Eight Things I Learned from My First Triathlon

author : mrmarkcole
comments : 37

Or why an Ironman 70.3 may not be your best choice for your first triathlon.

Seven and a half hours after the start of the race, as I trudged through the last 4 miles of the half marathon run in 90+ degree temperatures and humidity over 50%, I started thinking “why the heck am I here?”

The answer to this question dates back six months earlier to December 13, 2008 when I watched a TV show on the Ironman competition in Hawaii. It was amazing to me to see how far these athletes were able to push themselves mentally and physically and it made me wonder what I was capable of doing. I had just run my first marathon a few weeks earlier and felt like I was in pretty decent shape and needed a new challenge. I remembered that my younger brother Collin had done a triathlon a couple of years ago and I thought that sounded like a cool idea. Later that night, I went online to start looking for a race and found one in Orlando and chose the Ironman 70.3 Florida triathlon because it was within driving distance, the weather was warm and the course was pretty flat. I paid the $285 non-refundable entry fee and was officially set to do my first triathlon on May 17, 2009.

Lesson #1 – Know What You Are Signing Up For

Later that week I emailed Collin and asked if he was interested in joining me for this event, since he had done it before. He called me back and told me he had done an Olympic distance triathlon and that this was twice the distance. He politely declined and wished me luck. What had I gotten myself into?!?

What I had signed up for was an Ironman 70.3 – which is half the distance of a full Ironman – and is composed of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run, the total distance of all these is 70.3 miles. Usually, you do a season or two of Sprint triathlons (1/4 mile swim, 12 mile bike ride and 3.1 mile run) and Olympic triathlons (1/2 mile swim, 25 mile bike ride and 6.2 mile run) before you attempt a 70.3 race.

Needless to say, I was in trouble. I bought a book on training for a triathlon and also searched online for a training plan. I signed-up at BeginnerTriathlete.com and selected one of their plans to use. This basic training plan called for:

  • Swimming 79,950 meters (47 miles)

  • Cycling 2,389,876 meters (1,485 miles)

  • Running 458,663 meters (285 miles)

  • Total 2,928,489 meters (1,817 miles)

In just 18 short weeks and 3 million meters of training, I would be ready to go!

Lesson #2 – Be Prepared to Spend Money

Since I really had not done any swimming since I was a teenager, we moved our gym membership to Lifetime Fitness so that I would have access to a pool. I also had to buy goggles, a swim cap and a new triathlon singlet that could be used for swimming and the rest of the race. I had an old bike that I thought would be okay to use for this race, but the more I trained the more I realized it just would not work. So in March, I bought my first road bike, helmet, cycling shoes, padded shorts, jersey, computer...yeah, you get the picture. At least for the running, all I needed was a new pair of shoes. Overall, I spent almost $2,900 on entry fees, equipment and other gear. Triathlons are not an inexpensive sport!

Lesson #3 – Real Life Messes with Your Training Schedule

Over the 18 weeks, I did so-so on the training plan. There were a number of weeks where I hit all the targets and a couple of weeks where I did nothing at all. I quickly realized that I really didn’t have 12-15 hours a week for training, plus work, travel and family. During the week, I would do my runs or swimming at 9:30 PM – 11:30 PM. As for the biking, I used my stationary recumbent bike at home during the week and rode outside on the weekends. One of the great finds related to biking was our discovery of the Silver Comet Trail (60 miles of rails-to-trail paved roads).

As for my training, I completed the following versus my plan:

  • Swimming 41,015 meters (25 miles) (54% of plan)

  • Cycling 1,260,116 meters (783 miles) (53% of plan)

  • Running 458,663 meters (285 miles) (78% of plan)

  • Total 1,759,794 meters (1,093 miles) (60%)

As the race got closer, I grew quite nervous since the race had timed segments. Basically, you had 1 hour 20 minutes to complete the swim, 4 hours for the bike segment, and 4 hours for the run. During my training, I was able to get very close to these times for the swimming and biking, but never tried to simulate all three of these in sequence. My goal for the race was just to finish and my estimate was that it would take about 8 hours 15 minutes if all went according to plan. This would mean that I would be close to being timed out on both the swim and the bike if I performed at my training pace.

