Lessons Learned from my First Triathlon

It’s only been a week, but it feels like it was ages ago that Tim and I participated in the Quad Cities Triathlon. It was Tim’s second go at it (he shaved 12 minutes off his time!) and my first try at my first tri.  My only regret after it is all over is that it is all over.  It was a really fantastic experience.  Here are my reflections and comments on the experience, for those of you who are contemplating participating in a triathlon.

I’ve never been a strong swimmer.  When I was little I had a traumatic experience in my grandpa’s pool. One of my uncles took my cousin and I for a ride around the deep end of the pool and then set us back down on the edge of the shallow end.  I slipped back into the deep end, and after swallowing gallons of water, found some legs attached to some arms to pull me up. Ever since then, I’ve been wary of the water.  I failed Beginners Swimming at least twice, and I get panicky if I can’t get my chest above water.  Sooooo, I was SUPER worried about the swimming portion of the triathlon.  But my husband and brother both had such a great experience in 2012, that I really wanted to participate in 2013.  So Tim and I joined a local gym with a pool, and I started hitting the pool at 6AM a few days a week.  When I first started swimming, I couldn’t even force myself to put my face in the water to swim.  I swam with my head out of the water, which is exhausting as it forces the back half of your body into an angled position, creating TONS of drag.  Eventually I worked up to putting my face in the water and swimming like a normal(ish) person.  I was still SUPER slow.  It took me at least 30 minutes to do the 600 yard tri distance.

Things started to turn around when a friend of mine sent me the Total Immersion swimming book.  The book teaches you how to torpedo through the water by making your body long and lean and floaty.  The book really made sense to me, and by applying its principles, I was able to swim more gracefully.  I even experienced some flow moments while swimming and started to enjoy being in the pool (once I got past the horrible initial shock of getting in the freezing cold 84 degree water :)).  However, I still was not fast, so I decided to take some swimming lessons.  It was not a good decision in retrospect.  Much of what the instructor taught me ran counter to what I learned in Total Immersion.  My swimming worsened, and I became more exhausted with each practice.  I finally ended up skipping my last lesson and bought the DVD that goes with the Total Immersion book.  I watched a couple of lessons and was right back to where I was before the confusing swimming lessons.

Once I had swimming kind of under control, I felt much more secure about the tri.  However, I was very concerned about the water temp on the day of the race.  Tim and I swam in an outdoor pool in Austin on a 69 degree day back in March.  The water temp was 70 degrees.  It was horrible.  I couldn’t breathe, my fingers and toes turned white and blue, and I got severe stomach cramps.  The lake in which the triathlon swim is held was forecasted to be 64 degrees the day of the race.  Based on advice on the QC Triathlon Facebook group, I decided to rent a wet suit.  Best decision ever. But before I get to that, let me talk about the rest of our training regimen.

Up until the first time I did a bike/run brick, I assumed this portion of the tri would be easy peasy.  After our first practice brick, however, I realized that I was a fool.  Running 3.1 miles after biking 15 miles SUCKS.  Big ones.  It’s exhausting and your legs feel really weird.  Oddly enough, however, you actually end up running faster because your legs are already primed from biking.  We did one swim/bike brick (which was actually pretty easy), and two bike/run bricks.  The first one was exhausting.  The second one was more manageable even though we did the run portion on an off-road course in Bettendorf. Part of the tri run goes over grass, so we wanted to prepare for the bumpier terrain.  Tim and I ran it together, side-by-side, which is unusual for us.  Tim is a much faster runner.  But running together was fun and helped keep us both motivated.

So, after our third brick, we were feeling pretty secure.  But we wanted to do an open water swim.  The tri race director was emphatically encouraging every one to get out in open water and swim before the triathlon.  Tim seconded this encouragement, based on his experiences from last year.  The first time he hit open water was during the actual event, and for him and my brother and our friend, the experience was VERY unsettling and anxiety-producing.  So Tim and I headed out to a local lake to practice.  We ran into some other triathlon entrants who were also practicing.  They slipped into the water and swam the 600 yards as if it was nothing.  In fact, they swam it at least 2 if not 3 times while we were there!  Unbeknownst to us, they were triathlon royalty!  At least 2 of the swimmers training that day walked away with awards the  day of the triathlon.  Anyway, after they entered the water, Tim and I ventured in.  Much like the day in Austin, whenever I put my face in the water, I started to hyperventilate.  I was hoping it would subside as I got used to the water, so we started across the lake.  Even though I was in a wetsuit and knew the possibility of me drowning was very remote, I was on the verge of a panic attack the entire time.  I spent most of the time doggy paddling or back floating – any time a wave hit my head, I started to hyperventilate again.  By the time we got back to shore I was on the brink of withdrawing from the tri, convinced that I wouldn’t be able to complete the swim portion.

