A mid-packer and proud of it: Taking on the Olympic Distance Triathlon

Strength Doesn’t Come From What You Can Do. It Comes From Overcoming The Things You Once Thought You Couldn’t.

I only saw the above axiom after completing my first Olympic Distance Triathlon: a 1500m swim, 40k bike ride, and 10k run. But it speaks to the reason that I entered the event, held as part of the HITS Triathlon series at North-South Lake in the Catskills the weekend of September 21-22. For all that I have become a decent runner, and am still breaking PRs as I approach my 50th birthday, I like to seeks new challenges. That may suggest a willingness to settle for being jack-of-all-trades (and master of none?), but I’d prefer to believe it demonstrates a hungry spirit, or, as Iggy famously put it, a Lust For Life.

And so, at 7am this past Sunday, I watched from the shores of South Lake as the Sprint Distance swimmers set off on their 750m triangular loop, 40 minutes before us Olympic Distance competitors, and thought back to the same time a year ago. My debut Triathlon had been almost comical: I had only got a wet-suit days before the event, which didn’t fully protect me from the shock of the cold water; along with fogged-up goggles and lack of sighting practice, I had zig-zagged the course like a (good-natured) drunk. I was so ill-prepared for the cold air and so badly dressed in non-Triathlon clothes that my body froze at the first transition and I needed assistance. I was so unfamiliar with my SPD pedals, which I had only acquired eight days earlier for a bike that was barely two months old, that I failed to swivel out of them in time on the second transition, falling over and cutting myself before setting out, bloodied, for the 5k run.

And yet I had (in all senses) a relatively good time, even finishing second in the 45-49yr old age group. And although the swim had been especially hard work, I refused to let that fact get the better of me. In fact, applying warped logic, I figured that if I upped from the Sprint to Olympic Distance for 2013, I would have the advantage of that later start. The sun would be up by then, and with a longer time in the water, the air would be considerably warmer for my first transition. The fact that I would have to double my swim distance to 1500m seemed like a reasonable swap. I had a serious new target. And I would, this time around, have a full year to prepare.

My swampy local lake, at the Kenneth Wilson State Campground.

My swampy local lake, at the Kenneth Wilson State Campground

And I tried my best, swimming at every opportunity indoors in winter and in open lakes through the summer. Still, as I stood watching the Sprinters set off, I was painfully aware that the longest distance I had swum all year had been just three days earlier, when I figured to have finally taken in about 1500 yards at my local, swampy lake. I knew this was perilously soon before the race itself, giving me insufficient time to rest up, but it had taken me all that time to build up the stamina. Still, I had grown in confidence along the way. Through carefully studying quality lesson videos at YouTube (as beneficial, I have to say, as taking group lessons at the Y a couple of years back), I figured I might finally have found my form, learning to breath properly, to float properly, to glide properly. I had entered two of the Hudson Valley Triathlon Club monthly races that take place almost on my doorstep over the summer, and though I had been last person out of the water on he first of them, I was but last male out of the water on the second. This was progress, of a sort.

Back then, to South Lake. As per 2012, a storm had swept through overnight, bringing cold air with it to coincide with the first day of autumn. The early morning air temperature was barely above 50F, but the water seemed considerably warmer than last year’s painful 60F. Plus, I had learned the small things that make a difference: allowing water inside the wetsuit to acclimatize; swimming for a few minutes to warm up; staying deep in the water until the start of the race to avoid the cool air temperature; and combatting that eternal problem of foggy goggles by allowing some water to reside in them. I did make the mistake of trying to run through shallow water when the horn went off rather than the easier process of swimming – and cut myself on a rock as a result – but still…

Preparing the transition area as the sun comes up at 7am.

Preparing the transition area as the sun comes up at 7am.

…I had a blast. In fact, I have to pause here and reflect just how joyous it was. From the moment I grasped that I could see in the water, and that there were other swimmers going at more or less my same gentle pace, I felt absolute serenity. I tucked into the process of breathing every three strokes, rotating my body and head as best I thought I could, breathing out through my nose, loudly, while underwater, remembering the various arm motions, looking ahead every now and then for other swimmers to ensure I had not gone totally off course – and told myself that my time didn’t matter. I felt like one of those people I see coming in at the end of a 5k, long after I’ve run a sub-20 minute race and added a mile to cool down, people who are taking control of their bodies in middle age, covering the distance for the very first time, and are visibly thrilled to be achieving their goal. That was me! Who cared that it was going to take me 40+ minutes to swim 1500m while it would take the leaders just half as long? I was swimming for over 40 consecutive minutes, was I not? Through practice, practice, practice, and a certain amount of blind determination, I was achieving a goal that, a year earlier, had felt positively foolish. As I set off on the second 750m loop round the lake – admittedly grateful for the short break on shore – I knew that the preceding week of early nights, the days of intense training, the 5:20am Sunday morning alarm call, had all been worth it. I was having fun.

