A Hail of a First Tri
hose of us who live in California are a bit spoiled when it comes to the weather. While most of the country was suffering through the cold, bitter winter of 2010-11, we squinted into the sun and wondered how we’d be able to tell when spring actually arrives.
I live in Morgan Hill, California, which is about 70 miles south of San Francisco. We don’t experience a lot of extreme weather here. On average, it rains about 19 inches a year. We had exactly one day of frost this past winter. It’s not uncommon for us to bask in cloudless skies for weeks at a time in the middle of the winter.
A few days before Christmas, 2010, I wandered down to our local outdoor pool, the Morgan Hill Aquatics Center, and went for a swim. As usual, it was bright, sunny, and comfortable – about 65 degrees. I had started swimming a few weeks earlier to burn some calories during my days off from running. At some point during my swim workout, a thought crossed my mind:
“Let’s see… I seem to swim okay. I know I can run. I used to bike when I was younger. Why couldn’t I do a triathlon?”
And so it began.
When I got home from my swim, I went online and googled the words “triathlons Morgan Hill.” At the top of the list of results was the following link: “Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon – USA Productions Events.”
Perfect -- a sprint triathlon in my hometown. Actually, it’s slightly longer than a typical sprint: it’s comprised of a ¾-mile swim, a 16-mile bike ride, and a 5-mile run. I went to the Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon website and discovered the event was scheduled for May 15, 2011. I signed up immediately, knowing I’d have nearly five months to get ready.
But first I needed a bike. I was on budget and wanted something I could use as both a road bike and a triathlon bike. I searched craigslist and eBay and eventually found several bikes that fit the bill. On December 27th, I came home with a silver and black 2007 Cervelo Dual. It was exactly what I needed. It had an aero-style frameset, and came with a reversible seat post, aerobars, standard bars, and Shimano DuraAce components. I could easily convert it between a triathlon and road bike configuration in about 30 minutes.
So I had my bike. All I needed to do next was figure out how to actually train for a triathlon. I went online again and this time googled “triathlon training for beginners.” I also went to amazon.com and ordered several books, including the “Complete Triathlon Book,” by Matt Fitzgerald, “The Triathlete’s Training Bible” by Joe Friel, and “Breakthrough Triathlon Training” by Brad Kearns (a friend of mine). During the next several weeks, I spent nearly as much time reading about triathlon training as the time I actually spent training.
Getting it Right This Time
Training properly for a triathlon was a priority for me. I’d actually been bitten by the triathlon bug once before – a long, long time ago, in the summer of 1985 when I was 23 years old. Triathlons, at that time, were still in their infancy. One day that summer, I saw a poster for a “Swim-Bike-Run Race” at Uvas Reservoir in Morgan Hill (I’m not even sure they were called triathlons back then). I didn’t sign up to race, but I was intrigued enough to show up and watch it.
I don’t recall the particulars, but triathlon legend Mike Pigg was in his first year as a pro, and he dominated the race from start to finish. I was completely and hopelessly awed and inspired.
The day after I witnessed Pigg’s victory, I launched into a triathlon training frenzy. I got up early in the morning and ran 5 or 6 miles. At lunch, I went swimming. After work, I headed out for a 30-mile bike ride. Then I went to the gym and worked out with weights. I repeated this same regiment every day for the next week and a half – until I collapsed with a 102-degree fever and was bedridden for more than a week. And, just like that, my short-lived triathlon dream was over. I figured I just wasn’t cut out for triathlons. I didn’t have a clue that my over-exuberance had caused me to train myself into the ground.
Fast-forward 26 years to early 2011. I am 48 years old. I am older and wiser (supposedly) than the reckless days of my youth. Triathlons have gone mainstream. There are countless websites, books, and videos on triathlon training. I am at no loss for sensible training information.
