Maybe my first cycling experience I had in Belize is to blame – 65km with my Belizean friend, Jane (Tosh). Being a cyclist herself, Tosh found the 65km a breeze. I made the 65km, with stiff leg muscles and a sore butt to show for it upon our return. The pain was only temporary – a few hours, and it had me thinking further – maybe I could compete in the Belize Lionman Triathlon in 5 weeks time.
Sports has always kept me involved, one way or another, and I hold some of the worlds professional athletes in the highest regard. Triathlons have always fascinated me – how can one person be so good at three different sports? Australia’s Loretta Harrop and Emma Snowsill stood on the Triathlon pedestal for me.
“I’d love to do a triathlon one day” I thought, “but...” It was the 'but' holding me back for many years, it was also the not knowing how to get involved. Plus in high school, I struggled to swim 100m without stopping. I didn’t own a racing bike and 10km, well, I could run that, but I’d have conquer the first two disciplines before even thinking about finishing off the race!
Having only been in Belize for two weeks, of a year which I am to fulfill as a PE teacher, I found Belizeans asking me if I would compete in the Belize Lionman Triathlon, “Ummm, maybe in a relay team..” I’d say trailing off, leaving the thought out there. But the thought didn’t stay out in oblivion too long, and the same question didn’t stop being asked, "Are you going to do the triathlon?" Finally I bit the bullet and realized, I’ve always wanted to do a triathlon, so why not make my first one in Belize!
It had taken seven years after high school before I finally found myself in a pool swimming laps.
I’d always been a competent swimmer, just never serious. Gradually, over the years, if I ever had the time and was within the vicinity of a pool, I’d make myself swim laps – eventually building up to 1km. It was an on and off relationship, swimming and I, but I knew if I put in some laps before the triathlon, I would be able to accomplish the swim on race day. Putting in the laps, at first, proved a slight problem. There aren’t many pools in Belize – and there are certainly no Olympic size pools! I was told that there was a pool at the Belize Pickwick Club, I checked it out one morning, asking the grounds man exactly how long the pool was – he had no idea. I guessed it to be 25meters. The next hurdle was that you had to be a member to swim at Pickwick. I quizzed the grounds man on membership prices – they were extortionate! I told the grounds man I’d come back and talk to the manager about joining, I never did, but instead went back to the pool the next morning at 6am, ready to smash out some laps. The grounds man looked at me suspiciously. When I finished, he asked that I sign my name, so I put down Tosh’s name, she was a member anyway, if he even bothered to check the files – I doubted he did! The swim training was under control, I just had to go early before the manager arrived and only the grounds man knew how I was...incognito!
Cycling was the next obstacle.
Tosh had taken me out for a few cycles, however after a while, our training times didn’t always meet up – she would be up way too early for me, or I’d be swimming instead – remember that mornings were the only time I could go swimming! I was capable of going riding by myself – which always proved an experience! Belize’s gravel highway has a lot of potholes! And if the potholes didn’t have you swerving across the highway, the smashed up crabs (loads of crab kill in Belize, Belize is 6mm below sea level and the crabbies are rampant) and broken glass will! Throw in a few speed bumps and roundabouts, and cycling in Belize can be quite the adventure. I also often found on my return journey with cycling that I’d hit a wall – of WIND! It blows me away (mind the pun!) that cyclists persist with this sport!
One cycling afternoon I figured the Belize highway was a great dating agency – if you wanted to meet idiots! Careening down the highway at ridiculous speeds, they treated the two lane highway as a bowling alley – you being the pin! Some of the drivers would be coming at you two abreast because they were trying to overtake the vehicle in front of them. I told Tosh of my afternoon highway ride and she was aghast, and probably surprised that I had survived the ordeal. “No one goes cycling at that time!” (It was the busiest time of the day to be on the highway. I must admit, I didn’t see any other cyclists like I normally did on cycling trips.) Needless to say, that was my last afternoon cycling session!
The run training – this didn’t happen as much as it should of.
