The Gift

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‘To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.’
‘Redefine your impossible.’

I cling to inspirational quotations as a way of getting through life, and often have them scribbled over my body on race day too. Those two above are the mantras I reliably turn to year on year as a way of getting through things and keeping myself motivated. Recently though I’ve been repeating them more and more whilst my health has taken a bit of a nose dive, forcing me to pull out of a few events and making me re-evaluate where I place my ‘self’ in my list of priorities (turns out it was pretty far down on the list…which I’m sure is something we can all relate to on some level).

There have been days recently where everything has felt like a struggle, and I think when your body is at that point where it feels broken and heavy, it begins to affect your state of mind too. I could see the warning signs but chose to ignore them until I hit a wall; I’ve been travelling too much, I haven’t eaten three meals a day for longer than I can remember, I’m doing way too much in my day job, I’m getting far less than seven hours sleep each night, I’m still heavily reliant on caffeine to get myself through a day and on top of it all, up until last week, I was still trying to train just as much as usual. So it wasn’t much of a surprise to find out that once again I was low on sodium and potassium, and was suffering from anaemia. Poor life choices really do equate to poor health.

The problem with getting yourself into that kind of rut is that it’s very difficult to crawl back out of it, because generally, the other pressures don’t stop existing. It takes real effort to make positive changes to improve your health and I just haven’t really been keen to do so, or rather I felt like I couldn’t do so because in my head I still consider certain things to come before my health…I’m under this naive assumption that my body will just adapt and learn to cope with feeling like this. Because, after all, I like to think that I’m invincible and that my body really can do anything. As it happens, being forced to slow down has helped a little bit and I’m beginning to really focus on fixing these issues…because I really do love it when my body and mind feels strong. And that’s a state of being I want to be back at as soon as possible.

And so that first quotation about sacrificing the gift, that’s quite important to me at the moment because by not taking care of myself in the appropriate way I am wasting that gift of being active, effectively sabotaging myself. And self-sabotage is no good when you’ve spent years getting your body to a state where it can race well. As for redefining my impossible? Well, recently my inner self-critic has been a bit too vocal; telling me I’m not good enough or that my body is weak and rubbish and not worth the investment, telling me that life in itself is impossible. But actually, that’s just the irrational side of my brain talking, and that side of my brain can always be put back in its box…which is exactly where it’s going.

So now is the time for a bit of self-care, some good nutrition, and focussing on what I can do, rather than what I think I can’t do.

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My Non-Training Plan

IMG_2272I’ve been thinking long and hard about how I’m going to train for my races this year and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to throw all conventional ideas of training plans out of the window and just trust my intuition and do whatever I feel like. Reckless, perhaps. But I suspect more exciting.

Last year I was very lucky to work with a coach and have my weekly training plans provided to me, knowing that I didn’t have to think too much and just had to follow the instructions written down. In theory, that sounds lovely and the most straight-forward way of training…you know, trusting the professionals. However I’m stubborn and difficult and whenever someone tells me to do something (even when it’s in my best interest), I tend to take great delight in doing the complete opposite. So you can see that being coached wasn’t necessarily a good match for my personality as I tend to trust myself more than I trust others, and I definitely know my limits better than anyone else. I also started really intense training at the beginning of February which left me feeling burnt out by the time my A race arrived and I found myself keeping injuries from my coach because I didn’t want her to adjust my training. I really am a nightmare. Then add to that the fact that I had 6 training sessions per week (this turned into 7 usually because I always wanted to run on my rest day) which I felt like I had to always complete, even if it meant cancelling plans with friends because I prioritised my training over them. Bad friend, I know. Although I also put off my yearly dental checkup for an entire 8 months because I couldn’t fit it in to my training schedule, so I guess I also prioritised my training over my own wellbeing too.

This year though, it makes sense to do things my way. After a bit of a setback with some health issues which has affected the quality of what I’m currently doing, I feel comfortable in trusting my gut instinct with what I should be doing and when. Of course I’ll push myself to train when I probably should be listening to my body and sitting out, but luckily I have plenty of people around me who are more than happy to give me a lecture on that when needed. And despite tears and tantrums, they usually win.

