Birthday Beastings

February 7, 2014

Birthdays for pro athletes like Emma-Kate Lidbury are not the same as for the rest of us

I love birthdays – mine and everyone else’s. As a child, it inevitably meant cakes, candles and parties. As a student, it meant beer, parties and more parties. Can you see a pattern starting to emerge?!
As an athlete, however, birthdays have largely been synonymous with pain and torture. I suppose it’s wanting to mark the day in a different way. Because almost all days involve some permutation of swim-bike-run, a “birthday set” needs to be particularly different to classify as “special”.

With my 34th approaching, it’s something I’ve been giving thought to recently. I’ve done a “spicy” birthday workout every year since I started training full-time in 2009.

That year, I spent the winter in Noosa, Australia, and –perhaps in a moment of madness – mentioned to the swim coach that my birthday was coming up. Big mistake.

“Perfect,” he said. “We’ll have you swim 100 x 100m.”

A week later I found myself in a lane with American pro triathlete and super swimmer Hillary Biscay desperately trying to remember whether we were on rep 77 or 78.

By the time we reached 91 I was so deliriously excited by the prospect of hitting 100 that I’d forgotten all about the fact that (1) it was my birthday and (2) we’d swum almost 10K in just over two hours.

You might think I’d have learnt from that experience, but maybe that’s why I’m an endurance athlete: I forget pain in a flash and immediately seek it again, like a monkey repeatedly putting its paw on a hot stove.

It might not surprise you to learn, then, that for my 30th birthday I did a ridiculously long ride in the wintry British weather (I forget the exact distance, but it was definitely Ironman and then some).

This birthday-induced craziness is not limited to my own special day. In LA, I swim with the Tower 26 swim programme run by coach Gerry Rodrigues, an extremely talented and distinguished swimmer.

In December, his birthday coincided with one of our Saturday morning workouts, which are almost always high intensity. Gerry “gifted” us 51 x 50 yards to help him celebrate his 51 years and gave the top lane a 40-second turnaround – well within our capabilities. I’d obviously had my Weetabix that morning as, when we completed the reps, I cheekily piped up: “That wasn’t so bad.”

“In which case, you can join me when I do that set on my own,” he replied.

After almost 25 years of swim training, I should know that swim coaches will never let slip an opportunity for torture.

“Game on!” I replied, with a bit too much gusto. My mouth had just written a cheque my body wasn’t entirely sure it could cash.

Half an hour later – with Gerry banging out 51 x 50 yards on a 35-second interval and me hanging on for dear life – I realised it had happened again. The Birthday Bug had bitten me.

Instead of showering and changing as usual, I left in my swimsuit and parka and drove straight home, pausing only at the coffee machine en route to bed. At least it wasn’t two rounds of 51 x 100m!

I’m uncertain what might befall me on my birthday this February, but if my training partners and coaches learn of my penchant for self-inflicted birthday training hell then it could get interesting. I have a feeling I might earn my cake this year – but not have enough breath to blow out the candles.

Originally published at

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