I’ve been fairly blessed in my joining the fray of endurance athletics. I’ve never started a race I didn’t finish. Oh, I’ve skipped a race I paid for… and once I changed my event from the half marathon to a 5K, but once I cross the starting line, I always cross the finish line. Yesterday, that streak was tested.
Yes, the question mark in “James is running?” was earned in full, as I packed up the car and drove over 90 minutes to Winchendon, Massachusetts for the Mass State Triathlon, an Olympic distance event (1,500 meter swim, 40K bike, and 10K run, which is 0.93, 24.8, and 6.2 miles if you prefer). I got up really early Sunday morning, rising at 4:30 in the morning to make my way south. By the time I got the car loaded and then stopped for a bagel and some coffee along the way, I reached the race site at around 6:45 in the morning. I changed into my tri-shorts, shed whatever illusions of modesty I still possessed (I run in tights or kilts, right?), and headed over to registration to get my numbers.
This is where I think it appropriate to throw a shout-out to the folks at Max Performance, who do a great job with their events. I’ve participated in my share of races, and while this is the first one that required goggles, I know a competent race organization when I see it. First, they cater to rookies. They have a YouTube channel with good advice for various aspects of participating in the triathlon, and will hook you up with a mentor if you have questions. Tim called me a few weeks ago to answer all of my questions, so that helped a lot. If you’re in thinking about trying the triathlon, check out their page dedicated to novice triathletes. Even if you don’t race with them, they’ve got a lot of helpful info available there. Last, their races go off in waves, and I elected to go in the final wave, which seemed to be the seniors and rookies wave. Quite humane to not have to fight for space in the water your first time out. Beyond that, the race site was incredibly well organized and marked, and the volunteers were abundant, cheerful, and knowledgeable. The after party was great, with hot meals included in the registration, and a fresh draft beer for any athlete over 21 that was so inclined.
Anyhow, back to my experience with them. I checked in and received my timing chip, t-shirt, and numbers. The line was short, so I was in and out in just a couple minutes. As I wandered over to the transition area, I was stopped by a group of volunteers with fat magic markers, who wrote my race number on the back of both of my hands and both biceps. My age was scrawled across my right calf, and I was sent on towards the transition area. There, I was stopped by another volunteer who would not let me enter until my bike had my number attached to it. All part of the security; people have pricey bicycles, and if the number on your bicep doesn’t match the number on the bike you’re pushing, that’s an invitation to be stopped and questioned!
The race went off in six waves:
- Young age-group men
- Young age-group women
- Middle age men
- Middle age women
- Seniors and rookies
Each group was issued their own color-coded swimming cap (my first swimming cap!). I settled in with the last group with our white swimming caps and listened to the course announcements and safety briefing, then it was time for the national anthem. Before long, wave 1 was in the water, and the horn blew, and they were off. The waves were spaced four minutes apart. I did some quick math… if I was starting twenty minutes later, and the swim was under a mile, I guessed we’d see some swimmers finish their time in the lake before I even started. Sure enough, as my wave waded out into Lake Denison, the first swimmers approached the beach, done with their 0.93 mile loop. Then the horn blew, and after waiting about five seconds for the group to start swimming, I followed after them.
Now’s a good time to admit that I was unprepared for this event. I’d swum less than two miles in 2016, only going out twice prior to the race. Ugh. I settled in on “slow and steady,” and went for it. Sure enough… slow… and mostly steady. I only brushed against other swimmers a few times. Couldn’t be that much because there were very few people still in the lake when I came out. By the time I got to the shore, I was quite winded. I ran up to the TA, rinsed most of the sand off my feet, and headed over to my bike. All in all, for the 45-49 year old men, I came in dead last.
Getting ready for the bike ride was… interesting. Now’s a good time to admit that I was unprepared for this event. It took me too long to try to get the rest of the sand and grass off my feet. I didn’t manage to get my feet completely dry, so it took me too long to get my socks on. Shoes went on easy, but not so with the shirt. I like wearing a compression under-shirt, and had a heck of a time getting that on over my wet torso. I forgot to put food in my bike singlet pockets, so that took some time, too. After over five minutes in transition, I managed to push my bike out to the course. All in all, for the 45-49 year old men, I came in dead last. Slowest swim to bike transition there was.
Now’s a good time to admit that I was unprepared for this event. While the official distance for an Olympic distance triathlon is over 24 miles, the course for this event is only 22 miles, and many of the competitors chewed that up in under an hour. I, on the other hand, averaged a pedestrian 16.1 miles per hour, and took over 80 minutes to finish the course. Sure, I got the bike up over 30 MPH a couple times on the downhills, but I was flagged from the swim, and didn’t have as much power in my legs as I would have liked. I need more time on the bike, and not just riding, but training. Learn how to race that thing. I can ride 60+ miles in a day, but this was my first attempt at racing the bike, and I did poorly. All in all, for the 45-49 year old men, I came in dead last.
