My First Triathlon: An American doing her first Tri in Germany

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Then the race bell went off and I started swimming, and I thought I was going to die. All of my swim practice did not prepare me for the chaos that is the beginning of a triathlon.

Before race day, I didn’t get the best night’s sleep – It was hot in the room, and there was loud road noise. I woke up at 5 a.m. to eat a light breakfast of yogurt and a banana. I couldn’t stomach much else. I got to the bike check in as soon as they opened. I wasn’t even sure what exactly they were checking, but they had me tighten up my helmet and I was good to go. It was here that I realized I didn’t have my timing chip – where had I left it? I called my husband at the hotel and woke him up and we discovered I had left it at the hotel. So, I checked in my bike and drove the 10 minutes back to the hotel, got the timing chip, and headed back to the race. By then I’d lost my sweet parking place, but it gave me a chance to get a good run warm-up back to the race starting area.

“So, now what am I supposed to do?” I wondered. It was still over an hour before the race… I milled around and tried to figure out the swim course. There was a map, but there were a lot of buoys and zigzags and it was hard to tell start from finish. I finally heard someone else speaking English (I’m an American in Germany) – turns out it was an American from the same military base where my husband works! She had a two-year old and ten-month old twins, and this was also her first triathlon. I found a guy who I knew spoke English and he said he’d translate the announcements for us so we didn’t miss anything.

My new friend and I took a practice swim and the water was beautiful. It was 24°C, so no neoprene was allowed. My stroke was strong, I felt good, I was confident, and my muscles were warmed up. My husband and daughter came and got a good picture before the race, and they wished me good luck.

I got in the water, still confident. Then the race bell went off and I started swimming, and I thought I was going to die. All of my swim practice did not prepare me for the chaos that is the beginning of a triathlon. I was kicked, shoved, pulled under, and pushed under. The only stroke I know is the crawl stroke, and I quickly discovered that this stroke is pretty worthless if you don’t have room to do it. If I put my head down, it got pushed under. I kind of side-stroked and doggie-paddled my way through the crowd, thinking that it was going to take me for-freaking-ever to finish this race, knowing I wouldn’t be able to sidestroke forever. If I’d had my wetsuit on, I think I might have actually panicked (it makes me a bit claustrophobic by itself). I was so unprepared for the craziness of it all.

 

Pretty soon I was able to get in a few strokes and discovered that many of the people around me really weren’t very good swimmers. That meant that if I could do my stroke, I could get around them. After a few more near-drownings (near-panickings, that is…), I managed to find a bit more room. Pretty soon I got into a rhythm and as long as I was in the rhythm I was okay. When I could actually swim I realized that I was passing people right and left. But then I’d get caught between someone and the rope and it would start all over again. I was happy with my swim time – I thought I’d wasted so much time in the beginning just trying to get through the mounds of humanity that I guess adrenaline made up for it later. Maybe it was the hyperventilating that made me go faster. Or possibly, it was the “Oh @#$ I’m going to die if I don’t swim out of this” feeling that made me speed up.

I got to the bike transition and ate a few bites of banana. I started the bike course feeling strong. I was somewhere in the middle during the swim and thought I could stay there for a while. I was SOOO WRONG! About 15 minutes into the race I realized how badly my bike was. Not me, the bike. How do I know this? Well, when people were passing me going up the first hill I knew I could probably be going faster, but I was in a big chain ring and going up pretty fast. I figured I’d make up for it on the downhill. Then the downhill came and my bike could not go any faster – I mean, I couldn’t pedal because it was tapped out.

 

I was going as fast as my bike could go with me on it. And people were smoking me right and left! I started laughing right then and there. The only thing I can compare it to is being on the autobahn going 100 mph and another car comes screaming by like you’re standing still. The thing is, almost everyone was passing me. When my daughter was smaller and she was riding her bike and wanted to go fast down a hill, she’d put her head down, elbows up, scrunch over and yell “Reeeeeeeeee,” you know, the sound kids make of something going fast. Believe me, I would have done that here if I thought it would have made a difference. Note to self – 10-year old mountain bikes are not a good choice for racing against anyone else with a road bike. I think I passed three people in the whole bike ride and one of them re-passed me in the run so I don’t think that counts as a legitimate pass.

Overall, I rode the bike portion of the race as best as I could. Short of a better bike, I don’t think I could have ridden it any better. I felt strong at the beginning, and pretty strong but waning at the end.

After the bike, I grabbed another bite of banana and took off. I didn’t know where the place was to scan your race chip and there was no one to direct me (they probably said it, but it was lost in translation) – I didn’t think of it until I was on my way, so I asked a race volunteer and they said to just keep running.

During all of my training, whenever I’d practice the transitions, I always felt like I was running in mud after getting off the bike, but only for about five minutes, and then I’d feel fine. This time, however, I never really got into my stride. I was wiped. Thankfully, about half of the run was in the shade and about half of it was on trails. That was really nice, because all of my run training was on trails and not asphalt. I figured that at my slowest I’d finish in one hour (about a 10 min mile) and it took me a few minutes longer than that but I was out of steam so by this time, I was just happy to finish.

Near the finish chute my daughter and husband were waiting for me and my daughter got to run the finish with me, which was awesome. They have both been so supportive of me throughout the whole training. I couldn’t have done it without them, and I was so happy they were there with me at the finish.

Things to do differently?

  • Find a better way to fuel during the race. Gel made me nauseated in the past, but obviously there’s something out there that has to work and I need to find it so I don’t run out of steam during the run.

  • Get a new bike, maybe even with aero bars.

  • Find a better start position in the swim.

  • If it’s a German race, bring a friend who speaks German…

  • Pick a race that isn’t so intimidating.

 

 
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date: August 13, 2008