From the Alcatraz Challenge to My First Triathlon

author : dr_forbush
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In addition to writing your race number on each upper arm, they also wrote your age on your calf. This allowed me to see who was passing me by in the bike section of this race.

Who signed me up for this crazy thing? 


Those were my thoughts when I was running the first mile of the run portion of the triathlon that I just completed yesterday. The first mile of any run always seems to be the worst. I don’t know why that is, but once I get past that first mile my body seems to adapt to the torture that I am demanding from it. So, as always, after that first mile I knew that I could finish the race and become a triathlete.

Race morning

The morning seemed to be a little cool. I began to worry. Actually my worrying began the night before. Would I remember everything that I needed for this crazy race? I first checked over my bike. The bike was twenty years old, a mountain bike, and certainly not the best machine for my adventure. But I wasn’t going to win the race, no matter what bike I had— after all, it was only my first triathlon. I knew that I could do reasonably well in the swimming portion. I also knew that I could do 7:30 min/mile on the run when I was well rested. But I had no idea what I could do in the bike section...and it really didn’t matter. I just wanted to try and finish this race, because it seemed to be a challenge that I might be capable of taking and completing.

Two of my children decided that they would wake up early and brave the trip to root me on. I treated them to fresh early morning donuts as a reward for their support. We were on the road for the short trip at 6:00 AM. The race was to begin at 7:30, and I really didn’t want to wait around in the cool morning for too long before the race was to start. Timing was everything. I didn’t want to get there too early, and I didn’t want to get there too late. There was an issue with parking. There was an issue with getting marked with numbers and setting up the bike and gear. How long could it take? How early did I really need to get there? I just took a stab in the dark and I guessed just about right.

I knew that my age group was scheduled to take off at 7:55. But I hadn’t planned on the idea that the transition area would be closed before the actual start of the race. This took away my spare time cushion that I had calculated into my plan. But, as it turned out, I didn’t need the cushion, because everything went fairly smoothly. The only problem that I had was the lack of knowledge on how to set things up in advance. I didn’t know how to attach the number to my bike. Then when I saw that someone had used cable ties to strap the number on I was dismayed to discover that I hadn’t any cable ties.


The experienced triathlete told me that he picked them up when he got his packet and pins. But where was the registration table? Good thing that I had already picked up my packet, because I couldn’t see the registration table anywhere. “They must have taken it down already, since that packet pick up time had passed,” I thought to myself. I asked a few of the volunteers where the cable ties were, but they had no idea what I was talking about. In fact, I was beginning to get nervous, so I didn’t realize that I should have just asked where the packet pick up area was. I found a volunteer that was willing to run around and ask the right people until I was pointed to the registration table that seemed to be hidden behind the toilet area, from my perspective.

What's with all the wetsuits?

As it turned out I had just enough time to attach my number to my bike and realize that I had forgotten my “transition shoes” that we had been told to bring when it was time to get out of the transition area. I sent my kids back to the car to get the shoes while I stripped down to my bathing suit. I was a bit startled to see that over 95% of the athletes had donned their wet suits. I had swum from Alcatraz last year in 55 degree water for nearly 40 minutes, so I thought that a quick dip in 65-70 degree water wouldn’t be a big deal. The swim was 0.75 miles, therefore I guessed that I would be in the water swimming for about twenty minutes. But the sight of all those wet suits made me fear getting into the water too early. If I wasn’t putting any effort in, then the water might cool me down too quickly before I even got started.

The kids showed up with my shoes and a towel as well. That turned out to be perfect. The idea for this year’s race was to swim around several buoys and back to the boat ramp where the race began. Therefore, placing shoes and a towel at the exit from the water would allow me to dry off a bit as I ran the 300 rocky yards from the water to the transition area. Many people brought flip-flops for this short segment of the race, but I brought beach shoes, which seemed to work just fine. I set the shoes and towel in a place that I hoped to remember when I finished the swim.

I made my way down toward the water and waited until they told us that my age group should enter the water and get ready for the race. I hoped to put off entering the water for as long as possible, because I though the water might be a bit chilly. I watched the first waves of the race enter the water, wait for the start, and then take off when a loud cannon was shot off.

