Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Reluctantly woke up at 5:15 AM for the race. Scarfed down a Clif bar and some trail mix, then headed out. Hurriedly headed over to the triathlon so I could set everything up in the transition area. Every single parking lot was full, so I had to park in the grass. It must've taken at least 15 minutes to walk to the transition area. I joked with a few of the other athletes that we're doing enough walking to call it the 4th event. Once I got to the transition area, I barely had enough time to set up my stuff, borrow someone’s bike pump, and put on some sunscreen before I had to head over to the start area.
Before you start the race, you have to have your body marked with your race number in permanent marker. Considering the strict rules already in place about bibs, I'm not sure why your race number has to be on your body too. On top of that, your age is marked on the back of your calf. According to some triathlon governing body, your official age on race day is the age you will be at the end of the year. So for today, I was 27.
I struggled into my wetsuit, then attempted to stretch while in it. Awkward at best. As soon as I was done, it was time to head onto the dock with my age group. The swim was released in waves set five minutes apart so you didn’t get 2,200 people all smacking each other while jockeying for position in the water. Your wave determined your swim cap color, mine being bright green. So there we were, 50 young men in wetsuits and bright green swim caps, hangin' out on the pier. Kind of a weird sight. Only saw one guy without a wetsuit. The start was in-water, so we got to jump in and get used to the water before we had to start swimming. A wetsuit combined with salt water makes you really bouyant! I didn't even have to tread water to float. A countdown ensued, a chorus of "Good luck," and we were off.
I'd been warned that a lot of people freak out in the water, especially since you're bound to get elbowed and kicked a few times. It turned out not to be as bad as I'd expected. I only got kicked hard once, right in the chest, when some guy decided to switch to breast stroke for some reason. The murkiness of the water bothered me, since I'm used to swimming in a pool. Not being able to see the bottom, or more than three feet in front of me, maked it hard to tell where I was going, and apparently I can't swim in a straight line. More than a few times, I got off course, once by a lot. Fortunately, the course is clearly marked with a brightly-colored buoy every 100 meters or so, and a red one at the corners of the course. Even with that, it was easy for me to lose my way.
We were on the landward side of the island, which meant no tides or current, but there was a lot of wind, causing significant surface waves. Those got annoying and could knock you out of direction. I hadn't practiced sight-breathing, where you bring your head up in front of you to see where you're going. Combine that with the surface waves, and I kept getting a mouthful every time I tried to sight-breathe. It’s hard to say how much salt water I swallowed over the course of the swim, but I’d guess it was about a pint.
Every now and then I knew I was about to lose my way again and I'd stop and grab a buoy (which is allowed). Looking down the line, the buoys seemed endless. Every time I approached a corner, it would look like there were only 2-3 buoys left, then I'd pass a few buoys and it still looked like there were only 2-3 buoys left. I just kept going, and eventually the buoys came to an end.
Walked up the ramp outta the water while attempting to shed my wetsuit. At the end of the ramp, there were volunteers there to help you take it off. After that, there was a freshwater shower to get the salt off of you. Nice touch. Jogged into the transition area and started getting all my stuff for the bike.
I'd laid everything out ahead of time, but not in an organized fashion. I had no rhyme or reason in the order I did things. Just shoved in food, dried off, drank, put on whatever I needed to, and headed out. Apparently it can be done better, because while I was at my bike, a few people ran up and left before I was done. I'd thought I'd try the trick where you clip your shoes in before you get on the bike, then strap into your shoes once you’re already on the bike. As soon as it was time to mount, I realized that was a bad idea and that I'd probably just fall over trying to do that. I unclipped my shoes, put them on, then just got on the bike like normal.
The first part of the course was all in this resort where the triathlon was being held. We were clumped and jockeying for position, so I don't think the "no drafting" rule was being enforced. After a mile, we were on Seawall Boulevard, straight and flat for 54 miles. For the next three hours, I didn't shift once.
From the get-go, I was passing people about as often as I was being passed, maybe even a little more. Over the course of the bike leg, only two people passed me that weren't on triathlon-specific bikes, and both of them had disc wheels. I love Invictus to death, and he's a great road bike, but he was probably one of the cheapest bikes there. I suppose this is the big leagues.
I left it in a comfortable gear, stayed in my aerobars, and kept it going. I didn’t have my bike odometer, just a wristwatch. My goal was to finish in under three hours, so that would mean I'd have to pass every 5-mile marker about every 16 minutes. My watched showed 17 minutes at the first marker. A little slow, but that probably has something to do with the jockeying in the first mile. At the 10-mile marker, 33 minutes, or in other words, 16 since since the last one, down to the second. Bingo.
Not long into the bike course, I felt my stomach rumble a little bit. Was it something I ate or drank? Oh yeah, isn't salt water a laxative? That along with whatever else I swallowed in the Galveston water, this could get interesting later.
Seawall Boulevard goes down the beach a lot farther than I realized, and the same can be said about the development. I'd been to Galveston on vacation a couple times before, but I don't think I ever left the main strip of beaches. On the very first part of the course, I passed a few things I remembered seeing in childhood vacations before, a restaurant on the beach, a long pier, a mini golf course. It was weird to see those things in a different context, as an adult, not on vacation. Eventually, the hotels and restaurants gave way to small houses and bait shops, then eventually nothing but sand. With the strong wind coming in from the water, I was surprised there wasn't much sand blowing against us and into the road.
Only 15 miles into the bike leg, I saw the first few triathletes headed back the other way. Already? Granted, their swim wave started 20 minutes ahead of mine, and they're professionals, but damn. It was just unbelievable that someone could be 40 miles ahead of me. They would finish the entire race before I even started running.