But why else will my non-training approach work better for me? Because having fun will be the number one priority.

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Cycling probably became my one true love during last year’s training and whilst I always made sure I took my bike out after work on a Friday evening, it meant that I also had to do an indoor cycle once a week too – and I hate turbo-ing because, for me, my love of triathlon stems from the fact that I love to be outdoors. Slaving away in a gym? Not for me. But getting to the top of an almighty hill, taking a breath in and knowing you’ve cycled up it faster than usual? That feeling is exhilarating and makes me feel alive. I have big and heavy legs which have a lot of cycling potential, but I didn’t get to exploit them enough last year. So this year I want to be cycling more. As soon as the evenings are light enough I plan to cycle to and from work a few times each week – for my mental wellbeing as much as anything else as I know that will help me to feel calm, but is also a nice challenging route which I can extend on the way home and turn into a proper training ride. Why couldn’t I do that last year? Because I’d be cycling to work on days when I would be running or swimming too and then I’d get caught up in how many calories I would need to be consuming in order to sustain that volume of activity, and as someone who still struggles to fuel properly it just created more problems than it solved. Therefore I could only really cycle and run together on days when I actually had a brick session planned. And so I had to hold back on my cycling which made me a bit unhappy at times.

Swimming was also one of those activities that I absolutely loved but had the fun sucked out of it at various points during the year. For the most part, I was swimming before work which meant being in the pool at about 6.30am, saying a quick hello to the people in my lane, and then getting on with my sets. It was quite lonely. Now I tend to spend the majority of my swim sessions swimming with friends or people from my club, and whilst I’m not an overly social creature, the people I swim with are full of personality and we always have a fabulous time and are full of giggles (we do work hard too, I promise). Whilst I may not be working on my drills so much anymore, the work I am doing in the pool is benefiting me enormously and fits in with my ‘non-training’ perfectly. I also plan on doing more sea swimming this year because, again, that is something I really love and as I live at the beach it would be silly not to seize this opportunity.

Running was the area I struggled with the most whilst being coached last year though – I’ve been a runner for as long as I can remember and I don’t really know who I am without running (cue the violins, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and tears have been shed). Unfortunately my feet really started to deteriorate during the summer which meant I wasn’t hitting the times I was supposed to be hitting in my training sessions, and in one of my triathlons I even had to walk part of the run route because I was in so much pain (to be fair the night before that race my husband did have to dislocate my feet for me so I could ‘put them back together again’ so the walking was understandable…but it left me feeling like a bit of a fraud). So my feet aren’t getting any better, and I know surgery is on the horizon which means again my running will be slow this year and it’ll make me tremendously sad, but trusting my instinct and running the distances I know I can manage whilst trying to worry less about times will hopefully help to keep the fun alive and will keep me running for the entirety of the season. But you know, running whilst managing chronic pain is really not easy so I need to cut myself a bit of slack here if things don’t go to plan.

And of course, I have my new found love of Barre and am attending three classes a week. Last year I simply could not fit any exercise classes into my training plan because it was already too full. Whereas this year I know I can tailor one of my runs to run commute to Barre on a Wednesday evening, which will involve hill work on my run home too and will be great for my run fitness. I’m considering Barre to be the strength training element of my ‘non-training’ because I really do have to work hard in those classes and instantly feel the benefits, but Barre is also really useful for me to tune into my body and figure out what isn’t working in the way it should be and what needs to be stronger, which makes it the perfect accompaniment to the swim, bike and run.

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Of course, even though I’m calling this a ‘non-training plan’ I do have an idea of what days I will be doing what, and actually with all of the above my entire week is taken up with training once again. However, in my head I feel a bit more comfortable with what I have come up with because I know that now it is only me who is in control of what I’m doing; I can be flexible if I want to be and in theory I will be able to prioritise other more important things over training if I need to…because, you know, missing a swim session won’t kill me. I know I will still struggle to deviate away from the routine I have in my head, but I suspect I’ll be able to figure it out and have a very happy season.

So, here’s to 2017 and the year of non-training!

Training in Winter

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I am a child of the Mediterranean. I like warmth. I like sea swimming. And I like to spend most of my days wandering beaches barefoot in nothing more than a bikini.

