Friday, August 7, 2009

Tri Recap

Last Sunday I competed in my first triathlon. I'd been thinking about doing one for maybe a year - but just a vague thought, kind of like, 'it would be cool to climb a mountain some day.' However, after purchasing a bicycle this spring, and continuing my marathon training, it seemed like a logical progression - so why not. Let's dive in.

I signed up for the triathlon about three weeks before race day, so it was a bit of a crash course in preparation. I bought a book, and read every blog and online article I could find on the subject. In fact, I realized that my whole life I never knew how to properly spell triathlon. I'd always spelled it with an extra 'a' - triathalon.

All told, I got in plenty of training runs (3 to 4 days a week), sufficient bike training (2 to 3 days a week), and well, less swim training. My building does have a decent pool, but it's by no means Olympic length or ideal for lap swimming. Nonetheless, two evenings I got in a few laps. In an effort to stretch the distance, I went over to the Rutgers Aquatic center and did some laps one evening. In total, 3 swimming training sessions. None of them in the ocean, where the swim would be held.

This might also be a good time to mention that I'd never been swimming in the ocean. Ever. The two times I'd been in the ocean previously, I'd simply waded in up to my knees. Now I was staring down a quarter mile swim in open water, with the threat of waves and sharks bringing my triathlon career to a screeching halt. We'll get back to that.

The morning of the race I rose at 3:30am, had a breakfast of a blueberry muffin, chocolate doughnut, banana, OJ, and a diet coke. I don't drink coffee, so diet coke is my caffeine equivalent. Check in time for the race was 5:30am - and with the hour drive to the shore, the early wake-up call was necessary.

There were about 450 people in the race, and it was still dark out as we checked in and started getting our transition stations setup. You basically have a little 3 foot by 3 foot space of ground below your bike stand where you setup all your gear for the transitions between events. Helmet, sunglasses, race number, shoes, etc. I quickly assess that probably 75% of the field look like seasoned triathletes, with bikes and bodies that are not seen in everyday life.

After a quick pre-race meeting, the 450 of us clad in wetsuits (not me), swim caps, and goggles...head off down to the ocean shore to begin the race. The people around me are commenting on 'how calm the water looks today'. I take their word for it, but still notice breakers that give me a momentary vision of the final scene in Point Break.

The swim starts in 5 'waves', so that everyone isn't on top of each other in the water. I am assigned to the last wave - which is men ages 20-29, and we're designated by our blue swim caps. The swim course is like a big rectangle. You swim straight out to a buoy probably 100 meters out, then make a right turn and swim parallel to the shore for another 200 meters or so, and then back into the shore.

Right before the first wave is set to go off, they announce that if you're a first time triathlete...or if you're not the strongest swimmer, they have bright orange swim caps that you can put on - signifying to the lifeguards to keep a special eye on you. I have an internal debate with myself about whether I will emasculate myself by putting on the orange 'rookie' cap, or weather I'll stick to my blue cap at the risk of drowning. Self preservation wins, and I swap the blue cap for an orange one.

Race starts.

I watch the fist few waves go off in three minute intervals. Probably a half dozen people don't make it out past the first few waves, and float back into shore and give up. This is slightly unnerving, but it's mostly old men and small women - not strapping bucks like myself.

My wave starts. We charge into the ocean, and are immediately hit by 2 or 3 breakers. The only way to get through them is to dive at the base of them, and pop out the other side. The very first one sends my goggles climbing up my forehead. I quickly get them back in place, and continue on - slightly shocked by how salty the water is. The elite guys take off, and I'm toward the back of the pack, acclimating myself to my first strokes in open water. Within 50 meters, I'm already slightly out of breath - and definitely not moving at Michael Phelps pace.

Making it to the first buoy wasn't terribly difficult, but my stroke form quickly broke down - and I'd downshifted into a modified side stroke. The water was littered with lifeguards on surfboards, kayaks, and jetskis - and if you get tired you're allowed to grab onto one to catch your breath. Needless to say, I got to know one of the kayak guys on a first name basis. Once it became clear that I was pretty overmatched by the ocean, my swim was all about just a slow and steady progress - and just finishing became the only priority. Since I was in the last wave, and now near the back of the pack - it's pretty much just me and about 5 other guys bringing up the rear.

When I made the final buoy and started the turn for home, it was a huge relief. All I really had to do at that point was float - and I'd make it back to shore with the current. Myself and the final 3 guys all made it out of the ocean at about the same time, probably a good 12 minutes behind the leaders. Stumbling out of the ocean after that struggle was like something out of the movie Cast Away.

The swim had taken a bit more out of me than I'd planned - but I quickly recovered and was jogging up the beach toward the transition area. Once back at my spot, I dump the swim cap and goggles, do my best to towel the sand out from between my toes before slipping on socks and shoes for the cycling leg of the race. Helmet, sunglasses, grab the bike - and we're off onto the 12 mile bike course. Physically I was good for the bike leg, but my Mountain Bike wasn't able to keep up with the elite guys on their $5,000 Triathlon bikes. I'm thinking I'll upgrade to a nice road bike next spring.

The second transition is considerably less work; simply re-racking the bike, dropping the bike helmet, and strapping on a race number for the run portion. I'm noticeably at the back of the field after my slow swim and sub-optimal bike, but fortunately the run was my strong suit.

To my surprise, my legs felt unusually strong during the run - not cashed like I'd expected. Within a mile I was quickly passing people - which was the first time all race I'd passed anyone.

Crossing the finish line was definitely a different sensation than crossing the finish line in my 2 previous marathons. This sensation was more of a relief that I'd survived, but also it felt like a bit of a challenge - knowing I'd left a lot of time out on the course. There was an immediate sensation of, 'well, I've got to do that again - and next time do it better.' A wetsuit would help with the buoyancy. More time in the pool or ocean would improve my endurance. A race bike would help. All things that can easily be accomplished before my next race. All in all it was a pretty fun experience, and also strangely bizarre switching between 3 events like that all in rapid succession.

The next day I signed up for another triathlon; September 5th. This one has the swim in a lake, not in the ocean. At least it takes the shark attack equation out of the mix.

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