10 August, 2009

my first triathlon (longer to read than race)

A copy of my post to the trifuel.com site.
First, a legend of jargon:

OA - Overall
AG - Age Group
TT - Time Trial

T1 - the transition zone between swim and bike
T2 - transition between bike & run

BT - BeginnerTriathlete.com
PB - peanut butter!
TF - trifuel.com - the site my article is in.

Sidi's cleats - bike shoes' pedal clips

flying squirrel - running beside bike, then jumping onto it without touching the pedals. Yeah... that's why I didn't.

RPE - Rate of Perceived Exertion - basically a common sense awareness of effort, surprisingly accurate like heart rate.

gel - small package of gooey, saccharine carbohydrates. Easy to carry and rip open during a competition.

Gu - trade name of one brand of gels.

bricks - training sessions where one bikes hard, then quickly dismounts and goes for a run, to simulate race conditions.
Trains the legs to withstand the rude shock of continuing when a rational person might stop. (Comes from Bike, Run, ICK!)


In a nutshell:

Event: Belwood Lake Sprint Triathlon
Location: Fergus, Ontario, Canada
Date: 19 July, 2009
Results: 150/463 OA in 1:52:34 - 12/30 in M50-54 AG

swim (1km) - 22:28 - 02:15/100m - 20/30 AG
T1 - 02:40
bike (30km) - 52:03 - 34.6 km/hr - 5/30 AG
T2 - 01:30
run (7km) - 33:54 - 04:51/km - 15/30 AG

Rain mostly held off, not too hot, many family members showed up to cheer me on, had a blast. An exciting event for me, perhaps a boring story because of no difficulties - even getting the wetsuit off wasn't overly comical (I hope)

Long version - preamble:

Last year, after decades of relative inactivity I finally indulged a life-long desire to ride a nice bicycle and scratch my itch for speed. I purchased a - for me, expensive - TT/tri bike and embarked on my new hobby of filling out time trial fields and bringing up rears. I was a rolling sag wagon, but quite enjoyed the sensation of riding and the new fitness that came with it.

As most readers here will corroborate, some fitness led me to want more, and a gentle prodding stirred within: hey, you can swim (although friends had nicknamed me water foul [sic]), you love to bike, and you seemingly make it a hobby to chase the bus to the commute train, so why not combine them all and follow in the footsteps of fellow Canuck Simon Whitfield back in 2000 in Sydney (albeit from a far distance)?!

Why not? My knees, for one. Never one to gloat about their condition (some bad falls in basketball camp scrimmages as a 12 year old scotched my parent's dreams of me supporting the family on an NBA starter's salary) I was mostly concerned about whether or not I could endure the run without blowing apart. A thorough search of this site, BT, and others, gave me the courage to begin training and the wisdom to approach it systematically. Also joined the Triathlon Club of Burlington so I could benefit from others' expertise and not try to do this alone - a bad habit of mine.

In a nutshell, by not biting off too much at a time I was able to build up a base of fitness to the point where I felt as ready as I'd ever be and signed up for the Belwood Lake sprint tri, part of the Subaru series. As this would be my first tri, and it was within days of my 50th birthday, several family members voiced their intentions to come cheer me on. This show of support, while flattering, spurred me to whip up a manifesto right away. I titled it: Dignity Under Duress (DUD). This was going to be my DUD triathlon. I immediately shelved my Speedo, and took stock. Family, in-laws, my two sons (ages 14 & 11)... none of them had seen me cry, or cough up blood, or curl up on the ground in a fetal position with cramping, so my goals became clear: 1) finish, no matter how much it kills me. If this could be achieved, then 2) finish on my feet, head held high, pain-free and having done no lasting damage to either myself, others, or adjacent property. And if this was possible, then 3) finish in under 2 hours. Oh yes, and 4) have fun, whenever possible, and if it won't jeopardize points 1-3.

Long version - race day:

Managed to sleep well enough - having packed the night before gave me great piece of mind, I guess - and woke to the alarm. It was a bright beautiful morning, and I downed a favourite bagel with PB and a banana, quaffed a few welcome cups of coffee and we were off, my long-suffering wife and the boys bundled half-asleep in the car with some provisions for later. It was an hour's drive, and as we approached, an ominous, heavy bank of clouds rose up from the horizon. They hovered over the triathlon for the remainder of the day, but outside of a light sprinkling during the bike leg (which I thought in my fog of adrenaline and lactic acid was me emitting a mist of sweat) it held off and actually made a pleasant shield from what could have been a blisteringly hot, humid day.

the bikes looked cool; us rubber-coated old guys: not so much...

