[ What are you looking at? ]
september 2013

I have chased several labels over the years - runner, motorcyclist....college grad. One thing that's been on my list for many years is a triathlon. Any old Joe or Jill can get out and trudge plod through a 6 mile run. And I have never held the road bike guys in high esteem (there's always some downhill). But with a triathlon, there's no half-ass element. Even if you are stellar in one discipline, odds are you will have some weakness.

Looking back, this has been the best summer I have had in years. Perhaps ever. I've always said that if I didn't (when I don't) have to work, I would (will) do two things: (1) travel the world, and (2) be a full-time triathlete. For the past couple of months, I got a great taste of the triathlete life. There's nothing like slogging out some good pool time, steadily trying to improve form....getting out of the wet clothes to hop on the bike for a
chest-pounding/quad-burning ride....then lacing up the running shoes to climb some hills. Glorious.

[ triathlon photo ]

I'd be remiss not to mention the trade off of all those good feelings though....triathlon training means forsaking friends and family. My wife would get tweaked at my four hour workouts....and I'd get tweaked at my wife for complaining about my fitness rampage. Just a thought in case you are considering stepping up.

Also, the triathlon game is not cheap:
- good shoes and clips, $300
- good wetsuit, $200
- race entry, $160

And those are the basics. I got lucky buying my tri bike eons ago off an old dude who'd had his last rumble. He had just completed a tri and felt like crap. He said he was going to heed his doc's advice and hang it up - "$200.00, it's yours." And....I got very lucky having a pool at hand. I could be onsite at an olympic size pool within five minutes. There were no excuses not to train like mad.

Probably due to a couple of 6 AM pre-work swims, I came down with a wicked cold FOUR days (a Wednesday) before the event (a Sunday). Not sniffles, the real thing - sore throat, dizziness, cough, sneeze, wrecked stomach, and the Grandmaster - chills. This meant two things: (1) my strength was zapped to about half, and (2) I couldn't train to maintain pre-race intensity. If it was worthy, I would have shed some tears. I resolved though - no matter what, I was doing the race. Dead or alive.

[ triathlon photo ]

As the event grew nearer, I steadily felt worse. I knew the minute I hit the water, my energy/strength reserves would dive to zero. But....the compulsion was just too strong. I couldn't throw away a summer of training. While I lay down at 10 PM the night before the event, I don't think I slept at all. I was just prone in the dark with my mind racing, waiting for the multiple alarms I'd set to go off.

I got out of the hotel bed at 4:30 AM, readied and headed downstairs to hail a cab. Before I left, my wife tremendously boosted my confidence by saying, "You've trained for this. You are ready" (lovingly ignoring seeing me in the throes of the plague the past few days). Out of the cab, I crossed the darkened field in the cold and entered the transition area. I was in a trance....all the years of saying I'd do one someday, all the months of finally training....and there I was - realizing I didn't bring a towel to swab off after the swim. I participated alone, so there was no one to make small talk with (more on that in a bit). Panic rising, I pulled on my wetsuit and headed over to the ocean.

If you are reading this, you probably have a pretty good idea that there is a HUGE difference between a pool swim and an ocean swim. ENORMOUS. Yes, I did some practice open water ocean swims before the event.... but not nearly enough. Basically, the pool is predictable....the ocean is not. I stood there in a tight crowd of participants, with the voice/panic in my head droning incessantly - "You're sick dude. No one is gonna break your balls for not doing this. Just turn around, head back to the hotel, and head home. As soon as you start stroking, your energy is going to be sapped. You've got no chance."

Seriously. In the hour waiting to go into the water, that was the devil's script in my head telling me to quit. Post-race, I've tried to recall that fear to analyze. I haven't had the time to in full yet, but I want to explore it again because it fascinates me.

[ triathlon photo ]

Dishearteningly, a guy in the crowd beside me was babbling away with a story, "Yeah man. I did my first sprint last month in Miami. I'm a good swimmer, but I totally hyperventilated once I started swimming. I panicked. I got to the turn-around and stopped. I finally regained my composure and, BAM! someone swam over the top of me!!"

Oh, please shut up dude. Please. I moved away from him before I could faint.

