Deciding to take up triathlon is not a trifle or a whim. For most people, there is a story in how they came to the sport as beginners.Some of the most inspiring of those beginner tales begin with health scares.
For Richard Wallen of Southport, N.C., things were looking pretty bleak at age 38.
“We had just had our fifth child and I was a medical mess. Topping out at 300 pounds, I had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and my sugar was out of whack,” Wallen says. He was taking several prescriptions, as well as pills to counteract acid reflux.“I had gone to the doctor and she had basically told me that I better start doing something soon or I would not see my daughter graduate from high school,” Wallen says. Wallen was inspired to change, but needed direction, and his wife suggested a triathlon.Two and a half years later, Wallen (BT member Dandr614) has lost 85 pounds, doesn’t need any medications, and competes in triathlons regularly.“It has given me much more energy and allowed me to do things I did not think my body was capable of doing. I also feel that the example I am portraying for my kids shows that, with hard work, you can accomplish what you did not think is possible.”
Dave Pratt of San Antonio, Texas, tells a similar tale.Pratt had a background in cycling and running and had a typical distance runners’ physique in high school: 5-foot-10 and 135 pounds.“Somewhere after college I just stopped running and cycling. My bikes got dusty hanging in the garage. I got married, had kids, had a 9-to-5 job, and ballooned up to about 200 lbs and a 36-inch waistline,” says Pratt (BT member Djastroman).At a routine physical in 2009, Pratt was diagnosed with diabetes. His blood sugar was out of control.“I was flipping through a Bicyling magazine and saw an ad for the local Tour de Cure coming up in a few months. I decided I wanted to try that, and try to manage my diabetes through exercise and diet,” Pratt says. His cycling experience connected him with old friends, one of whom talked about some triathlons she was doing. Pratt gave one triathlon a try, finished first in his age group in a sprint tri, and was hooked.He has now completed sprints, Olympics and a half-ironman.
“I am feeling better than I have in years,” Pratt says. “I'm back down under 170 pounds and my diabetes is pretty well under control.”
For others, triathlon has been the cure for mental struggles more than physical ones. Tiffany Landry of Hattiesburg, Miss., has struggled with phobias most of her life. “Training, traveling and competing with many other people has caused me to have to face those phobias and basically just get over it,” Landry says. “Doing triathlon has led to me not having as much anxiety or depression, so I feel better physically, but to me, most important is that I feel better mentally.”“I'm no longer dealing with daily anxiety because a nice morning swim, bike or run burns up that extra energy that turns into anxiety,” says Landry (BT member Tiffanator).“I turned 30 less than a week ago, and while people were asking if I was OK because they thought I would be stressed by turning 30, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in and I'm way happier than ever. So I'm leaving the depressed years behind and moving on to a great life as a strong, confident, unafraid adult.”Doug Wilson of Bloomington, Ind., faced similar struggles with anxiety.Wilson describes the confusion, fear and shame involved with anxiety attacks like this:“Does anyone know a man who has recently turned 40, suddenly has an episode where he thinks he is having a heart attack, goes to the doctor and has a battery of tests done, and never says anything more about the heart problem? That's because he was having an anxiety attack, not a heart attack. It happened to me, too, and that's why I do triathlons.”Wilson says he understood he needed a way to deal with the anxiety, and didn’t want to medicate the problem without trying other tactics first.A smoker and coffee drinker, he gave up nicotine and caffeine but feared that would make him even heavier than the 50 pounds overweight he already was.“I decided I would start an exercise program. I started swimming in the mornings before work, and I found this was extremely therapeutic. Burning off the excess energy before work really took the edge off the anxiety,” says Wilson (BT member Hoosierman).“To ensure I would continue doing it, I decided I should sign up for some kind of competition. I chose triathlon pretty randomly. I think it sounded hard-core to me,” he says.Wilson says he feels great, has lost 30 pounds, and hasn’t made any return trips to the emergency room.Triathlon is a unique sport because people at all levels compete in the same race. In one transition area, you have people who grew up in elite endurance sports right next to people who have never entered a race of any kind before.
