My First Triathlon: Las Palomas Triathlon, Rocky Point, Mexico 2007

author : roach
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I got battered by the ocean in the swim but I had made it out...bruised and bloodied, but not beaten.

Well, I did it! My first triathlon was this past Saturday, and I think it went pretty well, all things considered. The triathlon thing pretty much started the same way that I started running two years ago, as a dare between friends coupled with a desire to get in better shape. A group of us decided in January that we would race in a sprint triathlon in Rocky Point Mexico on Cinco de Mayo. It sounded like a fun reason to head down to RP and drink a bunch of Dos Equis. Erin and I decided we would make a family vacation out of the race weekend.
 
There was only one little problem…I couldn’t swim. Growing up in the rural south without access to a pool had prevented me from learning this elementary skill. My running coach from 1st Marathon, Brian, also ran a triathlon training program, and he assured me that he could have me ready in time for the race. Brian had successfully gotten me to the finish line in my two previous marathons, so I decided to trust him. Having just run the PF Chang’s half-marathon, I thought I was in decent shape. Boy, was I wrong.
 
I enlisted the help of several local coaches to get me to the start line. There was Brian from 1st Triathlon, Nick from Durapulse Performance Co., and Bryan from Desert Thunder Masters Swimming…a dream team assembled with the sole focus of getting me across the finish line in Rocky Point. Lance didn’t have this much help preparing for the Tour! I quickly settled into my routine of swimming three or four times, riding two or three times and running two or three times per week. The swimming came along slowly as my body began to adapt to this new sensation. As we got closer to the race, Coach Nick had arranged some Saturday brick workouts and mini-triathlons, which included open water swims at nearby lakes. I began to gain more confidence in my swimming and biking ability, and actually began to enjoy the training. After four months of hard work, race weekend was finally here. I felt ready…
 
I loaded up the family and gear Friday morning and set out for the south of the border. We arrived at the Las Palomas resort about mid-afternoon and checked into our room for the weekend. A buddy and I decided that we would go for a swim so that the race would not actually be our first time in the ocean. I donned my wetsuit and headed out to the beach. The tide was in, and it was quite windy, which created two- to three-foot swells in the normally calm Sea of Cortez. I think I managed a couple hundred yards of swimming in between rest spells, and probably drank about a gallon of sea water in the process. Up until this point, I had been pretty nervous about the swim—now I was damn near terrified! I have to admit that the thought did cross my mind that it might be a good idea to sleep in and forget the race. However, in the end, I decided that I had not worked this hard the past four months to go down without a fight.
 
I did not sleep particularly well Friday night. I was in bed relatively early, but woke up every half hour or so. It seemed to be a combination of the typical pre-race nerves coupled with anxiety over the swim. I finally gave up on trying to sleep around dawn and started making my way down to the transition area. I figured I might as well go set up to help take my mind off the race. I set everything up and wandered around talking to friends. Upon hearing it was my first race, a few people gave me pointers on what to do and what not to do. Included in these was an older, grizzled triathlon veteran who used to work with us. He insisted that I would do fine and that I might even surprise myself. Before I knew it, it was time to pull on the wetsuit and make my way down to the beach.
 
We got down to the beach and began to assemble in our respective groups. I got to see Erin and the kids for a few minutes prior to the start. They wished me luck and I headed down to the water. I was in the third of four waves behind the male and female Olympic distance groups. I stood with the boys there at the water’s edge, nervously awaiting the start. We gave each other the nod and sprinted out to sea with the sound of the horn.  
 
I tried to run as far out as I could, hoping to reduce the distance that I actually had to swim. I stubbed my feet and tripped numerous times over the jagged rocks and coral (the town is obviously called Rocky Point for a reason). I remember thinking that it hurt, but with the adrenaline rush it did not seem to slow me down. Once the water hit chest high, I realized that I was actually going to have to swim, and I dove in. I managed to keep up with the boys until about the first buoy. I was swimming with my head above water to make sure I didn’t go too far off course, held afloat by my trusty wetsuit and the extra-buoyant salt water. By the time I reached the buoy, I decided I would let my friends go. I was not going to kill myself trying to keep up. Assuming I got out of the water alive, I would have plenty of chances to catch them in the other events.
 
I began to swim like I had actually trained, and concentrated on keeping a slow comfortable pace. About halfway between the two buoys, I looked around and noticed that there were actually people behind me. I had settled into a group that was plodding along at my same snail-like pace. As I started to tire, I flipped over onto my back and did some kind of backstroke. I noticed that I was still keeping up with the other swimmers around me. I remember chuckling slightly at the thought that either they were really friggin’ slow, or I was some kind of backstroke wunderkind. I did this a couple more times to just take a break from my exhausting freestyle stroke. As I rounded the second buoy, I was passed by several women in red swim caps. Where the hell did they come from? They sped by like human torpedoes, nearly flipping me over in their wakes.
 
By now I could see land. I probably felt more relieved than Columbus did at the sight of the West Indies. A few more exhausting minutes of this and the swim would be over. A little over halfway to shore, I realized that I could probably stand. I threw my feet down on the bottom and started to jog. “I should be able to just run it in from here,” I thought. I charged the beach like it was Normandy, just thankful to have solid ground under my feet. This soon proved to be a big mistake, as I tripped over a foot-high boulder and ate dirt. I was certain I could hear people laughing. I continued my jog in, much more cautiously now. I finally stumbled ashore, dazed and disoriented, looking more like a drunk at last call than an athlete.
 