Thanks to the informative postings here I was able to prepare my spot like I knew what I was doing, and it gave me further confidence. I laughed at how my naivete insulated me from nerves - ignorance is bliss! - and I figured from this point I'd wing it if anything unexpected cropped up. I was assigned the 6th and final swim wave, and took care to don my wetsuit methodically, thus maintaining my DUD. I waddled down to the lakeside, although not before my wife unveiled a sign she stealthily made with my two boys, each holding a few letters aloft for me: GO STMVE (it was actually GO STEVE but one of the boys had the E rotated). While I loved them dearly for the gesture, I'm not sure if the lump in my throat was sentimental or simply me beginning to choke under pressure!

I'm the one with the blue cap

It was really very exciting to be wading into the water hearing everyone cheering earlier waves' countdowns. I caught that sense of how the event itself truly is a celebration of all of the training and preparation before it, and it struck just the right tone for me. I wasn't afraid of the swim - yes, I wasn't fast, but at least I had practiced a lot, including a few OWS sessions, and had a history of 1000m swims for years with my wife, who got me into it - and, while the pylons did look an awfully long distance apart, I knew the Dory Method ("... just keep swimming...") would see me safely through to T1. After watching the Clif Bar tri swim video on YouTube, and hearing numerous accounts of elbows, kicks, and lost goggles here on TF & elsewhere, I was prepared for a battle royale that never materialized. Starting from the outside rear position (so far out and so far rear that a Frisbee-catching German Shepherd at one point waded over to me, I think mistaking me for a member of his barbecue group up the shore) I may have touched one person's foot in the final funneling in to the exit, but that was about it. Only one mouthful of water, which I managed to spit out without panic rather than swallow . I can't imagine a more gentle introduction to tri swimming than this, and yes, I know it was good luck and there may be a real donnybrook the next time!

The next hurdle for me was the whole dignity-exiting-the-water thing, and I knew I had to nail this one or else make the sort of spectacle that's painfully retold for ages at family gatherings. Discretion being the better part of valour, I chose to not break into a heroic sprint as soon as possible and risk falling, and instead staggered up to the transition zone with the measured purpose of a bar patron zig-zagging to the john after several hours of drinking. In this time I got the wetsuit unpeeled as planned (let's see a typical bar patron do that); I managed to even hold my goggs and swim cap in one hand and release them as I pulled my sleeve inside out to trap them - just the way the pros did in the video. (Funny, they don't show the pros checking the organizer's Lost & Found for dropped goggles, though - they weren't up my sleeve when I got home!)

It was a consolation to arrive so late to T1 as my bike was standing out like a gaudy wallflower at a dance everyone else had left. Some DUD highlights of this stage included: 1) not tripping - nor pulling down my tri shorts - while quickly stepping out of my wetsuit legs; 2) swilling some watered-down Gatorade without barfing or otherwise choking; 3) tucking my ears into my pterodactyl helmet while turning away from my cheering section so they wouldn't see me grimace; 4) didn't trip on my Sidi's cleats while I ran; 5) chose to forgo the flying squirrel mount... better my family watches me take a moment to clip in and rocket off, than see me rocket diagonally over my top tube and into the arms of the 115lb volunteer who was thinking the worst she might experience that day would be Gatorade trickling down to her elbows.

The ride was, for me, terrific. Nothing to write home about, but I felt good, enjoyed myself, and never cramped up or bonked. The other riders were generally quite well-mannered and capable. I experienced the unique thrill of passing countless people, and even re-passed the two who got by me early on. My RPE corresponded perfectly with what I think my words of encouragement were for fellow bikers, degenerating from "Good job, man!" on the early flat segments with a tail wind to more like "Gaaaa - uh, guh..." on the uphills before the final turn. I had great success with my aerobottle drinking, which to me meant not only hydrating well but also not spearing my gums over bumps. The only real glitch in the day came when I went to tug my gel off the top tube and found I couldn't get it free; I had used masking tape to anchor its bottom end for the car trip (see how prepped I was?! Gu taped on at home!) and forgot to remove this as I set up in transition. No worries, I thought, it was a relatively short race and I was otherwise well-nourished, so I made a point of grabbing a Gatorade instead of water at the first run aid station to make up for it.

