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Doing the Bintan Triathlon

HELEN MCCLURE takes us through the trials and tribulations of competing in the Bintan Triathlon.

In 1790, the British novelist Jane Austin wrote: “Run as often as you choose, but don’t faint.” This paints a picture that makes me smile. I can’t for a moment imagine this mild mannered, well brought-up young lady, gathering up her petticoats and making a dash for it. What would the neighbours say if you showed your ankles? The scandal.

Now switch your mind to today’s motley lineup at the start of any race. Forget petticoats. Essentially, all you need is stretchy underwear.

The Men's Start
The start of the men’s event

This was the scene before me at the Bintan Triathlon. My friends think that I’m mad to spend my spare time pounding the pavements and swimming up and down the pool. I can defend myself and point out the health benefits, but I’m not as fanatical as some. People take sport very seriously, and the Bintan Triathlon event is no exception. I took part in the Sprint race, which is all about speed over a short distance. Others took part in the Olympic race, which is all about endurance. Some people took part in both. That is mad.

We lined up on the beach and dashed into the waves as soon as the starter pistol went off. The water turned into a bubbling cauldron, full of flailing arms and legs, with everyone trying to inch forwards into clear, calmer water. This is the stage that most people hate; the salty water; the jostling for position; the unfortunate kick in the face that dislodges your goggles.

Then there are the jellyfish. Luckily I didn’t see any, but there were kayaks on patrol and gallons of vinegar, the traditional remedy, on standby.

Once you drag yourself out of the water, two things tend to happen: your mind does somersaults – it’s elated that you survived the swim, and relieved that the worst is behind you and that the rest should be plain sailing. Your body, on the other hand, has forgotten how to operate. Your legs are heavy and stiff, and as you jog up the beach you start to wonder about your sanity.

Helen McClure and her kids take to the podium
Helen McClure and her kids take to the podium

Then you’re onto the bike stage. This is where you can make up some time, and for me it’s the chance to relax a little, which probably proves that I’m not going fast enough.

The real test comes in the final stage – the run. It’s usually the runners who get the best results. They are used to the endurance element.

So I dismount my bike as quickly as I can and run into the transition area to rack it and put my running shoes on – only to find that my body really has stopped operating.

The run up the beach from the swim was a warning. Now I’m in dire straits. My limbs belong to someone else, my thighs are stiff and my knees like jelly. I put on a brave face as I waddle past the spectators as if auditioning for the Ministry of Funny Walks. It takes me about four kilometres for my legs to get with the plot – and it’s only a five kilometre run.

The relief of seeing the finish line is intense. I know I can stop running soon so I speed up a little – I need to look good for the finishing photographs, after all! And then my husband throws my four-year-old daughter over the barrier in front of me. She darts for the line and claims my medal, beaming from ear to ear.

The men's podium
The men’s podium

Bintan isn’t just about the race though. It’s a new equation in family holidays; sport + tropical island = perfect weekend getaway. It’s a great way of spending an active weekend in a tropical paradise, while introducing your children to the world of sport.

There are Youth and Kids categories, but more importantly there is a carnival atmosphere. My daughters, aged four and seven, are not quite ready to take part in the event, although many young children do. But they are fascinated to see what mummy does after she’s laced up her shoes. So often they have waved me off from the door, and once I’ve turned the corner I’m out of their lives for the next hour or so. To them I just disappear.

On Bintan, however, they are part of the race. They are my cheer squad and I want to make them proud. I want them to feel like they have contributed to the medal dangling around my neck. I want them to take an interest in sport, as a healthy pursuit, and also understand healthy competition.

The organisers of the Bintan Triathlon understand they have a captive audience, and they lay on entertainment for all age groups. I can’t name another race where you are greeted at the start line by an elephant. That doesn’t happen in London. Even my husband was tempted to join in at the giant bubble machine, even if he did draw the line at having his face painted.

I’ve now recovered from the Sprint race. They say trauma helps you to forget. I know I went through a lot of pain, but I’m considering the Olympic distance race for next year. I’ve got a year to gather up my petticoats. And I have my children to cheer me on.

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