My friend Sachi and I both completed our first triathlon this morning at the College of San Mateo. While I failed to execute the swim for which I have been training over the past month, I redeemed that faulty performance somewhat during the subsequent bike ride and run.
Sachi and I arrived at the pool more than an hour before our 9.10am heat to take care of checking in, changing, setting up, and warming up. We had to wait until the previous heat’s participants finished their bike rides to place our bike and run gear on and behind the stationary bikes assigned to us. Meanwhile, we killed time with some good old-fashioned people watching.
Unfortunately, my intended bicycle’s computer was malfunctioning, and just 10 minutes before our scheduled heat, a race official told me they would either find a replacement bike for me or I’d have to wait until the next heat. With four minutes to go, I was reassigned to another stationary bike. I rushed over, pulled out the contents of my backpack (large towel, small towel, bike shoes, socks, running shoes, sunglasses, running hat, water bottle) and arranged them in conveniently accessible locations.
I quickly adjusted the bike seat height, yanked off my sweatshirt and long pants, pulled on my goggles, and ran over to the pool. Sixty seconds were left for warm-up, which was a bit of a problem, since I really preferred/needed about 10x that amount. I swam several yards out/back/and out again. Afraid I would miss the start call, I paddled back to the pool wall and waited for the countdown. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, … From the very start, I felt unsettled and swam anxiously.
Having missed my usual warm-up, I wasn’t properly balancing my body, I stroked too quickly, kicked too hard, and as a result after just half a length I knew I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I tried to compensate, took fewer strokes between breaths and breathed longer, even stopped briefly at the pool wall, but it was no use. After two full laps, I doubted I could complete the full 8 laps. Thank goodness within this panic I finally regained some clarity and remembered I could fall back on Plan B, where B = backstroke.
I flipped over and launched into a comfortable pattern, since the backstroke has been firmly etched into muscle memory over the past year of swimming. I calmed with the familiar left-right-left-right rotation, breathing in deeply at will. I didn’t dare look to my left or right, knowing that I would see my cohorts already gone or climbing out of the pool when I hadn’t yet reached the half-way point. After an eternity, I finished the remaining six laps via Plan B and hoisted myself out of the pool. With a quick glance downwards into the pool and across to the stationary bike area, I realized that while I wasn’t the absolutely last participant to emerge from the pool, I was pretty close.
I jogged over to the towel I had left spread on the ground behind my assigned bike. I grabbed a smaller towel and briefly squeegeed pool water off my face, arms, and legs. Next, socks went onto my dried feet, and one, two, pulled on those bike shoes. I clambered aboard the stationary bike, clicked my shoes into the pedal clips, and started to pedal. Monitoring the bike computer carefully to keep my cadence between 80-100 rotations per minute, I pulled off my swim cap and threw it down next to my shoes. I settled my torso into an aero position (similar to leaning on your forearms at the dining table) and drew swigs of refreshment from my water bottle.
Compared to the first few frantic minutes of my ill-fated swim, the bike ride was easy and pleasant. I stole quick glances at other participants, a couple of milling photographers, and event workers. The bike computer’s display of distance remaining counted down with merciful rapidity while my cohorts were one-by-one climbing off their bicycles to start the race’s final leg, the run. Finally the distance remaining reached zero, I swung my leg over the bike, pulled off my bike shoes, shoved my feet into my running shoes, and took off down an orange cone delineated path through campus.
The first quarter mile included a jog up a staircase, down a small hill, and up a larger one. I was panting and forced myself to slow the pace somewhat but still passed a guy respirating even more loudly. U-turn and back down the hill I went, using the opportunity to simultaneously catch my breath and speed up. With feet flying, I pushed myself harder than I would have in a longer run. I turned a corner, passed another runner, and continued to follow the cones around more buildings. My mostly healed sprained ankle started to complain a bit at this point, but I figured I could ignore it without too much risk of damage over the remaining mile in the run.
Turning another corner, I spied Sachi in the distance. We followed the cones around an outlying parking lot and then back to the cluster of central buildings. As we approached the finish gate, I broke into a sprint. Sachi disappeared through the gate, I ran up one last set of stairs, and burst through the finish line.
Swim (400 yards): 11:42
Bike (10 kilometers): 21:18
Run (1.5 miles): 13:03
At yesterday’s practice swim session, I had combined flip turns and extended strokes between breaths to step up the pace to just over a minute per lap. If I had been able to maintain that speed throughout 8 laps today, I would have completed the swim in 8:24, over 3 minutes faster than my actual race time. So my work is obviously cut out for me. Tomorrow I’ll go back to the pool and train some more. There’s another mini-sprint triathlon in a month that I’m thinking about doing.
If at first you don’t succeed,
Tri, tri again.
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