My First Triathlon
June 10, 2001

This was my conversation with the referee on the beach before the mass swim start:

"Hi! I'm looking for the handicapped division?"
"Are you handicapped" (very skeptical)
"No, I just want to find someone to draft off."

This was it. I started last August, running 3 miles (in a row!), and now I'd be doing it in a race. Well, "race" is a grandiose term for what is better described as practice. Since I'm mental enough to sign up for an Ironman (2.4 mile Swim, 112 mile Bike, 26.2 mile Run), I thought I should get a triathlon experience before the big day. So I signed up for the New York Tri/Bi-Athlon organized by the New York Triathlon Club. It's a Sprint distance (0.5 mile Swim, 16 mile Bike, 3.1 mile Run). This was my first, baby triathlon. You only get one first time.

I was quite nervous at the start of the swim. I went all the way to the back, amongst the breast-strokers, side-strokers and other non-competitive swimmers. I joked with some other nervous folks about how the buoy seemed to be getting farther away. I picked out a superlean asian guy as a target. Number 61. I wanted simply to beat this guy. That's all.

The horn went off and the water started churning. We in the back were walking into the water to start swimming, but we kept walking. My heart was beating out of my chest. I dove in and did a couple strokes before I realized I couldn't breathe. I was breathing too fast even for every stroke breathing. I turned over and backstroked. This worked well, in that I made progress and could breathe. Not three minutes into the swim I heard some yelling and looked up. Some swimmers were screaming for the safety swimmers and pointing down into the water. I can only assume someone went down and didn't come back up. No one was hurt, but I didn't know that until the end.

I wasn't setting any speed records. Indeed, the side-strokers were leaving me behind. But that was ok. This is just for practice.

To hell with that! I started digging in. My heart-rate was still pegged, but I knew it would level once the novelty of my first open-water swim faded. That came about halfway, as I rounded the now-stationary buoy. I had been giving myself grief up to then. What am I doing here? This is not fun. There's no shame in not finishing. There's no way I could do something longer. Am I moving? It feels like I'm standing still. What's the time cutoff for the swim? There's no way I'll make it. Why, exactly did I sign up for this? Well, because you want some practice before the Ironman in July. Whoa! We're doing more of this? Am I nuts?

I was still nervous, but once I got to the buoy, I could talk myself into finishing in something less than a frothy mental state. I was slower than I wanted to be, but close to my estimated max. Given that I was zig-zag backstroking, I found that encouraging. The lake wasn't deep: maybe 3 feet mostly. My arms would gather stalks of grass on nearly every stroke.

Walking after the swim was an effort. I was lightheaded, probably b/c I forgot to eat breakfast. That's normally my one motivation in the AM: get food. I was so focused on getting to the site, etc, I just forgot. Luckily I realized my folly before the race and ate an ancient balance bar I found in my bag. Even so, I was still way short of the calories I needed. People were whistling and yelling my number as I lumbered out of the lake and staggered to the bike rack. That was nice of them. It was so absurd, it made me smile.

At my bike I tried to take off my wetsuit while standing up, but I couldn't keep my balance. I wisely sat down and took my time. I felt like I was going to throw up for a couple minutes. The last thing I was going to do was start riding my bike in a woozy state. After putting on my socks, shoes and shirt I walked over to the food tables.

"Can I have an orange?"
"Are you finished already?" (incredulous)
"No, but I won't if I don't grab something."
"Sure! Take whatever you want."

A half-orange and some water later, I was restored and off on the bike. There's a story here, of course.

I had packed up the day before to go to my cousins' place north of the city. I have a bike rack that mounts on my trunk. I had unwisely attached my cycle shoes (via the cleats) to the pedals of the bike. They're supposed to release only on sideways pressure. Well, that's baloney. The vibrations of driving threw them off. Crossing a small brdige from Manhattan to The Bronx, a minivan was honking at me. I was annoyed, but didn't flip them off. Turns out they were trying to tell me I'd lost a "sneaker" back on the bridge. Doh!

I managed to sit the car out of traffic. My cousin (a different one :) and I ran back the length of the bridge, where I darted in and out of traffic to grab the still-OK shoe. I felt good about this, because I didn't relish the idea of doing the ride in my running shoes. The look on my face must have been priceless as I arrived back at the car and noticed that the other shoe was missing from my bike. Eric's mischievous face in the back-seat led me to think he had swiped it for a great practical joke, but no such luck.

