I must go down to the sea again - to swim, pedal and run until I drop

Independent on Sunday, Sunday September 21, 2003

“Lie on your backs, wave your arms and legs in the air and shout potato!” The madness of the instruction and velocity with which it was delivered came flooding back. Twenty years ago, as a 17-year-old, reluctant member of my school’s army cadets, I had been sent on a long and character-diminishing weekend at Penhale army barracks, on the North Cornwall coast. Screaming “potato!” and simultaneously writhing around like an inverted woodlouse was the moment at which I realised I would never, ever join the army.

That was then. Memories of that lost weekend had been consigned deep within my ‘do not disinter’ drawer as I have revisited Perranporth, the seaside village a few miles west of Penhale, many times since. Then one day, early in August, I received a letter from a friend in Perranporth, Andy, enclosing “a little tempter.”

The tempter was an entry form for the Perranporth Triathlon on 14th September, an annual event put on by the local surf lifesaving club. It starts with an 800m swim, continues with a 38km cycle ride, and finishes with a 7.5km run. Simple enough, to anyone reasonably fit, but there’s a catch. The swim is in the sea, and this, at Perranporth, can be huge. The cycle ride is up, and rarely down, the surrounding rugged Cornish hills. And the run is on strength-sapping wet sand, along Perranporth beach – to Penhale and back.

I was tempted. Sure, there would only be a few weeks to train for the event, but I had always wanted to do a triathlon, and why not start with a beast? So, with the kind of preparation that barely deserves the word “amateur,” I arrived in Perranporth the night before the event. I took one look at the sea and gulped. The surf was monstrous, the best anyone had seen in years on the North Cornwall coast. Line after line of clean six-foot swell rolled inexorably onto Perranporth beach, under clear blue skies, to be met with a light offshore wind creating world-class surfing conditions. Karen, my wife, shook her head, before saying: “You’re not going to swim in that, are you?”

Sunday dawned and I looked out of the hotel window. If anything, the waves were bigger. I met Andy, who has spent his life on the beach at Perranporth. He was elated. “This is the real deal!” he cried, grinning from ear to ear. A similar reaction was given by another friend, Ian, who had entered the event. He grew up surfing in South Africa, and couldn’t wait to get into the water. But this was a far cry from the gentle seas of south-east Devon, where I grew up, and by the time of the safety briefing I was plain terrified. “Remember, your safety is paramount,” said Chris Strickland, a local police officer who has been a member of Perranporth Surf Lifesaving Club for 34 years. “If you get into trouble, put a hand up and we’ll come and get you.”

I had a strong feeling that I might be calling on the services of the club, but took comfort in the fact that its lifeguards are among the best not just in Britain, but the world. Founded in 1957, Perranporth SLSC is one of the oldest surf lifesaving clubs in Britain, and competes regularly in World Lifesaving Championships. The club provided the entire Great Britain surfboat team for the 1974 World Championships, which came home with legendary status and a gold medal after the exploits of boat helmsman Nick ‘Big Wave’ Beringer, who steered his crew down the face of a gigantic wave in South Africa.

Soon enough, it was 11 o’clock, and time to start. I stood with the other 170 entrants at the water’s edge. The waves had not got any smaller. Suddenly there was a rush of bodies running into the white water, wading to waist height and then throwing themselves forward to front crawl through the waves, out to a buoy some 300 metes away. Then it was a swim along to another buoy, beyond the breaking surf, and then back in. There was nothing for it but to start swimming. I don’t know how much salt water I swallowed but somehow I completed the swim. I will never forget the sight of swimmers on the face of a six-foot wave, like a swarm of bizarre nautical ants with their yellow hats and black wetsuits.

If the swim was tiring, the run up the beach to the transition zone – where we would leap on our bikes and peddle off into the distance – nearly did for me. The cheers of the line of spectators and voice of Karen urging me on gave me a boost and lo and behold, there I was on my bike, struggling up St George’s hill, out of Perranporth. The hill seemed to go on forever but finally there was a flat straight, where I could relax and take in the spectacular views. Heading back into Perranporth I nearly lost it on one corner, and then had to summon reserves I didn’t know I had to cycle the circuit all over again.

Back at the transition zone at the end of the bike ride, I gulped as much water as I could before setting off to run down to Penhale and back. I opted not to wear shoes, which was a mistake: the sand sapped all the strength from my ankles, and within minutes both Achilles’ tendons were playing up. Up ahead, I could make out Andy, a much better swimmer than me but someone I should beat on a run. I tried to find the energy to catch him, but it was no good. There was nothing left, I wanted to walk the rest of the course.

Suddenly, at the far end of the beach beneath Penhale army camp, the memory of being made to scream “Potato!” and writhe around pointlessly came back. No, I wasn’t going to walk. There was Andy, and maybe I could still catch him. I ran faster, and overtook a couple of runners. He was now three places ahead, but it just wasn’t going to happen. The swim and cycle ride had reduced me to a stumbling shadow of the runner that I can be. Andy crossed the line 110th, and I was nearly a minute behind him in 113th, in a time of 2.29.31. The race was won by Great Britain triathlete Julian Jenkinson, competing for one of the sponsors, Snugg wetsuits, in 1.46.29, while the first woman home was Anne Buckley, 24th overall in 2.02.03.

Afterwards, I learnt that the lifeguards had rescued 15 people from the swim. A number of the original 200+ entrants had taken one look at the sea and decided that discretion was the better course of valour. This is not your average triathlon. It attracts elite athletes from around the country, including Richard Hobson, a former winner, who was second on the day. Hobson, who works as a performance coach for the British Triathlon Association, says of the Perranporth event: “When I stood at the water’s edge, I felt scared. If that’s how I feel, what about everyone else? This is an extremely hard event that you’ve got to be strong for.”

Strong, mad or a natural athlete? Whatever, it beats lying on your back and shouting “Potato!”. Penhale holds some nicer memories for me now.