Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My First Triathlon


So a few months ago, some guys in my neighborhood heard I did some recreational running on the side and they invited me to train with them for a half triathlon. Sure, I said, with the thought that once I figured out the swimming part and put some hours on my bike it shouldn't be too much trouble.

For the next few weeks I concentrated mostly on swimming. While I'm not exactly a non-swimmer, my technique is basically "dog paddle", "frog kick", or "float on your back". One of the guys taught us all the basics of "the crawl" one night, then I got some further tips from the lifeguards at the local pool who were watching our group with bemused interest.

I managed to keep up with my running for the most part, averaging around 4-6 miles a couple of times a week. Mostly. Some weeks I was busy and didn't end up doing any training, but I felt that since it was only a 5k (about 3 miles) that I'd be alright.

For the bike? Well, I have an old mountain bike that's seen better days. I took it on one trip up to a local canyon and back and discovered that the back rim was so bent that it was hitting the brakes every time it went around. It went in for a tune-up, but I never did any more training on it.

Race Time

The night before the race we all gathered in some condos up in Midway, and my wife made a fantastic spaghetti dinner with pesto and a red sauce. I put some oatmeal in the crock pot for breakfast, then we all turned in early. Some of us managed to sleep a bit, but there were a lot of pre-race jitters. I got up at 6:30 the next day and had breakfast with everyone; it was fun to see each person's pre-race rituals. Well, the experienced racers.... I just had a good breakfast and packed some chia seeds in my bike's water bottle.

Driving up the mountains to the course was frigid in my topless Jeep, and Reese and I kept commenting to each other about what a lovely temperature the lake was going to be. At that point we were both pretty sure we were going to drown in the first five minutes. We parked in a small town about 2 miles away (and uphill) from the course, then rode our bikes down to pick up our race packets and get our bodies marked. From there, we went to the transition area and dropped off our equipment.

Then, we waited.

The race didn't start for another hour, so we had plenty of time to mill about and get anxious. Several people were in their wetsuits and swimming around in the lake to get "warmed up". I couldn't stand the anticipation any more, so I dipped my toes in the water to see how bad it was. Imagine my pleasant surprise when the water was warm!! Not quite like a swimming pool, but certainly not bad at all.

After spreading the word to my friends, I could finally relax and wait for my group to begin.


A few minutes before my group began, I changed into my swimming attire. Ouf... women and children hid their eyes in terror and shame as I took off my shorts to reveal The Yellow Speedo. Yes. I own a yellow speedo. Long story, and while the story behind it is hilarious, it's not going to be covered in this blog post. After a few minutes of catching embarassed looks and snickers from the spectators, I couldn't wait to get into the water! I was in that lake pretty much as soon as they would let me go.

While there, I met a few others who didn't have wet suits, but I think there were only 3 or 4 out of the group of about 25. As we lined up at the starting gate, I noticed something funny... the Olympic-distance competitors that started before us were all vying for a place in the front of the line. The "sprint" distance athletes, me included, were hanging back waiting for somebody, anybody, to take the lead position. Apparently we were all VERY confident in our swimming abilities! :-P

The swim was a great taste and foreshadowing for the rest of the race-- it gave me time to get used to people passing me. About 2/3 of the way through, Steve (who started in the group 5 minutes behind mine) blazed past me. I exited the water disoriented and fatigued, but got on my bike quickly and headed out on the road.


I knew ahead of time that taking a mountain bike to a road race was like bringing a knife to a gun fight. People from the groups behind me kept zipping past on their $2k+ road bikes while I pedaled steadily on with my trusty behemoth. It was still fun because the people passing me were giving nice words of encouragement. One guy said "You're REALLY tough!", and that made me feel good. After the race I realized that I probably was doing pretty good for a mountain bike.

When we reached the big down-hill part of the course, there was a shining moment of joy for me. I passed a road bike! Mine had just had a professional tune-up the night before, so when I tucked into a coasting position the speed was pretty incredible.


