A Woman's First Triathlon at Age 50

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A woman trains for and achieves her goal to do an almost 3 hour Olympic triathlon in her 50th year

Having done one marathon, but with no desire to do another, I chose the goal of doing an Olympic triathlon in my 50th year.

Ever since I learned to swim in an ocean-filled pool in Australia, the blue of a pool or lake has made me want immediately to plunge in. It was mostly the idea that attracted me. I never became particularly good at swimming, so the triathlon requirement of swimming a mile in open water was daunting. Biking was a different matter. A bike was my substitute for a first car and I have been a bike commuter all my life, taking longer rides for fun. And running is my favorite sport. In England, in my preteens, I discovered I was one of the fastest girls in my school in the 100 or 200 meter events. My achievements beyond that were limited by having muscles that may be a little too fast-twitch. I was often disqualified for multiple false starts. I gave up competing and only came back to running, or rather jogging, ten years later in California as a way to lose weight.  Another ten years later, post-baby, I began doing half marathons with friends.

My triathlon training began with swimming lessons. For years I had swum only occasionally and with my head out of the water. The big change was buying prescription goggles so I could actually see the line on the bottom of the pool. Then a series of about 10 one-on-one lessons in the crawl gave me the basics in technique. After that I understood that endless repetition would eventually make me faster. It was frustrating for a long time. Women older than me and fatter than me could glide past in apparently effortless crawl and keep it up for hours, while I wallowed and gasped and looked up at the clock in disbelief. Nothing ever clicked but little by little I felt a sense of progress and, amazingly enough, pleasure. Having my head down in the water was strangely peaceful. I began to look forward to stretching out in streamline position, arrowing along the surface.

Getting out for a run on a cold dark morning is always easier than getting into a pool, but I discovered a way to make using the outdoor pool bearable in any weather. By wetting my hair to prevent it absorbing too much chlorine I get wet all over and then walk through the cold air to the pool, which makes it easy to enter the relatively warm water.

My training routine was mostly solo. I swam a mile in the pool twice a week, alternating between breast stroke and crawl, but gradually increasing the crawl. I did brick training on Saturdays by setting out for an hour or two on my bike before my regular long Saturday morning run with friends. And I did two shorter runs on weekdays, including some speed work at the track. 

Choosing a race was strangely difficult. I didn’t want to travel far, nor swim in the bay or ocean. My rationale was to avoid the extra tension that might be caused by fear of unknown murky depths and cold water. As a result, I couldn’t find a suitable Olympic triathlon in my 50th year. On advice from a woman at the pool, I signed up for an all-women mini triathlon, the Mermaid, starting in a quarry lake in Fremont. They ran a pre-race clinic at which I tried out my borrowed wetsuit and learned transition skills and tips. I was talked through the strange experience of swimming in a murky lake, seeing only the bubbles of air from other swimmers’ movements. I learned many things, above all that you can make your own sports drink with salt, sugar and any flavoring you like. I downloaded a recipe from the internet and used lemon ginger teabags.  Since I really hate artificial fruit flavors and have found that most sports drinks give me stomach trouble, teabags save the day.

I’d heard from my brother that in triathlons people actually swim over other swimmers to get ahead, but in the Mermaid race women all around me were wasting breath to say “sorry” if they accidentally kicked each other.  The distance was so short that it was over before I’d had time to think much. I found myself biking, then running and thinking nostalgically that the training had been the real fun. It was definitely not so much fun to run that day because the temperatures were up in the 80’s. But due to a very small field of “old ladies” I came 2nd in my age group, in just under one hour.

Later in the summer I did a longer triathlon, called “Tri for Real”. However, to me it still wasn’t the real one - the olympic. The swim was only half a mile, the biking 19 and the run 4.  At six am when I left my house and drove to Pleasanton in the pitch dark, I felt like the only person in the Bay Area awake and heading off to swim across a lake. Yet as I drew closer I was in traffic converging on the parking lot and soon I was surrounded by hundreds of cheerful triathletes. Rock music was blaring over the transition area as the day dawned. It was clearly going to be a hot one. I had to wait a long time for my wave start but the lake was not cold, nor deep. Toward the end of the swim I could see fish and weed on the lake bed. The biking was really fun because the roads were so smooth.  I got a kick out of using the aerobars my brother had given me. Even better, I had enough leg power left for a good run. I overtook many people, including some guys. It amused me to realize that because of the staggered start each guy I passed must have set out 10 to 15 minutes before me. I gloated in my old lady power and sprinted to the finish past one more guy. Hence my finisher’s photo shows me, a diminutive little figure, eclipsed by the much taller and wider guy I’m passing. My time was ten minutes under the two hours I’d anticipated.  Better still, a few months later I ran my fastest half marathon ever.

When summer rolled round next year, I trained for and completed my goal. I was still a little intimidated by the distances, but my training was very similar to the previous year.

Three factors added novelty to my training and boosted my aspiration to finish in 3 hours. First was that my brother visited from England, inspected my commuter bike and decreed that despite some carbon in the frame it was much too heavy. He looked at the pannier rack on it and said “you’re just pissing people off if you pass them with that on.” He declared that he would buy me a triathlon bike as a belated present for my 50th birthday.

