Watching a recent thread on the Forum about new triathletes and swimming made me wonder about how some things just seem constant. I started thinking about our sport, getting started in it, and how intimidating it can seem to someone just starting out. I look at the number of club members that have completed an Ironman, and the equally impressive roster of folks that have won or placed in an Iron distance event, qualified for and competed in Hawaii and I wonder, "What the heck was I thinking when I joined this club?". J Kidding. What I really wonder is whether everyone that races feels the same as I do, and as I once did. Here is the story of my first triathlon...
I remember showing up in August 2004 for my first training tri with the club, and seeing a bunch of lean, tanned, 5% body fat, chiseled, sculpted triathletes [and these were just the women!] standing around a bunch of tricked out tri-bikes that cost more than the car I showed up in! I was about to turn tail and drive off when one of the athletes came up to me, introduced herself [OK, it was Cory], welcomed me and explained the race. I got ready, had a blast, made some new friends and the rest, as they say, is history.
As time went on, I met the club folks that were more like me: not-so-lean, not-so-tanned, not-so-sculpted, 25% body fat, middle-of-the-pack age groupers, and I even worked up the nerve to talk with one of the Iron-gods [OK, it was Marc]. The more club members I spoke with the more one common thought rang through: we all had to start somewhere. At one point, even Ironman Champions like Faris al Sultan, Peter Reid and Natascha Badmann* were nervous rookies competing in their first triathlon.
My first triathlon was on Oahu’s North Shore in June 2000; a sprint triathlon on Mokuleia Beach near Haliewa, Hawaii. It was a 400-meter ocean swim, a 10-mile bike, and a 5K run. I wasn’t worried [too much!] about the bike and run, but the 400 meters in the ocean terrified me. I could barely swim the length of a pool without getting winded, and I liked the idea of hanging on to the side of the pool or standing up in the shallow end whenever I needed. There was something about that ocean floor falling away or the current sweeping me off to Japan that made me consider withdrawing. Some of my friends encouraged me to stick with it, and then I noticed that the race application said that snorkels would be permitted [but not floaties; damn!]. On race morning I brought my snorkel along, and sure enough, I was allowed to use it.
We lined up in 2 waves, men first with the women following 10 minutes later. Even with the snorkel, I panicked the first time I saw the ocean floor fall away, and realized that I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. Seeing a small grey reef shark didn’t help either. I never knew until that day that it was actually possible to scream underwater. I know, I know, they are more frightened of us than we are of them. Riiiiight. I plodded on and took so long that the first females [remember the 10 minute stagger?] were swimming over me as we neared the beach. I ran along the sand, happy to be alive, went thru T1 and headed out on the bike. The top women were right with me on the bike, shouting “Hana hou!” as they passed, which I later found out is Hawaiian for "get the hell out of the way"**. Other than that, the bike and run were uneventful, I finished my first tri and I was hooked!
The end of the story was that I stuck with swimming and racing, and less than 1 year later, I was competing in a 2mile ocean swim around an Island bird sanctuary in the Pacific [minus my snorkel!], and followed that up with a half-Ironman on the Big Island, along the same course as the World Championship.
When I left Hawaii, I had to learn about lake swimming and wetsuits. So even though I thought I had mastered open water swimming, was I wrong. Lakes and rivers move differently, taste differently and have different [usually zero] visibility. And they are cold. So I went out, bought a wetsuit, found a lake, and started swimming all over again. I highly recommend that anyone contemplating their first race should get out and try swimming in their wetsuit prior to race day. The first time I raced in my wetsuit, I wondered how it had gotten so tight in one week. It turned out that I was nervous on race morning [shocking!], and the neck & chest of my wetsuit felt constricting, like I couldn’t breathe. As I gained more experience, I was ready for this feeling, and could work on relaxation techniques to counter it. Now I’m equally comfortable OW swimming with or without a wetsuit. In November 2005, I had the honor of completing Ironman Florida and adding that adjective to my name. I wore my wetsuit for the swim and felt great the whole way. Which reminds me, more people need to read my RR; it’s on the Forum, and I spent a lot of time working on it!
My point to all this is that everyone starts out somewhere, but the important thing is starting! For everyone in the NTP, welcome! This sport is going to expand your horizons like you’ve never imagined. Enjoy!
* For the record, I’ve never actually spoken with either Reid, Faris or Badmann, although someone did yell at me to "get the hell out of the way" when I was a spectator in Kona in 2000, and I’m pretty sure it sounded like Peter.
** In hindsight, "get the hell out of the way" has been a common refrain I have had hurled at me in races, and it took me a long time to realize that this was not some tri-specific greeting, and that during a race I should consider actually getting the hell out of the way.