Initially, my goal for the triathlon was to not drown. In pursuit of this goal, I trained almost daily for almost 3 months at the Pro Club swimming pool. 800M per day.
I figured for the biking, I can always coast, and for the run, I can always walk…. There’s no real danger of death as long as I trained for the swim. So, with that in mind, I trained diligently in the pool 1/2 mile (800 meters) every day. By the morning of the triathlon, I felt very comfortable with my 800 meter routine and felt very ready for the triathlon swim. So, when I heard in the morning of the triathlon, that the swim portion is actually only 400 meters instead of the 800 that I trained for, I scoffed. "This should be a piece of cake."
At the advice of a few other triathlon friends, I bought a wetsuit. They told me that it would help me feel more comfortable in the water – temperature-wise as well as a flotation device. Heeding their warning, I bought one from Garts. My wife did not like the price tag, and bought a similar one from ebay. We found that the ebay wet suit was a bit tight. Especially around the shoulders. My mom helped us by making the wet suit sleeveless.
I was able to recruit 3 others from my work to join me in the triathlon. Cam, Geoff, and Ryan. We entered the "Ready to Tri" division which is for first time triathlon runners (even though Cam was a seasoned Triathlon vet). Cam, Geoff, and Ryan all arrived a bit late, but the whole event was running a bit late. We all frantically dressed in our swim gear, readied our bikes, and gathered at the swim start area. I was the only one of us in a wet suit (and a custom wet-suit at that.). However, most of the runners seemed to be donning a wetsuit, so I thought it was probably the right thing to do. We were in the third heat right after the ladies Sprint division. I didn’t really sense nervousness from anyone. More excitement to get going. While we were waiting, they introduced a 12 year old kid that would be running with us. I thought – "Oh how cute… at least I’ll beat one person…"
When they signalled for us to start, I walked in behind most of the people, not wanting to get caught up in the hustle and bustle. I got into about waste deep, and dove in. It was at this point, that I found out the first difference between a pool and a lake. In a lake, it’s pitch black. It was as if I was swimming in mud water. I swallowed a mouthful and gagged a few times. The second difference was that in a pool, there aren’t a bunch of people kicking all around you. Although I started in the back, for the first 30 seconds, I was concentrating on not getting kicked by the people in front of me. I must have went into a bit of a panic because I wanted to get out of the kick-Don’s-face fest, and kicked up my swimming a bit. By the time I got to the first (of two) buoys (1/3 of the way done), I was exhausted. I also noticed that my super-tight ustom wetsuit was not helping me in the breathing department.
The combination of the claustrophic pitch black, the super-tight wet suit, and my exhaustion triggered me to gear down into the breast-stroke, which was my backup plan. After 30 seconds of the breast-stroke, I found that I was having a harder and harder time breathing, and the wet-suit made it even more exceedingly difficult to breathe. I went into my "fear for my life" plan – which was to float on my back and use as little energy as possible. By the time I got to the 2nd buoy (2/3 of the way done), I was basically a buoy myself. I imagined that most people were done by this time. I was still having a difficult time breathing, and I kicked, half not caring which direction I was going. That’s when the first aid boat came up to me. It was a teenage girl in a Kayak. She asked me if I needed to grab on. I was still floating on my back. I replied (out of breath), “Is it ok if I try to finish?” She said, “Sure!” After an awkward pause, she pointed in a direction that was perpendicular to the way I was kicking. I flipped over and re-oriented myself towards the shore as the first-aid girl had been suggesting. After a few more crawl strokes, I was exhausted again, and had to flip on my back. I started kicking weakly, determined not to give up. A few moments later, the first-aid girl showed up again. She gave me a sympathetic look – the kind of look a dead squirrel gets after being run over by a car. Then she again pointed perpendicular to the direction I was kicking. I smiled, acknowledging her correction, then started the crawl stroke again.
Within a few moments, I was able to make to the dock. I flipped over on my back again and kept my eyes on the dock to guide me in. On the dock, a lady was cheering me on. The wave I had started with was long gone, but she was still cheering me on as if I was a handicapped kid that deserves some cheering for trying…. Except I wasn’t handicapped… merely ill-prepared. The swimming start and finish are at the same place, and just as I was entering into the swim-in zone, they started the Men’s Olympic wave. A swarm of rabid ultra-athletic men started splashing toward me at full-tilt. I tried my best not to get run over, but it’s pitch black. I managed to dodge most of them without making too much contact. After the swarm had passed, to my delight, when I put my foot down, I felt ground. Thank you, Lord.
