Are we nearly there yet? Triathlon in 2021

By: Laura Siddall

It’s that long car journey as a kid, when the holiday destination just never seem to arrive and was so far away.

I think we had all looked to 2021 with some hope, and as the clock ticked over on New Year’s Eve from 23:59… to 00:01, that we would enter a year that would more resemblance 2019, and life as we used to know it, than the one we had just experienced with 2020. The announcement of vaccines I feel also gave us hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel and we were on the way.

Laura Siddall deboer Fjord 1.0 wetsuit tub dive

Yet probably realistically, whilst we all clung to this hope, we probably knew deep down that we were a long way from the end of the tunnel, and that sadly life would not miraculously change back over night. As we are now at the end of the first month of 2021, I’ve read many memes asking for their money back on the free trail of 2021, because they weren’t happy! Whilst we do seem to still be in a dire situation, if not worse, these do make me smile. I know it’s an incredibly serious situation, heck I read the news and get so down, but I feel we do have to give ourselves a laugh and joke to get through it.

So as we approach the end of January, that initial hope is perhaps waning, and we seem to be going backwards, things getting much worse before they get better.

It’s a bit like New Year’s Resolutions in one way. We start all energised and enthusiastic, only for our drive to die off after a few days, and we resolve to be better when we start again on 1st January 2022! We had renewed hope and energy for the race season ahead in 2021, but now more and more uncertainty, and rumours flying about will or won’t there be races, has thrown that up in to the air and now we are really not sure.

Sadly, I’m not going to tell you if races are or aren’t happening. I don’t really know the answer. I have thoughts and feelings about it, but to be honest I don’t think anyone knows. But I am going to share with you some of my ups and downs and what I’ve been doing to try and manage this.

For many people Triathlon is a hobby and a sport. But we sign up for races as a goal, and commit time to training, and getting to that start line. I can totally appreciate this is hard, particularly when you maybe sacrificing time with family or other activities, because of your race goals, or fitness aims for the year. To then have this uncertainty, as to whether the actual race will happen, when you are committing this time and energy, and is all your great training going to go to waste, I can appreciate it’s hard, and difficult to manage.

Firstly, I think it’s totally ok to be struggling. I’d be surprised if anyone was flying through 2020 and now 2021 up beat and positive and making the most of things 100% of the time (baking sourdough, learning 4 languages, now a concert pianist). I guess it feels like we are in the middle of an iron-distance event, or an ultra endurance race. Some days I’m completely ok, I’m happy, positive, getting my training done, my heads in a good space, I feel productive, I’ve had good coffee and I can through this. Then you hit that wall, or that low spot just as you would in a race. When it can feel so overwhelming, your been sucked into reading too much news online, the dark thoughts drift in, it’s a slog just to put one foot in front of the other. It doesn’t seem like you’ll make the finish line. You just want to sit down on the side of the road and cry.

But if we do think of it as an iron distance event, we know that it does get better. That it’s a roller coaster of emotions through the day, but we will get there. If we don’t (and yes that too happens), and we don’t finish the race, we are still loved by our family and support team. We know the amazing race volunteers will be there to bundle us up with hugs and smiles, still tell us we are awesome (don’t you love the vollies), and when we wake up the next day, it will be ok and we will set another goal and drive towards that. Much like a race, whilst it may not feel like it at times, we will get through this and emerge stronger on the other side.

For most of us, we are creatures of habit. We like structure and control. We fit hours of training in and around our family and work. We are incredibly efficient. Want something to get done… give it to a busy person, or give it to a triathlete! So, when we are faced with that structure and control being removed, it can shake our confidence and beliefs. When I’m feeling overwhelmed (which is also normally a combination of not enough sleep), I have to stop, sit down and focus on what I can control. What is it I CAN do, right now. What CAN I control, however small and trivial, I just break it down, just as you would do a race when that dark patch looms. Get to the next aid station. What is something that I can control and get done, and to the very best of my ability. Even if it’s as simple and ridiculous as, I can make myself a coffee and take a deep breath and smile, I can call my Mum and say hello. I regularly write a list of some key tasks I want to achieve that day, often afterwards adding all the other things I did (which weren’t on the list), just so I can cross them off and feel like I’ve achieved something! Yes, a lot of the time the list often rolls over to the next day, and I write it out again (again giving me a sense on control) but also focus for that day when I wake up. It makes me feel like I’m in control and making progress.

Triathlon for me is my job and current career, but it’s also my life (yes I know I’m a sports mad triathlon junky). But in seriousness, by that I mean, it’s the lifestyle I live and I love it. I think one thing I learnt in the first lockdown in March 2020, was that I just love the training and the process. I love just getting better day by day, being better today than I was yesterday. Think of Chris Nikic, the first athlete with down syndrome to complete an Ironman. His mantra is 1% better. Just try to be 1% better each day. So, when I have no idea if my race goals are going to happen, or when we will get to race again, I can still focus on being just a bit better today than I was yesterday. As cliché as it sounds, embracing the process. Goals are great. Races are great, but triathlon takes up so much of our lives, that we have to love the training, day in day out and the bigger overall why we are doing it. I’ll add to this too… and if you aren’t enjoying it, then stop. It’s ok. No one will think differently of you. When the time is right you’ll reconnect with the sport, probably even more excited by it and energised to be the best version of yourself.