Lesson #4 – Unexpected Things Happen

Bobbi (my wife) and Stephen (my son) both got sick the week before the race. After being coughed on for a week, I finally started feeling sick on Thursday, the day before we were scheduled to leave for Orlando. Bobbi and I headed out to Orlando on Friday morning and it took about 7 hours to make the drive. We talked to most of the family and many friends via phone or text and it was very heartening to hear their words of encouragement. We checked into the Gaylord Palms resort (very, very nice and cheap when you go through Hotwire) as our home base for the trip.

My condition worsened on Friday and Saturday. I was running a fever and having coughing fits despite taking lots of drugs. What lousy timing after 6 months of training!

There were almost 2,500 people signed up for the race, with the majority of the event being held on Disney property. We drove over to Disney’s Fort Wilderness area to register and check my bike in on Saturday afternoon. I was assigned race number 877 and, after registering, I put the race stickers on my bike and parked it in Row 18 in transition.

Bobbi and I walked through the facilities and I familiarized myself with the transition area and looked out over the lake where the swim was scheduled to be held – it looked very, very long. Later, we drove the bike course and felt pretty good about it – mostly flat, with one 10-12 mile section of hills. At this point, I began to realize that, like running a marathon, the toughest challenge is not physical but rather mental. The key is realizing that you can do something because your training has prepared you for it and deciding that you will do it because you are mentally strong enough regardless of what happens. I had Bobbi write on the palm of my left hand “I Can” and on the palm of my right hand “I Will” with a Sharpie as a reminder that I was ready for this.

We went back to the hotel, skipped dinner, put stickers on all my bags, went through all my gear one last time, took lots of medicine and went to sleep about 8:00 PM, since I needed to be up by 4:00 AM on race day.

Race Day – May 17, 2009

On Race Day, I woke up at 3:30 AM and lay in bed for 15-20 minutes thinking through what the race would be like – pacing and times for the segments, working through the process for each transition, deciding when to eat, drink & stop, and reviewing all of the cut-off times.

I finally got up about 4:00 AM, ate a breakfast bar and drank a Mountain Dew, showered and took another round of drugs – ibuprofen, decongestants, antihistamines and cough suppressant. I still felt pretty crummy, but if the drugs could keep my fever down and stop me from coughing, I believed I would do fine.

I put on my singlet and a pair of warm-up pants and my running shoes. I took my gear bag and left the hotel at 4:30 AM and drove over to the Disney parking lot. I caught the shuttle over to the race area and went to transition to get set up. One of the coolest parts of the race experience is the body marking. They take permanent markers and write your race number (very large, vertically) on each arm and write your age on your left calf. They mark you so that they can identify you for photos, starting groups, penalties and if there is any medical emergency. It really does make you feel special and for days after the race I was careful not to scrub too hard because I didn’t want it to wear off!

It was still dark, but they had floodlights on the area, so I laid out all my gear in order that it would be needed, filled up the drink system on my bike and inflated my tires to the proper pressure. I went to the bathroom (very stinky in a port-a-potty, but very important before a long race!) and warmed up by walking and jogging around. I drank a Gatorade and a bottled water to get a good start on staying hydrated for the long day ahead.

Transition closed at about 6:00 AM and I walked down to the beach with my race cap and goggles. I walked out onto the pier as the sun was coming up and looked over the swim course one more time – it still looked very long! I walked over near the exit point for the swim portion where a number of participants were warming up in the water. The water was very warm (yea!), so I swam about 25 meters to get loose before the race.

Lesson #5 – Practice Things Before Race Day

The race officially started at 6:20 AM with the professionals going first. That was the only time I would see them all day! The course was set up out on the lake, with giant inflatable buoys marking the course. It was 800 meters out, 300 meters across and 800 meters back, traveling in a counter-clockwise direction. There were 96 lifeguards on the course, in a variety of boats and kayaks stationed about every 100 meters. It was within the rules to swim over to a boat and hold on if you needed a break or wanted to catch your breath. This proved to be very, very important to me.

The participants were divided into groups based on age, with a different group starting every 2-3 minutes. My group was the 10th wave to go – red caps for Men 45-49 and we started at 6:45 AM. The start was clean and I moved to the far right - away from the other swimmers - so that I would not get jostled as much. My race had officially started!

