My First Try at Tri

About two weeks ago, I competed in my first triathlon, the Race for Sight in Columbia Missourri. Paltry in comparison to the lore that is Ironman, this sprint tri comprised a 300-yard pool swim, 17 mile bike ride, and a 3.4 mile run. Having decided over six months ago to begin competing in triathlons, I felt uniquely prepared and fit heading into this, my first near-catastrophe.

The weeks before the race were busy with final workouts, preparations, and family illness. In fact, I had planned on racing in another tri two weeks earlier than Columbia, but called it off after myself and everybody else in the house came down with a late-season flu. That two additional weeks allowed me to, so I thought, better prepare for my first run.

I'd been spending lots of time reading all of the 'Top 10 Hints for a Successful Race' websites and articles I could find, in addition to pool, bike, and trail time. On the Saturday morning before the race, I headed out to a local sporting-goods store and picked up two pairs of SpeedLaces, to help give me that extra edge in the next day's competition, and to violate rule #1 of triathlon: Thou Shalt Not Change Anything Right Before Thy Race. I promptly headed home, installed the new laces, and threw them in the back of our Expedition.

My wife and I then drove down to Columbia, about a five-hour trip from our home in Omaha, Nebraska. We immediately headed to packet pick-up, and I started to feel that nervous-excited feeling I remembered from highschool competition. After checking into the hotel and driving around for about an hour trying to find somewhere with a dinner approaching edibility, we headed back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Before hitting the sack, however, I took a screwdriver and tightened up the screws on the SpeedLaces, just like the guy at the store suggested. Apparently, I tightened one of them up a little too much, causing it to strip and pop off when I trial-laced the shoes. Luckily my running shoes had a couple of loop lace-holders, and as such I had four extra SpeedLaces lace holders, so I replaced the stripped holder and went to bed. I'll go ahead and remove the suspense right now-- my laces held together for the duration of the race. My first ride after the race was another story. I was about four miles into a ride when I noticed a very loose feeling in my right shoe. Looking down, I had popped three lace holders. I came that close to a disastrous bike ride...

The alarm rang at 5:30 a.m., which is also known as 'Why the hell are we up now?' time. I showered, shaved (because stubble chafes on the bike helmet strap), and headed to a 24x7 buffet for a quick pancake breakfast. I decided to not fill my water bottles at the hotel, as the tap water had that 'hotel' look, smell, and taste to it, and figured there would be water at the race. Hah!

Breakfast was good, and I am used to having pancakes and a couple strips of bacon every Saturday and Sunday, so I felt comfortable in that aspect of the morning race preparation. We arrived at the transition area, and were greeted by the temperate niceties of Missouri: 37 degrees F. Well, at least I wouldn't have to run barefoot and dripping wet in nothing but a swimsuit in this weather. Oh, yeah...

My bike was ready, after giving it a nice 'clean and oil' at home before leaving, and I was comfortable with its condition. After inflating the tires to 120#, I headed to the transition area to set up.

I checked in, got my time-chip, and entered the transition area. Finding my row, I parked my bike and looked around, taking in all of the racers around me. They all had something I didn't. It wasn't fitness. It wasn't confidence. It wasn't determination. It was... A towel! I had forgotten a towel! In my nice, new, DeSoto transition bag I had shoes, socks, a cycling jacket for the cold, gloves, and everything else I needed, but no towel! Ah well, that's why God invented spare clothes. Chalk that one up to experience.

As it was now approaching a balmy 40 degrees, I was wearing a hoodie (hooded sweatchirt for those of you without teenagers), and I had my swim cap in the front pocket. I set my gear out, and went looking for water. There was none to be found. Then, the words that I longed to hear, “Everybody out of the transition area!” were uttered, and my time was up. I doffed my hoodie and headed for the waiting area prior to my entrance into the pool.

As I headed for the gymnasium where they had us lineing up by estimated swim time, I realized I had forgotten my goggles! I quickly raced back down to the transition area and grabbed them, making it out by seconds, but not without avoiding a stern look from the race director. Nor did I avoid tearing up the soles of my feet on cold, cold, cold asphalt. As I tiptoed back into the gym, I started to feel a little less prepared than I had just an hour earlier. When I realized that my swimcap was still in my hoodie, I felt even a little less prepared than before. When I realized that I still had not found water, I felt about as prepared as a first-grader taking the SAT.

