I can think of no better song than Jump Into The Water, by Emmet Swimming, from my hometown(ish) Fairfax, Virginia, to accompany the culmination of my crash course in triathlons-the inaugural Desert's Edge Olympic and Sprint Triathlons. Besides the literal interpretation, the music builds to a frenzied climax the way my pre-race energy did, then dives right into a raucous explosion of hard driving rock. It's not a pretty sounding song but it's got a lot of underlying energy.
A triathlon was never in my plans for 2012. On the ever changing road of life, a bunch of factors came into play that changed my plans. At the year-ending Winter Sun 10K last year, there was this woman, Angela, who came over to me at the post-race awards. She'd spotted the rowdy and enthusiastic group of us from Grand Junction, and we chatted for a few minutes. She was a new runner and interested in joining in on our fledgling weekly speed workout group, with the disclaimer that "I'm new and slow!," that anxiety that a lot of us have felt as new runners that we're not "ready" to go out with the "real" runners yet. I promised that we were a fun, all paces, all-comers kind of group and that we'd love to have her there if she wanted to come.
A week or so later, Angela showed up, and quickly became one of the most regular attendees, making steady progress in speed and endurance through winter and spring. When it came time for the Imogene Pass Run to open, it was obvious that she wanted to sign up but had that hesitation again. Several of us talked it up and encouraged her to enter, and I did my best enabling job to make sure she joined in on our midnight run-and-registration party. At several point in training and just prior to the race, I am pretty sure I was on her naughty list. Her race went off swimmingly, though, getting over the mountain in a terrific time, and not doing any permanent bodily harm in the process.
Now, Angela was a swimmer in high school. Not just any swimmer-a bona fide, badass swimmer. She qualified for something called "Zones," which is where all the best regional young swimmers go to compete. Her initial foray into running was actually to return to swimming and do a triathlon, and a few months ago, she did complete her first.
I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point she declared that "since you made me do Imogene, you owe me a few triathlons." It was out there, and I decided hey, that's fair and reasonable. And, as it turns out, there are a LOT of people in our group of friends and in the extended community who do triathlons, from sprint and Olympic distances right up to Ironman races. I always swore I'd NEVER do one of these things-there was too much gear and equipment, and I just wasn't going to tackle learning all the little tiny things on my own.
And, that's where said friends and community come into play.
I think the first thing I said about this possible triathlon was "great...but small problem. I don't have a bike. Or a wetsuit. Or any of the other thingies you need. And I haven't been on a road bike since 1983." Excuses Club-meet your president. But the friends intervened.
First, I was just in the pool with Angela, our friend Cheryl, and a few others on a weekly basis at the Colorado Mesa University pool. It's a great facility, and soon I went from not being able to swim more than a lap without getting winded to being able to go back and forth slowly a few times, and eventually could swim 1000-1500 meters in practice with some intervals thrown in. I didn't have anything for open water swimming, and that's when my friend Randee stepped in and offered me her wetsuit, and some great tips on how to get in and out of it, and some shoes for clipping in on a road bike. Oh, did I say road bike?
I didn't have one of those either. And me, gear, and trying to use it? That terrified me. At least, on a swim, it's mostly just me. The bike was a whole 'nuther ballgame. Enter Marty, and his collection of bikes, gear, and good, solid experience and ability to break down how to use the stuff. He loaned me an older workhorse bike that rode smoothly and had good components, got everything adjusted to my height, and then we went to work and making me a cyclist.
I couldn't even clip in at first, and was terrified to just ride around quiet downtown streets. Soon, though, I got more comfortable on the bike, and no question of mine was ever deemed stupid. The bike was a little glitchy with shifting gears sometimes, though, and I surprisingly, I was most nervous about this, and not the swim, in the week leading up to the Desert's Edge triathlon. I'd done two open water swims-one time on the course with Angela, Cheryl, and other ladies, and another one at Snook's Bottom, a cold, murky, stinky lake with Angela and our friend Tom Ela, a regular in all things outdoors in our town. The bike ride was worrying me more than anything else. And then, there was that run. I had a lot of people tell me "you'll be fine, and you'll pass us on the run anyway."
