Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gasping for air

Today I did something I've never done before - I competed in a triathlon. It was an "Olympic" distance triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run) in Columbia, MD. The second oldest triathlon east of the Mississippi.

I was a pretty nervous in the days before - mostly because my swimming training had been limited to the pool. I was also nervous about my transitions and that I would forget something. There's so much more equipment in a tri than a running race and it's a little confusing getting it all straight. Luckily I had some help from friends that have done many triathlons - especially Ryan McGrath who I have been relentlessly asking questions over the last few months.

I could write about all the rigmarole involved in getting things set up for a triathlon - but I'll get the racing. My swim wave went off 55 minutes after the pro's - my wave included 20-24 and 30-34 year old males. As I made my way into the water I instantly wished I had tinted goggles. The rising sun was directly in our eyes as the first 500-600 meters were towards the east. I tried a few practice strokes, but we only had a few minutes till the start.

At the start I felt all of my anxiety come crashing down on me at once. The start of a race is always an anxious time, but usually for a running race it's not such a bad thing to have your heart rate up and your breathing rate increased before you take off from the start line. Running on adrenaline makes things easier - as I found out swimming on adrenaline is a little scary.

As we started off my first few strokes were ok - but then it hit me - I couldn't breathe. The tight wetsuit seemed to be restricting my breathing - the random feet and hands flying at me didn't help - neither did the chocolate colored water that I could see all of about 2 inches. I tried to put my head down but my breathing was so fast that I could hardly complete a stroke before needing to come up for air. I remembered something that Ryan said - "just keep moving forward - do a butterfly stroke if you have to - anything to keep you moving". So, I kept my head up, my arms doing something inbetween a freestyle stroke and a doggie paddle.

After about 200 meters I wasn't sure I was going to make it. The shore looked inviting and I was sure that they were going to pluck me out of the water once one of the spotters saw how much trouble I was in. But, nobody came over to me and after about 15 minutes I started to calm down a bit. Partially it was having more room around me and partially it was seeing that there were other guys in my wave who were struggling too. At least I wasn't going to be last in my wave.

The last 10 minutes I actually was able to do something close to a regular stroke, but even then it was only for about 15-20 meters before I'd put my head up for a few strokes - I was going faster, but I was also all over the place - getting a little off course. I was so glad to finally see the balloon arch at the end of the swim. I ended up swimming about 7 minutes slower than I had planned - with well over 1,000 competitors swimming faster than me on the day.

I staggered out of the water grabbing a cup of water and trying to take off the top half of my wetsuit while jogging/walking to my bike. My first transition time wasn't great - I was probably enjoying having dry land under my legs a little too much. It felt so good to be on my bike. I was about 100 times better prepared for the bike leg than the swimming leg - going on some pretty tough rides with Ryan and others in Frederick.

I knew I had a lot of time to make up on the bike and run to get anything close to respectable place/time, so I went out pretty aggressively. Passing folks on the bike certainly made me feel better. Although there were some bunches that were difficult to pass (crossing the yellow line is strictly forbidden) but for the most part people were single file on the right side of the road. Things went very well for the first 18 miles, but then my chain started jumping gears when I was in the highest gear - a problem that happened for the first time a few weeks ago. I thought I had it fixed, but apparently the first 3/4ths of the race took it's toll. My main goal was to get over 20 mph on the bike leg, so it felt good to see that after 20 miles my average was near 22 mph - by the far the fastest I've gone on any ride in my life.

As I came into the finish I felt good about my ride, but knew that I probably went a little too hard and would pay for it on the run. I was right. After about 200m the run course heads up a crazy hill - my legs burned and it would only get worse. Again - it was nice to have some slower folks in front of me to pass - but I knew that my pace was slow compared to what I wanted to do. The hills seemed endless - in fact it seemed cruel. I took water and powerade at pretty much every chance as it was now getting pretty warm. The second half of the course was mercifully down hill for the most part - but by then my legs could hardly stretch long enough to take advantage. As I tried to lift my pace a little for the finish (it certainly couldn't be called a kick) a wave of relief passed over me. The pain was over.

After I crossed the finish line I got something to drink and headed right for the place that caused me so much anguish - the lake. Overall the experience wasn't too different than what I expected. Yes, the swim was a little more terrifying than I predicted, but I was coming from a place of having no idea how it would feel.

I learned a lot today. Next time my goal will be to come into the water feeling relaxed. Start easy - away from others as much as possible and gradually increase my pace as I feel more comfortable. For the bike leg - I'll probably back off a bit and leave a little something for the run.

You can see all the results at

I was 134th overall out of 1600+ and 19th in my age group out of 131. My final time was 2:25:40.