The main thing I feared is the assured energy decline as soon as I started swimming (ever tried to distance run with a cold?). In the end, I imagined telling my hardcore friends that I was too sick and backed out standing on the dock (shamed forever), and I stepped forward to get in. As soon as I touched the ramp, the announcement was made, "Last call for sprint triathletes. Last call!" It was go time (go big or go home). I climbed into the water, submerged my head, and recalled the hours of form practice....

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. WHAM! I took a kick or a stroke (?) to the head. No problem, I'd heard that would happen. Stroke. Stroke Stroke. WHAM! I hit someone in the side of the head. Like a dumb ass, I opened my mouth to say sorry and a nice big salty wave filled my mouth. With that, I came off the rails....

[ triathlon photo ]

I stopped for a moment to gauge distance. In the wetsuit, I was bobbing like a rubber duck in a bathtub, only needing an effortless doggy paddle to stay afloat. I got back into position and started swimming again. As I write this and as I think back to the time in the water, it all seems a dream. I remember stroking and kicking and swimming, and how much I was bobbing in the water. As soon as I turned on the power I had, I felt like I was going to yak. I stopped to see how far I'd gone, and got a shock (practically nowhere). Almost immediately, a lifeguard paddled over on a surfboard - "Hey, are you okay man? Don't worry. You can quit at anytime and we'll take you back to shore. You don't have to finish. Just let us know."

Thanks dick !!!

Hearing that, I knew I couldn't stop, no matter what. I proceeded swimming a little, then dog paddling a little....swimming a little, then dog paddling a little. It was the only way. Every time I'd try to swim in form at a good length, my cold would surge and make me feel weak. It's lame as hell, but I ended up taking two recovery breaks gripping a lifeguard's board. And I dog paddled more than I swam. I'm embarrassed by that. Halfway through the swim, I swore to myself I'd never attempt another triathlon. But there is a big part of me that has to know if I would have swam better if I wasn't ill.

Through my dream haze and dog paddling, I was somehow close to the finish. Some lifeguards in a boat yelled out - "Good job! Don't give up! You are almost there!" I profusely thanked them, and kept my alternating dog paddling/swimming to the dock.

Lemme tell you. The feeling.. the feeling when I reached the exit ladder. Looking up realizing that I could get out, and I wasn't dead. I was both consumed with shame that I didn't swim the entire course, and ecstatic that I had reached the easy part of the competition without fully quitting. As the guys pulled me up I even said to them, "Now for the easy part!" And unbelievably, one of the event crew guys said to me, "GOOD JOB!! WAY TO GO!! GOOD LUCK!" Clearly this kind-hearted bastard hadn't seen me in the water!!

I was grinning like a crazy man as I jogged up the carpet toward transition. I couldn't believe I wasn't dead, and that I didn't quit. ROCK AND ROLL!! I sat down in the grass....and began struggling to shed my wet suit.

The bike and the run don't mean anything. I can bike or run for hours. Cake. I could feel the pull/pain of my cold during each though. The groggy feeling like pushing too hard would prompt a barf just wouldn't go away. I don't want to do another triathlon, but my pride will probably force me to. Now I know for the next time - to hell with bike practice, run practice, or pool swim practice. The ONLY thing that matters is hours of open water ocean swim practice. That's it.

[ triathlon photo ]

Some observations....

(1) I am surprised by the high number of obese participants. People who could barely ride the bike, and couldn't run at all. I always thought a weight loss regimen would progress through 5k, 10k, then half marathon. To me, an obese person doing a triathlon just seems dangerous for them. But they were out in force. This is not a judgement, I swear. Lord knows if proficient swimming was a requisite, I would have been disqualified immediately.

(2) During the course of this, I found the majority of the swim/triathlete crowd I encountered to be aloof. I chalked it up to my local pool at first, but the same
high-and-mighty aura also pervaded the race. With the exception of the awesome event staff, my fellow participants were not friendly. As a long-time runner, I'm accustomed to some degree of fellowship on the road/trail. By and large, you don't get that great energy from swimmers/triathletes (in my experience). My wife said I am being paranoid, so I searched and discovered my opinion is shared and common (you must read this link).

Anyhoo. All in all, an interesting experience. I wouldn't call myself a triathlete, but I am a much better swimmer (pool at least) thanks to this quest. And I don't care about the elitist triathletes and their stupid egos. My continued participation is for my own gratification and edification. And....humility.