Three Lessons from my First Triathlon

I recently survived my first (mini) triathlon. It involved a 430am wakeup, an unexpected open water swim, a soft sand run and…it was fabulous! My friend Joyce cajoled me into registering for the Herbal Life Torrance Beach Tri and, after a month or so of training, we were ready to tackle the course. There are lots of tips out there from pro triathletes so I’ll refrain from telling you about nutrition, training and equipment. Instead, I thought I’d share three things I learned:

1. Anyone can do it!

OK not anyone but seriously, if you can handle a bit of running, some cycling and a swim, you can do a triathlon. Here’s why: First off, triathlons come in all shapes and sizes. You don’t have to run a half marathon, swim 2 kms in the ocean or bike all the way from Sydney to Wollongong. I’ll repeat this because it’s key: the chief characteristic of a triathlon is that it involves three consecutive events. The length of the course is a mere detail 😉

For someone whose initial frame of reference came from a colleague who’s done two Ironmans, the realization that I could dabble in triathlons without committing to the “full distance” was the single biggest factor in my willingness to try. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Sprint: 750m swim (0.5m) | 20km bike (12.4m) | 5km run (3.1m)
  • Olympic: 1.5km swim (0.93m) | 40km bike (24.8m) | 10km run (6.2m)
  • ITU Long: 3km swim (1.86m) | 80km bike (49m) | 20km run (12.4m)
  • Half Ironman / 70.3: 1.9km swim (1.2m) | 90km bike (56m) | 21km run (13.1m)
  • Ultra / Ironman: 3.8km swim (2.4m) | 180km bike (112m) | 42km run (26.2m)

After a few conversations with other “laypeople” and a Google search, I learned I wasn’t the only one conflating the triathlon with the Ironman. That’s like conflating running with an Ultra Marathon :/

If you want to ease into triathlons, look for a good sprint or even a super sprint course. You could also participate in a relay or do only two legs for a taster. Other things to look for in a beginner’s course: a) a lake or bay for the swim section, b) a flat-ish run and bike course, c) mild, predictable weather, d) a location that isn’t far from where you live.

The second reason I think anyone can do a tri is that triathletes come in all shapes and sizes. Until Torrance, I thought of triathlons as something meant only for elite athletes — people with ripped muscles, expensive road bikes and those awkward spandex outfits. Heck the very word “triathlete” suggests that you’re not just an athlete at one thing, you’re an athlete at three. It seemed so much more intimidating than say “runner”.

Polka…?

The reality is far from it. Sure, elite triathletes can be a scary breed but, at the average race, you’ll find a good chunk of amateurs — people starting out, people doing it for fun and people just trying to accomplish a fitness goal. There were kids as young as eight competing at Torrance and there were also people who looked well into their 60s.

2. Why no one you know does triathlons

Triathlons, for all the reasons above, have a reputation for being “serious” and therefore not particularly accessible. Even though that’s changing with sprint and super sprint courses, if you’re in your mid-20s, chances are you don’t know anyone who does triathlons. Personally, I know only three people who do them seriously and two of them are white dudes in their 40s (one is a white dude in his 20s). Where are the people like me?

The reality is triathlons are fairly new as a sport; the first modern swim/bike/run event to be called a ‘triathlon’ was held in San Diego in 1974. It wasn’t until 2000 that the triathlon debuted at the Olympics and NBC’s coverage of the Sydney Games, including the women’s triathlon, catapulted awareness of the sport to a national level. The sport has grown rapidly ever since — as of 2013, USA Triathlon reports 174,787 annual members, up from just 21,341 members in 2000. Women account for just over a third of this number (vs. 61% for half marathons and 43% for marathons).

Another deterrent is that it’s an expensive sport. Everything from the entry fees and the one day / annual membership to the technical gear required (road bike, shoes, pedals, wetsuit, tri kit…) could easily run into the thousands. You’re committing to three different sports, it makes sense that you’d need to pay for all three as well.

So what does this mean for demographics? What’s interesting is that the biggest chunk of triathletes (30% of annual USA Triathlon members) are in the  40-44 age group. This age group, together with the 35-39 AG, is generally thought to be the most competitive. Theories and discussions abound for why. Part of it is the upfront investment. Another hypothesis is that there’s an influx of retiring pro athletes in their mid 30s. Yet another reckons that endurance sports become more appealing as you age (as opposed to adventure / adrenaline sports in your 20s). Basically, the late 30s / early 40s sit at the nexus of time and money needed to reach peak athletic ability.

