A few years ago one of my friends (who is a avid runner) was getting married in North Carolina, and he and his best man found a 10K trail race taking place in the gorgeous N.C. mountainside the morning before the wedding. So we got a small group together went out and even though I’d never raced on a trail before, we all had a blast. Running on a trail around nature, rolling streams, ponds etc. and mostly in the shade, it’s not a contest against a sidewalk or street and worrying about cars hitting you. Thats not to say also that opnce you get into the longer distances of running events you kinds get bored so I was immediately hooked on trail running as opposed to pavement. I even organize an annual trail run myself now. So then all this other stuff I want to try is just the next progression I suppose.
So for my to-do list, so far, I’ve decided to try out triathlons, obstacle course races (Tough Mudder etc.), trail racing, mountain bike racing and adventure races.
So let me preface all of this by saying, I am NOT an elite athlete, I don’t have a personal trainer, nor some kind of super strict training regimen. I run 3-4 miles a few times a week and I like to ride my mountain bike once in a while on some local trails, and did my first ever mountain bike race a few months ago, but that’s about it, I’m in decent shape (see above link).
So of all the things in that list above, the one I felt most unprepared for was Triathlons, mainly for 2 reasons:
- The only bike I’ve ever really owned is just one that was on clearance at Walmart when I was in college. Only recently in the last few months did I get an actual mountain bike for the trails that is sized for me.
- Swimming… Sure I did American Red Cross swimming lessons as a kid to the point I got to the lifeguard tests in highschool… but that was almost 20 years ago. The only swimming I’ve done in the last 20 years has been via snorkeling or the community pool with the kiddos.
So the bike part was actually easier than I thought. For starters, all the race details I saw were very clear that there are no requirements on bikes, just that it have 2 wheels, use whatever you’ve got.
90% of my biking in the last decade has been on trails, and after many years of abusing my clearance bought Schwinn do-anything bike on the trails, I finally had a crash and managed to bend a wheel last year. So while I was at the local friendly bike shop getting it repaired, I decided to go through the process with them of getting a proper mountain bike that’s actually sized for me (I’m 6’3″ so most in-stock bikes are small for me).
I thought I would be spending 4-digit dollars but surprisingly getting a good mountain bike can start as cheap as $300. I went a few levels up from beginner and landed in the $550 range, but I remember being completely blown away the first time I used it how much easier it was and better it felt to be on a bike meant for the task of being on trails and being big enough for my long legs. Easily one of the best investments I made and fairly inexpensive considering how much use I get out of it.
So with the tri in mind, I decided to go back down to my awesome local bike shop and inquire about what it might take to get something more appropriate for the road than my clearance bike or new mountain bike. I told them about doing a tri and they recommended some hybrid options and then showed me road-specific options at the next price level.
You hear stories about people spending high 4 digits or even 5 digits on road/triathlon specific bikes, but again, getting a good road-purpose bike really isn’t that bad. Getting the entry-level road-specific bike from a good maker, is still so far above the standards of just a riding bike. I got the Trek entry level road bike and my awesome local shop cut me a deal so I was able to get in at $800 and again its some of the best $ I’ve spent.
Frankly all the mountain biking and even cycle classes at the gym are the hard training, because getting on that road bike, holy hell, I felt like I was flying on a toothpick. I feel like you work hard when doing the mountain bike, you really sweat to do just 5 miles, and have to make constant gear changes and manhandling of the handlebars and wheels for the constant changing terrain, roots etc. I could do 10+ miles on this road bike without barely breaking a sweat or needing a drink of water.
So for training I just added a few evening bike rides to a few days out of my week just to get used to it; a few new techniques like tucking for aerodynamics/drag reduction and a different kind of gear-shifter (the brake handle is the shifter), more than anything for the road bike you gotta get used to the fact that its so light/nimble, you don’t need as much steering input, and don’t have to manhandle it, make smaller movements with your body.
The swim though… for most people I talk to their main fear is the swim, and you could add me to that list. There is good news for anyone worried about how hard triathlons might be because you see Ironman or Olympic competitions on TV etc. Thankfully ALL of those types of races I listed above have progression levels in their events, just like running. You don’t only have marathons in running, you have 1-mile fun runs, 5Ks, 10Ks all the way up to ultra-marathons etc.
In Triathlon there are 4/5 main distances:
- Sprint Triathlon—750 meter (0.465 mile) swim / 20 kilometer (12.5 mi) bike / 5 km (3.1 mi) run
- Pool-based Sprint Triathlon—250-300 meter (.14-.18 mile) swim / 20 kilometer (12.5 mi) bike / 5 km (3.1 mi) run
- Standard or Olympic Triathlon—1.5 kilometer (0.93 mile) swim / 40km (25 mi) bike / 10 km (6.2 mi) run
- Half-Ironman or 70.3 Triathlon—1.9 kilometer (1.2 mile) swim / 90 km (56 mi) bike / 21.1 km (13.1 mi) run
- Ironman Triathlon—3.8 kilometer (2.4 mile) swim / 180.2 km (112 mi) bike / 42.2 km (26.2 mi) run
The good news for me is there are a few Sprint-Triathlons throughout the year in this area with many of them pool based which brings two major benefits to someone worried about being a terrible swimmer. Mainly you don’t have to swim nearly as far because you’re doing laps in a 25m community pool. Since there may be 100-400+ people in the race and you can’t all fit in the pool together they tend to do what is called a interval snake swim, where you swim down 1 lane, go under the rope then swim up the next lane, under rope then down the next etc. until you swim the final lane and then get out the pool and off to bike transition. Racers start in 5-10 second intervals so you’re not on top of each other and worried about colliding etc.
