Run, Walk, Crawl: How a Writer Trains for a Triathlon

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

I don’t find writing a lonely business. I’m happy with my own company, and with a busy family life, those hours between 9 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon are quite precious!

Writing is, however, not very good for your health. Sitting behind a desk for hours each day. Perhaps turning your chair a little to stare from the window (which is still writing, as I often tell my wife). And lifting the countless cups of tea and coffee hardly constitutes an aerobic workout, does it? Then there’s the snacks. Oh, the snacks. Biscuits (cookies, to my American friends) with morning coffee, bacon sandwiches for lunch, and when I’m working in the local cafe there is plenty of cake…

I spent some time living like this. Even when we got a dog as a family pet, the walks were gentle two-mile strolls around the local woods.

Then something changed. A midlife crisis? I don’t mind calling it that. There are worse midlife crises that I could have fallen victim to.

What am I talking about?

TRIATHLON!

So here’s what happened:

On January 1st, 2011, when I was 41 years old, I had never run more than a few miles, didn’t own a road bike, and couldn’t swim a length front crawl. Two and a half years later, I was racing my first Ironman.

So how did an unfit, middle-aged horror writer end up running marathons and racing triathlons? There was a need to get fit that I’d felt for a long time. A general unhappiness. A fear that time was almost running out to do anything about it. But in the end, I think it was finding a sport I loved that really turned things around.

At the start of 2011, it was meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen for some time that started the ball rolling. Pete had got fit. Shocked by his transformation and instantly inspired, I suggested we do the National Three Peaks challenge together. He agreed on the spot, a team was formed with three other friends… and there was no going back. I had to climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, and Snowdon (the three tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales respectively) in 24 hours, including transit time between mountains!

I’d believed all my life that a challenge way beyond what I believed I might be capable of was what I needed to get fit. Perhaps that conviction was a lazy guy’s way of saying, Oh well, then, I might as well not bother! I’d tried all the usual things, like joining a gym, going for a few weeks, then stopping and wasting the membership. I’d played occasional squash and badminton, a bit of running, 4 or 5 miles on my mountain bike every few weeks. None of it worked because none of it was (a) structured, or (b) carried out with a final, crazy aim in mind. I was doing what plenty of people the world over try to do—fitness for the sake of being fit (an attitude that feeds multi-billion dollar fitness and weight-loss industries). And like a lot of people, I was failing.

Maybe this was it.

There followed five months of running and hill walking. As a group, we climbed our local mountains many times, training together once or twice each week, day and night. We got lost in the hills, dodged car crashes on the way to one night walk, learned how to map read… and on the big day itself, I almost died on Snowdon (buy me a pint one day and I’ll tell you all about it).

But we did it! I was exhausted, but immensely proud of what I’d done. And for the first time in my adult life, I was starting to feel fit.

I’ll admit, there was also some satisfaction in replying to people who said, “You did what?” Perhaps it was a bit of ego, but I quite liked the “You must be mad!” comments from friends and acquaintances when they asked what I was doing. Maybe in their eyes that was the case, but I thought differently. And who’s qualified to define ‘mad’?

A marathon quickly became the next big target. I started running some more, entered my first 10k race, then my first half marathon. I can still remember walking to the post box at midnight to post my marathon entry form and cheque. The training went well, and the race itself was… an education. A lesson hard learned—Don’t go off too fast! I spent 16 miles battling against horrific cramps, finishing eventually in 4:30. Two months later I did an amazing mountain marathon in the Lake District, paced it well, and the race went a whole lot better. Job done.

This new-found fitness was affecting me in many ways, all of it positive. I felt better about myself, felt generally happier, and there’s nothing like a ten mile run to blow away the cobwebs and prepare the mind for a solid day of writing about pirates and demons and cowboys and assassins!

But what next?

That was when I became more and more interested in triathlon. Marathons are OK, but I was looking for a greater challenge, and I was keen to mix up my training. So I started learning how to swim properly (starting from ‘like a brick’ and progressing very, very slowly), bought my first road bike, and entered my first triathlon.

That day changed my life. I got the bug. More races followed, and as with the running, my ambitions were always several steps ahead of my capabilities. Even before I’d race my first half-ironman, I’d signed up for the monstrous full distance.

“You’re doing what?”

2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, then a full marathon.

“How many days will that take you?”

Maximum 17 hours.

“You must be mad!”

Not really. I’m never going to trouble a podium, my running’s slow, my swim style is not perfect, and my cycling is distinctly average. But as I tell anyone who asks me about it now, almost anyone could do an ironman if they put their mind to it. Especially as, according to the rules, you’re allowed to crawl! (From the rules for the run portion: “No form of locomotion other than running, walking, or crawling.”)

I ran and swam all through the winter. I joined NEWT (Newport and East Wales Triathlon), my local triathlon club. My swimming was coming along okay, and I was putting the miles in on the bike. Long, cold, lonely, wet miles, through one of the worst winters in recent memory.

Sometimes, I caught my wife looking at me strangely.

In January of 2013 I started my dedicated 30 week training plan for Ironman. I trained hard, fell off my bike, almost fell off a mountain, fell off my bike again, struggled with my swimming, developed a knee injury that halted my training… but I kept positive and pushed forward towards the day. I discovered my new favourite saying: “Whether you think you can do something, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

I thought I could. I dreamed about Ironman. And on August 4th, I did it. I can safely say that the whole Ironman experience changed my life.

Since then my love of triathlon has only grown. In 2014 I did several more races, including a half-ironman. Last year I raced two half-ironmans, and then another full distance, a fantastic race called the Outlaw, which I finished in a little over twelve hours. My training happens around my work … and, I’ll admit, sometimes the other way around. I usually train six days per week, with evening swims and bikes rides, morning runs, and sometimes when the weather’s nice a lunchtime jaunt on two wheels or two feet, as well. And weekends often begin with a seventy mile ride.

Obsessed? Maybe just a little. But compared to, say, eating only McDonald’s, or stalking someone, or collecting ashtrays from pubs, it’s a good obsession. And it helps massively with my other obsession—writing.

So far, my two obsessions sit pretty well together.

pieces-of-hateTim Lebbon is the New York Times bestselling author of the movie novelizations of 30 Days of Night and The Cabin in the Woods. He has also written many critically acclaimed dark fantasy and crime novels. Tim has won three British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, a Shocker, a Tombstone and been a finalist for the International Horror Guild and World Fantasy Awards. Pieces of Hate, the first novella in the Assassins series, is available from Tor.com Publishing.

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