I also really like sport, and as much as I would love to hibernate in the winter months and re-emerge late spring looking tanned and lovely and ready to run my races, that approach unfortunately does not bode well for a good race performance. And so, in the depths of winter, I have to continue with my training.

But here’s the thing, have you actually tried running or cycling in winter before? Because it’s fun. Really fun. Don’t get me wrong, it takes me a good 15 minutes huddled by the radiator after getting changed into my kit before I can motivate myself to brave the icy weather. But once I’m out there I have the best time. It’s just easier training in the colder months, you don’t overheat quite so much, you see the world with fresh eyes and you get to experience the magic of twilight.

Here are a few fairly standard tips to make winter training easier:

  1. Get Google Nest (or one of its competitors). My husband is a big fan of anything Google…to the extent where the majority of our home is powered by by the brand (and I’m not allowed an iPhone, sob). Nest is ingenious – at about 4pm from the comfort of my office or a meeting I reach for my phone and turn my heating on via the Nest app. This means that when I arrive home my kit is already warmed through which makes heading straight out for a run or bike ride marginally easier (and no, this post isn’t sponsored by Nest – I’m just a huge fan of anything that keeps me warm).
  2. Invest in good kit. I think top layers are extremely important to get right in the winter and if you don’t already have a running jacket, buy one immediately. I also think you can’t underestimate the power of a good pair of gloves – I tend to use the same gloves for cycling and running and they always take the chill off during the first part of my workout. Midway through gloves are a really easy layer to take off and tuck away in your pocket too. Oh, and make sure you have a decent hat to wear.
  3. Hydrate properly. Don’t think that because it’s winter you can get away with drinking less water. Training when you’re dehydrated is horrible and will have a severe impact on your performance. I also like to make sure I have a cup of tea as soon as I get back from a winter training session as I need something to warm myself up with (a sweet treat helps, too).
  4. Stay visible; see and be seen. Make sure you’re wearing appropriate reflective kit to keep you out of harm’s way, but also make sure you have a head torch or some other light so that you can clearly see the path ahead. Being visible also means you’ll receive a few more friendly greetings when you cross paths with someone – I find the people I come across whilst out on cold and dark evenings are much friendlier than those I come across in summer.
  5. Ensure you warm up and warm down properly. I’m not keen on stretching before a run but I do make sure I take the first mile at an easier pace than the subsequent miles. I also have a stretching routine that I do once I’m back home and never ever skip it.
  6. Sign up to an event! Nothing is more motivating than having something to work towards. My first event is early January which is a coastal trail run along the White Cliffs of Dover. It’ll be a challenge but hopefully a lot of fun too. There’s nothing more motivating than having a goal to work towards.

It probably won’t be easy mustering up the motivation to get outdoors, but once that work out is done and you’re safely tucked back up in the warm you will feel so much better for it.

Triathlon: Team SFQ

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On Friday evening I received quite possibly the best email ever…I have been selected to race for Team SFQ in 2017. For anyone who doesn’t know Smashfest Queen, it’s the US brand behind the really fabulous kit I spent 2016 racing in. As I am sure you can imagine, I feel incredibly privileged that this somewhat mediocre (but enthusiastic) triathlete will be training and racing in their kit as part of their team. Not to mention upholding the positive energy of the team. It really does feel like a huge honour and one that I am already ridiculously excited about.

What makes it even more special is the fact that towards the end of 2017 I will be having surgery on my feet to fuse some bones together, which means 2018 can probably be written off right now as I will be facing a 6 month recovery. So 2017 has to count, and has to be fantastic.

Let’s smash this!

The Off-Season

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The past few weeks have been deliciously relaxing; I really slowed down and forgot about having a proper training routine for a while. I cycled a handful of times, ran a few times more and forgot about swimming completely. I also started going to a barre class which I really love and has inspired me to incorporate a bit more strength training and pilates-based exercises into my training.

