Dream milestones happen really early in the morning when you are heading to your first sprint triathlon.
The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. and the preparation for the day started. I took my own advice and packed up the car the evening before.The plan was to hit the road for the hour plus drive by 4:00 a.m.. Wrangling my husband Ray, my son Jake and copious amounts of coffee got us moving out the door on time.
We managed to pull into the race parking area at 5:15 with a steady stream of cars. I was so glad we started out early as I spied the growing line of cars backing up on the main road. Just a few minutes later we grabbed all my gear and were heading to the main race area to set up.
The set up area for a triathlon is called the transition area. This was a fenced off area in the middle of the action with two sections, one for the athletes in the Olympic distance race, and those in my Sprint distance.
There were several people already setting up but the early hour made it easy to spread out and get my bearings. I took my time making sure the area was set up just as I practiced. 1) Lay out the towel, 2) put my helmet on the handy stool the HITS Triathlon Series provided, 3) Set out my running shoes and open them up so I could step into them easily.
Chilly weather made me want to keep moving and I started to get really cold. Zipping up I walked back to the car with Ray and Jake to grab more photo equipment. Time was ticking and I was getting nervous about having time to get ready.
Getting ready for the swim was the most time intensive option. A triathlon wetsuit is not something you just jump into, and my first experience at trying on a wetsuit was pretty funny. This time I was prepared with fancy tools like Tri-Slide, spray on slippery stuff that is meant to make it easier to get the wetsuit on and ideally, off faster.
I did make the mistake of spraying it on and then rubbing it in with my hands. That made everything I touched slippery, including the suit itself. I quick rub down with one of my “after-swim” towels and I could finally grab the suit without it slipping away!
The morning was cool and I was getting colder as I wrangled the rest of my suit on. Barefoot, I made my way down to the water. Ray and Jake were waiting, pretty cold themselves, and Ray helped me get all zipped up and ready.
I knew from my previous open water swim, plus all the advice I had read online, that getting acclimated to the water before the race was ideal. I waded in and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t immediately feel like I stepped into ice. I waded deeper in the water and about waist height, noticed a stab of cold on my thigh. That turned out to be a hole in the suit that I was noticing for the first time.
Moment of truth was the quick dip down to let water into the neck of the suit. The layer of water helps insulate you, but until it warms up the process can be borderline painful. Ray had apparently told Jake to start recording because my reaction would be priceless!
The freezing water made it’s way slowly through the suit about the same time I started to lose feeling in my feet and fingers. This early morning freezing had to be the worse part of the event, right?
I tried to keep moving, even if it was just jumping up and down, and I quickly came to regret not having some type of footwear. Seeing all those around me with flip-flops reminded me to add that to my race list for the next adventure.
A quick meeting with the race director about the plan of who goes first, and we were grouping together for the start. Men under 40 were first to start out and were off with a quick blast of an air horn. Next group of men over 40 waded in and were off and swimming.
All the women lined up and were ready to head out. A group all in black wetsuits and green swim caps made spotting me hard, so made sure to wave to Ray and Jake until we were ready. I took a few underwater dips and was able to exhale without any issues.
The sun was rising just over the mountain. It would have been so much more beautiful if I wasn’t completely blinded by having to stare into the sunlight reflecting off the water.
I tuned out all the nervous chatter all around me until the whoops of excitement started and the countdown began… 3… 2… 1… The sound of the air-horn and we were off. I crawled out with the crowd as we worked our way into deeper water and waited for room to swim properly.
Reaching forward I started my freestyle stroke and put my face in the water. Immediately the cold water made me gasp and suck in a mouthful of water.
What the hell was that?
I hadn’t had this reaction when I was practicing so it caught me off guard and although I kept moving, my breathing shortened and panic started setting in. I glanced around at all the bobbing heads of the swimmer surrounding me and flipped onto my back. Backstroke is not ideal in any race in open water since you have no idea where you are going.
I kept reminding myself that the wetsuit was enough to keep me on top of the water and concentrated on my kicking. The scary part was I just could not slow down my breathing. This was the moment that I actually thought “I could drown.”
I knew this was just a side effect of my shallow breathing, and lack of feeling in my feet and hands, but there was a moment where I let the panicked sounds around me and my own panic seep into my brain.
The first buoy was finally there so I side crawled around it, spotted the second and flipped onto my back again. I focused on my kick and strong arm pulls. Thank god for all that pool training and kick drills I used to groan about. Swimming backward made me run into people and get smacked by others. Apologies were a regular occurrence but everyone kept moving.
I had a quiet zone and quickly figured out why when I heard a male voice say “You’re getting a little off course.” I sat up in the water and one of the many kayaks who were there to keep an eye on us was floating a few feet away. I yelled a quick “Thanks Hon!” and worked my way back into the pack.
Around the second buoy and I heard several exclamations of “Oh thank God!” and smiled. I could see the shore!
The last leg was the easiest as I had given up on swimming freestyle and just backstroked my way into the exit area. Ray caught me on video saying “I thought I was going to drown.”
I knew I was headed toward Jake with the video camera so I kept a smile on my face even though I was shaking like crazy. Distractions help when you are trying to process a scary experience, and don’t really have time to process it at the moment, so I started to peel off my wetsuit on the way into transition. I may not have been able to feel my feet, but I would have paid for shoes about then.
The plan to quickly hop on my bike slowed to a crawl as I found my transition spot again. It was all in the light of day and with all the busy running around me I knew I just had to get this wetsuit off before I made any other decisions.
Have you ever tried to peel off tight wet clothes with no feeling in your fingers?
My hands would not stop shaking from the cold and I thought I had one foot stuck in the suit, only to realize I was trying to shove off the timing chip that was securely wrapped around my ankle. I squeezed as much water out of my hair that I was going to get, toweled off my trisuit and started getting dressed for the bike.
