Giving Tri a Try

june 2017 blog

My first triathlon almost did not happen.

Despite months of time and effort, not to mention a kind of spending I have never done before in pursuit of a goal,  I almost quit before getting to  the starting line of the TriMan 2017.

Like most first-timers, I was quite confident  I could nail the run leg. After all, I have done a couple of  marathons, several 21ks, 10ks and 5ks over the  years.

I was also  relatively certain I would enjoy the cycling leg.  I’ve been biking since I was 7. In fact, it  showed during our Cycling 101 practicals  where our  multiple  Iron Man coach complimented me for displaying a sense of balance that would  allow me to easily weave through the horrendous traffic of  the metro.

It was my swimming technique that I’ve always considered my weakest link.  You see I’ve never really been good at swimming. The most I could do was what Pinoys called  “langoy aso”  or dog paddle. Being a believer in  training and coaching,  I signed up not with one but two triathlon training cum coaching schools. Inside Track Athletics covered all three disciplines of multisport  while Swim Academy PH  focused on swimming. Both were ran by veteran Iron Man finishers. While I could be said to have gotten my money’s worth for being able to actually cross a 25m pool without a center snorkel after several months of training, my form is  still far from what Total Immersion founder Terry Laughlin calls the streamline position.  Not surprisingly, a month before the race  I could not swim a 25m pool without stopping for a couple of minutes  in between laps. As if to compound the challenge I was facing,  I traveled abroad unexpectedly three weeks before my first race.  Good thing I am blessed to have a family that supported my triathlon aspirations. They helped me redefine the word traincation as I hopped from one city to another.  To push myself, I set an ultimatum. If I am still unable to cross the 50m pool without stopping  a week before the race, I would abort the whole thing. Roughly 3 days before my race, I did a dry run at the actual pool that would be used for the TriMan 2017. My heart sank when I realized that while I can easily do 25m at a time, I still could not complete a 50m lap without stopping.

I forged ahead anyway.

Thanks to my   tri roadside angels.

Topping my list of heaven-sent tri support crew members is my wife who also happens to be my swim school classmate.  She pointed out that since there is no cut-off anyway, I should swim my swim, ride my ride and run my run. Never mind the bashers and haters.   Never mind the podium finishers and those who obsess about their finishing time. Never mind the onlookers and the photographers.  “Just complete your first race period.”  In the same breath, she  reminded me of all the time and effort I invested in my months of triathlon training along with its attendant financial costs.  All these  would go to waste if I decide not to push through.

And  then there’s my sister who is actually starting her swim class  next month.  She practically said the same thing  as my wife did albeit  in her signature colorful language: “Why not push through? You’ve signed up. You’ve trained. You’ve put in the time.  Sayang naman. (i.e., “It would be such a waste.”)  Go and see for yourself.  You’ll  never know until you try.” Looking back, she definitely had a point. If I withdraw from the race, I would never know the answer to the question, what would have happened had I  given tri a try?

Lastly, there’s my brother in law who has completed a number of Iron Man races.  He gamely provided me with a number of technical insights from articles  to videos  to address my swimming pain points. More importantly, he spent some time checking my technique and sharing  several hard-earned tri insights along the way.  He assured me I would eventually get the hang of it with enough feedback and pool time. “Just keep pushing,” he would quip.

And so it was that I steeled my nerve, prayed really hard and resolved to put my shot at my  perfect effort when I drove my way to Fontana last June 17, 2017, the eve of the 2017 TriMan.

Here’s how it played out.

“I, I wish you could swim like dolphins, like dolphins could swim” 

                                                                                     -David Bowie

Shortly before the start of the race, a number of participating triathletes warmed up in the pool.  When I saw that they were practically swimming effortlessly like dolphins from one end of the pool to the next,  I reprimanded myself for listening to the encouragement provided by my tri roadside angels along with the assurance of the SBR PH organizers that there is no cut-off time.  My strategy, you see,  was to do my best to swim 50m continuously. If such is not possible, my go-to was  to swim for 25m and rest in between.  In the course of completing the 3 sets of 300m loops in the Olympic size pool, I realized that a good number  of the participants could easily swim from one end of the pool to the next without stopping.  Their pace subsequently got in the way of my strategy as I found myself trying to keep up with them in the first 300m loop. This turned out to be a mistake as I paid for it later with  fatigue and exhaustion.  As if to balance my perception, I also noted that there were clearly other participants who also considered swimming their Achilles heel. In fact, a number of them walked in the pool so much so that the organizers called their attention on the PA system. Still others cut corners by not touching the wall thereby earning  gentle reprimands  from the organizers.  Their plight  unwittingly encouraged me to stick to my resolve to swim all the way even if it meant stopping to rest before continuing on.  My coach’s joking admonition kept playing in my head: “If you walk in the pool, I will disown you.” And so despite the preceding, despite my pace, despite the distracting presence of  a live audience, despite the photographers,  despite the well-meaning observers who would shout: “Kaya mo yan” or “Bubbles lang,” I sought to follow my strategy even if I had to stop to rest or to wait for those ahead of me to continue swimming  or to give way to the next wave of swimmers coming from behind. Thankfully, mercifully, eventually, I finally completed my first 900m race. “This too shall pass” has subsequently acquired a whole new meaning for me.

“And it takes a long time to go, to make it to the border of Mexico

so I ride like the wind, ride like the wind.”

