I completed my first triathlon last weekend. I was a decathlete in college, so I guess I'm drawn to multi-event sports. To say I was a bit underprepared for this triathlon would be a gross understatement. I'm a mediocre swimmer (at best) and I don't have much experience on the bike. For the two months prior to this event I spent at least three lunch hours per week in the pool trying to avoid looking too bad as I flopped along in the water. I knew it would be difficult, but the first time I swam the length of the 50 meter pool I was pretty sure I left at least one of my lungs somewhere around the 35 meter mark. I was clinging to the wall for dear life like a child clinging to his parent on the first day of school.
“How is it” I thought, “that I can run five miles at a 6:30-7:00 pace, and swimming 50 meters is kicking my butt?”
This was going to be a long road. I managed to make it back to the other end of the pool where the water was mercifully shallow and immediately started wondering what I had gotten myself into. I also started wondering exactly where in the pool I lost my second lung, and contemplated bribing one of the kids playing with a snorkel over to the side to go find it for me. Against my better judgment I swam another 100 meters, but without any sort of discernible form or technique. I was pretty much in survival mode at that point. Following my miraculous 200 meter swim that first day, I seriously started doubting my ability to complete this event. Patience has never been my virtue so it took quite a bit of mental “psyching up” to get me into the pool three days a week for the next few months until I was relatively confident I'd be able to finish the 500 meter swim in a half-way decent time. I was still not a strong swimmer, but at least I knew I could make the distance.
For the bike, I thought about doing the entire thing on my mountain bike. Then I saw the course. I decided right away a road bike was in order, but I was not ready to drop $1500 on a new, middle of the road, starter bike. Shortly after I decided I needed one, I found a used road bike on Craigslist and called the owner to inquire about buying it. When I showed up at the agreed upon meeting location where I was going to take my test ride, I found myself hoping that the bear of a man walking my way was not the owner of the bike I was going to buy. Of course he was. As we shook hands I wondered how I was ever going to fit on anything that this guy could ride. He was huge, but I figured, what the hell...I'll give it a go!
The bike was a steel-frame 1993 Bianchi Europa with down tube shifters. After I dusted off the high jump skills I honed as a decathlete 10 years ago and jumped onto the bike I took it for a few spins around the parking lot. I was not used to riding a road bike, so it felt a little awkward at first, but I quickly felt pretty good on it. I was even able to stop and put a leg down on the ground without emasculating myself. I decided the size might not be a deal breaker after all. After my test ride, I told the owner I would take it off his hands, so for $200 I was the proud owner of an old, beat up PURPLE road bike! Now I had the bike, the next part was going to be finding a chance to ride it for any significant period of time.
Being in the Army, and a single father, I'm severely limited on the amount of time I have to ride for 15-20 miles at a stretch, so I'd have to be creative. I started doing short sprints up the hill next to my house while my kids played in the yard. I went for longer rides if I had a training holiday and the schools were open. One day I went out to ride the course I was going to have to race, and again, started wondering what I had gotten myself into. Apparently, while I was getting into my bike shorts, helmet and sunglasses, someone added some huge hills to the course! I definitely did not remember my truck having that much trouble getting up those things, and after about the first 6-7 miles, my legs were upset at me. By 12 miles, they were downright bitter, and had decided to go on strike. By the time I finished the 15 mile course, I was numb from the waist down. “How in the world am I going to do this after a 500 meter swim knowing I still have to run four and a half miles?” My confidence was not overflowing, but at least I knew I could complete the course.
So that was two events down, events that I knew I could complete...if poorly. That left me to prepare for the run portion. I was not too concerned about the run, after all, four and a half miles was not really all that hard for me. That would probably be about 30 minutes out of my day - on a normal run! If only I knew then what I know now I would have spent some more time running AFTER riding the bike. I was in for a rude awakening come race day.
I started to feel a little anxious when I got to the event area at 6 AM. It was raining, but it wasn't the rain that was giving me the vague sense of unease, it was the three guys getting out of the vehicles next to mine. All three of them looked like they just got done shooting a Navy SEAL recruitment video, and were pushing bikes that weighed about a pound and cost as much as my truck. One of them shot me a little bit of a curious look as I dead-lifted my bike out of the bed of my Dodge, and propped it up on the fender while I got my bag out of the back seat. Despite my initial reservations, everything proceeded well through registration and the equipment inspection.
Now it was time to put my bike in the transition area and set up my stuff for the race. Since this was my first triathlon, I asked one of the SEALs if there was a strategy for where I should put my bike up. All three of the guys were extremely friendly and helpful. They were also very encouraging and told me that my goal for my first one should be to complete the race. I was glad they confirmed what I was already thinking, because to be honest, to hope for anything spectacular would not have been very smart on my part given the limited sport specific training I had prior to the event. One of the guys recommended I place my bike near the exit of the transition area so I would not have to navigate too far with my bike following the swim. I got my bike in the rack and did my best to set my stuff up somewhat like the other competitors who looked like they had done this sort of thing before.
