First race tips
By Dan Empfield
5.6.03 (www.slowtwitch.com)

Having just returned from this year's installment of the Wildflower Triathlon, I thought I'd write a few things that first-timers might want to remember. Actually, they appear to be things a lot of tenth- and twentieth-timers might want to remember, based on what I saw at the event. Here they are in no particular order:

BRING ALL MANNER OF RACE APPAREL WITH YOU

One thing you can be sure of at Wildflower—it never rains, it's never cold, it's always good weather for the first half of the event, and hot weather for second half. Then there was this year, when it was cold, rainy, windy and muddy throughout the day.

This doesn't mean you have to choose between freezing and boiling. Wear stuff you can peel back or unzip. A thin layer (wife beater or polypro sleeveless running jersey) underneath a full-zip cycling jersey will help keep your torso warm, but you can unzip the jersey if it gets hot. Arm warmers can be pushed down the arm. Likewise leg warmers. Or split the difference on a cold ride and wear a pair of knickers. Wear a half shoe cover instead of a full (it'll keep your feet warm, but they won't get hot). Wear an ear band, or ear warmer, not a full head cover. Don't worry about transition time so much. Dress appropriately.

LEARN THE RULES OF THE ROAD

We have an article on this, predictably entitled Rules of the Road. It is apparent to me that many of you haven't read this. Or the USAT rule book. Or any rule book. Or attended pre-race meetings. Or have inquired of your friends, or stuck your nose up and looked around to what's going on around you during the bike ride.

Assuming you've got A.D.D. and you just can't stand to concentrate for more than the first rule or two of the rule book, let me just give you three tips which will help you and, it must be admitted, will also help me:

  1. Ride on the right, pass on the left. This should seem intuitive. But apparently a lot of riders lack intuition. I doubt Germans have a tough time with this, because driving on the Autobahn teaches one to stay in the slow lane (the right lane, just like here in North America) until you need to pass. This is because, though you're driving 120mph and you can't see anything for miles in your rearview mirror, 30 seconds later a V8 Audi will be on your bumper flashing his high beams at you. When you go to bed tonight, keep repeating this phrase until you fall asleep: "Pass on the left, ride on the right." When you do need to move to the left to pass, take a quick glance and make sure nobody's coming up behind you. A fellow swerved right in front of me this past weekend, almost clipping my front wheel with his rear. He felt justified, as the fellow he was drafting behind had just pulled out his person and was commencing to pee. My potential road rash was secondary to his need to execute a splatter-avoidance maneuver. This excuse didn't wash with me.
  2. If you're going to have your water bottles stored behind your saddle, make SURE they're not going to launch when you hit a bump. How? Do not mount the bottles at a backward angle, like a mortar launcher, but vertically or close to it; use very strong, perhaps somewhat more expensive cages; and never freeze your bottles before the race. Bottles on the course are a very real and serious threat to your competitors (me in particular), and launched bottles are—or ought to be—cause for a penalty (there is a rule called "equipment abandonment" and if it's enforced this means a launched bottle is an immediate infraction).
  3. Not only as concerns apparel, but also with an eye toward the rules: Don't be in too much of a hurry in transition. Think about what you're doing. Best to put your helmet on—and clip it—at the first possible moment, and take it off at the last possible moment (and always after your bike is racked). They don't give you a penalty for having your helmet on too long. Rack your bike properly. If you don't know where the mount and dismount zones are, just watch the people around you. Best is to find out where you ride out of transition, where you run out of transition, and where you mount and dismount before the race starts.

Races are expensive. So is traveling. Training is arduous. It's a bummer to spend all that time and money, just to have your experience soured by an infraction. Penalties are relatively easy to avoid.

