11:14am Monday 2nd June 2014
By Fraser Watson
DIZZY and out of breath, I staggered to my feet and made my way to safety.
With my head spinning, and my legs wobbling, I narrowly avoided toppling over before regaining enough composure to carry on.
But given my aching limbs, and exhausted state, I was left in no doubt that it what was going to be a case of mind over matter if I wanted to complete the contest.
Now, anyone reading those opening paragraphs could be forgiven for thinking I was back in the boxing ring, and had received one too many blows to the head from Graham Brockway and company.
In fact, I had just completed my first ever open water swim, which formed the opening leg of a sprint triathlon set up for me by Man-up UK’s Fintan Godkin and Carwyn Richards - my eleventh Commonwealth Games challenge.
The group originated in 2010, when Fintan and Carwyn organised a successful Whitesands Challenge triathlon to raise funds for the St Davids RFC mini teams.
In 2012, they officially formed Man-up UK, with the view of hosting testing yet affordable sporting challenges around St Davids.
Since then, the group has grown in stature, with events like the Ras Dewi Sant, Man-up in The Mud, and The Brawl in Berea all winning local and even national acclaim.
Furthermore, the events have raised around £10,000 for the Saints’ junior sides, and more than £4,000 for charities such as Walk on Wales, Hope Centre Neyland, and Porthmawr Surf Live Saving Club.
And the pair are no strangers to competing. Fintan, whose enthusiasm was sparked when an old college friend asked him to join him in the Mumbles Sprint Triathlon three years ago, has successfully completed a host of gruelling challenges –most notably Ironman France in 2012.
Carywn meanwhile, is a former steeple chase runner who once held the Parachute Regiment Assault Course record for the World renowned P-Company Assessment. Although injury has curtailed him in recent years, he won the inaugural Whitesands Challenge triathlon and still trains on a daily basis.
Of course, the pair are not alone in their willingness to indulge in extreme events. Whereas a marathon once stood alone as the ultimate test of will and stamina – endurance events are becoming a growing global phenomenon.
“There was a time when triathlon appeared only for the insanely dedicated,” Fintan told me, as I arrived bleary eyed at Solva Harbour for an 8am start.
“But in recent years it has become a growing sport – and the success of British athletes in the 2012 Olympics has really helped promote it in the UK.
“In Pembrokeshire, the Go-Tri series has opened up the sport to everyone locally, with modest distances and safety of pool swimming making it possible for anyone with a basic level of fitness to take part.
“And this year has seen the introduction of the Kids Go-Tri series which can only help the sport at junior level.”
I was curious to know whether purely a 'basic level of fitness' was enough to overcome the daunting disciplines.
“Anyone in good condition can build themselves up quickly to compete in a Go-Tri event,” he said.
“However, once you start talking about Olympic or Commonwealth Games distances (1500m swim, 40k bike and 10k run) or Ironman events, then dedication and training is vital.
“You need to build your endurance for these events and the only way of doing that is by putting in the time.”
Thankfully, I was only tackling a sprint triathlon, although I would have been lying if I said the prospect of a 750 metre open water swim, 20km bike ride and 5km run didn’t intimidate me.
And I was in good company – as myself, Fintan and Carwyn were joined by Steve Williams and Ben Phillips, both formidable competitors with Man-up UK event wins to their name.
Predictably, I made a rookie mistake just moments into the challenge, namely trying to set a frantic pace in the early parts of the swim.
It wasn’t long before my front crawl technique was interrupted by interludes of breast stroke in order to regain my breath – while Fintan and Carwyn kindly paced themselves to ensure I wasn’t an isolated figure at the back of the pack.
I had feared beforehand that exhaustion would be the most de-stabilising factor. However I soon learnt that swallowing sea water, encountering sea weed, and water in the goggles all added to the difficulty.
Thankfully adrenaline, combined with fear of failure, ensured I was able to complete the distance without stopping in 21 minutes.
The subsequent transition period before the cycling leg allowed me brief respite as I took several minutes to change from my wet suit and get ready.
To put that into perspective, the World’s top athletes target around 30 seconds for a change over.
But as I mounted my road bike, a harsh realisation hit me. For those who don’t know Solva Harbour, when you leave it, the only way is up.
