So here we are, 340 days later and I have completed my 9,006km Latin American Pentathlon! Looking at my ‘Virtual Mission’ tracker I am actually 14 days ahead of schedule and 356km ahead of my pacer (I didn’t actually realise I had one until now…)
It’s been quite a year. I initially started this challenge as something to keep me focused amid Covid restrictions, uncertain of whether sports events would go ahead. I tasked myself with virtually covering the length of South America, 9,006km, by swimming, cycling, running, kayaking and paddle boarding the distance over 11 months. Looking back though it has been really encouraging to see that there were some lovely moments of normality in my own little weird world! Here are some stats and highlights for me.
Over the past 48 weeks I have completed a total 622.5 hours of cycling, swimming, running, paddleboarding and kayaking. Looking at the average of 13 hours per week that this comes in at and I can see why Coach Tom had been starting to worry that I may have been doing too much. Here is how it broke down across the various disciplines...
Not surprisingly, this was the discipline where I covered the majority of my mileage. 7,991km in fact. Despite owning a turbo trainer, just over 90% of my distance on the bike was done outside, and my trusty hybrid took on a large portion of that, which is only fitting as it took me on my REAL Andes adventure four years ago. It saw me through all sorts of weather and terrain conditions. Then there was my 'surrogate bike', Ian's old jalopy as he calls it, which took me up numerous hill climbs out in the Chilterns
I credit my lovely cycling buddies Giovanna and Nikki with getting me through many 'lockdown' miles both this year and in 2020. With restrictions in place again early this year we embraced the peace in London to capture some tourist moments in the City.
It was my road bike, affectionately named 'Estrella' which took me through some of my longer rides, and particularly came into her own for my races, but more on that to follow..
This was where I racked up the next biggest portion of my challenge, at 668km. Though at times it felt like harder work than it should have been due to recurring achilles niggles. It was only halfway through the year that I started to join the dots and see that some of these annoying pains and minor injuries were correlating with what was going on with my body hormonally, and so I started to switch up how I was training. Despite the introduction of my amazing GoPro into my life in April, I never could quite get to grips with videoing myself whilst running. So it seems like all I have here is a happy post run in the early spring, or a dodgy dark run during a recent storm...
I may have 'only' racked up 253km through this discipline, but it doesn't quite reflect just how much time I spent in the water. In fact probably about as much time as I spent on my bike. It is definitely one of my happy places. I am also proud to have completed ALL of my swimming outside, and my first full year of swimming throughout all four seasons in just my swimsuit. Like all of my sports, I carried on regardless of the weather, and in fact it as we enter another winter of swimming it reminds me that the adrenaline rush and afterglow feeling of these cold water dips are what set me up for the day. Even if it may sometimes involve seeing the Thames freeze over in sections and the resultant pink colour of my skin
Swimming outdoors really made me very aware of the changing seasons, from bright sunny mornings, through to moody sunrises and of course my recent 'night swim'.
Of course part of what brought out my open water swimming passion was necessity due to Covid restrictions on swimming pools. This did mean I embraced new swimming spots and made me ever more appreciative of this wonderful environment. The year started swimming at Teddington, and I never thought I would have seen myself swimming in the Thames! It opened my eyes to nature's challenges, not only the weather but also the flow rate, which led me to experience the outdoor watery equivalent to treadmill swimming, i.e on the spot!
As Covid restrictions were relaxing, I managed to swim in the Serpentine from March through to August when another natural phenomenon reared its head - blue green algae. This closed the lake for a few weeks, which afforded me the opportunity to head back to the re-opened Hampstead Ponds. In amongst the highlights of my summer swimming adventures must have been the opportunity to venture to Oxford and then, finally....Aberdeen! I never thought I would have been so excited to swim in the North Sea!
Paddleboarding and Kayaking:
This was an area where I was relying on opportunities to hire the required kit and have access to some suitable spots. I tried my best and loved every minute of the 94km I managed to cover in these areas. My first opportunity was at the end of April to take part in a 'paddle and litter pick' on the Thames near Kew. This was almost cancelled due to cold weather which made me smile when I think that I am usually IN the water whatever the conditions.
A relatively local and favourite spot of mine is Little Venice and an opportunity to get in a few paddles along the Grand Union Canal. Here you pass a myriad of urban landscapes, with the added soundscape of people chattering as they walk near you along the canal path asking random paddleboarding questions, usually along the lines of 'have you ever fallen in?'. (No, but I have a feeling I might if you keep distracting me....)
Taking full advantage of my weekend trips to Buckinghamshire to see Ian, I was introduced to the Westhorpe Farm Lake. What a facility to have on your doorstep! It was great to have the opportunity to do both a SUP and a kayaking session with Ian on this lake. On our weekend away in Oxford you can imagine my excitement to find out that the house we were staying in with friends had access to a canoe! Well that was definitely there to be taken advantage of and offered a beautiful way to see the surrounding area.
In amongst all of the mileage I was set monthly 'wildcard' challenges from Coach Tom, and set myself some others along the way. The first was to do 1000m of climbs and descents of 6% or more on the bike. This equated to 15 hill reps over 2 days, but oh so rainy days, and so the challenge was increased by having to do it on my hybrid for safety. Then there was another bike challenge of covering at least 50% of my distance in one week carrying at least 30kg to simulate a self supported trip. More weight was added in for a 'farmers walk' challenge - to walk for a mile carrying 40kg. This one took me by surprise as I thought it sounded too easy. Well it was anything but, I was in pieces afterwards, but all kudos to Argentinian Javier for encouraging me through it!
