Duathlon is sometimes derided as triathlon's poor cousin. But if, like me, you're addicted to running and love cycling, but can't get over your fear of that frenzied first swim leg, then the run-bike-run could be the challenge for you.
Scared by tales of competitors grabbing ankles, ripping off goggles or overtaking by swimming right over the top of fellow athletes, I spent 12 months having lessons, got hold of a wetsuit, entered a half-Ironman … and bottled it.
In the battle for public attention, duathlon has clearly lost to tri. Its world champions – the Belgian Rob Woestenborghs and Ai Ueda from Japan – are unknowns compared with Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, or recently retired Ironman athlete Chrissie Wellington.
Dermott Hayes, from multisports coaching and training company RG Active, said: "Ten years ago duathlon was on a par with triathlon in terms of interest. Britain has had some very good triathletes – before the Brownlees and Chrissie Wellington, there were Spencer Smith and Simon Lessing – arguably the best in the world.
"Unfortunately duathlon hasn't grabbed attention in the same way as tri. It hasn't got the same big names and it's very, very rarely on TV. It's a real shame because as a stand-alone sport it's fantastic, and arguably harder than triathlon – that first run can absolutely kill your legs if you get it wrong, and you still have a long bike and another run to come."
Earlier this month, 3,000 people took part in the world's largest run-bike-run event, the London Duathlon – opting for Classic (10K run, 44K bike, 5K run), Classic Relay, Sprint (10K, 22K, 5K), SuperSprint (5K, 11K, 5K) or Ultra (20K, 77K, 10K) distances.
Most duathlons are held in the spring and autumn, and many are used as training events by triathletes outside Britain's open-water swimming season, which usually runs from May to the end of September.
"Lots of triathletes only do them as training sessions and don't race hard or work towards them as the pinnacle of their season," said Dermott, "but I think duathlon is massively on the up.
"The London Duathlon attracts a really wide cross section of people – it's the duathlon equivalent of the London Marathon. It doesn't matter how fit or experienced you are, or whether you've got the latest kit, just come along, give it a try and have some fun."
While there was no shortage of bike porn on show on a windy day in Richmond park – with some beautiful Cervélo P5 and Specialized Shiv bikes racked in transition and the odd pointy aerodynamic helmet – there were also a fair few people on hybrids and mountain bikes; I even spotted a Brompton and someone who hadn't bothered to take their paniers off.
"Your bike doesn't have to cost £2,000, and you can cycle in trainers rather than bike shoes," Dermott said. "It's a sport for all. Take the swim out of the equation and you get a lot of people who'd love to do a triathlon but can't swim or are scared."
Tanbir Jasimuddin, a management consultant who tackled the ultra course, said: "I'd love to do a triathlon. I want to work my way up to Ironman distance in the next few years – but my complete inability to swim is holding me back."
Tanbir took up running to lose weight a few years ago and has entered regular running races from 5Ks to full marathons as well as a few obstacle races, including Survival of the Fittest, Dirty Weekend and Lactic Rush, in his search for fresh challenges.
"The obstacle courses were fun because the monotony of running was broken up – but they were relatively short distances. The London Duathlon gave me the option to try a multi-discipline event over a much longer distance.
"Everyone was very encouraging. I had several moments on the bike section where I was flagging and someone would shout some words of encouragement which gave me a lift. The best bit was hearing the sound of the cheering crowds as I approached the finish line after six hours of pounding. My feet didn't feel quite so heavy and it was a great sight to turn the corner and see the finish line. I even managed to summon enough energy to jump over the line."
My own race was a mixed bag. Running the ultra course for the third year, I trimmed three minutes off 2012's first 20K run and was chuffed to knock another three minutes off the tough final 10K leg … but all that I gained on the runs, I lost on the bike, finishing in 4hrs 45mins. And that was despite spending more than I should have in the new year sales, which just goes to show …
Top five duathlon training tips from RG Active
1. Get the basics – you need a bike, a bike helmet, a pair of running shoes and some sports clothes. Spend some time making sure your equipment is in good working order: a bike service to prevent any unwanted mechanical issues is strongly advised. If your running shoes are more than a year old and you have used them regularly, then it is time for a new pair.
2. Structure your training – a good training plan will balance cycling and running, gradually increasing the duration and intensity. If you are stronger at one of the sports, then spend time working on your weakness.
3. Be specific – try to make your training schedule specific to the event. The London Duathlon is in Richmond park where there are a number of hills, for example, so you'd need to include climbing in your sessions.
4. Build using 'bricks' – arguably the most important training session a duathlete can do is the brick, a multisport session where you complete both sports at least once back-to-back to simulate the race. A brick session could be a long bike followed by a short run, or a short bike followed by a long run – it could be a run/bike/run session, or even a multiple brick where you change between sports five or six times.
5. Train transitions – spend time thinking through what your method will be for transition and practice this time and time again. An efficient and well-drilled transition can save you minutes.