Triathlon #1: Challenge Accepted
Triathlon: Challenge Accepted!
So, two weekends ago I competed in my first triathlon, a sprint distance affair (800 yard open water swim, 3.5 mi trail run, 9 mi. bike) at the stunningly beautiful Lake of the Woods in Southern Oregon. It was about an hour and a half of constant self propulsion. Anyone who’s competed in a long endurance event will tell you the same: it was both excruciating and exhilarating, and a whole lot more to boot.
Some important personal accomplishments:
I finished 4th out of 10 in my age division (40-49 - yes I was the oldest in my category :)
I finished 37th overall (out of 150 or so participants)
I was around 15th out of the water, only 15 seconds or so behind the first out of the water & eventual winner Sergei. It was my strongest of the 3 legs, though probably the strangest. Explanation to follow.
I had fun. Even during the race. I purposed to really try and take it all in - to enjoy the moment, even when I thought I just might not make it out alive. My wife Amie’s most consistent encouragement was to have fun and not get too caught up in the seriousness of performance and competition. I tried to spread some good vibes to everyone I encountered on the course, whether they passed me or I passed them. Just a “hey” or a “good job” or “how’s it goin’?”
[If you’re not interested in my internal wranglings over the course of the race, skip down to the section with the “Challenge Accepted” heading. No offense if you’d rather skim.]
I started getting ready about a month before the event, both at Crossfit (The Den / Medford), as well as loosely following a beginner’s triathlon training plan that mixed in the three disciplines in increasing intensities and distances. I imagine I could have finished without any “training” at all. I stay fairly active on hikes, but it’s been a year or more since I did any serious working out. I probably could have taken it really, really slow, and finished just for the sake of finishing. But that’s not how I wanted to do it. More on this later.
It hit me on the Monday after that I had three distinct experiences during the three different legs. Here they are.
During the swim leg, I felt frantic at times, but competent.
During the run leg, I felt desperate throughout, & ready to compromise
During the bike leg, I felt strong, but slightly frustrated
Why frantic during parts of the swim? Well, if you’ve ever done an open water competitive swim with 150 of your closest friends, you’ll get it. If not, imagine trying to swim at a constant pace through your local public pool on a 105° Saturday. Maybe not that bad, but you get the idea.
I had actually trained exclusively in open water leading up to the race, not once in a pool. Applegate Lake, Emigrant Lake, and Lake of the Woods were my exclusive training sites. All open water, all long distances (500-1000 yards), some hugging the shore (to avoid boats), some across the lake and back. So, open water? No big deal, I thought. But the intensity level goes up, way up, when there are other thrashing bodies in the water. Elbows swinging and feet kicking upped the ante considerably. I had the thought, “So this is what a school of fish feels like when there’s a predator hunting them.” Trying to stay calm, stay on course, trying to avoid other bodies, plus the adrenaline rush all combined to produce a frantic I had not anticipated. The main net result was that my swim technique (the most important component in middle to long distance swimming) was regularly disintegrating. I found myself thinking, “Oh, ya, right.” And trying to get back into my groove. Rinse and repeat for every body I bumped and buoy I had to navigate.
For my next Tri, I’ll be more prepared for this aspect, and I’ll also have my stroke way more grooved. Though I life-long swimmer, my technique was basically all wrong. I took a free Tri seminar at the YMCA where John Hacker, a local coach, discussed proper swim technique and I realized I had had it all wrong for the last 40 years. The last 4 weeks of training was about building endurance as well as trying to establish that technique. Correct technique is the first thing to go when you get gassed and when you run into someone. Thus, frantic.
The run portion was the most difficult leg for me. I felt desperate throughout the 3.5 miles. I averaged better than a 10 min. mile, which is what I had expected based on my training, but I started to cramp up after the first 100 yards or so. All my warm up and stretching before the race kind of went out of the window with the cold-ish water of the swim: 67° or so - far from balmy. When I started my run I could feel my calves (previous injury) and hamstrings tightening up - a lot. I popped a salt capsule & stopped to stretch against a tree for about 15 seconds.
After that I definitely had the most self-negotiation going on during this leg. Not to quit, but to stop and walk to catch my breath. I felt pretty gassed. One of my goals was to do this thing contiguously - no stopping. Ya, I knew that walking for a bit wouldn’t be the end of the world. I even passed a few who were walking a bit to catch their breath. And it seemed so reasonable, so logical and so FREAKING ATTRACTIVE just to walk, even for a little bit. Especially over the last .5 mile, which was all uphill.
But, I held on and maintained my run through to the next transition. Hearing my family cheering me on over the last 100 yards or so made a huge difference! It was awesome! I’d “embraced the suck” and nearing the finish line with friendly encouraging voices was huge. Thanks, Amie, Gracie, Josiah, & nephew Blaze! This is the leg with the most room for improvement. And I have a plan to do just that.
The last leg, the 9-mile bike section, was where I felt the most comfortable and strong. As a course, it was mostly flat with a few moderate uphill sections with the matching downhill section after, which was fun going fast and getting to rest the legs a bit. Going in, I knew I’d be a little slower on the bike due to the fact that I was on a road course riding my trusty steed of a mountain bike, my Santa Cruz Heckler, which weighs about twice as much as a decent quality road bike. I knew that the extra weight would make a difference, particularly on the uphill sections. Other than getting passed a few times on the uphill sections, I felt great on this section. Rider weight affects uphill performance as well. Losing my next 20 lb. will probably make a bigger difference than a different bike will. Combine the two factors (plus more training), and I would expect my performance to be much improved next time out.
But overall, I finished because I found and took up a challenge. I have kind of a funny relationship with “challenges.” I have often avoided them. I’ve taken up some “big” challenges in my life (like starting & pastoring 2 churches from scratch, moving my family hundreds of miles away in the process), ones that required a big leap. But I’ve also shied away from challenges that didn’t necessarily require a big leap, but a big dive. A dive into the depths of who I am, what I want to become, and how willing I am to grow from my identity being offended by failure.
I had this epiphany. Maybe you can relate. I realized that I have been quick to take up something that challenges my skill or talent, or even my faith. However, I have been reluctant to take up challenges to my willpower. I’ve recently read some interesting studies on willpower. Apparently, as humans we have a limited daily supply of it. But it’s a resource that can be grown through challenging it.
Sure, our bodies need challenges to grow, as does our faith, and our talent.
But I’ve been el weako man when it comes to taking on challenges that are out to find the breaking point of my willpower: the will to go on when every fiber says not to. And I’m out to change that. And I’m confident I’ll be a better person because of it.
My next challenge? A 25k trail run (that’s 15.5 miles) in January on beautiful Orcas Island. The kicker? It has almost 4000’ of elevation gain. Say it with me: Gnar-lee. And I don’t particularly like running. It’s hard. And it’s hard on me. Especially running uphill. And I’ll know I’ll want to quit. I’ll know I’ll want to take short cuts when I start training. Nonetheless, challenge accepted!
What about you? I need some encouragement for the road ahead. What challenge are you pursuing right now that is targeting your willpower, not just a skill or talent? Leave a comment if you wouldn’t mind. I’d appreciate it.