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!

Running, maybe

I have a secret.  It’s been creeping up on me the last few weeks but I’ve only just started to take notice.  The random sore spots my feet wake up to, the restlessness I experience on a sunny weekend morning, the frequency with which my spandex has been visiting the washing machine. I think I’m becoming a runner again.

The starting line
The starting line

Last month, we ran City2Surf, the world’s largest run and Sydney’s favourite sporting event (that’s what they tell us). Niraj signed us up in secret. I think he told me on the flight to Paris, which is why our holiday was punctuated by early morning runs along French rivers. I got back from our travels on August 3rd with a week to spare. Between jet lag and short notice, I really didn’t have much time to “train” for those infamous hills. Still, we did just fine. Funnily enough, the race fell on the weekend we were moving into our new apartment. We conveniently fell out of bed in the corporate apt and walked 5 mins to the start line in the CBD and then ran to our new place in Bondi.

The crowds were unbelievable.  85,000 people had shown up to run City2Surf that morning and another 20,000 or so were out and about as supporters and volunteers! It felt amazing to be part of something so big.  A colleague at work had warned me that the first five minutes would see jumpers and hoodies being discarded en masse — these Sydneysiders don their old woolies to stay warm at the start of the race and then cast them aside for the Red Cross to collect. Sure enough, we left behind piles of old clothes and a ton of collection volunteers.

The first couple of kms of these races can be really frustrating if you’re not prepared for some aggressive zigging and zagging. Because we registered late, we were grouped together with the walkers, which made it even slower. It was a good opportunity to see all the costumes though: there were superheros, muppets, ballet dancers and a lot of sponsored teams.

Superheroes at the finish line
Superheroes at the finish line

Niraj and I had committed to sticking together the entire way. As we hit the first of several sets of small hills, my eyes threw exaggeratedly exasperated looks at my husband. He laughed and said we’d hit the big hill — heartbreak hill apparently. He lied.

The uphill climbs kept coming and each time we thought (hoped), it was the last one, it wasn’t. Heartbreak Hill finally came. Wow. The half marathon I ran a few months ago in the New York winter suddenly seemed like a piece of cake. We made it through, panting and pushing. The camaraderie was amazing! Not just amongst the runners but with the supporters. People had actually baked cookies and come out onto the streets to feed us. Little kids stood on the pavements, shrieking “free high fives!”. A group of men, stripped down to their underpants and covered head to toe in blue paint (smurfs) were handing out gatorade; residents had come out onto their front lawns to reward interested runners with blasts of water from their hose pipes. The city’s spirit was incredible. As we came down the last hill, the beach came into view and we knew we were almost done. We picked up the pace for that last kilometer, rushing out along Campbell Parade, buoyed by the anticipation of the finish. We finished in 94 minutes.

Bondi Beach at the finish - 100k people
Bondi Beach at the finish – 100k people
A gorgeous beach finish
A gorgeous beach finish

City2Surf really was a symbolic (and convenient) run for us. Unlike most of the other 65,000 people who finished, we were lucky enough to skip the brutal bus journey home and walk back instead.

City2Surf wasn’t painless for me. My lack of training definitely made itself known later that day and even the next as my sore limbs and creaky joints began complaining. The longest I’d run in the weeks (months really) before was a pitiable half hour. And no, I hadn’t pushed myself up five massive hills. Since moving to Bondi, however, I’ve fallen back in love with running.

I’d become a fair weather outdoor runner in NYC (can you blame me?!) but the Bondi to Coogee trail and the perfect Sydney weather are impossible to turn down.  Oh and it’s a 3 minute jog from our apartment.  I’ve run it every weekend.  The path snakes along the water and climbs up as suddenly as it drops down. The views are some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. The beautiful Eastern beaches, the sparkling Pacific ocean, the dramatic cliffs and the glorious waves that crash against them. The trail is packed every weekend — Sydney power walkers, activity seeking tourists and of course Bondi locals walking their designer dogs. Last Sunday I ran the 12 km loop and rather than complaining, my muscles rejoiced at the challenge. I think I’m officially a runner again 🙂

The Bondi to Coogee trail
The Bondi to Coogee trail

Is Running Making You Fat?