Back at the transition area, I shucked the shoes and socks and went barefoot for the run. My wife had asked me to take my Vibrams with me as an insurance policy, but I went ahead and decided to go barefoot.

Men, listen to your wives.

They are always right.

The first part of the road was normal asphalt. No real problem, but fatigue from the previous two events was incredibly present. Next was freshly-paved asphalt. This was something I was NOT expecting! It was like running on small gravel, which is about my least favorite surface. Whenever I come across that stuff on my runs I jump over to the bushes until it's past. Not here... a full mile of the stuff. The pain and fatigue added up, and I ended up walking most of the section.

When I got to the main road and back to normal ashpalt I breathed a huge sigh of relief. There was some small gravel on the shoulder where we were running, but I cheated a bit and ran in the actual lane. At this point my feet hurt like crazy, but I was at least able to jog it.

Then came the downhill. The death knell. It was a segment of unpaved road covered in medium-sized river rocks. My feet had been tenderized by the sharp asphalt; now they were pummelled by the rocks at every step. Mentally, it was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Slowly, step by step, I edged my way down the hill. It KILLED. I haven't been in that much pain in years!

At the bottom, I cheated to the side and went through the weeds rather than attempt the jagged shale. By this point nearly everyone who saw me was asking if I was alright or if I needed help. "Yes" and "no" were my answers. Reversed would have been pretty accurate. Now the trail was a normal hiking path with stones and gravel strewn about. I'd done a mile or two on similar terrain the week before, and while it was painful it wasn't too bad. Of course, my feet hadn't spent the hour before being tenderized.

By this point it was painful just to stand, but I still had a mile or so of trail. I walked. Slowly. Painfully.

Keep in mind...

Let's take a break from my race for a moment, and remember my dear wife who was there supporting me. I came in later on the swim, but not too bad. Then I was maybe 15 minutes longer on the bike than everyone else, but whatever. Now, every other racer in my group and all my friends had finished. They waited twenty minutes more, and I still wasn't there. Another twenty minutes, no sign. Again, and she was panicking that she'd be accompanying my corpse to the hospital. She asked other racers if they'd seen the barefoot guy, and one of them had. "He's in agony, but he's coming." Remember folks, my agony was of my own choosing. Her trauma was the result of someone else's bad decision. If you feel any sympathy toward my plight, please direct it her way instead of giving it to dumb arrogant me.

Back to the trail

At the end of the trail I could hear the announcer calling out everyone as they crossed the finish line. Almost there! Just a bridge to cross, and it should be over!!

The bridge. It was wood and metal, and if you remember back to your childhood when you used to go barefoot, surfaces like that are WAY hotter than asphalt. Bruised and beaten, now my feet burned with each step. On the other side of the bridge was... more wood. It was a catwalk of sorts over a nature preserve area. Beautiful, but it was more of the same material. I tried going faster, but the wood was covered in splinters that I had to work around gingerly. Occasionally one would slip through and I'd jump back with a 1/4" shard of bridge piercing my foot.

Finally, mercifully, the catwalk ended and I was on a paved sidewalk. The finish was on blissfully cool grass, and I broke into a sprint with whatever was left in me. I leaped across the finish line, then nearly collapsed into a heap of emotional and physical wreckage as I saw the relief and trauma in my poor wife's face. Swim- 23:08; Bike- 1:05:17; Run- 1:19:32

I'd completed my first triathlon. No wetsuit, no road bike, no shoes. I'd said from the outset that since I wasn't going to finish first I might as well finish hard. This was hard.


As I write this, it's been pleasantly surprising at how well my body has recovered. After some water and a couple apples at the finish line, I jogged back to the transition area to collect my gear. The bike ride back up the hill to the town was difficult, but manageable. It took a couple of days before I didn't wince on hard surfaces, but there's not a scratch or bruise to be seen on my feet.

Hey, there's a half-marathon coming up in October. Anyone else up for it?