The Sprint Triathlon Debut: What Not to Do

The Sprint Triathlon is a good starting point for a multi-sport event, but it can be a grueling test of patience and endurance.

The triathlon is a departure from most competitive athletic events. It represents a competition that is a fusion of equipment, athletic skill, endurance, patience, and multi-sport performance. While many athletes dream of completing the true Ironman Triathlon race (most famously in Hawaii, but found in other locations as well), there are many steps on the ladder towards such a goal. The Ironman Triathlon, for example, consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon-length run (26.2 miles). There are many types of shorter Triathlons ranging from sprint triathlons of various lengths up to half-Ironmans, which are merely an Ironman Triathlon split in half. Not many individuals complete a marathon alone in their lifetimes; the number of individuals who have completed an Ironman is comparatively much less. Belgian Luc van Lierde holds the current course record in Hawaii at 8:04:08. The time allowed to finish an Ironman is typically between 15 and 17 hours.

Sprint triathlons are a good first step in the pursuit of a coveted Ironman finish, and also good for maintaining or increasing your level of physical fitness. A sprint triathlon usually ranges from a 1/4-mile to a 3/4-mile swim, an 8 to a 20-mile bike ride, and a 4 to 10-mile run (in that order). Depending on your level of physical fitness and how well the equipment and your sense of navigation behaves, it can take from 1 and 1/2 to 4 hours to complete a typical sprint triathlon. Below is a firsthand account of my personal experiences with a sprint triathlon debut; it will serve as a good account of what not to do. All event photos are courtesy of http://www.goneriding.com ; Gone Riding is the race promoter that hosted the triathlon I took part in.

A couple of months ago, my friend mentioned that he was going to do the XTERRA Ft. Yargo Triathlon in Winder, Georgia. I thought about doing this event, but eventually declined because it was very near my graduation from college. On the night of April 23rd, 2010 (the night before the race) I spoke to my friend again, who encouraged me to do the race anyway. I decided that the event might be fun and thought that I may as well try it. So, I found the online form and submitted my race entry fee. I'm a competitive runner in fairly decent physical shape (I can run two miles in under 13 minutes on an average day and under 12 on a good day; I have run cross country in high school and college for the past 8 years as well). I thought that I would be able to survive the first two events of this triathlon and pull off a pretty decent run, thereby finishing somewhere well under three hours. Just to make sure that I was still capable of swimming, I went out to my friend's lake and swam for about five minutes (this was the total extent of my swimming training for the event) The course for this particular sprint triathlon was a 750-meter swim (about half a mile), a 10.2-mile ride, and about a 5-mile run.

Each triathlon is different. This particular one was located at Fort Yargo in Winder, Georgia, and it had some pretty athletic bike trails (not mountainous, just small, tight trails located in the woods between trees). As I began pulling out my ancient WalMart bicycle and wiping the dust and cobwebs off of it, I realized that I might not be using the best of equipment. My parents purchased the bike for me just about ten years ago, and they bought the heaviest bike with the strongest steel tubing they could find in the hopes that I wouldn't break it. This bike is a Pacific Vortex 21-speed monster that weighs 37.5 pounds (see http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=350144378805 for a good comparison). It weighs from 50%-100% more than the other bikes I was seeing at the race. Compounded on top of this was the fact that I had no idea what the condition of the inner tubes was, and they had probably not been replaced in a couple years. Knowing that I also needed to sleep, I ignored thoughts of a late-night repair trip to WalMart and tucked in for the event on the next morning.

When I woke up to prepare my gear, problems began. After riding my bike up the driveway to my car (this, by the way, was the only bicycling I did in preparation for the event), I set about trying to fit the thing into my car. I drive a Honda Accord, and the bike just would not fit into the trunk. I ended up having to remove the front wheel and unscrew the handlebars while laying down the seat in order to make it work. Just about the time that I had loaded the bike and prepared to leave, thunder and lightning heralded the imminent arrival of a torrential downpour. Nevertheless, I drove to the park anyway, reasoning that I would not let a little lightning discourage me from redeeming the value of the $65 I paid for the event.

The second problem became apparent when I attempted to register for the race. Apparently, the online form I submitted the payment through was supposed to have closed; I was unaware of this and paid anyway. The payment did not show up, however, and it was only through the grace of the race director that I was allowed to compete (with the promise from me that the pay issues would be resolved). Thus, I would recommend bringing cash just in case the online payment does not work. By the time I resolved the payment issues, it was 7:45, and the race was due to start in fifteen minutes. I hurriedly pulled my bike out of my car and re-attached the wheel, then pumped up the tires frantically (this rush would plague me later). I then ran down to the staging area and staged my equipment. About this time I learned that the swim cap they handed me when I registered was actually required by law to wear during the event (perhaps in case I died and the race officials needed to locate my floating body). So, I ran up to my car again, this time in bare feet, and sprinted back down to the start line, this time thoroughly out of breath. I made it to the start with one minute to spare, and met the friend that invited me to the race.

