Triathlon Triumph

Today I ran, biked, and swam in my first triathlon. The Pasadena Triathlon is a reverse sprint, so the distances are much shorter than a regular (Olympic-length) triathlon, and the events occur in the reverse order. Our task for the day was to run 5 km, then bike 15 km, then swim 150 m. I was most worried about the swim, as that is certainly my weakest event right now!

I arrived at 6:30 a.m., an hour and a half before the race start, and had no trouble setting up my transition area, where I would return between events to swap gear. It was very chilly at first, and we were all grateful when the sun finally came up. I was lucky enough to have two friends there to help the time pass quickly: Vali, my race buddy who was competing in the much-harder duathlon (5K run + 15K bike + another 5K run), and Evan, my triathlete friend who got me to sign up in the first place (and who took pictures and carried my stuff around and shouted encouragement at every turn!).

The hardest part of the morning might have been the final 15 minutes before race start! I kept wanting to warm up, but not too much in advance, and itching to just get going. But finally we started off. At first it was slow going because there were so many people in the “women under 40” group, but we eventually spread out and the running felt great. I enjoyed following along behind two women who were wearing tutus (easy to spot!). The run was uneventful aside from one of the tutu-wearing women tripping in front of me. She recovered with a nice roll and was back on her feet immediately.

After the run, I pulled on my helmet, gloves, and hydration backpack. I know the latter is utterly uncool, but since I was riding a mountain bike, I’d already given up any cool gear points. :) And the backpack worked great! I had all of my tire-changing supplies in there (thankfully never needed) and I never got too thirsty. Worth the weight, for me. I got brave enough to call out “Yay, mountain bikes!” to another woman riding one, and we had a brief breathless exchange (she also had a hydration pack, and she volunteered that she too most feared the upcoming swim!).

Three loops around the Rose Bowl went by quickly on the bike — or it felt that way (it actually took more total time than the single-loop run). Each loop seemed to go faster than the one before, according to my bike computer, the opposite of what I expected. I zoomed back to the transition area and got my first surprise when I dismounted the bike. You’re meant to keep jogging so you don’t clog the dismount channel, but if I hadn’t been holding the bike as I staggered along, I’d have fallen flat on my face! My left leg immediately cramped and I couldn’t seem to move my legs properly. Everyone says that the bike to run transition is hard — I guess that’s what that was! Happily, I recovered by the time I got to my bike rack. I pulled off my helmet, backpack, shirt, and shorts, pulled on my swim cap, grabbed my goggles, and ran. It’s about 200 meters from the transition area to the pool, over rocks and grass, and I was so glad I’d left my sneakers on!

Then it was into the pool, and I just went for it. I actually wasn’t as tired as I’d feared I’d be, and although the 150 meters were *long*, it was overall less effort than one of my standard 30-minute attempts at lap swims. I did have to alternate between the front crawl and swimming on my back, as I grew more tired, but I didn’t drown and I actually passed a person or two (!). I staggered out of the pool and happily accepted my medal (a neat one with a bike chain around the perimeter!).

Overall, it was a fantastic experience. I accomplished something I considered beyond my abilities just a few months ago. I really felt that my training paid off, and I was neither exhausted nor in pain at the end of the race. And contrary to what we’d been told to be prepared for, nothing went wrong! No gear failed, no important item was forgotten, I didn’t fall, I survived the swim. I could definitely see myself doing this again — and maybe even improving my time!

Swimming… slowly…

Today, I was back in the pool again, trying desperately to remember what I’d learned three years ago when I finally got a couple of lessons from a swim coach. The March 10 Pasadena Triathlon is looming, and now that I’m making some good progress with running and biking, I’ve got to get that third event nailed. It’s been a year since I last had any swim practice, so I was a little rusty.

I was working on being able to cross the 25-m pool with continuous swimming (and breathing, don’t forget the breathing). And it amazed me how tiring that alone was! By about 20 m my body wanted to stop (or was desperate for a proper breath). I found that I was having a lot of trouble getting air on my left side, so switched to breathing every two strokes, always on the right, to see if that worked better. It did. That doesn’t mean I should neglect my left side practice, but at least I was getting some air.

I found that initially with my unpracticed, inefficient “freestyle”, it took me about 40 seconds to cross the pool. For comparison, I tried crossing it while swimming on my back. That took almost the same amount of time, with HALF the exertion, and I could breathe freely. (The only drawback, of course, is the lack of visibility ahead, but I can live with that.) Now if this were generally true, it seems that the freestyle would be less popular. So I hypothesized that it must be possible to greatly improve my freestyle speed, otherwise everyone would be back-stroking. With renewed gusto, I kicked off and powered across the pool freestyle and made it in 30 seconds, which is certainly faster, but it totally wore me out. I stared back across the pool and thought, “How am I ever going to make it through 150 meters?”

For comparison, apparently the women’s freestyle speed record (for a 50-m swim) is 2.11 m/s (Britta Steffen). I’m managing something like 0.8 m/s over 25 m, so I have lots of room for improvement. Perhaps I can glean some tips from this brain-bedazzling analysis of the freestyle stroke. Or maybe these freestyle drills would be more immediately useful.

One heartening thought about the real race is that, even if I were to stop and take breaks at the end of its 50-m lengths, I now know it can’t possibly result in more than 5-6 minutes total of water torture. If I were actually able to maintain my above pace, I would complete the swim in 3 minutes. I very much doubt that will happen, but now at least I have some bounds on the expected duration. And I can always roll onto my back if the crawl is killing me! (Part of me wonders how embarrassing it would be to do the whole thing on my back. The rules say you can use “any stroke” you want, after all!)