But the lazy times have to come to an end. My first race of 2017 is a coastal endurance trail race at the beginning of January, and although they call it a 10K it’s actually 7.7 miles and is a race that requires a decent amount of training. I had intended to start my new training plan last week but unfortunately succumbed to freshers’ flu (from the university my lovely husband works at, thanks for that…I had successfully managed to avoid the freshers’ flu from my university rather well until he brought the germs home!) so other than a barre class and a bike ride, I was pretty much wiped out for the week.

And so I shall restart my training plan this week, which won’t be easy as I’m working a few long days in Brussels during the first part of this week and then working in Rome in a fortnight, but once those commitments are out of the way there should be few interruptions to my training leading me into the new year.

So, what’s my plan? Well, running will be my main focus and will involve three sessions per week (short, tempo and long). My Bianchi will be on the turbo and I’ll aim to fit in two sessions, although will allow myself to drop down to one if I’m having a ‘can’t be bothered’ moment – if I head outdoors for cycling it’ll most likely be on my MTB. I will aim to swim once a fortnight, and will have two strength training sessions per week – one of which will be my barre class and the other will be a home workout with weights.

That’s seven decent sessions a week which is more than enough to keep my base fitness levels up throughout the winter with the intention of starting my focussed triathlon training at the beginning of April. I also want to make sure that I’m not sacrificing my social life and other opportunities in favour of my training though so will hopefully be able to drop a session here and there without feeling guilty as and when the need arises.  This year I started my triathlon training at the beginning of February which was just far too early considering my last race (which was also my A race) was at the end of September, so April feels like it will be a better time for me especially as I will have completed all of the shorter running races that I’m signed up to during the first part of the year by then.

I have to admit though, I really have enjoyed being lazy recently and know I will have lost a lot of fitness that I now need to regain which won’t be particularly easy. But everyone needs a bit of indulgence after such a busy season (oh, and I also used that ‘lazy time’ productively at work which resulted in a new position as Faculty Director of Recruitment…so it’s not like I completely dropped the ball).

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Triathlon: Things I’ve Learnt

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So here I am having finished my last race of the year. I’ve competed in more 10Ks than I can count on my hands, one aquathlon and four triathlons throughout 2016 and I have survived them all. But, what have I learnt?

I love triathlon

For the first half of my training all I did was moan about how I couldn’t wait for 2017 to arrive so that I could have ‘just a running year’. Well, it turns out 2017 isn’t going to be ‘just a running year’ because I have discovered that I love swimming, I love cycling and I love running. I love everything about triathlon and don’t want to trade it in.

Being coached isn’t for everyone

Despite the aforementioned love of triathlon, I didn’t enjoy being coached. I’m not entirely sure what my approach is going to be next year but it will probably be quite unstructured. I can’t foresee 2017 being the year where I take triathlon super seriously and focus on times but I can envisage it being a year where I develop a solid base of knowing what works well for me in training and what gives me the results I want and need.

Triathlon takes hunger to a whole new level

I have always had a somewhat challenging relationship with food, but triathlon has forced me to overcome a lot of those issues because nobody wants to underperform on race day simply because they’re worried about calories (totally happened to me in the 2010 London Triathlon). When I started my training I was under-fuelling myself and my performance suffered…I was just walking around in this perma-miserable state of exhaustion. It wasn’t pretty. Luckily I took the right steps to fix this, figured out what macros and micro nutrients I needed to perform the way that I wanted to and gave myself a stern talking to. I also discovered that if you’re having a really bad day and just cannot be bothered with consciously thinking about fuelling then bagels become your best friend. I frequently default to bagels with the Pip & Nut Coconut Almond Butter (you really should try this, it’s heaven in a jar…and the best part is that my husband is allergic to almonds so I have the jar all to myself!) to get me through an evening of training.

Your body changes a lot 

This year I gained 8lbs…that’s over half a stone and it was a conscious decision. I am still a way off my goal racing weight, but I figured that the extra 8lbs is better than nothing and I did feel physically healthier for it towards the end of my season. I have mixed feelings about my triathlon body; sometimes I’ll see nice definition and think ‘yeh, I’m rocking this extra weight’, other times I’ll just hate that weight and will moan to anyone who will listen. My poor husband is generally the one on the receiving end of my complaints about my legs being too fat, my bottom too big, or just feeling generally heavy. Luckily he takes it well and tells me to stop being silly…although we do both agree that my legs are ridiculously heavy for my body. This year was probably the first year in a very long time that I felt confident in a bikini on a beach though, so that’s progress.

