My First Triathlon, Where I Learned That I Am Indeed a Land Mammal

author : ledjenny
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An ultrarunner tries her first triathlon and realizes there's a lot more to open water swimming than she'd thought!

I started to worry when I noticed the wetsuits. Hanging over the bars where we had to rack our bikes in the transition area were several wetsuits. Hmmm. The website said the water would be in the mid-70s, and you can trust anything you read on the Internet, right? But there were all those wetsuits. Well, whatever, I thought, I'll just be a little cold. It's only a 500-meter swim. I swim 2000 yards every morning; 500 is just a warm-up. Never-mind that I've never done an open water swim before. It can't be much different. You just lift your head up more to breathe and look forward toward where you're going every once in awhile. What's the big deal? Triathletes must be really awful swimmers to complain about it so much. Anyway, the swim is the shortest part of the event, so if it turns out to be hard I figure I'll just muddle through it.

I am an ultrarunner. That's been a big part of my identity for six years now. But, at the moment, the full description of me is "injured ultrarunner." I developed a really nasty case of plantar fasciitis in early summer. By August, when the heel pain could no longer be denied or ignored, I stopped running altogether, got a cortisone shot in the foot, kept my foot taped up every day, and started wearing a splint to bed every night. I replaced my weekly hours of running with swimming and spinning. 2000 yards in the pool every morning, and then one hour on the spin bike at lunch. Do that every day, and it's a lot of exercise! Eventually, I decided it was time to get on a real bike again, so I climbed gingerly back on. I bought a Bianchi racing bike 12 years ago and went for a few rides with Adam, but pretty soon I found myself pregnant with Zoe, and bike-riding seemed like a bad idea, and the poor thing has sat in our garage ever since. My first few attempts to ride were comical. I couldn't remember how the gears worked, and I couldn't seem to stop without racking my girl parts on the crossbar or else falling with my right foot stuck in the toe-clip. I stuck with it and eventually went for a few 20-mile rides, but I always found the bike really scary. I'm afraid of traffic; I'm afraid of hitting a pothole or something and flying off the bike; I'm afraid I'll get to such a steep hill that I won't be able to get up it. Mostly, though, I'm afraid of downhills. The hills around here can be, like, three miles long, which is fine when you're climbing them, but screaming down the other side scares the pants off me. I've come back from all my rides with a sore neck and shoulders from gripping the brakes so hard during my panicked descents. 

So, as I drove through the dense predawn Central Valley fog to my first-ever triathlon, my worries mainly centered on the bike. What if I fall in the transition area because, once again, I can't get out of the toe clips in time? What if I get a flat tire? (I even watched youtube videos and wrote myself detailed instructions on how to fix a flat.) But I was also feeling pretty excited and proud of myself for having the courage to try something new. I'd slowly been reintroducing running, just a mile every other day at first, and it was going well. When I'd worked up to three miles without pain, I thought, "It's almost the end of the season. You should do a sprint triathlon before it's too late, because if you wait until spring, you'll be so immersed in ultras you won't do it. If you do a short one, the whole thing won't seem so scary and you can work your way up to the longer ones, where the endurance part gets fun." So I looked online and found a sprint in Oakdale, which everyone in the Bay Area knows as that place where you make the turn on Highway 120 when you're headed to Yosemite. It looked like the last relatively local sprint of the year, and since the water would be warm I wouldn't need to worry about getting a wetsuit. 

I got to the park pretty early, but lots of folks were already there. This race looked very low-key online, but even so I noticed they had a special "reserved rack," I suppose for the competitive athletes. So different from the egalitarian ethos of ultrarunning! I found a good spot and set up my stuff. I had no tri-specific gear, since I was just trying this sport on for size, so my plan was to do the whole race in a supportive sports bra and compression shorts that don't have a pad (the pad in regular bike shorts soaks up a lot of water). After the swim, I'd throw on a singlet and bike shoes, and then I'd change shoes again for the run. I put out an open Clif bar and a bottle of water (cap loosened), to consume before the bike, and some gels to have before the run. I also put a full bottle of GU20 in the bike's bottle cage. All of the transition stuff worked really well.

In addition to the sprint I'd be doing (500 meter swim, 16 mile bike, 5K run), the race was offering an Olympic distance tri as well (1500 meter swim, 25 mile bike, 10K run). These racers would start 10 minutes before the sprinters, with the idea of avoiding a mass start, I guess. As we got our final instructions at the boat ramp where the swim started, the fog descended again. You couldn't even see the big orange buoys we were to swim around. I looked around and, sure enough, about 85 or 90 percent of the people were wearing wetsuits. And most weren't in those little shortie jobs either; most were wearing full-body wetsuits like you see on surfers. These people have done a lot of these things and know what they're doing. Am I going to be able to do this without a wetsuit? Well, it's too late now. Man up and walk into the water. Oh, it was damn cold. But after the Olympic competitors took off, I made myself get in. I was shivering hard, especially after I'd knelt down and then put my face in, but I figured things would get better once I started swimming.

The Swim (500 yards, 18 min.)

Soon enough we were off. I put my face in and started the freestyle stroke, but holy crap!, you can't see a thing underwater! It was completely dark and that freaked me out! I tried to breathe but could not take in a full breath. Mentally, I was not panicked, but still I was hyperventilating. WTF?!

