The Triathlon: Lessons Learned

This post is not food related. It’s for anyone who is interested in reading all about my first Olympic distance triathlon that I completed today (well, ok, yesterday; it’s taking me 2 days to write this post). If you’re just here for the food, or are annoyed when people talk about their workouts, I’m not offended if you quit reading now. You can come back later when I talk about food again; no worries.

I’ve heard you should do one thing every day that scares you. This is what I kept repeating, over and over, standing in line with 200 other people as I was getting ready to jump in the Tennessee River and swim almost a mile, because I was terrified. I was so nervous about this particular event! I started doing tri’s in 2009, and this was my fifth one to complete, but the first one of any distance longer than a sprint. It also marked the longest amount of time I’d ever participated in an endurance athletic event, ever. My previous length record was for my very first triathlon, which I finished in 2:16. I was hoping to finish today’s event in 3 hours, but my ultimate goal was simple: to run across the finish line with a smile. I definitely took longer than 3 hours to finish the race (3:19), but I achieved my ultimate goal just by finishing.

Race Recap

Shaun (best man at our wedding/Dave’s BFF and personal trainer/all around awesome guy) was my “race buddy,” a term I use loosely because he’s 50 times the athlete that I am and he wasn’t so much someone I raced alongside as someone who kept me motivated to work out harder than usual in the past two months. Dave and I call him “the machine.” Shaun also has a better fake fierce face than I do. See, here we are last night at our “tattoo party,” where Dave plastered us with our “tri tats” race numbers.

Anyone else think the phrase “tri tats” sounds, like, dirty? It bothered me all day. Oh, and check out what happens when you have little arms and a big race number… I was tatted up from my shoulder to past my elbow!

Interesting side note: one of my students pointed out today that, despite my attempts to remove the tattoo number, it got tanned into my skin. Awesomeness.

We spent Saturday traveling to Chattanooga, getting settled in our hotel, and learning everything we could about the race at the afternoon informational sessions. While Shaun and I were off being athlete-y (and trying not to melt in the freaking hot sun), Jenn (Shaun’s sweet wife who Team Dawmilam also adores) and her mom ran some errands, and Dave, after securing breakfast foods for us, went to the bar. Yay, beer for the roadie! Later, we went to dinner at a place called Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria, a carb-loader’s heaven. I went to town on fresh made garlic bread dipped in EVOO and simply delicious eggplant parmesan (and cheesecake!). Jenn’s mom, aunt and grandmother went with us, and we had a fantastic time. They were getting us pumped up and excited before we even started racing! I think it’s safe to say we all had an exceptionally fun, pleasant and relaxing pre-race day – which helped my mental state tremendously. Lesson learned: it’s good to spend the day before a race around positive people who are highly encouraging and motivational. And it’s good to go to the information sessions. I’d never done that before, either, and learned a lot (like, about drafting, no headphones, and how the USAT don’t play around when it comes to following the rules).

I went to sleep around 10 pm. And woke up at 2:45 am. And couldn’t go back to sleep. I was freaking out about the course. Shaun and I drove the bike course Saturday afternoon, and that was great because it helped me prepare for the race, but not so great because 26 miles is a long way to ride on a bike (to me, at least) and you don’t realize just how far it is, or how hilly it is out there, until you’re paying really close attention to those sorts of things. Case in point: a guy from Atlanta whose bike was racked beside mine said his co-worker from Chattanooga told him that Highway 27 wasn’t that bad; there was one big hill at the beginning coming out of downtown but the rest of it was pretty much flat. The racer guy took the co-worker’s word for it, and bolted out on the first hill, which didn’t bode very well for him on the next 9. I can only imagine the hell that Chattanooga native co-worker received today from racer #1057.

I also couldn’t really wrap my head around how I was supposed to swim nearly a mile and THEN bike 26 miles. And then run 6 miles. What?! I couldn’t even see the start of the swim from the transition area. I knew there were at least two bridges we had to swim under. It just all daunted me, and I couldn’t shake it enough to go back to sleep. Self doubt likes to haunt me right when I need sleep the most, unfortunately. So I knew I’d be going into the race running on adrenaline, because I certainly wasn’t getting enough good rest. When my wakeup call plucked me out of my halfway dozing state at 5:20 am, I just had to peel on the tri suit and get going with my day.

