On July 9, 2005 I entered my first multisport race – The Splash, Pedal, Dash Sprint Triathlon in Schaumburg, Illinois.
Earlier that year I had enrolled in an “Introduction to Triathlon” program at McGaw YMCA. The goal of the program was to learn the basics and then compete in the Glenview Sprint Triathlon at the end of July.
I had a lot to learn.
I showed up for my first swim practice without goggles, and the bike I was planning to use was new in 1975. Mitch, the Y instructor, suggested I might want to replace it. I had no idea what my time would be for a 400-yard swim – but I grew up on a lake – I knew how to swim. Mitch, who was a collegiate swimmer, wasn’t so sure. But his goal was just to make sure I wouldn’t drown, and I passed that test.
I bought goggles and a new bike and showed up for all the swim and bike workouts. I didn’t figure I needed any run training – I had been running every day for the last 20 years. The Y program wrapped up in June and I didn’t want to wait until the end of July to put my training to the test, so I signed up for the Schaumburg triathlon. I was ready to take the triathlon world by storm.
The Y program was helpful, but they never told us what to wear. I had watched a film on the Ironman World Championship and when the athletes got out of the water they ran to a tent and changed from their swim gear to their bike gear. I wore swim trunks for the outdoor pool swim and planned to change to my bike shorts in the changing tent. But, of course, there was no changing tent – just a parking lot where my bike was racked.
I arranged my bike shoes, helmet, and bike shorts next to my bike and when I got out of the pool, I stripped off the swim trunks and tried to quickly put on my bike shorts. It is not so easy when you body is wet. No one complained about my wardrobe malfunction, but it definitely impacted my transition time. That would count as my first official racing mistake.
It wouldn’t be my last.
I finished 6th in my 50-54 age group, with a swim pace of 2:14/100 yards, 16.9 mph on the 15-mile bike ride, and a 5k run of 24:20 – a 7:50 pace per mile.
The next day I bought a tri suit.
Last week I competed in the USAT National Championship Sprint Triathlon in Irving, Texas. It was my 99th multisport race. I finished 12th in the 70-74 age group with a 750-meter swim at a 2:03 pace, a 12-mile bike ride at 20 mph, and a 5k run at a pace of 9:57 per mile. I’ve definitely lost a few steps on the run, but I was faster on the swim and bike then I was at that first race 18 years ago.
How did that happen? Training.
Just like with my writing career, I figured out quickly that if I wanted to excel, I needed professional training. Heather Collins, who runs Monarch Fitness Coaching, has been my coach since 2012. She has helped with my technique on the swim, bike, and run, and most importantly, provided me with strength and mobility training that has enabled me to compete frequently and avoid major injury.
I don’t make it easy for her.
At the USAT Multisport Festival in Irving last week, I competed in 4 races in 4 days. After signing up for those races, I got an invitation to compete for Team USA in the ITU World Championship Sprint Duathlon in Ibiza. That race was a week after the Irving races so Heather had to prepare a training program that would get me through 5 races in 10 days.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from multisport competition is that when you make a mistake, you can’t let it derail you. I figured that out at that first race when I showed up without a tri suit. Most mistakes can be overcome if you don’t quit.
I’ve made plenty of racing mistakes over the years, but I’ve managed to finish all but one race in my 18-year career. I put that philosophy to the test this week.
To start with, I made a mistake booking my flight and ended up with a 3-connection flight that arrived in Ibiza 18 hours before my 8 a.m. race. I had to pick up my bike, check in to transition, find our hotel, and try to get some sleep before the race. I managed to make it to the start line on time but my body thought it was midnight. There were 80 of us in the over 70 age group from at least a dozen different countries.
I didn’t have time to check out the course before the race, but I figured I would just follow the faster runners. What could go wrong? Well lots. I followed the wrong guy and missed a turn on the first run segment, then went temporarily off-course coming out of transition on the bike, and then to complete the trifecta I almost followed a runner to the finish line prematurely. Three course mistakes in one race is a personal best.
The high point of the race for me was the bike segment. This is a draft-legal race so it is important to draft with other cyclists. I caught up to Brian Stephens from the UK on the 2nd mile of the course and we drafted back and forth for the entire 12 miles. Drafting allows you to save a lot of energy, so that you can run faster on the final segment. I passed Brian on the run, but soon after I finished the announcer proclaimed that Brian Stephens was the new world champion in the 80 to 84 age category.
My 100th race was over and while my USA teammates and I finished back in the pack, I had the satisfaction of knowing I had helped someone achieve a world title.
My next race is the ITU World Championship Sprint Triathlon in Hamburg, Germany in July. My plan is to get there early and study the course. No wrong turns this time!