I'm up

Then I finally made my way into the water, which I was surprised to find was a very comfortable temperature. Now I knew for certain that these guys were nuts for wearing wetsuits in this water. I was so pleased. Unfortunately I couldn’t make out the first buoy that we had to circle. The sun was shining on the water directly in the direction of that mythical buoy. But I had seen it while I was standing on shore, so I knew that it was real. So, I figured that I would just swim in that direction and occasionally look up to see if I was still headed in the right direction.

The cannon went off, I started my watch, and I was off. There were bodies everywhere. I kept looking for some free water to swim in. As I swam forward, I continued to find people and pass them by. The swimmers had been given bathing caps that corresponded to their age group. My age group had yellow. But there was a whole range of colors from the various age groups. There was a buffer time of five minutes between each wave of triathletes. The result was to spread the athletes out, but also to allow you to see some of the other people that you were competing against. As I swam the course, however, I continued to run into people the entire time.


I passed many of the swimmers in my age group, but I could never get to the front of the pack, because the swimmers from the packs ahead of me fell behind into our group. The only thing that I noticed was that I was passing swimmers with different colored caps by the time that I exited the water. As I walked out of the water I took my split time on my watch, because the official split time was actually at the top of the boat ramp at the entrance to the transition area. I saw that I had 19:30 for 1320 yards, which was a bit slower than what I do in the pool, but with all the people that I had to swim around I thought that it was a fairly good time.

I put my beach shoes on grabbed my towel and dried off as I ran up the ramp. I entered the transition area and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. I put on my bike helmet and swigged some sports drink. I didn’t really need it, but I worried that I might be sorry if I didn’t drink anything along the way. I had a drink bottle filled and mounted on my bike. It really wasn’t that hot, so I wasn’t too worried.

The unfamiliar bike portion

I had done a race called a Paddle-Wheel when this bike was new, about twenty years ago. But that race was fairly short and this time I had to ride 16 miles. I guessed that it would take me about an hour. I hoped that I could do it faster, but I really didn’t have a clue as to how fast I could ride 16 miles on this bike.

In addition to writing your race number on each upper arm, they also wrote your age on your calf. This was interesting, because it allowed me to see who was passing me by in the bike section of this race. Actually, it got to be quite annoying toward the end of this segment when more and more people in my age group continued to pass me by. I finished this section in 1 hour and 2 minutes, which was an average speed of 15.5 miles per hour. Obviously I have some work to do to improve here. But I wasn’t surprised - I expected this.

I shed the albatross that hung around my neck and took off out the gate of the transition area. I was certainly hopeful that I could do a bit better with the running. Unfortunately, the biking had caused some of my muscles to become sore. I began to get some cramps in my lower quads and calves. I worried that this could go wrong if I wasn’t careful. That first mile was when I began to doubt whether I could make the rest of the race.


I pushed on, trying to stretch each stride all the way. But as it happens many times on the first mile of a run, it was the worst part of the five miles. As I passed the one-mile mark the cramps had been reduced to a dull pain. I stretched my stride and picked up some speed. I began to pass some of those bikers that had passed me by in the bike ride portion of the race. I always get a more positive feeling when I pass people than when they pass me.

Double knot your shoe laces

Then it happened. My shoe came untied. I hate it when that happens. I had forgotten to double knot my shoes, and I had to stop and tie my shoe. While doing this a runner passed me by. It only took me five seconds to tie my shoe, but in that five seconds I was passed and it annoyed me. As I started running again, I renewed my earlier pace and I discovered that the person who passed me by had virtually the same pace that I was running. This runner wasn’t in my age group, so it didn’t matter much, but having someone with a good pace just in front of you sometimes helps you to maintain a good pace. So I followed her all the way to the finish line with a fairly good pace, passing people all along the way.

I finished the race with an overall time of about 2 hours and 7 minutes. I didn’t get the official time, and I actually forgot to stop my watch when I crossed the finish line. The overall experience was very good. I wasn’t tired or sore initially, but as the kids and I walked around the festival area those muscles that were cramping continued to be sore and occasionally cramp up.

I took the conservative approach to this first race. I didn’t take any segment out as fast as I know that I could. The swimming part may have been the closest to an all out effort, but I really wasn’t even winded when I finished it. On the other hand, my muscles certainly felt the cycling section. My 8:00 mile running pace was slower than my 7:30 mile top pace, but it was certainly respectful considering that I had just swum and ridden for an hour and 20 minutes before I even started running.

This first triathlon was a major hurdle for me. But, now that I have done it I look forward to the next challenge, whatever that might be.


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date: January 14, 2008