Some months later UPS delivered a big box to my front porch. It contained an almost new Trek 2100.  Now I needed to adjust to the much lighter, speedier handling and to cleats, which I had never used before. Fortunately, and this was the second boost, my husband had started getting into road biking. Together we got “intense”. We began taking epic rides, heroic rides, doing famous climbs such as the Fairfax/Bolinas road on Mt. Tam and the Marshall Wall near Point Reyes. Some weekends I did a Saturday brick and a Sunday ride. My new bike made a dramatic difference on hill climbs. Suddenly I was ahead of Tony, not behind him, and he missed the breathing breaks he’d had waiting for me.

I did have some hitches. I had reason to consult web forums on damage to “girly bits” from bike seats and to buy a new seat, then ultimately swap it onto my commute bike and attach the even more padded seat to my triathlon bike. I also realized it helps to bike hard, keeping more weight on the pedals. “Ischial tuberosities” is my mantra if I find myself slumping.

The third boost was buying a wetsuit, which though inexpensive, is probably a decade newer than the one I borrowed, and a proper fit. I felt like a seal in it, as soon as I got into the water.

The olympic triathlon race was the Silicon Valley International Triathlon, starting in Lake Almaden outside San Jose. Yet again, triathlon day was exceptionally warm. Tony drove me down so I was able to set up my transition while he parked. We were a little late so I had no time to make a mental map of the routes in and out. I put my wetsuit on back to front and needed Tony to point out my problem as I struggled to zip it up. I was jittery because I could already see women swimming, but it turned out they had changed wave order and were alternating women and men. As in the previous triathlons, I shivered as I stood on the beach, waiting to go. I have to accept that this is my pre-triathlon state. No amount of jaw-clenching and deep breathing will actually stop the shivers, though I can minimize them.

When I got the start signal, I glided off in breast stroke, calming myself down until I got into rhythm on the crawl, sighting every 5th breath. Lost in my world of bubble breathing, I became very relaxed, just moving from buoy to buoy, not knowing where I was on the course, not thinking about the fact that it was a mile long. I felt a few guys thrashing past me from the Clydesdale group and at one point I glanced back just to be sure I wasn’t the last pink-hatted woman. I was not. Finally I was doing the right hand turn that I knew was the last turn before I headed for the beach. Almost without consciously directing it, I upped the tempo of my leg kick, to be ready for the run to the bike.

I had not fixed any food to my bike and all I managed to grab was two gel cubes from an open packet, leaving behind the full packet I’d planned to take. On the bike I was able to start regaining some of the time I’d lost in the swim. Though my paper race number on the cross bar kept fluttering in my way, and my nose kept streaming, I bent over on the tri bars and passed people. One guy zooming past me called out “sweet ride” – perhaps surprised to see someone at the back of the pack on such a good bike. As we raced along the wide boulevard, I couldn’t get over my delight at ignoring traffic lights, with race marshals holding the cross traffic back and waving me on. The road went out into fields then doubled back and we hit the hill I’d read about. The grade was nothing compared to Pinehurst Canyon in the East Bay Hills. I surged past many bikers and at the top yelled “Thank you!” to my brother and my husband for their help.  As I’m still not a fearless downhiller, a little posse passed me on the descent. Much to my annoyance, one was a woman with age 60 marked on her calf. I was determined to catch her and pushed until I did.

Then there I was, in the transition, actually standing still waiting for a porta potty. It may have taken as long as two minutes, which made me very impatient. Nevertheless I had drunk all my salty tea and knew I had to go. I had no idea of the time and decided not to find out, for fear that if I was short of my goal I might give up and jog, or if I was way ahead, I might not give it my best. I counted on running my usual pace, the run being another chance to gain more time.

For two miles I felt good, but those first two miles were somewhat in the shade. After that I was running on blazing hot asphalt, with the lake on one side and a road, a few feet above me, on the other. It was hotter than hell. I longed for each water station, which never seemed to come up fast enough and I walked through each one, tipping cups of water over my head and down my shirt, while drinking as much as I could. Below road level there was no breeze at all and it was worse when the course turned a corner, under a road bridge. I even walked a little between water stops. After the turn around when I was back at the lake, I glanced across it, unsure where the course ended. I feared it was past the transition and was bracing myself for that. But when I rounded a corner and saw the balloon arch I was able to take a strong pace for the finish, eyes locked on the clock, which said 3 hours 37 minutes. So much for a three hour triathlon, I thought! I felt pretty disappointed. Then my overheated brain recalled the wave starts and I did the math to figure that I had actually made it in close to three hours. I was euphoric! The bottle of cold water I grabbed and drank worked wonders to restore me to a functioning state so that I could rejoice in my achievement.

In fact my time was 3 hours 2 minutes, and I’m going to say those two minutes were my wait by the porta potties! I was pretty impressed by my run time and also puzzled that it was so close to my best ever 10k -  until my brother told me that USAT rules allow as much as 1k variation in a course.

One of the greatest feelings on finishing the triathlon was that I was not totally wrecked for the day. Later in the day I was cleaned up, dressed up and at a graduation party, drinking champagne and eating cake – with abandon, given how little I’d eaten on the course. I even walked home from the party, a distance of about a mile. That is the joy of cross training.  I’m hooked on it now and will do triathlons again next year.


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date: March 30, 2011

Bernadette Powell

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