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When I told my triathlon story to people I occasionally got the question, “What made you decide to do a triathlon?” I gave an answer I thought people expected. “I wanted to get in shape”, or “I wanted a challenge.” Something like that.
The truth is, I was in the aftermath of a tough break up. After suffering for some time, I decided that I’d rather be in physical pain–from exercise–than emotional pain. I was in Washington DC at the time and happened to see part of Nation’s Triathlon. Now that seemed like lots of exercise.
I chose to do a triathlon, but not to inspire, not to raise awareness for some cause, and not to get in shape. Back then I would joke with close family and friends by describing my new exercise routine as “Forrest Gump Syndrome”. I ran a lot.
But a funny thing happened when I started training. I started to discover stories of other triathletes who used the sport to recover from some kind of personal loss. Through a friend of a friend, I discovered Punita, who writes Ride for Life and who shares a story similar to mine. Through a series of what I thought were strange coincidences, I discovered and eventually met Ironman Brian Boyle. I discovered some incredible stories of courageous triathletes at the Ironman Championships in Hawaii. Here are only a few of them:
Over time, the original reason that had motivated me to begin training for a triathlon faded. Eventually it was completely replaced by a love of the sport and an enthusiasm to conquer something that seemed impossible. I started to discover things that motivated me to train, like Alexandre Bilodeau, Nike’s Human Chain Commercial, and probably the greatest motivational speech I’ve heard since high school.
When I graduated from high school, my school district’s superintendent gave me a book called What Should I Do With My Life? In the final pages of that book, author Po Bronson writes
If we are the victim of an injustice, it is up to us to find a meaningful way to channel our anger. If we suffer a terrible crisis, only we can transform this suffering into a launching pad for a new life. These are the turning points from which we get to construct our own story, if we choose to do so.
That is really what my triathlon story is about.
A year ago, I could barely swim a lap. I was jogging two miles a few times a week. Now I am 25 pounds lighter and can swim a mile. I am an Olympic distance triathlete.
In my first post on this blog, I wrote:
Welcome to my blog. It’s about my journey to complete an Olympic-length triathlon.
That quest to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon is over. This is my final post at crawfordtriathlon.wordpress.com.
I would be remiss if I did not thank my family and friends that helped me through this journey. Your encouragement and support means so much to me. Thank you.
I also want to thank you for reading. I did not write this blog for you. I wrote it for me. Despite that, you and others viewed this blog 1,446 times over the course of the past year.
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.
Yesterday I finally swam one mile without stopping! It wasn’t pretty — I had to swim on my back for parts of it — but I did it. I am really enjoying a sense of accomplishment today. For me, swimming a mile is the culmination of nearly a year of training that consisted of countless hours in the pool where I shed some blood and took my first lesson in over a decade.
Knowing that I can swim a mile is a huge confidence booster. Exactly two weeks from today, I will swim a mile in the Potomac River.
In addition to finally swimming a non-stop mile yesterday, I also rode 25 miles and ran a 5k. So I came very close to a full Olympic Distance Triathlon. I didn’t feel great through my whole experience, but I’ll chalk it up to the fact that I had limited opportunities to train this past week. Actually, considering that my total training consisted of running two miles last week, I was surprised how well my body performed.
This upcoming week, my game plan is to cut back on my work outs. They will be shorter and lighter than normal. Workouts will be very light early next week, and I plan to rest two or three days before the race.
I grew up swimming competitively, but my interests changed when I got to 7th or 8th grade and I moved on to other things. That was 13 years ago. I never swam another lap until October 2009, when I started training for The Nation’s Triathlon.
This past weekend I took advantage of a free open water swim lesson The Nation’s Triathlon provided to participating athletes. My first swim lesson since 1997. Three coaches supervised the practice: one coached a local women’s swimming team, one was an open water swimming expert, and one looked just like Bill Hader.
The Athlete Village also attended and filmed us with underwater cameras. For a fee, we could purchase analysis of our stroke from Athlete Village coaches.
