Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Great First Triathlon Season! -- Leora Cooper

My first triathlon season has made for a really great summer! Some of you have done many triathlons, but I am sharing my newbie experience in the hopes that I can encourage some “on the fence” people to get out there and try it!

Putting Together a Plan

I’d been thinking of doing triathlon for nearly a year when I finally signed up for a race this past May. I was never a fast runner or swimmer (and I had almost no experience biking), so I wanted to sign up for a scenic race. That way, I could relax into the landscape instead of focusing on pain during the race. I chose the mid-August Westborough Off-Road Sprint Triathlon – a ¼ mile swim, 5 mile mountain bike, 3.2 mile trail run – because the distances didn’t seem daunting as independent events, though I knew I couldn’t know how difficult they might be when done consecutively. I quickly realized that I needed to sign up for a more intimidating race in order to scare myself into actually training properly, so I also signed up for the mid-September Lobsterman Olympic Triathlon (0.92 mile swim, 25 mile bike, 6 mile run).

I had planned to sign up with some friends, but they all backed out (for legitimate reasons) and so I ended up training alone. The training was difficult, but I loved getting to know the Boston area by running and biking long distances almost every day. Unfortunately, business travel in July meant my training became somewhat spotty. I don’t think my race performance suffered as a result, but it definitely rattled my confidence beforehand.

Westborough Offroad Sprint Triathlon

Fast forward to race day. After four nights of stress dreams about everything that could possibly go wrong, I arrived a nervous wreck at the start line. But as always happens, the atmosphere of the area was infectious. Between the pump-up music, getting to walk around barefoot in the grass with a sassy purple anklet (my timing chip), and getting to chat with other triathletes, I started to calm down.

As I expected, I loved the swim. I loved having company in the water and the awesome comradery among the swimmers. (Yes, people swam over me, but it didn’t really bother me). And best of all—I wasn’t the last person to leave the water!

I’d been warned to practice the transitions for the race, with particular care for the bike to run transition. So I practiced that – but unfortunately, I never practiced the swim to bike transition. I emerged from the water out of breath, dizzy, thirsty and confused to see everyone else running to the transition area! I was thinking, “Wait! Can’t we all just walk?”

But I powered through and pulled myself together out onto the bike course, to face another surprise. I had wrongly assumed that a mountain biking course would have a few pebbles around, and some grass – possibly a bit of mud if I was unlucky. So I brought out my borrowed old hybrid bike . . . only to discover large and pointy rocks, tree roots, narrow paths and endless mud. As everyone barreled past me on their fancy mountain bikes with actual suspensions, I told myself that maybe triathlon wasn’t really for me and I was in over my head.

But around mile 4, I started to get the hang of the obstacles. All was not lost! I finished the last mile with a smile on my face.

Starting out for the run, however, I was a bit too excited. Moving too fast on my shaky post-biking legs, I twisted my ankle. But soon I found my feet again, got moving, and really enjoyed the run. I’d done trail running before, so I knew better what to expect. I cheered loudly with the volunteers as I passed them and finished the race with another huge smile. My one complaint was that the last mile of the course was completely in the parking lot, where I could see the finish line but had to run away from it. That was a bit mentally tolling, but overall, I had a strong finish with a total time of 1:20!

Overall Time: 1:20:13.6, Swim: 9:30, T1: 2:32, Bike: 34:51, T2: 0:51, Run: 32:30. Overall Place: 30/37.

Photo: Heading out for the bike! Looking good! (Credit Michael Lynn)

Finishing was substantially more difficult than I had anticipated, however. I realized that with only a month left to train for Lobsterman – at more than double the distance – I could use a bit of help.

Lobsterman Triathlon

With encouragement from Becca Hung, I started joining the MIT triathlon club workouts, and what a difference it made! I learned about training on hills and about doing high intensity interval training to get stronger. And I met other triathletes to talk to about training, random triathlon facts and life in general. Making training into a social experience also helped me push harder, both to keep up with my teammates, and because I was distracted from thinking about slowing down or taking it easy.

A few weeks before Lobsterman, I learned that the swim portion would be in cold ocean water. I convinced Coach Bill to take some of us out to Nantasket Beach to practice swimming in the ocean. This was surprisingly challenging! The water tasted terrible, I constantly got water in my mouth from trying to breathe into waves, and I panicked every so often when I would try to sight at the bottom of a wave and look up to see only walls of water. But Jordan helped calm me down and Coach Bill taught us some tricks. By the time I finished the swim, I was almost comfortable!

The week before the race, I was confident that I would finish it - especially since I had misread the distances and thought that each leg would be longer than it actually was.

I drove up the afternoon before the race to pick up my race packet and discovered that Winslow Park in Freeport, Maine (the race location) is breathtakingly gorgeous! I arrived just as the swim clinic ended, so I got to meet some of the other racers, including a few first-time triathletes.

I wanted to scope out the swim, to settle my nerves, but sunset turned out to be a bad time for this. A fishing boat was coming in, and fish were jumping out of the water all over the place. I am deathly afraid of getting eaten by or even touched by a fish - so the jumping fish did nothing to settle my nerves. But the distance looked doable, the buoys were big, and the water was very calm, so I went to sleep thinking the swim would be fine (so long as I wasn’t attacked by a very malicious haddock).

The next morning, when I got into the 61 degree water in my wetsuit for the practice swim, I was very happy for the warmup time to get used to the bracing temperature! When my wave got into the water, there was a subtle current moving toward the shore with the tide. This ultimately helped us finish faster at the end but made for a lot of bumping into each other as we waited for our in-water start.

I ended up in the middle of the pack for my age group – an improvement over last time! I settled into the rhythm of my stroke, starting humming along to Fantasia, and relaxed for the rest of the swim. I got out of the water with a huge smile on my face, ready to see 25 miles of Freeport on my bike.

In the first transition area, I got stuck in my wetsuit and flailed around, until I realized I hadn’t unzipped it all the way! Finally, I ran out of the transition area, mounted my bike, and with a quick wink at my lovely boyfriend (who was valiantly waiting for me), I was off! The course involved almost constant hills, which meant that people with fancy bikes were passing me on every climb. I was initially pretty nervous about all the hills, but I settled into them, and I actually did them more quickly as I progressed through the course. I even passed a few people during some of the last climbs!

The run turned out to be the hardest part of the race. I had practiced biking hills, but I hadn’t practiced running them, and the run course was just as hilly as the bike but without the breeze, and I was tired. To pump myself up, I started cheering for everyone I passed. I may have been one of the loudest runners, but by the time I neared the finish line, I had a huge smile on my face and I was sprinting to cross the line. I had finished with an overall time of 3:34!

Overall Time: 3:34:59.8, Swim: 36:29, T1: 4:01, Bike: 1:43:41, T2: 1:43.8, Run: 1:09:05. Overall Place: 274/306, Division Place Women 25-29: 13/19.

Sadly, there aren’t many races left in the Northeast this year, and so my first season is over. I can’t wait to improve my strength and techniques for next year! And of course, I can’t wait to keep training with the triathlon club and to meet more amazing and enthusiastic athletes! I’m already browsing trifinder to choose my races for next season!

TL;DR: Triathlon is really fun, Lobsterman is a really beautiful race, and mountain biking is not as simple as it may seem.

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