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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My first triathlon: lessons learned

A couple of weeks ago I completed my first triathlon. It was in Marble Falls, TX just northwest of Austin in the Hill Country. The distance was in between a ‘Sprint’ and an ‘Olympic’: 1000m open-water swim, 23 mile bike ride followed by a 4.4 mile run. A good friend of mine along with his buddy from school did it with me, which made the experience that much better. After the race my uncle, an experienced triathlete who has been my unofficial coach throughout my training, asked me the most important question he could have asked: “Did you enjoy yourself?” He didn’t ask what time I got, how my legs felt, how T1 went, he asked if I liked it. Answer: I absolutely loved it.

Endurance sports races are like college exams, no matter how much you prepare you have a tendency to always feel like you could have done more. Looking back I would have made some changes in my training and pre-race preparation, but ultimately I needed that experience to tell me what works and what doesn’t. Here are some lessons learned from my first triathlon.

1. Chlorinated lap pool does not equal open water lake.

Without a doubt the hardest part about the race was the swim. Leading up to the event I was easily able to swim in a pool 1000m straight without stopping. Key phrase: “in a pool.” Typically it takes me around 20 minutes, give or take, to finish that distance without being winded or physically tired. Unfortunately this was not the case for the swim in Marble Falls. For starters, you’re surrounded by tons of other people swimming. You’re not protected in your own swim lane, so instead, you’re getting kicked, punched and climbed on by other racers. Also, Texas lake water also isn’t the freshest. You can’t see anything, except five inches of murky greenness in front of you. This means you’ve got to do what they call ‘sighting’ – where you lift your head every X stroke to make sure you’re on the right course. Lastly, the adrenaline from the gun going off and beginning the race is hard to sustain. Your heart is pounding, so your breathing expedites, which is not what you want when an inexperienced swimmer like myself is about to swim over a half-mile.

All of these things: crowded mess of swimmers + poor visibility + adrenaline, made for one difficult start to this race. I never got in my rhythm, never settled in on my breathing. It was a constant struggle the entire time, despite my fitness and preparation. Lesson learned. Going forward, I’ll be practicing in open water… no doubt about it.

2. Don’t underestimate the course.

The Marble Falls triathlon website has a tagline that reads: “Marble Falls Tri – The one with the hills!” I knew this place was in “Hill Country” but shook off the idea that the hills were going to be that bad. Wow. Was I wrong. My buddies and I drove the bike course the day before the race, and I actually think that’s why I didn’t swim well. My heart started pumping when I saw these hills, not when I got in the water. Rolling, very steep hills provided for something I wasn’t used to, training predominantly in very-flat Dallas. I felt good during the bike, but not as good as I could have had I trained more on hills.

3. There will always be someone faster... and older.

I’ve done a couple of marathons before, so initially I thought these distances would be a piece of cake. I figured hell, if I can run over 26 miles, these distances shouldn’t be bad at all. I’ll be the first to admit that I was na├»ve. What a humbling experience it is to see 55-year-old women fly by you on the bike going up a hill. How gravitating it can be to see the leaders of the race virtually finish the bike when you’re just starting. And wow, how much this race made me appreciate (as much as I can fathom) the accomplishment of those who have completed an Ironman.

For those that don’t know, an Ironman logs 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and then, after all of that, they run a marathon, or 26.2 miles. So, take my swim, 0.63 mile, and almost quadruple it. Take my bike, 23 miles, and multiply it by about five. And then take my run, 4.4 miles and multiply it by six. There you have it.

…some day.

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