Still, I got to the transition area, and set to getting ready for the run. Now’s a good time to admit that I was unprepared for this event. I racked my bike and found that I didn’t have any room to prepare for the run. After looking at my stuff stupidly for a few seconds, I finally figured out that I could pull it out from between the bikes, sit down in the grass, and get ready to run. I decided not to change anything but my shoes, grabbed a hat, and took off. All in all, for the 45-49 year old men, I came… six spots faster than dead last! Now here’s something I can build on. I can get off the bike and throw on running shoes faster than the slowest guys. Bam! Let’s make stuff happen!
Time for the run, the one thing I’m good at. I turned for the exit… and nearly fell on my face. Whose legs were these? They’ve never felt like that before! I should have had plenty left in the tank, but transitioning from bike to run, after 80+ minutes on the bike, that turns out to be harder than I thought. Now’s a good time to admit that I was unprepared for this event. I’ve heard of brick workouts… where you go do one triathlon activity, and as soon as your done, you do another. I knew that was a thing that people do… and somehow thought that circuit training in the gym was similar. Go ride the bike for twenty minutes, then go run on the treadmill for the next twenty. Same thing… right? NO! Completely different. My legs didn’t hurt, they just didn’t respond accurately to the commands being sent down. Whoa…weird stuff. I adjusted my pace slower, and headed out on the course, passing a Little Old Lady (LOL) with the number 60 written on her right calf If you’re a LOL yourself, please don’t get offended – she self-identified as a little old lady, and I’m just honoring that. Keep reading, you’ll see.
About a minute into the course, my right foot felt like there was a penny in my shoe, so I pulled over to investigate. LOL passed me while I saw on the side of the road staring at my shoe as if it were keeping secrets from me (nope, nothing in there at all). “I’ll see you again soon enough,” I thought, and after verifying that there was nothing in my sock, either, I put my shoe back on. Took a few steps and decided that the penny in my shoe must be invisible, and there was likely nothing to be done about it. Keep running. A minute later, passed LOL. Three minutes later, the vastus medialis in both legs seized up (that’s the muscle just above your kneecap. Holy crap, that hurt. I dropped down to a walk, and soon her LOL shuffling up behind me. I waved to her back as she left me behind. After about a quarter mile, the cramps had passed, and I started running again. I felt ok, but not great, and still managed to pass LOL a couple minutes before reaching the first water stop, at which point every other muscle in my quadriceps decided that they wanted to cramp up too. I grabbed a couple glasses of Gatorade and walked down the road. This time when LOL passed, she said, “Didn’t you pass me a while back?” I told her yes, I had. “You not going to let a Little Old Lady pass you, are you?” I told her that was EXACTLY what I was going to do, and that I hoped to see her again, but that my cramping legs would determine how that went. She noted the Gatorade I was doubled up on, wished me luck, and left me in the dust again.
I was running again soon, but the cramps hit the third time at around mile 2.5. What is this, run a kilometer, walk a bit? Are we going to do this for the entire ten kilometers? Well… maybe. Let’s see what happens. I grunted into the run for the fourth time, and decided to try to catch LOL again. We got to the turn around point at almost the same time, and as she headed back towards the finish, noted my presence. “Good job, keep it up!” Thanks, LOL. I will try to live up to your example.
In case you don’t know… LOL is a badass. I looked her up after the race. Her name is Luanne, and she crushed this triathlon.
Anyhow, I chased her down, and because my slow pace was a little faster than her shuffle, passed her again. “Keep it up!” Thanks, you too! Ten seconds later when the cramps hit again (hamstrings this time), I wondered to myself, “what if this is normal? What if everyone else here just knows how to handle it?” Shoot, maybe I’m doing it wrong. Okay, let’s not walk this off. Let’s run through it… we did that a little in Pittsburgh, and it turned out okay. So that’s what I did… and it worked. I ended up running through upper leg cramps three or four more times, but I didn’t walk again on my way to the finish.
Where, all in all, for the 45-49 year old men, I came in dead last. Dead last for the run, and dead last for the event. I finished ahead of just two men (other age groups) and a dozen women. Luanne finished just a few minutes behind me. I enjoyed a hot meal courtesy of Max Performance, drank half a beer, and enjoyed some post-race music with my fellow triathletes. Dead last? Sure, that’s me. But as of now, I am not just a marathoner, I am also a triathlete.
Today I’m sore, but not too bad. Today I submitted my membership application to USA Triathlon. As soon as that comes back, I’m signing up for my next triathlon. I’d rather be a DLF than a DNF, because scoring a “dead last finish” is way better than getting a “did not finish.” Clearly, I need to spend more time swimming. I should probably learn how to race on my road-race bicycle. I think I read somewhere that cross training is good for runners. I think I’ll try it.
This is the face of a man who knows that he is unprepared for this event. And also one who does not realize that his only selfie of the day shows a woman adjusting her wet suit. To the unwitting participant of this photo, my apologies, plus a careful crop to preserve anonymity… Also, you’re a bad ass.
Not a bad location for a swim!
Pedro came along for the ride…