On a whim and a prayer, Thomas Welsh decided to race in a triathlon with just 32 days to train. This very unorthodox approach to triathlon racing is chronicled here in “Pushing Yourself to the Limit,” an online triathlon soap opera of the first order. Enjoy. And if you see a little bit of yourself in this story, then all the more reason to read on!
In February of 2004 I was a 270 pound 34 year old. I had the body of an out-of-shape, degenerate lineman. I was strong and muscular, but with a healthy dose of jiggle and even, dare I say it, wiggle. I had been working out (mostly aerobics), for the last several years as a result of my high cholesterol: high as the sun high…Ozzy Ozbourne high…Rocky Mountain High. Well, I found myself getting bored. This feeling kind of swam around in me like a persistent little goldfish looking for a way out.
I found myself leaving workouts early I was skipping my organized classes and losing my momentum. The 20 or so pounds I had lost in the last year were stretching their legs and barking at the back door while I sat on the porch pretending not to notice. I started to feel some real pressure and a little panic to do something different.Then a friend sent me an e-mail with a link to Team Alamo, a local athletic group here in San Antonio. I looked around a bit and like a glass of lemonade on a hot August day, I saw it: Triathlon. No debate and very little thought. I already ran and biked, though never together, and I felt comfortable in the water, so, why not? Like a first kiss, it just felt right. I routinely went on 30 to 50 mile bike rides and could run 5 miles with medium difficulty. The swim? Well, I’d swim some! When is the race?!?!32 days for the next Olympic tri. “Uh….”Even with my over-blown self confidence and questionably high sense of self-worth, I knew that I was in for trouble. I thought it through. “No need to push it, the whole point is to develop a new exercise program, right? Ok, when is the next race?” The next race wasn’t for 2 months, but I settled for that.My next step was to buy every book I could find on Triathlon, and there were quite a few. I devoured them. I walked around the house with them like a demented student, with several planted strategically for a “Triathlon fix” at a moments notice. In less than a week and one swim of 400 yards later, I had made the decision to do the earlier race in less than a month - at the end of March. All I would have to do is a crash course in the swim and I would make it. I even went on-line researching Tri’s and swimming methods. At Beginnertriathlete.com, I posted my goals and got some good advice ranging from what to take on race day all the way to “sounds a little rushed to me.”For the next 3 ½ weeks I ran, biked and swam my butt off, both figuratively and literally. My main focus was the swim. Who knew it would be so difficult? (The folks who answered my postings at BT did, but let’s leave that for now.) I didn’t remember the crawl being this difficult as a kid! I would swim 25 yards and stop for several minutes, trying to breathe again, and then do it again. My second swim was 1500 yards - none continuously. I was scared and started to going to the pool 4 times a week, a crazed and feverish look in my eyes. By week three and less than a week from my “taper,” (actually, my taper started 2 days before the race) I could do 1000 with minimal stops. I felt that this was ok. Adrenaline, I thought, would give me the extra umph I needed to get me through the swim. Once on the bike I knew (or thought I knew) I would be able to recover whatever damage the water did.I did a couple bricks a week: one wate- to-bike and one bike-to-run for a total of nine bricks in 32 days. My confidence in the bike and run were so strong that all of my mental energy as well as my emotional angst were focused through the magnifying glass of my brain on the swim.I took a perverse joy in dropping the news to my friends and family who, at the very least, looked at me as if I announced I was moving to Mesquite Texas to become a rodeo clown or at worst said “Thomas, I always knew you were a little off the beaten path, but you fell over the cliff. I mean look at you for god’s sake!”I was unfazed. Undaunted. Unconcerned. Unflappable. Unapologetic, and underrated.“Can you pass the salt? I’m doing an Olympic triathlon in two weeks.”“Well, I certainly hope she feels better, I’m doing an Olympic triathlon in two weeks.”“I like you too and dinner sounds nice, I’m doing an Olympic triathlon in two weeks.”Well, race day came and we hopped in my SUV (yes, my car was finally getting an upgrade from recreational vehicle to the pinnacle, SPORTS UTILITY VEHICLE!) and drove the 45 minutes to the lake where the event was being held. I drove my companions a little over the edge by playing Trance music for a good portion of the trip, but I finally gave in and played Radiohead. According to them, only a mild improvement over the trance, but “at least,” they said, “there were words.”I stopped and got a 44oz big gulp of Dr. Pepper and ate a power bar (peanut butter, of course). I was very relaxed, and I had no trouble sleeping the night before.
