Tri-ing 40 on for size

The night before my triathlon, my 4-year-old son brought me the book “The Race” to read to him and his sister. A reimagining of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” this book was exceedingly appropriate in that moment.

“What place are you going to get, Mommy?” asked my 6-year-old daughter. “First, or second, or third?” “Umm… probably 48th,” I said, choosing a fairly arbitrary number. Having no idea how many people had signed up, I figured perhaps I’d get 48th among females, or in my age group, or something. “Remember, mommy is going to be like the tortoise- slow and steady. My goal is just to finish.”

And finish I did, but I’ll get to that. First, a few notes from my triathlon experience.

In triathlons, you have to get “body-marked”- meaning they take a Sharpie and put your bib number on various parts of your body. They also write your age on your calf. They told me I was 40. I politely corrected them: technically, I’d turn 40 one week after the triathlon. Doesn’t matter, they said; they assign people’s age groups based on their age at the end of the calendar year. In its way, this was a small win: although I had to embrace 40 one whole week early, I also got placed in an older (and, no doubt, less competitive) age group.

Seeing people’s ages on their calves during the race had an interesting effect. In the absence of knowing anything else about them, I reduced the athletes to an age, a number. If someone passed me who was much older, I felt impressed. Similarly, I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of pride if I passed someone who was much younger.

The swim: I was pleasantly surprised to find that the water was warmer than when I had swam in the Bay just days before (and nearly hyperventilated from the cold). I swam steadily, but as it turns out, I’m terrible at “sighting” (e.g. aiming for my target). Every time I looked up to take stock of where I was, I would find myself off-course. Indeed, the swim was my weakest segment, but I was pleased to make it through. Most of the fellow white-caps (e.g. women over 40) had left me in their wake, and the orange cap group (men 45+) caught up to me, as evidenced in the photo below.

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A wetsuit isn’t flattering on anyone, right? Right?

The bike: two mistakes here. First, I had drunk too much water prior to the swim, so I got on my bike with a full bladder. After completing my first of 3 loops without seeing a single bathroom, I faced the question: could I possibly hold off another hour (until the transition to the run, where there were facilities)? No, I could not. As I debated whether I’d be able to find a tree that was sufficiently hidden, I spotted a restroom in a parking lot (the bike portion took place in a state park), and luckily enough, it was unlocked. I lost a few minutes but had a new surge of energy after getting back on the bike. (Note to self: drink less water next time.)

Second mistake: you are required to get off your bike and walk it into the transition area. I unclipped my shoes to do so, but as I swung my right leg over the bike to walk it, my left foot clipped back in (unbeknownst to me). So I toppled in slow motion onto my left side. Ouch. Luckily, nothing was bruised except my pride (and really- even that wasn’t bruised too much. I’ve always been the clumsy one in the family.)

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I look happy here, so I must have already found the restroom.

Last: the run. As I suspected, this was my strongest leg. Whereas I constantly had people passing me in the swim and the bike, on the run, I was the passer. Even though I was committed to being the tortoise, my competitive nature can only be suppressed so much. Passing people felt good.

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That person running the other way in the picture? He’s heading toward the finish line, while I’m just starting the run. All good, says the tortoise.

The run went by fairly quickly, and I made up some of the time I had lost on my swim and on my transitions.¹

I crossed the finished line and learned that I had finished in 3:02. In the abstract, it’s a time that didn’t mean much to me. I looked at the details and discovered that I was faster at the swim (33 minutes) and on the bike (15mph average) than I had been in my training, and about the same in my run (8:40 min/mile). So, I was pleased. Later, they posted the results, and I discovered that I placed 2nd in my age group. This was a first! I had never been on the podium before. They called my name, and people I didn’t know cheered for me, and I was given the choice of a towel, a hat, or a backpack.²

Sadly, my family wasn’t around for my finish or for my podium moment. The shuttle bus they were waiting for never arrived; by the time they drove as far as they could and walked the rest of the way, I had been finished for 45 minutes. No matter: when they finally arrived, the kids had their pick of the leftover post-race goodies (bananas! yogurt! ice cream sandwiches!) and we enjoyed some family time on the podium.

