THE STORY OF MY FIRST TRIATHLON
It is time for our annual “Spring into Action” campaign, so for this month’s blog post I decided to take a different direction and share my personal experience of how I got off the couch and on the path to living a healthier lifestyle.
Not long ago I was like so many of my patients, caught up in all of life’s commitments with little time to work out and take care of myself. I was overweight, out of shape, and now 40-something facing the realization that it is NOT going to get any easier as I get older. I hope my story will inspire some of you to make the commitment to living a healthier lifestyle and “Spring into Action” this year. Maybe you too can finally fulfill that New Year’s resolution to lose weight and get into shape.
It was January of 2012, I was 42 years old and my health was out of control. I was the at the heaviest weight in my life, my resting pulse was in the 70’s and I got winded just going up stairs, I felt pathetic. We attended church on New Year’s day that year and in Father Martin’s sermon he asked is this just a “New Year” or is this really going to be a “NEW YEAR”? This really made me reflect on that annual commitment I was making to lose weight and get in shape that I never seemed to follow through on. I got on the treadmill the first week of January with a new determination to actually make this a “NEW YEAR”.
I will admit it was rough getting started. I couldn’t believe how out of shape I had become. I couldn’t run 20 minutes on a treadmill at even a very slow pace. While I didn’t have much of an organized sports background I had been active in the gym most of my adult life. I had never been an “endurance athlete”. I had never competed in ANY type organized athletic race event. At most, I was an on-again off-again recreational runner. I just wanted to be able to run on a treadmill for 45 minutes so racing a triathlon was nowhere on my radar, yet alone completing a full distance Ironman!
I was determined. I stuck with it and was soon running for 45 minutes and it was becoming routine. By April some weight was starting to come off and with the warmer weather I started running outside. That’s when things started to get a more serious. I was feeling better about my health and I really enjoyed running outside, especially in Millcreek Park.
It was on Memorial Day of that year that I decided to try a Sprint triathlon. HFP racing was sponsoring their annual Vermillion sprint and Olympic distance triathlon in August right inside the park where my father-in-law’s summer home was located. I looked at the sprint distance race and thought “Hey, I can do that!” A sprint distance tri is 750m open water swim, a 20k (13 mile) bike ride and a 5k (3.1 mile) run. I signed up figuring I could easily do the bike and run, and how hard can a 750m open water swim in Lake Erie be? I would soon learn how naive I was in thinking that swim was going to be easy!
When I got home I pulled out my 1995 all steel “Walmart Special”: Diamond Back mountain bike with custom gel foam saddle and cleaned it up to start riding. I visited Millcreek Park for a few bike rides and found riding a bike a little more challenging than I remembered as a kid, especially with some of the hills in Millcreek Park. I managed a few bike/run bricks workouts at the Y using a spin bike and treadmill. A few rides in the park and a handful of spin bike sessions was the extent of my bike training for this race.
I will never forget the first time training at the pool. I swam 25 yards (once across the pool) and by the time I reached the other side I thought I was going to DIE. I grew up on a lake and had been around water my whole life. I had taken swim lessons as a kid and always thought I knew how to swim. Apparently 750 meters in Lake Erie was going to be a bit more challenging than I anticipated. It was now early June so I still had a few weeks right?
As August drew closer I was still running consistently, along with swimming once a week and getting in an occasional bike ride. I was starting to become more and more concerned about the swim leg of the race. As I thought about it I started to realize the swim portion of an open water triathlon was no joke –it is pretty serious business. I became even more apprehensive when in the weeks leading up to the race an athlete drown at an Ironman event in New York. Then 5 days before the race a friend of mine told me he had just attended the funeral of a man who drowned when on a whim, he decided to do the Cleveland Tri Club race in Mentor, Ohio on Lake Erie. He was 35 with two young daughters. This news shook me hard and made me re-consider what I was about to attempt.
After hearing about the drowning death at the Cleveland Tri club race I was pretty stressed out about the swim and decided to switch my entry to a dualathlon (a run/bike/run race and no swim leg). At the race registration tent I inquired about switching from the triathlon to the dualathlon. The desk attendant talked me out of switching when she told me the swim was going to a point to point along the shore since the lake water was a little rough. When I asked does this mean I will be able to stand at any point and she said “yes”. I figured no problem, I could handle that! So I stayed in the triathlon.
I woke up early that day and headed down to transition. It was only a short walk from my Father-in-law’s cottage. It was still dark out but thankfully I was with a friend who had some experience because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I learned how to rack my bike, get my timing chip, and learned all about body marking (including how they put your age on your calf for all to see!) By this point I was ready. The sun was coming up as it was time to head down to the beach to check out the swim course.
I looked out onto the water my heart rate instantly skyrocketed when I saw the rectangle in the middle of the lake. The water was dead calm, which helped, but this meant it was not going to be a point to point swim along the shore. To make matters worse, I was swimming without a wetsuit. I had no idea wetsuits were even used in triathlon, or they helped your float and that everyone else was going to be using them that day. I did have “tri” shorts and goggles that was the extent of my race gear for the swim!