I had my usual raceday breakfast of coffee (I know, horrible idea for some; I always say that me doing anything without coffee is a much more horrible idea), water, a bagel and peanut butter. Once I got to transition and got all set up, I had half a banana. Turns out, my usual raceday breakfast was not nearly enough food to sustain me on the swim and bike. As I type this, I realize I should’ve eaten something else, and it was pretty stupid to think I could make it on that much food. My stomach was growling at mile 18 on the bike, and I think that’s partly because I ate all my food at 6 am, but didn’t get in the water until 8:30. Lesson learned: if I do a race of this distance again, I’ll have to be better prepared for food consumption. I would’ve killed for a peanut butter sandwich on the bike. More water would’ve been great; my little 16 ounce squirt bottle wasn’t really enough for a 26 mile, 20 rolling hill jaunt. Lesson learned: install another water cage on the bike. It’s never been an issue on the sprint tri’s; I know if I eat and hydrate properly the week before a race, I’ll have enough energy to last at 2, 2:15 hours. Not so much for over 3. Lesson learned.

Let’s talk about transition setup. Here’s mine.

There’s a gallon of water hiding under my bookbag, which is the only thing you can’t really see. Does anyone notice anything wrong about this picture? (Besides the Auburn hat, if you’re a hater?) My bike shoes are not set up properly! Notice how they’re not ready for my foot to just go on in? That will kill you in transition times. During T1, I had issues undoing them – obviously, the velcro was no problem, but I had a total brain fart (mechanical engineering has never been my biggest strength) and couldn’t figure out how to undo the tabs at the top. Duh. I spent probably, no lie, a full minute just figuring out how to undo them. Lesson learned there, too.

I had about an hour to kill before the race after getting all set up and to the swim start, since my race number was pretty high, just standing around freaking out about jumping in the river. But, before I knew it, I was in the water and going. I tried really hard not to think about just how far I was going, or what was coming next. Instead, I tried to be present. In the water. Mentally and physically. It worked for a while. I was enjoying the challenge. And then, I got punched in the face. And then, I nearly pulled down some guy’s speedos. And then, I basically back mounted some other guy. Aside from those three minor snafus, the swim was great. The sun was beautiful, the water felt awesome, and the scenery was gorgeous, even though I only caught glimpses of it every 3-5 strokes. About halfway through the swim, I started to freak out and had to calm myself down. I started to question whether I really could swim this far in open water. I now understand how people have issues in open water: if you think about it too much, it’s debilitating. If you think about just how far you’re going, it’s overwhelming. But if you take it one stroke at a time, and enjoy every breath, it’s actually quite enjoyable. Lesson learned: metaphor for life! Take it one day at a time and don’t forget to enjoy the scenery along the way. Oh, and try not to pull down random men’s speedos.

Eventually, I saw the sweetest sight of the day: a kayaker pointing to the left. We’re done! So close! We had to climb up stairs out of the water, then climb up stairs to the transition area. I finished the swim in just over 28 minutes, which was 2 minutes faster than I’d hoped! I feel great about how I performed on the swim.

As I was running to the bike, I saw my sweet mom standing on the side, jumping up and down and screaming, holding a sign that said “Team LBD.” God bless that woman. Her friend Moses drove her over on his Harley, and I was so glad to have them as part of the support team. Shortly after that, I saw Dave, who was Roadie Extraordinaire. He filmed lots of the transitions and cheered me on the entire way.

At this point, I went into what I’m going to call turtle mode. I slowed down. Took my dear sweet time. I was disappointed that the last T1 time at the sprint tri took me 3 minutes? This one took 5:47! Not only did I have the shoe issue, but I also couldn’t get my helmet on right. Had to get my gloves just perfect. Had to munch on the other half of my breakfast banana. Had to chug some water. Had to chat with the person next to me. You know what I didn’t do? Wipe the grass and debris off my feet before putting on my socks, in an effort to “save time.” Ha. That came back to bite me in the ass later. About 2 miles into the run, I realized I had something stuck in my sock that was puncturing my arches. 6 miles and a painful cut later, I’ve learned my lesson about that. I should’ve had time, somewhere in the leisurely 5:47 transition, to wash my damn feet. Grr. What is my problem? Eventually, I made my way to the bike mount area and was on my way to 26 miles of awesome.

