On 8th September 2007 I did my first triathlon. It was the XTERRA at Titisee, in the Black Forest of Germany. This was not really planned. I came across it somehow in August having just returned from a vacation where I took part in the Ischgl Iron Bike, and immediately I felt attracted by the challenge. I have done plenty of biking this summer and a new motivation, particularly toward the end of the summer, was what I needed. The issues were the swimming and the running, plus the fact that I had only two weeks to go. The easy option was to do it next year, spending the winter training properly for it. But my heart wanted to do it right away, so I made a deal with myself: Go to the pool, and if I can do the distance, no matter the timing, then I am in. Same approach for the running.
Having done so successfully, I enrolled, booked the hotel, and read relevant info regarding preparing for the changing zone, dos and don'ts, checklists, etc. I did managed to put in three additional sessions for both activities, covering the distance, reminding myself that I was only a mountain biker doing something different. I did set targets, including the changing: one hour for the swim, two and half hours for the bike, and another one hour for the run…so in total, four and a half hours. The race was on Saturday and three hours away, but despite the fact that it was starting at 12:30, I decided to take Friday afternoon off to go and experience some of the atmosphere. That was my first triathlon, after all, and I needed to rent a wetsuit as well. In fact, in addition to renting the wetsuit, once I got there I realized that I also needed a pair of shorts, as my cycling ones were not really suitable to wear underneath. I did not have a particularly good night. I was nervous. The combination of the water temperature being around 14 degrees Celsius and that I had only swum three times this year and never in a lake was making me very uncomfortable. The morning was long. I did not know when to change into the wetsuit. The timetable said to turn up at 12:15, but I was wondering how much earlier most people would change. In events like the Maratona dles Dolomites, people are at the start even 30 minutes before they open the blocks, and that is usually another 30-45 minutes before the actual start. At the same time, I did not want to be the only one there at 11:30, catching a cold...(it was just above 10 degrees, after all). In the end, I decided to sit with some other fellow competitors and watch their moves. Just before 12:00 everyone changed, so I did too. The speaker invited us to go into the lake and come out again. Here I was pleasantly surprised, the wetsuit does indeed keep you up, and the water did not feel that cold. Finally, we started. I positioned myself toward the end, knowing that as I was slow, to avoid any crash. I tried to get a rhythm. I started too fast—I was trying to follow the people in front of me, but they were disappearing. The water was pitch black, and I couldn’t see a thing, so I took a couple of breast strokes to look if I was going at least in the right direction! Then I looked back and I saw some people! Great, I was not last. One guy started to slowly overtake me, and I decided simply to use him as a pacer. That was a good decision, as I was actually going a bit slower then my pace and it felt easier. Unfortunately, we had to come up out of the water, run a bit and start the second round, so I had to regain my rhythm. In any case, having done the first 750 meters without too much difficulty reassured me that I was going to be ok, and I pushed a bit more second time around. Out of the water, off came the goggles and the top of the wetsuit. Julia, my wife, was behind the barriers taking photos. At the changing, I realized I could not feel my feet or my hands...I guess the water was colder than it felt. So I struggled to put on the biking shoes and the helmet, but it did not take me too long. Actually, I was wondering about the fuss people make about losing “vital” time in transition. Anyhow, I was back on my territory now, biking. Almost immediately we went for a nice long steep climb. It was really great, I was catching up to a few guys, and they were suffering. I was enjoying this and shouting inside my head, “Yes, give me more single tracks! The more technical the better, like the one on the XC world cup circuit in Houffalize.” (Those who have been there know what I am referring to.)I guess XTERRA is also nice because it has something more. As I approached the ski jump, I was relieved to know that we were not expected to fly down! However we had to walk up most of it, carrying the bike over small steps, kind of like cyclocross. The downhill was moderate, but I still managed to overtake few frightened people who were going too slow – the risk is if you are too slow any minor tree root can make you fall. The second round went similar to the first. I did not have to put my foot down except for the walk up the ski jump. 1,500m elevation in 36km is tough. Most races in Germany are 60km at 1,500m or 100km at 2,500m, this way the elevation is more evenly distributed. I re-entered the changing zone thinking, “I have made it.” I looked at my watch, just over three hours and fifteen minutes. As I was changing into my running shoes, I started to dream that I was going to smash my target! I did not push too much toward the end of the biking, hence I was feeling confident. In my two weeks prior to the race, my crash reading course on the subject taught me about the “brick”, the difficulty some have in changing from biking to running. But having no time to practice, I though, ”Well, let’s see.” The first few hundred meters went fine, then the steep climb started and the pain in my lower back started, too. I looked ahead and saw many people walking. At first I tried not to, but my back was hurting so much that I had to follow. I have to say that I was annoyed at having to walk part of the climb, but on the other hand the goal was to finish, so better to walk a bit than to pull out later. The downhill of the run was also treacherous, with many tree roots and mud, and I was getting cramps all over, discovering new muscles that I never thought I had.
Obviously the experienced guys had off road running shoes, and some of them were really flying while I was trying not to lose my balance. “Next time,” I said to myself. The second time around was a similar patter. De-facto, to save the back and avoid falling, I was taking it easy. A quick glance on the heart rate showed that I was below 160, well below my average racing pace. That also meant that I still had plenty to give, and when I passed the spot that reminded me that I was more or less half way in the second loop, with my watch saying 4 hours 16 minutes, I decided to start sprinting all the way, not to miss the chance to meet my target. And I made it, in 4 hours 26 minutes! Official timing says 00:33 on the swim (incredibly fast), 2:44 on the bike, and 1:09 on the run (incredibly slow). Lessons learned: Don’t push too much at the beginning of the swim. Try to find a pacer slightly below my max stroke. Remind myself that my strong discipline is mountain biking. Try to stretch on the bike, particularly if arriving flat. I think if I tried to relax my back a bit, I could have avoided some of the pain. As for running, well, practice more, maybe do some duathlons in winter/early spring. In the end, the running was fine toward the end. I had virtually no cramps the second time around, but I was definitely slower than expected. Overall assessment is that I felt great that I had done some different and challenging. In fact, I decided to buy the wetsuit, as a good price was offered. Thus, I am “forced” to do some more next year!