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Runner, writer and occasional breaststroker, Rhalou, dons the Lycra and tries her hand at triathlon.

As a running fanatic, I’ve always been loyal to my favourite sport and thought triathlons sounded a bit daft (sorry tri friends). But, mostly because I wanted the hot body that training for all three pursuits seems to produce, I also secretly toyed with the idea of entering one. Spurred on by my desire to look sexy in hotpants, earlier in the year I entered the Shock Absorber WomenOnly Triathlon with my friend Susie.

Although I knew what triathlons entailed, I hadn’t considered the implications of taking on a sport that requires so much bloody kit. As a runner, I’m used to slinging on my trainers and dashing out the door. Triathlons are ridiculously complicated. Not only do you need a wetsuit alongside your running kit, but you have to acquire a bicycle and a helmet too; ludicrous.

Rhalou and Susie tri girls

After taking my usual lackadaisical approach to training, a couple of months before race day I suddenly panicked and set about honing my pins to trisexual perfection. Determined not die on my first tri, I even got myself a swim coach. Although I love running and I’m confident on a bike, swimming is a whole different ballgame. I could just about summon up breast stroke, but I was incapable of submerging my head without crying (I hate to ruin good make up) and the temptation to drop out was strong.

A couple of swimming sessions at Swim4tri put an end to my fears and I even managed to master the art of front crawl. After running to the pool a few times, I discovered that swimming really benefits my overworked leg muscles. I also borrowed a tri suit off my cool friend Katie and felt surprisingly sexy in the Lycra onesie.

When race day finally rolled around, Susie and her ace boyfriend Shaun picked me up from Windsor and we set off for Eton Dorney Lake. Upon arrival the tri waves were already well under way. With precariously balanced bike racks, mountains of kit and hundreds of other women queuing up to get involved, it all seemed like a massive ball ache and I wandered if it was worth it. But as we approached the bag drop, I was struck by the incredibly laid back atmosphere. Although my fellow competitors were clearly busting their guts out, everyone seemed relaxed and I felt instantly at ease.

Katie, Rhalou and Susie

While dropping off my bike and dumping my gear in the transition section, I chatted with fellow competitors. There was a real sense of camaraderie, which I suspect might have had something to do with the lack of male competitors. We were all in this together and no one was going to elbow each other in the face to get the top spot. Feeling slightly more confident, I waded into the water in my onesie and prayed for forgiveness from the tri Gods.

Even with swimming lessons and the aforementioned prayers, the first stage still sucked. Flapping around in the water I swallowed so much of the lake, that I quickly gave up on the front crawl I had worked so hard to master and stuck to breast stroke. But when a floating race marshal threatened to make the last one out the water buy him lunch, I mysteriously sped up, beating a few knackered ladies in the process, and finished in 12:29.

Next up was the cycle; four times anti-clockwise around the lake on a reassuringly flat path. Despite riding a hybrid, I felt confident and happy whizzing around the water and enjoyed picking off competitors on much fancier road bikes. It was great to see Shaun cheering in the crowd as I cycled round (I knew boys were useful for something). I could have happily kept going and finished in a comfortable 56:55.

Rhalou and Susie

It was a blessing to complete the trilogy with my favourite pursuit; the running section. By the time I hit the road it was baking hot and my competitors looked exhausted, but I felt the strongest I had all day and skipped along the path grinning like an idiot. I had my doubts about the out and back route, but was glad of the chance to high-five my friend Katie running the opposite way, and whoop like a baboon when the amazing Susie lapped me to finish in seventh place overall. I didn’t cough up a lung or come close to Susie’s inspirational efforts, but I felt strong and comfortable, finishing in a not too shabby 28:55.

Having entered The Shock Absorber WomenOnly Triathlon on a whim with reservations about the sport and the concept of gender specific events, it was a pleasure to be proven wrong on both counts. I thoroughly enjoyed race day (apart from the swimming bit) and racing alongside so many lovely ladies was the perfect introduction to the sport. After such a great tri taster, I can’t wait to don a Lycra onesie and go back for more.

Arguably one of the greatest aspects of participating in a race is being cheered on by total strangers. Medals, PBs, killer thighs and a sense of accomplishment all have their merits. But once you become a grownup, unless you’re a rock star or really good at public speaking, race day is pretty much the only time you’re going to get publicly applauded by complete strangers willing you to succeed.