I wanted to bail but was in too deep at this point. I went down to the beach and got in the water to warm up and get ready. I lined up with my age group which happened to be the largest group on the beach. Having been warned by experienced racers about the mass start in a triathlon I tried to get in line at the end of the group. I was trying to avoid the mayhem but it didn’t work. The start gun went off and we all rushed into the lake, it was chaos. I was completely freaking out. I dove in the water got kicked a few times, swam over once, and started to come unglued. I panicked to the point that I couldn’t catch my breath to even put my face in the water. I had a terrifying fear that I was going to DIE and decided I was done and getting out of the lake so I turned around and started to head back to the beach.
As I turned around to get out of the water it dawned on me that my entire family was on the beach cheering for me. My wife, daughter, mother and father-in-law were all there. I couldn’t just quit and give up, not in front of them, especially not in front of my daughter. So, I turned around, put my faith in the lifeguards in kayaks, and turned over and started swimming on my back. By the time I got the first turn buoy my heart rate came back to earth and I had calmed down considerably. My entire age group was long gone and most of the older group had passed me by too.
I was starting to feel good and gain some confidence so I decided to turn over and try swimming freestyle in attempt to move a little faster – after all this was a race! I started to get into a good rhythm and was in some open water without many people around and was gaining confidence.
As I was churning away I start hearing a voice yelling, “Hey you!” When I finally looked up I was heading north to Canada. I was way off course and almost completely out to the Coast Guard boats! I turned over again started swimming on my back to get back on course. I swam the rest of the way alternating between free style and swimming on my back and managed to get out of the water in 24:35 which was 215 out of 223 so I wasn’t even dead last!
As I hit the beach I was so excited just to be alive and have survived the swim. Apparently, my family was too as they were all still there cheering me on. As I was making my way through the sandy beach and trying to catch my breath while getting used to being vertical again I start to realize it is a race and I need to be running. I laughed because running through sand and up a sandy hill was one of the hardest parts of the races. My legs were already tired at this point since I swam most of the way on my back using my legs to swim instead of my upper body like you would when swimming freestyle.
I finally make into the grass and see all the water buckets they put out to rinse the sand off your feet and the only thing left in them is mud sand and grass. I make my way into the entirely empty transition and sit down clean my feet off get some water and finally get on my bike. I was just happy to be out of the lake at this point and in no hurry in T1 with a 3:13 time.
I said this was my first ever “athletic” race but it was by no means my first race. I have a serious competitive streak in me and I am a total gearhead. I have been racing and building hot rods most of my life and up until this point this was my hobby and passion in life. When I first walked into transition and saw all the aerodynamic lightweight carbon fiber race bikes with race wheels knew I had to have one!!
I made my way out of the park on my bike. I was still so happy to be done with the swim that not much could bother me at this point. I was looking forward to the bike portion as I really have a thing for bikes and anything mechanical that you can race and felt I could make up some time.
I did manage to pass a few people on the bike but I spent most of the time on my own or getting passed by little old ladies on road bikes. I finished the bike leg in a “blistering” 51:10 and 198th overall rank. While this is not really good bike split, it was still the second fastest time on a mountain bike. I found out the next day that there was special class for racers on mountain bikes and I would have actually taken 2nd place!
I got out of T2 rather quickly, one minute exactly. I was already in my running shoes and didn’t need to get out of bike shoes or change so as soon as I racked my bike I was running. As I started to run out of transition I quickly realized I went too hard on the bike segment and I now had cement instead of legs to run with. Learning to pace the bike split to set up a solid run is a lesson I am still working on learning.
My original race plan was to run out to the turnaround easy and hammer back to the finish as running was supposed to be my strong suit and the only segment in which I had done any “real” training. By the time I got to the turnaround I was re-evaluating that plan. I was doing everything I could to just finish without having to crawl across the finish line.
As I rounded the corner and saw the finish line with my daughter and family cheering me on all the pain and agony of the race was forgotten and replaced with overwhelming happiness that the running was over, and then came the pride and sense of accomplishment of finishing my first triathlon. I finished the run in 28:27 which was 150th overall and still dead last in my age group. I completed the race in 1:48:27, last in my age group and 157th overall.
As I sit and write a race report on my first triathlon that took place over 5 years ago, I reflect on how significant that event ended up being in my life and how it changed me for the better. Working out and exercising was no longer something I “had” to do it became something I wanted to do with purpose and a huge desire push myself further and faster and to see where it could take me. I never stopped training after that day and continue the lifestyle today. I have made many new friends and accomplished many things I never thought possible including my first full Ironman triathlon in 2015. I have had some races go really well and some not so well but never one that I can say wasn’t fun or worth doing once it was all over.
My only advice to someone new with ZERO experience or knowledge about triathlon would be to take the swim portion more seriously than I did. If you do not already have some background in open water swimming find a race that uses a swimming pool for your first one or get some formal instruction with a swim coach. I joined the Steel Valley Tri Club shortly after this and gained a lot of valuable information that would have been REALLY useful BEFORE this race!
Planning, equipment choices and race strategy in triathlon can be almost as important as your fitness, a wetsuit and road bike along with some idea of how to actually race a triathlon can have a significant impact on your finish time. Regardless of your time remember to be safe and be sure to enjoy the race – you only have one first race and it is a PR as long as you finish!
If you made it this far thank you for taking the time to read the story of my first triathlon. If you liked it please feel free to share with others. This is the first time I am sharing a personal story on the blog so if you have critiques or questions please do not hesitate to get in touch with me via the comments section below!