It doesn’t matter if you’re slow

Unless you’re aiming for a spot on Team GB, it really doesn’t matter if you’re slow as long as you are enjoying yourself. I’m not a fast swimmer (lack of biceps), or a fast cyclist (weak quads), and running has quite frankly been a disaster after being diagnosed with hyperextension in my feet earlier this year. However I have enough in me to get through training and to enjoy a race, and it’s the enjoyment factor that is most important. Generally most people will come to triathlon with at least one strong discipline, but with impressive determination to work on their weaker disciplines – and that is what’s so magical about triathlon. All elements of the race are technically challenging (and don’t even get me started on transitions…) but none of the elements are insurmountable. All it takes is a little bit of time, effort and dedication and you will easily be able to complete the race. This winter I will be focussing on getting stronger though, I want to have power behind me so I can have a fast season next year.

You’ll crave make-up and accessorising 

Okay, so this is one for the girls. I know there are female triathletes out there who manage to balance looking lovely and immaculate with being a total badass in triathlon (in fact I’m following plenty on Instagram). However I am not that kind of triathlete and tend to look like a swamp monster most of the time. I have never really been one for wearing mascara or accessorising with jewellery anyway, but when you realise that in order to get to work on time after a morning in the pool you have no choice but to discard such frivolities, well, that’s when you really want to wear make-up and a nice necklace and bracelet. Perhaps this will be what I work on during next year’s racing season. That being said, I am now racing in the most vivid pink tri suit possible, and as someone who avoids wearing colour in everyday life, I find it somewhat amusing that I am leaning towards a colour that I would usually shudder at.

Mental strength is the most important ingredient

Despite all the hours of training I put in, the one thing that actually got me through my races was a positive mental attitude. Unfortunately it took me half a year to figure this out and as a consequence I severely underperformed in all of my races up until about June. Luckily something magical happened from July onwards and I was able to relax and enjoy myself whilst finishing off the season with an abundance of enthusiasm and passion towards the sport.

Don’t overfill your race schedule 

After having a year of very minimal racing (whilst finishing my Masters, working full-time, planning our wedding and completely renovating the house we had bought that year…), when registration for the 2016 races started opening I may have been a little over-enthusiastic about what I could physically take on. Take March for example…I had a race every weekend, including a destination race and one weekend where I had to take part in Swimathon (as I was one of the official bloggers for it) plus a 10K race the very next day. This was also at a time when fuelling was a major issue for me…poor nutrition plus 5 races to get through during my busiest month at work is essentially a recipe for disaster. Plus it was still winter and cold and I was just miserable. I still don’t know how I survived March. My last race of the season was towards the end of September at Hever Castle and although this was my all-time favourite triathlon, I probably won’t sign up for it next year. September just felt a little too late to be ending the season – I could quite happily have completed the Oysterman at the end of August and been satisfied. I’m still trying to figure out my race schedule for next year but will learn from my mistakes (I say, knowing full well that I have already booked onto 4 events for 2017 already…).

So, here’s to next year – another year of triathlon!

 

Race Report: Hever Castle Triathlon

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In terms of picturesque triathlon locations, it doesn’t get much better than Hever Castle. I had been booked onto this race for an entire year and knew that this was the one I wanted to take part in to close my season. Aside from the fact that it is extremely pretty, it is also the most challenging course I did all year.

Whilst the swim was not particularly challenging, the lake is rather grim underfoot. Our wave was due to start at 9.15am so by 9 we were at the side of the lake being briefed by the course director on what to expect throughout the race. The day beforehand we received an email with the good news that the water temperature was 17’C and therefore wetsuits were non-compulsory. I did have a brief moment where I contemplated discarding my wetsuit in favour of a faster transition, but was glad I dismissed such a silly idea before racing. I sat on the side of the pontoon and dipped my toes in the water and thought that the water felt ok, however when I slid off and submerged my whole body I realised just how cold things actually were. Lakes always feel colder than the sea to me which is why I prefer sea swims in events. The good thing about Hever is that the lake is shallow enough to stand up at the start, however underfoot is so squishy and grim that you really don’t feel inclined to put your feet down for fear of what it is you are actually standing on.

