Malibu Triathlon Race Recap

Timing is everything in life.  I signed up for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in early March before I decided to attempt a half ironman.  Malibu is an insanely popular race that usually sells out within hours.  It draws an wide array of participants, including professional athletes, so-called weekend warriors, corporate teams, challenged athletes, and of course Hollywood celebrities.  The Nautica Malibu Triathlon also partners with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to raise money for pediatric cancer research. 

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The international distance race (1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run) takes place on Saturday.  And the classic distance race (1/2 mi swim, 18 mi bike, 4 mi run) takes place on Sunday.  I registered for the classic distance, more interested in experiencing the “scene” that is the Malibu Triathlon than really putting up any serious results.  Once I knew I was going to do the half ironman, all of my training was focused on that and I lost a lot of my speed as a result.  But I knew this was a fun, popular race and decided to participate anyway.

The course is simple, but challenging.  It features a half-mile ocean swim, an 18 mile hilly (but beautiful) out-and-back bike, and a 4 mile out-and-back run along the coast.  

I picked up my packet and racked my bike on Saturday afternoon.  The race expo was amazing and packet pickup was quick and easy.  I loved that you could rack your bike the day before the race (one less thing to worry about!).  After I got my packet, I walked around the expo for a bit, which was on the beach.


There was a sand castle building contest…


And beach yoga presented by Equinox…


After I bought some gear and admired the sandcastles, I hung out at the beach a bit before heading home and preparing for the big day.


I couldn’t forget my traditional, pre-race froyo though.


I woke up on Sunday morning at 4:45, got dressed, and was in the car and on my way by 5 a.m.    In the car, I ate a bagel with cream cheese and an apple, while I chatted with my mom and questioned why on earth I signed up for triathlon in the first place (I’m not a morning person…)  There wasn’t any traffic until we got close to Zuma on PCH, at which point, I hopped out of the car and walked to the transition area while my mom parked the car.   

I made it to the transition area with only about 5 minutes to set up (stupid PCH…).  Luckily, I really didn’t have a ton to do so that wasn’t a problem.


The schedule of events kind of threw me off.  The transition area closed at 6:30 a.m.  There was a mandatory pre-race safety meeting at 6:45 a.m.  And the first wave of athletes went off at 7 a.m.  My wave, however, did not go off until around 8, which left me a whole lot of time to stand around, get hungry, and, of course, psych myself out.


My parents and my friend Remi stood with me on the beach as we watched the waves of athletes go off.  The temperature was rising (welcome to southern California and a historic heat wave) and so were my nerves.  The waves were 5 minutes apart and we noticed that some swimmers got hit with really high surf and some lucked out and made it past the break without a problem.  I’ve done two triathlons to date and both were in protected bays.  I had to deal with swells during the swims, but have never had to make my way out past such big waves before.  My swimming isn’t particularly weak or particularly strong.  In the past, I’ve struggled (and still struggle) with open water anxiety, but I usually just take a few seconds to flip on my back and float to regain my composure and calm my nerves.  That was not possible in this race until your made it to the first buoy and past the waves… Wonderful.




When it finally came time for me to line up for the swim, I was insanely nervous.  I had never practiced getting out past the break and the waves looked huge.

I stood anxiously waiting for race officials to send the bright pink swim caps into the water.  How nervous do I look???


When the gun went off, I jogged towards the water, attempting to stay in the back of the pack.  The water was around 70 degrees (it’s usually absolutely freezing) but the swells were big.  Within seconds of getting in the water, I had to duck under my first big wave.  I felt relatively comfortable, but my heart rate had already skyrocketed.




A few seconds later, another big wave.  Heart races.  Breathing quickens. 


I tried to swim towards the buoy as fast as I could, keeping my head above water and ducking under the huge waves that kept coming my way.


Another wave.  Dempsey, it’s okay, breathe.  


Another wave.  You can swim.  You swam 1500 m on Friday.  This is only 800 m.  Just get to the buoy.


Another wave.  Chest constricts.  Breaths shorten.


Another wave.  

It’s hard to completely explain my mental processing at this point.  Could I have continued and made it out to the first buoy?  Possibly.  Probably.  Was I in the midst of a full blown panic attack?  Definitely.  I looked around me and saw other swimmers struggling as well.  There were a bunch of lifeguards around me assisting swimmers that needed help.

Another wave.  At that moment I made the decision it wasn’t worth it.  I raised my hands up and screamed for help, at which point I got hit by another wave that pulled me under.  Within seconds, I was grabbed by a lifeguard, who told me to hold onto his yellow buoy.  I gasped for air and tried to regain my composure.  To my left was another pink-swim-capped girl who was clinging to a lifeguard’s buoy as well.


