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In a couple of months, I was going to be on a plane headed to South Africa via Dubai.
Right now I was living in Via Vanchiglia in Turin, Italy whilst trying to figure out what to do with my career.
It was 2015 and Daniela and I, after my various trips around the world, had managed to find our way back to each other whilst I was living in Lausanne with Luc for a month.
Since then, we’d rekindled our relationship and I had gotten on a plane this time and tried to make it work with Daniela and me, in Italy this time.
We’d tried Northolt, Earls Court then Malaga in Spain and all of those places had failed us. Now we were trying Turin.
These were the thoughts that were flashing through my mind as I made the 6.5km run to the swimming pool.
I was scared as hell about competing in an Ironman given that the last triathlon I’d done I’d finished last in.
And as I’d read up immediately after completing that triathlon – the Ironman distance some considered to be the hardest one-day event in the world.
A 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride finished up with a 26.2-mile run. Non-stop, all in one day.
I was nowhere near ready.
Knowing that I needed to be able to swim for long distances and to work on my front crawl – I joined the local gym Palestre Torino with Daniela. I’d head there to sit on the bike for several hours and then sometimes jump into their pool
The challenge with their pool was that it was no more than 12 metres long – so I’d relentlessly, when swimming, be turning around to go from one side to the other.
But this WAS the pool that I had, so I enlisted the help of Daniela to become a better swimmer.
Daniela was definitely a better front crawl swimmer than myself – and this was the stroke that mattered.
So my gym sessions consisted of me heading to Palestre Torino and training for this event.
Things weren’t quite right still between Daniela and me. Living in Italy I found myself to be very claustrophobic. We never saw anyone or went out much anywhere other than for walks together.
I didn’t have any real goals I was working towards, and Daniela was flitting between teaching English and beginning to study Pilates.
We were both somewhat lacking a true passion or calling to work at – and it caused our lives individually to suffer as well as our lives together.
With this in mind, I chose to put my focus on the Ironman – which was needed nonetheless.
I was around 2km away from the swimming pool I was running towards. I pretty much after the 10th time of running there, knew the direction by heart now and didn’t need to rely on Google maps.
Things had changed when I’d been in the Palestre Torino and Alex, an Italian who went to the same gym overheard me in English asking one of the PTs if they were or knew a swimming instructor
They didn’t but Alex did (as it would later turn out – Alex had an incredible network in Italy that helped Daniela and me out a lot).
Alex knew Dennis – And as it turned out Dennis wasn’t available right now to teach in the local pool – but he knew a guy called Chris, and Chris was good, so he’d train me.
And this was basically who I was running to.
Chris – as it turned out was Czech born and raised and spent some time with the Czech airborne forces but had left his life there behind to move to Italy and keep with his love – swimming.
He’d tell me stories of how children during the communist era of the Czech republic would be taught to swim – effectively throwing children into the swimming pool – and if they could float well then that was their start into the world of swimming.
At this time I had no idea what it meant to be a paratrooper during this era in central Eastern Europe – but knowing now I have even greater respect for Chris.
Our sessions would consist for the first several weeks of me swimming in a lane all by myself as he would quickly analyse my technique from looking at me in the pool and then give me a float to work with as I swam.
Sometimes it would be a float to sit between my legs, other times it would be one I’d place ahead of me as I kept my head down and swam.
It was tough, lonely and at times a little intimidating. The guys he was training had pro swimmers and national champions amongst them – this happened to be the class I’d train alongside Chris that he could squeeze me into.
Whilst I had none of their talent nor practice; Chris recognised the fear and adventure the same time he saw in himself.
I was a British-Indian, living in Italy, training for an Ironman that was going to be in South Africa with a Czech coach whom I ran to 3x a week to get into the pool and swim my arse off.
It sounds funny when I write it down – but that’s what the situation was and every week after 60-90 minutes in the pool I’d come out exhausted and start my run home.
Over the weeks we began to practice 1/2/3 and even 4km swims. The furthest I’d ever swum before was the 1.5km in Lausanne, so I needed to get better and swim further fast.
Chris didn’t have much time with me. Just shy of two months, so he didn’t have massive amounts of time to help me perfect my technique.
I also had the distance to think about.
I’m not sure why entirely – but even now I keep my Casio watch with me – so I hold no record of the lengths at which I swam in that pool.
I’ve bought a bunch of fancy watches to track so I can measure – but something psychologically twigs in me where I feel like it’s an anathema to my success in the pool.
It’s definitely a weakness of mine that one day I hope to improve on.
So I’d measure by literally just counting and working it out that way.
There were some sessions where I’d come in – and run time trials as D-day drew closer. I’d just literally start swimming and not stop for around 2 hours and 20 minutes when I first attempted swimming 4km.
This was already much better than the time I’d got in Lausanne but still very slow.
I needed to get better; and as I was in the pool and swam back and forth and fought off boredom, tiredness and a wandering mind that would impact my technique, I’d also enter a kind of trance that I sometimes get in running; but less so.
With my senses cut off from the world, I’d swim, swim and swim.
I’d come home exhausted and irritable. Training for an Ironman was taking its toll on me and I got a skin infection that came as a consequence of a weakened immune system as I drove to push myself to succeed.
On other days I’d be on the bike in the gym pedalling away for hours at a time. On the days I swam I’d also run 13km there and back.
Training would take up whole evenings but leave me exhausted and uninterested in life outside that.
My relationship with Daniela continued to suffer.
But my times in the pool began to improve dramatically, and I felt that these 7-weeks in the pool, much like my 7-weeks of training in Muay Thai had been worth it in one of my very last sessions in Italy.
I came in at a time of 2 hours in the pool. By Ironman standards this was still slow – but by my standards, I had improved since my first swim by over 20 minutes.
Now there was the feat of a 112-mile bike ride still to contend with I thought as I left for the airport.
Coaches. Chris, Hugo, Ragni and the many coaches who were to come changed my life.
As the wheels took off from the ground as I left for South Africa, I felt that with the time I had decided to use; these 7-weeks – at least for swimming – I’d worked as hard as I could.
I still remember moments being in the middle of the pool and Chris asking me to perform certain styles of doggy paddy with one leg, no arms, arms up and other variations until I started sputtering and almost drowned to get my water confidence.
As has often been the case in my life. I was far from talented, but what I did do was work damn hard.
Port Elizabeth, South Africa awaited. It was time to compete in my first ever Ironman.