Most people who do triathlons have competed in one of the three disciplines first, either swimming, cycling or running. For each particular discipline, there is a relatively short laundry list of items you need to bring. For a triathlon, you need all of those bits and then usually a few extra pieces, and leaving one thing behind can lead to disaster.
This is the list put out by USAT. Extensive, and some items are unnecessary, but you get the point.
To do a triathlon, you plan out when and how you are going to get to a race, and then as the race nears, you start packing away your goggles, towel, tri suit or whatever you are going to race in, race belt, sunglasses, helmet, gels, running shoes, cycling shoes, bike. You make your final plans on when to get to the race, when to go to packet pickup, how early you are going to wake up the morning of the race, the meals you are going to have in the days leading up to the race. You decide what your workouts are going to be in the final days so that you are ready when the starting gun goes off.
When a wrench is thrown in the way of your plans, you have usually two options: Freak out, or be flexible enough to change your plans so that your race goes off uninterrupted. This weekend was the most complicated race that I had ever done, for a variety of reasons.
The race was the first time that I had to fly to a race and that I would not have access to a car, so it meant that I couldn't forget anything, or if I had any problems, I would have a harder time fixing them.
Since I was flying to the race, it meant that I had to figure out how to get my bike there. I could ship the bike, or fly with it. Shipping meant at least $250 in expenses, plus being without my bike the week before and week after the race. Flying meant $150 in charges for oversized baggage (Southwest airlines charges $75 each way, cheaper than most other airlines I looked into, and they let you fly with two bags for free- a definite bonus). I reached out to some of my triathlon friends to see if they had a bike box. Fortunately for me, Adam, who I swim with and run with (who regularly smokes me during the track workouts) had one, so it meant that I didn't need to rent one.
had to go in here. Fortunately, youtube videos provided the guidance, and Adam provided the case.
After figuring out how to get myself and all of my gear to the race, I needed to figure out when to get to Milwaukee, and how long to stay. With a well connected older brother, I got in touch with Marielle, who was willing to let me stay at her flat which was about three miles from the race site, which saved me money on a hotel room. A search of flights, and I found out that the cheapest way to get there would be to leave Thursday morning, and then leave Saturday immediately after the race. (If you want a good flight search engine, use google.com/flights. I find it easier to use than Travelocity, Priceline, etc).
Flight booked, bike packed, it was time to get to Milwaukee. My parents drove me to the airport Thursday morning, and I was able to make it to Milwaukee without any hiccups. Into a shuttle I went, and I made it to Marielle's flat with no problem. One of her roommates let me in, and I checked my email to confirm when packet pickup would be open.
You know you are in Milwaukee when...
When you go to races, the race organizers love to send you lots of emails. Most of them are filled with garbage from retailers trying to sell you stuff, but in the latest email came this nugget of information:
"No bags are allowed in transition. Any items you normally would keep in a backpack in transition should be checked into the bag check tent using the clear plastic bag that athletes will receive at packet pick-up. This is the only bag athletes can use for bag check. Backpacks placed in the clear plastic bag will not be accepted. If you do not want to utilize the bag check, USA Triathlon suggests leaving items in your car, with family/friends or in your hotel room. "
No bags in transition other than a garbage bag? Leave your backpack in a hotel room, car, or with family or friends? None of those applied to me. I was planning on riding my bike down to the race the morning of with my backpack, so now it just meant that I would be riding my bike down to the race with a garbage bag.
I went down to packet pick up, and got my race number, timing chip, and garbage bag, and then made my way to a grocery store to find food for the next few days. I didn't want to spend more money than I had to, and I wanted to be safe with the food that I was eating, so I grabbed some fruits and vegetables, some deli meat, a loaf of bread and pop tarts to feed me over the next few days.
These were given in the goody bag with packet pickup. Now I could race for the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship with free socks from China!
Friday morning, I woke up and went for a ride along the route and swam in Lake Michigan, where the race was being held. Without a car, I rode down to the race site with my backpack containing my swim gear (not yet prohibited as it wasn't race morning), found a volunteer who let me leave my bag at her booth, and stretched my legs on the bike. The course was very flat, which would be something new for me. I put in a few minutes at effort and then went back for a swim. The water temperature was in the high 60s, and I felt loose and fast in the water.
I left my bike next this one while I swam. I figured that if someone was going to steal a bike, it would be the one worth three times mine. Fortunately, both my bike, and the person's whose bike this was were still there after my swim.
I collected my gear, and rode back to Marielle's. I checked the event website one more time to make sure I hadn't missed anything, and I saw this on the published schedule:
Mandatory bike check-in? This means that I had to leave my bike at the race site the night before the race. This wasn't listed in any of the emails that had been sent out. With a mandatory bike check-in, it meant that I wouldn't be able to ride down to the race with my garbage bag. I decided that I would ride back down to the race site to talk to an official to see if I could not leave my bike so that I could get to the race. The answer: no. What if I pretended that I was just out warming up with my bike when I showed up? No. Bikes were not allowed to leave transition for any reason race morning unless you had a mechanical problem.