Somehow I ended up at the front of the start line which was not my original plan – I had wanted to hang back to avoid getting kicked in the torso whilst swimming as I had some bruised ribs which were pretty painful, but clearly racing mentality took over. Soon enough we were off on the swim and heading out towards the turnaround buoy. The water soon warmed up whilst swimming and unfortunately I ended up swallowing a fair bit of it too as there was so much splashing up front – this was something I desperately wanted to avoid as the water looks horrid (I drank a lot of coke after the race so hopefully won’t get too sick from this). Eventually we were on the homestretch and were being pulled out of the water by the very helpful marshals (it’s quite steep climbing out of the lake so you need a hand) and then running up hill into transition. I heard a lot of people moaning about how steep the 100m run out of the lake and into transition was, but it wasn’t anything like the Oysterman slope so this didn’t cause any concern for me.

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Getting through the swim felt easy, and mentally I was telling myself that I was a third of the way through the race and could easily do the other two disciplines (in reality in terms of distance, completing the swim is nowhere near a third of the way through the race but it helps me to visualise it this way). I tried not to faff around too much in transition and before I knew it was heading out of transition and onto the bike route. Just as I made it to the mount line I realised there was something wrong with my pedal so had to spend a minute sorting that out, but once I was on the bike I felt comfortable and confident…initially. Now, I know the Hever bike route is hilly, but I think I had forgotten just how hilly it was. The first 2Km of the cycle was a climb and I secretly hoped that that would be the worst of it…oh how naive I was. It was climb after climb after climb after climb. And I really hate hills. Also, as it was undulating country lanes a lot of the route was shaded from trees, which may have looked pretty, but also meant I was suffering from the cold a bit whilst not drying off fully. There were some great bits to the bike though; every KM was marked which helped me to tick off the distance mentally and break it down into manageable sections, when some of the super speedy men overtook me on a climb they would shout words of encouragement to me, one of my fellow coached triathletes was out cheering in one of the villages, and I received two comments from ladies complimenting me on my trisuit. There were also some very nasty bike crashes I saw and a few punctures too…I was most worried about the bike section and just kept willing myself to get through it unscathed and without any mechanical issues. Because of this I didn’t push myself as hard as I perhaps should have, although certainly wasn’t just coasting my way through it.

Eventually I was on the last climb with only 2KM to go and knew I could make it back safely. By this point my whole torso was aching from being hunched over on my bike and I really felt like I needed a good run to shake things out.

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Heading back into transition I quickly had a sachet of baby food and a drink of water, put some lipbalm and my Advent Running hat on, moved my race number to the front and then out I went. By this point the sun was really warm and I was so excited to have my run and knew the finish was in sight. At the start of the run you have to climb a bridge to clear yourself of the bike route, and that was enough to make me keel over in pain (as evidenced in the above photo!) before managing to compose myself once again and giving the run all I could. The run is essentially a trail run but my shoes seem to be ok coping with all kinds of terrain, of course though, the first third of the route was pretty much all up hill again – I was certainly starting to feel the burn in my legs. Eventually things levelled out and I was at the next water station where I stopped for a few seconds to drink properly rather than run and drink, this was such a welcome break as the water felt ice cold and really left me feeling refreshed and ready to attack the rest of the run. After a bit more running I could feel the end was near and after one last gentle incline I could start to see and hear the crowds cheering us on. I didn’t quite give my usual sprint finish but I did have a consistent and well-paced run from start to finish which left me feeling incredibly happy.

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And so, there I was having finished my season of triathlon, feeling exhausted but proud of all that I had accomplished over the course of the year and ready to grow stronger throughout the winter so that I am racing fit for 2017. My little biceps are starting to grown (well, on my right arm…not so much on the left) and I feel as though I have really trained my mind to be able to take on anything that is thrown at me. Whilst I have found the training exhausting and draining at times, that feeling of accomplishment on race day more than makes up for it. I really do love the sport of triathlon.