Triathlons & Tribulations

author : morgoth7
comments : 1

My 1st triathlon, Xterra and the mess I made of myself. This wasn’t your regular triathlon, it was off-road.

A good friend of mine and I (mutual best men at each other’s weddings) ran a marathon in 2004, our first and, so far, only. We loved the paralyzing cramps at the end of long runs so much that we decided, even then, that our next big goal would be to participate in a triathlon...someday. Since he lived in Northern Virginia and I near Raleigh, training together was out of the question. So again, it would be parallel training. As most of us do with goals we set, we let it go for a while.

The decision to Xterra

In February ’06, he told me he had signed up for the Nissan Xterra “Sport” Race in Richmond on June 18. The little that I knew about triathlons was from casual curiosity and discussions with a colleague who regularly did marathons and Ironman distance triathlons. There was a lot to think about. This wasn’t your regular triathlon, it was off-road. That was good, in a way, because I only had a mountain bike and rode it a couple of times a week – but usually on the road. I hadn’t swum a stroke in more than five years. I ran 15-20 miles a week, so that part was no problem. I had a 2 ½-year old boy, and my wife worked evenings and weekends, so time to train was extremely limited. I had ridden a mountain bike intermittently for 18 years, but I wasn’t really a “mountain biker.”

So I had barely any time to train, no swim skills, few bike skills, and really couldn’t afford the trip, the hotel, and the $80+ for registration. Of course I was going to do it! I told my friend and then tried to figure out a training schedule. The race was listed as a 500-meter swim, a 16-km bike ride, and a 5-km trail run. I was worried about everything but the run: I had run several 5ks, a 10k, a half-marathon, and a marathon. Endurance shouldn’t be a problem. I was, however, nervous about the swim and the transitions.

I'm not built for this stuff

I have to interrupt this tale of crazy cardio-vascular training here by saying that, at heart, I have always been a weightlifter and am generally built as such; 6 foot, 1 inch, and 220 lbs. Well, 208 lbs now. My thighs are really too big for running, so I have to wear pants that prevent painful chafing in the nether regions. I’m not really designed for distances-but all part of the challenge, right?

It wasn’t until I did some actual mountain biking that I started to get apprehensive about that part. I rode a local trail and found that parts of it were hard. I was 35, not 25, and not brave or dumb enough to be a daredevil. I couldn’t do jumps, rabbit-hops, log-piles, fancy tricks, etc.; hell, I could barely do a one-second wheelie. On the  downhills I tended to brake too much because I was afraid of crashing and breaking a leg.

So now the only thing I wasn’t worried about was the run.

Well, time to train
I bought a 15-visit pass to the Pullen Aquatic Center in Raleigh, thinking that I would only need to swim a few times - just enough to know that I could complete 500m without a problem. On my first swim, I went 75 meters before I had to rest, lungs exploding and chest heaving like overtaxed flesh bellows. I eventually managed 550m, but man, ‘twasn’t easy. In the course of my mere eight visits to the pool – I could only get up at 5 AM once a week – I worked up to one mile. I was able to do more than 500m without resting, but my stroke was all over the place and my technique was that of a pregnant walrus with a damaged flipper. But it would have to do. My run, after all, was the strongest part.

I read up on mountain biking techniques and rode the trails at Legend park in Clayton and Hog Run at Harris Lake Park near Holly Springs a few times. I got a little better, but was still afraid of jumps and downhills. I was fast on straight-aways, but slow on everything else. But then again, my run was the strongest part.

I bought tri-shorts, a bike rack, new tires, a cycling computer, a pump, and kept training. I swam once a week, ran three times (5 miles), biked 2-3 times (10 miles), and tried to get in one trail ride per week. I read and researched. I’m generally level-headed, but began to get a little anxious after reading many accounts of first triathlon mishaps, transition misadventures, and mountain bike injuries.

I couldn’t find much on the course for the Xterra Sport on the web, just reports on how difficult it was. Of course, reports from the pros barely mentioned it, as I’m sure they found it easy, compared to the hardest courses in the world, which they rode frequently. The course was listed as a different distance everywhere I looked, but it ranged from 14KM – 16 KM, so I figured on 10 miles.

I read a lot of good stuff on transitions, and learned a lot from my colleague about it (in addition to various swim, bike, and run techniques – I must say many praises and thank you's to Bobby). I got nervous. But my run, after all, was the strongest part. Having run a marathon, even though it took me nearly 5 hours, 5km was less than nothing.