A triathlete brought his trainer (the green thing) with him to the race so that he could get around the fact that you were not allowed to take your bike out of transition to warm up on before the race. Smart, but a little excessive in my mind. It probably meant that he was a local or drove to the race. There was no way that I could fly with that.
Well, that sucks. No biking down to the race, no backpacks, no bike warm-up. Talking about screwing with my plans. I left my bike in my assigned spot, and in my anger, and grabbed a cab to get back rather than walk. I had walked 6 miles yesterday going from Marielle's down to packet pick up and back, so I justified it as resting up for the race.
I got back to Marielle's, made myself some dinner, wrote a paper for the online classes I am taking (more on that in another blog post), and figured out how I was going to get down to the race the next morning. I didn't want to risk calling a cab and having it not show up, so I looked up the bus schedule. Another shout out to google-their map app on your phone has a public transportation function, so I was able to find a pretty easy way of getting to the race, only having to walk a block to the bus stop and transferring once, and being dropped off within a block of the race.
If you hit that trolley icon at the top, the app shows you how to take public transportation from the locations you put in. It even allows you to select when you want to depart/arrive.
With a game plan on getting to the race, I started loading my gear into the garbage bag. I realized that it was not going to be big enough to hold my wetsuit, towel, cycling shoes.... so I grabbed the grocery bag from my shopping trip and used that as well. Finally, all I had to do was shower, and sleep.
Race morning, I was up at 4:30am. I needed to be on the bus at 5 so that I could make it to transition by 5:30am when it opened. I wanted to be there early in case I had forgotten anything. I ate a quick breakfast of a chocolate fudge poptart and a banana, and grabbed my gear. Holding my garbage bag and grocery store bag, wearing my aero bike helmet, I made my way down to the bus stop.
Made the first bus...
And with my transfer pass, made it to the race site.
After setting up my spot, I grabbed my goggles, cap, wetsuit, and my garbage bag. I plugged in my head phones, found a bench to lay on, munched on some of the food I brought with me, and waited for race time. With about 30 minutes to go until my race started, I changed into my tri suit, went for a quick jog, put on my wetsuit, dropped off my garbage bag at the bag drop and made my way over to the start line. There were no more hiccups that could get in the way before the start of the race.
The transition area before the race started. There were at least 12 rows of bikes, probably around 60 yards long. It had to fit ~2700 athletes and their gear.
At the start, I took a look around. Swimmers give themselves away by the type of goggles they use, and I found a few likely candidates. I put myself next to some who were chatting about swimming in college, so I knew that I would have some company on the swim. I jumped out and pushed the tempo for the first minute or so to get away from the field, and my new friends went with me. I found myself leading the race, with one other guy on my left. I slowed to get down to a sustainable pace and no one was willing to go by me, so I slowed one more time, and the swede wearing swimmers took over the pace making. I fell on their feet, and settled into my rhythm.
The rest of the swim was uneventful. Having done a bunch of open water swimming this year, I was much more comfortable in the water, and I ended up having my fastest swim ever. I was in the top 8 or so of swimmers in my age group, about a minute faster than I had planned. Swim split: 18:37.
I struggled out of the water. To get out, you had to climb up a steep, slippery dock. There were several volunteers there who were helping us out, but even with their help, I slipped twice trying to get up and off the dock. After finally making it up, I stripped out of my wetsuit and ran to my bike.
Helmet, sunglasses, shoes, go. I got everything on, and ran to the mount line. At this point, my age group was catching the tail ends of the age groups in front of us, and I had to space out my mount on to my bike. Others were stopping and getting on, I spotted an opening, ran and jumped, and was off on the bike.
This is a pretty decent video of how to get on to your bike quickly and off of it. You can see that the guy racing saves time over the people who are stopped and getting on their bike slowly.
Early on the bike, I got passed by a few riders. And by passed, I mean they blitzed by me. I thought that I was moving pretty well, and I was surprised by how much faster they were going. I just had a great swim, and I was already being passed? I pushed the tempo a little more, and tried to limit the damage.
About three quarters of the way through the bike, I knew that I was moving solidly, and I had a good chance of beating my goal time. Apart from the two or three riders who passed me early on, not many others passed me. Legs felt tired but good, and I started mentally preparing for going over the one hill (actually a bridge) on the course.
After the bridge was a quick descent down into transition. I got off my bike, again with my fastest bike split: 1:00:05.
