Race Safe: Be Prepared

author : Diane1961
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As triathlon gains in popularity, there will be more athletes like me: never participated in competitive sports, minimal race experience, and only recently taken up endurance sports.

“Were you in that triathlon? Are you okay? Call me as soon as you get this message!” Clare insisted on my voicemail.

I was driving back from a sprint, sipping an iced coffee, blasting the AC. “Hey, Clare, what’s up? Yeah, I was in that race. It was great!”

“You’re okay?”

“Well, almost melted. Hot day. But other than that, a wonderful race.”

“Someone was hospitalized. It’s on the news. A few others required medical treatment at the scene.”

“Really? I didn’t see anything. Maybe someone fell off the bike. A few of the turns were pretty sharp. Or maybe someone had a hard time on the run. It was dang hot by then. And humid. A guy I was talking to towards the end of the run dropped back and I could hear him ralphing.”


“Yeah, big guy. Heat was bothering him. But heck, by then the heat was getting to me too. After the race, I stood in the cold water for awhile to feel better.”

“And the swim?”

“The swim was wonderful. The water was a little cool but perfect with a wetsuit. No waves, barely a current. The swim was great.”

Driving to work the next day, my phone rings, “Were you at that tri? You’re all right?”

“Hi June. Yep, was a fun race. Heard someone was hospitalized.”

“More than hospitalized. He’s dead.”

“Dead? What happened?”

“Think it was his heart. Someone else was hospitalized too. It’s in the paper.”

A 38-year-old man collapsed during the swim. He was in the first wave; I was in the fourth. With the crowds, I hadn’t noticed any type of rescue in the water. By the time I was though with my swim, he had been rushed off in the ambulance and died later that day. A 40-year-old woman in my wave had a cardiac event during the swim and spent a few days in ICU. A third athlete was also pulled from the water and was transported to the hospital.

Talking a few days later in my pool’s locker room, I confess, “During my first open water swim, I was really surprised by how freaked I got. I knew I could swim a mile in the pool. I wasn’t expecting a problem. Wasn’t even nervous. But out there in the middle of the pond, the shore seemed so far away. Every time I tried to get my bearings, I’d stall. It was horrible.”

Beth agrees, “Same thing happened to me. My first open water swim? Thought it was going to be my last. Figured my career as a triathlete was over before I even had my first race.”

“Really? You’re such a good swimmer.”

“But it’s so weird, the first time in open water. It’s not the same as a pool.”

“I’m just glad my first time wasn’t during a race. It’s hard enough anyway but if you add in race adrenaline, nerves, and people swarming over you...It would be a lot to take. ”

“I heard that the woman who had trouble told her friends before the race that she didn’t think she was ready. That she was nervous.”

At my next race, I bike out of the transition down the park road, and passed an ambulance next to a woman lying on the pavement. An EMT is tending to her. I see enough to know that she is conscious and seems upset, but not in major distress. After the race, I hear of an athlete who flipped off her bike going over a speed bump and broke her collar bone.

At my last race of the season, an Olympic on a muggy day in late August, I am slogging through the run. I’m happy enough to not be walking. At mile five, I pass an ambulance that is closing its doors on a runner. Since there is no story in the news later, I figure the person is basically ok. Possibly heat exhaustion.

Before my first triathlon, I had raced in a grand total of one 5K road race. I was nervous before that race and exhilarated afterwards. Competing was fun. That winter I trained for triathlon. My first was a pool triathlon. It was through dumb luck that I was invited to join a group for an open water swim a few weeks prior to my first open water triathlon. I had anxiety attacks the following week contemplating my upcoming race. But I never considered backing out. Fortunately, I had time to practice sighting in the pool and I was able to do another open water swim. By race day, I knew I could do the swim and the only new thing to deal with was the race jostling.

As triathlon gains in popularity, I think there will be more athletes like me: never participated in competitive sports, minimal race experience, and only recently taken up running, biking and swimming. I remember when Title IX passed in the 1972, requiring equitable school athletic programs for girls. Before that, competitive athletics was not encouraged or typical for girls. Those of us from that era are now 40-something and are just now discovering the delights of competitive sports. We can be successful and have a great time competing in triathlons. Let our goal be to finish with a smile. Race safe.

What suggestions would I give a friend?

1. If you have any doubt, get cleared by your doctor. Ask if you should have a stress test.

2. Train. Even for a sprint, you will have about 90 minutes of non-stop aerobic activity. Get your body used to that duration and intensity.

3. Try a few road races before your first tri. Racing is exciting. The adrenaline pump makes you faster. It also makes your heart rate go up. Road races will help you get used to the excitement of a race without having to face swimming or managing a transition.

4. If possible, have your first triathlon be a pool triathlon. You’ll learn the logistics of a race without having to worry so much about the swim.

5. Practice sighting in a pool. Lifting your head too much will make your hips and legs drop and stall you in the water. Getting back into position uses a lot of effort and raises your heart rate. That will make you feel even more anxious. As you take a breath, take a quick look in front of you before putting your face back in the water. Practice doing this every three breaths or so.

6. Do not, I repeat, do not let your first race be your first open water swim. Even if you’re a strong pool swimmer, do a few open water swims first.

7. Do not go open water swimming alone. If you do not have a swim buddy, swim somewhere with lifeguards or with someone watching you. You don’t have to go too far out. The point is to get comfortable swimming in water that is over your head and with poor visibility.

8. If you can, bike the course before the race. Know where the turns, bumps and obstacles are. If you don’t know the course, ask other athletes prior to the race. Bike hard only where you can see what’s coming up. One of my favorite races includes a steep downhill with a turn at the bottom. The race director stages a volunteer to yell at the racers to slow down. But not all races do that.

9. When running, know your limits. I struggle during heat and humidity. I don’t try to push my pace if the heat is bothering me. At water stations, I pour water on my head. True, it doesn’t make for good race pictures, but it cools me off. If you start feeling lousy, walk. You won’t be the only one.

10. When you see the cameras, smile. You’re a triathlete. Race safe.


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date: March 6, 2008