It was only a year ago when I was celebrating my birthday by being somewhat depressed about the next year's birthday. I was about 10 pounds into my weight loss journey and at that weight, 10 pounds is not the slightest bit noticeable. I was anxious and worried about my health, and the prospect of getting older surely meant that my health could only get worse.
I had lost and gained 10 pounds several times over the last few years prior -- or more accurately, lost 10 pounds and gained 15-20 -- over and over for five years. The health implications where severe: On that birthday I was still taking medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, anxiety, and wearing a CPAP machine at night to sleep and not stop breathing. It was hard to look at my then 1-year-old daughter and imagine what sort of shape I would be in when she gets married, or graduates high school -- if I even made it that long.
As I sat there eating my one small piece of cake trying not to let all my family see I was trying to control my eating, I vowed to not turn 30 with the same hopeless feeling. Little did I know how successful I would be. I wish I could say for certain that was the turning point, the time and place I made a stand with a solemn resolution to make a difference. The truth is that it happened slowly day after day taking little steps, accepting little rewards, and watching the weight come of a tenth or two tenths at a time over the last year. One source of depression for me was the lack of physical activity.
I didn't attribute it as such at the time, but in retrospect it was a major cause for the self loathing and self-pity of being fat. I started wrestling in 4th grade and from then on I was always physically challenging myself. In college I was rock climbing, hiking big mountains, skiing, ice climbing, and would often work out to kill time between working out. At the time, I didn't realize I was getting a workout. I was just having fun while working at the climbing wall or simply going for a 10-mile hike to do high-angle rescue training with La Plata County search and rescue.
I had forgotten a lesson I had learned in my climbing years. The summit of the mountain had always been the biggest disappointment. I would spend only a minute on top, feel a little let down, and then head down planning the next climbing trip. The reason to climb, and ergo the reason to do anything really, is for the climbing; not for the moments after you've climbed. It is the challenge, the suffering, the endurance, and the perseverance that made climbing so much fun. The reason I would work out and get stronger was not to make climbing easier, but to make it possible to climb harder mountains!
Someone recently asked about triathlon being a means or an end. I thought about it, and was reminded of my climbing discovery, and decided that everything in life is a means. The only end is your death and everything you do then has to be the means. I don't want to get too philosophical here, but the reward for living another year isn't for a piece of birthday cake.
The weight loss was going well and I was starting to see some real results around the 75lb mark. I had started playing lacrosse again the year before and after losing 50-75 lbs I felt like I could actually play and not just be on the field trying to play. That was extremely rewarding, but also frustrating because my physical fitness was not up to par with where I was mentally and skill wise.
Just like the beginning of weight loss, exercise must be eased into and doesn't happen with one big resolution. If I would have known the overall impact, I would have documented the experience better. I was pretty good about keeping track of my diet and weight loss, writing a little e-book about it, but sort of dropped the ball on the exercise part. What I do recall is that there were a few chance encounters that helped it all come together.
I had been thinking about cycling, because it is impossible to go more than five minutes in Colorado without seeing a cyclist on a slick new bike screaming down the road like nothing. The idea appealed to me and the bikes appealed to my strong inclination for gadgetry. My wife and I always look through used books and I happened to pick up Lance Armstrong's book "It's Not About the Bike" and it was the book that really started turning the gears in my head.
Around that time I was getting to know Cyrus Severence, an elite triathlete who is currently training to run a marathon at a 6 minute mile pace (also started Reflex Designs, the first Triathlon Lifestyle Clothing company) and my brother Chris Wright, a chiropractor in Grand Rapids MI started talking about his Ironman goals after running a few marathons and other long races. Both these guys went a long way in planting seeds about triathlon and made it seem so cool. I was interested in cycling, and swimming had always been fairly natural for me, but running seemed like a daunting task.
I can't remember exactly what prompted me, but a combination of my two personal inspirations and an idea of getting faster on the lacrosse field, made me decide to go out for a jog. What I do remember is it was exactly five minutes of jogging and I thought my lungs were going to burst. I was a bit embarrassed and surprised that so little effort and time did me in so quickly. Dr. Wright recommended "Born to Run," now one of my favorite books, and that was the exact turning point where running became not only an achievable goal, but an evolutionary and physical need. Not that it was easy after that, but five minutes, seven minutes, 10 minutes ... It took time to get to today, where I can run several hours and enjoy myself.
