At the age of 40 I decided that I wanted to do triathlon. I have no particular reason other than a midlife crisis (says my wife) and being truly fascinated by the sport, the athletes, and the mythical annual gathering at Kona. More about me, I’m French and live in the Netherlands, and I am quite sporty by nature. But before I entered my first Olympic distance, my racing experience only comprised of two sprint triathlons (the first finished in 1:21, the second in 1:14). So of course, doubling the distance made me nervous, but since my dream is located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, I had to make my way toward a longer distance one day or the other.
I arrived at the triathlon having trained as well as I could. I followed the 16 weeks competitive training program on this web site (thank you a lot) and listened to the advices of our online coach all winter (thanks Roy and my teammates from the Tribay forum). It wasn’t always easy since I work full time, travel a lot, have a wife and two kids whom I would like to keep. But as Roy likes to say, "do what you can". So I did, not worrying when I missed training and giving my best in all of them. On an average week, I swam two times (really I should do three), ran three times, and cycled once. I don’t need the cycling too much since I’ve been doing it the last five years, but I am a poor swimmer (at no advantage given my small size 1.7m / 5.6’) and a fair runner (sub 45’ on the 10km on a good day), finally I weigh 63kg/139lb, and that’s what I lined up at race day.
The day before the race
I started my electrolyte fueling protocol and went to recon what I’ll have to do on race day. It’s something I started on my second sprint triathlon, which made my race easier. I could focus on the effort, not thinking “where do I need to go?”, “how far do I still have to go?”, or “I hope we’re done with climbing…” I’d normally recommend it, but this time it did not help. I looked at the swim buoys and start thinking, “Man! How am I ever going to swim that?” 1.5km / 0.9 miles - that looks like a very long distance from the bridge where I’m standing. I have never done it in one go. There’s no turning back at this point.
The cycling course is very nice, totally flat, and protected from the wind by lines of trees which will provide us shade during what promises to be a warm and sunny day. The running course is also nice, less shade, but like the cycling we’ll have three laps to get used to it. If all goes well, I’ll pick speed in the second, and launch the afterburner on the last. But still I can’t shake off the idea that the swimming is going to be mighty long.
Evening before the race
After a pasta meal I watch my favorite comedy DVD and went to bed thinking “Man! How am I ever going to swim that?” That’s pretty much what I do all night, thinking “Man! How am I ever going to swim that?” with little sleep in between.
The race will start at 13:00, I can catch up on a bit of sleep in the morning. It will be the warmest time of the day; we expect 25C / 77F (which is exactly how I like it). I try to get some pasta in me at 10:30 but I don’t particularly enjoy that type of breakfast (I’ll have to think of something better next time). Before my excitement really starts getting on my wife’s nerves, it’s time to go. The transition area is getting full, busy with athletes settling in for the long distance of the day (which will be my Olympic Tri) and some athletes are racing in and out, still busy completing their sprint distance. Normally, I’d be with them, but today I’m with the big boys.
I really like the transition area, everyone is talking to everyone. I lose an earplug in the grass, but no worries as a guy I don’t know has a spare for me. It feels like family. My closest two neighbors are newbies just like me and we start chatting. As we are getting close to the start, we get picky on the positioning of our shoes. We discuss the best way to get our bikes off the rack and the times we’re going to make. We must have been whining too much because the guy next to us tells us, “Guys, you’re busy with the wrong thing, you trained to be here, you have the gear setup, now it’s time to enjoy the day.” This dude is riding a Specialized Transition with full carbon wheels and everything, so we decide to take his advice and relax a bit.
Finally it’s time to suit up. I get into my brand new BlueSeventy Axis and get in the water. It’s murky, I can’t see even one meter in front of me. I don’t mind, personally water doesn’t freak me out, it’s making the distance that does. The pistol goes and we’re off. I have no illusion on my swimming so I have positioned myself a bit at the back, but in a way that will give me the shortest way to the buoy. Smart move, the other athletes here are similar to me, not looking forward to a beating, so we touch a bit, we get bodies going over and under, but nothing brutal. After 400 meters (or so it seems) the groups are made: up front the guys that are going to finish in less than 20 minutes (it’s a small group of no more than ten souls) I will see them on their way back while I’m still busy completing my first length, then a second group (the biggest), that’s the 25 minutes group I figure, and then the group I’m in.
I realize some good news when I get to the turn: I’m halfway done with the swim and nothing bad has happened to me; I have a steady if not fast pace, I can do this! Some other good news is that there is another group behind me and a few others even further behind. That gives me the energy I need to complete the swim. I start running as soon as I can put my feet down in the mud, another good move. I win six spots on the guys still trying to swim their way to shore. I press the lap button on my watch and surprise..29:03 appears on the display, incredible! I’ve never got under 10’ on 500 meters! I suddenly love swimming though it’s probably due to my wetsuit.
Time to do my transition! I start running but I feel my stomach coming up. I slow down a bit and get my heart under control. I change quickly and get on the bike. Now, this is the part I know! I start easy before powering up. I get passed a few times, but I pass more people myself. I get my heart rate down to 84% and start eating and drinking at regular intervals, before I know it I’m back in the transition area, press the lap button on my watch again, the display shows 1:05 - not bad. I feel great with 10 minutes to spare on the run to make my mental target (2:30), a walk in the park. I see my wife and son on the side of the road. My son shouts “Go daddy, I’m proud of you!”. It hits me in the heart and fills me with pride, what a beautiful sport I’m doing, and then disaster strikes! I notice that I cannot run to save my life. My feet are stuck to the ground, my knees won’t go up. Right, that’s the transition effect, it will pass, I have three laps to go and I’ll take the first one easy to get my sensations back. Still I pass some people but I get passed by a lot more, not a good thing.
Here comes the first turn, my son is there, still shouting. Come on now, you have to go for it! I increase the pace just a notch. It looks more like running but it still doesn’t feel like it. My legs are heavy and won’t bounce, what’s happening to me? It’s not heart related, it’s not fuel (I think); it’s just a mechanical incident. I have to push and so I do until I start feeling a sharp pain in my right knee (my old soccer injury is coming back or I overcompensated my inability to run), anyway not a good time for that. Okay, last lap, I’m in survival mode, I decide that I feel no pain. My son and wife (who can see what bad shape I am in) are shouting louder than before and even joined by some people I don’t know. A bit more than 3km to go, I’m not letting it go now. I get to the finish and my son does the last 200 meters with me. The timer shows 2:34:38, 4:38 over my target. I check my watch a last time, 57:08, I haven’t run like that in a long time. I don’t know what happened to me, but I am so pleased to be here with my family around me and all these people who competed with me and supported me along the way, that these four minutes don’t mean anything.
Two days after the race
The pain in my knee has gone as suddenly as it came. I feel good in the knowledge that I finished the race and got close to my goal. Those four minutes are nothing compared to what I could potentially deliver on the run, and there are still some minutes to gain on the swim now that I know that I have the distance in me. Further, the Ironman 70.3 does not seem so daunting after all. I have two weeks until a local sprint triathlon, and six to the ITU sprint world championship in Hamburg, which will be my A race this year. I will go swimming tonight, I’m still not an Ironman, but I think I can call myself a triathlete now.