“Do you want to continue the race or do you want to go in?”

“I want to go in!” I screamed.  I couldn’t even consider the possibility of trying to battle the waves again.

“Shit! Duck!”  The lifeguard clutched my waist and forced me under water as a wave hit us from behind.

“Yes! Please bring me in!”


As he helped me towards shore, I heard another girl talking to the lifeguard who was helping her stay afloat.  “Can you get me past the break?  At that point I’ll be fine.”   He told her that he wasn’t allowed to do that…damn it!

By now, I was breathing semi-normally and thought that if I tried again, I might be able to win my battle against the waves.  “Wait, I think I can do it!”  My lifeguard ignored my last second plea for a redo and continued to drag me to shore.  Fair enough.


Now, I could be dishonest and say that when I got into shore I was already laughing at my swimming debacle.  The thing is, that was not the case.  I was met with another lifeguard who asked if I needed any medical assistance (no, the only thing that was hurting was my ego).  He also asked for my bib number so they could report that I was no longer in the water.  

My mom was the only person of my group that I saw when I got onto the beach.

“I failed,” I said between gasps for air.  “This is so stupid.  I knew I couldn’t do it.  I’m terrible.  I should never do triathlons ever again.”

“Oh come on.  Who cares that you didn’t do the swim?  Look at it out there!  You’re fine.”  My mom always knows how to put things in perspective.

I stood on the beach for a few minutes debating what to do.  A big part of me wanted to go home and never talk about this race again.  Just as I was about to throw in the towel, I was approached by a women waiting for a later swim wave.  She had observed me getting pulled out of the water and told me that I could walk down the beach to where the swimmers exit and do the bike and run portions of the race.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about continuing to compete in a race that in my mind I had already “failed” at, but I figured that I might as well get a good workout and clear my mind.  So off I went, down the beach and into the transition area.

No one really questioned what I was doing as I made my way through the spectators and up the beach towards my bike.  The timing worked out well so that I was entering transition with the first few pink swim caps who had exited the water.



I took my time in the transition, taking off my wetsuit and drying off with a little towel that I had brought. Usually I try to push through transitions quickly but I thought that my timing chip had been deactivated.  After a lengthy transition, I headed out for the 18 mile bike.

Official “Swim” Time: 21:27.38 (aka the time I spent walking down the beach)

Transition 1 Time: 5:44.28


The bike course is fairly simple.  First, you head south to exit the Zuma beach parking lot and then make a u-turn under a tunnel before heading north on PCH for about 7 miles.  Then you turn around and head back.  Not a lot of turns and not very technical.  I had been warned to avoid the speed bumps when exiting the parking lot (they give a lot of people flats), so I took my time to go around them and start to get in a groove.  I’m not super strong on the bike in terms of turns, etc.  When I hit the end of the parking lot and went under the tunnel to turn around, I made sure to go slow to avoid crashing.  I also saw a girl who seemed to have skidded off the road and was laying on her side in a ditch (super scary!) with paramedics tending to her.  Note to self: go slow around the turns!

The ride was pretty uneventful.  It gave me time to work through my swimming problems and sort-of come to peace with it.  Once I was on PCH, I decided that I wasn’t going to push too hard on the bike.  I knew that my half ironman was in 3 weeks and that had to be my priority.  No letting my competitive side get the best of me.


The course was pretty hilly, but nothing that I couldn’t handle.  Most of the hills weren’t remarkably long and they were great practice for Silverman 70.3 which is insanely hilly (God help me…).  Usually I get passed by a lot of people on the bike leg (cycling is NOT my strength) but I only got passed a few times and did a fair share of passing myself.  At one point, I was descending down a hill and got passed by a guy who yelled “Yay!!! Fat guy plus gravity,” as he whizzed past me.  Then we reached the bottom of the hill and began climbing again, at which point, I passed him.  His response: “Booo! Fat guy plus gravity!”  Way to keep the mood light and remind me triathlons can be fun!

The only real interesting (and scary) part of the bike was the turn-around point, where I saw a few people who had crashed and were being treated by paramedics.  I’ve never seen so many bike crashes in the races that I’ve done before!

On the way back towards Zuma, you’re heading south on PCH and have magnificent views of the pacific ocean to your right.  I tried to just take in the scenery and enjoy myself as much as I could.  