With my new found enthusiasm and a stronger belief in myself I decided to sign up for a triathlon. Or at least I decided to say I was going to sign up for a triathlon before I turn 30. I started looking around and learning what I was really getting myself into. I was reading training plans, magazines, and looking online for races that I might be able to sign up for and have enough time to train.
It was March and Sampson Sports (sweet custom bikes) which is located just around the corner from my house was having an open house, so I walked down there to drool over the top of the line bikes and components. It was there I met Darrin from Racing Underground and chatted about triathlon and Sampson Sports. He was there offering registration discounts for all of their races, and low and behold they had the Crescent Moon Triathlon on my 30th Birthday and only a few miles from my house. Perfect. I signed up and went home thinking "Now what?"
First thing was the pool. I couldn't remember the last time I was in a pool and swimming for the sake of swimming. I was embarrassed to get into a pool for so long because of my weight and probably only did so two or three times in the previous five years. But if I was going to swim 750 yards by September I figured I had better start right away.
Swimming was great. It felt good to be in the water and even though the first 25 meters felt a lot like those first five minutes of running, it was so much easier on my body that I looked forward to my swim workouts. Following a fairly easy triathlon training program, I was swimming sets of 50 meters in various paces and numbers.
Swimming improved greatly at first and the fitness effects transferred to running well. I grew up taking swimming lessons and was always natural in the water, but it did take some getting used to and I spent a lot of time reading up on the Total Immersion swimming technique to refine my stroke and efficiency.
Swimming performance gains plateaued pretty quickly, and increasing the distance became difficult. It is completely normal, even the top athletes in triathlon and swimming spend a lot of time in the pool to make very, very small improvements on their time and endurance. The trick is patience and consistency. If you can find the joy of simply being in the pool, the time will be well spent and the rewards of being able to swim a long distance will happen. It is sort of like watching a pot of water boil, it seems to take forever if you are watching but as soon as you look away it is done.
A bike became my next task and the one I was looking forward to the most. The issue here is, well, even an entry level road or triathlon bike is expensive. There really isn't another way around it, it is a huge cost to start playing the game. While it is possible to take that old mountain bike or cruiser and complete a sprint triathlon, and a lot of people do just that, it just isn't the same as the vision of racing one of those slick time trial triathlon bikes. And seeing how I didn't have any bike, I figured I might as well go for a purpose-made machine.
Having my heart set on a triathlon bike wasn't enough to justify going out and putting down the cash for a new bike, so used was the way to go.
Luckily for me I have experience in mechanics and metal working, so looking at used bikes didn't feel like a huge risk. And I actually found a great deal on a bike that had a cracked seat post clamp (it is integrated into the frame, not a separate piece). This is usually an unrepairable issue, but I've done enough welding and machining that I felt I could at least try to fix it, especially for the price.
Welding aluminum is tricky, and the space wasn't too accommodating so I ended up just building up some material so I could machine it down to accept a clamp on style seat post. It was a risky move, but it only had to hold up (at the time) my 250-some-pound body. Other bikers looked on in shock, but as I explained my experience welding on truck frames and suspensions that I would then drive at highway speeds without incidents, 20-some-mph on a bike didn't seem like a huge deal.
It was cold and raining when I got my bike, and riding a tri bike with skinny 700cc tires isn't exactly like riding your old BMX bike, so I wanted to get some experience from the safety of a trainer and be able to make the dozens of adjustments for the bike to fit me correctly. So a trainer was the way to go. I had become a member of the Rocky Mountain Tri Club, which has a lot of their events only a couple miles from my house, and has a huge member base and awesome news group that shares a lot of information, tips, and offers discounts all over town. I put out a message asking to borrow a trainer, and within minutes several people where offering to lend me theirs. Pretty amazing group of people, offering to help a stranger and loan out a $100+ piece of equipment. As I'd come to learn, not a rare quality in that group.
My first crash came quickly, within the first ten miles, while not moving, in my garage. I don't think anyone saw, but I was still embarrassed for some reason. I was pissed because I managed to destroy the rear wheel as I fell over, which happened to be the most valuable part of the bike at the time. I got over it and started riding on that trainer, tweaking the set up and learning to pedal and shift around on the time trial bars.