It’s also got to still be fun right? If we are serious and so laser vision focused all the time, I think at some point we will break down. I know for one I will. Give yourself some slack. If you have the chance to go ride a mountain bike or gravel bike with your friends, but have a 3hour road / TT session planned… go off piste and go with friends off road. It’s good for the soul and good for the head. Give yourself the opportunity to add some different experiences in to your training. For instance, as I sit here writing this, I have a 3.5hour ride down on my plan tomorrow. In normal times I’d probably be out on the TT, in aero for the duration, or on my road bike, but thinking power and pace and HR etc. However, with the uncertainty about when we may next race, I’m going to give 100km on the gravel bike a crack! I’m pretty new to gravel riding but have a lovely Factor LS and some awesome Parcours wheels, and I’m really enjoying building my bike skills and exploring a whole host of new roads, and riding with a bunch of great people. Something I don’t often get to do on my TT.

The other thing, is I’ve probably drunk more alcohol in 2020 than I have done since my Gap Year in the British Army!!! I landed at my sister’s house in March 2020, at the start of lock down. My sister and her husband had been on a health kick since Christmas and were doing really well, almost motivated by the thought of me arriving, as the ‘pro athlete’ and how I’d help them keep their health kick going. Yet I am now blamed for their derailment, as all I wanted to do was at the end of the day, have a gin and tonic or a glass of wine. We are normally so focused on training and race after race through the year, that for once, there was no race on the horizon, and no idea of what was going on, so why not enjoy the odd glass of wine, more than I would normally do in a normal year. Now I’m not advocating drinking every night and in excess, but yes I’ll quite happily pour myself a gin or a wine, guilt free a little more than often than before, and enjoy it.

Another key aspect of helping me navigate through the past few months, years…(it’s been dragging hasn’t it) and to keep me upbeat, is my coach and my training group. My coach Julie Dibens has been amazing at supporting me through lockdowns and travel restrictions and for me injury after injury over the past two years. Without Dibs I’d be in a much different place. Even just the other athletes in my squad. Again, we’re not all positive all the time, but there’s normally someone up and bouncing along, to help bring the rest of us with them. Or alternatively bringing someone down to earth with some banter and p*ss taking. My favourite turbo session, is the one every fortnight where Dibs and Matt Bottrill and all the squad jump on Zwift and have 90mins of hard work out, but banter and laughs along the way. My point is here, make sure you have your tribe, squad, community, inner circle whatever you want to call them around you. Whether it’s a coach, or partner, or just an awesome friend, or it’s your training group or social group, and even if meetings are now through Zwift or Zoom and online, it’s worth making the effort to connect. Again, I’ve spoken more to my Uni friends this year, than we have done for the past few years, and it’s been great. Even when you feel so down, that you just want to curl up in a ball and for it all to go away, and you really don’t want to speak or engage with anyone, force yourself to ring a friend, or invite someone for a ride (even virtual) because you will feel so much better and uplifted after that interaction. (If not see the point above about pouring a big glass of wine! Ha! )

Remember most of us are in this together. We are all going through it. Everyone is managing different circumstances in different ways. Even our coaches are finding it hard. They are used to coaching athletes to races and goals, and now that’s been removed and they are just managing a bunch of grumpy athletes! Ha ha! But if you have that support and great connection and rapport and can have a moan and groan every now and again, but a slap in the face and laugh every now and again… it definitely helps. You’ll also find you probably are helping someone else too!!

I guess what I’m trying to say through all this is

  1. Break it down and control what you CAN!
  2. Focus on the process (and enjoy the active lifestyle)
  3. Better Never Stops – be just 1% better today
  4. Don’t be afraid to go off road, and push your comfort zone in other ways
  5. Smile and have fun along the way, give yourself some slack
  6. Keep hydrated (!)
  7. Lean on your cheer squad, and your community and keep the dialogue open and flowing

Heck it sounds a bit like a race plan right? “focus on the process… control what you can… smile and have fun… keep hydrated”! Maybe the current months is more similar to the highs and lows and stresses of a full distance race than we think. Maybe life itself at the moment if just good training for that race.

Whilst I’ve perhaps not given you a magic bullet that you may have wanted from reading this, or the answer to if your race is going to happen, I hope that I’ve shown that you are not alone, and we are all in this together and all having ups and downs and highs and lows at different times and in different ways. That there are ways we can help ourselves get through the day and week and months, and that also there are days when we just want to either scream eff off from the top of our voices and then curl in in a ball and hide under the duvet, and that’s ok too. I have them too!

But remember you also do this sport because you love it, and that’s powerful. Again, we may not love it 100% of the time, but on the whole it’s the lifestyle and culture we’ve chosen, so let’s live it the best we can! And when we do get to stand together on that start line, it’s going to be such an amazing feeling.

Now where’s my gin!

- Laura Siddall, 4x Ironman Champion & 2018 ETU Long Course Champion