Pulse Aquathlon 2019 – Keith Clarges
I’m standing on the grassy verge at the back of the queue waiting to descend the stairs to the choppy waters below. I think back to October; back when I started doing adult swimming lessons down in Meadowbrook. Back then I couldn’t swim a length of the pool without being out of breath. I think of how far I’ve come. You’ve got this I tell myself. Most people are chatting away, smiling, relaxed, a good way to be. Unlike me, I suspect this isn’t their first Aquathlon rodeo. I envy their calm. Smug bastards. The furthest I’ve ever swam in open water was 350 metres at the Salthill Try-a-Tri in 2015 and that was a pretty harrowing experience; it took me 14 minutes 50 seconds to swim 350 metres that day, and it felt more like 350 kilometres! It was brutal.
I hadn’t meant to wait 4 years to continue with triathlon, but one thing or another got in the way. Anyway, I sign up for the swimming lessons at my local pool with a view to maybe giving triathlon another bash if they go well. I never had them as a kid. I can swim, as in I can not drown, but I never learned to swim with my head in the water, proper breathing, proper form etc. In the new year I see a post on Facebook for the Pulse open day in CSS. I pop along and I’m convinced by what I hear, agree to try out a session on the track, sign up and look forward to having another crack at triathlon. I’ve been ticking away nicely, attending some training sessions, done some time trials, getting stronger, did my first Sprint in Laois. It’s all going well. I’ve been putting in lots of hours in the pool, and I’ve been comfortably covering double this distance for a few weeks now, so a certain level of confidence and self-belief is there. I’ve signed up for the Blessington Sprint, so this will be ideal preparation for that and a good barometer of how far my swimming has come.
However, my plan to get down to Killiney for all the open water sessions as the final bit of preparation for this one goes awry as late nights at work, illness and a holiday all mean I haven’t made one session! A bit of doubt creeps in as I stand there listening to people exchanging war stories of swims past. Were the pool sessions enough preparation for this I wonder? This is a different animal altogether. I keep looking at the red Pulse buoy and the one at the other end and it just looks so far away! Surely that’s way more than a kilometre? One of the lads on the little jet boat will go out and re-arrange that I think, but no such luck. Down the steps I go and enter the water. There’s a fair amount of seaweed, but it’s not as cold as I’d feared. It’s actually alright temperature wise. I keep myself to the back, fearing the elbows and clodhoppers of the main contenders. No point mixing it with them. Know your place. Earn the right.
The hooter sounds and we’re off. It’s carnage for the first bit. I’m bashing people’s ankles, there’s seaweed everywhere and worst of all there’s a distinct lack of visibility. I can’t see a thing. I wasn’t expecting clear waters, but this is horrendous. I’m not prepared for this. I decide to keep my head above water for a bit until I get a bit of space. I’m struggling to get any rhytym going. The water is so choppy and every time I put my head in, the lack of visibility is incredibly off-putting. I come up for air and get nailed by the slosh. Mouthful of water. I’m faffing around now and I haven’t even made the red turn buoy. I’m starting to get overwhelmed by negative thoughts and fear and doubt. You idiot. What were you thinking? You’ve bitten off way more than you can chew here.
I try to re-calibrate my thoughts. You’ve trained hard. OK, this is harder, way harder than you thought it would be, but the core fitness is there. Just try and calm down and imagine you’re in the pool. I round the red buoy. Ages to go and we’re heading against the tide. Nightmare. I told my wife beforehand that if I get anywhere near 20 minutes, I’d be over the moon, but I know that little goal is gone. Forget times. This is just about survival now, but I’m already feeling knackered. I’m struggling mentally. Really struggling. For a brief moment it all feels a bit much. I think about quitting, about rolling over and Black Panthering it, but I know I’d be devastated after. There’s no shame in a DNF. There’s tonnes of things that can go wrong in a race. Even a newbie to the sport like me knows that, but I know it would hurt my confidence to get one now, especially in a race organised by a club I’ve only just joined. I know the tiredness is more the stress and shock of this situation than the fitness. No, I tell myself, just dig deep and get on with it. I decide that the head in the water strategy has to go. It’s causing me too much anxiety. I’m well aware that I’m making myself way more inefficient with the head out, but I feel calmer this way.
I pass the big white buoy with the BMW sign, and I feel better. Halfway there. I’m starting to relax more. I can see the Shelly Banks on my right and I think of my dad. He loves the Shelly Banks. It’s the first positive thought I’ve had in the last few minutes, and it gives me a real boost. You always hear triathletes talking about the support on the course and how much it gives you a lift, but in the water you’re on your own – no clapping or whooping or people telling you to keep going. Just me and my thoughts. Better if they’re positive ones.
I hear the muffled sound of the tannoy and I feel good. I know I’m getting closer. I round the red buoy, and I can see the red carpet ahead of me. I get a strange pain on the side of my calf, but I plough my head into the water to distract from the pain. I feel good now. I reach the steps and a big, strong and most welcome hand (I actually think it belongs to the guy behind me and Maisie in that photo, but it’s all a blur now!) hauls me out of the water and sends me on my way. My legs are like jelly and I stumble along the pathway. I start trying to undo my wetsuit, but it makes me wobble even more. I can’t get a solid hand on the zip. I decide to wait until I get to transition. Times are not the priority here. In transition I realise that I’m actually shaking from the exertion of it all. I take a few deep breaths. I don’t care how long this transition takes. I eventually get changed and head for the run.
There are plenty of well-wishers on the beach. I head by the water’s edge where the sand is hardest. I’m running alone. Not passing anyone and not getting passed. Briefly I imagine that this must be what it’s like to be in the lead. Then the actual leaders whizz past me as they head for home. I’ve about 4 and a half k to go. The run is quite enjoyable, though I spend most of it thinking of how hard that swim was. I see some Pulsers on their way back, and I wish I had the gear. It looks great. Plus, I’m sure it leads to a lot of extra support, especially on a home event. I make a mental note to buy some when the shop re-opens. I reach the halfway point and I see Paul Leonard, a fellow newbie, is on marshall duty. Him and another Pulse fella, whose face I recognise from some of the sessions, but whose name I’ve yet to learn, offer me words of encouragement and it gives me a big lift as I head back to the finish line.
I enjoy the second half and I smile at the few participants still coming down the beach. As I near the giant green set of goalposts that mark the end, I see my wife and daughter waiting there. I cross the finish line to the shouts of my daughter, “Yay, Daddy’s a winner, Daddy’s a winner”. I’m knackered, but I’ve enough in the tank to give her a big hug. Little does she know that Daddy has finished 80th out of 87 finishers. Nor does she or would she care. Nor do I. Today was really all about the swim. I set out to achieve a 1k swim in open water, and I’m proud that I’ve done it. It’s another goal ticked off on the path to who knows where.
We head into town for some lunch. I take in a pint. It’s been a good Father’s day. Roll on Blessington.
Huge thanks to all the Pulse volunteers for making it such an enjoyable and well run event.