The mothership cheering machine. Photo credit: Cara Conquest

The mothership cheering machine. Photo credit: Cara Conquest

As a wannabe disco superstar with the musical talents of a hamster, race day is the only opportunity I get to revel in my (imagined) adoring public, and I bloody love it. But despite my lust for the cheering limelight I must confess, until recently I wasn’t much of a race spectator and rarely returned the favour.

The truth is I found it a bit like PE swimming lessons at school, when I pretended I had my period so I didn’t have to get naked in front of the other girls (times have changed). Within seconds of sitting by the pool inhaling the heady scent of chlorine and watching my classmates happily splashing around, I always desperately regretted skiving and longed to jump into the inviting looking water. Until recently I saw race day as a similar torture and couldn’t bear watching happy runners without breaking into a run.

During my ultra widow days I was certainly dragged around enough cold wet hill races in the Scottish mountains to cheer. But the audience participation doesn’t count when it’s just you, Hamish the tea maker and a bunch of bored looking sheep huddled under a wet tarpaulin waiting for 12 gnarly old runners to whizz by.

Rhalou run sexy

My attitude to race spectating changed dramatically when my mum recently came to stay. Although the woman is arguably the embodiment of joy, she was the one that wrote the letters to my PE teachers at school so I could skive, and has never really been one for sport. I’ve tried countless times over the years to persuade her to come and cheer for me during a race and she’s always made excuses. But then I forced her to come to mile 21 at the London Marathon a few weeks ago and suddenly everything changed.

Within two minutes of seeing the first wheelchair racers whizz by my mum was in floods of tears and over the next six hours I watched her morph into a one-woman cheering machine. Together we laughed, sang, wept and screamed our heads off, cheering every single runner on as if they were our best friends. It was the most fun I’ve ever had not running in my entire life. With multiple sound systems competing for air space, thousands of spectators and an electric atmosphere, cheering for the London Marathon is like taking ten ecstasy pills at a giant happy rave minus the comedown.

There’s something almost primal about the instinct to cheer during a sporting event. Joining the sea of people and collectively encouraging runners you will never meet to succeed is good for the soul and made me feel elated for days afterwards. The following week my mum called to tell me she’d already booked tickets to come and cheer me on at the Istanbul Marathon in November and hoped it would be as much fun as mile 21 amidst the mighty Run Dem Crew. I haven’t got the heart to tell her it might be a little bit less crowded.

Susie Chan and Graham Kelly 31/100 Thames Path 100

Rhalou, Susie, Graham, chips and booze.

Last weekend I decided to take my newfound cheering skills to the next level and meet my gorgeous friend the insatiable Susie Chan and my new Scottish buddy the bearded warrior Graham Kelly at mile 31 of the Thames Path 100. I figured 100 miles was a slog worthy of extra special cheering, so I bought them a bag of chips, several miniature bottles of whisky and a smile.

With just my friend Simon Lamb and I applauding the exhausted looking running field as they stopped for sandwiches at the checkpoint (yes, you get sandwiches during ultras, how cool is that) it wasn’t a full on race spectator experience. But I felt the same infectious joy for encouraging complete strangers as I did during the London Marathon, and bloody loved every second of it. Enthusiastically encouraging strangers to succeed feels fantastic, but when a runner you know and love appears on the horizon, it is nothing short of euphoric. Just knowing that I gave them enough hugs and whisky to keep going for a few more miles made me smile all the way home.

If you have yet to cheer for an event, I implore you to get your butt down to the running route and scream your head off at strangers with wild abandon (or come join my mum in Istanbul!) Not only does cheering ensure the runners have a better time, but it will fill your heart with happiness and refill your karma tanks to boot. Those runners out there have not only trained their asses off for months to get there, but many of them have raised massive amounts of money for charity and they deserve to be celebrated. And you never know, when it’s your race day and chance to shine, they might just return the favour.

Having discovered the delight in race spectating, I have now decided to quit all my jobs and become a professional race spectator. If you need a shouty redhead, call me. I’m also available for weddings, Barmitzvahs and cocktail parties.