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!
The 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.
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…
The 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.
I 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)
Once 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!