If I did go for a run, it was often in the morning, because Belize’s weather is HOT! Five minutes of running at 6am had you’re sweating like you’d just be sunbaking in a furnace! Tosh had been on a run with me one night, and was quite complimentary of my pace, saying that she thought my pace was rather fast! I never thought it was that fast, but it was enough of a confidence boost to know I could run 10km on race day.
Initially it was the swim that scared me off from triathlons, but then when I realized I could actually swim 1.5km, it started to be the run that had me nervous. The cycle, I always figured I could ride 42km, knowing that it wouldn’t be at a cracking pace, yet still manageable. In the five weeks leading up to the event, I was rather nonchalant about my training – I will be the first to admit I was only putting in a mediocre effort. I considered myself fit enough – I could do all the distances, it was just a matter of putting them altogether. I hadn’t even trained with two disciplines back to back. My mentality was going to have to haul me through this Olympic distance event. I had told a friend back home in Australia that at the start of five weeks I was thinking of doing the triathlon, but I was nervous, “cause it is kind of far. I can do all the distances....but” (the old ‘but’ rearing its head again). Although I can’t remember her exact words, they were very encouraging and along the lines of, “It’s always a great challenge and success to ourselves when we accomplish something we never think we can.” That was enough to have me slightly more focused!
A technical meeting was called the afternoon before the event. I knew the field would be small (it is Belize for goodness sake), there were only 30 individual competitors, three of which were female. Seven teams had also entered the relay. The female defending champion (about five times over) was one of the competitors – I already knew she would come in 1st for the females, she was a semi professional cyclist, (also Tosh’s cousin – Belize as a country, does not even boast a population of a half a million people) and this is usually where she won the race. The meeting had my stomach almost dropping out of my body. I was nervous! There was no particular reason to be nervous – but I still was. I’d never done a triathlon before, what was I doing?At least I knew the course. The swim leg had been set up in the Caribbean sea, and for the past week, flagged sticks marked the 750m course (we swam it twice). I rode past this daily on my way to school. The bike and run course I had trained on previously – no hills – lack of hills always makes an athlete pleased!
Sunday morning arrived. Tosh was surprised to see me eating breakfast – yogurt mixed with cereal and a banana. I needed to eat, food would have time to settle and I would be eating for the next four hours anyway! Tosh was impressed with my organization, I was good to go and acting as Tosh’s support/organizing crew. Tosh had entered a police team in the relay event (only asking her cyclist and runner two days previously), yet still harbored a bit of feeling of wanting to compete the whole triathlon. She had completed the Belize triathlon before. I told her to just do it – we both packed our bikes into the truck and were off – starting line five minutes down the road!
Due to such a small field, eight of which were Guatemalans, setting up in the transition area was easy. Socks in my shoes - I was wearing trainers for both the cycle and the ride. I had been training on one of Tosh’s friend's bikes, a mountain racer. Naturally all those on professional cycling bikes, ie. EVERYONE else, would have an advantage over me, but it didn’t really phase me – I was here to finish the event and ‘try to not come in last’! I spoke to a few other competitors while we were waiting in the Caribbean sea, because in typical Belize style, the event was running a few minutes late! Another American guy was also doing his first triathlon. One of the Belizean guys had done the event a few times – having won it twice before and having come 3rd the other times. (The Guatemalans had beaten him). I mentioned something about swimming, and he said he couldn’t swim! My confused look of ‘well-how-have-you-won-a-triathlon?’, encouraged him to finish his statement. He said he was a great cyclist and runner, and that is where he always made up the distance.
With the start of a whistle, carnage ensued. In all honesty, 30 bodies scrambling to find a comfortable swimming position was not the circus scenario I’ve read about in other triathlon articles. Turned out, the Belizean guy wasn’t the only one who couldn’t swim properly, surprisingly a lot of the guys did not have a decent swim stroke – so I can only imagine how hard it was for them to navigate through 1.5km’s!
