Trials & Tribulations of a Triathlon

For a long time, I’ve been interested in doing a triathlon. I have always gravitated towards endurance sports and I was attracted by the diversity of training for three separate events. In the past, I’ve completed a number of marathons and I always enjoyed the process of building up my mileage, feeling my body adapt to the rigorous routine that was forced upon it, and gradually preparing for a single event. After weeks or months of training, the marathon itself often felt like a reward for the discipline required during training. There would be crowds and logistical support, the weather and course would factor into the difficulty of the run, and the focus required of developing and monitoring my strategy throughout the race was thrilling. However, what I enjoyed more than the actual race was the training – watching the fat melt away, feeling the miles click by, and noticing that other aspects of my life improved as I honed my performance.

Considering the benefits that I have experienced with running, competing in triathlons seemed like a natural extension – a way to cross-train and to avoid some of the burnout that runners inevitably suffer when they notice a plateau in the miles run and speed attained. The attraction has only grown stronger recently as I have become more interested in biking and I have enjoyed my close proximity to the bike paths in Santa Monica. Yet, the reluctance to take part in triathlons has always been due to my weakness as a swimmer. Although this may be surprising for someone who grew up close to the water and has spent so much time on a boat, my swimming is largely limited to getting from one place to another or lazily floating in place. Speed, efficiency, and good form have never been my strengths in the water. In fact, I generally sink like a rock and it takes all my energy to plow forward before the ocean swallows me whole. Due to this limitation, I have been in no rush to attempt to swim a distance that I am uncertain of whether I can actually complete all while being kicked in the face and pummeled from all directions by other swimmers. The worst case for biking or running is changing a flat tire or having to walk. The worst case for swimming is drowning.

Still, I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment. When I received an e-mail at work inviting employees to participate in the LA Triathlon, I recognized an opportunity to give triathlons a try. While I might not be practical, I am realistic and I wisely opted to commit only to the sprint distance that is made up of a .4 mile swim, a 20 mile bike ride, and a 3.1 mile run. The course would begin near my apartment in Venice. After swimming around a few buoys in the fetid waters of Venice Beach, the bike portion would be a winding course to downtown Los Angeles. The run would be hilly course to Disney Hall and back to the Staples Center. Between the proximity to the start, the generous corporate sponsorship, and the support of knowing co-workers were in the same boat, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to take part in a triathlon.

Unlike a marathon, training for a triathlon does not seem to be clearly structured. Training plans vary and the mix between swimming, biking, and running is more of an art than a science. In any case, my lackluster training was less planned than opportunistically improvised. One would think that since swimming is by far my weakest discipline that I would focus primarily on becoming a more efficient swimmer. One would be incorrect. To be fair, I did join a gym with a pool. Unfortunately, the three lanes at the gym pool seem to be occupied at all times. Instead, I had to content myself with laps at the hotel pool during my frequent business trips to Fresno. Hardly larger than the size of a big Jacuzzi, my training at the hotel pool mainly improved my ability to push off the wall and turn around – not essential skills in an open water swim. After investing in the least expensive wetsuit available, I did venture out to the beach a couple of times to test out my new purchase. Even at the time, I realized that swimming alone was not intelligent and I was cautious about heading too far out beyond the wave breaks. Instead, I mainly plunged through big waves and body surfed my way in. I did notice the towering waves and the strong current running southwest, but these “swims” did little to build my confidence about surviving the first leg of the race.

Undaunted, I took solace in the parts of training that felt good. I enjoyed the bike rides and runs that took on more meaning since I was now training for a race. Although I didn’t rack up many miles, my focus was primarily on speed and dropping some weight before the event. To this end, I began to be a little more careful about my diet, cutting back on desserts and counting calories. At one point, I went on a daylong water diet that was meant to purge my system of toxins, but just made me hungry and irritable. The one thing that training for a triathlon has taught me is that I have become soft since returning from the boat. My time of going days without sleep or food appear to be in my past. During the roughly five weeks I spent preparing for the race, I somehow only managed to drop a couple of pounds, although I did at least feel better and convinced myself that I looked thinner.

While my training remained mired in the general fitness phase and never progressed to the important build-up phase, the date of the triathlon quickly snuck up on me. Suddenly, I found myself only a few days from the event without any confidence as to my ability to complete the swim. In one of the few team events that our company held before the race, we met up for happy hour after work. Holding court over the gathering was an employee who has completed many triathlons and is a member of the board for the LA Triathlon. She patiently answered our questions and provided a plethora of information on the event. Unfortunately, pretty much all of the information was bad news. For starters, we were instructed to arrive by 6:30 on the day of the race despite our wave not starting until 8:15. From my experience in marathons, I know that waking early and waiting around for the start of a race can be draining and is not something that is encountered in training. Once in the water, she told us how we should be prepared to be kicked in the face. When I asked if it was acceptable to do the breaststroke since that is my strongest stroke, she warned me that the motion of my kick would likely annoy other participants and that it isn’t uncommon for racers to elbow or punch other swimmers in the stomach resulting in the wind being knocked out of a competitor. In addition, we learned that the bike and running courses were extremely hilly. Finally, we were advised of the many rules that are strictly enforced in the triathlon. No drafting. No biking on the left side (considered blocking). No iPods. There were others, but I stopped listening, demoralized. The whole event sounded like a forced death march.

The day before the race, Megan and I went to the expo to pick up my bib and chip. Located at a hotel, the expo was poorly organized. After paying $10 for insurance on the day of the race (required), we wandered over to pick up a swim cap, complimentary t-shirt, and some course information. We perused a couple of tents peddling triathlon gear and decided we had had enough. On the way out, we saw a long line and were instructed that was where we should drop off my running gear that would be waiting for me at the second transition area. The sense that I was probably missing something important was hard to shake. Still, I tried to quell my fears and organized my stuff as best I could. That evening, I carbo-loaded on pasta and tried to get to bed early.