This time around, I decide to begin my training with some degree of restraint. On Mondays, I ran. On Tuesdays, I biked. On Wednesdays, I swam. I repeated the cycle again starting on Thursdays, and then took a day off once a week. Eventually, I was doing two workouts a day, and later did some “brick” workouts – a bike ride, followed immediately by a run. I’d been running consistently for more than two years, so I was already in decent running shape. My bike form quickly returned too. In February, I ran the Kaiser-Permanente Half Marathon in San Francisco, and in March I participated in the first-ever South Bay Duathlon in Morgan Hill. I figured I was at least capable of completing two-thirds of a triathlon.
That Sinking Sensation
But swimming was a different story. Despite my regular outings to the local pool – along with several swimming books, and a handful of instructional DVDs -- I struggled to swim more than a couple hundred yards without stopping.
I have a muscular build (I’m 5-10, 175 lbs), and, like many triathletes my size, my legs tend to sink when I swim. As a result, I struggled to maintain optimal swimming form, and fatigue would quickly set in. In mid-April, less than a month before the Morgan Hill Triathlon, I realized I needed to make a drastic change if I was going to complete the swim leg.
Fortunately, I happen to live near a lake – Anderson Reservoir (it’s about 100 yards downhill from my garage). I decided it was time to move my swim workouts directly to the lake. Each morning, immediately after waking up, I grabbed my wetsuit, wandered down to the lake, and started swimming. I soon discovered that the extra buoyancy of the wetsuit did wonders to help me resolve my sinking leg problem. Within a couple of days, I learned to relax in the water, and I was able to swim 400 yards without stopping. On May 4th, my 49th birthday, I swam 1600 yards non-stop. After nearly five months of training, I knew I was capable of completing my first triathlon.
Nasty Weather in the Forecast
About a week before the triathlon, I checked the weather report. I wasn’t necessarily concerned – just curious. For the past month, our weather had been consistently sunny and warm. I didn’t expect that to change. Strangely, though, I noticed there was a chance of showers for the next weekend. Each day that week, I checked the weather report -- and each day, the report became more alarming. By Thursday, I read an “Severe Weather Advisory” that warned of an “unseasonably cold weather front with thunderstorms expected to arrive by Sunday.” I couldn’t believe it – a fluke cold weather system predicted for the day of my first triathlon? What the heck was going on?!!
When I woke up early Sunday morning, race day, I noticed it was a bit cooler than usual. It had rained briefly the night before, but it was mostly dry outside. I gathered up my gear, loaded up my bike, and drove across town to Uvas Reservoir – the same location where I’d witnessed my first triathlon some 26 years earlier. I figured that the “severe storm warning” I’d read about must have been some sort of weather forecast miscalculation.
As I approached the race site, I followed a line of tail lights leading to a temporary parking lot in a field near the race transition area. It was still dark, but I could see the faint glow of the sun beginning to rise. It didn’t appear to be cloudy. I forgot about the weather and focused on my finishing my first triathlon.
“No Big Deal… I’m Already Wet”
There were several waves of starts for the race. The Elite division began at 7 AM, followed by several other age group divisions. The wave for my division, 45-49 year-old men, was scheduled to start at 7:12. I got into the water at about 6:50, and began warming up. The sun was just starting rise over the surrounding hills. It was peaceful and serene. I was relaxed and ready to go.
I knew the start of the swim would be chaotic, so I tried to navigate a route as far off to the right as possible. I still took some kicks and swipes to the head, but the start went smoothly overall. My swim stroke and breathing finally settled down at the first turn – about 250 yards into the race.
The swim course for the Morgan Hill Triathlon is easy to follow – especially if it’s your first triathlon. It starts in a quiet cove and proceeds counter-clockwise around a foot-shaped peninsula. The finish is at boat ramp in another small cove just a few yards overland from the start.
For the first 1000 yards or so of the swim leg, I paddled along in semi-cruise mode. Although my swimming had improved dramatically during recent weeks, I was still painfully slow. I was hoping to complete the ¾-mile swim in about 30 minutes.
I was elated when I reached the final buoy. At that point, the course turned west, and I began a final 250-yard stretch to the finish at the boat ramp. But I noticed something was slightly amiss.
