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”
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.)