Finally, after what seemed like an insanely long time of nerves, excitement, and mental rehearsals, they called all athletes to the pool. Insert your own internal soundtrack of dramatic music here. We were instructed to line up in numeric order, as they would be starting one athlete at a time in 20 second intervals. I was number 90. Apparently there were 89 other people who swam faster than me signed up for this race...perfect. As I was holding onto the side of the pool waiting for the starter to count down from five, I tried to block everything else out from my mind...stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe...rinse, and repeat. I was fine for the first few lengths, but after about 200-225 meters, I started running into folks in front of me. That threw my rhythm off so much, that I had to switch to breaststroke. I found that I had a bit more control over where I was going, and since I could see in front of me, I stopped swimming into people. I was also able to move through the water much more smoothly, and actually felt that I was going faster than when I was doing the crawl. I finally reached the end of the swim, very much relieved that that part was over, and made my way through the gate, across the grass, down the sidewalk, and into the transition area to find my bike. Since this was not an overly large triathlon, I didn't have any trouble remembering where I put it. Besides, it was the only purple bike out there that day! When I got to my bike I threw my goggles into my bag, and dumped some baby powder on my feet so I could pull my socks right on. I put my shirt on, buckled my helmet, got my bike down, and was off. I discovered very quickly during the bike leg, that in that event more so than the other two combined, equipment matters. My used bike did not really have too much to offer over some of those top end road bikes and triathlon bikes in terms of competition. It was extremely humbling to see men twice my age zoom past me, on bikes that I couldn't afford in a year, without even so much as doing me the common courtesy to APPEAR as if they were trying hard!
This bike ride was better than the first time I rode the course, but not by too much. My rear derailer got stuck, so I was pretty much either spinning my wheels, or doing a whole bunch of mini, one-legged squats up each hill. It wasn't too long before my quads were toast and my back was screaming at me. I'm pretty sure at some point I literally witnessed my spleen jump from my body in an effort to escape. I'd have to go back for it later...I was almost done. I only had another mile to go on the bike, and then my event...the run.
“Come on...lets get this!” I thought half to myself, and half out loud. It was only half out loud because it came out something like “comalegelssss....” I guess it must have been somewhat intelligible, because the guy who I didn't realize had ridden up behind me yelled something back that, judging from his tone, was meant to be encouragement. I yelled something back to him in Army-speak and after a very brief, very winded conversation which consisted of nothing approaching cognitive thought, and involving sounds devoid of syllabification, we both decided to shut up and just ride. He pulled slightly ahead leading into the transition area, but I didn't care. I only had one event left. The one I knew I was good at. The run. Before I started this event, I had visions of myself on the run course, cruising along, effortlessly as always, swooping up slower competitors and leaving them wondering what happened. Those visions went away after about 200 meters. I had used up so much energy pushing my gigantic steel Harley with pedals up all those hills, that my quads were toast. “Oh no...I did not expect this!” I thought as panic set in. “I can't move my legs.” As I ran, I tried not to focus on the incredible tightening sensation in my legs, and instead tried to focus on my breathing. Generally when I run, if my breathing is in order, everything else falls into place.
After the first mile and a half, I came to the first water station, where a volunteer was cleaning up plastic cups other racers had dropped on the ground. I thought for just a second of how kind and neighborly of me it would be if I stopped running to help this poor fellow pick up these filthy plastic cups. I would be doing a good deed for humanity, and the environment in one fell swoop! (I just wanted a break) Ultimately, I decided against helping the guy, and to keep running instead. To make matters worse, I added to the pile of non-biodegradable plastic he was hand-raking into a hefty bag. By mile three I was not thinking about anything, mostly because I was convinced that any attempt at cognitive thought at that point would draw blood and oxygen out of my legs and I would collapse into a useless heap on the side of the road. One foot in front of the other as quick as I can at this point.
I had run this course many times before and I knew exactly where I was, and how far I had yet to go. I was almost done. The last half-mile I didn't feel anything until I came out of the woods and rounded the very last corner before the finish-line with the promise of a soft chair, and a cold beer. As I made that last turn, my children were there with my girlfriend. My son and my daughter ran the last 100 meters of the race with me, and even though I had to slow down dramatically so my two and a half year old daughter could keep up, having them cross the finish line with me was so much more important to me than my time. When I started training for this triathlon, my goal was to finish...and I did. I finished the 500 meter swim, 15 mile bike ride, and 4.5 mile run in exactly two hours. Is that a great time? No, not really. But I had something even better than a winning time. I realized I had a loving and supportive family. Something else happened as well. I realized that I love this sport, and I will definitely be devoting as much time as I can to training for my next one, and the one after that, and the one after that. Right after we crossed the finish line together, my son grabbed my hand and asked, “Daddy, when can I do that?”