I've been here before. Some things are the same. But others so are different now. I think this was the first race (triathlon) I ever went to alone. At least as a competitor. I've been to races by myself as a spectator during off weeks, or when I was injured, to volunteer, or to cheer friends on. Because of this my earliest experiences of racing were really focused around friendship and community. And even now at my core, I think they still are.
A lot can change in almost five years of not doing something. People get married, they have kids, get more demanding jobs. They move. They get injured, burned out, or just lose interest in the sport. And triathlon was a sport that for all practical purposes defined us as friends and individuals. There really aren't that many people still racing from when I raced before. The feeling I have sort of reminds me of a time earlier in my life when I moved to Dallas for 3 months for a job. By the time I came back all of my friends were gone. Every single one. That was in just 3 months. When the horn sounded this morning, it would be almost 5 years. 5 years.
Standing on the boat ramp before the race, the cool morning water licking at my toes, I tried to let it all in. And then casually breathe it all back out. Just be with it, then release it, you know. There really wasn't much else to do. Here I was standing on the ramp before the start of my wave with almost 1000 strangers about to literally cast my body and my fate into the brown, stew colored water of the unknown. Silently, I prayed I would come out the other side wiser but otherwise unscathed.
Swimming you see is not my thing. I come from a background primarily focused on running. Running is pretty simple really. Just put one foot in front of the other and repeat as fast as you can. That's it. But swimming is so much about technique and rhythm and focus. And that's when you are in a pool with your own lane. Here you are swimming in a lake with sometimes as many as 100 people thrashing around you in water that you may be able to see to the end of your outstretched hand. This unfortunately, was not one of those lakes. The water in this lake was the color of mud. Assuming I handled the people trying to swim over and through me, got over the lack of visibility, and the sensation of weeds wrapping around my ankles in the shallows, there still would be the challenge of simply swimming in a straight line. Oh and I almost forgot, after the last turn when we head back to the dock, the sun would be shining right into my eyes. I would be swimming blind. Add to this scenario, I hadn't raced in any capacity, land or water, and the fact that I had only done a solid half mile swim once in the last 4 or so years. Did I mention swimming is not my thing?
It helps to have a plan for anything you do in life and triathlon is no different. My plan in this case was simple. Start out in the water away from the dock and in as close to a straight line to the first buoy as possible. Swim quickly but comfortably (saving some of my energy to fight for position) to that buoy and make a clean turn using the backstroke. Get around that buoy. Once around that buoy find some open water and cut loose moving from buoy to buoy until the last turn. Once around the turn find the fastest swimmer I could keep up with that also seemed to know where we were headed and follow them to the dock.
So I had my plan which made waiting on my wave to start that much easier. What happened when the horn sounded is another story altogether. That first two hundred meters out to the first buoy was more like a melee than a swim. I've seen a lot of the same grappling moves in MMA type fights. And the water for 2/3 of it was pretty shallow so I spent a good deal of time and energy swimming with grass wrapped around my feet and legs. So by the time I got to the first buoy I was too tired and stunned to backstroke around it so I simply breast stroked it instead. But once around the buoy I saw open water for the first time and took off for it like my life depended on it. I had a really good rhythm and stroke turnover going so I actually started passing people at that point. Then I hit the last turnaround. The sun was so bright, I had no idea where I was going. And from the looks of it neither did anyone else. So I was forced to do my own navigating which meant quite a bit more breaststroke. Finally I found the dock after what seemed to take forever. When I ran up the ramp and across the chip mat I looked down at my watch. That cannot be right, I thought to myself. According to my watch time, I just broke my previous best half mile swim time by over 3 minutes!! Whoa... Needless to say, if I could have stopped right there I would have. And honestly there was really no point in doing the rest of the race because nothing I did from that point on was gonna top that swim. Nothing.
In retrospect while I was standing on the dock worrying about the swim before my wave started, I could have tried to plan the rest of my race. At the very least I could have figured out how to use my new watch/heart rate monitor because the only split I would see that day would be my swim split. And a little more forethought about the bike might have gone a long way.
