After almost a year of training, I finally completed my first Olympic distance triathlon on Sunday, September 12! This is a long post, but it’s by far the most interesting story I’ve had to write.
Wednesday, September 8
The actual race was on September 12, but I started really preparing for the race on Wednesday when I officially ended my training and started resting up for the big race. I also started waking up at 4:00 am to prepare my body for the early start time. The extended weather forecast called for rain the morning of the race.
The water temperature in the Potomac River had been 85 degrees the week before. At 85 degrees, wet suits would have been illegal, as per USA Triathlon (USAT) rules:
Each age group participant shall be permitted to wear a wet suit without penalty in any event sanctioned by USA Triathlon up to and including a water temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water temperature is greater than 78 degrees, but less than 84 degrees Fahrenheit, age group participants may wear a wet suit at their own discretion, provided however that participants who wear a wet suit within this temperature range shall not be eligible for prizes or awards. Age group participants shall not wear wet suits in water temperatures equal to or greater than 84 degrees Fahrenheit.
I did not own a wet suit. I thought that I could probably rent one in the unlikely event that the Potomac dropped below 78F. A week before the race, when the Potomac was 85 degrees, it seemed unlikely that I would need a wet suit. The Nation’s Triathlon posted this to their Facebook page:
Wetuit [sic] Update! If the water temperature does not drop below 78F by race day morning, there will be a wetsuit wave at the end, after the last age group wave. If you choose to wear your wetsuit you will not be scored for age group awards. Keep your fingers crossed for drops in temperature over the next few days!
There was no way I was going to swim in that last wave of my age group. I trained for almost a year for this. I wanted to face the elements that the majority of the other athletes would face.
Friday, September 10
I woke up to read this on Nation’s Triathlon Facebook page:
The water temperature is 78F, so wetsuit legal!
I did a quick check to see if I could rent a wet suit.
Nope. Every shop in town was rented out. Looked like I would have to buy a wet suit.
My family — Team Crawford — flew into town on this day. It was great to have them in town to see me race! The pre-race jitters started to set in when they arrived. Now it was on. Now I had a reason to go big. I didn’t want to let Team Crawford down.
The extended forecast still called for rain on Sunday.
Saturday, September 11
I took a few moments to reflect on the events of 9/11. It’s hard to believe that it has been nine years. This year was the 5th annual Nation’s Triathlon, so this race didn’t start until a few years after 9/11. I wondered to myself if race organizers intentionally planned this race so close to 9/11, or if it was just coincidence.
I couldn’t dwell on that for long, though. Nation’s Triathlon had a full schedule of events for participating athletes on this day. I ate an early breakfast with Team Crawford and then headed up to race Head Quarters — the Washington Hilton near DuPont Circle.
At the hotel, I signed some waivers (i.e. “if you die, your family won’t sue Nation’s Triathlon…we warned you this was dangerous!”), and got my race packet. My race packet included an aqua swim cap and a sticker for my bike and my helmet. It also included my race bib. I was number 1752.
Next I got my official race picture taken. A Nation’s Triathlon volunteer explained to me that they take a picture of each athlete so that, in the event you are incapacitated on the course, medical personnel can quickly identify who you are. Sweet.
After picking up my race packet, I moved on to a large fitness expo that Nation’s Triathlon had organized. There were tons of athletic wear vendors, sports nutrition vendors, and athletes. This seemed like the perfect place to pick up a wet suit at the last minute. A few minutes later, I owned my first wet suit.
The Nation’s Triathlon had an open swim practice in the Potomac later in the day where I could test out my wet suit for the first time. Nation’s also gave away a bag full of free schwag, which included an official Nation’s Triathlon T-shirt. I proudly wore it for the rest of the day.
Later that afternoon, I brought all of my gear down to the Transition area and began to prepare for my first wet suit outing in the Potomac. As I organized my gear, I struck up a conversation with a fellow athlete. He was in the Marines, doing his first Olympic distance triathlon. He mentioned that he needed to put some air in his tires, so I offered to lend him the bike pump I had brought with me. I struggled to get into my wet suit as he filled his tires. He returned the pump, laying it on its side close to me.
A few minutes later, I accidentally kicked the base of my bike pump and sliced open my middle toe pretty bad. I gushed blood all over my transition towel. It didn’t hurt, but it did look scary. I figured I should probably get it checked out by someone who knows first-aid before I jumped into the Potomac.
