TriRock San Diego Triathlon Recap

I completed my first ever triathlon in San Diego last September! I had been training for 16 weeks with Team Challenge, which is a group similar to Team in Training. Team Challenge supports the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America and in exchange for raising money for that organization, I received coaching! I ended up raising over $3,000, and the coaching and guidance I received was exceptional.

I signed up for the Intermediate/Olympic Distance, which consists of a 1500 m swim, a 22 mi ride, and a 6 mi run. There was an option for a Sprint Distance (500 m swim, 11 mi ride, 3 mi run), but of course
the competitor in me encouraged the more difficult option. Here is a little background. My strong point is running. I’ve done a few half marathons, but have had knee problems so I haven’t been able to do as much running as I’d like (damn you, IT bands!). Before June, I had never ridden a road bike — (read: Dempsey crashes more than once learning to ride with clips). Swimming was also a weak area. Last summer, I couldn’t swim the length of a pool (25 m) without having to stop. I worked on my swimming last fall for endurance before I officially started triathlon training. I was/am also deathly afraid of open water.

I trained my ass off for the 16 weeks leading up to the triathlon. It consisted of knee flare-ups, bike crashes, hydrating fails in 100-degree heat, open water panic attacks, lots of self-doubt, and a whole lot of fun. Saturday morning I met up with my team to get our packets at the expo. Our coaches showed us where we would be swimming and the 1500 m swim started to look really daunting.

After picking up my packet, I went for a run. Later that day I attended the “Inspirational Pasta Party” that Team Challenge put on for us. We ate and I chatted with my teammates. One team member gave an inspirational search about the death of his brother from Crohn’s a few weeks ago. It was emotional and motivating. It definitely put things in perspective. The entire team (all of the Team Challenge chapters) raised $500,000!

Dempsey Marks TriRock San Diego TriathlonThe next morning, my alarm blasted at 4 a.m. and I knew I shouldn’t have gone to bed at midnight. My pre-race breakfast got me going — a bagel with peanut butter and an apple plus some water. The team set up in the transition area together.

We walked over to the transition area as a group to set up. We had plenty of time as the race didn’t start until 6:30 and I was in the third wave. I had half a banana and half a Gu at 6 a.m. so that it would give me energy but digest in time for the swim. Before I knew it, it was 6:20.

Now I made a crucial mistake. For all of my training, I had I used a pair of Aquasphere goggles. They worked for awhile, but recently had been getting water in them in when I swam. I had some doubts but I didn’t want to try something completely new on race day, so I figured they’d be okay if I made sure they were tight.

The start was about 50-100 m off-shore — so we had to go down some stairs into the water and then swim to the buoys. A Sea Lion awaited us in the bay (did I mention I’m afraid of fish…)!

I jumped in the water and my heart rate skyrocketed. I’m used to this though, so I just told myself that I needed to get in a rhythm and calm down. I breast-stroked/doggy-paddled to the start. My heart was racing but then the gun went off and I had to start swimming. For some reason, I couldn’t get in a rhythm. I tried breathing every other stroke, counting strokes, talking to myself, singing songs in my head, but nothing seemed to work. I flipped over for a few seconds to get my heart rate down and my breathing in sync. I didn’t mind taking a few seconds to regain my composure.

Once swimming again I felt better. I was towards the back of my heat, which is where I wanted to be. Unfortunately, once I got into a rhythm, I had a bigger problem to deal with. My goggles kept filling up with water. I kept stopping to try and tighten and readjust them, but nothing seemed to work. This was a huge problem for my contact lenses. I must have stopped at least 15 times to try and fix those damn goggles.

To make matter worse (I know, didn’t think it was possible), there was a current that I was swimming against. So every time that I stopped to fix the goggles, I would move backwards and have to make up ground! Around 600 or 700 m I finally got them tight enough/on correctly so that water didn’t keep pouring in. I remember thinking that my friends and family probably thought I had drowned because I told them I would be out of the water between 35-40 min and I knew I had been swimming longer than that.

TriRock San Diego Triathlon Dempsey Marks

That being said, the second half of the swim went so much better. By the time I reached ~750 m I felt so hopeless. It honestly seemed like I had been swimming for hours. But…the second half of the swim flew by. I remember looking up and seeing the 1200 m buoy and thinking “Holy shit, if only the first half of the swim went by that fast.” It probably was a combination of 1) My goggles finally working, 2) Being able to settle into a rhythm, and 3) The current pushing me forwards on the way back.

I can honestly say that swimming up to the stairs and finally getting out of the water was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced. I was incredibly discouraged with my swim performance, but given all the elements that were working against me, I’m happy that I was able to maintain my composure and push through the discomfort.

