I’ve wanted to try triathlon for a few years now. I came to the Legion as a runner, and I’ve never been a swimmer, but once I added cycling into the regular routine… I just had to give it a shot. So with that in mind I found a sprint distance (750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run) race that fit nicely into my training schedule for the Ride to Conquer Cancer, and I signed up. The race I chose, the MEC Edmonton Triathlon (July 17th, 2016) was probably my first mistake (but more on that to come).
Despite the fact that it wasn’t an “official” Legion training race, I decided to punch out a quick post on my experience so that maybe some other noob somewhere will read this and spare themselves some of my pain… So here’s my story.
I love the water, but like I said: I’ve never really been a swimmer. So I knew my weakness would be in the pool. Six weeks before race day I starting hitting the pool every week, gradually building my comfort in the water and my distance. As someone who is a bit self-conscious of my swimming ability (or lack thereof) I was careful to choose times when my local pool wasn’t too busy – typically at off-times midday when what little crowd there was would be local seniors looking for some gentle movement. Second mistake. Not exactly a good training exercise for an event where every lane will be full of swimmers making waves and overtaking… My technique was (is) far from sound, but within a couple weeks I was cracking off 1000m swims without too many rest breaks. So I could pull off 750 no problem, right?
I knew the bike leg would be my strong suit, given all the training I’ve done with the Legion this year. So 20k on the bike was no worry. I also snuck in a few training runs to make sure my legs still had it, but I was never really too worried about the 5k run leg, either. I also heeded the advice of the interwebs and made sure to get in at least a few solid brick workouts (swim followed immediately by bike, or bike followed immediately by run) to make sure I knew what it would feel like to start a segment on already-used muscles. This one I got right. My run game was off pace compared to my usual potential and ability, but I attributed this to the fact that I’ve been spending so much time on the bike this year, and very little time running the trails. “Let that shit go, man. This is your first tri – no need to stress about it. Just have fun and finish”, I reminded myself.
My first hint of trouble with the event came the day before when I picked up my race package. The event desk at MEC was looking mighty thin and when I asked about turnout the only reply was “a lot fewer than we expected”. When I got home I opened my package and removed my (inkjet printed and laminated) bike tag which proudly bore the MEC logo, my race number and the words “triathalon series”. Hmmm… I’m a noob alright, but even I know how to spell the word…
The night before the race I double-checked everything on the bike, affixed my race tags, packed my transition bag and planned my nutrition strategy. I went to bed feeling pretty much on top of things. Linnea even said to me “I feel like I’m more stressed about this race than you are!”. I was nervous, sure, but I figured I’d figure out the little details once I got to transition and saw what the big kids were doing. I set my alarm for 5:30am and went to bed.
My alarm went at 5:30 after a night of restless nervous sleep and I chastised myself for thinking I actually needed to be up that early and hit snooze. And then I hit it again. And again. And again. Finally I got up, had my coffee and my morning fuel and then suddenly realized I hadn’t left enough time to walk the dog before checking into transition. Next mistake. Always leave more time than you think you’ll need Todd… you know you move like molasses in the morning.
At 7:00am I checked my bike and my bag into transition. The race attendance had been capped at 250 participants, but there were only 72 marked bike slots. I was assigned number 64. Chatting with a few others around me, I quickly came to the realization that our numbers were assigned according to the estimated swim times we had given on registration… meaning I was in the slowest 10 people. Yikes. My nerves started creeping in. What if I was the absolute last person to cross the finish line?? I could feel my anxiety building. Things didn’t get better when I followed a PA announcement to head to the registration tent for body marking, only to be told I was in the wrong place with a less than helpful shrug…
Next up was the briefing for all athletes; the usual set of instructions and safety protocols, as well as where to find the start times for each set of swim staggers (heats). My heat was scheduled to hit the pool at 9:35. I had more than an hour and a half to kill, so I joined a few of my fellow newbies to watch the first swim heats start out and then I made the decision to head home to get the dog out for a quick stroll (this is part of the journey for me as a caregiver: abandoning your routine household duties for even one day to do something ‘fun’ comes with a heavy guilt burden). Anyways, leaving the race was a HUGE mistake.
I got back to the venue just before 9:00 (in my mind, well before I needed to be) and immediately got the sense that something was amiss. I didn’t see any of my new newbie friends from transition milling about, and I noticed that a few race officials were giving me perplexed looks (but not saying anything). I walked over the pool viewing area and the panic set in. The first lanes were empty and the others were occupied by a dozen or so athletes thrashing about, breast stroking, dogpaddling or otherwise trying not to drown. Clearly these were my peeps. I ran to the gear tent (located across a wet, muddy, mosquito-infested field, and requiring you to cross transition in and out to get to…), threw my bag in, ripped off my shirt and ran to the pool entrance. “Are you here to swim?” the timing guy asked me with a strange look. “Yeah!” I said, “Am I late?”. “You’re the last one”, he told me. FUCK. I strapped on my timing chip, crossed the line, jumped in the pool and reached onto my head to pull down my goggles… DOUBLE FUCK. No goggles.