The day of doom approached

My friend almost left me hanging when an unexpected business trip loomed, but thankfully it was postponed (it wouldn’t have been his fault, but I have to dig a bit, because the whole thing was his idea!). Almost all was set. I brought my now ancient ‘91 or ‘92 (I’m not even sure) Specialized Rockhopper in for a tune-up, and picked it up the Tuesday before the race. I didn’t ride it until Thursday, and found it to be the worst it had ever been! They had replaced the chain and cassette, but none of the rings. All my years of owning that bike, and I never knew about the “chain, cassette, and rings wearing together” factor, though I had done my own maintenance occasionally. Even with all my planning, there had to be a crisis. I brought the bike back at lunch on Friday, and a nice guy tried to fix it to no avail. He recommended replacing the middle ring, but didn’t have the right one on hand. He said he’d replace it for free if I could find one elsewhere. Of course, I had to go back to work! We were leaving early in the morning! I didn’t have time to scour local bike shops for a middle ring, let alone bring it back! So, I thought I’d tough it out on the course. My run, after all, was the strongest part.

I got more nervous after trying it again. The chain popped all over the place. My colleague “Double-Marathon-Iron-Man” Bobby frightened me more by saying, “You can’t ride it like that! Go buy a middle ring and put it on yourself!” So I went to a local bike shop and, thanks to all the gods of ridiculous fitness adventures, they had one.

With the many-times-read advice of “Don’t ever do anything new or use new equipment in a race that you haven’t done or used during training” reverberating in my head, I replaced the middle ring myself on Friday night, two nights before the race. It went surprisingly well, and 'aaaah....', it rode like a dream compared to before.

Both my friend Dan and I would have loved to have scouted the mountain bike course, but we never had the chance. I had only visited Brown’s Island in Richmond (the site of the start, end, and transition area) once to check it out, but had no idea about the courses.

The Expo was well-done and well-organized. We got our packets and attended the swim clinic, given by two pros. We checked out what we thought would be the swim. It didn’t look too difficult, but the James River was notorious for rocks, shallows, and current. We were both more worried about the bike course. We would have liked to have attended the bike clinic, but that was long over. Our wives were nice enough to take the kids to the Richmond Children’s Museum and let us do our thing, which included meeting some members of the “TriCats” of the DC area at an Irish pub to watch the USA-Italy game.

The night before

The night was miserable. My son tossed and turned, I had stomach problems, and my friend’s baby girl was sick with a fever and vomiting. So we were terribly well-rested and ready when we rode down to the island at 6:30 AM. We stood in line and got our swim caps, our numbers painted on, and set up our transition areas without any problem. We then headed over to warm up for the looming swim. One of our dilemmas had been what to do about the run between the swim and the transition area, but we finally agreed to leave our socks and shoes by the water and put them on right after the swim (we both used the same shoes for the bike and run). No one was entirely sure about the course, but the water was fine, and it didn’t look like it was going to be too hard. A quick port-a-potty trip and we were as ready as we could be.

Swimming-finally underway

We were going to try to stick together, but abandoned that plan when we found out the swim was going to start in three waves. He was in the first and I, being a Clydesdale (200+ lbs), was in the last. We were finally told the exact course by the father and founder of Xterra, then the cannon went off! My stomach finally stopped turning over when I started the swim. We were underway at last! I zigzagged way too much, but passed many more people than passed me. Perhaps that’s because I started at the back of the pack and to the right (was that ever the right move!).


The current added some work, but there were so many rocks that rest was plentiful, if undesired and unanticipated. Several scrapes ensued. The spirit of friendly competition showed its face when I found myself echoing others in warning people behind me: “Rocks ahead!” The swim was an adventure; one moment I was trying to get into a rhythmic stroke, then standing on a rock in half-a-foot of water, walking, and then plunging into water over my head when the ledge abruptly ended. When I reached the shore and hurried to put my shoes on, I realized I wasn’t really that tired. My time sucked, but I had conquered the swim, and it wasn’t too bad! I jogged to T1 and had no problems donning my shirt, helmet, and shades, and off I went.

That was where it got tough

For a perpetual amateur such as myself, the course was hard. It kicked my @ss. I passed tons of people on the straight-aways (the weightlifting legacy of large quads and glutes helped the speed), but many overtook me through the winding singletrack switchbacks, because that’s where I got slow. Roots, rocks, streams, and several near-falls followed. I was off my bike more times than I could count. But so were many people, even ones who said that they knew the course. I was grateful for the ancient pocket/shoulder pad I had on my frame when it came time to carry the bike up many flights of stairs. Simple strength was one of my assets, so my bike felt pretty light. I felt bad for the women and smaller guys who were really struggling to get their bikes up the stairs, but admired their spirit. I figured they would soon pass me anyway.

People at checkpoints shouted their encouragement. I remember one in particular: “You’re doing great guys, go for it! The guy with one pedal is still ahead of you, but you’re doing great!”

You hear a lot about the camaraderie, and it was fantastic!

