This was the question I got pretty frequently, with some variations that included, “why the heck” and “what were you thinking?” The second question I got was always, “You’re going to swim in the Schuylkill river?!” (Which was generally more of an exclamation than a question.)
Honestly? I really don’t know what specifically sparked the idea. One day the idea wasn’t there, then it was.
There are some factors that may have led up to it. Earlier in the year I had set my mind to losing 15 pounds. I wasn’t overweight by any stretch, but thought I didn’t need to be as heavy as I was. In the end I actually lost 20 lbs and was very happy with the success. Afterwards though, I was exercising but didn’t have any real fitness goal anymore. So I thought about setting some new goal, possibly doing some kind of ‘milestone’ event.
A couple friends of mine tried to encourage me to run a marathon, but that is pretty much out of the question. Besides never running much before, I have a bad back. I have had two back surgeries that I still have to be conscientious of and careful about. Extreme amounts of running just isn’t in the cards.
But I could run a little, and maybe build that up to some actual distance. I also used to be a swimmer and I thought I had a pretty good cardio base to build on for training. I also do a lot of in-line skating. Plus I’m a regular at the gym and am fairly fit overall. So while I can’t do a lot of one thing, I could maybe do a bit of each and survive. Thus the triathlon!
Looking back now, I’m not sure why I thought this would be a smart idea! I was in good shape in general, but had almost no fitness level or skill in any of the sports. Here were my starting points:
Swim – I hadn’t swam much at all since High School swim team and some workouts in college. Long ago.
Bike – I had ridden a bike maybe a dozen times in the last 10 years, and nothing overly strenuous.
Run – Only if I’m being chased.
So before I committed myself to the event, I wanted to make sure I could do the basics. I did 500m in the pool and realized that the 18 years since being on the HS swim team left me with a technically excellent swimming stroke, and absolutely nothing else. I was so tired after that first swim that the size of the challenge really hit me. But when I did a spinning class the next night, to see if I could bike for an hour, that went a lot better than expected and raised my spirits. Then came the attempt to run one mile. I did it, but not easily, and I was sore for days! But I had passed my personal benchmarks and set my mind to the challenge.
I set up a training program and held to it pretty closely, working out six days a week (with a night “off” for volleyball league.) I found a lot of help in lots of different places. BeginnerTriathlete.com is a great resource and a fun community. A local sporting store, Danzizen & Quigley, held a Triathlon Night with speakers and store discounts, so I was able to pick up some of the basics at a good price. Then to top it all off, my awesome girlfriend bought me a super sweet road bike for my birthday! All the pieces were in place.
Originally, I had wanted to do an Olympic length event and found event listings online. But the one that fit my schedule (both personal and training) was a long time away. I was training now and wanted something sooner. I found a Sprint distance event that fit my criteria; it was local, it was in a few months, and the Sprint distance seemed like a good starting point.
The total training time ended up being about four months, which seemed just right for essentially starting from scratch in all three sports. It was tough keeping up the training schedule, though I was expecting to be perpetually tired and sore, and was surprised that that wasn’t the case. The swimming came along exactly as expected. Slow to start but it came back quickly and I’m comfortable in the water.
The bike surprised me the most. In just a couple short months I was doing 45-50 mile training rides with the advanced group in the Bike Club of Philly. I’ve seen the greatest improvement on the bike. This is probably where my in-line skating fitness crossed over the best. I knew running was always going to be a challenge, and it proved to be more difficult than expected. I overexerted myself and suffered a minor setback with a calf strain that kept me from running for a couple weeks. I used the time instead to push my swimming workouts, and that seemed to pay off. Then I tried to make up the running workouts later to close the training gap. I didn’t quite hit my goal, but my running was noticeably improved, so I was happy with that.
Leading up to race day I did a lot of prep; I practiced my transitions, did several brick workouts, a few gym-tri’s, got in a couple open water swim practices, and generally tried to cover all my bases and be as prepared as possible.
In the end, there’s only so much preparation you can do short of actually doing the race. In the week leading up, I was more excited than nervous. I tapered my workouts a bit and tried to get to bed earlier.
It seemed like the whole experience was almost as much about getting to the first race as it was actually doing it!
I had done all my prep and training, now it was time to see how it all paid off.
