A Distance for Everyone
…So runs the tag line and sales pitch for the brand new, cross-America HITS Triathlon Series. I first heard about the Series on a Marathon training run this past winter, when I got talking to Mark Wilson, founder of the Hudson Valley Triathlon Club, and Tom Trizero, founder of the extremely successful HITS show-jumping events. Mark gave me the sales pitch on a slow climb up one of the paved Catskill hills: with his Triathlon expertise and Tom’s business know-how, the HITS Triathlon Series would traverse the country for weekend-long events that would feature not only Full (Ironman) and Half Triathlon races, the kind that seem unattainable unless you’re willing to train relentlessly and to the exclusion of a social life, but also Olympic and Sprint Triathlon distances; in fact, each weekend would even feature an Open Triathlon, of such short distances that the race can be easily completed in half an hour. The idea, explained Mark, was to draw people into the Triathlon world by making it accessible; newbies could choose a distance to their liking, and might be inspired by watching others into aspiring towards a longer one.
I wasn’t instantly sold. I am, frankly, not a great swimmer – and that despite taking lessons this past winter. I didn’t, at the time, have a decent bike. My spring and summer was absorbed with the Boston Marathon, the Finger Lakes 50, and the Escarpment Run, none of which left much time for other sporting endeavors. So when the HITS Triathlon series took over Hunter Mountain (actually, North-South Lake, which is several miles away) in late June, I didn’t give it much thought. But when it announced that it would be returning to its ‘home’ area in late September, due to another location falling through, I decided I might be foolish enough to attempt, at the very least, the Sprint Distance: a 750m swim, a 20k bike ride, and a 5k run. The run, of course, was not a worry. The bike ride would no longer be such a concern either: in July, after years of regretting my purchase of a hybrid Trek bike several years back that seemed to be the worst of both worlds, I bit the financial bullet and bought a Scott Speedster: nothing too fancy or expensive, but enough to make all the difference, both in speed and enjoyment. The swim, however, remained daunting: 750m is about 35 laps at my local 25-yard YMCA pool, which I don’t find easy unless I revert to the breast stroke. Still, I worked on some open-water swimming over the summer, both locally and while on our road trip, and upon return, looked at my calendar and figured that I was never going to get a better opportunity to cover a ‘manageable’ triathlon distance so close to home, with space in my diary to do so. I paid the $90 fee just before the cut-off, and, far too close to race day for common sense, set about borrowing the last necessary pieces of equipment: SPD pedals and shoes for my new bike, and a choice of wet suits for the swim.
The afternoon of Saturday September 22, I headed up to North-South Lake to pick up my race packet and get a prep talk. The full Triathlon competitors were just coming back from their 112m bike ride and setting off on their 26.2 mile marathon distance run, and their endeavors (a 12-17 hour race day) immediately put my own Sprint Distance in its proper perspective. All the same, when I returned the following morning, at 6:15am, I remained… not nervous, not scared, but certainly daunted by the prospect of the swim. The sun had not yet come up. The water temperature was hovering around a chilly 60F, rendered that much more frightening by the air temperature, which was closer to 50F, with a hefty wind still blowing through from a thunderstorm the previous evening (that had probably drenched the marathon runners in the process). I had tried the wetsuits just once, two days before the race, making a last-minute decision to give with the short-sleeve one for greater arm movement; I didn’t have a pair of goggles I could fully trust; I had borrowed my son’s swim shirt for additional warmth; I did not have a cycling jacket; my SPD shoes were lace-ups, not slip-ons. To say I was jumping in the deep end may not be literally accurate – when the starting gun went off at 7am, we ran through shallow water for a while before taking the plunge – but from a Triathlon perspective, it certainly felt that way. And then we were off.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS OF THE HITS SPRINT TRIATHLON, NORTH-SOUTH LAKE, SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 23
1) Standing at the edge of South Lake at 6:45am, the sun still the wrong side of the horizon, wearing a short-sleeved wetsuit, shivering, staring at the two buoys, 250m from the shore and from each other, and saying to myself, You can do it. You WILL do it.
