Park Life: Last one past the starting post

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The Independent Culture
MORE THAN three thousand hardy souls completed the London Triathlon last Sunday; only one completed the London Quadrathlon. The others settled for the usual one-mile swim followed by a 25-mile cycle ride followed by a six-mile run. My additional discipline - by far the most stressful of the morning - consisted of a two-mile dash in flip-flops, carrying a heavy kit bag and dragging a small boy by the hand.

It happened like this. I set the alarm nice and efficiently early, and raced around the house for 20 minutes or so, telling everyone it was time to set off. Surprisingly, we got to the car in excellent time and - would you believe it? - the engine would not start. Never mind, I thought, we will call a mini-cab, and anyway it will save all that inevitable queuing at the car park. We duly made our way to the vicinity of the Royal Victoria Dock, to find all the roads were closed. By now there were only 20 minutes left to my start time, and I was beginning to worry.

A passer-by advised that we were better off proceeding on foot and waved us up a hill, which is how we found ourselves sprinting against the clock through the early morning Docklands fog.

I heaved a sigh of relief when we arrived at the starting area with five minutes to spare, only to be turned back at the gate by a race official who told me that participants had to use another entrance, via two narrow footbridges and a serpentine route.

I asked why. "Because I say so," the goon helpfully explained. Having time neither to argue nor hit him, I set off at full speed around and over this obstacle course, and was sprinting barefoot across cobbled stone towards the starting line, my wetsuit around my waist, when the 30-second countdown began.

By now I had comfortably won the first leg of my race, leaving my support team way behind just when I needed them to pull up the zip at the back of my wetsuit.

A kind woman in the crowd rescued me and I was still fastening the collar as I ran into the water hard on the heels of my fellow competitors.

Fortunately, in retrospect, I did not have time to think twice before plunging into the filthiest water I have ever seen. So thickly black was it that I could barely see my own hands in front of my face, even through goggles.

Occasionally an apparently dismembered foot would flap in front of my nose. Swimming in a cohort of 200 wetsuited, orange-headed creatures, bodies thrashing and bumping on all sides, I felt what it must be like to be a rat swimming through a sewer.

After half an hour or so in this watery hell, the cycle ride was pure, unadulterated joy - particularly as I was riding a lightweight racing bike borrowed from a friend. I was now able to hear the cheers from my family as I passed them on each lap, although, for reasons I was unable to explain afterwards, I never felt they were in quite the right position, so I would bellow bafflingly "Cross bridge... down... left", as I sped by.

I accelerated on the last lap to end the ride with a flourish, and steamed into the bike-rack area via another minor altercation with a marshall, who complained that my helmet was not properly strapped on. What is it with these officials?

Now came the run; the last leg, but by far the worst. Following the bike ride, my leg muscles felt as tight as guitar strings and as heavy as lead. After 300 yards I had to stop and stretch to prevent something from pinging.

Finally, about three-quarters of the way through, the stitch that had gripped my entire torso abated and the spring returned to my step. I had run off the effects of the bike ride and could stretch out a bit - and even run rather than jog down the last straight.

As the finishing line came into sight I saw two runners ahead of me and gave chase at the fastest sprint I could muster. I caught one, but the other made a race of it and held me off to the line, where I fell into the arms of my family.

"You know, Dad, you were beaten by a 94-year-old man who finished a few minutes ago," the boys chorused.

Oh well. The swim had been awful, the run worse, but the event had been far more fun that I had expected - and my time quicker than I had feared, at ten minutes under three hours. And you will not have seen it if you checked the results, but I won the Quadrathlon.