I’ve been staring at my very first triathlon race number for months now, still trying to comprehend what exactly happened that day. I suppose it’s about time I complete my background story/race review, being as I’ve already gone on to complete my second tri!
I didn’t know how to swim when I registered. No, really. I could do the swoosh with your hands while your head’s above water across the pool on vacation thing, and doggy paddle like nobody’s business, but I’d never taken swim lessons nor had I ever been able to successfully blow bubbles out of my nose underwater. Ever. Until November 2010.
For a while I’d been thinking about switching things up, taking a coaching break from Team in Training and eventually doing a triathlon. On the morning of November 10, 2010, I took the plunge. Literally. I registered for the Devilman Sprint Triathlon, to take place in Cedarville, NJ in May 2011. The distances were .40 mile swim, 20.5 mile bike and 4 mile run.
Our first team swim training at the local YMCA was on a Monday and I wanted to vomit all day. Where will I go, what will I do, how will I do it? I pictured 30 other team members swimming laps and me at the shallow end of the pool blowing bubbles out of my nose with the 5 year olds. I’d heard of others who didn’t know how to swim going on to complete triathlons, so I left my fate in the hands of our Coaches, who ended up doing a fabulous job. (Along with some cooperation from me.)
Six months later, I arrived on race day morning, transition bag packed with everything from extra contact lenses and ear plugs to pickle juice for cramping. I had enough fuel/nutrition for an Ironman. I set up my transition area and waited around. Emotional was an understatement. If you looked at me or even talked to me, I’d snap at you or have to fight back tears. Six months of hardcore training for the unknown was so overwhelming. Let’s goooo.
The race started in waves. Elite female, then youngest age group, next older age group, next older, etc, then Athenas (women over 150 lbs). Then elite men, youngest age group, next older age group, next older age group, etc, then Clydesdales. (Over 210 lbs?) The swim was a water start, meaning we stepped down a ladder into the lake, and then treaded water for a few minutes before the gun went off. At this point I wasn’t nervous anymore. I thought, “Let’s just get this done and over with.” Six months in, I was still not a strong swimmer, but found comfort in the fact that there were kayaks and lifeguards out there in canoes and that you could stop for a breath and hold on for as long as you needed.
(And it’s true – wetsuits make you float. A past-participant on my team once told me that you literally had to TRY and drown in a wetsuit, and she was right.)
It was freezing. Like breaking-surface ice-off-the-water-early-that-morning-and-not-telling-us-first-timers-so-as-not-to-intimidate-us, freezing. Wetsuits help keep you warm, but not dry. They let water in. It was freaking freezing, and I was scared to death. The water smelled and in the few places you could touch bottom, it was scummy and slimy.
The gun went off and I started flailing, realizing I’d gone about 10 strokes without my face in the water. Hell no, when I put my face in the water, it was so shockingly cold my chest tightened and I couldn’t breathe! I’m prone to panic attacks and this did not help. What was I thinking?? By the time I realized I was doing a modified doggy paddle, I looked ahead and saw that most other girls in my wave were doing the same. It was going to be a long almost-half mile.
I finally got my face in the water and ended up overshooting the first buoy, apparently a common mistake for first-timers. I adjusted my route then stopped at a kayak to catch some breaths, calculated how far to the next kayak and began again. Stopped for about 30 seconds at the next kayak, touched bottom and stepped on something that felt like plastic. Moving. Not moving because I stepped on it, but moving like it was already moving by the time I stepped on it. That was enough to get me swimming again. Thank God for balance drills, because the rest of the way was spent on my side with one arm leading while I kicked, or side stroking, or on my back. (I later found out that there are divers under water, looking up, for safety reasons. I’m betting I landed on one.)
I’m sure you’re wondering about the waves behind me. There were probably two more female waves, then Athena, and they were all politely non-eventful as they passed the few of us who were taking our time thoroughly enjoying the swim. But a little past half-way, not a kayak in sight, I had to flip over on my back. I fixated on the clear blue sky and attempted some deep breaths, deciding I would not panic. If there were a canoe or kayak in sight, I might have told them to take me out right then. But I told people I would do this, and there was no way in hell I was going out in the first half hour. (Also, there was not a canoe or kayak in sight.)
After what felt like an hour, I relaxed and caught my breath. But as I did, I heard a sound. Still on my back, I took my focus off the sky and lifted my head to see the yellow piranhas coming at me; the elite men in their yellow swim caps. (The Yellow Piranhas, as we would later refer to them) They, of course, had their faces in the water and didn’t know that I and a few others were still there in the line of fire, bobbing up and down.
They tell you you might get kicked, punched or scratched at the start. You might get your goggles kicked off. You might not be able to breathe on the side you’re used to because of waves, so you should practice bilateral breathing. We practice mass starts in the pool. The start wasn’t my problem! Honestly, the fight wasn’t what I was afraid of, it was my own panic. A few hit me, most kept going, one stopped and asked if I was ok. I actually laughed. “Yep, I’m good!” And as I finished the swim, happy to touch bottom, I could care less about the slime or the muddy water streaks on my arms.
Bike, my fav. I got a few “GO TEAM!”s from some random, probably past-TNT participants and a few in Livestrong tri-suits. I was passed by many men on carbon road bikes hearing “whooooshhhhhh” as they went by, yet I still passed more than a few people on my clunky, heavy hybrid. I wouldn’t be last. Yesssss.
Run, not so favorite. I have a numb foot thing I need to get checked out. I finished, and not last.
Hubs went to retrieve my chocolate milk recovery drink from the car and I went to the porta-potty to change out of my gross tri shorts. I closed the door and sobbed for at least five minutes straight. Disappointment over what I hoped would be a better swim, and the release of pressure of six months worth of training while downplaying the hugeness of it all. I just completed a triathlon. I was the girl in high school who came up with excuses why I couldn’t run the mile in gym class. I raised money to cure blood cancers and I should’ve been more present, and should’ve enjoyed it more, but it was over now. I will NEVER do this again.
- Triathlons are big time! Don’t down-play it. It’s a huge accomplishment!
- Train for performance, and weight-loss/fitness will follow. Bonus!
- Get open-water swim trainings in. There’s no line to follow at the bottom of a muddy, smelly, slimy lake. Trust me, and all the articles you read. Really. I didn’t.
- You don’t need to set up your transition area like you’re going on a 7 day vaca.
- Relax during the swim. Remember and use what you learned in training. Your chances of surviving are pretty damn good. Especially in a wetsuit.
- My bike was nice, flat, through fields and farm-land (and no flat tires to change, though I was fully prepared.) Wave at the kids on their front lawns cheering for you. One day they might write about how you inspired them after they win their first Ironman.
- If you’re prepared to change a flat you won’t have anything to worry about on the ride during a sprint, unless it’s raining and slippery.
- Practice clipping and unclipping from your pedals. I didn’t learn any lessons at the tri, but fell right out of the parking lot on my first training ride.
- Non-triathlete spectators and supporters won’t get it. That’s ok.
Prerace – Organized, well-run, comfortable.
Swim – Plenty of support. Gross lake. Could’ve been one more kayak between 2nd and finish, but that’s the wuss in me talking. I made it anyway.
Bike – Visually appealing, flat, saw bike support on the side of the road, though thoroughly prepared to change my own flat.
Run – Sufficient (and enthusiastic) fluid stations.
Finish – Announcer. Didn’t hyperventilate – score!
Stay tuned for a less emotional triathlon #2.