After I made the turn, the water suddenly got choppy. I then started seeing bubbles in the water – everywhere. Each time I took a breath, I swallowed a few more drops of water than usual. When I looked up, I saw what was happening: It was pouring rain. But I tried not to let it bother me. “No big deal,” I thought. “I’m in the water. I’m already wet…”
It wasn’t until I reached the end of the swim and got out of the water, that the weather became a big deal. As I peeled off my wetsuit and trotted toward my bike, the heavy rain turned to hail. It all seemed surreal. Hail was not in the weather forecast! But who was I going to complain to? I quickly put on my helmet, grabbed my bike, and headed out of the transition area wearing a pair of soaking wet riding shorts and thin, tank top-style triathlon jersey. I didn’t notice until later that many of the other athletes had put on a jacket or sweats or a dry shirt with sleeves.
Numbness Sets In
As I began to ride, my fingers, legs, and feet immediately went numb. The rain and hail soon stopped, but I was still cold. I put my head down and tried to focus on my pedaling cadence. I figured I’d eventually warm up – wouldn’t I?
The first section of the bike route heads north, and is comprised of a series of rolling hills that border Uvas Reservoir. At about the 5-mile mark, there’s a mild peak, and then you head downhill until making a sharp right hand turn. The route stays mostly flat for the next 3 or 4 miles as it borders another lake, Chesboro Reservoir. Eventually, you pass a dam on the right before descending a short, steep hill, and approaching the most dangerous part of the course – a sharp, high-speed right turn. With all the rain and hail that had just fallen, I figured this spot was an accident waiting to happen. Sure enough, as I maneuvered to make the turn, I saw several people gathered around a downed cyclist on the far side of the intersection. I heard a siren and saw an ambulance and fire truck approach. I tried to put the images out of mind and carefully steered through the turn.
As I rode on, I noticed I was passing more and more riders. Of course, when you are a slow swimmer like me, there are plenty of people to pick off on the bike! I got passed too – a couple of women buzzed by me like I was standing still. I found myself actually looking forward to a portion of the course known as “The Wall” -- a short, steep climb at about the 11-mile mark. I’d climbed it several times during training rides, so I knew what to expect. Mostly, though, I looked forward to building up some core body heat.
The climb was a nice break, and I managed to warm up a bit. After reaching the top, I headed downhill for a long stretch – the fastest part of the course. Alas, my momentarily defrosted feet went numb again. I didn’t realize how numb they were until a few minutes later when I slipped out of my cycling shoes and hopped off my bike in the transition area. It was the strangest sensation -- I was barefoot, but I literally could not feel my feet touch the ground. I just tried to keep shuffling my legs, hoping I’d move in a forward direction.
Waiting for the Sun
I wobbled into my transition area, racked my bike, and grabbed my soaking wet socks and running shoes. During the weeks leading up to the race, I had practiced putting on my socks and shoes while standing up. But I quickly realized this technique wouldn’t work since I was too numb to balance standing on one foot. Instead, I dropped to my butt on the ground and clumsily slid my socks and shoes over my feet. My fingers were so numb that it took me several attempts to tighten my shoe laces.
At last, I was running! At least I think I was running -- I still could not feel my feet. The run segment is an out-and-back course that parallels the first 2 ½ miles of the bike route. The initial two miles are mostly flat or downhill, followed by a slight uphill for a half mile just before the turnaround. As I approached the uphill, the sun came out and I felt my feet for the first time in more than an hour. The rest of the run went fine, and I managed to pick up some speed on the return leg.
As I approached the finish area, I relaxed just for a split second – and watched in disbelief as a (younger) guy in my age group shot right past by me! Argh! Anyway, I placed 22nd out of 44 finishers in my age group, so I couldn’t complain too much. (Click here for the complete race results.)
Even with the very un-California-like weather, I had a great time competing in my first triathlon. The race was well-organized, the course was terrific, and everybody was friendly and supportive.
After the race, I found a nice spot to sit in the sun. I kicked up my feet, listened to some live music, and enjoyed a hard-earned beer. More than two and a half decades after I first caught triathlon fever, I was now officially a triathlete. But when all is said and done, I’m actually just a chilled-out Californian with a strong preference for warm weather and sunshine.