I got battered by the ocean in the swim but I had made it out...bruised and bloodied, but not beaten. I had discovered that swimming in the ocean, even the relatively mild sea of Cortez, is much different from the pool or even the lake. Add to that the chaos of a mass race start, and it was quite intimidating. My feet were torn up from the rocks and coral going out and coming back in. That just made for a more challenging bike and run. I made the seemingly endless trek up the beach to transition area still in a daze. I slowly pulled off the wetsuit and began to slowly put on my bike gear.
 
Just to make things more difficult on myself, I had decided to ride my brand new tri bike for the first time in this race. Kevin from Tribe Multisport in Scottsdale had just set me up with a custom-built Valdora PHX. Let’s hope that Erin never finds out how much I really spent on it. Anyway, I had just picked it up on Thursday and only ridden it once during spin class that night. I had planned on riding my old bike in the race, but as I loaded the truck for the trip, I just couldn’t leave such a sweet piece of hardware at home. This would be its maiden voyage on the road (I use that term loosely in describing the streets of Rocky Point).
 
Terrified at the thought of trying to ride in the aero position for the first time during an actual race, I made the tactical decision to ride upright on the hoods. The problem with that was that my gear shifters were at the ends of my aero bars. I could ride upright, but would be pretty much unable to shift gears. With my right hand firmly on the handle bars, I managed to flick the left shifter without crashing to get the chain on my big ring. Here it would stay for the remainder of the race. I was hoping I had the leg strength to push the big gears all the way through the course. It took a good two or three miles to begin to get used to how differently this bike behaved compared to the borrowed road bike I had been training on for the last four months. However, I seemed to settle down and find my groove about midway through the bike. From then on, I started to actually pass other people and really enjoy the race. As I was coming toward the end of the 10-mile bike loop I remember thinking that I wished the bike was actually longer. I was having fun and just getting warmed up.
 
Next was the run. If there was one event that I felt was my strength, it had to be the run. Not that I am some sort of gifted distance runner, I just really suck at the other two. Hopefully I could make up a little time on this final leg of the race.
 
Unlike the first transition, I was in-and-out pretty fast this time. I quickly racked my bike, changed shoes, and off I went. Oh yeah…the shoes! Any coach will tell you that you should never do anything different in a race from how you actually train. In this race, not only had I decided to ride a brand new bike for the first time, but I was also running in a brand new pair of shoes. I had just purchased a pair of Newton running shoes, and could not wait to try them out. Unfortunately, they did not arrive at the house until the day before we left for the trip, so they did not get a trial run. Heck, it was only three miles, and I didn’t think any shoes could tear up your feet that fast. Too bad my feet were already mangled from the swim.
 
As I took off on the run course, I noticed that my stride felt pretty good. I had not been running much leading up to the race due to a lower leg injury, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I didn’t want to push too hard and re-injure myself, but at the same time I wanted a decent run split. I was going to shoot for a sub eight-minute pace and see what happened. The first mile was aided by a slight downhill grade. I seemed to be gliding along and was pleasantly shocked when I looked at my GPS and saw I was holding a 7:20 pace. The new shoes felt great…very light and lots of cushion. I wish I had been wearing these in my previous
marathons.
 
As the course started to flatten out, I slowed a little but was still well under eight minutes. “It shouldn’t be much longer now until the turnaround,” I thought, “and then it’s an easy jog in.” I noticed that I was passing a ton of people on the run. I was making a game of it by finding someone up ahead, running them down, and then picking the next one. That’s when I saw him! That experienced triathlete that had tried to calm me down before the race. Not only was I going to catch him, but I was going to blow past him and finish well ahead. I caught him before the turn and headed back in for the finish. 
  
The run in from there seemed to be in slow motion, even though I knew I was just minutes from the finish. I was nearly hit by some sort of Mexican bus that decided to cut in front of me. I think the person directing traffic had actually instructed me to give way to the truck, but I was in my groove and there was no way I was stopping for traffic. My pace had slipped a little bit as I headed back up the hill and into the wind. “Just keep it close to eight minutes,” I thought, “and I will have a good split.”
 
I rounded the resort on to the beach, and saw my first glimpse of the finish line. Some genius had decided to make the final quarter mile of the run down the beach in ankle-deep sand…great for pictures, bad for sprinting. I plowed through the sand focused on the giant inflatable Corona bottle. Just a few more seconds, and I could actually have one. I decided to enjoy the last couple hundred yards rather than to be “that guy” that sprints the final few steps trying to beat one last person. I said hi and waved to my kids, Kiersten and John, as I passed by.
 
I wish I could describe the sense of accomplishment I felt as I crossed the finish line. To me, it was more satisfying than my first marathon. In the marathon I simply had to get up off my lazy butt and condition my body to run a long way. For the triathlon I had to face my fear of water and learn how to swim from scratch. To add to that, I had to basically learn how to ride a bike, something I had not done since I got my driver’s license. I noticed that I had gone through the same range of emotions that you would in a marathon, but this race seemed to have more meaning. As our dear friend Gerry would announce to the crowd at Manny’s later that evening, “I am a triathlete!”
 
At this point I would like to take a second to thank all of those who helped me cross the finish line of this personal challenge. I’d like to say thank you to Brian Collins for convincing me this was possible and getting me to take the first step; to Nick Goodman for pushing me to train harder than I ever have before and getting me so well prepared for the race; to Bryan Crane for taking a thirty-something aquaphobe and teaching him how to swim…at least well enough to get through a 400m ocean swim without drowning; and most of all to Erin, Kiersten, and Jonathan for their continued support and understanding through all the training.
 
You’re probably asking what happened to those three friends that had also traveled down for the race. Well, they all finished the race also…behind me!
 
So now what? Who knows…at least I have found a sport that I truly enjoy, and I am always up for a dare. Ironman??? We’ll see…now about those Dos Equis.

 

 

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date: July 9, 2007

roach