I headed into t2 and tried to make my way to my spot. I accidentally ran down the wrong aisle, which cost me a few seconds, slipped into my shoes and grabbed a gel, and took off. I knew that I was going to need a good run, but not a personal best run to make my goal time.
As usual, the first few miles hurt and I found it difficult to get into a rhythm. The first two miles ticked off at just over 6:15 minute pace. I knew that this wasn't fast enough, so I pushed the third mile and got under 6 minutes. Then I got passed by two people who were moving quickly. I knew that I was sitting somewhere near 10-12th place in my age group, and getting passed like this on the run was mentally tough. My legs were tightening up, so I shoved my gel down my throat, grabbed liquid at one of the aid stations and tried to hold on. My fourth mile split ballooned up to 6:11, and then my fifth mile was at 6:15. My goal time was slipping away, and I got passed by another runner from my age group.
I let out an expletive looking at my watch. I had just over 6 minutes to run the last 1.2 miles of the race to get under my goal time. I turned my watch over to the bottom side of my wrist so that I wouldn't look at it, and pushed with what I had left. My last mile was 5:37, but with the extra .2 of a mile, it wasn't enough to get under my goal time of 2 hours flat. I stopped my watch at 2:00:20.
I was disappointed. Hours on the bike, time spent on the track and in the water to be so close. My run was not what I had hoped it to be. The race had almost gone perfectly. Fastest swim, fastest bike. I just didn't have it in the tank to put down the run that I know am capable of doing. I didn't know where I had finished overall or in my age group, but I also knew that I was on the cusp of being in the top 18 in my age group, which means I had a chance of making the Team USA team for World Championships.
After the race, I had to deal with logistics again. I had about three hours to get all my gear, get back to Marielle's, and pack up my bike and luggage before the shuttle came to take me to the airport. I made my way over to get a print out of my results, and get my bike and gear. Due to a few competitors still on the course, the officials didn't open up transition, so I had to wait around for an hour to get my bike, which meant that I had a little more than two hours until the shuttle arrived.
My results. It says that I was 20th overall because some of the waves that started after me hadn't finished yet. My transitions need to be faster.
Once transition opened up, I loaded everything into my garbage bag, put the bag on my aero bars, and road back. I quickly packed up my gear, took apart my bike, and with two minutes to spare, had everything put away before the shuttle came. I made my flight home, and my parents came to meet me at the airport. They took me out to my favorite Chinese restaurant, and finally home where I passed out.
Despite the wrenches and the speed bumps, a successful race. I finished 52nd overall, out of more than 2700 other competitors. In my age group, I finished 14th out of 151. I had personal bests on the swim and the bike, and a run that I know I can improve on.
Takeaways from the race:
1) There are a lot of very fast triathletes out there.
2) Too much of my racing is mental. I need to stay within myself and not get down when I get passed.
3) I need to have a greater sense of urgency in transition. My times for the swim and bike were well below what I had hoped, but I can be faster going between each discipline. Also, making the mistake of going down the wrong aisle was a product of fatigue and a huge mental lapse that cost me time. Without that mistake, I might have been under my goal time. A huge rookie mistake.
4) I am tired of sacrificing convenience for safety. I understand wanting to be safe after what happened during the Boston Marathon, but not allowing athletes to have a backpack? I fear that next year, they are going to prevent us from bringing shoes, or bottles over 6 ounces or whatever the limit is on plane flights.
For this season, serious racing is over. I might do a few road races or open water swims, but nothing major. Takeaways from the season:
1) Without a group to train with, having a coach was key. In Williamsburg, I had friends to run with, and a cycling group to whoop on me. When I moved to California, I didn't have either of those. I now have people to run and swim with, but having Martin write workouts adds consistency to my training. After working with him for eight months, I can honestly say that I can count the number of workouts I have missed on only one hand.
2) I can be faster. I truly believe that my bike and run can get faster, and I can be faster in transition. It will take time, but I know that I can do it.
3) I made huge improvements this season. While taking into consideration that the course can dictate how fast you go (flat vs hilly course), I dropped more than 6 minutes from my previous best in the Olympic distance triathlon. In all of 10 km runs in my triathlons this year were under 40 minutes, regardless of how much rest I was racing on.
4) The sport can consume you if you let it. To not miss workouts, I was frequently running or doing cycling roller workouts after 10pm. Friday night social activities were cut short so that I could get a long ride or swim in Saturday morning. It definitely hurt some of my personal relationships at the expense of my training. Finding balance was difficult this year.
5) Triathlons are expensive. Races can range from $60-400+. Then you need to get to and from the races, and the gear is not cheap. Is it more expensive than other sports? Yes. Is it more expensive than as intense training program? Compared to crossfit? To be determined in a future post.
6) I am already thinking about next season. After two days off, my body is wondering when my next workout will be. Will I be able to balance teaching, coaching two sports and training? I did it for one year. I can do it again.