Now that I’ve had some time to recover I wanted to take the opportunity to document my experience of completing my first Olympic distance triathlon. This was one of those items that has been on my “bucket list” since I first started taking an interest in triathlons 10 years ago. What has interested me about competing in triathlons has been that it is an endurance event that requires you to train multiple sports. In doing so, my thought process has been that you focus on different muscle groups to build strength and are more likely to reduce chances of injury due to the variety in training.
Being that this was a long term goal of mine, I started unofficially training for the event over a year ago by building my cardio up and formally training on a plan about six months ago. At first I started by making a commitment to getting better at each event and pushing the distance, as completing each stage was beyond my ability. I committed to training each event twice a week in addition to strength training. This averaged about 5-6 days a week of training with some days in which I would workout twice a day to fit everything in.
Over the last few months things really started to click. I gradually pushed the distance and pace for each event to the point where I was getting more confident in my ability to complete each event individually. The Olympic triathlon distance for each event is a 1.5 km (.93 mile) swim, 40 km (24.8 mile) bike, and a 10 k (6.2 mile) run. I started to break the training up into a shorter and longer session, where I would focus on speed for the short session and would complete the event distance or beyond for the longer sessions.
There were definitely some bumps in the road to being ready too. While I was able to avoid injury, I did end up losing three weeks to allergies which resulted in severe chest congestion and difficulty breathing. I tried to rest up but still pushed it at times I wasn’t fully healthy, which likely prolonged my illness. Lesson learned… hopefully. The other issue I ran into a was a logistical one, in which I only was able to open water swim on one occasion the week of the race, as with an early June event the water temperature was non-advisable such that hypothermia could set in. The irony was that the high temperature for June 10 the day of the event was 96 degrees. That threw me off as well for reasons I’ll get into later, but I just adjusted my plan to drink more water and slow the pace down.
So let’s get right into the race recap. That morning I got up early, 4 am like I do on any typical day. I had some nerves such that I didn’t have much of an appetite but I had my morning meal all planned out: oatmeal, yogurt, bananas, and a protein bar on the drive over. I arrived plenty early to get my packet and get everything set up. At 7 am the weather was still decent and the breeze helped to keep me cool as I waited in my wetsuit, which when you’re not in the water is basically a personal sauna.
The part that threw me off was I was mentally prepare for oncoming heat wave, but the heat was accompanied by sustained winds of 20 mph with 30+ mph wind gusts. So you can imagine what that does to a lake, turning a serene swim into a recreation of The Perfect Storm. I tried to practice swimming while I waited with all the other anxious competitors but struggled to stay afloat and establish a rhythm. Instead I decided that I needed to relax and made some small talk with some of the others, where I learned from the Course Director that “these were some of the most difficult conditions for a Minnesota triathlon event in years.” Nothing like a boost of confidence right?
As the swim started, I made it about three minutes before the panic started to sink in. Imagine lifting your head to take a breath only to be slammed back into the water as an oncoming wave hit you. I didn’t know if I was going to get air, water, or nothing at all when I tried to breathe. I’m not going to lie I definitely contemplated the possibility that if I didn’t get it together that I could drown. I then questioned why I would even try and I could just head in and move on to the next event. Ultimately, I thought of the hundreds of hours of training I’d put in and everyone that supported me in this process that there was no way I could give up. I needed to adapt and come up with another plan.
I started by being very deliberate about everything I was doing as I was now in survival mode and was committed to fighting. I made sure I was focused on getting deep breaths in and that I would be ok if I missed a few. At about 10 minutes in I caught out of the corner of my eye another competitor on his back doing the backstroke and realized that was going to be the key to my success. Nevermind I haven’t practiced backstroke in nine years, this was now my opportunity to really slow the heart rate down and stay afloat. I alternated backstroke and freestyle and progressed on. Another challenge was that there were only a handful of buoys to mark our course and it was difficult to see where I was going with the chaos. I’m fairly positive I missed the turnaround for the olympic distance and ended up doing the half marathon distance of 1.2 miles, but once I got to the halfway point at least I could focus on return to beach- which was now a speck out in the distance but something I could orientate to. At one point my legs started to cramp but I was running on pure adrenaline and nothing was going to stop me. As I approached the beach again and was able to stand there was a volunteer there to assist those in need of medical attention. I recall turning to her and saying “That was the most difficult #$%&* thing I’ve done in my life.” She laughed and just said, “You’re not the first person to tell me that!”
I then transitioned to the bike area where I hydrated and had a quick Honey Stinger cookie to get some carbs in. I got my cleats and helmet on quickly and off I went. Just like the swim, the bike course was a “there and back” where the first half was directly into the wind. I focused on staying in lower gears to not burn my legs out. Mentally I broke it up into two parts in that I needed to focus on completing the first 12.5 with the headwind and then I could speed through the last half. The second half ended up being a breeze (pun intended), where at one point I clocked my fastest speed on a bike of 35 mph downhill.
Once I got to the run, I started to become cognizant of the sense of accomplishment and that I was really going to do it. By that point the sun was beating down and I developed some significant cramping in my side that made the run difficult. I admit my run performance was poor and was a modified run/walk for the 6.2 miles. But I looked around and there were a lot of others who were in the exact same boat as me struggling to run by this point. I had revelation too where I thought back to where I was a little over two years ago, when I couldn’t run a city block if my life depended on it. By that point I was on the course for three hours and I was outrunning that past version of myself. I broke the run down by taking it minute by minute, counting down from 100 and when I couldn’t run anymore I would walk and start over. I stopped at every water station, talked to the other athletes on the course and cheered them on.
Which brings me to my highlight of the whole event. What I enjoyed the most was the support from the spectators and other competitors out there. At that point of searching for anything to keep you going and just hearing someone cheer on or congratulate you meant so much and gave me that needed boost. As I approached the finish line I spotted my #1 fan/mom along with my sister and niece at the finish line. That was all I needed to pick up to a full sprint after grueling it out over four hours and I got high fives as I completed my journey.
Overall, while the event didn’t go according to plan, I’m not sure there really is a way to execute a plan perfectly the first time around. I learned a lot about myself in the process and take pride not in the accomplishment of completing the event, but from how I chose to respond when faced with extreme adversity. You learn from your experiences, adapt, and persevere.
What’s next for the Get Well Cat? I’ve realized I need a break from endurance training and want to spend some time continuing to focus on weight loss, eating healthy, and reaching some of the smaller goals. I haven’t run a 5K since November and I am looking forward to setting a personal record this weekend and then I’ll be back scheming to take on another challenge.
Thank you again to everyone that’s supported me on this journey. Without putting these goals out into the ethers for all to see I can’t say I would be where I am today. My hope is that sharing my experience with you gives you the motivation and confidence to set your own goals, get out with a plan and to smash them. Get Well!