The practice concluded with drills to help us swim around buoys more efficiently and a simulation of a triathlon start. I could never get that experience swimming alone. The Nation’s Triathlon also gave away free bags, water bottles, Gu, and issues of Competitor Magazine.
After swimming so many hours in the pool alone, I had fun practicing with a group of people.
I take on the Nation’s Triathlon exactly one month from today.
I got away from my routine of posting some thoughts about triathlon every weekend. I did not get away from my exercise routine though, and have kept pretty busy. This post is a few micro-posts I’ve been meaning to write.
I recently switched up my running workouts from running outside to running on a treadmill. I was a little disappointed. It feels like my running endurance has decreased slightly since the last time I stepped on a treadmill this past spring. Leading up to Nation’s, I think it could be beneficial to mix in a few treadmill workouts.
I discovered in the DC Triathlon that swimming in an open body of water is more challenging than swimming in the local pool. To compensate for that in Nation’s, I’m trying to get my distances well over the mile I’ll need to swim. I’ve committed to doing flip turns at the end of every lap, no excuses. I cheated in every swim workout leading up to the DC Triathlon, skipped doing flip turns, and paid a price in the Potomac. I’m also planning to attend an open water swimming clinic that the Nation’s Triathlon is providing to participating athletes for free.
The Miracle of Sports Nutrition
I’ve been experimenting with different nutrition supplements over the past month. I have a system that seems to be really working well with my body right now. During shorter weekday workouts, I go with a low-calorie G2 Gatorade before work outs, and optionally recover with a Cliff Bar (Blueberry Crisp is awesome!).
I’ve been using PowerBar Gels for my Saturday bricks (triathletes call really long workouts, where they basically do a mini-triathlon a “brick”.) I save the Gels for workouts where I know I’ll be working out for longer than 2 hours straight. I’ve noticed that Gels noticeably improve my stamina towards the end of a 2-4 hour workout.
I don’t think that you really need to buy any of this stuff to get the proper nutrients, stay properly hydrated, and maintain your electrolytes (especially during long workouts), but they are incredibly convenient.
Two weekends ago I came one huge step closer to my goal and completed the DC Triathlon! I was completely surprised that I finished in under 2 hours (it took me 1 hour, 37 minutes), and I finished in the top 25% of triathletes in the race!
Show and Tell
I’d rather show than tell about this race. Click this link to see my DC Triathlon experience.
DC Triathlon put together a great animation of the race, too. When you click the link in the previous sentence, you can see how I did versus other men in my age group. If you play with the options, you can add in other age groups, too. I had fun watching myself race Lisa Millar.
Every athlete in this race got their own profile. Here’s mine.
Reflecting on My First Tri
I’m really excited that I conquered my fear of swimming in an open body of water. I was a bit disappointed that it took me so long to swim 800m in the river compared to how much faster I was swimming in the pool. I’ll be a little more mentally prepared for the swim in my next tri.
When I got to the finish, I expected that I might get emotional. Nope. When I finished, I was excited, but it felt kind of routine because of all the training I had done.
I saw this article on Runner’s World recently, and thought this would be a good time for me to take a stab at answering those questions for myself.
- What, if anything, about your first race took you by surprise? (Pleasantly or otherwise?)
- I was surprised how friendly my fellow triathletes were before, during and after the race. I was also really surprised by the fans that came out to cheer us along. I’ve never been in a race where people cheer from the side of the road before…
- What, if anything, would you do differently, if you could go back and do your first triathlon all over again?
- If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a blast, and a great learning experience.
- What advice would you give to fellow runners who are considering signing up for their first triathlon?
- Just do it. Sign up for one now. Everything that happens after you sign up becomes a personal test of character, so I only know what worked best for me. The journey of training for a triathlon is as important as the race, so enjoy it.
I’m definitely addicted to this sport. I can’t wait to do my next triathlon!