I walked out of the lake. It was not a quick walk. It was not even a normal-pace walk. It was a heads-down heavy-footed stumble of shame. I was still having difficulty breathing and couldn’t wait to get my cursed wetsuit off. I was wondering if I’d be able to finish, as I hadn’t counted on expending this much energy in the swim. I got to the transition area, and several people clapped for me and yelled a sympathetic, “Keep it up!” I was the only one there. I took my time and changed into my biking gear. During this reflective period, I thought that in a way, this isn’t so bad. I could really enjoy the rest of the triathlon at this point and have a nicely paced recreational bike ride and run. It was probably trying to keep up with all those other people in the beginning that got me into this trouble in the first place.
With a renewed attitude, I walked my bike out to the biking area. There was a lady waiting for me on the bike course. She gave me directions on where to bike from here. Nobody else was in sight. I asked if it was ok, if I used the restroom because they were a bit off of the course, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to cheat by veering off course and taking a short cut or something. (As if they wouldn’t remember the fat guy that almost drowned.) She gave a bit of a puzzled look and pointed me toward the port-o-potties. I rode down to the facilities, went to the bathroom, and drank half a Gatorade that my wife packed me.
From that point on, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the triathlon. The Olympic Men caught up to me not long after I started the bike ride. I was biking at a recreational pace, and somewhat felt like pee-wee Herman on “Pee-wee’s big adventure” cruising along and humming a tune as the Olympic Men whizzed by me on their custom-made 3 pound road bikes. Along the bike ride path, I found my wife and family cheering me on. I gave a wave, and continued on whistling my song… I didn’t have much of a strategy. I just figured I should probably ease it up a bit, as I approached the run, so I have a little something left for the run. But, in the end, I figured if I eased it up any more, I’d fall over.
My strategy must have worked, because by the time I got to the bike, (this is almost 10 minutes AFTER Cam and Ryan had already finished the entire triathlon), I had plenty of energy for the run. I had never done even 2 of the 3 events consecutively, and I was a bit nervous about running after biking, but it wasn’t too bad. There were some initial jello-like feelings in the legs, but about half a mile into the running, I felt like I had a fresh set of legs. It was only about a mile and a half into the run, that I found a renewed purpose. I found a lady running about a ¼ mile ahead of me. Could this be possible? Someone as slow as me? Could it be possible that I could catch her and NOT come in dead last? With a new sense of mission, I kicked up the pace on the run, and kept my focus on the lady.
There was a part of me, that wanted to catch up and just run with her to the end, encouraging and sympathizing with her as president of the last-place club. I would of course let her finish first, since I am the gracious host of the last-place club. But, as she was about 200 meters still ahead of me, I saw a water stand. My fantasy of catching up with her soon faded, as I thought I remembered that the water stand was pretty close to the end. However, when I turned the corner, they clapped for me and yelled, “Half way there!” There was still a mile and a half to go! On one hand, that’s great news because there’s plenty of course left for me to catch her…. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure if I had a mile-and-a-half left in me.
I kept pushing forward wondering what I would do if I caught her. It was only in the last 800 meters or so that I did end up catching her. I still had a lot of energy left to make a dash for the finish, and I didn’t want her to feel like I was patronizing her, so I just murmered, “keep it up! Almost there!” and ran off. Looking back, that was probably more patronizing, than if I had just ran in with her. If you’re reading this, Last Place lady, at least you didn’t have the first-aid boat come over to you…. Twice…. I think I still win the “No Dignity Left” prize.
I finished with the work crew cheering me on, and my family at the finish line. The clock read 1:59:33 as I ran in which beats my secondary goal of beating 2-hours by a hair. I’m thankful I met my primary goal of not drowning, although unfortunately it was a bit close for comfort. For next time, on my to-do list for triathlon training is a few open water swims…. And either get a bigger wet suit, or lose a few pounds… BTW, the 12 year old beat me by 3 minutes… Also, I did get #96 out of 99…. Because 3 people didn’t finish… One of them was 99 years old.
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I am laughing so hard right now I am crying and had to close my office door! Don, I am so proud of you!! I could never do what you\’ve done…I would have drown AND come in after 2 hours!! Job well done, my friend! Thank you for sharing your tri experience…everyone else paints it with roses; you were honest!!Bonnie