“Bring it on!”I felt good until we were about 15 minutes from the lake, at which time I started to question my own sanity Now I am no stranger to questioning my own sanity, but this time I didn’t like the answer I got! Driving in a caravan of triathletes with some of the most incredible bikes I’ve ever seen, I was worried and felt under prepared. And I was. It wasn’t that my bike was chopped liver, or even chopped beef for that matter, but it was a road bike. Just a road bike. I wasn’t the typical body type for this type of race, I hadn’t done any open water swims and I didn’t have a wet suit. The water temp was supposed to be around 60, but the outside temperature wasn’t even at that chilly mark…. Maybe I wasn’t crazy. Maybe I was stupid.I wheeled my bike to the transition, my fan club in tow, and followed the younger, sleeker bodies like a sheep to slaughter. They drew numbers on me, fastened not one, but two ties around my ankle and left me to wander into the transition area. At this point I was grinning like a madman, watching all of these “real athletes” get their gear set up and prepare their stations.These are some of the thoughts that occurred to me:“Why is everyone putting deodorant all over themselves?”“I am by far the fattest person here.”“Why does everyone have wetsuits?”“She is so HOT”“I think I have 30 pounds on the next heaviest person here”“I’m screwed.”The weather was about 58F and the water temp was 55F. I looked at the buoys and immediately looked away. Damn, that’s a long way. 1500 hundred in the pool didn’t look anywhere near as vivid as this did. I stubbornly refused to look at the water for the next 45 minutes. If I was talking with someone, I would walk around them so I didn’t have to look towards the lake. A buddy suggested with trepidation “Maybe you should go test the water?” I refused with a shake of my head and a grimace, whether at him or myself it wasn’t clear.I watched as 300 people changed into their wet suits. I took off my athletic shorts, exposing my Jammers to the cold. (Should I have said swim shorts here?).Despite my reservations, I smiled most of the time. I saw people looking at me, some with wonder, others with skepticism, but they looked. And I smiled. Occasionally I would bark out a short guffaw, sounding embarrassingly like a barking dog. I’m sure there are people still talking about the big barking guy at the Texas State Tri.Waiting for the start, I chatted with a lot of people, some who introduced themselves as fellow Clydesdales, some wondering how many Tri’s I had done, still others wishing me good luck in the cold water. “Did you know the water temp is below 60?” they would ask.“I’m much more worried about the nest of poisonous snakes I just saw.” I’d reply. “Have a nice race, and don’t head out to fast!”Anyways, the race started and I was forced to look, really look at the water. Were those white caps for god’s sake? My wave was in the middle, 30-34. Clydesdales swam with everyone else. My chest was tight and the adrenaline was pumping some serious octane through my veins. I felt like I was going to pop. My fellow competitors regarded me with bewilderment and a little awe. “Where is your suit?”“Why does that water look uphill?” I wondered aloud.Internally, though, my thoughts were something like this:“This is it.”“Damn.”“Oh no!”“That water looks soooo cold!”“I’m, too sexy for my swimsuit, to sexy for my swimsuit, when I’m disco-dancing.” Huh? Never mind.“Wave six, into the water!” the announcer said.I got in and started laughing out loud. The wind was 20-30mph, the water was freezing (did I say it was 55F?) and there were waves lapping my shins. I could feel the current coming directly from the first buoy. I swear the water was uphill.“One minute!”