I was about to be body marked for my first triathlon. Which would have been fine if I hadn’t just realized I couldn’t find my bike helmet. I quickly let the official mark my arm and calf with my race number, 252, and then started running back toward my car. Which would have been fine if I wasn’t stumbling through the cold pitch darkness in knee high fur boots. A quarter mile later, I arrived at the car – no helmet. WHERE was my helmet? I now had 30 minutes until the Transition Area was going to close, and 45 minutes to the start of the race. I hauled back toward Transition, still negotiating the darkness and breathlessly begged the DJ/Announcer to ask if anyone had found a silver bike helmet, marked 252.
And so began my Adventure in Triathlon. There’s a lot of gear involved in Triathlon. First you swim, so you start out in a tri-suit or swimsuit, some type of foot wear to get you to the start (fur boots in my case, perfect for a cold autumn 4AM wake up), a headlamp so you can see and a sweatshirt or something to keep you warm. A swim cap and goggles round out your gear for the first discipline.
Next comes the cycling. First: you need a bike. Then, the previously mentioned missing helmet, sunglasses, bike shoes, socks if necessary, and a belt that holds your bib number (252, remember?). If you’re not wearing a tri-suit, you’re likely going to supplement your swimsuit with bike shorts and a t-shirt and if it's cold, a jacket to wear while cycling. Then you run. Helmet is replaced with a cap or headband, bike shoes changed for running shoes.
In addition to all of this stuff, you likely have a towel to dry off with, a bottle of some kind of liquid nutrition and a bottle of water, maybe a gel or two depending on the length of time you’ll be racing and for me, definitely a chap stick. You can imagine that trying to get all of this gear to the Transition Area is slightly complicated in the early morning darkness. But losing the helmet? Really? Unless you were to lose the bike, it couldn’t get much worse. I was in a panic.
Dawn was arriving, my adrenaline was pumping, and my muscles were all warmed up from my unexpected search. The DJ made my plea and someone shouted out that there was a helmet lying on the ground “right over there” and I sheepishly picked it up and made my way back to the Transition Area with 25 minutes to spare.
I knew how to set up my spot in the TA from having obsessively read Your First Triathlon by Joe Friel, and having watched approximately 7,000 you tube videos. The transitions of triathlon are nuanced moments in time. You want to be as organized as possible so you can change gear as quickly as possible and get right out to the next discipline. In fact, Transition is known as the 4th discipline of Triathlon. That's why the Towel & Bucket System seems to be universally used by first timers right up to the pros. It involves laying a towel on the ground and placing your stuff on it in an organized fashion. Then as you finish with each piece of gear, you throw it into a bucket. OK, it’s not really the most technical system but everyone uses it. The TA looks like a sea of bikes with tiny festival blankets laid out beside each, topped with supplies for the day.
I nervously rearranged my chap stick to a new place on the towel for the 6th time and began to chat with the guy and girl next to me. “I’m going for the heaviest bike award today," I stated, horrified at my amazing but reeeeeally heavy mountain bike complete with knobby tires. They laughed and asked me a few questions. I admitted I had no idea what I was doing and that my friend who I was supposed to be racing with had become injured so I was all alone and really nervous but that I was going to try really hard, and in a moment the girl said, “Are you in the on-line running group, My Running Girlfriends?” “YES! ARE YOU!?” I shouted. Was this a virtual friend from my women’s running group on Facebook? “I’m Kim,” she said, “You’re Clythie. I thought that was you!” I was instantly relieved.
I had my Love hoodie on for the occasion: Tri4Love, with Kim
I started My Running Girlfriends a few years ago as a virtual running group for women and it’s grown to include friends of friends of friends so there are lots of “girlfriends” in the group who I don’t actually know even though I know all about their running habits and what music they like to listen to when they run and how their races go. Kim had responded to a post I set up when I first signed up for the triathlon. She had done the same one last year as her first tri as well, and she had given great words of wisdom and now, here were both were, having randomly racked our bikes next to each other in the dark on race morning. “This is PJ,” she said, referring to the guy next to her, “And this was his first tri some years ago as well. It’s a really great race and you’re going to be just fine.” PJ chimed in with genuine words of encouragement and all of a sudden the Debacle of the Missing Helmet seemed to fade into the background and I had a feeling that everything was going to be alright.
My Running Girlfriends played a big part in getting me to the starting line of the triathlon. When my partner in crime, Lauren, became injured, all of a sudden I was doing a race that I was quite intimidated by, alone. Three disciplines in one fell swoop. Three sports that I am alright at but by no means a star. Plus the fourth: Transition. The girls in my running group gave me incredible encouragement and advice. My friend Emily gave me a tri-suit. Annie and Kim had both previously raced the tri I was about to attempt, so they told me all about it, solving the mystery of triathlon logistics. Anne had done other tris and gave lots of advice. Lauretta had finished her first only a few weeks ago and sent me a race report with every question I could have ever thought to ask, answered in perfect detail. I am always thankful to this group of women from around the world, who are always there for each other, even if it’s typically just virtually.
