How I Survived My First Triathlon

I came to triathlon in a very roundabout way.  I fractured my tibia, ran a marathon with the fracture and caused enough damage to keep me from running for six more months.  I will never forget sitting there in the doctor’s office and asking him what exactly I was supposed to do for the three month that I wouldn’t be able to run.  Swim?  Seriously?  “No,” I said “I mean for exercise.”  And he repeated that I could swim.  That was it. No running, no biking, no yoga, just swimming.    


            That first day I went for my swim complaining to my husband the whole way that swimming was not going to do the same things for me as running.  Swimming is too easy.  Thirty minutes later I came out of the pool having discovered two things.  First of all swimming is not easy but secondly that I am a pretty fast swimmer.  Considering that my legs are the same length as my torso I have never been a fast runner so what a nice surprise to be fast at something.  I worked my way up to well over two hours in the pool, swimming four days a week and on my off days I did upper body strength training. 


            So after three months when it was time to go back to the doctor I actually felt good about having picked up something new that I could add to my weekly routine.  But boy was I glad that I was about to get the okay to run again.  Of course that didn’t happen.  Three more months.  That was how much time it was going to take to completely recover.  But I could bike.  I had biked in the past.  Usually with a child seat on the back of the bike and aiming for the ice cream parlor at the end of the trail but I had done distances for that ice cream so I went into biking with a better attitude.  Once again I headed out of the doctor’s office though grumbling about the conditioning I was losing while not running.  Swimming had been great and I was enjoying it but I craved the running.  At least biking would get me back outside.  Over the next three months I began alternating biking and swimming and continued to do my upper body strengthening work. 


            Finally when I walked back into the orthopedist’s office after six months I was ready and raring to go.  No more swimming, no more biking just hitting the trails.  That was the plan.  At least it was the plan until he made an off the cuff remark about being two thirds of the way there for the triathlon.  Suddenly I remembered seeing Julie Moss crawling across the finish line at the Hawaii Ironman when I was twelve years old and I remembered that feeling. I remembered standing there behind my dad’s recliner and announcing that I had to do that.  There was something about seeing someone leave everything out there that appealed to me.  Insanity may just run in my family but suddenly the triathlon sounded like the thing for me.  If everything happens for a reason then maybe this was why I fractured my tibia. 


            So I started a triathlon training program.  I ordered a couple of magazine on the triathlon, bought a wetsuit, a bike and some cool new sports glasses and I was ready.  I may have failed to mention though that I am not really a person who is known for the details.  I usually see the big picture and that is it which is how I ended up at the Windsor Triathlon saying to someone at the bike drop off, “So, where’s the lake?”  Apparently there was no lake.  We would be swimming in the lovely and polluted Thames River.  Yuck. 


            Luckily, as I stood there hyperventilating another participant came to my rescue.  I forget how many of these he had done but I think it was something like a hundred million.  He started talking about the race and the preparation he was taking and suddenly I felt like I should have a note pad.  He explained how the smaller races like the Windsor would allow you to lie all of your things out on a towel beside your bike.  How you should arrange everything in the order that you would need them.  He explained that you had to think ahead.  Walk through the whole race in your head.  First you swim, right?  So you will need you swim cap.  Duh, right?  Yes, but did you know that if you put baby powder in your swim cap before you put it on you will be able to keep most of your hair instead of having the rubber pull it all out when you remove said swim cap?  Or that your wetsuit will come off easier if you grease up your entire wrists and ankles with Vaseline?  No, I did not know that.  When you come out of the water you will run straight to your bike and prepare for the bike.  Transition times count in your over all time in the triathlon so organization is key.  Having your helmet on your bike handlebars is a good idea.  Your shorts, shirt and socks and shoes should be laid out on the towel ready for you when you get to the transition.  To make it easier to get the socks onto wet feet put baby powder in them before the race starts.  It will absorb the water some as well so your feet survive the bike and the run.  Make sure you have everything else you will need for the bike portion tucked into your shoe.  I have learned since that first race that Ibuprofen is a must.   Also, I have my glasses so I can actually see where I am going and a rubber band for my hair.   And of course your biking gloves.  When you finish your bike portion all you should need at that point is your running shoes.  They should also be laid out in the morning before the race.  Again though if there is something you know you would like to have on the run tuck it into your shoe.  I have a friend who refuses to run without a bandana.  You may also want to have some sort of fuel – gels, bars or gummy candies.


            Once my new found best friend ran these things down for me they made sense.  Suddenly I felt better.  I was prepared.     Well, not quite.  The next day I discovered that swimming in a wetsuit in the Thames with a couple hundred people all going up stream was a little different than swimming in my local pool.  I completely panicked.  Panicked to the point that one of the kayakers asked whether I wanted to quit.  I didn’t quit but boy did my time show that panic.  Again it comes down to details for me.  After the race when I got back to my house I noticed one of the Triathlete magazines on the kitchen table.  One of the headlines read “How to Recover if You Start to Panic on the Swim.”   A quick review of the story told me I should have practiced in my wetsuit before the race.  I should have tried an open water swim before the race and basically I should have known I was swimming in a dirty river.  But it also revealed something that should have been common sense.  All I needed to do was to stop and tread water for a minute until I got my bearings and I could do this as often as I needed until I completed the course.  There are a lot of feet and arms in a triathlon swim.  It can be overwhelming.  A couple of seconds to get your bearings is not going to kill you.  As a matter of fact, in my next race I followed this advice and though the swim was twice as long as my first one I finish in half the time of the first one because I didn’t let that panic take over.  I treaded water for a couple of seconds and got my bearings and kept going.


            Since that first race I have learned a little more with each one.  I have learned how to change a tire and how to step aside when a nice person who looks like a professional cyclist offers to change it for me.  I have learned to always be in charge of my own water.  But most importantly, I have learned that every triathlon is a little different and that that person who wants to talk to you about his experience on the course in years past is absolutely invaluable.  Stop a minute and listen because there is a good chance he or she has something to offer. 

Originally published in’s newsletter, February 2009


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