Well, I've never run competitively with a swim and bike ride prior, so I was in no way convinced that I would be passing anyone. For better or worse, though, I worked as hard as I could and tried to absorb as much as I could about all things triathlon. Sitting with a tablefull of triathlete/runners at a recent wedding, it was oddly reassuring to hear that people get kicked, pulled, grabbed, et cetera, in the swim, and that if I was really worried about it, it wasn't a bad idea to hang back and let everyone in my wave get going, then get in behind them. And that the bike, and clipping in, would just get easier with practice.
After a week of being super nervy, and more worried about a race than I ever had been, race weekend came. The bike had been particularly tempermental on a Saturday "easy" ride with Angela, and this did not help my nerves at all. I picked up my packet, and later that evening, came out to her place in Fruita, which is very close to Highline Lake. I didn't even know what to do with half the numbers and stickers in my packet, but she showed me how one went on my bike, one could go somewhere on my helmet, and one would be for the run, which I attached to a number belt that Randee loaned me. I had a towel layout cheat sheet for all my necessary items in transition (the area where you rack your bike, lay out your needed race gear, and switch from one sport to the next), and I seemed to be mostly set.
The unknown was just getting to me, though. I went to bed, slept a few hours, and then was wide awake at 3am. I never was able to make it back to sleep. We left early so that we could set up in a decent spot, and then hang without rushing. We got our stuff set up pretty easily, and soon a number of local friends were arriving. We're normally quite warm here on the Western Slope in October, but a cold front had moved in. Though the water was still warm, a "no swim" option had been made available for those who did not want to get wet. I was incredulous; it seemed like a joke at first. It was never even a tempting option, as nervous as I was. I was here to finish a triathlon...not bail on one portion. Soon, things were close to being underway.
I hung out with one of my former day care families-Steph, Dave, and their daughters-watching the Olympic waves start. Soon, we were on deck. Dave left with his wave, and then Steph and I were in the water for the last wave-the "old, slow, and female" sprint wave. I did a few strokes out and back, and the water wasn't terrible. Soon, it was time. The starter counted us down, and off we went. Holy crap. Never in a million years did I think I'd be in a lake in October in a wetsuit, on purpose.
As the swim began, I remembered my plan to ease in to each sport, and not let adrenaline eat me alive. I just focused on a smooth stroke, breathing, and occasionally "sighting" the huge green buoy that marked the sprint course. The first time I practiced in open water, I did have a moment of near-freakout, being unable to see in the green/black waters, and realizing, shit, this is open water. I'd calmed myself that day by turning over to the backstroke, slowing down, and breathing, and just knowing that option was available made it so that I didn't have to go to it.
Moving toward the first buoy, I was lightly kicked, touched, and pulled a few times. It really wasn't bad, though, and people seemed to be making slight adjustments and shifts. Nobody kicked me in the face, or anything else really bad. The square shape of the swim course made it easy for me to get into a rhythm, and just periodically look up to sight that buoy. Rounding the first corner, I realized that I was NOT doing this for 100% fun and no competitiveness. I could see other swimmers when I took a breath, and tried to pull through more with my arms, and increase my stroke cadence. The water felt good and the sun was out. I started thinking ahead to the bike a bit but reminded myself to just focus on what I was doing now. After swimming the length of the square course, we came to a buoy where we'd swim left and back to shore. I'd managed to keep a nice, straight line, and I was glad we'd spent time weekly swimming laps at CMU. There was a muscle memory from that which kept me from swimming wildly off-course.
Heading back to the shoreline, I knew we were supposed to look for the blue arch, but I couldn't see ANYTHING. The sun was rising and pretty much blinding us, so I was just following other swimmers in to shore. Finally, through my goggles, I could see swimmers starting to stand up ahead of me, and anticipated doing that myself. My badass triathlete/swimmer friend Cheryl C. had told me to kick those legs some before leaving the water to wake them up, and I did that. Coming out of the water, I also followed Randee's advice to begin zipping out of the wetsuit, and by the time I reached my towel and bike, I had it peeled halfway off. Now, here came my greatest challenge-getting out of a really wet wetsuit with cold hands and fingers. Sitting on the ground, I started peeling out. I got one leg off pretty easily, but then managed to double up the wetsuit on my left foot, all jammed up because that's where my timing chip was strapped. My cold fingers couldn't move it over that thing. Oh, man, I felt like an idiot. What was I going to do now?