I've read since that the lungs automatically exhale when you are plunged into cold water. From a website I just looked up: "On falling into cold water, cold receptors in the skin cause immediate physiological responses, the first of which is a “gasp” reflex. If this happens when your head is under water, you are in deep trouble. Next, you begin to hyperventilate, within seconds, your heart begins to race, and your blood pressure spikes. Hyperventilation may make it difficult to get air into your lungs, leading to panic and further hyperventilation. These symptoms can trigger cardiac arrest in susceptible individuals. Even healthy individuals will have difficulty keeping their airways above water without a flotation aid while undergoing these major physiological stresses.” I had worried about all the jostling of a typical tri start, but that wasn't too bad. Just a couple of grabs here and there. What was bad was the way my body was reacting to the cold water.

I kept trying to do my freestyle stroke with sighting, as I'd practiced, but it became harder and harder to face putting my head in that cold dark water. And when I tried to breathe to the side, often as not I'd get half a mouthful of lake water slapped in my face. I realized I was panicking, so I rolled onto my back. It was so peaceful that way. I saw this lovely wisp of cloud and felt very far removed from the race. But I forced myself to roll back over and try to stroke. It just wasn't working, and I started to get really worried. The first buoy looked so far away! I tried breaststroke too, but I couldn't do a good one because I had the same problem when putting my face in the water. I realized all I was doing out there was dog paddling, and it was sapping my energy fast. They have lifeguards on kayaks, and they will let you hold on and float for awhile, or even pull you out of the water, if you wave that you need help. But I wasn't quite ready to do that. I rolled on my back again and figured, screw it, you know how to do a backstroke. So, that's what I did. I made it around the first buoy, backstroking and turning over every so often to try to swim freestyle and sight, and then I knew I would make it. I got around the second buoy and was headed home. Eventually, I noticed that the swimmers all seemed to be way off to my left, so I guess I swung pretty wide after that second buoy, but that was OK. I headed my backstroke back toward the stream of swimmers. (I may have been one of the last sprint swimmers in the water, but there were all those Olympic competitors who had to swim around the buoys three times.) I kept forcing myself to turn over and try freestyle every so often, and it was actually getting easier to do. (Now I realize that was because my body's cold shock response was abating. Ah, so that's why swimmers warm up before a race!) But the backstroke served me well to this point, so I mostly stuck with it. I was never so glad to be back on dry land! 

Bike (16 miles, 58 min.)

I ran to my bike (a little wobbly, but not too bad) and spent only about four minutes in the transition. No fancy bike mounts for me, given my recent experiences with falling! I got on carefully and proceeded to blow past someone who'd done a running mount just in front of me. Ha! The bike, which had scared me so much before, turned out to be my favorite part of the race. My gears sounded a little clunky at first, like they always do, but that was OK.

We rode a couple of miles on the road out of the park, then turned onto a busy street for about a mile, then turned again onto lightly traveled rural roads, making a big loop before heading back into the park. I haven't ridden my bike very much, and I have never ridden without having to deal with big hills and traffic. Both of those concerns were essentially gone here, and I felt so free! Even the busy street we were on had a shoulder coned off for us and CHP officers patrolling to make sure the cars slowed down below the 60 or 70 mph they like to go there. None of the hills were very steep, and I never even got into my smallest chainring. (Yes, I'm a girl, and my bike has a granny gear.) This also meant that I didn't have to deal with any screaming long descents, and I avoided using my brakes almost the whole way, except for a couple of really tight turns. Either spinning has gotten my legs in good cycling shape, or getting out of the water so late set me up for it, but I passed a TON of people in the bike segment. And not all of them were on hybrids or mountain bikes. Several were racing bikes much newer than mine, and some even had aerobars! I was just giddy on the bike, partly, I think, because the pleasure here was so unexpected. I shouted encouragement to people I passed and said "thank you" to all the cops and volunteers. I felt very at ease with my bike and happy when I rolled back into the transition area. I remembered to be careful on the dismount and got my left foot out of the clip and planted on the ground without incident.

Run (3.1 miles, 26 min.)

The two unfamiliar events were behind me and now I just had to run a 5K. Finally, something without drama that I know how to do. I changed shoes, swapped the bike helmet for a visor, ate a gel, and was off and running after only about two minutes in transition. It didn't feel like I'd gotten my left shoe tied tightly enough, but I wasn't going to stop for that. It was three measly miles! Besides, it might have felt that way only compared to the right foot's compression in the plantar fasciitis taping job. (Like I said, I've kept my foot taped pretty much continuously for over two months.) The run was a mix of road and dirt paths, and its layout was a little confusing, but I just trotted along. I tried to keep a decent pace but didn't push at all, mostly because I didn't want to set back my foot's recovery. My left hip hurt on and off in the first mile, and then it went away. The injured heel felt fine the whole time, though, and my energy stayed solid. I passed probably five or six runners along the way and was only passed by a couple of studly looking guys doing the Olympic distance. It felt great to finish (and faster than I'd expected), but I sort of wished the run was longer. My endurance was still good after all, and I felt like I could have done a lot more. 

Final time: 1:48:35 

The results weren't up yet and I didn't stay for the awards ceremony, so I don't know how I did relative to the field. Looking at past results, though, pretty consistently my time would have placed me 3rd in my age group (40-49) and 10th or 11th woman overall. But those things all depend on who shows up, so I really have no idea. The idea was just to try this out, anyway, and I'm glad I did. I'm jazzed to discover how much fun the bike portion of tris can be (assuming the course avoids huge hills), and I'd like to explore the endurance angle of these things with a longer event. But the swim is a real obstacle. I'm pretty apprehensive about doing that again. One of the coaches for my kids' swim team teaches open water clinics for adults, and I've resolved to take one. I've also got to do some open water practice on my own. People do learn how to do this, so it can be done. It's sort of fun finding new challenges and new things to learn even now.

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date: February 27, 2015

ledjenny