Should you be put off by any of this? No! I got around the startup costs by renting a bike, borrowing a helmet and sunnies and by wearing my surf wetstuit on top of a sports bra and bikini. The die hards will tell you you need a Blue Seventy, a proper tri kit and a laundry list of other paraphernalia. Honestly if you’re just starting out, I say wing it with what you already own. Once you’re committed to improving, you can trade up for the fancier stuff.

3. Just keep swimming…

The scariest part of the tri for me was the swim. Cycling? Whatever. Running? Pshaw! I’ve never been a particularly strong swimmer and I can’t swim the crawl. Sure, I can easily do the breaststroke for a good half hour but what good is that in the ocean?

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize we’d be swimming in the Pacific until the day before the race. Don’t ask me why, I have no defence for not doing my research other than not wanting to know and hoping for the best.

When I signed up for the tri, I was coming off a dry spell (pun intended): it had been more than five years since I’d swum regularly. I took inspiration from my friend Joyce (who’d learned to swim and done her first tri just months earlier!) and figured I just needed to train.

Lucky for me, I have Icebergs, a gorgeous, ocean-fed pool, famous for its icy cold water and spectacular views of Bondi. It never gets particularly busy and because the water is always cold, it’s perfect with a wetsuit (which, it turns out gives you a nice little buoyancy boost). I didn’t have time to learn a new stroke, so I decided to work on what I already knew. I’d read that beginners often swim breaststroke their first tri.

Sunrise laps are easy with this view

The day before the race, Joyce and I set an early alarm and ventured out to her local beach in Santa Monica. We were meeting up with another friend for pointers on ocean swimming. Duck and dive, stingray shuffle, that sort of thing. We walked down to the water, took one look at the water and freaked out. The waves were fierce. We couldn’t stand knee deep in the water without being knocked over. How on earth were we to swim in this??

After a few more attempts to wade in while resisting the powerful rip, we gave up and went home. If the swim course was going to be like this tomorrow, we thought, we’d have to skip it. I was pretty disappointed. Fortunately for us, Torrance Beach turned out to be a lot kinder than Santa Monica. There were still waves but they were gently breaking two-footers. Most importantly, there was no rip. We’d be swimming after all!

Torrance Beach on a non-triathlon day. Isn’t it pretty?

Getting acclimatised

First, spend 10-20 minutes getting comfortable in the water. Get your wetsuit on and hop in. Make sure you let some water get into your suit so your body can get accustomed and, more importantly, begin warming that water up. Practice your duckdive: wait for a wave, shut your eyes, hold your breath and dive low and into it! Once the foam has passed, you pop back up. It’s a little scary the first time but it works: you’ll come out on the other side of the wave.

Breaststroke in the ocean

Basically you’ll find that you’re moving (even) slower than those pesky freestylers. Once you’re past the froth though, it’s really relaxing and enjoyable. The best part was the return: the soft friendly waves lift you up and practically carry you back to shore. You might want to practice some body surfing to take full advantage of that. Either way, something to look forward to! One thing that helped psychologically was the fact that Torrance Beach was swarming with lifeguards. They bobbed on surfboards in the water and hung off buoys, shouting encouragement and offering friendly advice. The way I’d pictured the swim was a thousand aggressive people clambering over each other and kicking each other in the face. In reality, it was all very civilised. We were being let into the ocean in pairs, resulting in a controlled flow of people rather than mayhem.

Swim

It was the opposite of this…

What’s next?

As predicted, I am hooked and already thinking about my next tri! I’ve done two half marathons and a number of shorter races but after the experience of a triathlon, it’s going to be hard to go back to just running. Cross-training is physically and psychologically easier for me than training for a 2+ hour run. The charm of any run deteriorates rapidly after the first hour.

More than that, my knees have started acting up and really complain when hills are involved. In comparison, triathlon “bricks” keep me physically challenged and mentally engaged without taking a toll on my joints. Switching between different muscle groups, or at least using my leg muscles in different ways, reduces the risk of injury and actually enables me to be improve at each event individually.

Besides, nothing motivates me like knowing I get to jump in to a pool after a sweaty run or bike ride (yes, I know I’m training backwards) 🙂 So, if you’re bored of your running routine, want to try something new or are looking for a stretch fitness goal, consider the triathlon! It combines three awesome sports, builds up your endurance and it is a seriously fun event.

At the finish!

4 responses

  1. Congratulations! I still haven’t done a tri (the idea of all that bike/swim training is daunting) but now that I’m in Colorado, it seems like EVERYONE here does them, so I will probably get around to it sooner or later. Your experience makes me want to try for sooner, though!

    • Laura, I’m sure you will love triathlons (and crush them)!
      Also, great to hear you’re in Colorado, are you in Denver? I love going out there, whether in the summer or during ski season, such a spectacular state.

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