“I forgot my goggles!!” I exclaimed to the race official standing at the edge of my lane. “Get swimming” was all she told me. So I pushed off and started swimming. I swam a couple laps, but I was hindered the whole way by my blurred vision and the fear that one of my contact lenses would wash out of my eyes (it’s happened before) and leave me blind for the rest of the race. I pulled up to the end of my lane and waved an official over and asked if I could run and get my goggles. This triggered a frustrating conversation between myself, the official, and the timing technician, in which I asked to run to my bag in transition and get my spare goggles. They debated how that would work when I crossed back over the start timer (why couldn’t I just go around, I said, so the time would simply be added to my swim?). Eventually, sensing my frustration, the timing official offered to run to my transition bag for me and bring them back. I cracked off another lap while he did so, and once I had my goggles on I tried to calm myself and focus on my swim but it was hopeless…
I was flustered and stressed out. Even without any exertion my heart was racing, and try as I might I couldn’t relax and find my breathing rhythm and stroke. To make matters worse, now that I could see clearly, I could see that the officials were starting to take down the race marking and signage from the pool as I was swimming, all alone out there. I’m not sure if a more seasoned racer would have done this or not, but it definitely added to my sense of anxiety.
I nearly quit. It was the worst swim ever. I resorted to my recovery stroke. I stopped frequently and hung to the edge of the pool to catch my breath. I tried to tell myself to just enjoy the swim – this is what you always want in training. A pool: All. To. Yoself.
By the time I pulled myself out of the pool I was looking towards the bike. “At least I won’t have any trouble finding my bike!” I joked to one of the officials, but mostly just to try to make myself feel better. Only, the thing was, transition was already abuzz with athletes coming back from their bike leg and heading out on the run. Fuck.
I ran to my bike and started pulling on my socks and shoes. A woman offered me a drink and I took it. “You’re the last one so just think of it as a nice easy bike ride now” was her sympathetic advice. I snapped… I launched into a tirade about the start time and shot a few choice words at the official standing there. I pulled on my helmet and told her that I was “going to run down as many of these fuckers as I can” and she laughed with an ‘oh are you know?’ expression.
I knew the bike would be my strength, so I did exactly as I’d said I would. I hammered hard out of transition. So hard I forgot to start my Garmin. Oh well. Within a few minutes I was seeing other cyclists, and starting passing them strongly. The only question was: were they on their first lap of the course or their second? That question was answered when I hit the turnaround point on my second lap and found myself alone. Fuck. I’m the last person on the course, I thought. FUCK. Feeling the frustration setting in again, I channeled a motto I borrowed from a triathlete that I admire and told myself to just be RELENTLESS. So I kept hammering the pedals all the way back to transition.
Lo’ and behold, when I parked my bike there were two others in transition pulling on running shoes. We gave each other a smile and a nod and I pulled on my shoes and affixed my bib number to my bike jersey. Both of the other runners left just ahead of me, but in sight.
The whole time I was on the bike I was reminding myself that it was a timed event. It didn’t matter if I was the last person to cross the line if I was also the last person to start. It was all bout what my total time would be. But I also knew that my swim had been shit, and let’s face it… there’s something about being dead last that just… sucks. I wasn’t going to let it be me. So I ripped open a Picky Bar, grabbed a cup of water from the aid station at transition exit, and started running.
I knew from my brick sessions that my legs would be a bit off for the first few hundred meters, so I allowed myself to start slow. About 800m into it I took a deep breath (right around the time I suddenly remembered to stop the ‘bike’ leg on my Garmin and start the ‘run’), calmed myself, and set into a rhythm. I caught the first runner – an older Aussie gentlemen – on the nasty switchbacks that climb from the Kinsmen up to Saskatchewan Drive, and I paused to share some encouragement with him. I caught the next one at the top of the climb, and then next one when I hit the flat, familiar trail paralleling the river bank. I was happy to see other runners coming back from the turnaround – maybe I wasn’t going to completely embarrass myself. I hit the turnaround, checked my comfort level and headed for home. When I hit the switchbacks back downhill I felt good so I opened up my stride and tried to make up as much time as I could.
The start/finish area was looking pretty sparse when I hit the home stretch but I crossed the line in 1:47:31, good for 40th overall. Not exactly stunning, but I’ll take it.
When the timing data was all in, I learned that my swim had been the second slowest of all competitors, my bike leg was easily in the top 20, and my run was pretty good for me, for this year (in fact, with a T2+run time of 30:04 it was easily my strongest 5k of this year). But the best part for me was that I wasn’t the last person to cross that line. I waited around for that person though – my Aussie friend from the climb – and I made sure he got a good high-five and a cheer when he crossed the line. I love the sense of camaraderie among endurance athletes.
Oh, and the woman who told me to ‘just enjoy my bike ride’? She came to me and said something along the lines of: “I knew you’d catch a few of those ‘fuckers’” with a wink and a smile. I’ll score that one as a small victory!
So, for any noobs still reading this, here are my takeaway lessons.
One: If you are looking for a first triathlon, don’t pick a brand-new event in its first running. There’s just so much to take in, and you are going to feel unprepared and unorganized. The last thing you need is for the event itself to be disorganized and chaotic. Find a long-standing, well-oiled event and spare yourself some of my frustrations. This one was a gong show. I’m sure they will get it right in subsequent runnings.
Two: NEVER EVER EVER leave the race area. EVER. I have no idea how much faster my swim would have been if I’d hit the pool alongside the others from my heat, but I KNOW it would have been faster. And I know I would have felt more relaxed for the rest of the race. And I’m already making efforts to train in a pool with fast, capable athletes, so that when I DO get the start time right, I’ll feel comfortable in the crowd and the choppy water.
Three: Don’t waste time arguing with officials or making excuses. Whatever is done is done, and the only thing you can do as an athlete is make up that time out on the course.
Four: Triathlon is soooo fun. This was my first, but it won’t be my last. I didn’t finish as strong as I’d secretly hoped, but I can be stronger! And while this year I just made the cut as the oldest guy in my AG… next year I’ll be the youngest in my AG… So, who knows? I might even wind up with AG podium some day.
I just need to work on that swim game a little more first…