An odd event came a few minutes from the end of the bike leg, as we approached the park. I recall seeing a bright red Prius stopped at a sideroad, several people standing outside it. The race route, on country roads, had few spectators up until this point (outside of the turnaround and main intersections where police and volunteers were stationed) so the Prius really stood out. It reminded me of my sister's car. Could this be a cluster of volunteers, or course marshals? The group started to cheer as I approached while passing two other riders. I was incredulous; it was my siblings. I managed a little wave, sort of like the Queen does - had to keep it aero, though; it never occurred to me that Elizabeth II is thinking the same because her parade carriage is so slow - and while I instinctively hi-tailed it out of there so the other riders wouldn't tease me, deep down I was bursting with pride that my sibs would go to such lengths to show their support!

not a smile so much as a grill to keep the bugs out

My dismount upheld my DUD record. I came full stop and dropped my unclipped toe to terra firma. The cheering was a real boost, even if the crowd were just showing their relief that I didn't bite off more than I could chew. T2 was a quick enough to suit my expectations, and I felt real nerves now knowing this was my moment of truth. Would the knees hold up? Were my bricks sufficient prep for this? I took another quick swig of drink after yanking up my speed laces and was off, making sure to pace myself until my legs felt as if they belonged to me.

The run itself was almost surreal: hundreds of folks more or less quietly running an up-and-back loop of a single vehicle trail through fairly close undergrowth, an occasional high five between club members punctuating the muted huffing and puffing. A highlight for me was receiving a drink from a very special volunteer: my buddy, Luke, whom I've known ever since grade one. He's an ultra-marathoner now, and was helping out at this event. I wasn't sure what my chances were to bump into him today, and here he was with some of his typically soft-spoken words of encouragement. As I paused to chug a drink I asked him for any advice he could offer, and it was, Just relax! That was a welcome reminder, because until now I certainly must have looked like a middle-aged first-timer afraid of blowing up in front of hundreds of people.

It turns out my siblings weren't done with me yet. As I approached the primary turnaround - a hairpin where we shift into the other tire track - the familiar red Prius was waiting at the crossroad! Not only that, but the doors and hatchback were open, the better to amplify Queen's We are the Champions blaring from their stereo! Unbelievable. I was dumbfounded, did a little pirouette for them on the turn, and carried on laughing as much as my lungs could manage. Apparently a runner following me called out to them, Do you know him?!

What a family...

The remainder of the run was a thrill to me because the knees did, in fact, hold up and they made no complaints whatsoever. This was the culmination of months of slow and steady increases in volume, seeing if I could make the grade with patience alone. My final few kms were a bit quicker; I realized only at that point that this was my first ever foot race and I think the adrenaline rush of this new door opening for me provided a boost!

For fun - and as a nod to Simon W. - I tossed my hat into my family "crowd" as I approached the line. My older son, Graham, paced me on the other side of the fence for the final 100m... a memory I will always cherish. Suddenly, it was over. I crossed, upright and pain-free, no leaking fluids, a smile (of sorts) on my face. Hugs all around, some leisurely re-hydration, and I began checking the calendar for my next event! It was a privilege to have the fitness to participate - that's the overriding sensation I'm left with - and I found the healthy and friendly atmosphere infectious.

For those of you who've made it this far: thanks for your indulgence. I really learned a lot reading your race reports and forum discussions, and hope this is a help to any others thinking of trying this sport... I can't recommend it enough! Your first tri can be challenging, exciting, rewarding, and even - if you're really lucky - dignified!


  1. GO STMVE and the the ‘Prius Siblings’ led me to the brink of moist eyes.

    “My older son, Graham, paced me on the other side of the fence for the final 100m... a memory I will always cherish.” That one pushed me over.

    As they say on uphill rides Stephen, ‘Gaaaa - uh, guh... ’


  2. Glad to see it twigged you, Russell! I hope you get out there & create your own memories on two wheels as well!