Awesome is a term, again, I’m using loosely. It was awesome because the view was fantastic. Most of the bike ride took place on Highway 27, which is picturesque, to say the least. The scenery, while beautiful, wasn’t enough to keep me entertained. I tried not to think about the fact that there were 10 rolling hills on each 13 mile leg of the out and back course. Since my mantra on the bike was “don’t get greedy,” I had to zone out and think about not passing people on the bike, not only because I quickly realized I hadn’t prepared to hydrate or eat properly, but because I wanted to save energy for the run. So, to stay entertained, I did what Rose told me she does sometimes when she swims laps: think about something you were doing when you were whatever age mile marker/lap/whatever you’re at. This occurred to me as a good idea at about mile 5. Turns out, my 5th year was monumental. Had a stellar birthday party, got my first official school supplies (I would remember that, huh?), met my best friend for life, started kindergarten… things got fuzzy around age 6. I couldn’t recollect anything of that great importance that happened from ages 6-14. I’m pretty sure I’ve just blocked those years from my brain. Instead, to keep me upbeat and motivated, I sang/hummed to myself. I made up a couple of songs about how much fun I was having on the bike. When I got to mile 13, I sang Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi (the whole thing, word for word) and the rest of the time, I basically hummed the theme from Super Mario Brothers. Turns out, it’s a great motivator.

What’s most odd about the bike, to me, is how zoned out I was. I don’t remember much of anything about it. I was just there, on my bike, pedaling. Going. “Hammering down” as they say in spin class. Keeping pace with #960, 3 solid bike lengths ahead of me. That’s all I focused on. It was weird to be so in the zone; I’m not sure I’ve ever been that focused for that long before. It didn’t seem like I was on the bike for 1:40, but according to the race results, I certainly was. Even though that’s 10 minutes longer than I’d hoped to be out there, I’m still satisfied with how I did. I wasn’t giving it 110% – I wanted to save energy, I know the bike part is my weakest, I hadn’t trained nearly enough on my actual bike to know what my limits were, physically, on these rolling hills, and I just wanted to enjoy the course. I knew I could be (and was) super competitive on the swim and run, so the bike was just for fun. I dismounted like a champ (for me, that means dismounting without falling over) and took another 4 minutes to get ready to run, only because I knew I needed a break. My body was telling me to sit for a minute, chug as much water as I could, and eat. You know what is usually a horrible idea to do before running 6 miles? Eating something. I defied all logic and ate my banana while running the first mile, praying I didn’t throw it back up at mile 2.

As I just mentioned, part of the reason I didn’t mind just cruising on the bike was because I knew I’d run past several of those who flew past me on their fancy tri bikes. In fact, when I’d start to get worried about the fact I was being passed, I just told myself that. “She should pass you if she paid $2500 for that bike since you only paid $450 for yours” and “these bitches goin’ down on the run” were things I told myself quite a bit out there on Highway 27. I actually relish in flying past people on the run part of the tri. I know that’s evil and I shouldn’t enjoy it so much, but I do. Although at about mile 4, exerting more energy to overtake someone started to become a problem, however. I felt my heart literally pounding and my lungs seize up whenever I did that, so I had to hold off. My run time was about 58 minutes, which was right at what I wanted to do for a 10K after enduring everything else I’d gone through that day. It was hot as hades on the run, too, since I started so late in the day.

On the run, I realized that I’m incredibly thankful that I enjoy running and didn’t ignore it as part of my overall training. All the work Lindsey and I have done this summer, whining, in the heat, really paid off. Even though I was tired, I wasn’t so exhausted that I thought I wouldn’t make it. It really was more of a mental effort than physical, if that makes any sense at all. I knew I could run 6 miles, I just had to ignore the fact that it didn’t seem very rational to do so at that present moment. I pushed myself, but not so much that I passed out. I took every water break, walking until I drank as much as I wanted and poured the remainder on my head. I walked up the big hill at mile 5. I stayed completely focused just on running. There really were no other thoughts going through my head at that time, except getting to the finish line. Oh, and the theme from Rocky.

But WHY?