The transition to the bike went off smoothly. I had sprayed Pam cooking oil around the base of my wet-suit feet, and it came off with a couple of tugs. To combat the sudden adjustment to the cold air, I immediately put on my fingerless Burning Man gloves (still lacking proper biking equivalents), and my Under Armor skull cap. At the last HVTC race ten days earlier, I had purchased a one-piece Tri-Suit, which is worn underneath the wet-suit, and that meant I didn’t need to waste time getting dressed. I had additionally half-laced my SPD bike shoes in preparation and opted to go without socks, given how long it takes to put them on wet feet with cold hands. I was left to decide whether to wear my ageing CPFC tracksuit top, a far cry from a proper cycling wind-resistant jacket, or risk the bracing cold and trust that the Tri-Suit would dry quickly, and my body temperature warm up with it. Upon hearing that some cyclists had opted for the former, I decided to take the risk.

South Lake as seen on Friday afternoon. The buoys are placed for the longer 1.2m swim.

South Lake as seen on Friday afternoon. The buoys are placed for Saturday’s Half Ironman 1.2mile swim.

The first few miles on the bike were predictably bracing, especially as they were mostly downhill and in the shade, and that the tri-suit barely covers the chest. But gloves, UnderArmor cap, the rapidly drying Tri-Suit material – and that faster transition – made all the difference; I was shivering, but not shaking. And once we got out onto Rte 23A, into the open air and the sunlight, and the first uphill climb towards Tannersville, the facial shiver turned into a smile. I love my Scott Speedster. It’s not a racing bike – among other limitations, it lacks the resting handlebars that enable the crouched position – but it’s my bike, and I know it well enough. And while the overall downhill for the first 12.4 miles benefited the lighter and faster (and of course, considerably more expensive) models, once we reached the turn-around it came back down to personal fitness. On the 1000ft total ascent through the rolling hills of Jewett, Hunter and Tannersville, I passed many riders, offering a friendly comment on the sunny skies as I did so. Figuring that my real forte was yet to follow – the run, of course – I gave the climb my all, even though, to my surprise, I only had to lift myself out of the seat once. After last year’s crash, I remembered to slow down (too) far in advance and swivel out of my SPD pedals before reaching the second transition stage. According to my bike device, I’d completed the 40k in just over 90 minutes, more or less my intended time..

The switch from SPD shoes into pull-up lace, ultralight Inov-8 running shoes seemed fast enough, and I paused just long enough to suck down half an energy gel for the hell of it. I then set off on the out-and back (twice) 5k course like I was in charge of it… and was instantly hit by fatigue. At the short HVTC mid-week race ten days earlier, I’d run two 5:36 miles to finish only a single second behind the overall winner of the run portion. Naively, I had therefore assumed I could run the Olympic 10k a little over 40 minutes; conservatively, I had estimated 45 minutes. But I had put in a lot of training over these last ten days, including a full marathon just a week before (as training for a proper full marathon in another two weeks) as well as that long swim and an equally long bike ride. And I had been out on the Triathlon for almost two and a half hours already. After running my first two miles at a 7:20 pace, I had no choice but to slow down considerably if I didn’t want to bonk entirely.

But this, too, was part of the fun. I had been strong in my weaker areas, and if I appeared now to be weak at my usual strength, that seemed a fair swap for the day. Admittedly, I still overtook many runners on the course, and was overtaken in turn by none, but all I was doing was playing catch-up. As it turned out, my 10k run ended up just under 48 minutes, and though I was initially disappointed, I later realized that this 7:40 per mile pace was faster than that of my road marathon PRs, satisfactory given how long and how intensely my body had been working the preceding 140 minutes.

I had set a rough target of completing the race in three hours. But I wasn’t beholden to it, the way I had been about finishing my first road marathon in under four. And when I found out later that I had finished in 3hrs 7, I felt absolutely fine about it. The transitions, I figured, probably accounted for the seven minutes. (I was right.) The time spent swimming, cycling and running had been more or less as intended, and for all that I was thoroughly exhausted on the run, I felt euphoric soon after the finish.

A contented contender.

A contented contender.

In fact, I couldn’t quite believe just how good I felt, both physically and mentally. And I had to ask myself, why? As best I can conclude, I think it’s because the variety of activities prevents the body from wearing down, and keeps the mind engaged. While in the water, I could push hard and look forward to getting on the bike; while riding, I could give it my all, knowing that I would be running soon enough. And for all that the run was much more work than I’d expected, by then I was envisaging the finish line. Compared to the tantric demands of counting down 26.2 long painful miles at the same running pace, the Triathlon is something of a sports orgy.

Unlike last year, I didn’t place in my age group. The Olympic Distance attracts more serious triathletes than does the Sprint – including the winner, local legend Mike Halstead, who completed the whole thing in just 2hr 16 minutes. (Mike can run a 3hr marathon as the finishing section of an Ironman.) I had the sense that I had finished in the middle of the pack, and when the full results came through 48 hours later, my supposition had been correct. Of 79 competitors, I was fourth last out of the water; bang in the middle of the pack on the bike; in the top 20% of runners… and dead center overall.

That makes me a mid-packer all over again, after years of finishing in the top quarter of my running races. And I’m happy to be here. Taking on the Triathlon has proven a positively humbling experience.  Sometimes, it is quite enough just to finish.

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November 2021