2) Realizing that, true to all advice, the wetsuit really does give such buoyancy that distance swimming is feasible; knowing at the same time that I was probably the slowest swimmer in the lake, not least because I was zig-zagging from side to side. My swim lessons in the pool had taught me to breathe to my side, not to look ahead.
3) The sun rising over South Lake, a moment of startling beauty that I wish I could have captured beyond my mind’s eye; that same sunrise then completely blinding me, causing yet more zig-zagging and the arrival of a couple of kayaks to ensure that I was waving, not drowning.
4) Emerging from the lake, knowing that there were very few people behind me, but ecstatic at completing a half-mile open-water swim for the first time in my life – and feeling good in and of myself. Figuring that from here on, I was on solid ground, in all senses.
5) Struggling with the transition to the bike in such cold conditions. My body, literally, going into shock with the air temperature being that much colder than the water. Taking three efforts to put just one sock on the right way round; realizing my hands were too numb to put on my running/bike gloves; with wet swim shirt and wet cycling shorts and the fact that it was still only 7:30am and most of the area covered in shade, feeling in genuine danger of frostbite or hypothermia. (And that from an experienced skier.) Grateful for a member of the HVTC leaning over and offering me her cycling jacket. If not a life-saver, it turned out to be a race-saver.
6) Setting off on the bike ride and, other than the continued shock of the cold, realizing how much I love my new Speedster. Breaking the 30mph speed limit in Tannersville. Overtaking one cyclist after another and realizing that the 70 mile ride through the Catskills I’d undertaken with an experienced visiting friend only 8 days before had served me well, especially on the hill back up to the lake where other cyclists were clearly struggling. (Of course, they were, equally clearly, much better swimmers than me.)
7) Racing up to the transition area at speed and failing to get out of my SPDs in time; getting my right foot free but somehow then tipping my balance to my left foot. Gravity taking over. My left knee hitting the ground with a loud thud, and my left calf muscle pulling in the process. Swearing loudly and vociferously at my own stupidity, especially after such a sterling bike ride. Hobbling into the transition area, my knee bleeding and my muscle screaming.
8) Knowing from a similar past experience on the Escarpment that I could get through a 5k run regardless; passing a dozen competitors en route, realizing that by now I had done enough to make up for my exceedingly slow swim.
9) Finishing. And knowing that the campground has a warm shower.
10) Staying around for the awards – and discovering, to my utter and total astonishment and even disbelief, that I had finished 2nd in the 45-49 yr age group. Receiving an individual trophy as reward and coming home with a pronounced spring in my limp.
Leaving aside the vagaries of unexpected age group success (after all, the winner was 52, yet the runner-up just 16), how did I fare overall? Well, bearing in mind that I didn’t do this to compete as much as just to do it, my swim was every bit as bad as I expected; I was 59th out of 62 competitors, taking more than twice as long as the top ten swimmers. I was, similarly, the fourth slowest in transition time to the bike. At the other end, I had the 9th fastest 5k, and that with aching muscle and bleeding knee. Yet it was the bike ride that truly thrilled me: I came in 21st, and more to the point, I loved every moment of it, and didn’t even feel like I was particularly pushing myself. Overall, I finished 30th, just inside the top half of the pack, a placing I would readily have accepted in advance. And as for the difficult first segment, I was considerably comforted by assurances from Triathlon veterans (the awards ceremony for the Saturday’s full Ironman took place as our race concluded, so most of the previous day’s competitors were still around) that I would be unlikely to experience as cold a swim or swim/bike transition ever again. As I set off for home later that day, pausing to take pictures of the emerging, beautiful fall colors at what is one of my favorite parks in the world, I realized that I couldn’t wait to get back on the (now slightly scratched) bike to practice getting out of those SPD pedals; and nor could I wait to get back in a lake with a wetsuit and improve my swim technique for the next time. Almost instinctively, I found myself setting the Olympic Distance, with a full 1500m swim, as my next goal. Tri? I did. And I loved it. Thanks to Mark and Tom and their team at the HITS Triathlon Series for coming up with such an accessible event. A distance for everyone indeed.