Saturday, May 09, 2009

What I learned in my first triathlon

Today I finished my first triathlon. It was not easy. At times, it was downright difficult, but I did it. Scratch that one off the Bucket List. Here’s the short version of what happened:

- I had a lot of trouble on the swim and actually swam way off course three times, but finished it (and NOT LAST!)

- I was plagued with stomach cramps for half the bike and half the run, but pushed through it and finished the run really strong and felt fantastic about it.

Want to hear all the gory details or see some pictures? Just keep reading:

I woke up at 3 a.m. this morning and couldn’t get to sleep. I could actually feel the nerves and adrenaline buzzing through my body. I couldn’t stop thinking about the day ahead – what would it be like? Would I get hurt? How cold WOULD that water feel? (For the record, 62-degrees feels pretty cold at first, but you get used to it quickly.) Most of all, would I finish?

Around 6 a.m., my alarm went off and I went to the kitchen. I had carefully planned my breakfast: oatmeal, a bit of yogurt and lots of water. But I could barely finish the oatmeal. My stomach was in knots and I had no appetite. I did my best and got most of it down, but I couldn’t even fathom the idea of the yogurt so I skipped it.

I dressed, got the girls fed and dressed and then we all (my mom too) piled in the car and drove off. The ride was 40 minutes and my stomach was flopping with anxiety the whole time.

We arrived, used the port-a-johns and found the transition area.

All my gear

I got body marked (Coolest.Thing. Ever. This made me feel totally badass.) and I set up my area. It was teeny. My stuff was squished in right against the women on either side of me.

Waiting to get body marked.
Waiting to enter the transition area

They put your age on the back of your leg. For the race, your age is how old you'll be at the end of the year. So? Today, I unofficially turned 40.
They put your age on your leg*

Marked and ready to go
Body marked and ready to go

Around this time, I must have started feeling better, because I got hungry. I ate a Power Bar and had some more water then pulled on my wetsuit and headed down to the beach for the pre-race meeting.

At this point, we watched the first two waves for my race take off. It was so cool. Some of those men were so fast – they were out of the water before they even it got wet it seemed.

My mother-in-law arrived at this point and before I knew it, it was time for my wave to start. Hugs and kisses to all, and I walked down to get in line.

Look! It's Batgirl!
Look! It's Batgirl!

Hugs all around
Part of my fan club


The half-mile swim took place in a lake. It was a beach start. I was in the third and final wave, which included women and first-timers.

Waiting to start
Just before the air horn went off

A year ago, when I started this adventure, swimming was the part of the tri I feared the most. I could only dog paddle. But I took a stroke clinic, practiced like crazy, and have come to the point where I feel pretty confident and can easily swim a mile in the pool.

Did you get that? Because there is a very key, three-word phrase there: In. The. Pool.

Prior to today, I had never done an open water swim. And despite cautionary advice from two experienced triathletes that open water swimming was very different, I had no real idea what I was in for.

I will get back to that, but first let me describe the course. As I said, it was a half-mile. You swam straight out to one big floating cone, made a left, swam to the next big floating cone, made another left, then swam back to the beach. Think of it like three sides to a rectangle.

Standing on the beach waiting for the air horn, it looked far, but not that far. I kept trying to calculate how many lengths of pool each leg would be and decided it was probably something in the neighborhood of 14 or 15 for each of the long sides and maybe 8-11 for the short side. Piece of cake, I rationalized.

So the air horn blasted and the water became a churning mass of humans. Legs and arms flying everywhere. I waded out to about my waist and then dove in.

And she's off!
I look pretty enthusiastic here.

And guess what?

Open water swimming is on a WHOLE OTHER PLANE than pool swimming.

I couldn’t see anything but murky brown water in my field of vision. I couldn’t see the buoys or the big floating cones or even the other people around me. I got kicked in the arm by a foot I could not see at all.

I could feel the terror welling up inside me. I was taking a breath every second stroke instead of the every third or even fourth I do in the pool and it still wasn’t enough. I flipped over and back stroked, breathing furiously.

Do you see that head on the left sticking up? That head is mine. Does this look like good swim form? Because IT IS NOT!
The start of the swim

I dog-paddled. I sidestroked. I tried to breaststroke, but it was like I forgot – completely – how to do it.

I thought I was not going to finish.

I thought I was going to have to be pulled out the water within the first five minutes.

I thought about all the hard work and training that went into this day.

