This was my second triathlon, and was a hell of a lot harder than the first! The Whidbey swim is the normal .5 miles, but the bike course is longer at 19.5 miles and has a couple of decent hills. They say it’s a really beautiful route as well, but I didn’t really notice as most of the race I was in more of a survival-oriented mindset and just didn’t look around nearly as much as I should have.
Setting up the logistics of a triathlon can take a bit of planning. Here, because the first and second transition areas were in different locations that were several miles apart, we needed to plan out how to register, set up all the gear, get the car where we wanted it, and get ourselves to the start line. That involved registering in one place, driving to another, riding our bikes to the transition area with our swim gear, walking back to the car, driving to the parking area, walking to the run transition area, walking back to the car to get changed, and then walking to the shuttle pick-up to catch the bus to the start line. Well, despite being there 2.5 hours early, we barely made it on time to the start!
The swim went well, though not quite as well as the Seafair tri. I didn’t wear a wetsuit and am wondering if that somehow slowed me down a bit. Perhaps the buoyancy of the suit gets more of you out of the water, reducing drag enough to overcome the added resistance from the neoprene. I’ve actually come to enjoy the chaos of the swim start – it can get a bit rough, the water can be choppy, your goggles fog up, and you need to deal with navigating while all the time pushing hard to maintain your pace – but each time after leaving the water, I’ve been pretty discombobulated. Like last time, I was a bit dizzy from all the jostling around and needed to make the mental shift to bike riding. It’s actually kind of hard, and each time I’ve worried about falling right off my bike as soon as I start riding.
I left the transition area doing pretty well, but then all hell broke loose… At Seafair, I got passed like crazy on the bike, often by those fancy and expensive tri bikes (naturally, if I could afford it, I’d have one too) and I was determined not to have that happen again. No sooner did I start going down the first hill than one of those very bikes zipped by me with that irksome whir that sounds like a jet engine compared to my little VW bug. At the bottom of the hill was a T-intersection. I followed the rocket bike as closely as I could down the hill and cornered aggressively around the turn. Well, as soon as I started that my back tire skidded out. Fortunately, I didn’t totally wipe-out but I did manage to ride right off the road, over a ditch, and into some bushes.
I don’t remember much at that point, being still dazed from the swim and my off-road excursion, but I do remember some people clapping and congratulating me on not falling over! I grabbed the bike and started walking back to the road, when I noticed a hissing sound coming from the back tire. Sure enough, I had gotten a flat. That very morning we’d had a discussion about whether to bring the spare or not. On a sprint triathlon, I figured if I ever got a flat it wouldn’t be worth trying to fix and I’d just sit out the rest of the race. Well, for some reason in spite of this I brought the spare. A volunteer bike mechanic who’d strategically stationed himself right at that intersection came over to help. I’m not sure who he was, but he had a big beard and drove a pickup with his dog in the front seat. He saved my race. He got the new tire on way faster than I would have been able to and I was back in the saddle before I knew it.
I still struggled on the bike leg – I went through all my water and started to feel dehydrated, which didn’t help matters either. One of the quaint ironies about triathlon is that they write your age in big black letters on your calf, meaning you can see just how much older the guy whipping by you on the bike really is! On the one hand, it’s neat seeing the wide (and really pretty random) distribution of ages in the results, but on the other hand it can be humbling to see really fantastic athletes in their 40s, 50s, and older shoot by.
The run leg went OK and I made up some of the ground I’d lost on the bike, and I sprinted into the finish where thankfully they had plenty of liquids to get me re-hydrated on that hot day. I learned a number of things from that race that I’m sure are obvious to more seasoned racers but that were pretty revelatory for me:
1. If you’re eating gels and power bars before the start, these can actually dehydrate you a bit. So I think it’s best to drink water on the bike instead of a sports drink. I actually installed a second bottle holder for the bike – I’d happily pay the price of a less aerodynamic profile for having plenty of liquids to keep me hydrated. I’ll be taking one sports drink and one plain water in the future.
2. Take the corners conservatively! I have no desire to be a professional, or even to win my age category, so there’s absolutely no sense in pushing the envelope on the bike and risking an injury that could knock out weeks of training and screw up the rest of my season (not to mention climbing, diving, and all the other stuff I love doing). It’s just not worth it.
3. I need to take time after the swim to get my riding game on. I think my transition time is fine, so I probably can devote a couple extra seconds to calming down, catching my breath, regaining my equilibrium, and coming out of the transition in a less frantic way. That’s hard when you’re pumped up from the swim and chasing every second.
4. I need to be a bit more careful about what I do the last few nights before a race. I’d had a few drinks the night before (including absinthe, if you can believe it, which one of the local pubs started carrying….mmmmm, not a great idea before a race) when I shouldn’t have had any alcohol, and I didn’t get enough sleep (catching the 5:20 AM ferry didn’t help). Before Seafair, I’d gotten tons of sleep, hadn’t consumed any alcohol for a night or two before, and felt like I had a better race.
5. I’m getting killed on the hills. I took the bike to the shop this week and put on a different cassette with a higher range of gears. Before doing this, when other athletes would talk about “spinning” up a hill, I’d more describe it as VO2-maxing up, since I’d literally gotten my heart rate right up to max trying to mash out my lowest gear. Of course, the biggest issue for me on the bike is training time. I spend probably about twice as much time swimming and running as biking. Not surprisingly, my biking is about half as good as my swimming and running!
Ultimately, my philosophy with triathlon is pretty casual – I don’t have a training program (it’s no more specific than trying to swim twice a week, ride once, and run twice) and often I’ll substitute a training session for a mountaineering trip. I don’t want to start taking my training so seriously that it starts to get in the way of other stuff I love doing, so I pay a price in terms of race day performance. Maybe next year I’ll do a more disciplined 8 week training plan before an olympic distance race…
Anyway, the Beaver Lake tri is coming up next week, and I might add one more and maybe a few 10Ks or half-marathons before the season is over. I never thought I’d like racing so much – I’m not sure why it is, but the energy you get from racing and the sense of accomplishment after pushing yourself hard is pretty satisfying.