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My First Triathlon: A Beginners Perspective, Part 1.

Updated on January 26, 2011

My wife and I set a goal of completing a "Sprint Triathlon" last summer. If you have read any of my other articles about weight loss and my fitness you know that this was quite a challenge. For those of you not familiar with a 'sprint triathlon' it is a 500 meter swim, followed by a 15 mile bike ride, followed by a 5 kilometer run. The following is the story of the my first (and hopefully not last) triathlon. Enjoy!

I look happy here because I am finished and I know that I will live to see tomorrow.
I look happy here because I am finished and I know that I will live to see tomorrow.

It is midnight. I should be asleep; I was up early today, hiked for 7 or 8 miles, and didn't take a nap. My body is tired and lethargic from the carbohydrate overload I have put down throughout the day, but my mind won't slow down. I'm worried about waking up to a flat bike tire, drowning in front of 1100 people, being the only beginner there, and getting smoked by an 11 year old. I must have fallen asleep though, because my alarm is shrieking at me. It is 4:45 am.

Although we packed, unpacked, and repacked the night before, I sort through my duffel bag of stuff for a fifth time: wetsuit, running shoes, socks, a towel, goggles, swim cap, watch, power food, running shorts, water bottles, bike number, running hat, bib number, timing chip, and on and on. Oh yeah, and my bike. 

It is 5:45 am. Driving into the parking lot at your first triathlon is a lot like your first day of High School; you want to check everyone out and see what they're wearing and you just hope to god that you don't stand out. I'm pleasantly relieved to see people of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Not to mention the slew of mountain bikes and cruiser bikes. People look as nervous as I feel.

All week long the weather has looked miserable. Rain, clouds, cold. Awesome. But this morning has brought something we haven't seen in months: sunshine. I don't really want to mention how nice the weather looks for fear of driving it away, but I can't help but smile as I try to squint through the sunshine and look at the course. I appreciate the distraction.

It is 6:00 am. We roll into the transition area and we're immediately immersed in a sea of uber-fit people eating bananas and tinkering with their bicycles that are probably worth more than my car. I suddenly feel very, very out of place. Why are people spraying themselves with cooking spray? Should I have brought a basin to wash my feet off too? Do I need to put my bib number on already? What am I doing here? People are chatting, stretching, running, and, as a whole, ignoring me. Thank goodness for that.

We find the rack with our numbers on it and we stop and set up our base-camp. Out come the shoes, socks, hat, numbers, water bottles, at the bottom of my duffel I run into something I've totally forgotten about; my wetsuit. Personally I think my buoyancy and natural ability to keep myself warm (a lesson learned from the walrus) are pretty good, but I was talked into this wetsuit by some triathlon veterans who said I would be thankful. As I gaze down at the suit that looks 3 sizes too small, I can't help but be skeptical. For a person of larger proportions, putting on a wetsuit is a lesson in patience and sheer determination. It is not a subtle endeavor, but a battle that is drawn out over many agonizing minutes in full display of 1100 competitors who are all, blessedly, engaged in the same maddening struggle. Inch by compressing inch I squeeze my body into the black (with red highlights) wetsuit. By the time I am finished I am lightheaded, breaking a sweat, and gasping for breath. And we haven't even started the race.

I hear the announcer over the public address system reveal her qualifications; two time ironman triathlon finisher, recent completion of the New Orleans 70.3 half-ironman, etc. I decide I won't look to her for inspiration any more. I don't want to win this race; I just don't want to die. 

My wife and I finish our preparations and suiting up with the usual nervous conversation that goes something like this: "How you doing?" "Good, you?" "Good." Two minutes later, "How you doing?" "Good, you?" "Good." And so on and so forth. Despite my nerves, I couldn't imagine even attempting to do this without her. She brings me peace in times of restrictive wetsuits and ice-cold waters. When all is ready we join the exodus of the transition area down to the beach. We arrive with the masses clad in all colors of swimming caps: white for the "elites", red for the under 30 crowd, grey for the older guys, blue for the middle aged women. We stand in their midst with our neon green caps announcing we are in the group that will more than likely need to be rescued by a kayak. 

It is 7:15 am. I step into the lake and instantly am glad I was talked into wearing an extra layer of 5-millimeter neoprene skin. It is cold. Not cold like you should put on a sweatshirt, but cold to your core and your soul may never recover. Fortunately we are in the last wave to go so we have a full hour to become fully hypothermic before we have to swim. The aforementioned hour flies by as we watch very fit uber-athletes get rescued by the ring of kayakers surrounding the swim course. They couldn't finish. My wife is shivering. I can't feel my hands or feet anymore. We are trying to warm up in the sunshine, knowing it won't matter in five minutes anyway because we'll be fighting for our lives in the water. I don't really know what to say to make her feel better (or myself for that matter); I'm focusing completely on not panicking and running off the course and going home. She looks at me and says, "let's pray". We embrace at the starting line while she whispers a prayer. I can't say anything because I'm choking up. I love this woman. I hope I won't regret talking her into this.

It is 8:15 am. We are in the water. The countdown hit 1 and without realizing what I was really doing I surge forward and swim. It is colder than I expect. I feel okay. I take one breath, then another. I get two strokes and then I hit someone's foot. A third stroke and my foot is touched from behind. I begin to worry, I don't want to take a foot to the face. I look up and around, I should be okay. I swallow lake water. Not good. I manage to keep my composure enough to get out wide of the first buoy. I feel exhausted already. We have gone 100 meters. We have 400 more to go. The second buoy is a long way away, I begin a slow breast stroke towards it. The next 10 minutes crawl by slower than the Christmas Eve sermon did when I was five years old. I don't seem to be getting closer to the buoy, so I turn around periodically to make sure I'm at least moving away from the first. I seem to be making some progress. I tap into every stroke I ever learned in swimming lessons or as a junior lifeguard. I end up settling with the side stroke, it allows me to look forward and backward and to chat with the folks in the speedboat and kayaks. If they have to choose between who to rescue I'd prefer it be the nice guy in the green cap who swam slow enough to say 'hi'. Finally I'm at the second buoy and I make the final turn to the last 100 meters. I am exhausted. My wife is still behind me, she is struggling but doing fine. I put my head in the water and crawl stroke to the end. My feet hit the bottom of the lake and I feel a surge of adrenaline. I charge out of the water and run up the shore. A little girl screams from the sideline "Great job! Keep going, you're going to be a Triathlete!" and holds out her hand. I give her five and run a little bit faster.



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    • Jack Salathe profile image

      Jack Salathe 7 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks for the feedback! I wrote this piece right after the triathlon when the whole experience was still fresh. I keep meaning to finish it but it is hard to get back to that place. I have made the promise to complete it though so I will very soon!

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      outofdoors 7 years ago

      Nice writing, I had a very visceral reaction to your descriptions, felt like I was there!