There is a whole science to getting a good bike fit. Dozens of books and articles, and lots of bike shops and services using videos and computers get a bike that fits well. Heck, if you have the time and money you can even rent a wind tunnel and some scientist to help you get the most power and aerodynamics on a bike.
At first I thought it was silly, but the truth is it is very easy to become uncomfortable, and a short ride can be very, very painful if you don't have any sort of fit to a road or triathlon bike.
With my education and experience being an expert in biomechanics, I was pretty good at getting myself set up comfortably on the bike. A few guides and tips from the pros really made sense with how I know the body to work, and I just went from there. I think anyone with the patience and aptitude can do the same, but for the relatively cheap price, a professional bike fit it is well worth it. An advantage to buying a new bike is most good bike shops will fit you before and after you buy a bike.
My first outdoor ride was great. Similar to swimming, it just really felt good to be riding a bike. The difference between riding on a trainer and riding outside is night and day. I am fortunate to live right off Cherry Creek which has a super nice path that is popular for cyclists and runners and goes for at least 10 miles in either direction. I often ride up to Cherry Creek Reservoir and state park where you can ride without many cars and intersections. I still don't like riding on busy streets, and as long as I don't have to, I won't.
I found cycling to be the most fun and found myself fairly adapt at it. I was naturally much faster, relatively, on the bike than I was swimming or running. Even being new and still out of shape I was pretty close to producing the power and speed that more experienced triathletes and cyclist could do. Not that it is really that big of deal. As I feel out of the three disciplines it is the easiest for people to improve the most in, given the desire to do so and bike that is comfortable to spend the time training on.
After a few months of swimming I started to learn and realize that there was a pretty big difference between swimming laps in a pool and swimming in a big huge lake hundreds of yards from the shore. It is a common issue that keeps a lot of people from doing triathlons and if you read the stories online a lot of people have a lot of anxiety and can't finish the swim.
A wetsuit is nearly required for open water swimming. Some purists don't agree and if you live where the water warms up, it will be too hot to wear one anyway, but you will see most everyone wearing one when you go to a triathlon. The buying process is almost as daunting as it is for the bike. There are a lots of options and prices.
First thing to be sure is that there is a huge difference between a triathlon wet suit and a surfing wet suit. Surfing and Rafting wet suits are designed to keep you warm - Triathlon wet suits help you swim. They really do. You are much more buoyant and smooth in the water wearing a good wet suit.
I don't find them to be magical swimming suits that allow people who can't swim 25 meters to magically swim 800 meters, but they are nice and might give some a false sense of security. (They help you float, but will not keep you from drowning.)
After getting my hands on my very own wet suit, I had to go try it out. Unfortunately it isn't a good idea to wear one in a chlorine pool, but fortunate because you'd probably look ridiculous doing do. I doubt it will destroy your wet suit doing it once or twice, and if the pool is the only way you can try it out before a race - well better than not trying it at all.
Around here we have several options for swimming in open water, and I decided to take my new suit out to Grant Ranch with Mile High Multisport. It is a good idea to go somewhere with an official swim beach. They have life guards out there in kayaks and you know the water quality is good. There are also sighting buoys and other swimmers that help keep you from going too far off track.
I still didn't feel safe going out there by myself and hit up the news group for Rocky Mountain Tri Club and had a group of people to go with the next day that were great at helping me get comfortable swimming in open water and making sure I made it back out of the water and didn't end up at the bottom of the lake.
The first swim wasn't too bad, but it wasn't easy either. The water is colder, it is darker (even as clean as that lake was it was hard to see your hands in front of you), it is deeper, and even if you don't think it matters - the ropes and wall of the pool lanes are a subconscious safety net that isn't available in open water.
Swimming for humans isn't natural. We aren't made to do it well and physics works against us in a number of ways to make it difficult. For example, the world's fastest 1-mile swim is around 14 minutes and 30 seconds where the fastest 1-mile run is only 3 minutes and 20 some seconds.
Fear and panic are a natural and expected response to being in open water. You would be crazy if you didn't. However, it doesn't mean that has to keep your from swimming and being successful at it. I started by swimming out a hundred yards or so and then treading water. Getting comfortable and breathing. Then a little farther and relax again. Before I knew it I was out at the first buoy and felt fine and ended up swimming about one mile that morning.
