“Blessed are the flexible for they shall never be bent out of shape.” – Ancient Xterra Tribe Race Director Proverb This is a chronicle of the evolution of triathlon fear, and a big hairy, then shaved, then once again hairy moron (that would be me) who tried to conquer it.
I went to get my blood tested for life insurance, and the results said my premium would have to be doubled because I’m in such bad shape. I had been looking for a reason to get back in shape, but had found no motivation. Not only was I unmotivated, after these results, I was depressed. How could I let myself go like this? Later that same fateful week, a friend called from Washington and said he and another 12 guys were going to do a triathlon in Sisters, Oregon. 1000meter swim, 17 mile bike, and 6 mile run. No mention was made to the fact that it was an Xterra Championship Race from him or the website. Thanks, guys. The website mentions charming views and pristine lakes. I thought, ”Sure, I like charming views. Why not!?”I began a rigorous training regimen and read everything I could get my hands on about triathlon training. You must understand, I couldn’t even spell triathlon correctly when I started. I pulled my bike out of storage, got out my dusty running shoes, bought a swim cap and goggles. I was ready. Watch out Peter Reid! This is how my log read: “The first bike ride: puked after 3 miles, walked bike home. The first run: extreme pain in left ankle, stopped before a quarter mile. The first swim: swam to the other side of the pool and half-way back – started drowning - sucked in water – felt sick all night.”Pre-XTERRA sprint triathlon raceYou might have thought that this would have further depressed me. However, an amazing thing occurred. I got mad – real mad. I was so upset at myself for being such a wimp, I decided then and there, this was going to change – no matter what. I immediately signed up for a local sprint triathlon to warm up and learn the ropes. 500meter swim, 15 mile bike, 3 mile run. I trained and logged, and trained, and logged, and analyzed, and switched up my routine, and trained even harder. I cross-referenced my findings to all available reference books I could find in Barnes & Noble. I calculated. I lightened my mountain bike. I researched swimming earplugs and padded shorts. I consulted with swimmers at the pool. I bought eBooks. I became a triathlon encyclopedia. I think it took me 4 months to be able to truly laugh about my first triathlon. It was that bad. I now have no ego. My buddy in Washington who was well-researched and just smart enough to be dangerous, told me the only part he had reservations about was wearing the Speedo. Speedo?!! He said according to USAT rules, you had to in warm water, and that it was the official suit of “serious” triathletes. No way was I going to wear one of those in public. Somehow, he convinced me I had to, or I would be disqualified or not allowed to race, so I bought one (a new one) off eBay. I wanted it shipped in plain packaging so nobody could tell it was a Speedo. I made my wife swear she wouldn’t take a picture of me in it. On the morning of the local practice race I was exhausted from practicing transitions in my living room all evening. I had closed my curtains so nobody could see me running back and forth from the dining room to the living room in my Speedo. I got my overall T1 & T2 times down to 1:45. But it took me till 2 in the morning. I woke up at 5:30am and I was shaking nervous. I felt like I was going to puke. “This is supposed to be just a practice.” I reminded myself. I had everything neatly stacked in my transition bag and a T1 and T2 “Equipment in Order” printout I was quite proud of. My lists took up the whole page. I had gotten to where I could swim 2000meter without stopping, and 15 miles on my bike was a 3 times a week practice. It turns out there was pain in my ankle because it was broken in 3 places. (I had sprained it and was told it wasn’t broken.) But overall, I felt confident. I was even a little cocky. All the 12 guys out West were waiting to hear from me to see what they could expect, because as far as they were concerned, I was semi-pro. The only thing I had left to do was to find a sponsor. I expected to be at least middle of the pack until the run where my ankle would slow me down and lead to a dramatic race at the end. I saw this lady who couldn’t have been any younger than 60, and thought to myself, “Hope she doesn’t die. What is she thinking doing a triathlon?” That same lady would later blow by me 15 meters from the swim start, disappear out of sight, and lap me in the bike segment. But there I was at the pre-race meeting in my blue Speedo. The ONLY person out of 135 people wearing a Speedo. In an effort to be more aerodynamic, I had taken up a dare to shave my whole body, so at this point I looked like a 200 pound hairless albino super-Chihuahua. To this day I haven’t forgiven my Washington “I know everything about triathlons” friend. Just for reference, it’s impossible to hide when wearing a Speedo. The wind picked up to 30 MPH, the water chopped up, and I was stepped on, kicked, punched, swam