This could amount to an exercise in public humiliation – a monthly column about my pursuit of an age-group place at Hyde Park in September. It’s a challenge that will probably end in failure, given my suspicion that there are lots of 40-something blokes out there capable of covering the Olympic distance a fair bit quicker than I can. But in my job as a sports writer, I was fortunate enough to cover the Brownlee brothers winning Olympic medals last summer and thought it would be brilliant to race on the same course little more than a year later. I mentioned my desire to qualify to someone, who mentioned it to someone, who mentioned it to someone senior at 220. And here we are.
So what are my chances? Hard to say. I must confess that when I got into triathlon three years ago, I thought this magazine was named 220 because 2:20hrs was the golden standard for the Olympic distance. So that was what I set out to do. Break ‘220’. I’d work out how quickly I thought I could complete the three disciplines with transitions and then do the sums. Could I shave a minute off there? Or what about there? I figured it was much like breaking three hours for the marathon.
In three attempts so far I’ve failed, even if an inaccurately measured swim on my last outing – it seemed most people were complaining that they were six minutes down on the previous year – meant I finished in 2:23hrs. I now know, of course, that there is no such golden standard. “220 heartbeats per minute minus your age,” I was informed. Well, I hit 190 during a Wattbike set the other day, so I guess I can quit now. Goal achieved.
I figure I’m like the majority of middle-aged triathletes. Enjoy the training, love the gear, love a sociable weekend ride with a few mates. But I also like my food, a beer and a nice bottle of wine. In the Daily Mail offices, where I work, I sit next to a guy who loves his crisps. And I love his crisps, too. But I’m nearly 43. I’m not trying to compete in the Olympics.
Running was my main sport as a kid. I was a half-decent middle-distance runner at school and university, but once I started working as a sports writer, that was pretty much that. I realised I wouldn’t be able to remain committed to racing for my club when I was working every weekend. At 22, I just stopped.
I gained weight with impressive ease. At uni, I was a skinny 11.5 stone. By my early 30s – 15 stone. A seven-minute mile used to be a warm-up for a track session – now it was beyond my physical capabilities. So I started running again. I needed to sort myself out and a marathon was the solution. In the end, I ran three, clocking 2:56hrs in New York in 2008.
A car accident – a Mercedes was driven quite brilliantly into the back of my car as I sat at a red light – meant 2009 was a bit of a write-off. But, in early 2010, a mate introduced me to three guys in our local pub. They were into tri and, by the end of the night, I’d agreed to join them in entering the 2010 Tatton Park Triathlon. I had eight months.
I’d got the running covered and, over the years, I’d done a fair bit of cycling, too. I had a nice road bike. But my big problem, and I don’t think I’m unusual among the amateur ranks, was the swimming. I was hopeless as a kid and, even when I swam 1,500m for the first time, my sense of pride was short-lived. This old boy in the next lane informed me my technique was “diabolical”.
I have improved – and I’m planning to have some lessons in the next couple of months with Mel Berry. She’s a fine swimmer, a friend and someone insane enough to recruit me into the Les Stables-ZeroD race team. Mel will need to work her magic, though. Right now, 28 minutes is the best I’ve managed in the pool, mainly because my old chum’s assessment of my technique was depressingly accurate. My wife likens me to Lassie.
I realise I’m conceding five or 10 minutes to guys I might be able to live with on the bike and the run. Only the other day I came across a race result of someone I used to run against at university. He wins big age-group races in comfortably under two hours. Seems he’s an annoyingly good swimmer as well. But, hey, that’s part of the challenge – and triathlon is more about setting personal goals anyway.
I’ve entered two races: Windsor [16 June], which will be more like a training session, and the event that’ll decide whether I qualify for Hyde Park, the Dambuster [22 June]. I’m also doing the Etape Du Tour with my brother as well as being in the open ballot for London, in case I don’t qualify as an age-grouper.
The training is going okay, but a change of jobs in November has complicated things a bit. After the best part of 20 years as a football writer, mainly working from home when I wasn’t travelling, I’ve taken an editorial position in the Daily Mail offices in London. It’s an exciting new challenge, but limits the time I have. I live in Cheshire. I now have no chance of making the occasional club track session I could get to while in my old job.
I have a Wattbike in my flat in London, which is a great piece of kit and prevents the need for the daily dance of death with buses and taxis. But running during the week is pretty much restricted to commuting to and from the office. A direct run into work, in Kensington, is three miles. If I skirt the edge of London’s parks, it’s more like five and a half. I often run into work the short way, when time is tight, and run back home the long way. There’s a 25m pool not far from me and I try to get to that once or twice down the week. I jog there, swim and then run into work.
The better quality training I try to do at the weekends when I’m home in Manchester, even if it’s still crammed into early mornings when everyone else in the house is having the kind of lie-in I so rarely enjoy. I’m like so many triathletes out there who find there aren’t enough hours in the day to squeeze training around family and work commitments. Some days it’s impossible to do anything at all. But, again, that’s part of the challenge, and one I’m sure faces most of the guys trying to secure an age-group place in Hyde Park.