9 Handy Hints for Surviving Your First Triathlon
So. You want to do a triathlon for some reason. Maybe because you're just nuts, or perhaps it's a physical challenge or a fundraising activity. I get it. The bug bit me as well...
I was diagnosed with breast cancer early in 2019, and when I found out I was to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy I decided to set myself a physical goal to work towards after my treatment was complete.
I am of reasonable fitness (and if not of reasonable fitness, of reasonable stupidity to sign myself up for things and then reasonable stubbornness to complete them) which led me to attempt (and complete!) my first triathlon. It was called Sufferfest, which ended up being a very apt description of how I felt during it, and was a quarter Ironman distance which was more than enough, thank you.
I certainly did not train nearly enough for this event. THAT, however, is not the moral of this story. I learned a fair few things while completing the Sufferfest ¼ Ironman. If you're reading this because you've signed up for something dumb and want to survive, I wanted to share what I learned so you can make new and different mistakes than I did.
1 Wear a wetsuit
I did not. I didn’t even THINK about a wetsuit until a few days before when someone asked if I had one. I figured it was pretty warm and I would be busting my butt with the effort and wouldn’t be cold. I was incorrect! I turned up the morning of the event and was indeed the only person without a wetsuit – I was actually so nervous I asked the race director if I was even allowed to race without one. She laughed and said it was fine, but I would likely be cold.
I lined up on the sand by the lake, having decided to wait until all of the hardcore people went to jump in. The gun went off and I started to wade into the lake. So far so good. The field thinned out and I began to swim. I must have reached the point where the lake bed dropped off and the temperature plummeted! I inhaled sharply and choked on a whole mouthful of lake water. I was so cold I couldn’t even put my upper chest in the water, let alone my face. There goes freestyle…
I doggy paddled, breast stroked and jellyfished on my back the whole kilometre. It took much longer than expected, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it at the start but after 40 minutes I had made it around – which brings me to the second point.
2 Equipment – use it, don’t just take it
I exited the water and stumbled up the sand into transition. Gasping and freezing I tried to get ready for the bike. I actually just stood there for a couple of minutes staring at my bike and helmet wondering if I had the will to finish. I decided I did – for the moment. I grabbed my towel and sat on the grass and proceeded to try and dry myself and look for my socks and shoes.
I stood up, grabbed my helmet and shoved it on my head. OUCH, what the heck was that? I pulled off my helmet and reached for my head. My swimming goggles were there. I had completely forgotten to wear them during the swim! Actually, if we backtrack a tad I forgot to bring MY goggles at all. I borrowed a pair from a friend who was also racing and had a spare set. But I hadn’t used them. I had just taken them for a jaunt around the lake. Hardly helpful, although with my missing wetsuit and the inability to put my face in the water for long periods it didn’t matter much.
The goggles were not my only unused piece of kit I brought with me that day. I also brought and forgot to use my sunblock, sunglasses and hydration pack. This leads into number 3…
3 Nutrition and hydration, before, after and during
Having hydrated well the day before (minus a few beers because it’s not the Olympics and I felt like I had been pretty good) I didn’t screw much up in the before department. My wife and I had gone into the local sports store the day before to get some energy gels and electrolyte powder to make some yummy helpful drinks for the event. I’m usually a team sports kind of person. I mountain bike and I run, but this would by far be the longest event I had taken part in that wasn’t purely on foot.
As I set off on the bike, I had two drink bottles of pretty pink electrolyte drink and a few gels stuffed into the back pockets of my sexy new CWRB jersey. Off I went into the hills. I had been riding for about an hour and settled into a nice rhythm when I decided I was thirsty. I reached for my drink bottle. SH*T, I almost went over the handle bars! I realised then that I hadn’t practised taking my drink bottle out, drinking and putting it away while on the move. In training I had used a smart trainer and it is much easier to drink when the bike is balanced and you don’t have to watch out for stones and traffic and worry about crashing. Lesson learned – next time I will be practising drinking on the move. For reference eating did not go any better – but I managed to get about 2/3rds of a gel in without drifting into traffic!
My after nutrition consisted of more electrolyte drink, beer and pizza – so I’m sure I could have done better in that department, but the pizza was certainly delicious.
4 Train as you mean to complete
This one is important! Although I thought beforehand and grabbed nutrition and hydration for throughout the event, I didn’t practise what to grab in transition. I found that when I came in from the swim I was so tired and cold – unexpectedly that I forgot what I needed and took off without thinking. When I came back in from the run I was so eager to get going and finish that I forgot to take any nutrition or hydration with me and bonked somewhat as I was so hungry.
Part of your training should involve testing and practising grabbing the gear you need for the next segment. That way when you are tired/cold/amped up you will be more likely to remember what you need to take with you and not just leave it all in a basket next to where you racked your bike!
5 Learn to “clip-in”
Ladies I’m sure you all already knew this, but Lanz has just learned it. Clipping in helps you go faster uphill. I have now had it explained to me that when you climb clipped in you can pull up with one leg as the other pushing down. This creates more power and delays the moment (inevitable moment for me) where my leg muscles fail and I become a danger of losing momentum, and rolling backwards down the hill I am trying to climb.
Prior to learning this as a mountain biker I thought clip ins were for insane people who didn’t have the need to eject themselves from their bikes at any moment when accidentally becoming too airborne. Or they were for people who could bike stand and not tip over at the traffic lights on a road bike. I’m neither of those people at the moment.