The swim at the Race for Sight is a 300 yard pool swim, with the swimmers entering the right side of lane 1, swimming down the right side, back down the left of the same lane, and ducking under the rope to lane 2. This continues through 6 lanes, making up the total 300 yards. We had to estimate our swim times and get into the appropriate group, and we were told to addan additional 15-20 seconds due to the lane hopping. My recent swims had been in the 5:30-6 minute range for 300 yards, so I put myself in the 6:30 group.

It took over an hour for our turn to enter the water, with just under 400 racers present. As my turn approached, I began to feel more and more excited. Adrenalyne was freely flowing, I was visualzing my swim, I put all doubts and concerns about my pre-race fiascos out of my mind, and looked forward to the job at hand. Rotate my hips. Extend my body. To quote Terry Laughlin, I would be 'slippery'. I would not over-work myself, and would focus on a nice, even pace to make it through.

Then I entered the water. All bets were off. I was a thrashing machine! Do you remember the scene in Terminator 2 where the liquid-metal machine is being consumed by the molten steel and splashed about constantly changing shape? He was a more efficient swimmer than I. After one lap, I was nearly spent. I cought my breath, and headed back down the lane from where I started, focusing on a little more rhythin and consistancy in my stroke. This lap went pretty well.

At about 100 yards, I cought the guy in front of me, who appeared to be having an even harder time than I. We walked together for about 10 yeards, and then I passed him to try and put some space between me and the swimmer coming up on my heels. In doing so, whatever energy I had left appeared to have left me, and four swimmers, including the guy I just passed, passed me. My walking buddy and I ended up finishing the swim neck and neck, but not after a nice stroll down the last pool length.

I left the pool and headed out for the bike. Have you ever been naked and wet in 40 degree weather? It's not fun. It's a good thing my wife doesn't want another kid right now, because I don't think that's possible until at least July, if not August. I ran down to the transition area (OK, I walked down there, and pretty slowly at that), and dried my dripping body with my hoodie. All told, it took me nearly four and a half minutes to throw on my shoes, shirt, jacket, and get out on my bike. The price one pays for a bad swim.

Now the good news: there would be water! The bad news: it would be at mile 10 of the bike. Now I was paying the price for breaking rule #2 of triathlon: Thou Shalt Always Be Prepared (yes, it is stolen from the Boy Scouts, but I think they were on to something with it).

The first mile or so of the bike was pretty much me reflecting on what had just happened in the pool, and trying to get my focus back on the task at hand while remembering my decisions and mistakes to help turn today into a learning experience. I really don't have much to report from the ride, other than all of the race officials, volunteers, and police officers present were wonderful, and made the ride a great experience. I didn't realize just how much one person clapping and shouting encouragement can bring out that last little bit to make it up a hill until that day.

As I headed back into the transition, I felt pretty good. I thought I would end up with a good split on the bike, and I was ready for the run. That water at the 10 mile point, while still leaving me down on the day and doing nothing for the caloric loss (since I had no water, I didn't mix up my Accelerade), still left me refreshed and ready for the run.

I dismounted, ran to my rack, and put on my running shoes. As I headed for the start of the run, I realized there was something wrong with my legs. They really didn't want to do anything. My calves were siezed worse than a chevette running with no oil... The just didn't want to do a thing! That's when I realized I had never run immediately after getting off the bike, thus breaking rule #3 of triathlon: Thou Shalt Train as Thou Wants To Race, or Thou Shalt Race as Thou Hast Trained. My body had never run 3.4 miles after a bike ride before, and it sure wasn't happy about doing so today.

The run was nothing short of calf-burning misery. I think I could have walked faster than I ran that day. Judging by the number of elderly ladies with their walkers that passed me, I don't think that's much of an exaggeration. At that point, my goal became simple: finish without stopping even once. A true test of my mental toughness.

And guess what? I passed.