Race sign-in and rules review was the night before the event. I got my stuff and fought traffic to get home. I packed my transition bag while Tracie helped fiddle with some last minute stuff on the bike, including affixing a portable tire pump, just in case. Then I tried feebly to get to bed at a reasonable hour and fall asleep.
As with any race, the day started obscenely early. I had a simple breakfast of a bagel with creamcheese, and brought a banana to eat shortly before the race started.
The race start/transition area was bustling, but well organized. I found my friend Don right away, also a first time triathlete. We chatted a bit about race prep and our anticipation.
We had an opportunity to get in the water and swim a little to warm up. I was able to do about 300 meters warm up, and got to check out the conditions. (Bathwater warm, almost no noticeable current.)
The set-up area was crowded and I didn’t get in the run warm up that I wanted, so instead I did a lot of stretching.
As the 8:05 start time for my heat approached, I did a last minute check of my transition area, ate a banana, made sure I had everything I needed, and headed to the water.
The race had an in-water start. My heat was for 35-39 y/o men, and I think there were about 130 of us. (1330 total participants for the race that day.) The start horn sounded, and we were off!
I had sworn to myself that I would take it out nice and easy. A good slow and steady pace. This is what I thought I was doing initially. But a couple minutes into the swim I did some breaststroke to catch my breath and check my course, and when I looked back I was at the front of my heat!
I tried to slow down a bit and pace myself, and eventually found a good rhythm. Part of it, I think, was not getting a proper warm up. And certainly part of it was the excitement and inexperience of racing.
From a technical point-of-view, the swim was mostly easy. I had no trouble spotting or swimming in a pack. A couple times I had to swim around people. The water was pretty murky so you couldn’t see anything. At turn two I swam full on into a guy who was had completely stopped and was treading water. He’d picked a really bad place to hang out.
The swim leg back to the exit was better, as I was warmed up and had fallen into a good rhythm. I even passed a few people from the previous heat. At first I thought “woo! I’m so fast I caught the last heat!” But then realized it was probably more accurate to say “They’re so slow, they were caught by the next heat.”
I was pretty winded when I got out of the water and walked up the steep and sandy river exit. But then I spotted my girlfriend cheering me and that spurred me on to run to my transition area rather than walk.
The first transition went pretty smoothly. All of my prep paid off. My official transition time was three minutes, but it didn’t feel like it took that long. The transition area itself was pretty big, and I think at least a minute of that time was just running in and then back out. I did put on my shirt in T1, and that probably took 30 seconds or so. Next time I’ll wear a tri-top and save that half a minute.
I did a running start onto the bike, pedaled up to speed, and then clipped in. I think the hybrid pedals helped with that. I took the first couple minutes of the bike ride to get my heart rate down a little post-swim. The course was flat to start, so I was able to get up to a good speed of about 19 mph and still not over-do it. By the time I got to the hilly portion of the course, I was in a good rhythm and ready to push.
The bike portion of the race was a lot of fun. The course itself was very interesting; with a great mix of flats for faster riding, some hills to add a little technical element and mix it up a bit, and plenty of turns to make it interesting and keep you on your game. Tracie suggested, and I agreed, that all the skating in a group that we do helped me in the race; with regards to navigating in a pack, feeling comfortable at high speed, and being able to spot and anticipate other riders and road conditions.
The ride was a bit tricky with regards to pacing myself. I wanted to go fast, but knew I had to save some of my legs for the run, so I had to restrain myself from going all out. I felt like I held a pretty strong pace, and I passed more people than I was passed by. I also don’t think I could have gauged the bike effort any better, since it was pretty course-specific. And while I was very happy with my ride and my time, I think I could have given it maybe 5% more. Still, it’s better than the opposite – overexerting and *not* having enough left for the run.
The ride was a two loop course, and at the end of the first loop I saw Tracie again cheering me on. Thanks honey!
At a little less than halfway through the bike ride I had a power-gel for some calories. I had brought one bottle of water on the ride and that was enough. I never felt thirsty at any point, and had to make a conscious reminder to hydrate. Even though the mercury was climbing quickly that day, I also didn’t feel overly warm either.