Before I could get too panicky, I decided to try different approaches to getting it off.I managed to get the whole wetsuit to about the ankle, and then just decided I'd give it a short, strong pull with all I could to peel it off inside out. I gave it a good yank, and off it came! Phew. Now, my original plan was to put on tights for the ride. I put a lightweight tech shirt on my upper body and realized I didn't want to waste any more time. I threw on a lightweight cap, my running gloves, and shoes, leaving the tights behind. Unracking the bike, I trotted it up and out of transition, mounted, and started riding. I hoped that hadn't been a stupid move to abandon my tights plan.
Once I clipped in (and I did it relatively quickly-yay!), I started pedaling, remembering what I'd been told about keeping a high cadence, and anticipating when I would need to shift gears. Then, I tried to do my first shift into a harder gear. Crap. It was sticking JUST like it had the day before. Rather than panicking, I tried using one finger to hold the part of the gear used when shifting to an easier gear, and using another to force the inner lever to make it shift. It worked!!! Oh, man. I was so relieved now, and glad that I'd figured out how to deal with this bike's sometimes temperamental nature. I gathered some speed and headed toward the first big hill. The one I'd fallen on just a week or so prior.
Remembering that word "anticipation," I shifted into one of the easiest gears as I hit the bottom of the downhill and started to climb uphill. Keeping the cadence high was something that felt fairly natural, in part due to my running. I realized, though, as I neared the top of the hill, that I might not be in a low enough gear. I was NOT going to fall today, though, and made myself power through the last little bit, reaching the crest in the hill without a fall. Ecstatic to be over this first hurdle, I settled into a rhythm and headed off down the road. I was pushing whenever I could, but was definitely not attacking. There was a delicate balance between wanting to race hard, and just lacking the experience on this bike, and on a bike in general, that kept me from doing this leg all-out. I tried to balance this by really hammering the flatter sections where I didn't fear crashing by going too fast on a downhill, or falling/struggling with gear shifting on an uphill. Soon, we were back to the last big hill on the course.
Before we even turned toward it, I had that A word...ANTICIPATION....in my mind. I reached the bottom of the hill, shifted to an easy gear, and started climbing. People were all over the place, shifting back and forth on their bikes, or struggling in gears too hard for this hill. I kept my cadence high in this easy gear, and passed nearly everyone this time. It felt good, and despite the weird grip I needed to use to switch into a harder gear, I was able to get it done and ride out the bike course, pulling into the dismount area, where I saw my friend Shannon who had worked water safety on the swim.
Now, it was time for MY thing-the run. I got the bike racked quickly this time, pulled off the shoes and put on my running shoes. For a split second I thought about pulling my tech shirt off but decided to waste no more time in transition after my way-too-long first transition. Once the helmet was off, I headed out of transition, waking up the legs for the one part of this thing where I had any sort of experience.
As I exited transition, I was aware that my body had never, ever felt this weird at the start of a run. My legs had this disconnected, woobly feeling-they were moving, and moving decently, but I had no control over them. I was pretty sure I was going to pitch forward onto my face any time. And they were TIRED. Wow. I wasn't wearing a watch and had no idea what my pace was, but I was sure it wasn't fast. Still, I was passing people from the get-go, so I trusted that this was good. Going back to that "settle in to it" mindset, I tried to bring some control to my run with some high cadence/short stride action. This was a gently rolling gravel trail, but even the little baby downhills felt like they might take me out in the first mile. Stuff I'd normally just run down sent me into windmilling arms in order to stay upright. Still, though-I WAS passing people! I was thrilled. I was in my element and so I just went as aggressively all-out as I could pull out of myself.