Frozen wet and numb feet do not want to slide into socks or shoes. And shaking numb fingers do not tie shoes with any speed. I managed to consider I was already cold, and the ride would keep my wet trisuit cold so I threw on another layer. A quick donning of sunglasses, riding gloves and helmet, and I was grabbing my bike and walking out to the ride.
I was walking on dead feet, not sure where each step was landing as I got on my bike. Cheers of encouragement were all around as I finally found a pedal and pushed off, waving at Ray and Jake on the way.
The bike was all prepped when I set up in the morning with a full water bottle and one energy gel packet. My fingers kept slipping off the shifters that I couldn’t feel and I made it onto the main road. I followed the advice of several articles to always keep pressure on the pedals. As I hit my first rise, I quickly ran out of gears and kept pedaling through until I got to the crest, then quickly downshifted to keep the speed on downhill.
Once I was on the road my competitive streak kicked in, and I started focusing on the rider in front of me to pass. The hilly ride was a ton of work, especially when I realizes that every “easy” downhill you are rolling down was soon to be a painful uphill on my way back.
The turnaround was on the crest of a hill and I managed not to fall over or hit the nice policeman that was standing on the side of the road. Knowing I was halfway through the bike portion helped boost my energy. It helped that I could once again feel my fingertips. I ate my energy gel pack and keep pedaling.
A few hills later and I heard a clank and had no power on my pedals. Glancing down I confirmed I had derailed and pulled off the road to fix it. My hands were still cold but I was grateful I did know this one simple bike maintenance skill!
With greasy fingers and my chain back on the gears I headed back on the road. I was feeling confident, catching up to a rider I had seen whizzing by while I fixed my chain. Up a hill, down a hill. Keeping to the right to let the super speedy guys and girls go by. When I had the breath in me, I would shout out encouragement as they went by.
Heading over another crest, I heard my chain go off again and said out loud “Not again!”. I coasted down the rest of the hill and got out of everyone’s way while I fixed it again. About that time, the bike van cruised by and asked if I needed help. I was good to go!
Avoiding the smaller gear with the fear of another derail made the last few hills a tough ride. I managed to head over the top of the last one and spotted the bridge that meant I was close to the end!
The bumps and cracks in the last half mile reminded me that I still couldn’t feel my feet, as I struggled to keep my feet on the pedals and headed into the transition area. Waving at Jake I spotted Ray and got off the bike to knees that were like noodles.
Walking the bike back into transition I tried to ramp my focus for the sprint triathlon run.
The run for this race is a 5k or 3.1 miles and is typically a light run distance for me. I remembered to leave the helmet and grab my water bottle and head out of the gate. Two events down, one to go!
I smiled as I passed Ray and Jake once again knowing the next time I saw them was the finish line.
Numb feet and tired legs made me super slow. I concentrated on finding my breathing pattern. Then I tried to take slightly longer strides. This was not going to be a quick run. Did I mention there were more hills?
Heading over another bridge brought back thoughts of my experience in the water and my stomach didn’t feel so great. Since I was on the bridge, I figured if I had to get sick, this was the place to do it. Once I made it to the other side of the bridge, my stomach decided to settle down.
I kept moving, knowing that if I stopped to walk, I may not ever get going again.
The hills were a killer an the adrenaline kicked in after about a mile. This helped keep me on the road and ignore the desire to find a nice place to take a nap.I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I saw the turnaround. That was one of my favorite moments of the race, if only to realize there was so little of it left!
On the downhill I got the feeling back in one of my feet which made it easier to push a little harder. Twists and turns, and even a huge cattle truck rumbling by. I passed a very enthusiastic cheerleader that was reminding all of us there was only another half mile.
I rounded the corner heading to the finish and heard a pack of feet catching up to me in a hurry. They blew past me and I put on what little speed I had left in me to push myself to the finish line.
I had to put on the brakes as the race team quickly took off my ankle timing chip and put a medal over my head. The crowd was thick and I wasn’t that stable getting through the throng to spot Ray and Jake cheering me on.
Catching my breath must have loosened some of that lovely lake water from my lungs since I started coughing like crazy for about 5 minutes. I was still coughing through the next day!
Sprint triathlon dream milestone accomplished
When I committed to doing a triathlon before my next birthday that is coming up in June, I knew there would be a ton of training. At the time I didn’t have a bathing suit, or a bike. I hadn’t been in the water for a real swim in over 20 years, and had never competed in either a swim or bike race.
Up until that starting air horn, my goal was to cross that finish line in 2:30 hours.
- Swim: 750 meters, about half a mile
- Bike: 12.4 miles
- Run: 3.1 miles
My total sprint triathlon race time came in at just under 2 hours: 1:59:20
You can check out how long each section took me. The transitions do count in the total but thanks to the way the timing chip tracks the racers, I got all the details on how long each section took me.
I learned so much from this experience. Will I ever do another? Yes.
I’m not sure if it’s a desire to conquer my fear, but even though it will mean regular open water swim training to get over my cold water reaction, I am willing to try another.
A lot of what goes into a big dream like this is getting over the fear. As I crossed the finish line that day I realized it’s official.
I can call myself a triathlete!
How’s your big dream accomplishments this week?
Share in the comments so I can be your cheerleader as you go flying by!
Go get your fit on – Heather
Heather Montgomery is a fitness writer, triathlete, and serial entrepreneur who is devoted to sharing what she has learned about becoming a triathlete after age 40. She uses her Metabolic Training Certification to help other women struggling to get fit in mid-life. She lives and trains in Santa Rosa, California, the new home of the Ironman triathlon. You can find her biking the Sonoma County wine trails.
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