Events became more complicated than I can go into here, so suffice it to say that we ended up back in Manhattan that day and retraced our steps without finding the missing shoe. In the meantime, I'd changed out my pedals for flat ones. This would kill my time on the bike, but hey, this is just practice.

To hell with that! My asian friend arrived from the swim several minutes after me. He was riding a mountain bike, but even so I thought he'd dust me given that I felt sick. Sure enough, he blazed past me early. I focused on feeling the rhythm of the rolling hills ("These are 16 of the hardest miles you'll do" said the announcer, pre-race. He was referring to the multi-mile climbs and a 180 degree turn at the end of a multi-mile descent.) I caught my target and shadowed him to the hairpin turn (about 1/3 through the course). I then passed him. That felt so good, I continued to pass other folks. A dozen all told. All but one stayed passed. I made the mistake of pissing off a roadie having a bad day. This guy turned on the nitro right after I edged in front and I never saw him again.

The bike course runs through Harriman State Park, and skirts several pretty lakes. Traffic was light and the sun not oppressive. I hadn't taken the sun visor off my helmet because I thought I'd need it. Not too long into the ride I realized a limitation of not training with the helmet. The visor occluded any view of the road unless I flexed my neck unusually back. Oh well, one more glitch. That's why I'm doing this.

The one silver-lining of riding in running shoes is that my transition to the run would be quicker. And more painful, because I'd been flexing my feet much more than usual. The first mile was torture, but the pain stabilized and I gradually forgot it as I accelerated to a near-sprint for the final couple miles. I overtook several people and was in a mega-endorphin zone. At the turn-around I tripped on some asphalt and rolled into the path of an oncoming car. I continued the roll back up onto my feet before they could freak out. The road-rash on my elbow continues a multi-year tradition of drawing blood in normally non-blood-drawing sports. :)

My number was on everyone's lips as I ran into the parking lot towards the finish line. I was sky high. And then that asian guy passed me like I was standing still. Number 61. Thirty seconds from the end. Damn! "There you are!" is all I could say, smiling widely. He smiled back.

0.5 mile Swim, 16 mile Bike, 3.1 mile Run: 2:14:34

297th out of 308; 214th out of 219 men; 67th out of 68 30-34yr olds.

Over 420 people started the race.
http://www.nytc.org/01results/01har1tri.cfm

Feedback

Albert:

Congrats. Yeeeeeeeeeeee-Hawww
One thing though - How is it that you go away for a tri-athlon and come backing a better writer????

Sean:
Congratulations! Although I'm sure it was mostly intentional- that was hilarious.

My Dad:
I'm deeply impressed. I was totally exhausted even before I finished reading about it! Mazeltov!!

Eric:
You got more cajones that I'll ever have. Nice Job!

Arun:
Wow, you're a braver man than I - triathalons have always scared me!! It sounds like an awesome experience, anyways.

Made it up Ptarmigan Peak last weekend (around 3000' gain). Didn't think I'd need my ice axe, so I left it behind, which made for a rather "interesting" descent from the summit down an 1800' snow gulley at 60+ degrees.

It didn't help that I had just arrived at the summit to find plaques in memoriam of climbers who died on the descent. :-o

My Reply:
-- Thanks!
-- Although describing my pedestrian near-athletic event as "brave" versus your 60-degree ice-axeless descent seems absurd to me. :)

Craig:

I shit you not, this is an amazing story. Your commentary is hilarious and if you don't submit this to some publications and/or Web sites, I'm going to kick your ass! I've been itching to write a story like this for months, but as you say, you only get to do the first time thing once. And I didn't write anything like this. Let me say this again from the pit of my journalist/humorist soul, your story is an absolute good. It personalizes the experience and tying it all in with the 61 guy is classic.

I'm envious that you had such a wacky first experience to talk about. The only thing odd about my first time that I can remember is the water that we were swimming in was slightly toxic so I wore an extra thick wet suit. So what if my hair was glowing when I made the transition to the run?

And I support your Ironman drive with limited triathlon race training. You've got guts, my friend. I'll be following your lead for the big race in British Columbia next year. Hopefully, it will be an experience that I too can laugh at too. I'm sure not going to win the thing. It's better to come out with funny stories like yours.