About a year ago (~August 2007) I started learning how to swim. From the perspective of a non-swimmer, the swim leg of a triathlon is the most intimidating part of the event. For the aspiring swimmer, figuring out how to swim is often frustrating, and swimming more than 300 meters at a time can seem impossible.
I put in three or four days a week of swimming. I read several books, and watched a few DVDs. I stumbled onto a triathlon training class and received some extremely helpful coaching for about a month. By March of 2008 I could finally swim 1500 meters freestyle without stopping for a rest. This was an extremely exciting accomplishment, because it implied that I could swim the distance of an Olympic triathlon.
The other legs should be fairly simple, right? After all, I had ridden several supported centuries on my bike. My typical morning ride was about 25 miles through the hills of the Wasatch front. So the 40K (25 mile) bike leg shouldn’t be hard. And running is basically just walking, but faster. Anyone can do that. I had never actually run a 10K (6.2 miles), but if a guy can run 5 miles or so, what’s another 1.2?
The next realization was the dangerous one. Since biking and running are natural for us land-based creatures, their distances shouldn’t matter much, said my mind to myself. It was, at least in my mind, all about conquering the swim and the rest would just fall into place. I realized that the swim distance of a half iron triathlon is only slightly longer than that of an Olympic triathlon (1.2 miles, which is about 1900 meters, compared to the 1500 meters of an Olympic event). So, with that realization I signed up for the Utah Half.
For several months before the race I asked experienced folks about the suggested training for a half iron event. The fairly consistent rule of thumb I got from triathletes who have done half iron events was that I should put in about 10-12 hours a week. I was starting to feel quite overwhelmed because on a good week I was getting six or seven hours. Family, church, work, house, and personal hygiene made anything more than six hours unachievable. When I asked if a half iron could be done on six hours per week, I got mostly luke-warm responses, like “maybe, but I wouldn’t want to try it,” or “that’s probably not a good idea.” The term “death march” was introduced to me at that point. I could envision what the death march would look like, and I didn’t like it. I was starting to think I should just bail out to eliminate the stress of preparing for the event.
Around the end of June, my responsibilities at work got heavy. The early morning hours that had previously gone to training were now being spent in the chair at my office. My stress load went up as my training diminished to a mere two hours per week. I frantically searched for more hours in the day, but I came up short.
The week before the event I went on a campout with the family. I tried several things to get out of the race, like nailing my toes on a rock while riding a motorcycle up a tight mountain trail. I was thinking (and hoping?) I broke my toes. I hauled wood to our campsite and wrenched my back. Unfortunately my toes and my sore back both cleared up by Friday the 8th.
August 9th arrived way too soon. Or, maybe it took forever. I don’t know. I was so stressed about the whole thing the days seemed to pass slowly. But by the time it arrived I was way under trained. Catch 22, I suppose. I contemplated all kinds of options, like ditching the run, completing only part of the run, or forgetting the whole race. I think I was too stubborn to really entertain any of those options for very long. Let’s just say I went into this event very well rested. :)
I got to the Utah Lake State Park at about 5:30am. I took my bike and bag to the transition area and reported promptly to the body marking area. I wasn’t overly anxious to get the body marking done, but they had bug spray over there, and the mosquitoes were eating me alive. I had never seen so many mosquitoes in one place. All the athletes were dancing around, covering up, and swatting themselves. At one point I swatted at my legs and looked down to see over a dozen dead bugs on my legs. Yuck.
The bug spray didn’t help much. I think those mosquitoes must have been mutants. They seemed to be immune to the bug spray, and they were the size of tarantulas. No, small rats. Actually, they were about the size of my dog. Yeah, that’s the ticket. So, I put on my wetsuit. That way all I had to worry about was my face.
After the customary hour or so of unsettled waiting and watching, it was time to enter the water. There would be two waves – first the men, and five minutes later the women. The swim was a two lap course in the shape of a large, flat triangle. The start was narrow and congested, and I got to enjoy the experience of having my goggles kicked off (first time for me). After about 500 meters, the pack started to thin out. Interpretation: I was bringing up the rear after about 500 meters. At about the halfway point I found a great rhythm. I wasn’t fast, but I was enjoying it. About two eternities later I reached the end.
I had budgeted 45 minutes for the swim. I was a tad disappointed in my actual time until I learned from the race director that the course was about 200 meters too long. That’s about four or five minutes for me, which would have put me at about 46 or 47 minutes, so I didn’t feel too bad about that.
