I participated in my first Triathlon on June 18, in Fort Mill, SC. After running my first marathon at Disney World in January, I was ready for a new challenge.
And boy, it was a challenge.
All triathlons are structured into three events: swimming, cycling and running, in that order. Unlike a marathon, which is always 26.2 miles, the distance of a triathlon is determined by its’ category. I participated in a sprint triathlon, which consisted of a 300-meter swim, 16-mile bike ride and 5K run.
Now get this, when I signed up for this TRI, I didn’t know how to swim. Sure, I could get across the pool with a glorified doggy paddle and my face above water the entire time, but I had forgotten everything I learned as a child. I signed up for swim lessons and had to learn how to breathe and swim with my head under water. Truly a beginner.
I joined a triathlon-training group five weeks ago to prepare for my first event. Unlike running, where you can focus and perfect your form in one particular sport, a triathlon requires strength and practice in three very different sports. If you are in the Charlotte area and thinking of signing up for a TRI, I highly recommend the Triathlon Training Group at the Morrison YMCA. The director of the program, Lisa, is wonderful. All of the coaches are certified USTA Level 2 Triathlon coaches and they work with people at all levels.
I quickly discovered on my first cycle ride with my TRI group, that I had a lot of work to do on the bike too. I had only biked in spinning class previously and the only outdoor biking I had ever done was on a mountain bike. My husband bought me a road bike for my birthday and I rode it for the first time during a group ride with my group.
I was the LAST one during the group ride, but the coach stayed with me the entire time and made sure I didn’t get left behind. I was so grateful to her because I knew she could kick butt on the bike and lead the pack, but instead she stayed with me the entire ride. She reassured me that I just needed to learn the gears and told me that the reason I was behind was because my bike was heavier than the rest of the members in my group. I felt deflated, but she raised my spirits and gave me confidence.
I faithfully trained with my TRI group three days a week and I worked out twice a day for five weeks to prepare for the event.
You can download my Sprint Triathlon Training Plan plan for free.
The night before the race I was nervous and tossed and turned all night long. What if I forgot my goggles or helmet? Did I have everything I needed in my transition bag? What if I couldn’t finish the 300-meter swim? What if I got a flat tire?
Finally the day was here I woke up at 5:15 a.m. with plenty of time to get ready for the 7:30 a.m. start. I arrived early and set up all my gear in the transition area, which consisted of my bike, camelback, towel, helmet, running shoes, socks, hat, a bottle of water and my Garmin.
I picked up my chip and got my body marked with my number: 195. I bought a chip strap at TRYSports, which turned out to be a great purchase because I was able to comfortably wear my timing chip around my ankle and not use the terribly uncomfortable ones that they had.
They wrote 195 in black permanent pen on both my arms and leg. They even wrote my age on the back of my right calve: just what every woman wants!
The time passed so quickly that the next thing I knew it was 7:15: time to close the transition area and line up for the swim. The swim occurred in waves and the order was determined the participant’s number. I was one of the last people in line, which I originally thought was good, but later discovered put me at a disadvantage.
The race started at 7:30 and the line moved quickly. I watched my fellow triathletes glide through the water and snake the lanes with ease. I was nervous for the swim because I know it is my weakest sport. Hell, I didn’t even know how to swim a month ago.
At 7:50 I plunged in the water and took off, at first I felt at ease and remembered all of the advice my swim coach gave: head down, come up for air every three strokes, alternating sides, long arms. I didn’t even have to stop at the wall like I feared. I pushed off at the wall and snaked through the lanes. I felt good until the participant behind me started getting too close. I felt like I was going to kick him, so I waved him on ahead of me. Big mistake. He passed me, but then he started going REALLY slow. Not only did his passing me make me nervous and mess with my rhythm, but he was going so slow I had to stand up and wait for him to get enough ahead of me so I could swim again, several times. I didn’t feel confidant enough to pass him, especially since he was so anxious to pass me. But, this was ridiculous!
Finally the swim was over and I ran to the transition area to get ready for the bike ride. I was so flustered that I pulled on my socks on wet feet, slammed on my helmet and took off, forgetting my Garmin. I also tripped on my bike on the way out of the transition area and almost mounted ahead of the mount/dismount line.
I hopped on my bike and took off, feeling good. The weather was beautiful, a perfect day for a ride. I even passed several other bikers along the way, which was surprising to me because I ‘m not very strong on the bike. I was waving to volunteers and shouting out “Thank you for volunteering!” I was feeling good.
That was until I looked down and realized I had a flat tire.
My worst fear!
I didn’t know how to change a flat tire! I had prepared for almost everything, except changing a flat tire. I pulled over on the side road, unsure what to do. I didn’t have a cell phone, credit card, money or id.
Other racers were zooming past me, probably praying that they didn’t meet the same fate. Finally another racer stopped to help. He didn’t know how to change a flat tire, but he offered me his cell phone.
I bit my lip, fighting back tears. I couldn’t believe I had got this far and wasn’t going to finish. I was only a couple of miles into the bike ride. I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t move forward. I was stranded on the side of the road.
I urged the other racer to go on and tell an official to come get me. I stood on the side of the road for twenty minutes, feeling deflated and sorry for myself.
But then, something came over me. I’m not going to let it end this way, I said to myself. I’m going to finish this race even it means coming in last and pushing my bike up the hill to finish this course.
Luckily I had an emergency bike pump strapped to the side of my bike. I pumped the tire up with as I could and figured that I would just stop and refill it as many times as possible to get me across that finish line.
The tire was still flat, but it had enough air to keep me moving.
Do you know how hard it is to bike up a hill with a flat tire?
But, I did it.
I biked my determined ass the entire 16 miles with a flat tire. After being stranded on the side of the road for 20 minutes, I came across the finish line with extreme relief that I had made it. I felt so much relief that I almost forgot that I still had to run 3.4 miles.
I quickly re-racked my bike and noticed that the majority of bikes were already back. I ran out of transition like a flash. The run course wasn’t well marked and another participant and I had a hard time understanding where to go. We finally spotted race officials, which reassured us we were on the right course. I picked up my speed steadily and began passing other runners. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t the last one in, considering how long I was stranded on the side of the road.
I rounded the corner for the finish and sprinted across the line. I couldn’t believe I actually finished. The feeling that washed over me wasn’t joy. It wasn’t pride. It wasn’t elation. It was pissed off determination. I’m glad I finished, but I was disappointed that my first TRI experience didn’t go as I expected.
The triathlon was the most challenging race I’ve ever done. Not physically, but mentally. The flat tire through me off completely and I was so deflated I was ready to throw in the towel, but I finished.
They say you learn more through you failures than your successes and I would certainly say that is true.
I learned a lot through this experience and I plan to apply those lessons learned to my additional triathlons in which I participate.
Lesson learned: Learn how to change a bike tire.
So should you try a TRI? My advice for first-time triathletes is:
1. If swimming is not your strong suit, take lessons
2. Join a Triathlon group for the structure and discipline of the grueling workout schedule. You’ll need to do a variety of workouts, so it’s helpful to have a group to train with.
3. Learn how to change a tire!
4. Practice going from a swim to a bike to a run. You will complete “brick” workouts, but often a brick is a bike ride and run. Make sure you practice going from the pool to the bike as well.
5. Don’t spend a lot of money on a bike until you are sure you are going to stick with the sport.
Have any of you ever participated in a triathlon? Any tips to share? I’d love to hear from you!