Then, I thought about all the people I’d have to explain this failure to: my husband and the two amazing women who traveled extensive distances to cheer me on. My daughters. Other relatives who were pulling for me from afar. All the people who emailed me well wishes and wrote on my Facebook page over the last few days. The mothers and teachers at the girls’ school. My coworkers.

And my brain said: Unacceptable. You will finish this swim if you dog paddle the whole way.

So I kept going. But I was so focused on making forward motion, I forgot one very important thing: Forward motion is only good when you are going in the right direction.

At some point, after swimming a mix of strokes for a while, I looked up and could not see the big red cone anywhere. I looked around and there it was – way, way off to my left. I had been swimming at an angle away from the cone.

I will not even tell you the long litany of curse words that ran through my head at this point, but I turned and swam like mad for the cone and somehow I made it and rounded it.

Except? I did the same thing again – not quite as badly, but still – AGAIN - on the short side.

And, just because the third time’s a charm, I did it AGAIN on the return to the beach. Finally, I remembered how to breast stroke and I came straight up out of the water and bee-lined for the beach, never letting it leave my sight.

Obviously, I need to work on sighting and open water swimming.

But somehow I made it out of the water - and there were still at least a half dozen swimmers in the water. If I had managed to stay on the course, I probably would have come in more in the middle of the pack.

But I finished it and that’s what counts. I was never – NEVER – so happy to plant my feet on solid ground.

So happy to be done!
I am done! And I did not die! PASS.

Swim time: 25:43. I probably could have shaved 4-5 minutes off that if I'd stayed on the course and done the crawl the whole way. At least I have a goal for next time.


I ran up the beach to the transition area pulling off my swim cap and goggles and unzipping my wetsuit on the way. My stomach was cramping a bit, which I blamed on nerves or maybe bad lake water.

I gulped some sports drink, washed and dried my feet, pulled on my socks and shoes, fastened my helmet, grabbed the bike and went. I also took a shot of GU, which made my already upset stomach clinch. I seriously thought I was going to puke, but didn’t. At the end of the transition area, I hopped on and pedaled off.


Here I go - off on the bike
And off I go - 19.5 miles ahead

The bike portion was a 19.5-mile loop of rolling countryside. The first 10 miles went fine. I was making decent time and even passed a few people, which is always a good confidence builder (in fairness, I was the passee much more often than the passer, but even 3-4 times was nice).

Sometime after mile 10, my stomach decided to stage a revolt. I started feeling really crampy and nauseous. I thought for sure I was going to have to stop to throw up. But it never got to that point, so I just kept pedaling, though admittedly the second half took longer than the first.

Then I saw the park entrance ahead, pedaled in, dismounted and got ready for the run.

Returning from the bike leg
Returning from the bike

Bike time: 1:40. Two words: Speed Drills

As soon as I hopped off the bike, my stomach seized. I felt awful. I racked the bike and sipped some water. At that point, I wasn’t sure what was the greater evil:
Option 1: Drink nothing and risk getting dehydrated or
Option 2: Drink something and risk making the stomach cramps worse.

Feeling really bad at this point.
T-2: Bike to run

I went with Option 3: Sip slowly and hope to find a middle ground.

After a moment, I slipped on my visor and turned to run off. Only which direction do I go? Fortunately, a whole lot of people yelled, “Left! Left!” So I turned and ran back toward the beach.


I can typically run a 5K (3.1 miles) in about 33-35 minutes. I am no speed demon for sure. I don’t really like running and have bad knees, so I tend to be conservative.

Today, if I had knee pain, I didn’t even notice it because I was so focused on the stomach cramps, which were worsening. The first 2 miles of the run were HELL. I honestly thought I was going to either throw up violently or (worse) have diarrhea in my pants (I know, too much information, but one thing I learned: tri's aren't pretty).

Fortunately, I didn’t do either. At mile 2 there was a port-a-john.

I have never been so happy to see a port-a-john in all my life. Unfortunately, there were three runners already in line. But I felt my options were either wait or risk a seriously embarrassing incident, so I waited. I waited for close to five minutes.

When it was finally my turn, that port-a-john and I spent some quality time together. In fact, I’d like to write that port-a-john a thank you letter, because afterwards I felt MUCH BETTER. I was actually able to run at decent clip. When I saw the park entrance, I was elated.

When I saw the turn to the finish line, I literally shouted out, “THANK GOD!”

And when I saw the actual finish line looming ahead, I gave it everything I had. I sprinted the final 2/10ths of a mile.

The announcer calling out the name and hometown of each finisher (which was an AWESOME touch, by the way) even said, “Look at the pace on her!”