The Swim

I remember reading in my triathlon book that your race swim should NEVER be your first open water swim. THIS IS SO TRUE. While intellectually you know that there is a difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in open water, actually experiencing it is a very different thing. Our unusually cold spring in Atlanta had not made open water swims much of an option for me, so this was my very first open water swim. Not being able to see the bottom or around you very well in the lake water was a bit disorienting. Looking up to find your bearings and trying to swim in a relatively straight line was also much harder than I expected. Finally, not being able to touch the bottom is also more than a bit creepy.

Also, swimming with 100 other people in open water is much different than swimming laps by yourself in a pool. There are no lanes and you cannot see well, so you bump into people, hit other people’s legs with your arms and get grabbed by other people. Of course no one means to do this, but it is pretty much inevitable. When it does happen, for a novice like me it killed all my momentum, made me stop and have to tread water, get reoriented and then start back up again. Very frustrating and discouraging!

When I first started training I assumed the swim would be my worst segment, but that fear was quickly replaced when I started training on my bike in earnest. In retrospect, my initial thought was correct. Given that I was sick, had all the adrenaline of a race start plus an interesting cocktail of drugs in my system, doing my first open water swim with 100 other people, it is little wonder that I got into trouble pretty quickly. I had trouble breathing, developed a massive headache and could not get my heart rate regulated. I stopped 6 times during the swim and almost quit twice.


My first stop was at 100 meters and I really thought that stop would allow me to settle my nerves and fall into my training pace. That did not work so I stopped again at 200 meters, where the lifeguard looked very concerned and asked me if I was sure I wanted to continue – very reassuring to me! This is the first time I seriously considered quitting – I felt crappy, had a horrible headache, couldn’t catch my breath and was already getting passed by the next wave that started after mine. But I didn’t want to quit and have to explain to everyone that I didn’t even make it past the first leg of the event (Note: there is significant value in telling all of your friends, family and coworkers about your event – it is a good deterrent to quitting.). I swam on another 200 meters and stopped again at the 400 meter buoy and contemplated quitting again. This is the point where I felt my absolute worst. I rested for 3-4 minutes, talking with the lifeguard and gathering my composure. I looked at my hand that said “I Will” and realized that I would never be content with myself if I quit, so I said a short prayer and headed out again.

Thankfully, things started getting better. My headache started subsiding and I began to hit my groove swimming, as all those hours of training started to kick in. I stopped again at 600 meters to get my bearings for the end of the first leg and turn and again at 900 meters to get oriented on the backstretch. Psychologically, I knew I had it beat when I passed the midway point and made the turn to home. There was lots of bumping around the turns, but I had finally found my stroke and was cruising along comfortably. Fortunately, my lack of speed meant there weren’t that many swimmers out on the course. I made one final stop at 1500 meters to get my bearings for the final push to the swim finish area.

It was a great feeling to have my feet finally touch the ground again! However, trying to stand up after swimming for an hour is a very odd feeling – staggering through the shallow water as your body reorients itself to an upright position. I passed through the swim finish line 1 hour 14 minutes 20 seconds after the start – both looking and feeling like a drowned rat. But, my hardest event was done and I had beaten the 1 hour 20 minute time limit.

Swim Time: 1 hour 14 minutes 20 seconds

Cumulative Race Time: 1 hour 14 minutes 20 seconds

Transition 1

Running barefoot about 200 yards up to the transition area – across thin mats set on top of bark mulch – helped me mentally start making the first transition. I had budgeted a great deal of time for transition since I had never practiced this prior to the race (Note: not a good idea, but not too difficult). The transition area was grass, except for the main path which was bark mulch – a bit rough on the feet.

Fortunately for me, because of my slow swim time, there were no other bikes left on my row of what had been 50 bikes. I stripped down to my compression shorts, dried off and put on my cycling shorts and jersey. I also drank a bottle of Gatorade and ate a Cliff bar for some energy. I slipped on my cycling shoes, pulled my bike off the rack a walked it out of transition and about another 25 yards to the mount/dismount line.

Transition Time: 9 minutes 44 seconds.

Cumulative Race Time: 1 hour 24 minutes 04 seconds

The Bike Ride

I hopped on my bike and pushed off – it felt great to be to the second phase of the race! Since we had driven the bike course on Saturday, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was a giant loop, with the first 25-30 miles pretty flat, then a stretch of 10-12 miles of hills and then a relatively flat 12-14 mile straightaway back to the transition area. With 4 hours to complete the 56 mile ride, I knew I needed to average 14 mph throughout my ride to stay under the time limit.