I asked a Nation’s Triathlon volunteer where the first-aid station was located, and he directed me towards an ambulance parked near the edge of the river. I explained to the EMTs that I cut my toe and wondered if they could take a look. So they invited me to get inside the back of the ambulance as one of them took a look at my foot.
As I was sitting inside of the ambulance, I was surprised to see another athlete that I recognized! Moments before my first triathlon ever, back in June, I struck up a conversation with a guy from New York City about the cleanliness of the Potomac. At the time he reassured me that the Potomac was one of the cleanest rivers to swim in, relative to bodies of water like the Hudson River. On this day, he was in the back of the ambulance because he stepped on a bee. When he saw my injury, he frantically repeated to me that I must not go into the Potomac or risk getting very sick.
I sat in the back of that ambulance for a while. The EMT working on my foot couldn’t get my toe to stop bleeding. I was afraid she was going to tell me that I needed stitches. When she finally did get the bleeding to stop, she also stated that I should not swim in the Potomac that day. Two additional EMTs warned me to stay out of the water.
I was feeling pretty low at this point. No swim practice for me, and I wasn’t even sure if it would be safe for me to race. After talking things over with Team Crawford, I decided that I would cover my injured toe the best I could and go forward with the race. I bought a bottle of “liquid band aid” (superglue), and added that to my bag of gear for race morning.
Sunday’s forecast: rain.
Sunday, September 12 — Race Morning!
I woke up a 3:30 am, grabbed the bag of gear I had packed the night before, and drove into Washington DC. Nation’s Triathlon had arranged for shuttle buses to pick up athletes from a parking lot about 5 miles away from the start line. I arrived at the parking lot. It was raining. I grabbed my gear out of my car and headed over to the shuttle bus — a cushy coach bus.
With a bus only half-full with athletes, we departed for the start line. Washington DC is well-known for its iconic monuments. As we rode past the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument at 4 o’clock in the morning, they seemed even larger than life.
When we arrived at the start line, the scene was completely surreal. Bright flood lights lit up the transition area, where thousands of athletes had already gathered and where more than 5,000 bikes were parked one next to the other. It was still raining. A professional announcer kept us company for most of the morning, welcoming us to the event and keeping us informed on the current time and the short-term weather forecast. He also mentioned that representatives from Guinness were on hand, because we were expected to set the world record for a triathlon with the most number of participating athletes.
My toe was still bleeding. After quite a bit of effort, I managed to keep my toe dry enough, long enough to super-glue it shut. I got into my wet suit and arranged my gear for the last time in a complete downpour. After a quick wakeup call to Team Crawford around 6 am, I headed over to the starting area. It stopped raining. I randomly ran into the New York City guy from the ambulance. He asked about my foot and wished me luck.
Finally, the time came. The announcer asked the crowd to observe a moment of silence in remembrance of the lives lost on September 11, 2001. The National Anthem played. The first wave got in the water, and the gun went off. I was in wave 10, so I waited about 40 minutes until I was in the water and the gun went off for my wave. Then it was just me and the Potomac. I was out of the water in 34 minutes! It was my fastest mile swim ever!
A few seconds after that photo, I saw Team Crawford!
I took a lot of extra time to pack my toe with as much anti-biotic ointment as possible before heading out on the bike. Next task: bike 25 miles.
As I approached the cycling finish line, I saw Team Crawford again!
While I was on the bike, I got caught up in the race and ate three gels much quicker than I normally would in practice. I would pay for that mistake on the run with some of the worst abdominal cramps I’ve had in recent memory. The first mile of the run was excruciating. I focused on pacing myself, and keeping my body in an aerobic state.
Shortly after that picture was taken, I ran past a large crowd of people near the Washington Monument. At first I thought they were triathlon fans. Then I realized that it was an anti-abortion protest. Someone was singing a song over a public address system that included lyrics to the effect of “save us Lord/have mercy on us”. I wondered how many other athletes were asking the Lord for mercy. My cramps were still killing me.
Eventually my cramps wore off, and for the rest of the race all I could think about was the very Zen idea that for the rest of the race I would stand in one place and let the finish line come to me. I had reached that strange — almost delirious — state of mind that I think most long distance athletes encounter after several hours of exerting themselves. I can only really describe it as dreaming while you are fully awake.
I swam a mile in 34 minutes, 27 seconds. I biked 25 miles in 1 hour, 14 minutes and 29 seconds. I ran 6.2 miles in 53 minutes and 26 seconds. I finished my first Olympic distance triathlon.
After a year of blood, sweat, and tears, I can finally say that I am a triathlete.