“Jerk”, I thought. I would later think I had been too nice to the announcer, especially when I came out of the water and he yells over the PA “Let’s hear it for the Polar Bear!”But I’m getting ahead of myself. The gun goes off and…pandemonium! I submerge and couldn’t breathe even a little. My whole body went into shock. I swam in a kind of panic amidst all the kicking and splashing, trying to calm down. “It will even out. Swim to the outside, they will thin a bit.” It never happened.The swim course was a 1500 meter half oval, but the first and last 500 meters were into the wind, waves and current – and I couldn't breathe. I settled for the breast stroke. Shivering the whole way, I almost dropped out before the first buoy. Others did it, were doing it even as I thought about it. I was actually going to, but just before I changed momentum to head for shore, I glimpsed the first turn and it was almost exactly the same distance as shore was.Screw it, I’ll make the turn and see how it is with a tail wind and current. It was easier, if not by much and I stayed the course. It was a struggle and I still found it too hard to breathe. About half-way through my legs started to cramp - bad, leg-locking cramps that would be with me the rest of the day. In my 30 day crash course, I had rarely swum the breast stroke and I paid for it big time. I locked my knees and ankles and went through the last half with mostly arms. Ugh. 49 minutes. Not last despite the slow stroke, but most importantly, I did not DNF.Out of the water I transitioned well (despite the punk comparing me to a polar bear). I threw on my bike shorts over my freezing Jammers… err… swim shorts. Talk about shrinkage! I took my time with a relatively clear transition area and was onto the bike in about five minutes. I was so happy and relieved to be out of the water. I can’t remember being so happy! 26 miles on the bike was going to be a vacation and for the most part it was. Despite the name of the bike section, (Devil’s Backbone) I had a great time. I knew I was going to finish and the bike is by far my best leg. I managed to catch quite a few people despite the hills. But the thrill of all thrills was that I got my speed on a downhill to 45 mph. I was on a definite high.My mood was dampened a bit when, as I road down the long stretch to the transition area, there were several racers walking around with beer and sausage. Are you @%#$!!# kidding me? I still had to do a 10k and these freaks were done. They would probably be home by the time I finished the run.When started the run, I didn't have jelly legs, but I started cramping almost immediately and I spent the next hour dealing with a body that was paying for the swim. I drank a bucket load of Gatorade and then spent the next couple miles with a tearing stitch in my side. What a mess. I didn’t know what to do. The cramps never left so I had to ignore them.It is funny how I never considered quitting during the run as I did during the swim. I was in pain, sure enough. Maybe I had tapped into reserves I didn’t know about? Some primordial juju? Or maybe it was that I would have had to drag my butt back to the transition regardless, so quitting would be a little, well, pointless. I like the first choice!I teamed up with a guy and we ran together for a couple miles. He was having a hard time with the hills and I was having a hard time with the cramps so we chatted and jogged at about a 12 min pace. We eventually separated as he had to answer natures call.Though I offered bribes to the volunteers to push me and then complained about seeing mile marker five twice, I really had a great time. There was nothing like rounding the last hill and seeing the finish line. Nothing. The stitch in my side skulked away. The cramps got bored and went home. I cruised across the finish line blowing kisses to my gallery and fans.What a thrill! 3:30 for an Olympic Triathlon, not the best speed, I know, but it was my FINISHING time. I FINISHED!I kind of walked around in a daze, put my bike away and headed to the main pavilion for beer and sausage, surrounded by well wishers. After about four beers, I was something of a zombie, but I had a great time watching the awards being handed out. The winner came in at 1:55. What a stud.Now, a couple months after my first triathlon, I am training for a Half-Ironman in September and am as excited as I have ever been. I weighed in yesterday at 250. That’s 20 pounds from my March triathlon weight and 41 pounds from my peak. Nothing I’ve ever experienced has paid off in so many ways.
What a phenomenal experience. What phenomenal people! What a phenomenal sport!