Wellgood Phoebe, our girl in America with the wet suit, bicycle helmet and super-speed trainers, is passionate about sport and in mid-October drove 5 hours down to Baltimore from her home in Pittsbugh to compete in her very first Triathlon. Here's her report:
Almost exactly a year ago I watched three close friends finish a triathlon and I promised myself that next year I would be the one crossing the finish line. Yesterday I came true on my promise and completed my first triathlon. This morning I proudly said to myself “I am a triathlete”.
My last big sporting challenge was two years ago when I biked 4000 miles across America with a charity group, it had been an amazing experience and by the end - though I was super fit - I had run my body into the ground. Since then I had tried to keep in shape but had no major focus or motivation for my workouts. I tried a little of this and that, and would sometimes go a month without having done much exercise at all. I started my masters degree and got ‘too busy’ to work out with too many excuses to not go to the gym. I really wanted to have a goal and a reason to commit to getting back in fighting form and a triathlon seemed like a good way to do this.
In July some friends were causally asking about the triathlon and I began to panic. I realized it was just over 7 weeks away and I didn’t feel at all prepared. I spoken to my friend who had been able to go out and practice on the course and she told me it was crazy, crazy hilly, which just added to my fear! That was what I needed as motivation to step it up. I began dragging my boyfriend out for long weekend bike rides and weekday evening runs. I was feeling great. Two weeks before the race I was ready to start tapering (I’d learned what tapering was by then too) and making sure I was stretching.
Then I got a cold. Not just a run of a mill two days of nose blowing cold but a 9 day headache and sore limb kind of cold. I was getting out of breath just climbing up the stairs and I couldn’t even imagine attempting to run a mile let alone complete a triathlon. I was so disappointed; all my hard work seemed to be wasted. I was seriously facing the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to take part on Sunday.
Luckily the Thursday before race day I was finally feeling better and determined to still give it a shot. I arrived the day before the race to set up my bike, pick up my timing chip and collect the free race shirt you get with registration. I then headed to my friends for an early dinner and early night. I was there bright and early (5.45am!) race day feeling pretty nervous. I set up my bike, trainers and other kit at the transition and then waited for the race to begin.
I had a couple of friends doing the event too who had done it before so there were some friendly faces, advice and help getting into my wetsuit. Everyone else taking part was super nice also and always willing to point you in the right direction or help get your swim cap on. It was a great positive atmosphere which was added to by the charity nature of the event. So many of the participants had affected by cancer in one way or another and had a real reason to be there. Everyone was buzzing. I lined up with others in my age group by the edge of the lake, then it just kind of started and all of a sudden I was in the water.
Sitting here still a little sore from the race I’m already looking forward to what races I can sign up for next year. I definitely have the triathlon bug. I have so much extra knowledge to take into my training now that I have done one event.
I learned that the cramping I experienced on the run was likely a combination of muscle fatigue from pushing too hard for my fitness level on the cycle section and from not having dedicated enough training time to getting my muscles used to switching from biking to running. I also learned that I need to practice open water swimming techniques for spotting where I am going. These are all things I can work on to do better next time. Plus just a little luck that I don’t get a cold before the big day!
I decided to start with an Olympic distance event that was a 1 mile swim in a lake, 25 mile bike and 6.7 mile run which seemed doable with some training. It was an event just outside of Baltimore, MD in America and is organized by a non-profit called the Ulman Cancer Fund that raises awareness and provides support for young adults with cancer. I was excited to be able to support a good cause and it was cool that cancer survivors would be racing too.
I signed up in late January for an event October 6th so that I had plenty of time to get prepared. My past biking experience meant I felt fairly comfortable with the 25 mile cycle section of the course. I’m not the biggest fan of running but due to some peer pressure had run a few fun 5Ks, 10Ks and even a half marathon during uni. Now for the swimming, I hadn’t really swum much since PE GSCE other than splashing around in the summer hols and I was pretty nervous about it.
As a procrastinator I started training in May. I did some reading online about different training sessions, working on your swim technique, and just general advice on preparing for a triathlon. Most of the advice recommends that first time triathletes focus on just finishing the race and not worrying about times and performance but as a fairly competitive person I wanted to make sure I put my best effort forward.
I was very consistent with my swim training going twice a week, generally doing one long swim and one speed work out. It was the event I was least comfortable with and I knew I had to train if I was really going to be able to swim 1 full mile. Biking I was a little lax with at first ( I was cocky) and I would bike to work or lecture a few times a week (about 6 miles) and then sometimes do a longer ride. It took me longer to start running. I had had problems with shin splints in the past and I was concerned about getting reinjured, so I wanted to build up slowly.
I quickly realized open water swimming was much different to swimming in a pool. Alongside navigating your way through competitors you must also spot your way through murky water and the rising sun to the buoys. After finding myself perpendicular to others in the water I was forced to correct course a number of times and about ten minutes in I was thinking I should have practiced this a bit more. I still finished in good time getting out in just under 40mins (a goal I had set myself) and soon enough was running to start the bike section.
The bike was where I knew I felt the most comfortable and over the first 15 miles I was feeling strong. However, my friend was right and it was a very hilly route, the last couple of climbs really took it out of my legs. Support from other competitors was great with many offering encouragement as they rode by (yes! Lots and lots of them were much faster than me). About a half mile from the end I switched gears only to lose my chain being tired and a bit sore already it took me a while to get it back on. I came into the transition area an hour and 40 mins after I had set off. The transition from bike to run went smoothly and then I was running to the finish, well, at least in that direction.
About a mile into the run my thighs began to cramp, at the next water stop I chugged some Gatorade and ate one of those sports but the cramping just got worse. I found myself having to alternate between a slow jog and brisk walk and 6 miles suddenly felt like an eternity. It was a very painful experience and at that point it took a lot of willpower not to give up. I knew I was falling further and further back. I did manage to run (at least it felt like a run compared to what I had been doing) across the finish line and collect my medal in just under 4 hours. That time put me last out of 11 in my age division of 20-24 year olds and 104th out of the 123 women competing. I realized at this point that all the advice about first time triathletes concentrating on finishing and not worrying about performance was right. What I learnt from the race was far more important.