Something you get used to when you take up triathlon is being called ‘mad’. My guess is that you, like me, are told that you are mad on almost every occasion your triathlon exploits come up in conversation. And as I couldn’t be more of a triathlete if I bled energy gel, this accounts for almost every conversation I ever have. Your reaction is to shrug modestly and say something about it being ‘just what we do’ while inwardly burning with smug delight. This smugness multiplies when it’s a runner, swimmer or cyclist who, upon learning that the race you’ve just matched or beaten them in is just one-third of what you do, will say you ‘must be bloody mad’. This is sometimes delivered through gritted teeth because if there’s one thing single-discipline athletes love it’s being outperformed by part-timers.
There’s a downside to being seen as mad though, which is that you have to live up to it. The moment you reveal yourself as a triathlete there are certain things you can never do again. You can never fail to get the lid off a jar, never complain about a wheelie bin being too heavy, and never stomp slowly up some stairs with aching legs from your last training session, without some smart arse saying: ‘I thought you were supposed to be fit.’
Equally, you can never go and do a single-discipline race unless you somehow combine it with some other training, which in reality means running or cycling to every gala, time trial, road run or cross-country race you do for the rest of your life. If you ever turn up having driven, you’ll immediately lose your ‘mad’ tag forever and will be viewed as a mere mortal.
This has happened to me twice recently thanks to an open-water swim race and a 10k run. The swimming race was the Midland Open Water Championships which was taking place in a lake about 25 miles from my home, slap within range for my fellow swimmers to say: ‘I expect you’ll be cycling there you mad bugger.’ As it happened I wanted to do well in this race so had thought about driving there, however I was trapped by my own mythology so had to say ‘Of course, it’s only a 50-mile round trip punctuated by a 3km race, child’s play for us triathletes.’
And so it was that the 6am country-lane rabbits witnessed a man on a bike grumbling along at the speed of a gas leak. Being a mad triathlete, cycling there didn’t have a particularly detrimental effect on my swimming performance (I won!), however after emerging exhausted and weed-strewn from the water, and accepting all the ‘you’re mad’ plaudits, I then faced the ride home, which I’m very glad no one witnessed because with a waterlogged wetsuit and aching limbs it took me longer to cycle back than it takes my laptop to reconfigure Windows.
More extreme perhaps was the 10k run I did the following weekend, because that race takes place right on my doorstep. With a start-line literally 50m from my door I had access to pre-race luxuries like toast, drinks, lounging on my settee and using my own toilet. But ‘just’ doing a 10k for a triathlete is considered unthinkable and I had several ‘expect you’ll do some mad ride before it’ comments, which made me think that claiming I was warming up for the run by mowing my lawn would sound like I was clutching at more straws than a scarecrow with eczema. As such I was compelled to head off on my bike at 8am for a 25-mile stomp around the lanes, arriving back just in time to lie on my front lawn looking as filthy as a student’s kitchen before joining the throng of runners outside my house and setting off like a wardrobe that’s had a brain haemorrhage.
So are we triathletes mad? Well, yes we are, but it’s not a bad kind of madness really, and I can certainly live with the fact that people think I’m a windswept, chiselled fitness lunatic made of solid flint, even though the two episodes above suggest that in truth I’m a plodding pudding who would be intellectually outgunned by most of the runners in a greyhound race