Swim: 1:04:07 (4:16/M)

I took my time during T1. Most of the bikes were already out of the transition area except for the sprint ones, but I remained positive. I stripped off my wetsuit, put on my helmet, sunglasses, shoes, and race belt and put some moisturizer on my face. Then I was off! I was so happy to be on the bike — at least I couldn’t drown…

T1: 5:14

Race-recaps-dempsey-marksThe bike course was mostly flat with a short climb at the very beginning. The Olympic course consisted of two 11 mi loops, which was cool because I got to see my group of friends and family twice. My nutrition plan was to take two Gus (one 15 minutes in and one 50 minutes in) and a bottle of watered-down Gatorade. I am not fast or super skilled with the clip-ins so I took the many turns slowly.

The bike route looped through a Navy base where soldiers/officers were cheering us on. One guy yelled, “You’ve already won!” It was so motivating. I wanted to give him a hug and tell him that he was the winner. It was just the encouragement that I needed. The mental aspect was so much harder than the physical aspect. There was a part of me that wanted to just quit because I had performed so poorly in the water. It took a lot of willpower to give the bike (and run) my all and keep pushing.

I did a fair amount of passing people on the bike…and also did a fair amount of getting passed. The people that passed me were the sprint elites (who had started later than us, but had a shorter swim, obviously) and some intermediate people who were on the second lap when I was on my first. I really didn’t mind getting passed by people who were on $10,000 bikes with aero bars and whatnot. I just tried to focus on being in the moment and realized that I was completing my first every triathlon!

Bike: 1:20:20 (16.4 mph)

T2 went smoothly as I dropped my bike off, took off all my bike gear, slipped into my socks and shoes, and ran to the bathroom quickly. I was greeted and rooted on my friends. I knew that I was far behind what my “goal time” was, but I kept reminding myself that this was my first tri and that I needed to stay positive.

T2: 4:00

TriRock San Diego Triathlon RecapI saw my friends and family at the beginning of the run. My friends had made huge posters, which was awesome because I could easily identify them. I ran by and yelled, “I can’t believe I have to run a f-ing 10k right now!” And I really couldn’t believe it. The run in obviously my strongest leg of the triathlon, but after a 22 mi bike ride, it’s definitely tough. Plus, due to knee issues, I hadn’t run that distance since last December…so I knew that the run was not going to be easy physically or mentally.

Whenever I run off the bike, I start out really fast due to my cadence from the bike translating to my leg speed. And I flew the first mile. I knew I couldn’t keep that pace, but I figured I was going to burn out anyways, so I might as well have a fast first mile (GO HARD OR GO HOME!).

The run was definitely the best part of the tri. I passed so many people, which was nice because I definitely needed a confidence boost after all that had happened. I took water at every station and any time I got tired, I reminded myself that this was my time to kill it. I had a race mantra that I kept repeating to myself. “This is you.” I kept saying that to myself when I was tired and didn’t want to keep pushing. I’m a runner and the run was my time to shine (so cliché, I know).

The run was also a two-lap course for the Olympic racers. I saw my friends when I went out on the second loop around 3 miles and their cheering was what I needed to push myself through that tough second half of the run. I started to really struggle once I got to mile 4, but I took one shot block and I felt like that was just what I needed to power through to the end.

I was struggling by the homestretch, but once I saw the finish line, I started sprinting and crossed it with a huge smile spread across my face. I was officially a triathlete! I was really impressed with the pace that I was able to keep considering my injury and lack of run training.

Run: 48:21 (8:04/M)

Total time: 3:22:05 (402/619)

TriRock San Diego Triathlon RecapOnce I finished, I got my medal and water, and checked in at the Team Challenge tent to tell them that that I had finished. Then I went to find my family. First I saw my parents who both gave me big hugs and told me they were proud. Before I saw my friends, I ran over to the transition area to pack up my stuff and grab my bike. When I got back to where my parents were waiting, my friends had joined them. I was just so happy that I had finished and that they had all come down to support me. Three of them had driven down from LA that morning! They were up at 3 a.m.!

After chatting and taking some pictures, I headed up to my room and took a quick shower before joining my friends and parents for a delicious brunch. It was such a surreal feeling to have finally finished the triathlon that I had been training for. 16 weeks of training and sacrifice for the biggest endorphin high ever! I was hungry, tired and an official triathlete!


  1. Kelly Moser
    September 17, 2014

    I’m so glad I found this! I’m doing the sprint with Team Challenge this Sunday in SD and I’M SO NERVOUS! It was so great to hear about your struggles and triumphs so I know what to expect and how to move on when I’m scared in the water! Thanks!

    • dempsey
      September 18, 2014

      I’m so glad you found this too! Reading race recaps make me feel so much better about races because then I know sort of what to expect. You’ll do GREAT on the swim! I am terrified of open water and there are so many people around (lifeguards included) that it really calms your nerves. Let me know how you do and GOOD LUCK!!! That’s an amazing race and Team Challenge is such a great organization!


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