Thursday, August 29, 2013

Slow and Steady

I was not the last one put of the water, but I was only----- ahead of the last one out. I knew going into this that the swim was going to be the big challenge for me. I have grown leaps and bounds from the guy who was only willing to swim if his boat sank, but I still have a long way to go. Halfway through the swim I had myself convinced to never do another triathlon longer than sprint distance.

I knew it was going to take a long time, but I had no idea the swim was going to be so humbling and overwhelming. I never did set aside time to swim in open water, so I was spoiled by that thick black line on the bottom of the pool.

After the national anthem and the going over of the rules and course all the triathletes headed down from the transition area to the lake. It was about a quarter of a mile between the two, so we were encouraged to bring a pair of shows to run up the asphalt from the lake to T1. I grabbed my Xero Shoes huaraches and walked down with my wife. When we got there, I looked at her and said, "Did I give you my earplugs?"  I hadn't. My earplugs were gone. For a triathlete who struggled with swimmer's ear all through training this was a bad thing. Visions of nausea danced in my head. I pulled my blue swim cap over my ears and hoped for mercy.

I got in the lake for my first open water swim. The lake was cold enough that the race had been deemed wetsuit legal. I don't have a wetsuit, I never even fathomed that a triathlon in Tennessee in August would be wetsuit legal. Fortunately the pool I had been training in was kept pretty cool. The lake seemed warmer to me.

It was overcast, it had been a rainy summer, the sky was a canopy of grey over a muddy brown lake. It was not a very scenic start to the triathlon. I started wondering if I would get sick from swimmer's ear (it didn't matter, I was going to finish this thing whether I threw up or not). I wondered if I would be able to swim in a straight line from buoy to buoy. (Not even remotely) I wondered if  I would be the slowest swimmer of the day(no, but just barely). I wondered if that feeling was nervousness or if I really did need to find the nearest portapotty.


The first wave started. They swam further and further out while I waited the three minutes for my wave to start.

The second wave started. They swam further and further out while I kept to the pace I needed to keep and frustratingly zigzagged back and forth in the general direction of the next buoy.

The third wave swam past, around, and over me and swam further and further out while I continued frustratingly trying to swim straight.

The two waves of women swam past me. Except for a few other stragglers I was out in the lake alone. We stragglers were spread out enough that there was no chance for camaraderie among the slowpokes.

The constant battle of getting off course, finding the next buoy, getting back on course was hammering my resolve. The very kind kayakers asking every once in a while if I was OK became maddening. "Yes I'm OK, I'm just a lousy swimmer would you leave me alone!" I never actually said that, I wouldn't have really meant it. I was feeling intensely alone as it was.

I wanted to be done with the swim.

I wasn't even halfway through.

I had to do something.

I remembered I had wanted to start focusing on improving my kick. So instead of allowing myself the frustration of thinking about how far I had to go. I started trying to focus on my kicking.

I started looking for that Zen feeling I get when I run. I needed a rhythm, a physical meditation, a mantra of movement.

I needed to accept where I was and do what I could with what I had.
I need to do that every day.

I found a rhythm with my swim stoke and my breathing. Breathe in to the view of the blank, grey sky, breathe out to the murky brown water. In. Out. In.  Out. Find the buoy. Aim for it accept limitations. Start again.

My goal was to do the swim in an hour. I crossed the mat at 1:00:27. That'll do.

Next, I really needed to go poop.

I slipped my feet into my sandals, jogged up the pavement right past the bike racks and straight to the bathroom. Out of the bathroom and to my bike. It was easy to find my bike since there were only 4 or 5 still on the racks.


I sunscreened myself. Yes, I stopped for sunscreen we of Irish descent must be careful. I put on my shirt, glasses, helmet, bike shoes, and race belt with bib and energy gels attached and took off.

I took the first part of the bike ride as a chance to get in about 100 calories of gatorade, then focused on picking people off on the bike ride. I was confident I could do this because I am such a poor swimmer that most people that are just ahead of me on the swim are not as fast on the bike as I am.

It was, however, hard to pick people off on the bike ride when they had such a big head start on me.

Eventually I saw a bike in front of me. The guys shirt had a reflective triangle just below the collar, so I started chasing that triangle. That triangle stayed reliably out of reach, but while chasing the triangle I was able to catch and pass several other people on the bike. I made an effort to say something encouraging to others on the bike route. I like it when people encourage me, so I try to give that which I would like to get. I passed maybe a dozen people on the bike route, but never caught up to that triangle.

Another humbling moment, as I pulled my bike in to the transition area, I was watching people finish the run.


I put the bike on the rack and my helmet down. I squeezed an energy gel into my mouth and took off.

The run course was the prettiest course I've ever run that was not an actual trail race. It was a combination of the road around the lake, the paved bike path through the woods in the park, and a brief stint through the parking lot of the Fall Creek Falls Inn.

The crowd was sparse this far back in the event, but around mile two I briefly talked with then passed another runner. From then on I was able to gradually catch and pass several runners.

A scene I will never forget. After the parking lot the course reconnected onto the bike path, and we ran right alongside the lake. The trees closest to the lake leaned out towards the water, reaching for the reflected sunlight that shines from beneath. They looked as though perhaps they were bowing humbly to the lake, or maybe trying to reach out and catch a fish.

I paced myself carefully, after looking at the results and thinking about it, I think I was too careful. I could have gone harder. I was feeling great on the 10K run. If I'd been racing hard, I would not have felt great.

My wife did not know I was feeling great. She was about a quarter of a mile from the finish line, anxious. She thought my goal was three hours, rather than three hours and thirty minutes. She was thinking about my swimmer's ear and lack of earplugs. She was concerned that I would be throwing up all over the course.

As I climbed the hill. ---Hold that thought. --- Never trust the race course description. "The run features rolling hills--nothing steep." That last 3/4 mile to a mile is steep.

As I climbed the hill on the way to the finish, I saw my wife, taking a video of me coming up. Little did I know she thought I was in agony. She put down the camera, turned around and said, "Come on." She ran with me up the hill. She had no idea the only discomfort I was having was that the swim had left me psychologically shaken and feeling immensely lonely. Running next to my wife had me nearly in tears at that point. She ran hard. I know it was hard for her, because she made me pick up my pace. She knows I like to kick at the end. She said, "Not yet, don't sprint yet, wait until the top of this hill. . . now GO." I kicked as hard as I could. I didn't take much pride in passing the guy who carried his daughter across the line, but I don't run hard at the end for pride, I run hard at the end because I like the way it feels.

Goal time: 3:30:00
Actual time: 3:35:53.9
Should I subtract the bathroom break?

Lessons learned:
Practice sighting on the swim, take time to swim in a lake, practice swimming in a straight line.
Work harder on the bike. I was too fresh at T2.
Remember what 5K effort feels like and make sure the last 5K feel like 5K effort.

My next big goal:
Fall Creek Falls 50K trail race. I'm aiming for my first Ultra Marathon.