RIDE UNDER CONTROL

The best athletes I know have a mantra when they're on the bike: "If the ride was to end right now, am I prepared to have a relatively strong run?" This is a question you ought to ask yourself throughout the bike ride. If the answer is ever "No" then it's time to back off a bit. This doesn't mean you necessarily need to slow down, but to simply ride with less effort. Perhaps you're in a gear that's too big, or you're not thinking about how to keep the pace up using less effort. It's uncanny how much more comfortably you can ride if you just ask yourself the question, from time to time, "Can I do anything technically right now to conserve energy without letting the pace fall off?"

Part of riding under control is to use a lower gear and a higher cadence. If you ever find yourself in a mini conundrum while on the bike, wondering whether you ought to be in a smaller (easier) gear, you almost certainly ought to be. You won't find that your pace slows much if at all (it may even increase) but you'll find the pedaling less arduous. Here's a paragraph about Chris Carmichael and his pupil, Lance Armstrong, in a recent issue of Bicycling Magazine:

Instead of putting him through white hot intervals that essentially mimicked racing conditions, Carmichael sent Armstrong on long, easy rides with a strict heart-rate ceiling. Instead of pushing big gears, he was to spin at high cadences—85 to 95 rpm to start—to keep his legs fresh... In hindsight, the benefit is obvious: Any cyclist who can produce power aerobically, while rivals tap their anaerobic systems, will stay fresher... ("The man behind the man," Bicycling Magazine, Bill Gifford, May 1, 2003, Volume 44, Number 4, Page 56)

This is a perfect analysis of what top triathletes already know and have known for years: the bike ride is an exercise in who can whisper the loudest. When you dismount, you need to have used your muscles economically, without standing and powering up the hills in big gears, without using lower cadences.

RUN WITH YOUR BRAIN, YOUR LEGS WILL CATCH UP

I and other experienced triathletes know something you don't, and the more I race the better I know it: As long as I haven't shot my wad on the bike, my legs are going to feel way better after two miles of running than they feel immediately after getting onto the run course. Just put one foot in front of the other, do not worry about pace, just stay patient. Your brain knows something right away that your legs will need ten or twenty minutes to figure out: It's time to run. It's quite common to exit the bike feeling like you've got no running legs at all. Run at whatever pace is comfortable at the start, things will almost always be much better at the end of mile-two.

YOU CAN COME BACK FROM TEMPORARY HARDSHIP

Triathlons are like no other sport in this one respect: You can be absolutely out of the running, gone, dropped, dead, with no chance of resurrection or rehabilitation—and come back to win, or at least have a very respectable finish. I've seen people have the worst luck early in the race, and danged if when it's over they aren't on the podium. It's hard to imagine how that might be while you're in the midst of a bad patch. Just know that things change, and that's the one truism that remains the same in our sport.

EXPAND YOUR SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Team in Training members have been getting a bit of a bad rap of late, because they're sometimes seen as a subculture inside of a sport that doesn't recognize subcultures. This is understandable, because they're not only a team—just like a lot of seasoned triathletes are part of a local tri team—but by virtue of their beginner status they are a team of outsiders looking in. It's easy to understand why they'd tend to especially recognize their own, sometimes to the exclusion of others. If you're a newbie, the following piece of advice may resonate with you, and it may not. The advice is this: If you're a beginner entering both your first and last triathlon, do what you want. If you intend, however, to not simply hold a green card, but to eventually become a full-fledged citizen of triathlon, you might want to consider yourself as part of the greater triathlon community now, and comport yourself that way. This means respecting, aiding, cheering for—and accepting the respect, aid and cheers—of everyone, regardless of the color of their jersey. I've been a bike racer, a pure runner, a XC skier, and a triathlete, and without a doubt there is no sport in which newbies are welcomed with such eagerness as triathlon. You picked the right sport if you want to make good friends right away.

IN CONCLUSION

There are many more tips I could give you, but I've chosen to give you these. Not because they'll make your life easier—though they will—but because in certain cases they'll make my life easier. Especially the tips that refer to one's biking habits. Don't get me wrong, if you're a beginner I really want to get to know you, just not while sprawled out on the pavement during the bike leg. I'd prefer to make your acquaintance after the race.