by Guest Writer Christine Bertram
There I was: a moderately successful university level runner in her mid-thirties who had trained all winter and had just come within 15 seconds of her life-time best for a 10k. Crossing the finish line panting and smiling, I couldn’t help but notice that my left heel hurt – a lot. It had done so all winter, but being the absolute expert in self-diagnosis that many runners believe to be, I had self-administered copious doses of ibuprofen and learned how to tape my foot, because clearly this was a case of plantar fasciitis – after achilles problems and shin splints, every runner’s third worst nightmare. But now it hurt when I was walking and finally when I was on a home visit, my mom made me go see a doctor. So I went, expecting to have my diagnosis confirmed, get a prescription of some sort – end of.
First up: the ultrasound. This is one of these mysterious things I can’t make sense of and I generally just nod when the doc says ‘Can you see this?’ to hide my inability to recognise anything but black and white lines. The result: I have a massive inflammation of my plantar tendon. – Ha! Genius me! Call me doctor!
Next: the x-ray. Now x-rays are black and white lines too, but they make sense. Even to me – sometimes. For this particular image of my foot, you needn’t be a doctor to interpret it. There was a big white triangle poking out of my heel bone. Surely, that’s not right.
The diagnosis: a heel spur. It had been there for years, judging by its massive size. It was poking my plantar tendon, causing the massive inflammation.
The verdict: I had to stop running – immediately! Otherwise, my plantar might rip. I got a prescription for a custom pair of insoles which would accommodate my heel spur in a little hole. All good and well – but no running?! I was devastated… for about 5 minutes. In my book, unfortunate events like this present an opportunity to try something new, transform yourself, reinvent yourself. I was in the fortunate position that the University of Stirling, where I was studying and working, has excellent sports facilities and a variety of sports clubs. And so I went through the clubs booklet. Uhmm… Triathlon, how about it? Well, I can’t run just now, but that’s ok – but maybe I can sometime in the future. Cycling – no problem, my then boyfriend had initiated me to the art of road cycling. Swimming – ah, yeah, swimming. I was swiftly reassured by the student coach, Blair, that swimming would not be a problem, he would teach me. Alrighty then, triathlon it was!
My fondest memory of my first swim session is the look of utter despair on Blair’s face when he watched me attempt 25 m front crawl. My arms were flailing around like I was trying to fend off a swarm of midges that had accidentally got lost in the pool, my legs doing something when my arms were doing nothing and my body splashing in and out of the water, desperately gasping for air. It was utterly clear – I’m no swimmer.
But as these stories go, as a runner you learn that persistence is key and your will can move mountains. And so I learned how to position my body and breathe on both sides, get my arms to work together with my legs and eventually managed 4 lengths, much to Blair’s delight and thanks to the support of the rest of the squad. Triathletes are a supportive bunch and without their continuous encouragement, I would have stopped trying to swim, and generally, I’m no quitter. Until one day the magical moment occurred: I asked myself where the last 10 lengths had gone. RESULT!
While learning to swim was an exercise in persistence, indoor cycling sessions over the winter were just hard work – but they were the closest to the running sessions I knew and so I loved them. Over the summer, I met a new bunch of people – the local cycling club, equally friendly and willing to bring me up to speed with bike speak and riding skills. Religiously, I went out with them every Saturday morning on a long ride learning how to go around corners and descend hills and how to use other riders to make my life easier, making sure I’d packed the all important £5 for the cake stop and the tea and story telling after.
Eventually, two things happened: I could walk pain free and Blair started talking about the British University Sprint Triathlon Championships. They were about 6 months away. The swim was 750 m, the bike 25km and the run 5km. The swim would be a stretch but doable, the bike no problem, the run? At that point, I hadn’t run a single step in 8 months. Frankly, I was a bit scared. But I also like a challenge and so I set myself the goal to be able to run 5km by the Championships.
My first attempts of running were on grass and consisted of 100m walking and 100m jogging for about 20 min. I ran twice a week and only added distance every other week. It was a period full of discovery, when previously you were concerned with pushing the pace it was now all about listening to the foot and maintaining good form.
A couple of months later it was Championship time – my first triathlon. I was in the slowest swim group and came out the water last (unsurprisingly), but cheered on like the fastest. The bike flew by and I was happily squeaking with joy from the exhilaration of the speed on the downhills. Transition and off I went on the run. I was confident it would be fine, but the little voice of worry was nagging, but here I was, in my first triathlon! I smiled all the way around. I crossed the finish line. It blew me away – and I actually had a little cry. I had arrived – I considered myself a triathlete, rather than a runner.
Fast forward two years, I haven’t done terribly many triathlons since and just a few duathlons due to study and work demands. Now living in London and I have got myself back into the swing of all things tri. I have planned a few sprint triathlons, with a planned attempt at an Olympic distance later in the year. And like many triathlon disciples, I devour anything and everything to do with triathlon: websites, books, forums, magazines, race reports, twitter feeds, athlete profiles, training advice, kit tests and the odd competition to win, well, stuff – I mean, can you ever have enough tri kit?!
And so, I entered the ZipVit and tri247 competition to win race entry to either New York, Washington, Chicago or the Escape from Alcatraz. In my youthful enthusiasm, I thought, well I’ve got friends in San Francisco, I’ve never been and it sounds rather cool – so Alcatraz it was. I’ve entered countless prize draw competitions and never won anything, so why would this be different? And as usual, you forget about these things. So, I imagine my surprise, when I received an e-mail saying: Congratulations! You’ve won! You’re going to Alcatraz!
I plopped on the couch, a bit white in the face and then thought to myself, I’d better find out how far this triathlon is… Run: 7 miles through parks and on the beach – check. Cycle: 18 miles up and down the streets of San Francisco – check. Swim: 1.5 miles from Alcatraz to the shore (the clue is really in the name!). GULP! 1.5 miles… in the SEA… jumping off a boat?! That’s like learning how to swim all over again!
Here I am: a newbie triathlete and ex-runner slightly past her mid-thirties with the opportunity to try something new, experience something amazing. But we’ve all done it, faced the challenge. All it takes is a bit of persistence and a smile on your face. So go on! Grab the bull by the horns and just run with it!
Thanks to Brian from NewToTri for asking me to share my story with you. I hope there are a few more runners out there, who are now slightly less scared of trying a tri. If you have any questions or you’d like to find out how I prepare and get on at Alcatraz, feel free to send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), follow me on twitter (@Xfmgirl) or read my blog (http://christineescapesfromalcatraz.blogspot.com/).