My navigational skills needed a GPS – I was all over the course. The first lap I swam off course about three times! The first 300meters had me short of breath, and I realized this was probably because I had just gone out too fast – I needed to slow down, otherwise I would find myself hanging onto one of the wooden sticks, waiting for rescue! I’d completed the first lap, there were people in front of me and people behind, so I was doing something right. I found the 2nd lap a lot easier than the first and even overtook three people in the last 50-100meters. Scrambling out of the sea – I felt great! A crowd was cheering on all the swimmers, and I couldn’t help but crack a huge smile, knowing I had just completed the first leg of the triathlon. As I ran into transition someone cheered me on, saying, “you’re the 2nd female out, the other one just left on her bike!” Naturally I assumed she meant the defending champion, but I looked at the bike rack and her bike was still hanging there! The other female competitor must have swum a very fast race! I have no idea of my time – again this was something I was very nonchalant about in training. I just wanted to concentrate on completion, not split-second performances. Transitioning was a little slow. As I climbed into some shorts and a high school running singlet (over 10 years old!!?), Tosh’s sister (Tosh was currently swimming for her relay team) and boyfriend took photos and yelled, “Hurry up, you’re too slow...” I headed out of the transition area with the Belizean guy who had told me he couldn’t swim. He was right about his cycling prowess– he left me for dust. Cycling along, I was rather smitten with myself – here I was a 1/3rd of the way through my 1st triathlon, and I’d faired well in the swimming! At about 2km the defending female champion overtook me – that was bound to happen at some stage – still I had swum faster, and that made me proud.Possibly another one or two cyclists passed me, including someone from the team relay – they had started five minutes after us. I started to amp myself up for the cycle, I knew the course, I had ridden it before – I could do this! Passing through the 2nd roundabout, I heard a scraping noise and felt something that I had felt about 1 ½ week before that I didn’t like the feel of. I looked down at my rear tire, “It can’t be, surely not!” I jumped off my bike on the side of the highway – a FLAT TIRE! No way, this was not part of the plan – I know these things happen, but not in my first triathlon! This tire had already been flat, why again? I called out to the traffic warden if he could radio back to the official at the start – he was no help, just shrugging his shoulders as if he didn’t understand English. (English is the national language of Belize). I started to push my bike along – I didn’t know what to do. I knew Tosh had her bike back at the start, but I needed to get back to the start. An official came by on his motorbike. I flagged him down and alerted him to my dilemma. He radioed back to the start and then told me there was nothing he could do – I would have to keep riding the bike! “That’s ridiculous!” I claimed. I know you are meant to have spare tires and equipment for triathlons and a support team catering to your every need if so required – but c’mon, this was my first triathlon, I just wanted to give it a go. I asked him if he could radio back, call for Jane Usher at the start and get her to drive her truck out with her bike. He said he wouldn’t, and rode off. I found this official extremely unhelpful and with no initiative, and certainly not in the spirit of good sportsmanship!Here I was, a damsel in distress on the side of a Belizean highway with a battered bike and now a battered spirit. Tears were welling under my sunglasses. "Damnit, I am FINISHING this triathlon!” I told myself. I limped my bike into the gas station and asked if he could put any air in the tire. That’s when we found my old nemesis – glass! Unless I had a tube, he couldn’t help. Then I flagged down a policeman and asked if I left my bike at the gas station, could he drive me back to the start. He said he would. He flagged down another official and said to go with him because he would be faster on his bike. I grabbed my water bottles and jumped on. I thought the circus show would be in the swim leg, however I had just created my own show – I do like to keep things interesting...and the crowd entertained!
Blazing back into the transition area – people just stared at me – Tosh came running through the crowd – “What happened?”