The staging or transition area is an important part of a triathlon, especially if you bring specialized equipment to the race. It is here where you can change out of a wetsuit or swimsuit into a running and biking suit. It is here where you also don your helmet (mandatory) and any other equipment that you need. In fact, in this particular race, one man swam faster than any other competitor, but he was beaten by a woman who transitioned quickly from the swim to the bike. Some races have separate transition areas, but the Ft. Yargo triathlon conveniently had the transition area co-located for both the run and the bike.

Approximately 100 swimmers jumped into the water at the start of the event, although the picture now makes it seem like much fewer than this. Notice, however, the spectators in the bottom-right corner of the picture with an umbrella. They were going to need it. The swim marks the event which is most unlike running, and it is the toughest for me. I quickly found myself hyperventilating (this must be a runner's habit; we typically push hard in the beginning of a race). I had to spend several minutes using an inefficient stroke and keeping my head out of the water while allowing my respiration to return to normal.

I returned to the regular freestyle stroke once my breathing slowed. This caused yet another problem, because I was breathing once every four strokes, which meant that I always breathed on the right side. This worked in a lap pool where I had done most of my swimming, but I quickly found myself steering off the course in open water (notice the bright orange navigational buoys in the picture; they were our course boundaries). I had to pause briefly and look where I was going before continuing every fourth breath. The remedy for this is, apparently, to breathe every third stroke, thus alternating the side on which you breathe. I got out of the water in approximately 90th place and felt as if I weighed a thousand pounds, much as the individuals below are doing. I then stumbled to the bike transition and made the fateful decision of skipping the bike shorts (with extra padding) that I had brought.

Before I got out of the water, another tropical storm had decided to strike the happy hamlet of Fort Yargo. I quickly found myself soaked with rainwater while swimming (rainwater is appreciably colder). The rain did not stop for the duration of the bike ride. As I mounted my bike after the transition area, I realized that something was terribly wrong. After several minutes of pushing impossibly hard on the pedals while watching the few individuals I did manage to beat on the swim pass me by, I realized that I had attached my wheel too tight in the pre-race rush and that it was rubbing the brake. I dismounted, loosened it, and experienced a much smoother bike ride until I took a wrong turn several miles into the event and biked perhaps an extra five miles through the extremely muddy and slippery terrain.

It was an amazingly good feeling the dismount the bike and begin running! The run passed in a dizzying mix of mild hypothermia from the cold, wet conditions and mild dehydration. My final time was just under three and a half hours, and was good enough to place me on the last page and in 90th place. (http://www.xterraplanet.com/races/view_results.cfm?race_id=1140&page=3). I have no idea why some runners such as the one in the title picture refused water at any point, but I am thankful that they left some for those like me in the back of the pack. As soon as I finished the race, I walked back to the transition area in a tired stupor, disassembled my bike and quickly threw my muddy belongings into the car. I then drove straight to the local Mexican Restaurant (El Camino in Winder; I highly recommend it) and proceeded to tuck in as many grilled chicken burritos as possible before returning home for a gigantic nap.

In retrospect, I recommend spending some money and investing in both a bike rack and a bike suited for a triathlon (lighter and more reliable). Spend some time calibrating your equipment, spend some time training for all three events, and spend some time familiarizing yourself with the course, and you just might find your sprint triathlon debut a little more encouraging than mine was! I plan on participating in the same event next year if I am able. Gone Riding put on a great event and had some encouraging race staff that certainly helped me through the event, and I made it to the finish line just in time to see the winners receive awards. My friend Chris Cornelison performed quite well for his first triathlon; he posted a 2:35:21 and netted 74th place (http://www.xterraplanet.com/races/view_results.cfm?race_id=1140&page=2). Perhaps, in several years, I will try to tackle that Ironman after all. Until that point, I can proudly call myself a triathlete despite the unimpressive nature of my performance! I hope many will join me in the future.

SOURCES

http://www.xterraplanet.com/races/view_results.cfm?race_id=1140&page=1 (race results p.1)

http://www.xterraplanet.com/races/view_results.cfm?race_id=1140&page=2 (race results p.2)

http://www.xterraplanet.com/races/view_results.cfm?race_id=1140&page=3 (race results p.3)

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Triathlon,_swimming.jpeg

http://www.xterraplanet.com/news/dsp_content.cfm?id=1907

http://www.goneriding.com/

http://outside.away.com/magazine/1197/9711ass.html

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Dustin LaBarge
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