We lined up in the warm pool area in number order. I was 52nd according to my predicted ¼ mile swim time. A respectable mid-pack swimmer. The RD said to line up and ask the people in front and behind you if they were faster/slower and rearrange yourself accordingly. There was no pretension. Everyone humbly stated swim times, most in my section (8:00 min) that they weren’t sure if they were going to be faster or slower today, and that we should all feel free to tap and pass. I nervously watched the first couple dozen swimmers jump into the pool and swim, 15 seconds apart. Before I knew it, I was jumping in and off for my first snake swim ever, and first competitive swim since my senior year of high school.
Pretending like I know what I'm doing in my fancy blue tri-suit, with Kim
A snake swim is basically a long line of swimmers snaking up and down each lane, ducking under the lane line at the end of each lap till you reach the end of the pool and complete a ¼ mile swim. Unlike an open water swim where everyone is competing at the same time for water space, therefore kicking the crap out of each others heads, arms and legs, you have a half length (+/-) in between each swimmer so unless someone is in the wrong placement order, it’s quite calm. If you consider crushing a quarter mile swim to be a calm affair, that is.
My strategy for the entire race was to take my time and just finish. I know that’s not really the most competitive spirit, but according to Joe Friel, it’s what you’re supposed to do for your first tri, and I'm pretty good at following instructions. So, once I finished the first lap, I slowed down a bit, and relaxed, taking my time cruising along, saving energy for the bike and run. In a flash, I was climbing out of the pool waving to my mom, my husband Jeff, and my best friend and running partner, Matthew. I was on my way to T1, the transition from swim to bike.
Making my way out of the pool toward T1
So, T1 was located a bit of a hike on pavement and grass from the pool. I wasn’t sure about running barefoot on pavement, so I tried to walk as fast as possible and then ran once I made it to the grass. Running on pavement and grass was absolutely not part of my training and in fact, I never ever go barefoot. Add that to the list for next time. Practice being barefoot and running on pavement. Wha?? Noted.
I took my time in T1. I was in T1 for 4 minutes. I know! 4 minutes does not seem like a long time to put on sunglasses, take them off because they're fogged up, put them back on, take them off again, hook them into your tri-suit, put helmet on, dry off your feet, shove socks on, shove shoes on, attach your bib belt, chug water and Gatorade, apply chap stick, un rack bike and get out of the transition area, but apparently people do it in one minute. Whatever.
All of a sudden, 4 minutes later, I was out on the bike. My bike strategy was to let the bike do as much work as it could for me, push as much as I could and to keep in mind that I had one of the heaviest bikes in the race. The bike was nearly perfect. I finished without a hitch until mile 12ish (of 15) when I could feel my feet going numb. I wondered what I would do when it came time to run. Well, I thought, I’ll walk the bike into T2, and hopefully by then I’ll be able to feel them. A nice guy passed me on a proper road bike and shouted, “WE’RE ALMOST THERE!” I said, “GREAT!” and he said, “YEAH!! NEXT COMES THE REALLY SHITTY PART!”
The run. I had been looking forward to the run. Of the 4 disciplines, it’s really the only one I feel comfortable doing. I figured I could make up time on the run. Maybe I could pass some people who happened to have fast bikes but weren't really runners. I shouted back to the guy who was now fading off in front of me, “YEAH, I’M NOT SURE WHAT I’M GOING TO DO BECAUSE I CAN’T FEEL MY FEET.” And I rode in the last 3 miles to T2.
I saw Jeff as I hopped off the bike and then my friend Tora, who to my delight, surprised me by showing up, and when I said to them, “Um, I can’t feel my feet!” Tora said, “Well, you’ll feel them soon enough because it’s time to run!” Good point, I thought.
Headed toward T2 with numb feet
I halved my time in T2. I was in and out in just about 2 minutes. I hopped toward the trail. Running would have to wait a bit, because I was concerned that I would break my toes, or completely fall over. Nice, a runner signs up for a triathlon and when it comes to the run, she walks out of the transition area.
About halfway through the run, I began to run. That’s an improvement, I thought. The rest was uneventful in a good way. The trail was easy, and the crowd was roaring as I came into the finish. I passed under the arch, stepped onto the timing mat and immediately saw my friends and family cheering for me. I had finished my first triathlon. I was a snake swimmer on a heavy mountain bike with numb toes and very slow transition times. Fabulous!