over, and generally humiliated in the swim. I swam into a stump. No, really, I swam right into a stump. How stupid am I? I couldn’t see anything. It was bad. It didn’t get better. T1 took me almost 5 minutes, because I couldn’t breathe. Long story short, I was third from last. The other two people behind me were a grandmother and grandfather who seemed to be sightseeing rather than racing. They were swerving all over looking at geese on the shore of the lake and they engaged in idle conversation the whole bike ride! They were out for a peaceful stroll! I went full blast and could barely stay ahead of them. This kid on a Huffy with a badly bent rim and a loose backpack that kept hitting his rear tire pulled up next to me and said, “Are we supposed to run, or swim next?” I couldn’t believe it, he truly didn’t know. He told me his mom made him do the race. Then he sped off, and the pride I had left drifted off with him. I could go no lower. Humility is a hard pill to swallow. I finished, but felt like I was the biggest loser on earth. This was supposed to be a practice – a warm-up. The mighty triathlon community had dealt me a pretty heavy blow. But there was my wife, all smiles and so proud that I finished. She was impressed. She did her best to cheer me up as I sulked ashamedly across the finish line. I thought to myself, at least it’s not an Xeterra, that would kill me. The guy from Washington who shall remain nameless, (but his initials are Jerod Hayward) called me excitedly to hear how it went. He laughed so hard about the Speedo bit that he couldn’t breathe. HaHa….very funny Jerod. Then he told me that not only was the Oregon race an Xterra race, it was a Championship race. Which meant there would be really good people there to make us look even more inept. I lied and told him I wasn’t afraid.XTERRA training countdownThis is where I started to make progress. I knew I had no chance of being anywhere but the dead back of the pack. The stress about the race began to disappear. I analyzed my weaknesses and became determined to enjoy the race regardless of anybody or anything around me. My training started to become fun. I started growing back my hair. I bought a road bike, and fell in love with the speed. One day I rode 46 miles, and felt good afterward. I began to think, “If I stay this way, I wonder how far I can really go?” I set off to find out. I started swimming at the pool and refused to look at the clock – just swim. An hour and 45 minutes later, I had gone 4000 meters – Ironman distance!Whoa! Could it be possible that with enough practice, I might be able to do an Ironman one day? For the first time in my life the answer was “maybe.” I was at once overwhelmed and absolutely humbled by the ability of my fellow triathletes. For the first time in my life, the race seemed more mental than physical. And they were way ahead of me not just physically, but mentally as well. They all became superhuman. The longer I trained and the further I went, the more peaceful I became. The more peaceful I became, the less the clock mattered. The less the clock mattered, the further I could go. It was absolutely addictive. How had I lived without this?Race dayWhen we got to Oregon I found that we had assembled the perfect cross-section of triathlon newbies. We had guys who stopped drinking beer two days before as a “major sacrifice” for the race. We also had cocky teenagers—all the rest of us were hoping they would crash into a tree on the bike trail. There were the strong quiet types, and the loud boisterous types. There was one reserved guy who had seriously devoted his life to triathlon training for the last six months and we all were expecting him to blow us clean out of the water. (As it turned out, his espresso, salt, Gatorade, and Gu pack mix made him sick the next day and foiled his plans. After the race he was the only one who said he would never do a triathlon again. He said, “Mechanical bull. That’s what’s next for me. All the pain in only a fraction of the time.”)Then there was me. Even though I had lost 30 pounds, 4 inches on my waistline, and 6% body fat, I was probably more cautious than ever. I found I had a less dreamy and more realistic view of this race this time. It was like the ocean – it is awesome to be in it, but you have to respect its power. We sampled the terrain the day before, and it looked very brutal. Since I was terrified of the swim, I decided to go “make peace” with the lake the day before so there would be no surprises. We met Mike Vine, the pro who hosted the Q&A the day before Xterra, and he imparted some triathlon wisdom to us. Among other things, he said something about boosting your salt intake. That night we were all pouring salt into our water and all over our spaghetti. He told us to plan for the run – it was going to be very hard. He would go on to win the march of death race and call it, “A nice jog.”The Xterra race was more difficult than I had imagined it would be. 15 minutes before the race my rear tire went flat. No big deal; I had a spare, and I patched the two holes in the leaky tube and stowed it as the spare. I had no list this time, but