How tactics come into their own in triathlons
Triathlon is a great leveller, even for the best of athletes. Surely even the Brownlee brothers must fret over one sport of the three (swim, bike, run) at which they are marginally weaker.
I wonder if they, like me, wake up quietly some days thinking: "Darn! It's a swim day!"?
One of the things drawing me back to triathlon year after year is this very thing: the need to work at different skills, eliminating weaknesses in three sports and confronting the challenge of swapping rapidly between them.
While I know that I'll never be a front-of-pack swimmer, it's a source of pride that I am at least competent in the water now, and part of the fun of racing in triathlon is that everybody's strengths are different.
My new running pace buddy, Kayla, is contemplating her first sprint triathlon with her boyfriend, Seán this summer. She's the better runner of the two, but he is a stronger cyclist and swimmer, so they are having fun drawing up plans to determine the swim-bike-run paces required to keep the other at bay.
In a road race, the front runners rarely change.
In a triathlon, if you come from a road running or cycling background, take heart in the fact that if you crawl onto the beach last-but-one, you'll be in a splendid chasing position for the rest of the race.
I have more than once overtaken vast chunks of the field on the bike and run legs of a triathlon. Alternatively, if you're a confident swimmer and biker but your running lets you down, you can try the front-loading approach: put so much distance into the opposition that they will be mentally dented by the distance they need to cover to close the gap on the run.
I prefer to hunt than to be hunted, but that's perhaps because I am always racing from the back of the swim pack.
For triathlon, being race ready is not just about being fit, but also about evaluating your own strengths and weaknesses and using them as psychological tools to get you a little further towards the top of the results list.
I'm standing on the promenade in Santa Cruz, looking at some bobbing pink and green silicone swim hats disappearing into the distance, while listing triumphantly all of the iron-clad reasons why I should not be swimming the 2k loop around the wharf:
1/ I am dog-sitting (read: wrestling with) two enormous dogs who are busily distracted sniffing the pancake stack of sea lions sunbathing on a floating dock just below;
2/ I ran a solid, fast 18 miles this morning. Workout done;
3/ The clincher: I left my wetsuit back in Galway at Christmas, and while the temperatures here don't quite match the Atlantic, the Pacific coast of America is pretty chilly, tracking just a few degrees warmer. No way am I getting in there without a wetsuit.
Neither am I sure about the wildlife – those sea lions look nasty to me, and amusingly one of the swimmers, my friend Alan, gets pecked by a bird and stops in a flurry of panic mid-swim to fend off the offending tern. Despite the bird bombing, the group swims the distance quickly and safely, and hop out looking pleased and refreshed.
This is a yearly debate for me: embracing the open water sea swim. It took me a few years to fully acclimatise to swim comfortably in bitterly cold, choppy, seaweed-and-jellyfish-strewn Galway Bay, and annually, the First Open Water Swim – cold, disorienting, discouraging – takes my breath and confidence away again.
By now I am well-conditioned to it, and it just takes me that first swim to get my sea legs back. My triathlon friends are already declaring triumphantly that the open water swim in Santa Cruz will be a weekly event. After the Boston Marathon, it will be time to dip my toe into the open sea to work on my triathlon weak spot once again.