How not to complete a triathlon

I “successfully” completed my first triathlon today. I was anxious owing to not having great idea of what I was in for — or more accurately having reasonable uncertainty as to my ability to complete the event. Having looked for informative posts from other first-time triathletes while training, I didn’t really find much relevant to my concerns so if you’re thinking of doing one, perhaps this will be helpful!

When the horn went off at 10:00 AM I dove full of confidence into Two Jack lake from the waist deep starting area. My neoprene cap snugly in place, and body already acclimatized from ten minutes of splashing around; the light rain, low clouds and 7° air were not a concern. Fortunately for us, the dam allowing freezing Minewanka water in had been closed since the massive Alberta floods earlier in 2013 so Two Jack had reportedly warmed up to a balmy 17°C rather than the usual 13°. I don’t have any experience swimming in a wetsuit but my test swim in this cheap two-piece model suggested that it would be difficult. Everyone says the additional bouyancy of a wet suit and the “drafting effect” of being in the midst of hundreds of swimmers collude to propel you to the finish line in record time. Even in a warm pool, I’ve found that it’s very hard to adopt a natural stroke and that considerably more energy is required to get from A to B. Now to be clear, I love to swim and consider it my strongest of the three sports. I have no trouble swimming double the requisite 1500M non-stop freestyle with 3-5 pulls per breath, on-pace and with a sprint at the finish, even in large pools including Vancouver’s 137M Kitsilano outdoor marvel. But here I was a couple hundred meters out in the middle of a cold lake gasping for breath every second pull and veering outside the lane markers. I just could not get enough O2 into my lungs and was near enough to panic that I resorted to breast-stroke, then back-crawl. Not even to the first buoy and I was starting to wonder whether I could complete this swim — I would have to quit after the first lap. My stroke was atrocious, I was burning twice the energy I normally do to achieve a slower pace. Around the first turn I started to regain composure, accepted that my lungs were just not performing today despite the 5000′ altitude being only 800′ above my home training area — must be the cold water. This is when the faster of the ladies, having started 4 minutes behind us, started to overtake me. More smashing into bodies. I should mention at this point that I’m completely blind without glasses, as in unable to see the other side of the lake and relying solely on the trajectory of my neighbours for an indication of which direction to head. Contact lenses next time, please.

Now swimming a stable backstroke I started to regain composure and could see the second buoy wherein we turn back to the starting point for lap two. Perhaps I can do this. In the home stretch I became devoid of neighbours, requiring more frequent correction from the canoe-borne marshalers. One kindly guide resorted to holding his paddle over my head once I got more than 90° off course to point the direction I should turn. I actually started thinking about my stroke, making moderately strong backstroke pulls and adopting a reasonable posture for the first time thus far. It was resolved, I would make the second lap and everything would be fine once this dreadful swim was complete.

Into the second lap I had some directional confidence, and was no longer pestered by “the pack” who were out of sight ahead. In my own world at last, I focused on establishing a proper crawl, remembering from who-knows-where the trick of rotating your whole body out of the water to breath rather than just lifting your head. Made a world of difference. I passed someone. Hands freezing in the water and spent from all the pointless flailing, but I starting working on my pull and climbed out of the water in good shape, realizing that I came to embrace a physical challenge but was almost bested by the intellectual hurdle of focusing on what I needed to do. I was surprised to see that my swim was under 40 minutes, not a good time for me, but actually right on plan. My five minute budget for the transition turned to ten as I pondered the possibility that the pouring rain might become sleet — excellent — while numbly changing one set of wet clothes for another then pensively eating a banana as if I were a spectator rather than competitor.

I’ve done a short swim once most weeks for the past couple years but otherwise haven’t been on a bike or gone for a run to speak of in almost 25 years. Thus my goal, appropriately, was to “complete the event without serious injury”. I started training ten weeks before the event, and in hindsight this was my first mistake — I needed more time given my starting point. It turns out that having run 10Ks in your early twenties, and having been a mountain bike god in university isn’t enough to propel a 47 year old through a triathlon regardless of how much commitment one has.

I have ridden a road bike eleven times in my life, having purchased my first six weeks before the event. Always in excellent weather. The eleventh time was the triathlon itself; I was so cold after five minutes that my jaw was sore from clenching it to stop my teeth from chattering. The spray from my front tire was causing my ankles to cramp up. My fingers were too numb to get the water bottle out. That I was a mountain-bike god that rode through Edmonton winters with steel studded tires, and could do jasper-banff without preparation as a teen-ager was proving irrelevant at this point. The front of the pack was whizzing by me on their second loop at 40kmph+ as I was braking on the downhills while peddling to get my cardio up and generate heat. It doesn’t much matter how efficient your bike is when you’re squeezing the brakes while peddling and your speed is limited by fear of wiping out on wet pavement!

As the rain slowed and finally stopped, I warmed up and my battle against the elements was won. I found myself in my own world on the most spectacular ride through banff park and forgot I was in a competition; I could see no one ahead and, I got in the groove. Now I was cruising. Compared to my training rides, this was easy due to the downhill in to Banff. Everything was good, I dared a little more speed. My right knee gave a slight tinge to remind me that there was another obstacle between me and the finish line. The tinge became a shout at three o’clock each revolution. I backed off, it was easy going down into Banff and I wasn’t here to set any speed records.