However, once we got out of the water, and I got back home and reflected on all my practice, and read all the blog posts from other swimmers who felt the exact same way the first time they swam in open water, I decided I would have to just practice some more.  The next day we went back to the lake, and I swam the distance, totally fine and calm.  I just had to get my mind under control.  Fear is the mind killer, you know.

The day of the triathlon all went remarkably well.  When I first entered the water, the dreaded hyperventilating started again, but I was able to quickly get it under control.
“Heather – You don’t have time for this.  You are OK.  There are 20 people out here who will jump in and save you if you flounder.  You cannot go back to work on Monday and tell people you chickened out.  Just swim.”  And I did.  I finished the swim section in about 15 minutes – 1/2 the time it took me to swim that distance 6 months ago.

After getting out of the lake, I was greeted by my brother and his girlfriend, who got out of bed at 6AM on  a Saturday to come cheer us on.  Their faces and cheers gave me energy as I ran up the hill to the transition area, pulling down my wetsuit as I ran.  I went to my primo transition spot, pulled off the wetsuit (quick side note – everyone talks about how hard wet suits are to get on and off, but I had no problems!!  To get it on, I put a plastic bag over my foot as I slid it in the suit, and the suit went on easy peasy.  It pulled right off after the swim too).  I pulled on my biking jersey (pre-stuffed with GU chomps), tugged on my shoes and tightened the lock laces, and jogged my bike to the starting area. I hopped on and started peddling.  The biking portion went fine – the clouds were beautiful, the fields were green, the volunteers helpful and encouraging.  Tim had switched out my clip-in pedals for regular pedals with cages.  I do enjoy biking with the clip-in pedals, but I didn’t wanted to take time to change shoes between the bike/run portion.  The only mishap during the biking portion was when I entered the transition area and thought the volunteer was reaching out to me to give me a high five, which I of course reciprocated, but he was actually just directing me to go to his left.  Embarrassing.  🙂

Once back to my transition area, my addled brain could not figure out what gear I needed for the run!  I took off my shirt, then remembered to take off my helmet, then started jogging out only to remember that I needed to put on my race number.  Finally I was all in order, so I jogged out to the run area.  Of course, the bastard run starts out with a jog UPHILL on BUMPY GROUND.  That sucked, but once my legs got their rhythm, I was fine.  I tried to chat with people as I ran, but only a few really responded.  It was a focused crowd, I guess.  All-in-all the run went pretty well.  I’m not a fast runner, and I didn’t push myself to go fast during the race either.  My goal was not to get an amazing time, but to finish and to not pass out.  I met my goal!  I completed the tri in about 1 hour 45 minutes, which made me exceedingly happy.

After the tri, we stuck around for the awards, then went home and showered, and then went out for beer and deeeeelicious ribs.  We ate pretty much all day. I was craving sugar something fierce, to the point that I ate a couple of handfuls of ancient Good & Plentys at my parents’ house.  I didn’t actually get full until the next morning at breakfast.  After the tri Tim and I were both exhausted.  I haven’t been that tired since I was a kid, I bet.  But by Sunday were were feeling almost back to normal!  We didn’t exercise for 3-4 days afterwards, to give our bodies a break, but that was tough.  I was glad to start running and biking again this weekend.  It feels unnatural to not exercise anymore.

But, now the event is over, and I’m rather sad.  It was fun and motivating to have a goal to train for.  We are considering doing another triathlon later this summer, and we’re probably going to do the Bix (a 7 mile run here in Davenport) in July.  We’ll see.  We did a 30 mile bike ride yesterday (and I have an intense sunburn to show for it) and a 4.5 mile run today.  Tomorrow I think I’ll head back to the pool, less I start to regress.  Time to get our rears in gear again!

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