What happens when your hobby becomes more important to you than your job? This was the question that I was asking myself recently. I needed to figure out who I was: a journalist or an athlete? Or maybe both?
The problem is that I love to race. It’s quite a new element in my life – stretching back almost three years to a point where I had just left the British Army after almost six years of commissioned service. I had lost my identity and needed to find a new one and…a new focus.
So in July 2008, several days after turning thirty-one and at the start of my life as a civilian, I entered the infamous Marathon des Sables…in 2011! Unwittingly I had given myself a new direction and although I wouldn’t know how it would take shape for several more years, I was about to embark on a series of weekend adventures that would define my ‘5 to 9’ existence. I was about to become a ‘weekend warrior’.
Over the past three years, I’ve competed in over seventy races ranging from 5k Parkruns to 200mile ultra-marathons across the Alps, from Ironman triathlons to the 125mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. This summer alone I’m racing three Iron distance races, including the ‘toughest Iron distance triathlon of them all’ the Norseman. At the moment (touch wood) I feel unstoppable!
What’s strange is that I could never have predicted this bizarre athletic journey into ‘ultra’ madness. What could inspire me to wake up at four in the morning and get ready to plunge my sleep warm body into the icy waters of the Thames at the start of a triathlon? What makes me want to race so much?
I’m cursed with an innate inability to focus on one thing. I’m a multi-tasker to the extreme. But it’s also proved to be a blessing because I rarely get bored with training. I mix and match, like a child in a sweetie shop! Most crucially, I race to train. And in this respect, I've been helped enormously by joining with others.
To anyone making a start in the athletic world, in my opinion, one of the best investments you can ever make (apart from buying a pair of trainers) is to join your local running/triathlon club. In my previous life, the closest I had ever got to a club was a sandwich. But for a whopping annual fee of £20, I became a member of a club of local like-minded weekend warriors who quickly became some of my closest friends.
And as a consequence of joining the Clapham Chasers, I also gained my England Athletics competition licence…which then led me to join the British Triathlon Association and the world of age group triathletes. Would you not agree that there is something rather satisfying about having something to type in the bit that says ‘club name’?
I should make it clear that if anyone were to ask me what sport I do best – I would without hesitation say that I am a runner as at the moment I would have trouble calling myself either a swimmer or a cyclist. Triathlon for me is simply making the run more challenging by chucking in a swim and bike ride beforehand. It’s at T2 that the race truly begins for me!
There is something inordinately exciting about planning what your ‘A’ race is going to be. It’s normally quite soon after you’ve finished your last one and looking for the next big challenge. Whilst ‘A’ races are great for focusing the mind, don’t forget how much fun the ‘B’ and ‘C’ races are.
When the triathlon season ends, I love nothing more than a muddy, wet off-road race. And there are plenty to choose from, normally with a disagreeable adjective in the title like ‘grim’, ‘hell’, ‘brutal’, etc. I’ve raced Hellrunner four years in a row, each time getting closer to a win - last year I finished fifth. The strange pleasure I got from breaking the ice of the Bogs of Doom with my shins will stay with me for a while.
So despite the journeys at dawn, the freezing waters, the muddy rivers, the startlingly hard bicycle seat and the grimy sweat of it all, there are huge benefits to be had. You feel fitter than ever. You accomplish more. In short, discipline and effort bring unexpected rewards.
By some twist of fate, it appears I’ve found a way to be a journalist and an athlete. It is possible to be both if you don’t take the ‘athletic’ side too seriously. If you remind yourself it’s about having fun and challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone, becoming a weekend warrior has everything to recommend it.