Last weekend I participated in a triathlon up in the mountains at Lake Sevan, which was organised for the second year running by staff at the US Embassy. Events like this are few and far between in Armenia, as the idea of sport for general health and fitness has not yet gained widespread public acceptance. I’ve learnt to ignore the sniggering loons I encounter every time I go out for a ride or a run.
I wanted to be part of the race primarily to have fun and meet some new people. Most of the other foreigners I knew here last year have now moved on. I also wanted to see how much of a difference the last months of bicycle travel had made to my overall fitness and ability to cycle at a competitive level, which was something I’d never tried before. I’d never even ridden a racing bike.
The experiment was going to be a daunting one — an early-morning 1.5km swim in the frigid high-altitude waters of Lake Sevan, up at 2,000m above sea level; a 40km bike ride which I didn’t really expect to cause too many problems, and finally the killer — a 10km run. I’ve never been a runner, and having hit the treadmill a couple of times in Dubai and felt the after-effects strongly, I fully expected to crumple up in a heap shortly after leaving the starting line on foot when the day came.
A few days before the race I was invited to join a team who already had a strong runner and swimmer. The team was to represent a charity called Aquatics Armenia, who planned to build the first swimming pool complex in Yerevan that would be available to the general public — rather than just rich kids and expats — and at an affordable price. It sounded a noble scheme to promote health and fitness amongst the large sector of society for whom it is a suspicious, expensive luxury. So I abandoned my plan to flop dismally on the roadside in a folorn pile of sweaty limbs, and agreed to ride for them.
The morning of the race day was beautiful, and despite the thunderstorm the night before I was glad to have camped the night a few metres away from the main staging point for the race. I sat and watched the dawn growing behind the mountains on the far side of the lake, cooked scrambled egg with my battered old stove, then trudged up the bank to the car park, where the organisers had already put up a big tent and sound system and were organising a pair of industrial-strength barbecues. Clearly this wasn’t a locally-organised event — there were even a pair of Portaloos on the site!
Bleary-eyed friends, family and supporters mingled with competitors spooning themselves into wetsuits and fluorescent swimming hats. A couple of riders took off down the lakeside road for a warm-up, and I decided to join them. A distant horn sounded as we rolled down the hard shoulder, and below us, a froth of swimmers broke into a straggled line as they plunged for the first waypoint in the half-kilometre loop. The sprint-distance swimmers would dash out after one lap, and the Olympic-distance remainder would swim another two laps before leaping on their bikes or passing the baton to the next member of their team.
Triathlon-style events — consecutive swimming, biking and running — usually come in four gradations between power and endurance. The shortest course, and therefore the one that requires the quickest movement in order to win, is known as a Sprint course, with a 500m swim, a 26km ride, and a 5km run. The Olympic distance course consists of a 1.5km swim, a 40km ride and a 15km run, which is enough to bring a look of horror to most people’s faces. These were the two available courses at the Sevan event.
Way off in the realm of the truly masochistic, two extensions of this course actually take place around the world on a fairly regular basis — the half-Ironman, and the Ironman. These races sound on paper as though they are suitable only for the clinically-insane. The Ironman race is — get this — a 3.8km swim (that’s 152 lengths of a standard swimming pool), a 180km bike ride (London to somewhere near Birmingham), and a 42km run (Dover to Calais and then some). Back to back. Alone.
Tomorrow, one of my good friends from the States, who I haven’t seen for a number of years, and who I can’t say I expected to hear to be doing this (although now I think about it I can see where the mentality comes from), is going to attempt to swim, bike and run the Ironman. She has my full, unadulterated respect, not only for having the balls to train for 11 months for the race (let alone compete in it), but also for writing one of the most unabashed, entertaining and cripplingly funny blogs I’ve ever read about the run-up to the experience, and hopefully her success in completing the course in the next few hours.
Back in Sevan, I would have liked to have ridden the 40km route, but the team organiser and director of the charity’s operations in Armenia had decided that the Sprint course was more winnable, and that winning would be good publicity for his cause. I can’t honestly say I attached any personal importance to winning, but I’d joined the team to help them out and agreed to give it my best shot.
So when the team swimmer ran dripping up the bank to where I was poised in my specially-selected cycling attire, I swung my leg over the cheap, wobbly Chinese contraption I’d been lent (it had the words ‘racing bike’ splashed all over the frame, so it should be OK, right?), and pedalled off down the road to the 13km turnaround point.
51 minutes later I arrived back, legs like jelly, having overtaken my way from 10th to 4th place whilst simultaneously raising the loose seatpost with one hand every few minutes, spent a lot of time fiddling with the down-tube gear shifters with the other, waved regularly at fishermen selling their smelly catch on the roadside, and attempted and finally failed to stay ahead of the US Army Major who spent the last half of the course drafting me whilst singing Nickelback songs at high volume (I assume to distract me from the job at hand). I high-fived the team runner and collapsed in a comedy fluorescent heap to await the outcome.
It was a jolly atmosphere at the headquarters, the primary aim of the day being to have fun and get a bit of exercise. People flopped panting into plastic chairs, grabbed beers and juices, then went back up to the road to cheer at passing cyclists and runners on their way to the end of the Olympic-distance course.
Finally the last runners were in, and it was time for the awards ceremony. Amongst the winners were the favourite for the men’s Olympic triathlon, former Ironman competitor and US Embassy medic, the bicycle-activist’s pet cyclist Samvel who runs a bike workshop in Yerevan and occasionally undertakes astonishing physical feats, the aforementioned singing Major, and… us! I was more than a little surprised to be called up to take first place prize for the Sprint team event, especially considering I’d watched our runner come in a close second…
Most in attendance were unaware of the bemused looks that were exchanged between the members of our team, and those of the team which I had thought had won by a minute or so but who had received second place. It turned out, after a little investigation, that the other members of the team I’d joined had accused the winners of cheating, and had photos to prove it. I looked at the photos, which proved nothing other than that the cyclist in question had stayed at the finish line for a few minutes after arriving. Meanwhile, an argument broke out over the result. I didn’t want to get involved so I went to pack up my tent and get changed.
It was a slightly sour end to a really positive day. Some people seemed to have forgotten the point. In the end, I regretted having joined the team, as it turned out that, to a few people, being proclaimed victorious — even undeservedly — was more important than just being a participant. I felt a bit like a chess piece that had been put in place to secure victory for someone else.
But it was a great event overall, thanks to the hard work of a number of people who gave up their free time to organise it. Participating also provided extra motivation to stay fit and to try some other forms of exercise during my time off the bike. I think I’m going to keep it up, and try it again, alone, in the future.
Coming up — returning to ‘normal’ society, some of the most extreme endurance races on the planet, and a mini adventure. I’m off for a ride.