An extra challenge, of course, is that during the triathlon there will be other swimmers in the pool with me. I will have to dodge kicks and flailing arms and not lose track of where I’m going. I doubt I’ll get the chance to practice that before race day, so I’ll just have to learn on the fly.

After half an hour of practice today, I was shot. Both of my triceps are sore, and some various back muscles are unusually vocal. I guess that means that I was doing something useful with them, but at the same time, it boggles the mind just how weak some muscles can be!

Avoiding the side crampie

I’m now officially training for a triathlon. This is the Pasadena Sprint Triathlon, supposedly good for beginners and pre-beginners like me who’ve never even seen a triathlon from the sidelines. As preparation (and honestly, because it is fun), I’ve been doing some morning runs (well, jogs) around the neighborhood. I have a 2.1-mile loop that’s absolutely gorgeous just as the sun is coming up; it heads up into the residential foothills of the San Gabriels, where the houses are reclusive, sprawling, and well-spaced (and oh-so-pricey). I walk on some of the steeper uphill parts. The downhill run, however, is pure joy, feeling the strength of my body and the delight in motion. It is pure joy, that is, except that I’ve started getting a side stitch about halfway through. It’s irritating to have my legs saying “more more faster faster” and my abdomen saying “STOP NOW NO MORE OUCH PAIN DRAT!”

Wikipedia also has something to say about this. It actually has an article about the side stitch and its many alternative terms. Apparently, there is a common theory that the side cramp (a stabbing pain under the lower edge of the ribcage) is caused by internal organs pushing down on the diaphragm, but this is unlikely since the sport it most often manifests in is swimming. The side ache may actually be caused by contraction of the liver or spleen, restricting blood flow, or an irritated peritoneum. The side sticker usually manifests on the right side (fascinating! It’s happened on my right side both times), although wikipedia marks this claim as “[citation needed].”

Advice for avoiding the side crampie (my favorite term) includes both drinking lots of water and avoiding food and drink 2-3 hours before exercising, strengthening the diaphragm and core muscles, warming up and gradually increasing exercise pace, etc. There might be something to the last one, as I’ve never gotten exercise related transient abdominal pain (ETAP) during Jazzercise, which is carefully scheduled to ramp the exertion level gradually up and then back down.

Wikipedia also provides tips for dealing with a side stitch after it happens. One is to jam your fingers up under the ribcage to press on the painful spot. Interestingly, that’s exactly what I did reflexively when it happened. This made it feel better as long as I was pressing but didn’t do any good after I let go. Apparently the main way to stop the pain is to slow or stop your exercise and wait for it to subside. No good! This tip seemed particularly interesting: “While running, exhale when your foot strikes on the opposite side that the side stitch is located. For example, a side stitch on the right, exhale hard when your left foot strikes the ground.” I’ll have to try that one. If nothing else, the effort of focusing might distract me from the pain.

Ultimately, gradually getting in better shape should help avoid any recurrences of the side stitch. Clearly, more practice is called for! Otherwise my triathlon debut on March 19 may be a bit of a fizzle. :)

Crossing the wake

Building on my initial success with learning to wakesurf, the following day I got some more practice and found it to be easier and easier. I’m still no pro, but I managed to stay up for an entire minute on at least one run, and I even dared to cross the wake!

This turned out not to be as tricky as I thought. I just leaned a little back into my heels, the board climbed up onto the wake, and I held tightly to the rope while froth rushed over my ankles. Then I dipped into my heels again and the board slid down the far slope into the other side of the wake. The trick was to do all of this gradually without overcorrecting for the slope changes! My posture and confidence have both improved a bit, and I’m doing much better at keeping slack in the rope. I was even able to let go with one hand and wave at the boat!

The idea ultimately is to be able to let go of the rope entirely and just surf on the wake behind the boat. The rope isn’t really towing you anyway (except atop the wake where there’s no wave to ride down); it’s just there for balance and positional correction. I did get to see the no-rope version performed, and I’d love to get to that point myself! It’s fascinating to see the balance in forces between the rider’s weight on the board pushing down and the rush of the wake-wave curling up. But first I need to be able to start on my own… to date I’ve still had someone holding the board steady for me during those first critical seconds of getting onto the water. But I think that may be an achievable goal! No-rope wakesurfing… that’ll take a lot more practice.

Surfing the wake

Over the past two days, I’ve had the chance to learn how to wakesurf! Given some expert instruction and tons of assistance (i.e., holding the board steady for me initially, just like training wheels), I was able to stand up on a wakesurfer and ride the wake curl right behind the boat for a good 15 seconds!

First we’d position the board behind the boat so that its front rested on the boarding platform and its tail hung out into the water. I learned to step onto the board with my front foot and lean my weight back out over the board, using the rope, without putting my back foot down until the boat picked up enough speed. It takes some practice to figure this out, but it seems to happen around 6 knots. At that point you can ease your weight fully onto the board (and off the platform) and slide backward, paying out rope gradually, until you’re in the wake curl. At first this felt really shaky to me, because your legs have to figure out how to absorb all of the little bumps and twists of the water while maintaining your balance. Then it started to smooth out, and I stayed up until the board shifted back a little, up onto the wake, and I lost my balance. Also, my posture in this picture could be improved by straightening my torso to make it easier to keep my weight centered over my feet and the board. But hey, not bad for ~8 attempts.

The goal is to get enough control and comfort that you can actually let go of the rope entirely and just surf along behind the boat. I’m nowhere near that point, but considering that the last time I was really in the water was 1.5 years ago, and that was to learn (belatedly) to swim, I’m thrilled with what I was able to do today! I doubt I’ll ever be a surfer, and I also learned today that I have no innate waterskiing skill, but I’d definitely wakesurf again. It’s fun!

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