The course started on the Disney property, but then moved out to the public roads. I had a very strong start and the first 30 miles flew by in less than 2 hours, building up a small time cushion. With a flat course, clear and sunny weather that was not too hot or windy, my confidence began to build that the bike ride would actually turn out to be faster than my targeted time. The investment in a new bike paid off, as it was easy to find the right gear and keep a steady cadence and effort moving forward. I stopped at the aid station at mile 31 to refill my drink system, stretch and get ready for the hills.

Throughout the ride, I saw a number of people who were changing flat tires or waiting for technical help from the race support team. It made me flashback to the week before, when I had a flat on my last training ride. A piece of glass punctured my tire, I didn’t have a spare and I had to run my bike 2 miles back to the bike shop and learn how to change a flat tire. I ended up having to replace the tire also, but in the process, gained the confidence that I could do it if necessary during the race. Thankfully, I never had to do this during the race.

One thing that impressed me during the ride was the camaraderie among the athletes. Almost without fail, if someone passed you, they called you by name (since your first name is on your bib on your back) and encouraged you to keep up the pace or that you looked strong. Since there was no one else out on the course to cheer you on except the other triathletes, it meant a great deal that they didn’t see passing you as beating you but rather that we were all racing against ourselves and the course. Or maybe it was that they could see your age on your left calf as they passed and were encouraging the old guy to keep going!

Lesson #6 – Sometimes the Easy Part Isn’t

The hilly section of the bike course was tough but manageable and I ground through that part of the course averaging 14 miles per hour. With three-fourths of the race done, I was ahead of schedule and felt pretty strong. Since I knew the rest of the course was flat, I started thinking ahead mentally to the run.

Unfortunately, the bike course wasn’t done with me just yet. As I turned to head back to Disney on the long, 12-14 mile straightway back, I was hit with a 10-15 mph headwind. During all my training in Atlanta, I never really encountered this kind of wind and I must admit that I was not prepared for it. Physically, you have to work harder to move yourself ahead but that really wasn’t too bad. The worst part of it was mental – working harder while going slower, facing the unrelenting nature of the wind and knowing that it would be at least 10 miles before I would turn to get out of the wind.

About halfway back I ran into my only physical problem of the whole bike ride. My right calf started to cramp up and I had to stop and stretch for a few minutes. Fortunately that one stop did the trick. After grinding it out, for about 45 minutes, I finally made the turn back into Disney and out of the wind. It was great to have each pedal stroke draw me closer to the bike finish.

Bike Time: 3 hours 51 minutes 0 seconds.

Cumulative Race Time: 5 hours 15 minutes 04 seconds

Transition 2

When I reached the dismount line, I hopped off my bike and was ready to go. Finally I would get to do something that was my strength! However, after 5 hours of swimming and biking, my legs felt like Jell-O. I stumbled down the path to the transition area, trying to get refocused on the next stage of the race. Once inside, I racked my bike, drank another Gatorade and ate a Cliff bar, then I switched into dry clothes and my running shoes. I was now ready to start the final stage.

Transition Time: 6 minutes 56 seconds

Cumulative Race Time: 5 hours 22 minutes 0 seconds

Lesson #7 – You May Not Have Strength Left for Your Strength

The Run

I have probably done 30 half marathons over the past three years, so it made sense to think that if I could just make it this far, I would finish strong. However, in all those runs, I had never swam 1.2 miles and ridden 56 miles on a bike before doing a run 90+ degree temperatures and humidity over 50%...which does make a small difference.

I started my run at 12:07 PM. The run course was 3 loops on a 4.35 mile course. The course was about half asphalt and half grassy trail. The asphalt section was on bike and the walking trails around Fort Wilderness, which were very hot by this time of the day. The trail section was an uneven grassy surface along a canal, which was a welcome change from running on asphalt and feeling the heat radiating back up.

Since the course was 3 laps, it was pretty crowded as I got started, with people at different stages in the race running next to you. This was very interesting since you got to see both people about to finish the race and others just grinding though the miles. As my run wore on, though, there were fewer and fewer people left so it got a bit lonelier each lap and the paranoia of whether or not you would run out of time slowly settled in.