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So… triathlon, check. Everyone told me “I would be hooked” after my first one. Am I? I’m not sure. I’m not hooked on open-water swimming (and would need to buy a wetsuit if I planned to do that regularly. Also it would help if I could learn to sight). I do like the road biking in China Camp, but again, I’d have to buy a decent bike if I planned to make triathlons a regular thing. So I suspect that I’ll go back to doing the occasional road race. One of the beautiful things about running, from my perspective, is the complete lack of gear. Running shoes, and you’re set. As a result, I can – and do- go running anywhere. Swimmers and bikers don’t have that advantage. However, triathlons do offer the benefits of variety during training, and a better full-body workout. Also- it seems they appeal to far fewer people than running races, meaning if I ever hope to make a “podium” again, I should probably stick with triathlons. 🙂

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Tomorrow I turn 40, and you know what? I’m ready.

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¹My first transition (from swim to bike) took me nearly 5 minutes. You know how long it takes most people? 1-2 minutes. So… there’s definitely room to improve there. I’ll blame my Strava app, which inexplicably refused to open and load properly.

²”Please tell me you chose the backpack!” said my friend. And then we both had a good laugh.

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Fit to be “tri”-ed

Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I’m a competitive person.¹ Also, I like to exercise. So when a milestone birthday rolls around, I’m inclined to celebrate by undertaking a new physical challenge. For my year of 40, I decided I would attempt my first triathlon.

Over the summer, I scanned the triathlon calendar, and I ended up choosing the Marin County Triathlon. It is practically in my backyard, which is a big plus, and the timing of it, literally one week before my 40th birthday, seemed perfect. Plus, having committed in July, I was left with about 12 weeks to train: enough to be able to do the race comfortably, but not so much that I would get sick of training.

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Some background: I’m pretty comfortable as a runner. I’ve run distances up to a marathon before, and a 4-6 mile run is a typical workout for me. Swimming is something that I’ve done for exercise, off and on, over the past 8 years. During that time, I’ve gone from being unable to swim even one lap of freestyle, to today, when I can comfortably swim a mile. Of the three sports, biking is the one I have the least practice in. I don’t even own a bike; the only biking I’ve done in recent years has been commutes of 1-2 miles on a heavy, sturdy, Bay Area Bike Share bike.

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Me, running on the beach in Costa Rica

The Marin triathlon offers both sprint and olympic distances. I initially signed up for the sprint distance (500m swim, 8mi bike, 5k run), mostly because I have so little time to devote to training. Then a friend badgered me into switching to the Olympic distance– so I caved, under peer pressure. For the Olympic, I have to swim 1500m, bike 22 miles, and run 10km. The individual distances, done separately, don’t intimidate me; putting them back to back is where the challenge lies.

The triathlon is one week away, but I thought it might be fun to share some things I’ve learned so far.

Things triathletes know that the rest of us don’t:

1. A “brick” is the most essential, if most dreaded, part of training. I heard this term bandied about soon after I started training. A brick is a back-to-back workout of two different sports, generally bike followed by run. I assumed that it was an acronym, like Bike Run Intense Combo (or perhaps Bike? Run? Ick!), but I was told that the term “brick” refers to how your legs feel during the run. Meh, I think I like the acronym better.

2. The race is won or lost on the bike. This was very disappointing for me to learn, given that the bike is my weakest event. It turns out, the amount of time you save by being a great swimmer compared to an average swimmer is almost negligible, compared to the amount of time you can save by being a great biker versus an average biker.

3. Everyone who signs up for triathlons generally dislikes the swim. My theory: the strong swimmers have figured out #2 and said, “Why should I bother with triathlons?” Whereas the strong bikers are all, “Sweet, I can dominate this sport.”

4. People obsess over the transitions. Real triathletes (I am not counting myself among them) figure out all sorts of shortcuts to make their transitions (the time it takes between sports) as short as possible. Examples: oil your body, to make your wetsuit easier to get off (I might actually try this); take your feet out of your bike shoes while you’re still biking, so that you can hop into your running shoes more quickly (I would probably fall and break a bone if I tried this).

My goal for this triathlon is just to finish. I don’t care what time I get. I’ve sort of made up my training schedule as I went along, based on what I could fit in, when. For the curious, I’ve posted my actual training schedule below.

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I’ll post again in a week. In the meantime, wish me luck!

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¹To wit: my husband would generally prefer that I not play games with his family.