                                                                               – Christopher Cross

From the swim leg, it was with  great relief that I ran-walked to the  so-called  T1 or Transition 1 where I surprised myself for not taking forever in  pinning my bib number, wearing my socks, shoes and helmet and mounting my bike.  As promised by the organizer,  the first 8 kilometers were all downhill so it really felt like that iconic Christopher Cross song.  That Clark Field happens to boast of wide open spaces and well-paved roads ideal for biking made the ride even more enjoyable. After my first U  turn though, I fidgeted with my gear shifting as I went uphill. Not as enjoyable but definitely interesting and challenging as I worked double time to figure out which among the many techniques I was taught would prove most useful to ride smartly.  The key was to have  enough energy and power  left for the run leg. Just like practice, I would stop every 10kms to drink water before continuing on.  It was during my three stops that I realized I forgot to bring along an energy drink and the requisite energy gels I have gotten used to taking every 10k.  As I completed the two loops comprising the 30km race course, I quietly thanked my coaches for making me do 60 km long rides on Sundays even if I was only preparing for a 30km bike leg.

“Running on, running on empty

running into the sun but I’m running behind.”

                                              – Jackson Browne

After dismounting  from my bike for the  5km race course , I was still pretty confident that I would finish strong.  Alas, the tactical errors I committed in the first two legs of  the race took their toll on my body.  The effort that went into the swim and my nutrition oversight during the bike leg along with the unbelievable heat  eventually slowed me down. Worse, the water stations ran out of water of all things.  And so what should have taken less than 30 minutes took considerably longer.   Consequently, I was literally a spent force when I  finally crossed the finish line.

As I was awarded my finisher’s medal, I had mixed emotions about my first triathlon experience.

Nothing can compare to the redemption of completing one’s first triathlon. I could truly say now that all those months of waking up early,   training with Inside Track Athletics and Swim Academy PH even on days I’d rather watch my favorite series and spending for the seemingly endless prerequisites of multi sport were worth it. It is happiness pure and simple. I’m glad I decided to push through.

Even as I celebrated my modest baby step, my first triathlon experience pointed me to two opportunity areas crying out to be addressed.  If I truly wish to   leverage my running experience and finish strong in my next sprint races, I need to double time on improving in these two areas.

There’s the mastery of the  streamline position in swimming which would inevitably make my breathing more efficient  and ensure that I use my legs for balance rather than propulsion. And there’s the  mastery of gear shifting to a point where I can easily adapt to the terrain without guessing.

“Padayon!” (i.e., Visayan for forge ahead.)  

june blog 2

In Via et In Patria

Today is exactly 20 days before my first triathlon race.

I have absolutely no doubt that I will complete my 30km bike ride given all the mileage I’ve covered doing 60km practice rides on weekends plus the fact that I’ve been riding bikes since my childhood days. All the more with regard to the 5k run segment  given that I’ve completed 2 marathons, several 21ks, 10ks and 5ks over the years. It is the 900m swim that I worry about.  Which is why this is where I find myself investing the most time and focus at this stage of my training.

To be sure, I’ve achieved quite a number of modest learner milestones over the past couple of months of my swim training. I used to rest a lot in between my 25m laps even while wearing a center snorkel. I don’t do this anymore.  My legs used to sink even while wearing a snorkel which was why I was advised to wear fins. I no longer am as dependent on fins as I was months back.  I used to struggle with my breathing and my hip rotation. These past few weeks I seem to have hit pay dirt as I surprised even myself that I could actually already turn my head without lifting it even as I learned how to rotate from the hips. Subsequently, my rest interval in between my 25m laps is now down to 1 min 30 seconds from 3 mins. Equally noteworthy today is the fact that I actually pulled off swimming 1,000 meters with no snorkel and no fins.

And yet, I feel I’m not there yet.  The actual pool which will be used for my sprint triathlon is 50m long. This means I need to figure out how to get used to resting only after 50m. Which in turn all the more firms up my resolve to move heaven and earth to practice swimming 900 meters daily.

There is a very vivid phrase that I chanced upon in my college years that perfectly describes where I am now as June 18 nears. In via et in patria. On the way and at home.  Meaning, I’m not there yet, but I am already there.  Stating the thing broadly, pay the price and enjoy the ride no matter how far your destination point might appear  to be. If you program your mind enough  to achieve it, you will eventually get there. But first you need lots and lots of pool time as my coach would put it.

Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s now famous 10,000 hours. In his book entitled The Outliers, Gladwell deftly shows how the Beatles and Tiger Woods kept honing their craft for 10,000 hours before hitting pay dirt.

Alas, that is not all that there is to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.  The path to perfection is not linear. Along the way you will come across hurdles and detours. How you handle these is as important as putting in the time to practice your craft.  This is by no means easy especially for someone who has never been that comfortable in the water.  I have lost count of the number of hurdles and stumbling blocks that have accompanied my journey as a swimming student.

And so it is in this precise context that  I rediscovered a poem in an entirely different sense what  I used to read to myself when I was struggling  in high school.

“When things go wrong as they sometimes will

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,tirE

When the funds are low and the debts are high,

And you want to smile but you have to sigh

When care is pressing you down a bit

Rest if you must but don’t you quit

Life is queer with its twists and turns,

As every one of us sometimes learns

And many a fellow turns about

When he might have won, had he stuck it out

Don’t give up though the pace seems slow

You may succeed with another blow. 

Often the goal is nearer than

It seems to a faint and faltering man;

Often the struggler has given up

When he might have captured the victor’s cup

And he learned too late when the night came down

How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out

The silver tint in the clouds of doubt

And you never can tell how close you are

It might be near when it seems afar

So stick to the fight  when you’re hardest hit

It’s when things go wrong that you must not quit.”

 

Enough said. Just keep swimming.