Why can’t triathletes say no?

When asked to do a crazy sporting challenge, Brunty finds it hard not to answer in the affirmative. Cue a 50km swim in six days…

Image credit: Daniel Seex

No’, according to the dictionary, is a word ‘used to express denial, disagreement, refusal, disapproval, disbelief or acknowledgement of negative statements.’ It’s a conveniently short word making it easy to write, and even easier to say so that you can even pronounce it if you’re bored of using your teeth. 


And it’s a word I say often, usually in response to such questions as: ‘Did you remember we’re going to visit my parents this Sunday?’, ‘Did you pick up the shopping on your way back from running club?’, ‘Are you going to mend that fence before you go out cycling?’ and ‘Did you win?’.

Why then do I struggle to cough this word up in one particular situation, that being the moment someone suggests you should take part in some kind of insane athletic challenge? ‘Are you going to come and do *insert stupid event* this year?’ says some sadistic nutter you know in your tri club or on Facebook, to which the correct response is the aforementioned and easy to pronounce ‘No’. But that’s not what happens is it? One side of your brain registers the likely hours of training, pain, suffering, financial hardship and domestic grief this will cause, while the other side thinks ‘Or could I?’, reasoning that if you turn this down you might as well say goodbye to the fountain of youth and hello to the kettle of middle age. This manifests itself in a pause… before you say things like ‘When is it?’ or ‘Send me some details’ by which time it’s too late, because anything less than a bold and outright ‘No!’ is a yes.

Over the years this inability to say a much deserved ‘no’ to athletic idiocy has got me into at least six Ironmans, two Isomans, a channel swim, a mad French road race, LEJOG, swimming a million metres in a year, cycling over Mont Ventoux, countless bonkers cross-country runs, swimming 15km in the Thames, and a nutcase Italian race called the Grancombinata D’Italia, which included a 100-mile mountain bike race followed by a marathon. And I’ve done it again.

The challenge this time was issued by my evil swimming coach, who as I walked past him on poolside one morning said, “You’ll do this challenge won’t you?” – and that was that, I was in. 

The challenge was to swim 50,000m in six days as part of something called ‘Hell week’ and it’s a measure of my maths prowess that my first thought was ‘That isn’t so bad’, before I started adding up what I normally do in a week, which is some way less than a third of that distance. And it wasn’t just a case of swimming the distance, oh no, it had to be done as part of training sessions, with Monday morning’s 8,000m including such delights as 10 x 400m off 6mins, 10 x 200m off 3mins and so on, until your shoulders get so hunched you end up walking round the house looking like a villain’s sidekick.

Monday’s epic was followed by two swims on Tuesday (7,300m and 4,000m) and two swims on Wednesday (7,400m and 7,300m), by which time I’d decided that breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, which is why I was having one every two hours. I then did one swim on Thursday (5,200m) and two on Friday (7,800m and 3,000m), ending with a flourish where Dr Evil made us do 10 x 100m off 1:30mins, at which point I was the swimming equivalent of Grandmaster Flash – sometimes I wonder how I keep from going under.

All in all Hell Week was about as appealing as listening to an album of Ed Sheeran’s greatest hits sung by Robert Mugabe in German, and the general effect of that much swimming is to leave you looking more tired than a coach driver and in a mood more furious than a football phone-in.


So when it comes to saying ‘No!’ I’ve definitely learned my lesson. In fact, a mate of mine has just invited me to join him on the Devon Coast Challenge, which involves three marathons in three days along the rocky coastal path. Immediately realising how hard this will be I gave my friend short shrift, with a firm, bold and confident response: ‘When is it? Send me some details.’