Lastly being in a pool means, no getting freaked out about open water, and also if you truly get tired you can just hold the side of the pool or the lane rope and take a break.
So with all that in mind, I unfortunately only had about 2 months from time I decided to do this to raceday and with tons going on I was only able to get to the gym/pool 4-5 times before raceday. Here’s what I learned very quickly… I SUCK at swimming.
I mean I remember how to float and swim and tread water.. basically how to not die if I fall into water… but actual lap swimming… actual freestyle swimming…
No kidding the first time I got in the pool to do laps I quickly learned I needed to remove an ‘s’. I did a lap of the 25m pool before I was out of air. At this point in time I was biking 10+ miles no problem, running 5+ miles training no problem so this wasn’t about being out of shape… This was not having swum a lap in 15+ years and having absolutely no technique…
But I’m committed to doing this race so I continue(d) to practice, and it has been more of it. I wasn’t tired physically, I could roll over to backstroke and do 10+ laps, something just has be be massively wrong with my freestyle.
So I looked up tips/tricks on running out of air swimming and have plenty to work on there but one thing I found that helped me a lot is I found that I’m not alone. Its easy to teach a swimmer to bike/swim but its a fairly consistent issue teaching bikers/runners how to swim properly.
Where that search specifically helped me is I got to see how other people handled a triathlon while being terrible swimmers. First, there is a thing called a swimming snorkel that is fairly inexpensive that allows you to swim with your face down and work on form without freaking out about breathing.
Second there’s nothing in triathlon rules that say you need to freestyle swim. And many people online had stories about switching to backstroke, butterfly, doggypaddle, sidestroke etc. to rest from their freestyle for a while; and the same goes for the swimming snorkel, some racers had used them; no shame in any of that so long as you’re swimming under your own power you’re good.
So with not much time to figure out my swimming technique issues race day is here. This first sprint-tri was really meant to be more for learning, not about setting a PR. I’ve actually signed up for a few more sprint-tris this year, so this first one needed to be about figuring it all out. So many things I’ve never done for a race before: swim, swim-bike transition, bike-run transition, how to setup transition area, etc.
So the first thing I learned is that unlike running, you can’t just show up and race. You gotta get there very early, unload, set up your bike and your station and do all this in the dark/cold morning as there’s a cutoff time when no one is allowed in the area. But that’s part of the fun of it. Also use the restroom before everyone else shows up because once a line develops its too late…
So going from idea to race in 2 months.. what did I learn? I’m a terrible swimmer 🙂
Well I didn’t really learn that, I guess this just confirmed it 🙂 But I actually decided that progress was more important than looking the part, so after running out of air at the end of 2 laps I would take a little time between laps to catch breath and then eventually just switched to backstroke for the final 5 laps.
But here’s my results. There were 285 finishers and I came in 268th in the swim, I was the 17th worst swimmer out there, and I’ll wear that with pride because I finished 167th overall. In other words, I passed 100 people in the bike and run.
Obviously that’s an optimistic way to look at it, but that’s where I get to go from here, that’s my current personal record so now its time to beat that from here. So what are the big points I learned so far:
- This is not only doable, but it might have been the most fun I’ve had doing a race. Adding all the aspects of transition and different disciplines was fun, it stops you from getting bored like a marathon or half marathon where you’re just running the whole time and then you stop.
- I’m not the only terrible swimmer, and also no one cares. There were many people in the race who had to stop and take breaks, some used swimming snorkels, some did doggy paddle and side stroke to rest, the reality is if you are courteous and just make sure you avoid contacting other swimmers you’ll get nothing but encouragement.
- Its not just a young man’s game, the overall winner of this race was 38. And there were 60+ competitors over 50, many of them kicked my ass, several of them finishing in the top 25.
- Definitely get a decent tri-suit and forego the running shirt. Not only does it take more time to put on a shirt in transition but frankly being wet then biking then running is not a great combo for a loose shirt.
- Now what can I do if I push? In addition to that improving my time/rank is very attainable. I was 16/18 in my division, but coming down 4-5 minutes would have put me 8th. Considering I didn’t really push in this race, I’ve got some doable goals.
- It actually started raining during my bike so I didn’t push too hard for fear of wiping out. That’s also the interesting thing about the interval start method. Not everyone had rain for their biking, I started my swim 40 minutes after the first person started.
- I definitely took my time during transition, cause I didn’t want to get it wrong first time out. I was a minute slower in T1 and 30s slower in T2.
- The swim… yeah so I got work to do here, but the good news I can really only get better. I’ve just been going to the pool and swimming more and more laps and while I’m still needing to switch to backstroke, I’ve got my 3:09 pace from the race down to 2:32 in practice, that’d be a 1m+ in the race I’d take out. My end goal on the swim is to be able to freestyle the sprint distance, cause then I’ll feel comfortable taking the next step to open water.
So after this I’ve got my first adventure race (mountain bike, paddle, run/trek), and then my next sprint-tri Memorial Day weekend, so I won’t be an excellent swimmer by then but will be interesting to see if I’ve progressed in that short time. I do know this much, I had so much fun so I will definitely be doing more and more just for that alone.