Here and there, I'd be passed by members of the USAF, CSU, and other men's tri relay teams. Besides those guys, I passed every other runner I encountered. Coming into the last stretch for home, I was really tired but put on my best race face for a strong finish. There was a short, downhill stretch of road near the end of mile three, then a jump back onto the gravel trail and a short, steep climb up to the dam, a flat stretch leading up to the finish. A woman with a shirt from a Denver-area tri group said "Oh my GOD," and I knew right then that I needed to beat her. As we reached the flat, I moved up to her, then on past. She said "good job" or something like that but I didn't have energy to respond.
Right then I saw Dave, who provided some good cheer and "it's just down that way and up the hill!" encouragement. Heading down, I could hear someone creeping up and passing-it was that tri-team lady. Oh, hell no. I'd gone from this being a "fun, learning experience" to being ready to knock myself out to make sure I crossed the finish line in front of that lady. I kicked hard and got ALMOST back up to her, but didn't quite catch her. Still, it made for an excellent RACE (not "fun experience just to do it") finish, and I crossed feeling like I'd given all I had with the tools I had today. Nearly immediately after finishing, the timing booth staffer nearby asked if I wanted my time card. SWEET! Yes, let's have a look at that baby. I'd just raced purely on feel, and had no idea what any of my times looked like.
It broke down like this:
Total time: 1:37:53
Swim time: 17:05, 58th overall in swim,
Bike Time: 50:59, 89th overall in bike
, Run Time: 24:22, 26th overall (and 5th in gender).
T1 (Transition 1): 4:03. T2: 1:26.
Overall Place: 52 out of 142.
Overall Female: 17th out of 87.
Age group: 4th out of 6 (yep, way small. And all women in this age group were in the top third of overall rankings)
In an interesting twist, when I checked results earlier today, I noticed that there was a "Matt" in the age group results. As it turned out, my age group was VERY small, with most competitors originally registered opting out, or taking the "duathlon" option due to the cold temperatures. When I looked up my results just now for the blog post, I see that "Matt" has been removed from the results, and that I in fact finished third, and not fourth in my tiny age group! It may be a podium by default in a small age group, but it's kind of exciting, twenty-four hours removed from the event. The awards at this race were pretty sweet...plaques with colorful lizards on them.
I'm kind of indecisive on what to do regarding that situation-I'd really like one of those pretty plaques since it appears I did finish third, and not fourth as I thought at first. Still, I'm happy enough knowing I took the challenge seriously in the short time I was actively training, and gave everything I had as far as my knowledge, resources and experience yesterday. And I was thrilled to be in the top quarter when matched up against all women.
So, am I going to do this again? Right after, I was thinking no way, that was way too hard. I honestly don't know which was harder-the last five miles at the Desert RATS 50-miler, or the 5K at the end of the Desert's Edge Sprint Triathlon. But there's something about the thought that went into this, the planning and strategizing, wanting to tighten up and fix mistakes and weak areas, and become more aggressive on my strengths, that is very, very enticing. And, as Angela has said, I owe her at least several triathlons for Imogene, which was, after all, 17.1 miles and about four-ish hours on average. So, for no other reason, I WILL be a woman of my word and plan on the Highline Hustle, or some other area sprint triathlon next spring.
In all, it was also a fabulous experience that reminds me what great people we have in our local athletic community, and how supportive the triathlon people I know from other parts of the country are as well. When I said "I can't do a tri, I don't have the "stuff," and don't know how to use or do the "stuff" anyway," I was amazed at how eagerly and freely the support, training advice, gear, motivation, kicks in the butt, and reassuring words were offered. I've tried to do that as a runner, because I remember being new and scared, and not knowing a thing. And I don't think there is any way I would have followed through or had such a great first time triathlon experience without a lot of people who played a part in giving me the confidence and tools to do this. So, that's awesome. And why I love this kind of thing more than anything. Given the enthusiasm people had for getting me started, I know I'm on to kind of a special thing. My first love is still running, but I do see more triathlons in the future. Growth only occurs outside the box, and this weekend it was way outside the box, down the road, and in the water on a chilly October day.