Have you ever rolled out your IT band? I racked my brain to comprehend this novel sequence of words. I’ve rolled out a lot of software — and other IT products — in my career, but why would the physiotherapist be asking me about marketing? Apparently the knee pain was a simple matter of my various muscles being too tight, pulling the knee-cap off-centre or some such. Both my recent 10K runs through Stanley park had ended in walking but but if I just do this sequence of stretches everything will be fine. OK, great I still have 11 days until the event and, well I’m travelling pretty much solid between now and then but I can definitely get a couple good stretches in and although I can’t swim or cycle between now and the event I can still do a few runs. Thus far, I had faced significant pain after about 5km on every run but felt confident in the credible sounding 20 minute diagnosis and prescription, even if it seemed overpriced at $95.

I ran 10K through the spectacular Sonoma wine country at 7AM Sunday before the event and, well yes there was pain, but I did it with a minimum of walking! My knee hurt for the rest of the week so no more running but the plan was to taper off the final week in anyway. My final week included 28 hours in cramped aircraft with the food that normally accompanies but fortunately I was able to juggle my meeting schedule and arrive home before the mandatory event sign-in and meeting, rather than 12 hours prior to the actual start time!

This run started out great, the 37K ride had been slow (1:30) so I had plenty of energy. The first 1K whizzed by in under 6 minutes and shortly thereafter someone stabbed a knife in my right knee every time I lifted my foot. I immediately slowed to a walk. Oh-oh. I tried a slow jog. A shuffle. I grimaced and kept going. By 2K, my left calf cramped up, how crazy is this! Full of energy, I just wanted to GO but I hobbled. Stumbled. Walked. Stopped and tried stretching this and that. Stumbled some more. As I finally came to the finish line — I was done. Could not go another step. Everyone was cheering as I came to the finish chute — ah but no how humiliating to cheer as I have another 5K loop to do where do I veer off for that? The sign said right but barricades were up in that direction. That’s it; I’m so late they’ve shut down the course. I stood there not knowing what to do next.  How do I admit defeat? Who do I tell?

Limping around in a circle, I watched as other runners came up, and to my surprise some paralleled down the left side of the finish chute for the second lap. After this nice break, I could now hobble up there and resign with dignity, blaming a mechanical failure. There my family waited, fully understanding and supportive that I should stop. We spoke for a few minutes. My sons assured me that I’d done my best and that’s a success. No, a success would be crossing that finish line I said, not finishing is what we call a failure. Clearly the only way I can do that is by walking 5K which could take an hour, at which time everyone will most certainly have gone home. My sons assured me I was a success in their eyes.

As I jogged up to the first K marker on the second loop the sharp pains now doubled in frequency, coming every time I planted or lifted my right foot. I tried hopping on my left foot, ok that’s not going to work. Back to walking, after a couple minutes of walking I would jog for as long. If I lengthened my stride, the frequency of pain jolts lessened. Whatever I was wrecking would probably heal. A woman came up beside me and noted my plight, to which I quipped, “the only way I’ll finish this thing is with drugs”.

“I have Advil.”, She said.

Seriously? You bring actual Ibuprofen with you on a run? Would that be cheating?

In 5 minutes I was jogging again. The pain was there, but tolerable. In 10 minutes I was holding my own, then started passing people left and right.  I went into a sprint and turned the final corner at breakneck pace with the announcer saying, “look at that guy coming up the chute in the Orange!”. This time the whole crowd applauded, not politely but  in genuine disbelief — who is this weirdo showing up at 3hours 30minutes at that speed?

I could not live with myself if I’d given up, but the real lesson is that I should have signed up for the sprint, not olympic, rather than diving in head first only 10 weeks before the event!

Apparently they do one of these in Hawaii where the water is warmer…

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9 Responses to How not to complete a triathlon

  1. Incredible, kudos for actually finishing it.

    I’m going through some similar obstacles training for the Victoria Marathon in October. I think i’ll have to scale back to the 1/2 marathon as my knees can’t take it.

    Congrats on finishing it and crossing the finish line as superdad!

  2. David Nault says:

    Proud of you Shawn and you were a true example to your kids. A little dumb when it came to preparation but good example none-the-less. Reading this was a blast !

  3. Congrats for having the grit to finish…

  4. Very proud of you that you finished – to be honest, I would have probably given up.

  5. Carey Houston says:

    Yet another example of the tremendous Abbott tenacity! 🙂

  6. Martin Vetter says:

    “Every journey starts with the first step…”. An Olympic distance tri is no small feat, so congrats on starting, and definitely on having the tenacity and determination to finish, against all the odds!

  7. Nice work pushing through and finishing the race, Shawn! Funny that Advil is allowed, considering it appears to be something of a performance enhancer (or at least an enabler).

  8. Fantastic story! I will certainly take your advice and start with the sprint.

  9. What an amazing strong and inspirational story! Well done Shawn!

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