Giving it everything I have
Sprinting toward the finish

God, that felt great. After the less than auspicious swim, bike and 2/3 of the run, I finally felt something resembling pride.

I came across the finish line with my arms in the air and a huge smile on my face and was instantly hugged and handed flowers by my two beautiful daughters, amazing husband (who has been so incredibly and fabulously supportive these last few months) and two gorgeous and inspiring women: my mom and mother-in-law.

At the finish. SO. FREAKING. HAPPY.

Flowers from both girls - how awesome!

Congrats from my mom

Mark's mom offering a hug

Hugs from two of my biggest fans

Run time: 40:48. OK. This is a totally sucky time, BUT, if I hadn't lost that five minutes waiting in line for the bathroom, I would not have been too far off my usual time. That makes me feel better about it.

My time was not good AT ALL. But I have to remember that I had one goal for this race: FINISH. And I did. And that alone is an accomplishment.

I also learned a lot, and have a new set of goals to work on for the next time (yes, there will be a next time!) and above all, I actually think I had fun. Go figure?

A medal and some flowers make everything better

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is amazing and awesome!
Good for you!

10:27 PM  
Blogger ryssee said...

WOW WOW WOW Kim that is fantastic! What a race and what a story! I'm so proud of you. You totally pushed yourself through your fears, and your endurance paid off.
The pictures are great! You look healthy and muscular and gorgeous!
Congratulations, girl!

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Annie said...

You are amazing! I am doing my first one on June 6th! So proud of you! Love, Annie

11:31 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Chicken said...

Oh my. This is so wonderful! I have chills. Congrats, and, like, just ... WOW!

10:36 AM  
Blogger Mayberry said...

I am in awe!! A very very happy Mother's Day to you and CONGRATULATIONS!

1:08 PM  
Blogger Amber said...

I'm so proud of you! I'm fowarding this to my SIL so she can read your experiance. She is in a Tri in June. You were awesome!

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Aunt Shirley said...

You know, Kim, we'd have been proud of you even if you didn't finish, so you can imagine just how awesome we all think you are. May you do the next one without the stomach (or any other) problems.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Lady M said...

Congratulations! I'm so impressed you followed through the whole way - training, preparations, the race, all the way to the end.

11:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm totally blaming PMS, but I got all verklempt at the pictures of you finishing :)

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Shelley said...

You have every reason to be proud! You did awesome and now you know what to expect for the next one!!!! are inspiring!

9:53 AM  
Blogger Maureen said...

Kim - YOU FINISHED! What an amazing accomplishment - no matter what time you came in, you came in!!! You are an inspiration and a role model for those two precious little girls of yours.

Swimming in that kind of water is tough but given that you were only doing a dog paddle a year ago you did an AMAZING job. You have to be so proud of yourself!

Oh, and you totally are a badass!

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Jamaine said...

You are AWESOME, Kimberly! I'm so proud of you. No words I say could even come close to how you feel about your accomplishment. Congrats!

11:25 AM  
Blogger Kristi said...

Oh, I love to read your writing when it's about you. So well done both from the point of what you accomplished and how you shared your story and photos. Life is good -- yes!

4:29 PM  
Blogger MichelleBB said...

Congratulations and thank you for the wonderful tips. I'll take heed of your advice. I'm going to do a test tri in two weeks...very short distance (250 meters POOL/10 miles/5k) in prep for the July 12th real-deal.

You did such an awesome job!

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kudos Kim! I could feel my stomach wrenching with your story. I know that will be my issue too =)

10:47 AM  
Anonymous xup said...

Holy crap mamma – you’re awesome

4:08 PM  
Blogger alejna said...

Wow! Congratulations! That is a huge accomplishment. I'm very impressed. (I was tired just reading it!)

12:19 AM  
Blogger Jennifer H said...

Kim, you ARE badass!

Amazing, and I'm so proud of you. You pushed through more than a lot of people would have, and I'm so impressed!

9:58 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

Kim, I cannot even begin to say how inspiring this post was.. seriously.. it is totally amazing .. CONGRATS to you!!!

12:45 PM  
Blogger Colleen said...

Oh Kim! You are totally amazing. I completely teared up when I got to the photo of you with your arms up crossing the finish line. Such a proud moment.

Oh... and did your husband tell you that you looked totally hot in the wet suit?

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing! I am soooo proud of you!!!!! (And you did look hot!) Justine

10:21 PM  
Blogger sahm3k said...

I can't believe I didn't comment on this! I hope I did on FB! This post was such an inspiration - it truly helped me in accomplishing my first triathlon.

11:43 PM  

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