It was somewhere around mile 5.5 that I realized I’d reached the limits of my athletic ability and had no desire to do any sort of athletic event that would take longer (sorry, Anne – I’ll cheer you on at the next half Ironman, but don’t think I’ll be doing it with you!). Now, that sounds negative of me to write off harder athletic endurance events, and I know better than to never say never, but hear me out on this one.

While running, I realized I’m completely happy with what I’ve accomplished athletically. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve done what I have in the past few years, since I’ve never been an “athlete” and didn’t start running consistently until 2006. Most Valuable Lesson Learned: you really can do anything you set your mind to.

So, when I say I’ve reached my limit, I mean I’ve done all I care to do with triathlons at this point in my life. See, if you embrace triathlons, really what you’re doing is adopting the triathlete lifestyle. My interpretation of it is this: your health and fitness, both mental and physical, are top priorities. You make time to work out, and you care enough about your body to feed it when it’s hungry – good, real food, like fruits & veggies, as much as possible – and honor whatever it’s telling you is important to eat, even if it sounds odd or isn’t “low fat” or “low carb” or “has lots of sugar.” This takes practice and conscientiousness, almost as much as physically preparing for the tri. For me, it also means letting go of what I think I should look like or how much I should weigh and instead focusing on how I feel, which hopefully is strong. Had I realized this 10 years ago, I’d have avoided a lot of problems with food and self-esteem. It took training for a triathlon to get me to that point.

But the triathlete lifestyle also means moderation and balance. If I want wine or beer or margaritas or a double helping of fro-yo with extra honey or to eat half the cookie dough before I even get to bake the cookies, I go for it – just not every day. If I’m tired, I rest (or try to… still working hard on that one). And if I’m spending too much time doing one thing such that my life gets completely out of balance, I change. I’m afraid that’s where I’m at right now. For the first time in my training, I got totally stressed out about this particular race. It was almost overwhelming at times. And to me, that’s not healthy or fun. Don’t get me wrong: the training was the fun part, and I loved being able to devote that much time to one goal. And I’m still going to work out consistently in order to maintain a level of fitness that would allow me to do sprint triathlons pretty easily. But, for now, I’m feeling the need to back off and come back to Olympic tri’s later on. Yes, I could do more if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. It’d interfere with my life at a level that I just am not comfortable with, and I’d probably have no energy left at the end of the day for Dave, and that would make me sad.

Speaking of Dave, I can’t quite put into words just how awesome he was yesterday. I basically married the most incredible man on the planet. He was so motivational and encouraging, and took amazing care of me after I got home and crashed, literally. To top it off, he even got us sushi takeout for dinner, which was exactly what I needed and wanted after a long, hard workout. Thanks, sweetie! You rock.

So, here’s a compilation video that Dave took of Shaun that includes his run out of the water and onto the bike, and his bike dismount. If you listen really closely, at about 35 seconds, you hear Dave make a funny commentary about how I’m not quite done… 🙂

And here’s my compilation video; 5:47 transition edited down slightly so you aren’t bored out of your mind (listen for the big WAR EAGLE the spectators next to Dave shouted at me as I ran past them to the finish line):

If you’ve made it this far, thanks. Hope you enjoyed my long, detailed race day recap. Back to food stuff later this week.

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7 thoughts on “The Triathlon: Lessons Learned

  1. Dude, I’ve never had any desire to do a Tri, but I’m in awe of those that do/can. I’m shooting for a 5k this year, and that is enough for me. 😉 Mad props for doing an awesome job. 😉

    • You know, I started this whole journey with a 5K… so you never know what you’ll want to work up to once you get that under your belt! 🙂 I’m proud of you for training for one! You can do it! I’m a huge fan of the 5K; think it’s a great way to maintain a solid level of fitness.

  2. I just want you to know that I think you’re Freakin’ AWESOME!!! I’m so proud of you!! Biking 26 miles blows my mind! Love you!!

  3. I’m so proud of you! The recap was amazing. From the video it did look like you took your time in T1, which made me laugh. And, no worries on the half iron man 🙂 I’m fine staying in retirement, or at least sticking with sprints.

    It just reminds me of how far we’ve come since our Auburn days where we could barely run around the track for 5 minutes in boot camp.

    Last thing – your arms look really good!

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