I re-entered transition, stopped my watch and dismounted from the bike with no problem at all.  I was kind of disappointed with my bike time, but I’ve sacrificed a lot of my speed for endurance on the bike so it really wasn’t that big of deal.  Again, I took my time with transition.  As I re-racked my bike, I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything on the bike (I meant to take a Gu) and had hardly drank any of my water.  Oops.  I took a few extra seconds in transition to down some water before I headed out on my run.

Official Bike Time: 1:08:50.84 // 15.7 mph

Garmin Bike Stats: 1:07:23 // 17.82 mi // 15.9 mph (watch wouldn’t start)

Transition 2 Time: 5:01.65


When I exited transition, the first thing I saw were my parents and Remi cheering me on!  I hadn’t seen my dad and Remi since before the swim incident so I couldn’t help but laugh as I ran by.  The look on my face is priceless.



The run portion of the race is an out and back that takes you south along Zuma beach.  I’ve run along the strand many times, so I knew what to expect.  It’s relatively flat with only a slight grade.  Not bad.  

I have a love/hate relationship with the run leg of triathlon.  I love it because I’m a runner.  It is 100% my strength and I enjoy passing people after getting passed on my first two legs.  I feel safe and confident and athletic.  I also hate it.  I hate it because since running is my strength, I tend to really push it.  And it hurts.  A lot.  Over the 3 weeks leading up to the Malibu triathlon, I wasn’t doing a lot of running because I had been dealing with heel/achilles/calf pain and wanted to make sure I was at least semi-healthy for my half ironman.  This was the longest distance I had run since August and it was only 4 miles.  Because of that, I made the decision not to push too hard.  Better play it safe than sorry.


The run was as pleasant as a run can be.  As with the bike, I’ve lost a lot of my speed training for 70.3, so my body really wasn’t used to the pace I was running at.  However, I was pleased to see that I was able to maintain a decent pace and wasn’t ridiculously slow.


The run was uneventful as well.  There was a water station at every mile, which I took time to walk through and hydrate.  I usually don’t take water on the run, but after forgetting to hydrate on the bike and keeping in mind it was one of the hottest days in SoCal all year, I decided I would take water every chance I could get.  

I passed good amount of people on the run, which gave me a much needed confidence boost.  There were a lot of times where I wanted to stop and walk, which is pretty typical of any race.  But I managed to keep going (minus my water breaks).  The only thing that annoyed me about the run was that it was actually about a quarter mile longer than 4 miles.  Hence my Garmin pace is faster than the actual race results.  Oh well…

There was good crowd support along the way and I kicked it up once I heard there was only 200 yards left. 


As I crossed the finish line, I heard my name over a loud speaker.  “I guess they didn’t know I skipped the swim!”

Official Run Time: 36:06.22 // 9:02 pace

Garmin Run Stats: 4.22 mi // 36:09.40 // 8:34 pace

I grabbed my medal and some water and met up with my awesome cheering squad.  We took some pictures and I told them about the bike and the run, but I was hot, tired, and hungry and wanted to get to brunch ASAP!


It turns out that they never turned my timing chip off!  Obviously my swim time is actually the time I spent leisurely walking down the beach, but I was pretty excited to get an “official” bike and run time.  My Garmin times for each of those legs are a little faster, so I think that the bike as well as the run course were actually longer than they said.  

Finish Time: 2:17:10.37 // 10th in my age group (out of 37)

The race was really mentally exhausting.  After being pulled out of the water by a lifeguard, I truly felt like a failure.  Why hadn’t I tried harder?  Could I have made it out past the break?  I was embarrassed and defeated.  What on earth was I going to tell everyone?!  But after being told to turn my triathlon into a duathlon I was able to gain some perspective on the events and come to peace with them.  Even though I didn’t want to continue the race, I am so incredibly happy that I did.  It sounds cliche, but I learned the importance of never giving up.  I realized that I was not a failure unless I QUIT.  And I would not quit.  I hope that this race recap shows everyone who reads it the importance of never giving up.  Finishing that race took WAY more mental stamina than it would have if I had swam the 800 m!  Taking the events of the Malibu Triathlon with a grain of salt and a bit of humor!! 

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” -Confucius 

One Comment

  1. Carol Tucker
    September 25, 2014

    Dempsey, congrats on not giving up! You are an inspiration, even to an old gal like myself! My girlfriends and I got into the San Fran half marathon in October, and your story inspired me not to give up…even if the bus picks me up and drops me off further down the course. I haven’t been able to exercise much the past year, but I’m hoping to keep up with the 15 minute mile. :/ We’ll see!
    Keep up the good work! And like I said, you’re an inspiration!!!


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