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

Never Say Never

tri

There is a Filipino exhortation that goes: “Wag kang magsasalita nang tapos.”  Roughly translated in English, it means, never speak with finality.  Back in the day when I was starting to run, my dreams were a lot simpler. From completing my first 5k, I wanted to eventually do a 10k, a 21k and ultimately,  a 42k.  Whenever someone would bring up the subject of  trying out multi-sport or triathlon, I would often say, I would never get into that. My reasons were quite iron-clad or so I thought at that time.

First, I was happy to simply work towards increasing my mileage progressively. Second, I was intimidated by the attendant costs of investing in triathlon equipment and training. Third, I could not picture how in the world, training for one could possibly fit my already demanding schedule as a husband, a father and a senior manager in a multinational company.

All that changed when I got injured and I stumbled onto several well-researched readings about how triathlon is positioned as  a perfect way to actually improve your running. Even more compelling was the assertion of experts about the therapeutic impact of multi-sport training to injuries sustained in the course of running.

Three pivotal  moments eventually convinced me to seriously consider the possibility of giving tri a try.

The first one was when I first completed my 21k race in 2015 by way of the Manila leg of the Milo Marathon.  I bumped into an actual triathlete who did his 21k with an impressive finishing time.  He enthusiastically encouraged me to give multi-sport a try because  it’s more enjoyable than running. He also credited it for his improved 21k finishing time. I remember him saying,  “now that you’ve completed your 21k, you can easily transition to triathlon because you have a good foundation in running. Forget about marathons,” he said with conviction.  “They’re too long and boring.  Triathlons are more fun and fulfilling.”  When I countered that I did not have the time to get into the sport, he reasoned that you can do the bike rides at home on weekdays and just do the long rides on weekends.  The swim part is what I need to carve out time for.  The feasibility of actually following a triathlon training routine intrigued me. But at that time, it was not enough to distract me from targeting my first 42k.

And then  I got injured several times. From shin splints to runners knee, from ITB Syndrome to plantar fasciitis, I experienced them all.  Somehow through practice and training, I eventually overcame all of these injuries  but it was my bout with Achilles tendonitis that had the most adverse impact on my recent races.  Even worse, I started experiencing cramping during the last 2 kilometers  of my 21k races. After I overcame cramping in the course of my 22-week marathon training, it surfaced anew during the 33k segment of my second marathon.  It was in the course of reading about injury prevention and management while preparing for my second marathon that I started to ask the question: what if I actually gave triathlon a try?  Who knows, these experts might just be right all along?

The final clincher came by way of the Nike commercial that featured the Iron Nun Madonna Buder. If she could do over 40 triathlons within her lifetime and she started late running, perhaps I can do, too. Within a few weeks after chancing upon Sister Madonna’s Nike ad,  I stumbled onto a book that explained triathlon from a philosophical and inspirational  standpoint. I am, of course, referring here to Scott Tinley’s very engaging Finding Triathlon. Each of the chapters that comprised Tinley’s book progressively convinced me that this was indeed one life project worth investing serious resources on.

And so here I am gearing up for my first sprint distance triathlon happening in June.  I’m quite confident I can nail the 5km run segment. The 900 meter swim is where I’m having a lot of struggle visualizing.  Although I’m now able to complete a variety of swim drills, I continue to experience serious problems integrating the breathing part.  Related to this, I also need a lot of improvement  in  kicking more efficiently and twisting my hips enough to allow me to inhale more efficiently.  Without a doubt,  swimming is my weakest link as an aspiring triathlete. This is precisely why at this point, I’ve practically invested a lot in it in terms of training.

As for cycling, given my growing up years biking, I was not surprised when a cycling veteran complimented me on my good sense of balance during our cycling drills. It is the mastery of gear shifting and the confident use of cleats that I know I need to work on. I also have no idea yet with regard to the efficient use of  a bike trainer at home. This should allow me to achieve the target mileages I should go for to prepare for my first sprint distance triathlon.

Alas, the fact that I’m still reeling from the frustration that accompanied my second marathon got in the way of my plunging headlong into my triathlon training.  That, along with my realization that I owe my body some serious rest, made me distance myself from running for practically a month.

And so even as   I find myself at the starting point  of a full-blown sprint distance triathlon training, questions and doubts hound me.  Am I an April fool in the making? Will I make it in June? Can I actually swim free style by then? Will I master gear shifting and pedaling with cleats in time?  Will I have enough left to complete the 5km run after the swim and bike segments of the race?

If I go by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s exhortation, the outcome need not be belabored.  “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Let us begin.