“I am pretty sure I can swim and bike, and then just walk the 5km, how hard can it be?” These were my words to my husband when I signed up for my first triathlon back in 2013.
I had worked hard after my son was born to lose 20kg and after the weight was gone, I was looking for a challenge to get me motivated about keeping fit.
My whole life I had been an Indian classical dancer. While I did well in the school fitness tests, I was never into sports. I started swimming to recover from multi ankle injuries in order to continue dancing and I liked the occasional bike riding.
In the past, I used to swim in a 13m pool and then cycle on a gym bike. Living in Abu Dhabi then, it was a city filled with cars but Sumit (my husband) and I didn’t get a car, because we wanted to encourage a healthy lifestyle. We were a rare breed who walked everywhere, in all weather.
Closer to the race, I started having panic attacks about swimming in the open waters. I would go to the beach alone, the water was cold, 17 degrees in winter and I used to take an hour just to get in. I read blogs and articles on how to tackle that first triathlon. My husband got me a foldable mountain bike.
During the race briefing for TriYas 2014 at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, I made a friend so race day wasn’t that bad as I had someone to chat with. My wave was the last one at 5.15pm in the evening and for some reason, the water was terribly salty. I couldn’t get a grip of myself and I felt the wetsuit was choking me. I was swimming breaststroke (as that was all I knew back then) but 100m in and I panicked again because my goggles fogged up. In my mind I wanted to give up then and there. I called for help and started again.
At transition, Sumit and my son Pranav came to cheer me on. I wanted to wave and smile, but I just couldn’t even look at them because I was suffering. Oh, the cycle out was a disastrous uphill and my leg muscles were screaming in pain. Lap 1 was fun, new and the Wow feeling of being out of the water gave me the adrenalin. However, I was on a mountain bike and was being overtaken by everyone.
By Lap 4 I was one of three people left on the circuit. I didn’t panic and I just told myself to just enjoy being all alone on the F1 circuit. However, I cried on the last uphill climb. Then the next transition was chaotic because most of the competitors were packing up and I didn’t think I would be able to make it to my spot.
Then a volunteer shouted “Cyclist coming through!” and literally everyone jumped out of the way and cheered for me. The run felt really long, longer than 5km but finally I saw the finish line. I was so happy that I made it through, even though I was the last person to finish.
I went home and guess what? I signed up for my next race – the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon which was two weeks later. I was in a total state of high that I didn’t even realise that the bike portion of the next sprint triathlon was 50km. At that point, I had never ridden more than 20km ever. But no worries, my friend from the previous race helped me do some swim practice, taught me about gels and also got me a rented road bike. I went into my second race feeling so much more confident, with a better understanding of the sport.
I was lucky to find a great tri group, ONEndurance, that met for long rides, long runs and open water swims every week. A lovely surprise for my birthday too, my husband got me a low-end roadie. I went all the way to the Wathba cycling track to ride it with the ONEndurance group, did my longest brick of 65km ride and a 3km run, then came home to find out I was pregnant! I was disappointed because it meant I couldn’t ride for the next nine months. I still made it out to the tri races to cheer my team mates on though.
Motherhood consumed me for four months after my second boy was born. I felt overwhelmed all the time and I spiralled into postpartum depression without realising it. One morning after feeding my son at 4am, I got out of the house and went for a ride on my mountain bike. It was so liberating! I came back home feeling elated.
The early morning rides soon became a norm. I also started walking with the pram. The only thing was, I couldn’t seem to find time for swimming. But that didn’t stop me from signing up for the next race. I had two months to train for my comeback sprint in March and this is where the support structure of a team is very helpful. I joined the team whenever I could and the coaches were so awesome in doing drills and giving us tips.
Unexpectedly, I completed two sprint races on back-to-back weekends. The highlight of my ITU race was that my in-laws and my kids were there and Pranav ran the final 100m with me! My in-laws were so excited that the following week we all did a 5km run as a family.
Then we moved back to Singapore in April 2016. Singapore has a more mature racing culture compared to the UAE and I was excited at the possibilities of trying new things. 2016 was an awesome year where I did my longest ride (90km), my longest run (21.1km) and my longest swim (5.7km). I also got a chance to try Aquathlon and Duathlon formats. I was hungry for more! I wanted to do a full Ironman!
January 2017, I started training for my first long distance race – the Ironman 70.3 Vietnam. Having only done sprints, I used a book called Be Iron Fit as my guide. They had many training programmes and I chose the intermediate programme as it suited me time wise. I had to plan my training very carefully to revolve around work and the kids. I am really lucky that not only do I have a supportive husband, but also great parents who always help out.
Still, mummy guilt was my constant companion on long trainings. I used to train at ridiculous hours just to make it back home in time for the kids’ activities, making breakfast, lunch and bringing them out.
I was too scared to ride on the roads of Singapore and I missed having a dedicated cycling track. The few times I did ride on the roads, I felt very threatened and invariably I would forget to take any nutrition as I was so focused on looking out for traffic. So my training for Vietnam happened mostly at East Coast Park. After a long ride, I would drop the bike in the car and go for a quick swim or run. I started doing the run-walk technique for my long runs and that helped me to keep pace. I also joined a swim group to improve my technique and an open water swim group who swam at different venues in Singapore once a month.
Despite all that, I still felt I was being quite slow on the bike and run so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish the 70.3 distance. The day before the Vietnam race, my younger one threw a tantrum and basically spilled a kettle of boiling water on my legs. Sumit and I were both devastated. To add to the tension, we forgot Tiko’s pram and my phone in the taxi the day before and it was such a lot of running around to get it back.
During the race, despite the heat and the aid stations running out of water, I crossed the finish line in a little over eight hours. Yes very slow but I have accepted that I am a determined tortoise, slow but steady. I have done so many races where I have finished last, but I don’t give up.
As soon as we reached home, I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Bintan (it’s an addiction!).
I spent the last few months doing century rides, trying out various multi-sport formats (TriFactor races offer some good ones) and some long swims at the OCBC Aquatic Centre. I also went to Bintan a couple of times to ride the course, which was very useful. I knew I would finish the race if I can finish the swim and bike within the cutoff. That’s all I focused on and I completed the race in 8 hours and 5 minutes.
When I sign up for a race, I do not look at if it’s an easy course or a tough course. Instead I sign up and do the required training. Triathlon is a big mental game; being able to keep your motivation up over the long distances, being able to keep your mind quiet over the tough conditions, being able to push yourself when you want to give up is very important.
Every time I stand at the starting line, I have a small goal I want to achieve in this race. Yes, I am nervous but I do not let it get to me. I also do not worry about things beyond my control like the weather or how fast the other competitors are.
This journey is mine and each race is a celebration of the hard work I have put in during the training. The only thing I want to do is finish every race with a smile and be injury free. What keeps me motivated the most are my kids, seeing me persevere and I hope they will in life too.
I am so proud that my elder boy Pranav races with me. At six, he already has completed a 5km run, an aquathlon and a duathlon. The sport of triathlon has allowed me to rediscover myself, by constantly challenging my limits. I have been able to meet so many people and make some wonderful friends along the way. I can’t wait to sign up for my first full Ironman race and hopefully 2018 is the year I can achieve that dream.
If I can, you can too.