I started off with a last minute 5k charity run. I was there for a friend volunteering with the setup and registration for the race and decided there was enough people that I would just run the 5K. I ended up doing it in 29:30 which was a PR (personal record ) for me (well, since I started losing weight - I probably could have gone much faster in college) and winning the Clydesdale division. For the uninitiated, Clydesdale is the class for men over 200 lbs, and my time wasn't particularly fast for a Clyde ( a lot of them are 6'6" guys that are big and fit) it just happened that there were only a couple of us there that day.
Next up was the Aquaman series put on by Without Limits. I first went to volunteer and in the following weeks raced (when it wasn't canceled for lightning storms). It is a really nice weekly series of various length swims followed by a 5K - or just a swim. I was doing the short course half mile swim and 5K run and absolutely love it. It is also at Cherry Creek Reservoir and is a great training race series for swimming and running. I was pretty conservative in the three races I did because I was really trying to feel it all out and didn't want to crash and burn on any part. The participants where always mostly regulars and more experienced. I had pretty good times for my experience and training, but finished in the back for my age group.
The plan was to do my first triathlon on my 30th birthday - the one I originally signed up for - but I was at the Lookout Mountain Triathlon setting up a booth for my office and handing out samples of BioFreeze and doing Keniso Taping for athletes when I couldn't shake my confidence. I kept thinking to myself, "I am ready to do this." I was still losing weight and my training was going much faster and better than I had initially planned. So I signed up for Racing Underground's famous My Way or the Tri Way (which lets people race the three disciplines in any order they want).
I went with the traditional swim, bike, run and had an a blast. It was better than I imagined. I've read a lot of other peoples race reports that talk in depth about how a race went and I just don't think I can write like that. It was fun, I swam 750meters and got out of the water, I got on my bike and rode as fast as I could for 12 miles, then I ran 5k and crossed the finish line of my first triathlon feeling good and happy. The only thing I could really say is that I knew I wanted more. All the training and exercise wasn't going to be for one race and I would be be done. I was going to make triathlons part of my lifestyle.
Right after the My Way or the Tri Way I started seeing what other triathlons I could fit into my schedule before the birthday one. The Rattle Snake tri was right smack in the middle and looked to fit the bill. While I was deciding to do it or not (it was almost sold out by that time), someone from the Rocky Mountain Tri Club posted that they where selling their spot because they couldn't make the event anymore. They had signed up for the Crazy Back-to-Back - which is an Olympic distance race on Saturday and sprint race on Sunday. He was letting it go for a steal, both events for the price of just the sprint - so I figured why not?
An Olympic triathlon is basically twice the distance of a Sprint, however a lot of sprint races vary quite a bit on distance because of the course layout. Either way, my goal for the big 30th birthday was to just finish a sprint distance triathlon but here I was about to do a race twice as long then turn around and do another one the next day! It is a cool race, same location as the My Way or Tri Way and similarly famous. I see myself becoming a regular back-to-back racer at this event. I took it easier on both days to make sure I could do them both, but still managed to have a similar time as the previous tri. I basically did the Olympic distance at the same pace as the Sprint (which means I should be much faster on the sprint distance), and because my training volume already had me covering more than the distance required, I was able to finish with a smile on my face again. We got some cool swag for this race, a nice wetsuit tote and an awesome embroidered jacket for the back-to-back finishers. I raced well and most importantly felt good. They didn't have a separate Clydesdale division for some reason, so I don't know how I did in that regard but I was pretty far back for the age group. (I am in one of the most competitive age groups now.) I was racing conservatively both days anyway, but it would have been nice to see how I staked up to other Clydes. Early on the swim for the Sunday sprint distance race I was kicked in the chest by someone doing the breast stroke and took a breath of water which hurt like heck and I felt it throughout the whole race. I thought it was slowing me down, and it did on the swim because I had to stop to catch my breath, but I finished in about the time I expected to.
I made it to my 30th birthday, almost 140 pounds lighter and almost as fit as ever. Well, actually I still have a little ways to go but I am now vowing that my 30s will have me in better shape than my teens and early 20s. I'll be updating this section when I complete the race this weekend. I know it will be a blast and I hope to finish with a new PR in every event. Based on previous years, I am hoping to place in my division - but you never know who else is coming with the same plan or how the route has changed.
Chiropractic & Triathlons