The bike portion finished with a short chute into transition two that got a little backed up. I had to come to a full stop to avoid people in front of me. That made the dismount easier, but I would have preferred more room to move. I also jogged the bike back to my transition area, and was moving a lot faster than the people in front of me. I had to call out to get past and was a little hindered by this. Even so, the transition went very fast. Helmet and bike shoes off. Grab a drink of Gatorade. Running shoes and race belt on. And then I was out.
Like T1, the transition area was pretty long, so while my T2 time was only two minutes and change, I feel like almost a minute of that was probably just moving through the area.
On the way out of T2 I made the first of only two mistakes of the day. Volunteers were handing out cups of water. I drank about half a cup, and knowing that it was getting hotter and that the run was on the open road in the sun, I thought it would be a good idea to proactively cool down by pouring the other half of the cup over my head. What I ended up with was a saltwater slurry down my face from all my sweat. It ran into my eyes and mouth. Then, when I tried to wipe the saline solution away, my shirt was too snug and my race belt was in the way.
This tripped up my pacing and rhythm at first and was also annoying for being a dumb idea. But I recovered quickly and was out on the run.
The run course was a simple out and back on West River Drive. The beginning had some shade, but that was gone after a half mile. I didn’t have any issue with the bike-to-run transition, my legs felt good and I had a lot of energy left. Though I did feel very slow. I think this is a function of going from the bike (very fast) to running, which is much much slower relatively. So while my pace was probably just fine, it *felt* really slow. Still, I didn’t push myself, and I listened to my body and not my perceived speed. This worked well and I found a good rhythm within the first ½ to ¾ of a mile.
Running was by far my weakest event, and although I wasn’t overly concerned about it, I did have a high personal goal of running the whole thing (as opposed to walking a portion of it.) It would have been easy to drop to a walk at times - a *lot* of people were walking. But actually seeing them walking spurred me on to keep running, I thought they looked defeated. I was only going to walk when I was completely spent and my legs would no longer propel me at a run.
Partway into the run I did feel my calves getting tight, and since I had a calf strain earlier in training I had to pay attention to that. At the water station (at mile 1.25), I did stop briefly to stretch my calves, as I thought that was more of a health/safety issue than because I needed to rest. I did this again on the way back as well. Taking maybe a minute to a minute and a half total to do this.
I was surprised at the number of people I passed on the run. Not the walkers, but people who were still running. A number of them were younger than me and looked to be in good shape. This was encouraging to me that there were people out there that I was faster than!
As the end of the race approached, I started feeling noticeably tired, not from exertion, but from lack of calories. This was my second mistake of the race. I realized that I *really* should have eaten another power-gel at the end of the bike ride to fuel the run. They also were giving out gels at the water station on the run that I could have taken advantage of. But I wasn’t sure how that would sit in my stomach with the heat and the running, so I didn’t take it. It was only after I passed the station the second time that I realized how much I needed something. By that point it was too late anyway, I only had about 10-12 minutes left of the run, and anything I ate then would take too long to be digested and enter my system to be of any help. So I just pushed on and tried to keep doing my best. It wasn’t a huge obstacle, but I felt that if I’d had a gel at the end of the bike, I’d have done a little better on the run. Chalk that up to experience. Even so, my official time showed a pace of 10 min/mile, which is actually my training pace! So after all that, I still managed to maintain a good (for me) pace for the 5k, and I was *very* happy with that.
Approaching the end, I mustered just enough energy to cross the finish line strong. At least it felt strong, I probably looked like a hot mess, but I felt pretty good.
And it was over.
I saw Tracie again at the finish line as I came through, she was cheering me on. I also found my friend Don who had finished about a minute and a half ahead of me.
I was beat. I definitely felt like I had ‘left it all on the race course’ and run the best race I could that day. There were a few minor things I would have done differently, but considering it was my very first race, I felt great about how I executed, how it all came together, and with my performance in general.
A shout out to Don for completing a great race himself. It was also very cool to be racing with a friend and hanging out afterwards. It was even more interesting that we were so evenly matched.
And a big thanks to Tracie for all her support, and especially the day-of for helping me get ready in the morning, putting my race numbers on for me, cheering me on, and taking care of me post-race. Love you honey.
In all, the whole experience was excellent, and I couldn’t be happier with how it went. From training to preparation to running the race, it was fun, interesting, challenging and then finally, exhilarating and exhausting. I gave myself a challenge, and in the end, met it.