Peppered in amongst these wildcard challenges were a couple of races. It felt so long since I had done any actual events so I was delighted to be first female in a standard distance aquabike event and first in my age group in what turned out to be a brutal middle distance event. Well I guess the clue was in the title... 'Conquer the Chilterns'.
I proudly wore my Sundried kit to both of these events having recently been invited to be an Athlete Ambassador for them. Of course this also gave me an opportunity for a swim in two other locations on the Thames too!
I'm not going to deny there have been times that it has all felt like very hard work, especially when I have been trying to balance the uncertainty of my work which has been mostly a famine, and occasionally an almost unmanageable feast. So it was lovely to get some words of encouragement from some sporting heroes of mine. Duncan Goodhew is someone I definitely looked up to during my early swimming years and as the face of the Swimathon back in the day he inspired me to take up distance swimming. So you can imagine my delight when I realised he was a fellow 'Serpie' and I had the chance to chat to him when I was wardening at the Serpentine in the summer. Such a lovely man. Added to that, Ian managed to tell former Olympian Greg Whyte about my challenge when he ran into him in the gym. He is a bit of a legend in my eyes as someone who has actually medalled in the modern pentathlon.
Spurred on by my sporting achievements, and with the aforementioned uncertainty of work hanging over me, I was inspired to take up a new personal challenge. To train as a triathlon coach. I spent the first few months of the summer head down, absorbed by my Ironman coaching course. It was all consuming and made me doubt myself on many occasions, but the hard work paid off and I was delighted to achieve coach status with a final mark of 94%. Looking to develop further and really interested in how I was having to adapt my own training, I also undertook the 'Menopause for Athletes' course delivered by all round guru in this areas, Dr Stacy Sims. This has been a bit of a game changer for me and gives me such a sense of pride, both for myself and those I have started to coach.
And of course whilst the sporting endeavours spurred me on, it was the many other influences around me that kept me going. A shout out first of all to the lovely animals in my life this year. Two of note: Pushkin, the miniature schnauzer who lives in the flat downstairs who has become my daily walking companion. Although we cover about 20km a week together, I have never factored it into my distances - it has been an ongoing joy to get to know this little furry fella and to hear him side barge the door downstairs as he seems to know when his 2pm walk is. Then there is the equally endearing Mira, the adorable canine companion of my Teddington swimming buddy Nerina. Seeing her arrive enthusiastically in her 'Lifeguard on doody' top, running alongside us as we swim is a thing to behold. Not to mention Dash the enthusiastic black labrador who amuses us with his swimming/diving prowess on every swim. (I can almost see Mira roll her doggie eyes at his antics). At this point I also have to add in a one off, but nevertheless memorable encounter with Finlay and Gabriel the llamas, what a lovely animal encounter to round off the year with.
But of course the year would be nothing without the non-furry people around me, and there have been many that have kept me going. Not only through my sporting challenge, but the ongoing personal angst that Covid has caused. I have been so lucky to have such amazing friends and family supporting me. There have been numerous highlights, but in terms of this challenge specifically they have to be my newfound swimming, and I hope, lifelong friend Nerina and cycling buddies Giovanna and Nikki.
It was great to be able to share some of the final moments of my challenge with them, which included both South American company, enthusiasm and food and drink!
Of course Coach Tom kept me on track, also supporting my strength and conditioning, and championing me to undertake my Ironman coaching course. I owe my lack of injuries in the main to my good friend Dawn, a huge thanks to her for leading me through weekly Yin Yoga sessions all the way from Edinburgh when finances were too tight for me to afford regular sports massages, but muscle flexibility was key.
It was a real boost to be able to finally get up to Aberdeen to see family and friends after 20 months this summer, so lovely to be able to hug and spend time with my family, and also Shirley, Allison and Shäron. There is a saying that you don't always have to be able to see friends and family to know they are there, and so it was really heartening to hear their words of encouragement throughout the year.
The biggest shout out has to go to Ian who continues to be the most amazing person, and support to me throughout whatever I do. I think hell will literally freeze over before I get him swimming in open water at anything less than 25deg, but I have to give him kudos for suggesting we go kayaking together, and also embracing paddleboarding, despite a bumpy start! And then of course there is the support and encouragement during my races during the year....lets face it, it's not much fun getting up at 5am on a Sunday and standing outside in all conditions for hours. He is a legend.
He has seen me through such a period of personal and work uncertainty, as we have now spent more of our relationship during Covid than in 'normal times'. He continues to make me laugh and smile, stay positive, and join me in moments of celebration.
And of course it was only fitting that he arranged a wee 'steak night out' to celebrate the end of my South American challenge. Complete with steak that was the closest thing I have seen to those actually in Argentina, and the obligatory Malbec, it was the ideal way to mark the end of this year.
Of course I can't finish this blog without letting you know where I would actually be right now had I been in South America. My finish point would be the Argentinian city of Ushuaia It is located on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the southernmost tip of South America, nicknamed the “End of the World.” The windswept town, perched on a steep hill, is surrounded by the Martial Mountains and the Beagle Channel. It's the gateway to Antarctica cruises and tours to nearby Isla Yécapasela, known as “Penguin Island” for its penguin colonies. Poignantly it is also the start point of many of the extreme 'ice mile challenge' swims give the truly hardy an opportunity to swim a mile in waters averaging around -1deg in the Antarctic.
This puts my ongoing 'Jedi Polar Bear' swim into perspective, and one that will be ongoing until March 2022.
But surely there is another challenge afoot next year Denise?
Yes indeed there is, but more on that to follow in January!
For now, from the virtual landscapes of Latin America, I wish you all 'Feliz Navidad' and hopefully, dare I say it a more normal 2022?!
But then again I personally don't do normal.......
Denise Yeats is a coach, event producer, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.