“My bike has a puncture”“Do you still want to continue?”“Absolutely!” She was already pulling her bicycle out of the truck, “Here, ride mine”....I jumped on her professional bike – it was too big. She saw a random guy in the crowd, asked him if he was doing the triathlon - he wasn’t. Before he even knew what was happening, Tosh had pushed me was on his bike – which was similar to the mountain bike I had previously ridden.I asked the official if I could be dropped back at the station – meaning for Tosh to drop me and the bike off in the truck. He said that would be fine. “GO, GO” people were yelling now. I just started cycling, Tosh said she would meet up with me with the truck further down the road. I didn’t see anyone until about 15km later. Tosh was idling alongside me in the truck and I’d already passed the gas station. In the frenzied entertainment I’d provided the crowd at the transition zone, I’d left my water bottles there! I asked her for some water and she passed over water sachets – a plastic sachet containing water, very popular in Belize – kind of handy too. I asked her if she could organize with the officials on my 2nd lap if I could be dropped at the gas station, because it had been rather unfair. She said she’d try, but she thought probably not. Starting on my 2nd lap, some people were already half way through the run! – I thought it rather unlikely that I would have my request fulfilled. I was angry, but I reminded myself, I came here to finish, nothing else. Oh, and maybe not finish last – ironically enough, I was now dead last in the race! About two kilometers into my 2nd lap – someone had successfully negotiated with the officials, there was Tosh’ sister boyfriend in the truck with an official! The official jumped out, lifted my bike in the truck, and they drove me to the gas station, dropping me on the side of the road with my bike – I was off again!Finishing off the last 3km of the bike ride, it seemed like everyone else was already running! Disembarking the bike, Tosh yelled, “Rack it, rack it!”"But it’s not my bike!"
“Doesn’t matter, you have to rack it.” The guy’s whose bike it was, was standing beside Tosh and still looking as bewildered as he had when we 'borrowed' his bike! I hope the guy had nowhere of importance to be, because I’d just delayed him for over an hour!
This transition was a lot quicker – helmet off, rack the bike, pick up my hat and banana and go. Needless to say, I have no idea what my cycling time was – a lot longer than I had anticipated which was about 90-100 minutes! Another cyclist had just returned before me and he was still tying his shoe laces as I hobbled out of the transition area. I tried running, but felt like a penguin that had just dismounted a horse! Why was I wobbling around like a bowlegged cowboy penguin? I didn’t have pain searing along my calf muscles like others complain of, but I wasn’t exactly stable either! I steadied myself and did a fast paced walk for a bit. I was going to finish the triathlon and it didn’t concern me so much if I had to walk sections of it. I ran-walked the 10km and passed another two competitors – one of whom was still on his first lap, like me, and one who was into his second lap. Usually other competitors were going in the opposite direction to me, and at times, we’d shout out encouragement to each other – I loved this part. I knew the defending champion was in the lead for the females. When the British chick and I ran past each other she yelled out, “This is the first triathlon, and the LAST!”
"But you might walk from here" claimed Bobby – their riding of the last 1.5-2km had ensured I wouldn’t walk,"No, there’s no walking from here – I’m nearly finished!"
Holding out an Australian bandanna, I crossed the finishing line as the MC announced me as the "first Australian to finish today!" (I think I am the only Australian to complete the Belize Triathlon!)
I couldn’t have been prouder – I had completed my first Olympic distance Triathlon, amidst punctured tires, tears and heat – as well as receiving a medal, trophy and cash prize money for my efforts – and I hadn’t come totally last – 3rd last and 3rd female!
I am still unaware of my time – the Belize Triathlon association was not the most organized, although I’m guessing it was about 3hr and 30-40minutes. Although unorganized, the Belize Triathlon allowed me to jump on the back of a motorbike, borrow someone’s bike and take a ride in truck – all of which would have probably found me disqualified at any other triathlon! And the Belize Triathlon was not shy of disqualifying athletes, The 1st and 2nd (both Guatemalans) were disqualified!
As a small competing contingent in a small country, I had achieved a massive feat. Two days later, I’m still not sore (no muscle, or mental fatigue, whatsoever) and psyched to compete in another triathlon – once I learn how to fix punctures!
The only way I knew I couldn’t do a triathlon, was by simply doing one!