My first triathlon
By Joe Thompson
7.2.01 (www.slowtwitch.com)

I have just finished my first triathlon. It was an Olympic-distance race called Escape from Fort Delaware, modeled on the popular Escape from Alcatraz race held each year in San Francisco. I swam 1.2 miles from a Civil War-era fort to shore (I swam a bit longer), rode my bike 22 miles, and then ran six miles. The whole thing took me 2 hours, 42 minutes. I did it in nasty weather that ranged from downpours during the swim and bike to damp, baking heat on the run.

I did it by training long, hard, and smart, but also by applying some mental tricks and by listening to suggestions from fellow racers and friends. Yes, triathletes are unusually dedicated and their feats seem heroic to the uninitiated. But their path to success is in a kind of controlled surrender to the enormity of the effort required and in a constant evaluation and recognition of the physical limits one faces in each stage of the race. Ultimately I think I succeeded by staying largely in the moment, focusing on the next few feet of the swim, the next mile on the bike, and literally getting to the next cup of Gatorade on the run.

Although races start early enough and preparing the transition area takes time, I ended up with some on my hands before the start, which I used for reflection on how I came to be there in the first place. I was vaguely aware of triathlon before last year, but really became interested when I attended the Make-A-Wish Triathlon in Bethany Beach, Delaware, last September. I couldn’t believe people could get out of the roiling ocean and then head off on a long bike ride, and then follow that with a 10K run. At the same time I felt that I could do it with some training and wanted, as I put it to myself at the time, to "race those guys."

So I started running and biking a lot, and then this March I started swimming a lot. I found a great online coach––JulieAnne White, who writes articles which can be found on this site––and who provided me with tons of guidance and support, not to mention a well-organized workout program. I did a duathlon in April and did well enough, but the swim really turned out to be my nemesis.

My first attempt at a triathlon, two weeks prior to the Escape, was a big disappointment. All the hours in the pool, the excitement of the race, and the novelties of the wetsuit and open-water swimming got to me and I hyperventilated at the start. It was an embarrassing and upsetting condition. I literally couldn’t breathe properly. I ended up "bailing out" by breaststroking and backstroking my way around the very short swim, then suffered a flat tire on the bike and didn't finish. I became very apprehensive about the Escape.

We got onto the boat that would take us out to the fort. Beautiful scenery, lots of relaxed and confident athletes around—no problem, I’ll just warm up for 10 minutes so I feel confident at the start. Well, there were no warm-ups allowed, so now I'm getting nervous. They started the first wave of 100 or so with a cannon. I was shamelessly sitting on a bench in my wetsuit with my eyes closed practicing breathing and strokes since I can’t warm up. My friend and high school classmate Jay could tell I was bugging out and calmed me down a bit. Then the next couple of waves go—there go all the women. Now there's nothing left but older and large men, about 100 of us. (I am in the over-200 pounds category.) It starts really dumping rain, so I can’t really see the other shore that well. My heart is thumping away although I think I’m acting pretty cool. Earplugs in, goggles down, here we go off the dock, dropping down into the water….

Open water in a wetsuit bears no resemblance to a pool. No black lines on the bottom, no rope one foot away at all times, no wall to grab every 25 yards, just a whole lot of dark, muddy, smelly reality with a mind of its own trying to take you to Philadelphia, or at least to the oil refinery upriver. If you let it get to you, you start to feel like you are being sucked down, which makes you fight to keep your head totally out of the water, which really wastes energy. And if you don't bring that under control it can lead to hyperventilating, which is not why you came here.

Swam too hard for a while in spite of myself, so I stopped to reorient and breaststroke a little. Couldn’t get settled. I quickly lost track of everyone else. There was zero visibility in the water; it was very muddy. About 10 minutes into the race a marshal in a boat appeared in front of me, yelling. "Hey ace, you’re swimming the wrong way." Embarrassed, I turned around but now was aware that there was a strong chance of DNF'ing. I now realize that for some reason I tend to progressively turn to the right and I’m now a bit downcurrent (right) of the next buoy. Still, there are a couple of people near me.