If anyone got into trouble, everyone was concerned. Cries of “You OK?” echoed constantly. Unfortunately, soon the question would be directed at me all too frequently. I made the mistake of passing a woman who knew the course; I should have stayed behind her. About ½ mile before the end of the trails proper, and maybe ¾ mile from the end of the bike leg, I braked too hard, skidded, and went off the path into a tree sideways. My chain ring, or something, bit into my calf. My first thought was, “Oh, another one, no problem.” Then “Oh, sh#t, really hurts!” Then the stream of curses began in earnest as I watched the blood flow through the grit and grease on my ankle into my sock. It bled a lot, and hurt magnificently. I could barely walk. I kept expecting a bone to stick out of my calf, or my gastrocnemious to flop out of the skin.


People began to pass me in numbers as I limped, moving over every minute to let someone pass. At least four people said they’d get someone to send somebody. Number 649 is down! Maybe ten minutes of agonized limping followed, and a volunteer came to see who was hurt and how bad. By this time, I realized that nothing was broken, and the punctures themselves didn’t hurt. But knew that I had done something else to my calf, because it felt like a steak knife was stuck in there. Maybe it was just a deep bruise. But maybe not. She called the EMTs and I sat down and waited. She gave me a bottle of water, which I poured over the wound. I couldn’t tell anything about it, and neither could she. I owe many thanks to that woman, whoever and wherever she may be. Finally, after 15 minutes of waiting, and a big, fat DNF looming, I said, “Look, tell them to hang back if you can, I’m gonna try it. Maybe they can look at it in transition. I ain’t letting six months of training (actually four and a half) go to waste!” So off I went, cursing in agony, with every bad sports movie and cliché playing in my head.

"And look at him go – his leg’s broken in three places, but he’s determined, folks!"

"Look at the spirit. We should all be proud of his perseverance, for he represents the survival instinct of mankind!” And Chariots of Fire,  Rudy, and Rocky, and every other one I’ve seen all merged into one self-mocking and self-critical film. Thankfully, I was still able to laugh at myself. Idiot. Just finish the damned race.


"Your leg ain’t broken. You want your son to see you quit? To walk out of the race, defeated? OK, he won’t remember it, but you will never forgive yourself if you don’t finish. Walk the run if you have to, but keep going."


And I did. I rode my bike on the downhills and flats, slowly, and walked the uphills, and suddenly I was coming back to transition. I heard my wife and my friend’s wife calling, but the iron knives in my leg held my concentration. I limped into T2, and immediately a woman asked me if I needed help. Grateful, I said, "Yeah, if someone could look at it and send me on my way if it didn’t look too bad." A guy came up and washed and bandaged it fairly quickly, telling me it wasn’t life- or leg-threatening. And I was off, settling into a kind of pathetic, Quasimodo limp-run. This was supposed to be my strongest part.

Strangely, it didn’t take that long

I thought it would be an eternity of agony, but the run course was relatively easy (except for a ridiculous set of massive, broken wooden railroad-tie stairs that I had to scale on hands and knees). I did not see a soul on my run. Every time I came to a checkpoint, I was grateful that I hadn’t gotten lost. I had to be the last one. But at least it wasn’t cut-off time yet; I thought I still had at least 30 minutes, even though I had forgotten to press the lap button on my watch the last few times. So even if the run took me 45 minutes, I’d still finish. It didn’t take me quite that long, but a run that I should have done in 25-27 minutes took me 39, and it was pretty painful. But I finished. I was done. I was a mess, but I was done.

Two days, a tetanus shot, antibiotics, crutches, and many icepacks later

Not to mention with an upcoming ultrasound, I looked at the results already posted online. I was #235 out of 239 finishers. What an accomplishment! I had almost achieved my lifelong goal of coming in last! I tried to calculate where I might’ve come in if I hadn’t been assaulted by my trusty steed, and figured I would’ve been #155 or so. Everything and everyone told me to be happy that I finished, and I was. Sure, 62 people didn’t finish or finished after the cutoff. But there will always be that nagging "What if I had not gotten injured?" And the whole thing meant I might have to try again next year, to see how well I really could have done!

By the way, Dan did really well. We are triathletes-no matter how fat we get or how much beer we drink!

Many people claim that once they’d tried one, they’d been “bitten by that triathlon bug,” and I wondered if I had. I guess the injury took a lot of the enjoyment out of it, but my friend and I immediately discussed what we would do next. Maybe the bug did bite, because we decided on a sprint triathlon in which we would actually race our bikes ON THE ROAD.

After the Xterra, I figure it’ll be child’s play...


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date: September 3, 2006


Beer, Food, Biking, Metal, Politics, Running, WebDev, Beer, Weightlifting, Writing, Reading, Food, and, uh, Beer.


Beer, Food, Biking, Metal, Politics, Running, WebDev, Beer, Weightlifting, Writing, Reading, Food, and, uh, Beer.

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