On coming last

I took a breath and stared out at the water before me. It looked cold. And brown. I looked at the big red inflatable buoy in the distance. It looked far away. Really far away. 

I looked at the people stood around me, faces filled with adrenaline and determination. 

I felt sick. 

A man on a speaker system barked orders for us to make our way to the start line. 

I stepped forward onto the edge of the floating platform we had congregated on, and slowly slipped into the murky water. My feet landed in the soft silty lake bed, and the mud oozed between my toes. 

Still, I felt sick. 

The horn sounded. Hundreds of neoprene bodies, including my own, flung themselves into the water, our arms resembling birds in flight, our brightly coloured rubber heads bobbing in and out of the water. I looked up in dismay as the splashing feet of my fellow swimmers got further and further away. I was falling behind, no, I was behind.  I still had 4.9km to go.

Have you ever cried into a pair of googles? I wouldn’t recommend it. The tears came as I turned the final corner, around the last of the triangle yellow buoys that marked the route, and saw the finish line ahead. I spotted my friends gathered under an umbrella, alone, because all the other spectators had gone. Tears turned into spluttering sobs as I heard their cheers of encouragement in my final few strokes.

My attempt to swim 5km in the Hever Castle Swim Series was complete, and I disembarked from the water with limbs of jelly after two and half hours of swimming. I came 109th out of 112 entrants. It is one of my proudest achievements. 

My boyfriend has a phrase he tells me often and which I always repeat to myself whenever I’m about to undertake some ill-considered physical feat. “You’re a winner just for being at the start line.” 

To some, that might sound patronizing. But I’ll never tire of hearing it. It reminds me that it doesn’t matter how fast I do it or what position I come in – the fact that I turned up, the fact that I was prepared to try, to push my limits and step out of my comfort zone (and believe me a cold, dark lake filled with eels and weeds is soooo far out of my comfort zone) is an achievement in itself and one that I am proud of. 

And I can tell you, that feeling, that pride in knowing you gave it go and crossed that finish line is ADDICTIVE. 10 years ago I didn’t even own a pair of trainers, or a swimming hat. Exercise or any kind of physical activity beyond dancing in a club, was not something I participated in. But then I met someone, and he wanted to share his passion for fitness, for getting the heart racing and the blood pumping. Apparently sex wasn’t enough. I was reluctant, but willing to try, mostly to impress him. I bought some trainers and pounded the concrete paths around London Fields.  A few months later I had signed up to Cancer Research’s Race 4 Life. It was only 5Km but to me it was a marathon, and the moment I crossed that finishing line and felt that buzz, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. 

Since then, in the space of a decade, I have completed two half marathons, one triathlon, over 100 Parkruns, two open water swims, one Tough Guy, several long distance bike rides including Ride London and London to Paris in 25 hours, and last summer I cycled 1000 miles across France in 21 days. The thing I am most proud of in my life is my little shoe box of medals, from all the events I’ve taken part in. For me that box represents the side of me that I never knew existed. And no, not the side of me that is a fitness obsessive, or in peak physical condition (because I am neither of those things) but the side of me that is determined, courageous, resilient. And what I love the most is that in almost all of those events I have participated in, my boyfriend was by my side; encouraging me, supporting me and never judging me for coming last. 



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