Tuesday, April 15, 2008

my first triathlon - setup to swim to T1

Now that I can call myself a triathlete, I'm sharing the experience of my first race (ICE Breaker Triathlon at Granite Bay, CA on April 13, 2008) so maybe you, the reader, can learn from what went right and what didn't go so well in my race.

Today, I cover my experience all the way from checking in at the registration table through the first transition (T1). (see also: the bike and T2 and the run and the finish)

All the advanced preparation for the race went as well as could be expected.

My friend Thom and I got to the registration at just about 7am. Upon picking up my race packet, I was reminded that I'm 38 years old by the woman verifying my registration (thanks), and I was assigned number 141 for my first triathlon. Thom got number 140, so I think there's something about alphabetical order in the number assignments (our names are similar through the first two letters of the last name).

We were in the transition area well ahead of most folks, so much so that we had our pick of the transition area to set up our stuff. Of course, the best racks -- closest to the bike in/out chutes and in the middle of it all -- were reserved for tri club members. It pays to pay for membership, so it seems. Of the unreserved racks, we chose a rack that was close to the Run exit thinking that our ability to ride bikes in the transition area made sense to be as far from the bike in/bike out chutes without suffering much of a time penalty for doing so.

Time to set up my transition area: I hung my bike by its seat, spread out a towel and laid out my bike shoes (and socks) by my running shoes (and socks), and put my sun glasses inside my bike helmet. Last thing to arrange: two packets of Gu and a water bottle full of Power Bar replenishment drink. Because I didn't have a number belt (will get one before the next race), I pinned my bib to my tri top and laid it across my bike's handlebars to change into after the swim.

With my transition areas set up to my liking, we still had over 90 minutes to wait around for the start. I took my bike out for a spin to make sure all was working okay (it was) and to burn off some of the nervous energy that had filled me up since waking up early this morning. Once I'd returned from my short two-mile ride, I walked the transition area looking at people's bikes and setups to get a glimpse of what might come if I decide to keep doing this.

There was a "Baby ICE Breaker" race (basically, half the distance of ours) that started at 8am, so I watched all the racers work through their swim and then run the third of a mile from the lake up to the transition area.

It would seem the smart peeps brought flip-flops to stage by the shore of the lake so they could run up the shore without the jagged-rock-to-the-sole problem. Needless to say, I wasn't one of these planful people. In any case, there were still lots of bare-footed folks running up, so I took heart that it'd be okay for me.

What surprised me watching the Baby ICE Breaker was how many folks were still completely in their wet suits (farmer johns or full suits) as they entered the transition area. Granted, these were newbies (like me), but, as was confirmed for me later, taking your suit off while you're still in the water is the way to go. The last thing you want to do is run up the beach, legs pumping and expanding in the wet suit, while the suit dries to your skin. Yes, these folks struggled mightily in T1 to get out of their wet suits and into their bike gear.

So, once the Baby ICE Breaker racers were out on the bike course, I put my wet suit half way on (legs only) and walked the third-of-a-mile to the lake shore to get ready to race.

By now my nerves were in high gear. The markers delineating the triangular half-mile course looked VERY far out in the water from shore. I waded in and started swimming around to get acclimated. After swimming in the Bay last weekend, the water in Folsom Lake felt positively warm (63 degrees).

It was just a matter of waiting for my wave to take off at 9:14am.

The first wave (29 years old and younger) took off at 9am, providing me an opportunity to see how far out folks ran before starting to swim (about 75 feet). The second wave (30-34 years old) took off at 9:07am and my heart was now in my throat knowing I was next.

As we milled about the start area (you had to be standing on shore), the first swimmers started climbing out of the water after just 9 minutes to do the swim (wow!). I knew I'd take a lot longer, and kind of got lost in thought about my own swim and didn't pay attention to where I was standing in my own wave's staging for the race.

When the countdown from 10 started, I realized I was not in the best position on shore: in the middle of the course, up front, with racers four deep behind me. Oops.

The starter yelled GO! and we were off, running into the water. I think I ran in a little farther than I should have before diving forward, but nerves and adrenaline were in high gear. When I finally dove in, I started to freestyle as best I could, considering I was surrounded by flailing hands and feet and arms and legs.

That's when things got dicey for me. If I wasn't swimming up and over the guys in front of me (heels to the face and shoulder), there was some guy swimming up on top of me from behind. I couldn't seem to get to an outside lane to get clear of traffic, and I wasn't relaxing (by any means) into my strong. Truth be told, I was a little panicked, and doubt flashed through my mind whether I was doing the right thing.

The first 200 yards of the swim were miserable going.

Then, our pack of swimmers strung out a bit and a gap opened up. I was able to make it to the outside of the pack and start to focus on relaxing during my stroke. I kept stroking and breathing, breathing and stroking, crawling through the water on the way to the first turn marker.

Because the level of the lake was so low, the first marker was in shallow (thigh-deep) water. Everyone took the liberty of standing up on bottom and running/wading around the marker. This change of posture was a nice respite from swimming for me, and when I dove into the water on the far side of the marker, I was getting more confident in my swimming, but GEEZ, it was a long swim. I'd only really done pool swimming, and since I'm not an expert at the flip turn, there's breaks built into my swimming.

Not out here in the lake. I did a little bit of backstroking to get a handle on my breathing. I never was able to get better than breathing every stroke. It was a tough slog.

By the time I was on the leg leading into shore, I was more than ready to get the hell out of the water. I was just so over the swim. My motivation for swimming the last 200 yards was "this is the only leg you can die on (by drowning) so just get it over with!" It was so inspirational to see the guys ahead of me pop up in the shallows that I got a burst of energy and swam quickly to where I could touch bottom with my hands. As I ran up the shore, I stopped and sat down in ankle-deep water to peel off my wet suit. It was a little bit of a struggle to get it off my legs (I'd put Body Glide on my calves to help with the process), and yes, it added time to my swim leg, but I more than made up for the delay via a quick T1 to the bike.

Wet suit in hand, I bade good riddance to the swim. My worst leg was over, now on to the fun stuff.

But before that could start, I had to run up the third-of-a-mile across the sandy shore to the transition area. During my run, I passed a couple folks who were faster swimmers than me, and huffing and puffing, I made it to my towel. Hey, Thom's bike was still in the transition area... I coulda sworn he'd be a better swimmer than me.

I rinsed off my feet, slipped into my shirt and put on my helmet/glasses/shoes before downing a Gu and drinking some carbo-water.

As I was about to grab my bike, Thom made it into T1. Turns out during the swim he started coughing up blood and had to grab onto a boat and get help. That explains why I was out of the water first.

I wished him luck and clipped into my bike to start my favorite leg of the race.

And I'll tell you about that leg in my next post.

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