I wasn’t worried at all. (Surprisingly, T1 would be about 2:00 including wetsuit removal.)The swimBasically we all stayed very conservative in the swim because we knew what was coming on the bike. I felt more confident because not only had all my hair grown back, but this time I was wearing a wetsuit and was fully clothed. I even stopped at one point and had a 45 second conversation with one of the other guys in the middle of the lake. I was relaxed and methodical and very cautious to not overdo it. Only one thing worse than finishing last – DNF. Jerod stayed safe and backstroked the entire swim with good form, got out, and fell to his knees and kissed the ground. He got in the paper for that! What a drama queen! But he kept it real the whole race.Biking itHowever, I wasn’t prepared for the dust on the bike trail because it was like powdered sugar mixed with quicksand. My bike rim would just disappear. The forest had burned down a few years before and it was like riding in Smokey the Bear’s worst nightmare. The first 10 miles were brutal uphill in sugar sand and pea gravel. I would get 20 seconds of a nice downhill and then climb for 5 minutes. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat times 10. I joined forces with one of the guys and we stayed within punching distance the rest of the way. The bike trail seemed to go for 25 miles, not 17. But I survived.Coming back into the transition I noticed my wife looked very worried. Apparently, a EMT guy had been sent to retrieve somebody who was doing bad, and she thought it was me. There were guys dropping like flies on the run. There was that guy in serious trouble on the bike, a guy at another lake puking his guts out, and a few others had voluntarily pulled out. All I knew was this: I just had to walk for 6 miles and I would be done. I couldn’t run because my ankle was still broken. I was wearing my ankle support, hoping it wouldn’t completely blow out. But it was aching very badly.The runI should have listened more carefully to Mike Vine when he said to watch out for the run. Right out of the transition they directed us up a loose, very steep, pea gravel mountain trail. The mountain seemed to never end. As I ascended this Mt. Everest, they were carrying down a guy on a board with an IV in his arm. A couple athletes ran by, foaming at the mouth. That got me a little worried. I crossed a campground, and then climbed for another 20 minutes. The rest was slight downhill. Sounds easy, right?Somebody had run over the trail marker flags and pounded them down into the dirt on a segment of the fire road in the run. I got totally lost. Fortunately, I encountered the “sweeper” (the person responsible for making sure everybody on the run segment makes it out alive), on this road and she told me I was the last one. She started asking me all sorts of questions to see if I was dehydrated or delirious. My buddy who had stayed with me and had given me moral support now informed me, “Well, my foot ain’t broke, so I hate to do this to ya, but I’m running.” With that, he left me. We had been reciting Monty Python’s Holy Grail quotes to take our minds off our leg cramps. “I’m not dead yet!” “I’m getting better!” “I think I might pull through sir!” Anyhow, he abandoned me. And when I came back down the mountain on to the road for the final stretch, a guy toting all his stuff back to his car dropped everything, including his bike, and began clapping and cheering for me. I was really impressed. He probably finished 2 hours ago and yet he took the time to cheer for me. Then another athlete, then another, until I almost felt embarrassed. Then I turned the corner to come down the hill to the finish line. About 200 crazy cheering people were there screaming, hooting, and smiling. I looked over at them and all of the sudden I felt like crying. What a strange upwelling of emotion! They didn’t care if I was last, they were proud of my effort, and most had been there when the race began. Only if you have been in this same situation can you fully understand what I am talking about. It’s the best initiation into a sport that you can get. My brother-in-law yelled out, “That man has a broken ankle!” And they cheered even louder. The Xterra tribe is kinda crazy like that. I was so pumped, adrenaline started squirting out of my ears and I took off in a full, very painful sprint. Like it really mattered if I ran harder the last 50 feet. I ran under the finish line, past the gate, past my wife, tossed my water bottles up into the woods, and dove headfirst into the lake. I’ve never felt better in my life. We had a big shameless group hug and realized everybody had finished. What a feeling! The moral of the story is this: If you have gotten to the point where you are not having fun anymore, try a race that will almost kill you and do it conservatively – so you’ll finish, but you’ll finish last. That’s the best place to be. People only sincerely cheer for two people – first and last. If you’ve never raced before, remember this – this is the only sport you can hold your head high as you come across the finish line last...and you don’t have to wear a Speedo.