On Sunday morning, I woke early at 5:30 am. Gathering my belongings, I peddled my bike over to the start area in Venice Beach. After having my number written on my arm and my age drawn on my calf, I deposited my bike at the appropriate rack and waited. In preparation for the start, I went in the water to try to acclimate and watched the earlier waves to see how the start would work. I commiserated with a few co-workers and tried to limit my excitement to avoid wasting energy. The start of the race was anticlimactic. Everyone with the same color cap was herded into the corral. There was no countdown or warning, just a fog horn that was sounded to signify the start of our wave. Trying to stay towards the back and out of the way, I jogged to the right side of the start and waded into the water. The tide was out, so I was able to wade almost 30 yards from the beach. The waves were crashing and lifeguards floated nearby calling out every time a particularly large wave rolled in. The waves were taller than me and each time one approached I dove through the bottom. A couple of times, other swimmers would be thrown back into me. Eventually, I managed to get past where the waves were breaking and swim up and over the onrushing surges. As expected, the water was congested and I was constantly kicked from all directions. Limited in space, I was forced to thread my way around swimmers using the breaststroke, which surprisingly seemed to keep up with swimmers doing freestyle. Thankfully, my position on the outside proved a good decision since the current was pushing us south, towards the first marker. The competitors who attempted to swim the rumb line were pushed below the marker and had to fight their way back. I was gradually sliding towards it and eventually drifted by. On the second leg, the current was at our backs and I altered between breaststroke and freestyle depending on how much space was available. Every time I changed to freestyle, I would surge forward and be blocked by a line of swimmers. After turning the second buoy, we were forced to fight the current and I utilized freestyle most of the way, again swimming on the outside to avoid swimmers and attempt to use the current. Finally, I passed the last buoy and turned for the shore, body surfing the waves as I was thrown head over heels in the crashing waves. Exhausted, it was a tremendous relief to feel land beneath my feet and I shuffled out of the water and up the beach. I completed the swim in 18 minutes and 31 seconds.

The transition area was chaotic with competitors running in all directions while other participants not yet in the race waited in line for the bathroom or milled around. With a towel, I brushed the sand off and shed my wetsuit. I put on my socks, bike shoes, and helmet before sucking down a packet of energy gel. Next, I grabbed my bike and jogged it out of the transition area, having changed in four minutes and 30 seconds.

Once on the bike, I felt great. The tailwind helped, as did the fact that my slow swimming meant that I was passing a lot of people. The first half of the bike was relatively flat and I raced along trying to make up time. Knowing that the swimming was behind was a great feeling and I didn’t hold back. I figured that since running is my strongest event that I didn’t need to leave much in the tank. This proved short-sighted. Still, on the bike I managed to pass nearly a hundred people while only being passed by one or two. The second half of the bike course was brutal with some long, steep hills that sapped what little energy I had left. The bike portion finished with a steep downhill that I cautiously rode the breaks on, sacrificing valuable seconds for the sake of personal safety. Having passed Disney Hall, the unique building designed by Frank Gehry, I arrived at the second transition area. My time for the 20 mile bike ride was one hour and 50 seconds.

The most infuriating part of the race was the second transition. Rows were marked by numbers, so I looked for my number, 2509. However, one row ended at 2499 and the next row began at 2600. I raced around looking for my row with no luck. Finally, I found a volunteer to ask and she informed me that my row was in the relay section, completely separate from the rest of the racks and out of sequential order. I quickly shed my bike helmet and shoes before putting on my running shoes, then hustled out of the transition area in a woeful two minutes and 42 seconds.

I should mention that part of the deal of our company sponsoring us was that they would provide triathlon jerseys. The jersey featured all of the products owned by Roll International. Originally, I chose the short-sleeve jersey since it looked like a bike jersey, but I decided to change to the sleeveless version since I thought it would be more comfortable during the run. Big mistake. The jersey looked awful. I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes it so terrible – the awkward collar, the zipper that run the entire length of the front, the effeminate design, or the general cut of the shirt – but the one thing that is certain is that I look like a rejected member of the Village People when I wear it. Fortunately, by the time the run began I was unconcerned with my appearance. Frankly, I was dragging. I didn’t save any energy and was spent. Also, since it was after 10:00 am, the sun was up and it was hot. Adding insult to injury, the running course was straight up the same steep hill that I chose life over success on the bike. I shuffled through the first mile and then walked up most of the hill. Although walking is pathetic, at that point there was very little difference in speed between jogging up the hill and walking. At the top of the hill, I resumed my plodding progress and then glided down the hill as I made up a little time. Finally, I jogged towards the finish line as the first semblance of a crowd surrounded the finish area. My time for the 5K run was 23 minutes and 11 seconds bringing my time for the entire race to one hour, 49 minutes, and 43 seconds.

Thus ends my first triathlon experience. Going in, I set the goals of (1) finishing, (2) having fun, and (3) completing the race in less than two hours. In retrospect, I was able to accomplish all three goals. Still, there is plenty of room for improvement. Looking back, I should have paced myself a little better during the biking portion to leave more energy for the run. In the transition areas, I could have been more efficient. Most importantly, I could have trained more to avoid the shortfall of energy towards the end. Yet, despite the mistakes, I could envision triathlons becoming addictive in the same way that I became obsessed with improving my marathon performances. There is always more that can be done and improvements that can be made. Hopefully, if I can improve my swimming form and increase my endurance, I can begin looking forward to my next triathlon when I can go farther and faster.

One Reply to “Trials & Tribulations of a Triathlon”

  1. Congratulations on finishing and beating your target time. Any firm plans to do another triathlon?

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