Many triathletes begin their first race having no athletic experience, or after a long period of inactivity and lack of fitness.John Chelonis of Redding, Calif., had not taken great notice about the decline in his fitness over the years. “At that time I was like many other 40-year-old dads. I dropped the kids off at school every morning and then sat at a desk for eight-plus hours a day,” says Chelonis. “After work I’d head home and sit in front of the TV or computer.”The deterioration had happened slowly, almost imperceptibly. It took something sudden to bring about a change.“On a dark and rainy night I was driving along with my family in our minivan at about 45 mph when suddenly there’s a loud bang and we are stopped. My legs are in pain, my youngest daughter is screaming, and my wife is looking at me asking what just happened,” Chelonis says.Their van had been struck by another driver who had run a red light.Chelonis’ family escaped with relatively minor injuries, but during the course of physical rehabilitation, Chelonis and his wife had to make changes to their schedule to accommodate the exercise. They decided to make it a permanent change and found the Couch to 5K program at BeginnerTriathlete.com.Both learned to swim, and then added cycling to their schedule, completing their first 5K in May and first super sprint triathlon in September.“I’ve only had a taste of triathlon to this point, and I'm a Back-of-the-Packer, but I like it, and I don’t ever want to go back to the couch potato lifestyle,” says Chelonis (BT member JonnyVero).
Some people take a long and circuitous route to the starting line of their first triathlon.Jonah Klein’s flirtation with triathlon began in 1983, but the relationship wasn’t consummated until 2007.“Like a lot of people, I watched the iconic Julie Moss ironman finish in 1983, and, like most people, it really stuck with me,” says Klein, of Brooklyn, N.Y. Klein played sports all his life, but never competed in endurance sports.
“One day, I was riding my bike in Manhattan and I passed a bunch of fit people pushing really cool bikes along the Hudson River promenade. I realized that these were triathletes, who had just finished the NYC tri,” he says.
“I recall being really excited, like someone who is on a safari and sees a pride of lions or something. They seemed really cool and almost supernaturally fit, and I remember thinking, ‘I would love to be one of those people.’”
In the intervening years, he had a friend who competed in triathlons and didn’t seem to be much more fit than himself. After that, he saw an episode of MTV’s “Made”, where an overweight, completely un-athletic awkward kid trained for and finished a Sprint tri in 60 days. “At that point, I thought, “’Well, if he can do it, I can certainly do it.’” After Klein’s son was born, he became sedentary and put on a lot of weight. Determined to make a change, he signed up for one of the triathlons his friend had mentioned. With so much buildup from years of small encounters with triathlon, Klein’s race was memorable despite a swim canceled due to weather. He eventually completed other triathlons.“In 2009, I raced the New York City tri, and as I was wheeling my bike out of transition after the race, it occurred to me, ‘Hey, I’m one of those people now!’”Although Klein’s triathlon finish was a long time coming, other triathletes have proven there is such a thing as starting out too quickly.
Mike Elle was in denial about being in poor physical condition, so he agreed to take on his teenage son in a running race. “I made it approximately 20 yards before tearing both hamstrings. The bright side is that had I finished the race I probably would have been rushed to the hospital,” says Elle (BT member Melle).Around the same time period, Elle had a routine physical before undergoing sinus surgery.
“The nurse’s comment when she took my blood pressure was ‘Holy crap, the last time I saw blood pressure that high, my husband died the next day.’ She then tried three other blood pressure cuffs to make sure it was not a mistake,” Elle recounts.Between his blood pressure, which was 168/139, and the ill-fated running race, Elle says he was forced to finally acknowledge the state of his overall health.Too stubborn to take medication, according to his own admission, Elle took up triathlon. He now has normal blood pressure and a resting heart rate of 47.“Triathlon has improved every part of my life,” he says. “I have more energy for family, work, friends and activities I enjoy.”Elle says he needs a goal in order to keep training. Triathlon fills that need because “anyone can do it.”He says beginners should take heart no matter their level, recalling his first treadmill workout of 30 minutes, in which he ran for 20 to 30 seconds and walked for a few minutes until his heartrate dropped enough to start running for another few seconds.