Indeed, I severely struggled through the early inclines, and with my legs still feeling like jelly from my swimming exploits – I dare say that had I been alone, I would have indulged in the occasional stoppage.
Again, Fintan and Carwyn acted as pace setters (Steve and Ben were long gone) until we reached the relative safety of level roads. But even when I felt I was in the groove, my efforts were hit by a dose of realism.
“If we were doing an Ironman race we need to set a quicker pace than this over 112 miles to make the cut off point,” said Fintan, barely out of breath.
“And at this point athletes start to prepare for the run by dropping down the gears, getting the blood pumping in the legs and taking an energy gel.”
Of course, nutrition is the unofficial fourth discipline in professional endurance events, with athletes meticulously planning out their intake on race days to coincide with their perceived heart rate on certain parts of the course.
Personally, I was relying on my early morning weetabix and a few fruit pastills as we entered the final leg, the 5k run, after completing the cycle in 54 minutes.
As with the swim and the cycle, the early stages were testing, with Carwyn accurately telling me “your legs will feel like they are someone else’s.”
Once more, the early inclines were a struggle, but with the course generously finishing on a downhill dash down Solva Hill, I got home in 22 minutes.
And what struck me most about my triathlon debut, was that in all three disciplines, the opening moments had proved the most difficult to overcome both physically and mentally.
“ Any endurance event has a degree of mental toughness and triathlon is no different,” said Fintan afterwards.
“ In an Ironman a massive amount of mental strength is required. That strength is built by getting up at 5am most mornings to train on your own.
“It’s the training and the confidence gained by training that helps overcome the mental aspect.”
Indeed, assuming that someone who boasts a high level of fitness can slot into a triathlon with ease is a common mistake – and almost an insult to those who regularly compete.
One thing my own brief experience has taught me is that in order to excel, hours upon hours need to be put in order to master both the technical and physical aspects of the sport.
And only after standing on the slipway of Solva Harbour, feeling nauseous as I desperately avoided toppling back into the water, can I properly appreciate that.
Bill Carne's verdict:
When I set out for Solva Harbour on Saturday morning I knew that this was going to be a challenge Fraser would relish because he thrives on pushing himself physically.
He had hoped to enter one of the triathlons organised by Pembrokeshire County Council but none fitted with our schedule so he recruited Fintan Godkin and Carwyn Richards to set up a Sprint Triathlon for him.
This course incorporated a 750 metre open water swim, a 20km cycle from Solva through Middle Mill, Llandeloy, and back to the harbour, and then a 5km run, this time from Solva through Middle Mill, Whitchurch and back.
And Mr Watson certainly had a look of trepidation on his face as he donned his wet-suit and waded into the water!
He started like a water boatman insect and was all arms and legs, with Fintan and 'Caz' (who didn’t bother with a wet suit!) joined by Ben Phillips and Steve Williams. Following them in a kayak, for safety reasons, were Caz’s wife Alison and daughter Lottie, plus Kate Brown, a member of the Porthmawr Surf Life-Saving Club.
Fraser slowed to a steady breast stroke to complete the section without a break. When he got out his legs gave a wobble but with typical determination he was on his bike and off up the hill to Middle Mill.
I followed in the car but he was clearly in good hands because again Fintan and Caz took it in turns to ride shot-gun, so I headed back to enjoy a latte on the harbour wall.
And no sooner had I finished than the trio arrived, a while after Ben and Steve had been and gone – in a time of 54 minutes.
I proved my worth by stashing Fraser’s bike safely against the wall before he joined the Godkin/Richards duo on the run.
A quick read of my newspaper kept me busy before suddenly Fraser was back in the car park. He had stayed with his pals at first but then showed his leg speed by tearing down Solva Hill, ignoring their shouts of ‘glory grabber’ as they arrived three and seven minutes later (no names, lads!).
But joking aside, it was a tester for Fraser and I know how grateful he was to Fintan and Caz for organising it.
And I tell you what – when Fraser finishes his involvement in rugby I wouldn’t mind betting he will take up triathlon competition....once he sorts out his swimming!
Tune into this week’s Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show, between 6-8pm, to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser, Fintan and Carwyn about their triathlon challenge. More Man-up Uk event details are available on www.man-upuk.com.
For more on triathlon events in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.
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