The starting line of the Naperville Sprint Triathlon is a zero depth pool covered with sand from who knows where. The association of sand with a beach is cliche to the point that we walk over the stuff taking for granted that it somehow got there and belongs in that place. It is funny how we grow to accept unnatural circumstances as completely natural.
For example, we must consider that it is not entirely natural to go charging into the water four-at-a-time to swim 400 meters in a giant M shape with hundreds of other triathletes. It goes to show that it never pays to ask certain kinds of questions. Best let the inner beast rule respond when testing your animal nature in such endeavors.
A questionable beast
There was one question that had to be answered as I stood on the sand pondering the pending first swim in a triathlon. The race director had declared wetsuits out of bounds given water temperatures in the low 80s. I was counting on that wetsuit to help me through the swim. The gift of a wetsuit for my birthday July 26 was something about which I was pretty excited. I had tried the suit swimming a couple times and it felt wonderful to have that added flotation. Swimming 400 meters seemed a lot easier wearing my wetsuit.
As I stood there contemplating the real nature of the swim, it became obvious it was possible for me even without the wetsuit. Finally I walked over to where my companion was sitting near the Swim Out and peeled off the suit.
While waiting to make my decision I had turned to one of the other wet-suited competitors and asked, “What do you think? You still going to wear your wetsuit?”
“I panic in the deep end if I don’t,” she replied. Such honesty.
So I watched people without wetsuits circling the buoys at the far end of the pool and did some weak-ass geometry. My longest continuous swim in the pool was 400 meters, but that was with a float between my legs. However I knew that I could effectively swim 200 meters with no problem. That meant I could handle the turnabouts between shallow sections and do my great blue heron imitation in the shallows if need be. Sometimes you have to recruit the right kind of beast for the purpose.
Yes, all this sounds pathetic in some respect. But it’s par for the course to be nervous about some aspect of the triathlon when you’re starting out. Some find the idea of riding a bike in traffic disarming, or find the run portion daunting. Yet as you train you eventually overcome your fears. Then come longer courses and challenges like open water swims, hilly bikes and hot runs. That’s the so-called “charm” of the sport. It never really gets easier. You just go longer, faster or grow obsessed in the process.
Before the race start the race announcer asked how many people were doing their first triathlon. Hundreds of hands went up. Well, by the time the last waves of swimmers were huddled on the beach, almost 50% of the people standing in the sand were raising their hands when asked the same questions. A refining process had taken place.
Finally it came time to line up and dive in. It was quite the experience out there in the water. Starting out at the back of the swim pack turned out to be an experience like swimming through the final scenes of the movie Titanic. There were people bobbing in place or paddling to who knows where and for what. By comparison my swim stroke felt comfortable and I did not spin off in some random direction as I had feared. Admittedly it was near impossible to keep momentum with so many people vertical in the water. It was a swim slalom.
There was also a bit of panic for some first-time swimmers by the time they reached the first buoy. One women was bobbing in place muttering the word “Goddamnit” over and over again. I could not tell if she was trying to reach the buoy or simply wanted God to pluck her from the water? If that was the case her strategy sucked.
I kept swimming and reached the shallow end of the pool. Like everyone else in the race I put my feet down only to find a strange thing happening in the water. Enough people were tooling around the buoy by foot there was an actual current. All I could do is laugh. It reminded me of that 20-foot swimming pool our family had when I was a kid. My older brothers would run around the perimeter creating a whirlpool and we’d float around in circles on summer nights swatting fireflies as we went.
There were tons of rookies in the pool. The methods by which rookie swimmers get through a 400-meter swim course can be quite amusing. There were backstrokers and doggie paddlers, to be frank. I did my best to swim honorably and emerged at about 9:22. That’s almost exactly what I’d predicted in the self-seeding category
There was just one problem. It was surprising to feel some fatigue in my thighs from the swim. So early? Such is the sport of triathlon. There’s always something tiring you out no matter what you do. I jogged humbly to my bike and got ready to ride.
Then I forgot my shades. And my gloves. Too late to turn back. Onto the tarmac I rode. The course was on smooth pavement, and Thank God for that. The wind was a differenct issue. It cooled your body but slowed you down. More choices to be made. How hard do you ride if you want to save something back for the run?
My ride was not that fast compared to most. I gave away three to six minutes to everyone ahead of me in my age category. In fact it was the same story in every age category studied. It didn’t matter whether one was 25 or 55. The top 15 places were similar in time breakdowns. 7:00 swim. 33:00 bike. 20:00 run. Most top competitors kept their transitions under 2:00. That’s the formula for a podium triathlon at almost any age for the sprint distance.
To prove that point I even fell on my ass coming back through the bike transition. My cycling shoes are new and so are the cleats. Both are immensely slippery. On a slight downhill I went down in a slow drop onto my left butt cheek. It must have been quite dramatic to observe.
It didn’t matter since I’d somewhat fallen on my ass while riding the bike as well. I rode with the cyclometer reading over 20 mph the entire way on the out and back loop. Hit it over 25 mph for good stretches. Yet my time wound up 39:00 for thirteen miles. All the guys that beat me in my age group were considerably faster on the bike.
I refuse to believe there is so much difference in my riding ability from everyone else in the triathlon. What’s responsible for the 30% difference in their riding pace?
Well, the answer comes from none other than lessons learned from watching the Tour de France. Basically the cycling portion of a triathlon is a time trial. There is not a single Tour rider that attempts to ride a time trial on their road bike. It comes down to simple wind resistance physics. The body position of a road bike is fine for drafting and climbing, but when you’re out there on your own, the aero position is the key to going faster. Riding in the drops does not even cut it.
So it is time to consider options for an aero bike. I have a plan that will not be revealed at this point in time. But I am tired of riding my ass off and finishing three minutes slower than everyone else in the bike portion of the race. That’s going to change.
Beasts and bests
Fortunately my run times continue to drop. I’m now down to a 7:00 per mile average and the fitness is coming round. Speed work is producing the necessary strength and ease. My goal is to run 6:30s on the back end of every triathlon/duathlon. That’s going to happen.
Take out an extra minute or two of inefficient transition time and my total effort will be down 4-6:00 the sprint triathlon. If I can take a minute out of my swim time we’ll be having some real fun and flirting with podium finishes.
Beast versus Best
Not that we’re not having fun already. I’ve quite literally had fun every time out this year. It’s nice to podium but we can’t be the lead beast all the time.
Yes, we’d love to think ourselves naturally superior beasts in the sports we choose. There are beasts on the bike. We admire them for the ability to hammer at speeds defying the natural laws of gravity.
There are animals on the run too. We respect their preternatural speed and pace per mile. Finally there are people who swim like dolphins in the water. They are perhaps the most exotic beasts of all, being half of this world of air and half under the water.