Cottesloe, Perth's most famous beach, hosts a triathlon/duathlon event in February each year. As this was my first ever triathlon, I opted for the shortest distance on offer. The "Tri-it" event consisted of a 300 m ocean swim, 10 km road bike ride and 3 km run, up and down the coastline with gentle undulations.
The Lead Up
I have no idea why I wanted to do a triathlon. A new challenge perhaps, or seeing pictures of friends on Facebook completing their first tri. Whatever it was, I got it into my head that this would be my biggest goal over summer. I scoured the internet and any resources I could find, trying to absorb as much as I could about this challenge I was going to undertake. I found a triathlon with a beginner's distance, to be held in February. It was already December. I had two months to train.
I had been running consistently for the last few months, so I had no worries about completing the run leg. I occasionally headed out on my bike and knew I could make the distance, although it wouldn't be fast. The problem was the swim leg. I hated swimming. I had only swum laps in a pool a handful of times since leaving school, and I recall taking breaks at each end. How was I going to swim 300 m continuously in open water?
I decided to start training in a local 25 m pool, feeling safer with lifeguards nearby in case I started drowning. After each lap I grabbed the wall, gasping for air. I was in the super slow lane but I was still passed by other swimmers. Even the people in the walking lane were faster than me. This was going to be tougher than I thought.
I visited the pool twice a week, not having the motivation to attend more often (despite obviously needing to). Slowly but surely things improved. I could swim several laps without stopping. I learned how to breathe on both sides, and only take a breath on every third stroke. My speed didn't seem to improve, but that didn't matter. I just needed to make the distance.
Only living five minutes from the beach gave me plenty of opportunities to practise open water swimming. Nervously I waded into the cold water and started to swim parallel to the beach, hoping that the few people on the sand weren't watching and laughing. It was much harder than I thought. I struggled to breathe, and had to revert back to taking in air every second stroke. I swam for what seemed like forever, but looking at my watch told me it was only one minute. I stopped numerous times, treading water until I had composed myself enough to carry on. Eventually I made it to the end of the beach, a distance of 600-700 m, but it had taken me an eternity. Despite this, I felt more confident that I would be able to complete the upcoming triathlon.
Over the weeks my skills improved, to the point where I could swim for several minutes at a time in the ocean without stopping. I became more familiar with currents and learned to ignore the jellyfish stings. It was clear that I would never be an Olympian, but that wasn't my goal. I wanted to finish a triathlon.
The bicycle I had been using for training was a flat bar touring bike. Not exactly the ideal model for racing. I started popping into bicycle stores and researching online, weighing up the pros and cons of splurging on a road bike. What if I only ever did one triathlon? Would it really make me that much faster? Would I have enough time to learn how to handle the inherent instability that came with the lighter frame and thinner tyres? Would I be able to ride with clipless pedals without falling over? All of these doubts had me putting off buying a new bike.
Four weeks before race day I caved and bought my first road bike. I dragged Danny around to several bike stores before finally settling on an entry-level bike, with drop bars and the scary clipless pedals. As soon as I got home I practised clipping in and unclipping my shoes from the pedals while holding myself up against the wall. It took all the courage I had to let go of that wall and venture outside.
The first ride on the road was terrifying. The bike wobbled dangerously as I concentrated on clipping my shoes in, but once I got going it was a breeze. I was flying along the streets, with much less effort than I was used to exerting. Stopping was another matter. I couldn't quite twist my ankles enough to get my shoe out of the pedals efficiently. Several times I had to continue pedaling, making sure I had enough momentum to stay upright until I could free my foot. In the end I rotated my heels hard and fast, which released me from its grip. This didn't help my confidence.
A few more practise rides around the roads and I slowly became familiar with the bike. I couldn't always get my feet out on the first go, so I had to make sure I started unclipping well before I needed to stop. I was certain I had made the right decision in buying the bike, but I wasn't convinced in my ability to handle it come race day.
Once the bike was purchased I went on a spending spree. Next up was a tri suit (ugly things but functionally fantastic), goggles that didn't fog up as soon as I put them on, a race belt to hold my bib, and flashy sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. It seemed silly, but buying all of this equipment gave me more courage to face the triathlon.
I had known for two months that I wanted the Cottesloe Triathlon to be my first tri, but I didn't fully commit to it until a week before the race. I continually tossed up the idea of whether I should go through with it or not. It would be easy to back out, no one would ever know. In the end I bit the bullet and clicked "register" on the website, telling myself that I would regret it if I never gave it a shot. Plus I had bought all the gear already, and I needed an excuse to use it.
My nerves ran high the morning of the race. I was scared of many things: I would be last in every leg, I would be missing some essential piece of equipment, I would go the wrong way or miss the transition, I would do too many or too few laps on the bike, I would crash on the bike or do something else equally as embarrassing - the list went on. I had never seen a triathlon in person, only the championship races on TV that I was sure were quite different to what I had signed up for. At least I didn't know anyone here, and if I did fail it would only be me who knew.
I walked my bike through transition, choosing a spot on the end of a rack so I could find it easily. I studied other athletes, watching how they set up their gear. Cycling shoes, running shoes, helmet, sunglasses, towel, bib - it was all laid out, ready to go. I tried to walk off the anxiety, do a couple of warm up drills, tell myself that I couldn't do any more to prepare now so I may as well quit worrying. It didn't work.
