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Triathlon Islamabad-style

Mountaineering expert and good friend of Chrissie Wellington, Billi Bierling, has scaled the dizzy heights of Everest. But nothing could prepare her for her first foray into triathlon… in Pakistan

Mountaineering expert and good friend of Chrissie Wellington, Billi Bierling, has scaled the dizzy heights of Everest. But nothing could prepare her for her first foray into triathlon… in Pakistan

A few months ago I was standing on the top of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. At that moment I thought I was invincible. A few months later, my very good friend Chrissie Wellington achieved an amazing feat by breaking the world record at the Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii – I guess she was feeling pretty invincible, too. But some people are good at one thing, and not so good at another, and I’ve just discovered that I’m better sticking to mountaineering and leaving the triathlons to Chrissie!

Two months ago I moved to Islamabad, Pakistan, for a six-month contract with the UN, and even though I’m not a gifted triathlete exercise is an important part of my life. In an average week I run about 60 to 70 kilometres and swim about four to five kilometres. I hardly ever cycle for fun but I spend a lot of time on my bike as it’s my main means of transport.

Exercising, especially as a woman, is a bit of a challenge in a place like this, even though the Pakistani capital is quite liberal compared with other Pakistani cities. Nevertheless, there is the whole security aspect, and running on your own in the beautiful Margalla hills that stretch across the north of the city isn’t a good idea due to the risk of kidnapping. The other challenge is the dress code – it’s out of the question to run in skimpy shorts and tank tops, even for men.

But despite these security concerns, I still go running in the hills in the mornings, wearing a long outfit, the traditional ‘Shalwar Kameez’, which covers most of my body. It certainly isn’t flattering, and may not be the most practical, but it makes me feel more comfortable, especially as I must be the only woman in the whole of Pakistan who bikes and runs around a town.

Because Islamabad is full of expatriates, it’s also full of gyms and sports clubs, most of which are situated in the ‘Diplomatic Enclave’ – a fortress providing shelter and security to most of the embassies and their staff here. One such club, namely the British Club, had the great idea to organise a triathlon at the beginning of October – and as group exercise is a rare commodity in this country, I signed up.

The organisers had catered for two events – a fun triathlon and the ‘Ironman’, which of course wasn’t really an Ironman distance as it would’ve been dizzying to do a 3.8km swim in a 25m pool, ride your bike for 180km and run a full marathon around the British Club, where one lap is only about one kilometre.

The race

When I arrived at the royal lawns of the British Club on race day, I was told that the triathlon had been ‘dumbed down’ into a duathlon due to security restrictions. Security has become an everyday part of my life, especially since the Pakistani Army intensified its military operations in South Waziristan trying to fight the Taliban. Suicide bomb attacks have also increased since this latest operation started and people in Islamabad, especially internationals, are on high alert.

Because some attacks took place in Lahore just a few days previous, the organisers had been told that the bike race couldn’t take place outside the protected walls of the British Club. This was absolutely mind boggling, as the Diplomatic Enclave seems like an impenetrable fortress topped with barbed wire and patrolled by dozens of security guards.

But I was just grateful that they hadn’t cancelled the event entirely. Signing up for the ‘Ironman’, I was told that it would involve swimming one kilometre and running eight laps around the British Club. But I noticed pretty quickly that there was a huge gender imbalance, and that there were about nine men racing – and me! I was desperately looking for another female competitor, but unfortunately couldn’t find one. This poor female presence made me once again realise how important it was to motivate women, especially in this part of the world to take part in such events and not get intimidated by men!

The breaststroker and I

Diving into the pool to impress the male triathletes with my swimming skills, it was difficult to judge whether I was doing well or badly, as we all just swam around in a circle. Fortunately someone else did the counting and when it was time for me to get out of the pool, I noticed that there was only one other guy left in the water with me – and he was doing breaststroke!

I kept reminding myself that I was doing it purely for fun, but trying to put my running shoes on after the swim was everything but. I have no idea how trained triathletes do this quickly as it seemed to take me ages to get the shoes onto my wet feet. But after about five minutes of struggling, I was ready to run off to do my eight rounds around the British Club. Every time I overtook someone (which didn’t happen often) I felt I was actually doing quite well. But little did I know that these guys (who were all army types and very serious about this event) were actually one lap ahead of me!

But I continued my run across flower beds, football fields, through someone’s garden and up and down the stairs. When I finally reached the grounds of the swimming pool, where the race finished, I was convinced that I was the only one left in the race and that everyone else had finished. But no – the tall German guy, who was doing the breaststroke, finished a few minutes behind. Then again it didn’t really matter whether I came last or second from the bottom, as I was sure that I would get honoured for my efforts. After all, I had come first in the women’s category!

But when the organisers announced all the different categories, shook all those sweaty hands, and distributed all those nice prizes to all the blokes who’d taken part, they completely ignored me! When the ceremony was over I asked the organisers why I hadn’t won anything, and they actually admitted that they’d hadn’t even considered having a women’s category!

But I have to say that even though the organisers ignored my presence the crowd was great and really supportive. And I guess I have made a mark by having been the only female competitor! And when I complained about not winning a prize, the organisers said: ‘But Billi, you’ve won our hearts!’ Who argue with that?

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.