First let me say this. I love riding my bike. And I especially love riding in a triathlon/race environment. I like the aero position, and the sound the wind and the wheels make when you fly across pavement. I like the sensation of spinning the bike up to top speed and chasing down anyone who passed me in the swim. And for the first time in my triathlon racing career, this is not going to happen. Mostly because in the time since I've last raced, I have changed the fit of my bike. For those who might not know, bikes are peculiar things. Especially racing bikes. (Currently I am in the process of buying a new one largely because of the experience I had during this race). Over the past 4 weeks I've test ridden probably 6 different bikes. Before the first test ride the shop took my measurements. Just like the tailor did when I bought my first custom slacks and sports jacket. The reason for this is pretty straightforward. The better your bike fits, the more comfortable you are and the faster you ride while using less effort. Less effort is good because it means you have more energy to run later. I think it took me about 2 minutes to realize that between the changes I had made to my set up and just the time away from working out with any serious intensity, I was not in for a stellar bike split.
Translation? My legs hurt like hell. And I couldn't breathe. But instead of berating myself, I just rode as fast as my body would allow and tried to minimize the damage. For a good part of the first section of the bike this meant not riding in aero position at all, even though I was riding into a headwind. Fortunately for me, at some point my body clued in to the whole, "Oh yeah, this is a race thing... Let's go really fast!!" attitude and by the turnaround started reeling people in. So all the way back to the transition my speed was actually pretty high.
Earlier I might have mentioned that I came from a running background. This would indicate that running is "my thing." What I didn't mention was that while originally I was a relatively fast runner even coming off the bike, prior to this race I had only just started running 6 weeks earlier. It took me about 2 of those weeks to get to the point where I could run a mile without stopping. So by the time I showed up raceday, I was up to maybe 5 miles. But this was 5 slow miles. 6 weeks is not enough time to build a base and incorporate speed training. So I skipped that and just concentrated on running economy and strength. Thus another first. I didn't pass anyone on the first part of the run. Some of this was due to the fact that I stopped to use the bathroom in the first half mile. And this was also something else I could have thought more about on the boat ramp. In every first race of the season for as long as I could remember, I have always had to use the bathroom on the run. And I'm always confronted with the same question. "Do I stop and go so that I don't have to run stressed?" or "Do I hold it and run fast so I can finish sooner?" The answer usually depended on how I felt and what I had told myself before the race started. This time, I hadn't factored it in because quite honestly, I forgot about it. In retrospect stopping was probably a good call since off the bike my legs felt like crap anyway. So it was actually nice to relax for a few seconds before heading out to run again.
It took about a mile before I got the stiffness out of my legs and my stride opened up. For the most part I was pretty relaxed. I got passed a couple of times but didn't worry about it. I just focused on my own race and kept moving. A little before the run turnaround, something clicked again and I sped up. Sort of like on the bike and I came back several minutes faster than I ran out. Finishing was just a relief. I learned a lot. I learned about myself mainly. But I also learned how much had changed since I had last raced. And how much really was still the same. Triathlon is still a sport where people for the most part are really in competition with themselves and come face to face with their own demons. It provides a framework to see your own internal truth. The fact that everyone else shows up to go through that process with you is what makes the sport so fun and the people in it so special. Every weekend they race they are willing to put themselves to the test. And this is really what I was doing that Sunday morning. After so long a time away from a sport that had defined a large part of me and my relationships, I wanted to know if I had really changed. I started the day with questions. Questions about myself. About why I had raced before, and if I could race again? Who would witness this if I did? Would it matter? What I took away from that morning was succinct and simple. I didn't ever race before because I was fast or slow, or because it was cool. I raced because when I did it I was pure. Just like those moments when the bike or the run clicked and I wasn't hurting, or in the swim where I blew away all my prior expectations. When I race, there is just the moment, just me, nothing outside, nothing within. And I am this.