Today was the day. After the training and dreaming and waiting it finally happened — I raced my first triathlon!
This weekend I had the joy of participating in the 9th Annual Redondo Beach Triathlon. The race features a competitive Sprint division for both newbies and established athletes, along with a non-competitive Mini Sprint for friends and families. I heard about the race about three weeks ago, and signed up for the Mini, wanting to focus solely on getting down the basics of racing before worrying about competition. But with a just over one week left before race day, I decided to go all out and upgrade to the full on Sprint — a half-mile swim, 6 mile bike ride, 2 mile run.
I come into my pre-race week with enough obsession and caution to make a new mother look careless. I want to be prepared. I put extra focus into every workout and scrutinized every meal. I plan rest days to manage my taper (yes, I tapered for a sprint, don’t laugh!). I go through a mental checklist of every possible thing I might need, even making an extra stop at the tri shop for a pair of those fancy elastic shoelaces that everyone is talking about — although to be honest, they’re worth every bit of the hype!
I’ve focused everything this week on this race and I’m feeling ready.
Then comes bedtime. Falling asleep before anything exciting is always the worst, and to complicate matters the
jerks neighbors downstairs feel that the night before my race is also the best night to showcase their new car stereo system well past 1:00am (even after a *polite* request to quiet down). But I don’t let it faze me. Three hours of sleep can’t erase months of training and hard work. I wake up with my alarm clock and get moving.
Race HQ is abuzz with a fresh, writhing energy. Volunteers working shockingly early hours set up an amazing site for us. Booths and tables and water stations have transformed Veteran’s Park into a high-powered racing zone. At least that’s how it looks to my inexperienced eyes. I find a rack for my bike and set up my transition zone, laying out my towel and shoes like I’ve seen others do before. I even loop my helmet on my bike handlebars like a pro. I’m so ready.
A helpful volunteer, skilled in the art of “body marking” comes by with a marker to write my bib number on my hand and left shoulder. He writes my age on my left calf, advising me to pass anyone I see who is my age or younger. I tell him that I will. As the clock ticks on I wriggle into my wetsuit and cap and trickle down to the beach while the organizers close the transition area. Taking some advice I’ve gotten from experienced triathletes, I slip down to the water and swim a few strokes out. The water is warm and feels great. The swim is my strongest of the three sports and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do.
After some race announcements, we clump together by wave start times. Being a sprightly young gal of 24, I fall nimbly into the “39 and under” age group, identifiable by our bright pink caps. Don’t be fooled, the race director cautions. We are the meanest of the bunch.
The two men’s heats get started, and then we shuffle up to the start line. The call comes and we take off! Racing to the water, careful to dodge the sand traps left by low tide. The water is a loud, splashy mess but fortunately, my Wednesday mornings have prepared me for this. After getting (unintentionally) kicked and slapped around by Ironmen and former Olympians, these “39 and under” girls have got nothing on me. By the time we hit the first buoy, the crowd thins out and I sense some of the slower people starting to hang back. The adrenaline rush is gone, weakened by harsh reality of a half mile swim on limited oxygen.
I’m used to this feeling as well, and have also gotten used to telling myself that it passes. Get past the turn, I tell myself, hoping that I’ll feel better by then. I do, and manage to keep plugging along. Then I realize that I’m doing something that I’m not used to doing in open water — I’m passing people — and it feels great! I know I should be more considerate, remembering that these people are all fellow athletes getting their feet wet (no pun intended) in the big world of triathlon racing. But in the moment I’m a machine, taking no prisoners and rejoicing with every swim cap that fades behind me.
I stay strong past the second buoy and then realize that I’ve fallen into a lull as we come toward the final turn. Then it’s my turn to be passed by a few relentless men, powering on ahead like tug boats. I’m not sure if they were Mini Sprinters or Clydesdales but they knew how to move.
I finally push toward the shore and underwater I can see the amphibious landing of the few men and women ahead of me, resuming life on two feet. I decide it’s about time to do the same. This is another feeling I’m familiar with, the overwhelming weight of a life back on land, removed from the uplifting cradling of the water. I know I should run but I feel so heavy, and the sand is so soft. I wait until I reach the top of the beach before I run into transition (T1).
Crowds of helpful volunteers and boy scouts cheer us on and hand out water as we zoom up to T1. I check my watch, surprised and disappointed to see that I’ve added 3 minutes onto my best half-mile time but hoping that I’ve gained enough cushion to last me through the bike. The wetsuit removal happens much more easily than I thought it would and within what feels like just a few seconds I’m rushing to the exit, bike in hand and helmet on my head. I mount just outside the transition zone and take off.
Having been the proud owner of a bike for just over 3 1/2 weeks, I haven’t had the pleasure of practicing many swim/bike brick workouts and the weight of my inexperience hits me instantly. Any distance I gained during the swim is lost within the first mile or so on the bike as I’m passed in all directions. But I can’t be bothered with that — I notice that there’s some kind of burning sensation taking place in my legs and it won’t go away. Again I tell myself that it will level out after the first mile, the second mile, just around the corner until I give up and tell myself to live with the pain.
I’m thirsty but not confident enough with my skills yet reach down for a sip from my water bottle. Before the first lap is done I’m ready for the run, and another breeze by the water station. Despite the uncertainty and inexperience, I do manage to make it through the bike laps — slowing down enough for the U-Turns and downhill breakaways. And even with every single fiber of my quadriceps bursting into flame, I make it to the top of a rather large hill. Twice!
I make it into transition and dismount without looking too much like a newb (I had been working on that one). A quick glance at my watch tells me that while slow, I’m not too far off my usual pace, on par with what I anticipated. I rush back down to my bike rack, hang it back up, pull off the helmet and zip out to the run.
Everything you may have heard about legs feeling like jelly after a bike is absolutely true, but I already have my mind games in place. I know that for 30 seconds to about 2 minutes I’ll feel sluggish and heavy. I know that for 5 minutes I’ll feel out of breath. With a bit of hope and trickery, I tell myself that at 10 minutes I’ll feel back to normal and ready for my usual run workout. But I’m more tired than usual this time (it might have something to do with swimming half a mile and cycling for 6) and I’m not sure if I can trust my estimates.
But I don’t let myself think too much. I know it will be a slow pace but I’ll be, again, on par with what I estimated to be the lower level of my endurance. It’s not the pace I had on the swim, but it will get me through and it won’t be too shabby. I manage to pass a few people back, regaining lost time and ground ceded during the bike, but ultimately I’m just ready for it to be over.
My legs slip into a rote process of lifting one after the other and somehow I make it the two miles at my normal race pace. I mount the same hill that plagued me during the bike and I’m sad to realize that it’s not any easier on foot. I round the corner and see the end in sight. I want to sprint toward the finish but my legs refuse to listen, scolding me. Telling me that I should grateful that they’re even supporting me in the first place. I grit my teeth and run in through the archway as an announcer calls my name. With a smile I stop and gaze around at the crowd. I have arrived!
While exhausting, my first race was exhilarating and fun and left me with valuable insight into what needs to be improved by the end of summer. I ended up placing 6th of 12 within my age group. I may not have hit any personal bests, but it’s satisfying to not have hit any personal worsts either. It’s a job well done and a titled well earned.
I’m finally a triathlete!