Once upon a time, I could run every day. I was rarely sleep deprived, ate as much as I wanted and enjoyed long, scenic runs through the fields of Grantchester. Life was good.

Then I joined the world of private equity and my 15 hour work days led to a 10lb weight gain. Exhausted and burned out, I brought up the idea of working out in the evenings to a female manager. “You shouldn’t even dream of leaving your desk this year. Unless, of course you want to go in your own time before work.” Sadly, my “own time” consisted of a 7am-8am slot which, after nights that often ended at midnight in the office, was none too appealing. A year flew by, my hours improved, and I began squeezing in evening trips to my company’s luxurious gym and coming back to the office for dinner and more work.  The weight came off, my energy came back and heck I ran a half marathon.

All this running and I never really took to the treadmill. I’d found a spectacular run along the banks of the Thames and used it as a motivator to get me through those painful Sundays in the office.  I ran through Hyde Park in the mornings, through Regent’s Park on the weekends and through whatever city park I could find during European business trips. I ran whether I was tired, sick or upset. I ran through rain, snow, hail and heat (and in the case of my first half marathon, all four). I ran until I moved to New York and discovered that it just wasn’t fun to run outside anymore. Boo.

Now that I’m in San Francisco, I’m starting to run more regularly again, albeit at a gym.  While I’m still getting the “endorphin high” and that strange twitching if I skip a day, I’ve definitely noticed that I’m NOT losing any weight. In fact, I may even be *gasp* gaining some! Now, I have to note here that outside of shedding some initial weight, running has never made me thinner, but is it possible that running ON A TREADMILL can actually make you fat?

We all know that cardio makes you hungry and it’s easy to overeat when you think you have a license to indulge a teeny bit more, but I wonder if there’s something more fundamental at play here. We’ve all seen them – those poor, exhausted souls who run all the time, yet never seem to lose any weight. Are they fat because they run too much??

The Metabolism aka “Skinny Fat” Theory:
According to Gym Spy, Ryan, YES running can make you fat. Excessive cardio eats away at your muscle mass and actually lowers your metabolism, making you “skinny fat”.

“When you run at the same pace for a long time, your body needs energy to keep going. So it turns to the best source … not only your saddlebags but your lean sexy muscle. And since it takes calories and energy to keep muscle, the more muscle you lose the slower your metabolism. If you used to burn 1,800 calories a day doing nothing, you may now only burn 1,600 calories.”

Isaiah White, Florida fitness instructor, echoes this theory, while the author of this fantastic article explains in scary detail how running can actually turn your body into a “fat storing machine”.

The Exercise Efficiency Theory:
“Regular running improves exercise efficiency, meaning that you burn progressively fewer calories while performing the same amount of activity. If you run for 30 minutes three times a week at the same speed on a treadmill, you’ll be burning fewer calories one month later. If you’re still doing the same pathetic half-hour treadmill jog ten years later, you can imagine how efficient you’ll have become at running, but how inefficient you’ll have become at burning fat.”

The Testosterone Theory:
An interview with nutrition and supplementation expert Dr Eric Serrano reveals that combining low carbs and traditional cardio will burn fat in the muscles but not subcutaneous fat, which is found in the belly and legs.  He says “the more cardio you do, the lower testosterone levels will be. And cortisol will increase, which is responsible for thick abdominal fat and lower body fat in women.” Oh, grrreat.

The Primal Health Theory:
Another great read is “a case against cardio” where Mark Sisson argues that we are simply not biologically suited to long periods of high-intensity aerobic exercise. It is much better, he says to build aerobic capacity slowly and steadily, training your body to derive more energy from fats (and not glucose) and building muscle with occasional quick bursts of speed and intensity.

All pretty interesting stuff, especially when you consider the amount of brainwashing we’ve experienced around the unlimited virtues of running. Is cardio activity really just a creation of the fitness industry? Are we biologically unsuited to running long distances and raising our heart rates to ridiculously high levels?

Weight loss / gain aside, there are still many, many benefits to running though and I enjoy it too much to give it up.  If you love running, but also want to lose weight, you should couple it with resistance, strength and interval training. All of the above can boost your resting metabolism, tone and lengthen your muscles and keep you challenged. But that’s a post for another day!