I was glad to find aid stations every mile, stocked with cold sponges, ice, Gatorade, and water. The volunteers manning the booths were awesome – friendly, well-organized and encouraging. I stopped for fluids and ice at every single station to avoid dehydration and heat stroke.

Throughout the race, I saw many people whose dreams of completing this race were dashed by circumstance and the failures of their bodies. I saw people helped out of the water by lifeguards during the swim and also being attended to by EMS personnel after bike wrecks. However the run section was where most of these dreams came to die. I saw people stumbling in the heat, throwing up, laying in the shade trying to cool down and dealing with cramps. The saddest memory I have was on my second lap when a guy passed me running along at a steady pace. He got about 25 yards ahead of me when he suddenly fell as if someone had shot him. I stopped to help him and found him crying and writhing in pain as both of his calves were just giant knots of muscle that would not relax. Another person and I stayed with him until the race staff arrived, but here he was about a mile from the finish and you knew his race was done. It was a sobering reminder of the limits of the human body and that this event had an element of danger to it that if ignored could come back to haunt you.

About halfway through the first lap, I realized that I wasn’t going to be running this like a normal race. I simply did not have the energy after the swim/bike with the heat and humidity. So I switched to Plan B which was to run 3 minutes and walk 1 minute to finish the course. While I still needed to be mindful of the time, at this point I just needed to get through the first 8.7 miles by 3 PM to avoid getting timed out. After seeing the number of people falling by the wayside, finishing was much more important to me than shaving 10 or 15 minutes off my overall time.

Lesson #8 – Get By with a Little Help from a Friend

Near the end of Lap 1, I was taking a walk break and struck up a conversation with another guy who was walking also. His name was Robert and he was in the Navy and was also competing in his first Ironman 70.3. We talked and decided to stick together for a while. This random encounter turned out to be beneficial for both of us. Individually we were both struggling with the run, but together we helped push and encourage each other to do better. After finishing Lap 1 in just over an hour, we worked together to knock out Lap 2 in less than 45 minutes. That lap was probably my most impressive accomplishment of the day – running 10 minute miles after all the other challenges of the day!

Once we were safely under the cut-off time for starting the last lap, our focus switched to finishing the race. The running of Lap 2 took a lot more out of us than we realized and the last lap became more walk than run. Robert started cramping up which gave me a welcome excuse to walk. Another guy with a prosthetic lower leg stayed with us for about half a lap and he was another inspiration to keep going. Limping through the last lap, with each step we grew more and more confident that we would finish.

The Finish Line

As I headed down the path towards the Finish Line, I passed the last person I would pass for the race – he was 66 years old. It had only taken me 8+ hours and 70 miles to catch him!

At the quarter mile mark, Robert and I split up so that we could each cross the finish line separately for our pictures – yes, you do think about things like that towards the finish. I jogged on ahead and, as I entered the chute for the last 100 yards before the finish, the waves of emotion started to roll over me. Memories of all the time spent training and of facing your doubts, fears and pain are washed away in a flood of joy, relief, and sense of accomplishment.

The Finish Line is a pretty awesome sight. As I approached, the announcer called out my name and I saw my race time on the giant clock. Bobbi and her friend, Karletta, were there to cheer me across the line and congratulate me. Everyone left in the area cheers for you as you finish. And for a brief moment, you don’t feel tired – because you did it!

Run Time: 3 hours 14 minutes 30 seconds

Total Time: 8 hours 36 minutes 30 seconds


After you cross the finish line, you are presented with your finisher’s medal and T-shirt and pose for a post-race picture. Now, the elation of finishing begins to fade and the tired feeling and aching soreness starts to come out. Oddly enough, I ended up not sore at all the next day. Instead, I just felt drained of energy for the whole next week.

In retrospect, the physical challenges were not the hardest part of this event. Instead, it was the mental preparation, discipline and focus needed to compete - to stay on pace, work the plan and fight through whatever the race threw at you.

I later found out that I finished 2,049th and 212th in my age group. Fortunately, this race was not about my time or place – it was simply about seeing whether or not I could push my 46 year old body beyond anything I had ever done before and finish 70.3 miles. Now that I have, it is energizing to know that I can accomplish much more than I thought was possible and that I am now a part of a unique group of athletes that claim the name “Ironman”!


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date: July 1, 2009