I’ve always been slow at the transitions - especially after the swim. I get vertigo, so attempting to go fast typically ends with me crashing to the ground. I didn’t try to go fast, but the transition turned out to be my best event (relatively speaking). The transition time included a run of a couple hundred yards to the transition area.
I like the bike ride. I’ve always felt strong on the bike, and enjoy just cruising down the road. I knew I would have to hold back on this event and pace myself if I was going to have any hope of completing the run. I couldn’t help it, though, and went out at about 23 miles per hour. I needed to use the bathroom pretty bad, but I’m not willing (nor likely able) to pee on the go, so I convinced myself to hold out until the turnaround. They had an aid station there with drinks, special needs bag, and a port-a-pot (or so I thought).
Nope. No port-a-pot. I dropped my bike and ran up the side of the mountain to relieve myself. Aaaaaaahhhh.
I had plenty of liquids (two bottles on the frame and one on the aerobars) so I turned around and headed back to home base without anything from the aid station.
I wasn’t expecting any problems with the bike. But at 40 miles I started to feel my thighs burn. They hurt so bad that I wondered if I would make it back to transition, let alone complete any of the run. I sucked down another GU and started to nurse a Clif bar, hoping that maybe some nutrition would help. I was drinking diluted Gatorade supplemented with Elyte. I remember passing one of the patrolling officers at an intersection and saying, “I’ll be darned if this race ain’t up hill both ways!” I was not doing well.
Through some miracle I made it into transition. I jumped off the bike and attempted to stand. Whoa. Walk? Huh, uh. Ain’t happening. Using my bike as a crutch, I waddled back to my rack. I sat down and, unwilling to accept defeat, changed my shoes. I stretched out my legs. I figured I had to at least try to run. So I stood up.
Bike: 2:54:29 (19.3 mph)
The run is three out and backs. The first was two miles out. Aid stations were placed every mile. I stopped at each one for water and Heed. Upon returning from the first out and back (four miles), the run went right past the transition area. I figured I was done. I mostly walked through that portion. I needed the bathroom again. I knew the port-a-pots were just beyond the transition area, so I kept going. I stepped in, took a leak, and stepped back out. I was now past the transition area. So I kept going.
The next out and back was only about 1 mile. It felt more like 28. I was half walking, half jogging. I wanted to crawl. Somehow I made it through that one. When I reached the aid station I asked what the mile marker was. He said six. I told him the correct answer was 12, and that he should try again. They had Fig Newtons at that aid station, so I took one along with a cup of water and pushed forward. Best. Newton. Ever.
The run meandered through an open area, and then turned the corner onto the Provo River trail. There was a group of people at the trail head shouting encouraging words. I was walking. They said, "Just another 10K and you're done!" It might as well have been 100K. But I turned the corner and started to run. Correction: started to jog.
A mile later I reached the next aid station and saw more Fig Newtons. Instead of one, I grabbed the whole freakin’ tray and crammed them all down my pie hole Scooby Doo style. Didn’t chew, didn’t taste, just inhaled. Aaaahhh. With a cup of water in one hand, and a cup of Heed in the other, I pushed forward.
I found a rhythm of sorts in the last five miles. I would run/shuffle to the aid station where I would stop long enough to eat something (a Fig Newton or 12, a gel, a handful of electrolyte pills, or whatever else they had) and walk away with a water and a Heed. As soon as the liquids were gone I would start running/shuffling down the trail. I nursed those drinks as long as possible!
I set my goal at 6:30. I was trying to be realistic. Just finishing was really enough, regardless of my time. I rounded the corner with the finish line in view and saw the giant timer off in the distance: 6:29. I gave everything I had for that last 10 feet (just kidding – it was probably a few hundred yards). I’m sure I got some funny looks when I let out a scream of excitement at the finish line. My reaction was the kind of thing you might expect from the first place finisher.
I rounded the corner, grabbed a water and a handful of pizza and collapsed in the shade. 13 nano-seconds later I grabbed another handful of pizza. Best. Pizza. Ever. Eight or ten slices later, I was starting to see straight again.
Total Time: 6:30:57
What an amazing experience. One I hope to never have again. If I do sign up for another long course triathlon, I think I’ll do one thing differently. I’ll take advantage of the special needs bag. It will have only one thing in it: a gun loaded with a single bullet. :)