This is pretty much where somehow my race got together. I didn’t want to be pulled out and I knew they were watching me, so I swam for the buoy about 100 yards away and felt better as I passed it. I consciously angled into the chop and thus straightened out my "true" course. I’m sure my stroke was a mess, but I was getting somewhere.

Got to the next buoy and passed one or two guys. I'd acquired a rhythm I can live with—still working a bit hard but I allow myself to entertain the thought that I will finish the swim. Stay focused on the next buoy. Now I'm getting toward the canal entrance. Almost in the canal and conscious of the presence of others, I'm very happy that if I am pulled out it won’t be by the boat that I first saw. Once in the canal the water is flat and it feels like I'm flying. Still, I don’t want my happiness to chew through the energy I'll need for the rest of the race.

One more buoy to go and it’s a left turn—the docked boats to my right are so close I can see my progress and it feels great. This is actually the most exhilarating moment of the race, swimming along in this canal with the confidence that I was going to make it out of the water. Some swimmers stop too early on the ramp and fish around for the ground with their feet. I make the same mistake. Back to swimming again. Now there’s the carpet and it feels great—people are clapping and cheering, the timer mat is chirping every time someone goes over it and then it’s chirping for me. Peel the top of the wetsuit down and start running. The swim is over. It feels so fantastic. I did it. A bunch of racers are with me, but I have absolutely no idea how I’m doing.

Reality tempers my enthusiasm even as I exchange congrats with people around me. Most of the racks are empty of bikes. Most of the competitors are up the road because they’re better swimmers than I am and/or they started up to 20 minutes before me.

The bike course starts with a long fairly steep climb up the Reedy Point Bridge. A new fear comes in: Wet weather is notorious for moving small debris around on the road and causing flats. I have been flatting a lot although I have new, wider and tougher tires on for this race. I can’t shake the notion that I’m about to flat or that my tire is actually going down. On the descent off the bridge I brake and coast, convinced that my tire is going down. I settle into the aero position, catch and pass a few people on a long straight and still am convinced my tire is going down. It isn’t. At the end of the race both tires will turn out to have held up perfectly.

I start to have a really good ride and pass a bunch of people. I’m thrilled about the swim. Halfway through the ride I convince myself that if a flat were imminent it would have happened already, but I still can’t shake the thought that my tire is going down. I take corners super-slow for this reason, then suddenly I’m on the bridge again going up, passing people, then getting passed by them on the descent. Overall it was a good ride.

Back into the transition area and it's bike shoes off, running shoes on and out onto the run course. It stops raining. Everything feels very damp and still. The sun comes out and I’m suddenly very hot and very stressed out. People start passing me on the run. One guy can tell I’m "in difficulties" and gives me what turns out to be valuable advice. "Stop," he says, "just take a 30-second break." I do and feel better. I’m dehydrated and underfueled, not handling the heat well. I'd never even considered the possibility of DNF'ing on the run leg of a race but it’s a possibility now. Aid station people are great and very supportive. I hit every station and drink at least one, sometimes two, Dixie cups of Gatorade. At about mile four I start jogging consistently again, still in trouble but optimistic. I’ve learned not to sprint or turn up the pace at all until the very end. I’m back in town now, and people are on their porches cheering. I wave back. Finally there is the finish line, I put on a last surge of speed and am rewarded with cheers and high fives—pretty remarkable for a crowd that saw the top finishers more than 35 minutes ago. Across the line and I am really not feeling good but inside I’m elated that it's over, I finished and somehow I belong in this group of people.

My mom and dad and a couple of their friends are there and happy to see me, and I’m happy to see them. Other racers are with family and friends. There is a tremendous wave of good feeling at the finish. Everyone is cheering for every finisher. There was a huge cheer for the last finisher, who came in with her head high and a smile on her face. It was a big deal after all—impossibly big in its totality but manageable if you break it into little pieces and give up to it, let your body do what it can and don’t ask it to do what it can’t, and watch carefully and learn from other athletes as much as possible.