I assembled with my wave and started chatting to a few women. I discovered that I wasn't the only one completing their first triathlon today, and I also wasn't the only one dreading the swim leg. Immediately I felt better, realising that others were in the same boat as me. I lined up near the back of the pack, not wanting to get in the way of the faster swimmers, and waited for the countdown.
Let's just say the swim leg didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked. I made the distance, but I'm not sure that I actually swam any of it. As soon as the siren sounded I put my face in the water and tried to get going. I couldn't breathe. The closeness of the other competitors, the legs and arms flailing around me, the turbulent water preventing me from seeing anything all elevated my heart rate. I rose my head and gasped for air, trying not to panic. I used my arms to move me forward while I waited for the pack to thin out so I could try again. The same thing happened, again and again. I repeatedly tried to put my face down but each time I was left puffing and panting. I saw the other swimmers pulling away, which only intensified my emotions. I couldn't think clearly, I couldn't understand what was happening and I had no idea how to fix it. My best option was to attempt a sort of doggy paddle, halfheartedly bringing my arms over my head to pretend I was doing freestyle. This was how I got through the swim leg.
It gets slightly worse. There were several lifeguards sitting on surfboards in the water, making sure everyone was safe. As I was passing the last one, about 50m before the end of the swim, he gave me a quizzical look. I presumed he was puzzled at the hybrid swimming stroke I was performing. I thought I should try again to swim normally, maybe finish off this leg on a high. Face down, in the water, eyes closed. Why was I closing my eyes? I had goggles, I needed to see, my eyes should be open. Only then did I realise that I hadn't even put my goggles over my eyes. They were still sitting on top of my head, where I placed them before the race so I wouldn't forget them. No wonder the lifeguard looked at my like I was crazy. I pulled the goggles down, attempted swimming yet again and found I could get a couple of strokes in here and there. Really it was just a big lesson in what not to do.
Where did I put my bike again???
As I eventually exited the water I stole a look behind me to discover that somehow I wasn't last. There was one more woman left in the water with the same coloured swim cap, about 30 seconds behind me. I raced up the beach to transition, repeating in my mind what I had to do to get ready for the bike leg. Cap off, goggles off, helmet on, sunglasses on, bib on, shoes on, grab bike, go. Simple. I was in and out in a flash, overtaking a couple of women as I exited the transition area.
The bike leg went to plan. I didn't crash and I didn't have problems with my shoes - much more successful than the first leg. I did have to deal with all the saltwater that was pouring out of my nose (where did I store it all?) but otherwise there were no issues. Out on the course it was impossible to know who was in your age group, as all the waves had caught up to each other by now. I did know, though, that I was overtaken a lot, cyclists flying past like they had fitted their bikes with jet packs. I had no idea how they did it. I tried not worry about it. I had come off a terrible swim and I wanted to make up some ground in the next two legs.
The 10 km was over quickly and I was back in transition. A quick change of shoes and I was ready for my favourite part: running. Thankfully I didn't experience the jelly legs that is common in longer triathlons, although it did take a minute or two to get up to speed. Here was where I came into my own. I passed people left, right and centre, feeling a surge of energy as I swept by. I expected everyone to be finished before me and that I would be last out on the course. With every overtake I felt like I belonged here, that I wasn't a complete triathlon failure. The 3 km was over before I knew it and when I crossed the finish line, I was elated. I had finished my first triathlon, and even with a horrible start I hadn't come dead last. I knew there would be more triathlons for me in the future.
I found out later I finished 6th in my age group out of 16, which I couldn't quite believe, especially as I was 15th out of the water. I knew I had a great run leg but it was my cycling performance that surprised me the most. I felt I was constantly being overtaken on the bike, yet I had the 6th fastest time in my category. I guess you never really know how well you're going when all the age groups, and both men and women, are out there together.
I arrived home early in the morning full of energy. Being such a short race I felt I hadn't really done much exercise, so I showered, changed and drove to the gym for a Pump class. With the first squat I realised it probably wasn't the best idea, but the adrenaline rush from the race sustained me over the hour. With still more energy to burn, I then cleaned the house, did a load of washing and bought the week's groceries at the supermarket, all before lunchtime. After all of this I finally crashed, and reflected on my achievement of completing a triathlon.
I can do it! Yes it was scary, yes I made mistakes but I finished. I can now say I have completed a triathlon. I was proud of myself, not only because of my performance but for having the guts to get out there in the first place.
I now know what what expect in the swim leg. There will be thrashing and jostling as everyone tries to get to the front. Sit at the back of the pack, wait for the stronger swimmers to take the lead and then calmly start swimming. Knowing what was coming next time would make a huge difference.
More swimming practise is essential, especially faster sets that more closely replicate race conditions.
Put your goggles on before you start swimming. You wouldn't think I would need to complete a triathlon to learn that lesson.
It doesn't matter where you finish in the swim leg, or even the bike leg. There are three disciplines, and everyone has strengths and weaknesses. These balance out over the race. Although you might feel like giving up if you're one of the last out of the water, remember that you can make up ground on the bike and the run. It's not over until you cross the finish line.
Understanding the process of how a triathlon unfolds was a major lesson to take away from the experience. How my body reacted moving between disciplines in a race environment, what to do in transition, how and when to eat and drink, running without socks on, managing adrenaline and the pressure to go faster, dealing with snotty water running out of my nose - it was incredible how much I picked up that I hadn't fully considered before the race. Knowing these things for my next race would make the situation far less stressful.