I pushed my bike three times during the 45km. I tried my best to get up the hills on the bike but it became a bit too much. Happily, nearly everyone who passed me asked if I was OK which I thought was lovely.
6 Learn how to descend as well as climb
This one was not so obvious to me before the race. Not enough time in the saddle off the smart trainer meant I hadn’t learned some of the lessons that newbie road bikers learn when exploring the great outdoors. I was almost singularly focused on the climbs. We had driven the route the day before so that I wouldn’t know where I was going and I had lamented the amount of climbing to be done. What goes up, must come down – on this particular course anyway as it is an out and back. I figured the downhills would balance it out.
Well if going down a steep hill on a rainy day isn’t scary as f@ck!
After climbing out of transition and enjoying a wee flat spot I began a three-kilometre descent into town. As I picked up speed I became only too aware that I was wearing lycra, fingerless gloves and a helmet and that this would not help me much if I slid out around a corner and crashed. I wasn’t even going that fast, other racers were FLYING past me down the hill with alien looking helmets that had pointy bits at the back – almost like they were travelling so fast their helmets were melting behind them.
I started to become uncomfortable with the speed I was travelling so I reached for the brakes. I began to squeeze and it took an age to get to a speed where I could pull over and give my poor hands a rest. I had been absolutely strangling the brakes trying to slow down and my hands and arms were throbbing. I probably still had half of the 3km descent to go!
Eventually on some of the hills in the later part of the race I began to gain some confidence and hit these with a bit more speed, but I definitely could have gone faster if I practised.
7 Figure out how easy it is to go to the toilet with the gear you are wearing
As I got to the halfway point in the run I needed to pee. Not such a big deal, but we were out in the bush with no bathroom in sight. I snuck off the track and found a suitable spot and lowered my tri-suit. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I opted to have a double mastectomy and no reconstruction. Instead of breasts I have two awesome scars about the height of where my nipples were. I have never been overly attached to my boobs and was quite pleased to be rid of them and let me tell you, that running with no bouncing around is fantastic!
I did my business and tried to pull my try-suit up again. I was actually wearing a second pair of mountain bike padded short inners over my suit because I knew I would get a sore butt on the bike and I had actually forgotten to take them off before the run. I didn’t realise until after the race though! This extra pair of shorts that I didn’t realise I had made it impossible with my sticky, sweaty torso to pull my tri-suit up and over my shoulders again. Yank and wiggle as I might it just wasn’t happening. So, I gave up and off I trotted with my chest and stomach now exposed!
I wasn’t overly happy jogging around with my muffin top and wee beer belly flopping around unrestrained so as I jogged I managed to pull the suit up ever so slightly and tuck everything in. I got some funny looks from runners who passed me in the other direction, seeing my scars but no one said anything. All of this could have been avoided if I had worked out the situation beforehand – perhaps I would have remembered to take my other bike shorts off!
8 Make your head a good place to hang out
This particular triathlon was aptly named. Sufferfest promised suffering to each and every individual who participated and she delivered in spades. From the cold lake, to the hilly cycle and run courses there were plenty of opportunities to suffer. I certainly found points during all three disciplines and I decided to embrace it!
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, and then subsequently finding out that it has spread and become incurable has changed my outlook somewhat. Not a lot, but I find myself enjoying just feeling alive. Whether it is a comfortable moment or an uncomfortable one doesn’t really matter. I try to soak in all of it and enjoy the feeling of being able to participate in life at the present.
When I was putting along up the hill and then eventually had to dismount and walk I thought to myself, “well you signed up for suffering so you better enjoy it!” Just changing how I thought about my suffering in the moment actually made it quite enjoyable. I thought of it as “training for my next one”. If you try to think of difficult things in a different light you may be surprised at how you start to look at challenges. This is helpful not only on the bike or during physical pursuits, but can be brought across to anything you have to do that is hard/boring/not what you want to be doing.
9 Have fun
This can sound a bit wanky, or maybe even a little obvious, but this is not a forced activity! It is not compulsory for humans to take to the water/road/trails and thrash themselves around for hours. You signed up for this! Competition can make things hard core in the heat of the moment, and it is easy to get wrapped up in personal bests and transition timings and segments but at the end of the day you have to enjoy what you are doing.
When I was jogging through the bush on jelly legs, plodding along looking at the floor I was all of a sudden very aware of the beautiful birdsong. I stopped running and stood still. I was the only one on that part of the trail and it became really peaceful (except for the sound of my heavy breathing). I looked around and admired the scenery for a second before taking off again. Being able to enjoy a beautiful part of the country made me start to have fun.
Your event doesn’t need to be remote to enjoy this. You could be in a city listening to people cheering you on, or cycling down a great big hill in the countryside listening to the whoosh of air rush past you. It’s up to you – but make it fun somehow!
I made it to the end and my wife was there to put my finishers medal around my neck. I was super impressed that I hadn’t died and felt very grateful to have my mom and aunty as well as some friends there. We all laughed at some of the lessons that I’m passing onto you and I decided to sign up for the half in 2020! I will have points to work on and I’m sure, new challenges will present themselves next time.
For those of you who are new to triathlon or cycling, I hope you can learn from some of my mistakes – everyone else I hope you had a good giggle, or were able to look back and see a little bit of your newbie selves in me!
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