Triathletes with chronic conditions, autoimmune diseases and cancer are also members of BeginnerTriathlete.com. For many, having an athletic goal to pursue helps them feel power over their health and their bodies, despite being challenged by diseases often outside their control.One BT member says being fit and in shape makes it easier to tolerate his chemotherapy.And Suzie Zimmer of Morton Grove, Ill., is one of BeginnerTriathlete.com’s members who trains and races despite an autoimmune disease.Zimmer’s story starts out like many others: She read an article about the Chicago Triathlon in the 1980s and, having been a runner, thought maybe she could do that.Twenty years later, now married with kids, Zimmer not only hadn’t entered the Chicago Triathlon, but she also had serious health issues.“Beginning in my late 30s I was diagnosed with a series of autoimmune diseases. I have asthma, interstitial cystitis, eosinophilic gastritis, and Crohn's Disease,” she says. “After some time of feeling sorry for myself, I began to take charge of my life. I did research, I changed doctors and radically changed my diet. And I began to run again,” says Zimmer. “The summer I turned 45, I decided to finally do a triathlon,” she says.Zimmer raced in a swimsuit with shorts over the top and rode a cruiser bike.“As I crossed the finish line I felt euphoric!” says Zimmer (BT member Suzimmer) “I quickly signed up for another race two weeks later.”Zimmer has now raced at every distance, including Ironman. She has run the Chicago marathon and qualified for Boston.“I am in the best shape of my life and feeling great,” she says. “I love what triathlon has given me. Friendship, happiness and HEALTH.”Some triathletes battle not only their own unhealthy past, but a culture and family history of sedentary habits.“My family comes from a long line of non-athletes,” says Jennifer Wayland of Midcoast, Maine.“I remember doing sit-ups one day at home, and my dad asked what I was doing.”“I said I was exercising. He responded, ‘Why would you want to do that?’”Wayland was intrigued by watching the Ironman on Wide World of Sports in college, and wanted to be a triathlete.“I went out and bought an Ironman Triathlon Timex watch because I had no earthly idea how else to go about achieving this goal. That was the end of my triathlon training for 20-plus years,” Wayman jokes. Wayman was derailed from fitness by work, marriage, kids and life in general, but three summers ago she went to cheer on a friend who was competing in a local sprint triathlon.“I really enjoyed watching all these people--a surprising number that I knew--really challenging themselves,” says Wayman (BT member Itsallrelative Maine).Her friend encouraged her to train for it the following year, but Wayman was skeptical because she didn’t run and hadn’t biked in years.But Wayman found a friend to coach her along as she moved from walking to running.“I biked some in college and shortly after graduation, so I felt comfortable on a bike (not fast, but comfortable) and I knew how to swim. I found BT, read all of the "First Tri" stories, a lot of the training articles and lurked on the message boards, gleaning what knowledge I could,” she says.Wayman’s first triathlon ended in disappointment when her chain came off and wrapped itself around the crank so tightly it required a mechanic. She had to drop out of her first race instead of crossing the finish line she had dreamed about.“I almost gave up...but then I realized I really LIKED the training. I liked the focus I had to have in order to meet the goal I set for myself. I liked the drive I had to finish all the workouts so I would be able to finish the triathlon. I liked the people I met while training. I liked the people I met while racing. And most importantly - I liked the person I had become,” she says. “Instead of the overweight grumpy mother of two in a frustrating job, I became the fit mom in a rewarding career that has something to brag about.”
Triathlon training is only as complicated as you want to make it. All you really need is a pair of goggles, a cheap road or mountain bike and a good pair of running shoes to take you through your first race.
The following article will be your next step to start your training today!
Choosing a Triathlon Training Plan
Editor at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.