Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lessons Learned

I realized recently that I had forgotten to do something vital months ago and it was time to remedy my error.

Last September, just before I hopped an airplane ride to this wonderful vacation resort in the desert, I completed my first triathlon. Being new to the sport there were beginner’s mistakes I made in both preparation and during competition that I want to capture in words before I lose the valuable lessons learned.

The Iron Soldier Sprint Triathlon was hosted by the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas. It took place in the Replica Pool and around the post. The event consisted of a 400m pool swim, 17 miles on the bike, and a final 5 km run. Both the T1 and T2 (that’s transition area 1 and 2) took place in the parking lot outside the pool.

I had a natural home field advantage as Charla and I live about a block from the pool. We have the opportunity to swim, bike and run the same course almost every day of the week.

However, no matter how many advantages you collect before your first tri, it’s still your first and you’re very likely to make some bonehead mistakes. It’s still scary.

The following are the three biggest lessons that I learned during my first triathlon.

The Swim.

Most of my friends and family know that I am a poor swimmer. Going into this triathlon I knew that would be my greatest challenge. For the months leading up to the tri, I swam at least three times a week, building up to where I thought I would be able to alternate strokes and hopefully survive the first test of the triathlon. My fastest time, with alternating between my infamous sidestroke, and a flailing freestyle, was a solid 12 minutes. I figured that during the race I could easily pull off a solid 13 minutes with the added crowd of other swimmers to deal with.

The morning of the triathlon, I stood in the pool building staring at the empty lanes, silent and waiting.  The water was perfectly smooth, undisturbed by the crowd of athletes gathering outside in frenzied knots.  I felt an almost uncontrollable shudder pass through my body as the fear of the impending race began to assail me. My mind was blank, and all I began to feel was pure panic at the thought of having to swim so far with so many others watching.  There was no room for error this morning, no taking a break or calling it quits if I cramped up or got too tired to keep on.

Pre-Race Intimidation

When it was my turn to start, I dropped into the water then took off easily.  Excitement filled me up, butterflies chased away by adrenaline.  I was proud of my first lap, my stroke was smoother than usual and I felt my breathing in a comfortable rhythm.  As planned, I paused at the turn at 100m to assess myself.  And that’s everything began to fall apart.  The group of swimmers right behind me began to catch-up; they weren’t pacing themselves but rushing out the first portion of their swim.  I was soon surrounded by a flailing, gasping crush of bodies.  The water was churned to in impenetrable cloud of bubbles.  I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t settle into anything resembling a comfortable stroke.  Even though the swimmers around me were slowly fading, and not going as fast as I knew I could, I couldn’t get around them and found myself stuck at their snail pace for the remainder of the swim.  I emerged at the end of the longest 400m of my life over 15 minutes after I had begun.

The Ride.

Is stopping to help someone in need a mistake? In the middle of a triathlon, I suppose it is.

After almost 8 miles on the bike I was feeling pretty strong.  I had passed quite a few other riders and was slowly making up time after my slow swim.  I grabbed my bike bottle for a quick sip, biting the tip to pull it open. My fingers were sweaty and I didn’t have a very good grip on it.  The bottle slipped and fell out of my hands and onto the road.  Instead of continuing on, I circled back to pick it up out of the road, and I watched as half a dozen riders that I had just passed shot by me. I probably lost a couple of minutes.

Not even a mile down the road I saw a rider standing on the side of the road with his bike, an obvious flat tire stranding him. Instead of continuing on, I stopped to ask if he needed help. He had brought nothing to fix a flat on his own, so I grabbed my kit and tried to help him inflate his tire enough to get him farther down to an aid station. He had a gaping hole in his tire and it wouldn’t fill fast enough with my hand pump. Another rider paused long enough to toss him a CO2 cartridge and pump. What I should have done to begin with.

The Transitions.

What I had thought would be a good plan before the race turned out to suck even more time from my overall race.  I wore my TYR trunks for the swim, then switched them out for some bike shorts and pulled on a technical shirt for the ride and run.  After the ride, I yanked off the bike shorts and pulled on my running shorts.  I would have definitely knocked a couple minutes off my time just by wearing some simple Tri-shorts for the entire race.  Then the only switch would have been to pull on a shirt and socks after the swim and switch shoes between the bike and run.

Overall, I’m quite proud of my first time participating in a triathlon.  The first thought I had after finishing was that I couldn’t wait for the next one.  I’ve since spent the last four months swimming, improving my bike technique and working more speed and interval work into my runs to improve my recovery time from the other events. 

How it all pans out in my next triathlon, well, we’ll just have to see.

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