginning to think someone was having a joke as altitude increased but vegetation cover and temperature decreased. A man of few words, Fataeli didn’t labour the point, he just pointed out suitable rocks and waited patiently as we disappeared to pee again.

Porters walk towards the Alpine desert as Kilimanjaro's Kibo peak lurks behind the clouds.

The idea to climb Kilimanjaro came from my friend, Hong, earlier this year. She’s one of those friends that gets out and does stuff. I like people like that. There’s nothing more flattering then when they ask you to join them; it makes you realise that they think you might be capable of doing it too. As my friend Laura says, “if you want to do something amazing, surround yourself with amazing people.” So when Hong asked me if I’d like to join her on this adventure, I jumped at the chance.

We left Kibo Hut at midnight in total darkness: 10 other inspiring people who say “yes” to things in life and a team of 6 talented local guides there to help make that happen. With over 300 ascents of Kibo peak to Fataeli’s name, a dodgy knee and laboured gait belied a wealth of experience, total respect from each and every guide on the mountain, and a steady pace that would maximise our chances of successfully reaching the summit. I tried to stay in line behind him, following his torch as he picked out the best route through the volcanic rocks.

Looking up the steep scree climb ahead, a zig-zag of head torches stretched above as far as I could see, making it difficult to tell where the mountain stopped and the stars began. Warned that this would be a mental challenge as much as physical, I opted to look instead at the feet of the person in front and just keep moving forwards. I counted 20 steps at a time and, when I reached the target without vomiting from the altitude, I grinned with triumph; when that became too difficult, I mumbled with each individual footstep, “I can... I can... I can..."

Fataeli’s pace continued like a train. Becoming dizzy and fatigued from the altitude, I could only take two steps forward, before slipping backwards one on the scree, or lurching precariously to the side as I lost my balance. I thought that coping with the mental challenge would be my strength, but when you feel sick as you walk, yet even sicker from cold when you stop, it started to feel like my stubborn streak had met its match and I began to fall behind. When I finally came to a standstill, wondering how I was going to carry on, I felt two hands clutch my shoulders and steady me. “Slowly slowly, take your breath,” came a voice, singing gently behind me. One of the guides, Augustin, had hung back to walk with me and didn’t leave my side again.

We reached Gilman’s Point, the summit of the Marangu route, at 5685 metres at about 6 o’clock in the morning. I flopped down onto a rock next to Fataeli and groaned; giggling, he handed me a cup of tea, nudged me in the ribs and pointed to the sun rising behind us, and then to Augustin who was encouraging me to stand up and push on for another 2 hours towards the Uhuru summit, the highest point in Africa. My stubborn streak might have been wavering but theirs certainly weren’t.

Yes we can,” said Augustin, seeing the look on my face, “Obama said that, and now so do we.” Maybe he’d heard my mumbling earlier, or maybe only this kind of positivity can survive above this altitude, but I liked his attitude and I stood up again.

Thawing slowly as the sun rose, we stopped every few minutes for me to catch my breath or drink water, while Augustin took photos on my camera. I normally prefer to hide behind the lens but he was keen to ensure that each moment was captured and, among some stunning landscape photographs, I acquired a fine collection of altitude-induced gurning shots that will allow me to relive the suffering more accurately than any description here could. “Even at our pace, the top is only 10 minutes away now,” he reassured me, taking me by the hand and leading me along the final climb to the rooftop of Africa at 5895 metres above sea level. He took a few more photos before asking, “you know how to ski, right?”; it seems that the descent down the volcanic scree slope of Kibo peak is actually more fun than the climb.

Scree descent back to Kibo Hut (Mawenzi peak in the background)

We met a lady in the airport on the way home wearing her Kilimanjaro souvenir t-shirt. She and her son had climbed the same route as us and summited on the same morning. When I asked how their climb had gone, she said she would display her Uhuru photo on the wall at home but would never tell the real story of how she made it there: how she was helped to the summit by her guide; how he carried her bag; how he held her hand; how he hugged her when she cried. I was saddened to hear this. Reaching the summit may have been my aim at first but the kindness, patience and persistence of a relative stranger made this challenge more memorable than any bragging rights.

We should appreciate the people around us that help make amazing things happen. Whether you watch their footsteps in front of you, or feel their hand on your back. Whether they nudge you in the ribs and point out a sunset, or hold your gloves and rucksack while you wee on a mountain. Whether they hand you a cup of tea when you feel rougher than you ever thought possible, or make you snort it out of your nose with laughter moments later. Whether they invite you on their adventures, or listen to your stories when you get back. As Laura says, “if you start hanging round with people who think that your dreams sound like a great way to spend your time, rather than those who question why you’d want to do such a thing, you’ll find those dreams become a reality a lot sooner.” The summit photo that I’ll hang on my wall at home has two people in it; I'm grateful for that and proud of the story why.

Kilimanjaro guide, Augustin, and me at Uhuru Peak, August 20th 2014
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