Every so often, I'd come up behind a cute girl in a bright-colored tank top with some midriff showing. I'd notice her smoothly-shaven legs and think She's got a cute butt! Then I’d pass her and realize it was a guy! Aaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!!
I was able to hold pace well for most of the first half. There was about an 18 mph wind coming from about 10 o' clock, a little bit in front of us, but mostly a cross wind. Enough to make me slow down just a little by the time I finished the first half. Once we got turned around, I immediately started moving noticeably faster. I was tempted to shift up, but remembered that guy's advice not to hammer once you get the tailwind. I decided I'd wait until the next 5-mile marker and re-evaluate. Later, I was glad I did.
Instead of shifting up, I just increased my cadence and saw my speed go up by about 2 mph. Considering this was mostly a cross wind, that was significant. Suddenly, despite going faster, I was being passed more often, and barely passed anyone else at all. I think those disc wheels had less of an advantage with the cross/headwind than my traditional wheels, and now out of that wind, their advantage was in full force.
The 5-mile markers were now coming about every 15 minutes instead of 16. Not bad! Just kept doing my thing, holding a good pace, tried not to wear myself out. Started getting bored. I started wiggling my thumbs on the end of the aerobars and saying “Pew pew pew” out loud. Then I laughed hysterically. When you're bored and physically tired, you can amuse yourself easily.
Only 10 miles from the end of the bike course, I could still see people going the other way, which meant they just started the bike course 10 miles ago. These were the people that aren't fast, and maybe aren't even in very good shape, but are extremely determined. In a way, these folks are the true heroes, because they’re gonna be out there a loooong time.
Cruised on back into the transition area, a few minutes under my goal of three hours. This time I didn't try and get cute with my shoes and pedals. Just unclipped and ran in my bike shoes (it's not as hard as some people say). Put up Invictus, laced up my running shoes, gulped some water, and ran to the port-o-potty. I guess it’s good that I had to pee; at least I wasn't dehydrated. Headed out onto the run course, feelin' fine.
The run course was four laps, each about 3.25 miles, all around the resort. Not only was it multiple laps, but the laps doubled back on themselves a lot, making this almost just four consecutive out-and-backs. I hate out-and-backs about as much as I hate doing laps, so I knew I'd be annoyed by the running course. The good thing was that you could very easily keep track of your pace this way, and the water stations were VERY frequent.
As soon as I got to the run course, the clouds broke up, the sun came out, and it got HOT. About 85 degrees Fahrenheit. I know that's not sweltering, but I almost always run in the morning, and if it's over 55 degrees outside, I run bare-chested. So there I am, running in warmer temperature than I ever do, wearing an almost-black shirt. Not fun. I didn't bother me at first though, so I pressed on.
Right away, I was passing people left and right. Because the course was four laps, it was hard to tell what passing someone meant. Were they still a few laps ahead of me? Are they just slowing down on their last lap, while I'm still fresh on my first? Once I got to my last lap, was I passing people that had just started their first, so they were behind me to begin with and holding a slower pace anyway? I had no idea. But what I knew for sure was that I was passing everyone, and no one was passing me at all.
For the first two laps, I felt so good that I was smiling the whole time, shouting back at the spectators, bobbing my head along to music whenever I heard it. I could tell the spectators were getting a kick out of it, and I seemed to be winning the admiration of the other runners. About once a minute, someone I passed would say "Good pace." I was honestly surprised I was doing so well compared to everyone else. Why wasn't everyone this slow on the bike? Did they wear themselves out that much? Do triathlon bikes make that big of a difference?
About halfway through lap 3, I looked at my watch and realized I would only have to run 7-minute miles to finish under my goal of 1:30. Right about then was when I started to wilt. The heat took its toll on me and I started running out of energy. It depended what part of the course you were on, since some parts were shaded, and some parts put you in the wind. Ideally, you had both, but there were a few parts that were sunny and wind-free, which sucked the energy right out. I wasn't that tired, just overheating. I could feel my heart pumping on overdrive. From there on out, I grabbed a wet sponge at every water station, trying to cool myself off. My pace sagged to 7-minute miles, almost exactly the threshold for my goal.
Right about then, I passed a couple guys running together who looked like they were in their early 30s. One of 'em must've spied the age written on my leg and said, "I wish I were 27." The other replied, "I just wish I could run like that!" I smiled and kinda laughed. That picked me up for a while.
By lap 4, I was feeling bad. Again, not tired, just overheating. I felt like my heart was going to explode. I tried convincing myself it wasn't that bad, that I was more tired at the end of the Boston Marathon, and that I could keep going. That was true, but this was a different kind of problem. With 2.5 miles to go, I looked up and saw a water station, followed by a shady spot on the course. I grabbed a cup of Gatorade and a sponge, steered over to the shade, and…
I have never done that in a running race in which I wasn't injured. Considering I was still passing people even when I felt bad, it wasn’t like I couldn't take one more step. It was just an overheating problem. I unzipped my jersey, sipped the Gatorade, and squeezed every last drop of cold water out of that sponge and all over myself. About 45 seconds later, the shady spot was gone, and I started running again. Right away, I felt loads better. I picked right back up to about a 6:45 mile and didn't look back.
Nearing the finish line, my legs finally started feeling tired. Pressed on. For the last 100 meters to the finish line, I was able to pick it up and quasi-sprint to the finish. Grabbed some water, a finisher's medal, and a hat. Walked over to some shade and sat down. Started feeling light-headed. Waited till that went away before I stood up again.
I found out there was a tent where you could get a free massage, so I headed over there. Had to wait in line, but I wasn't exactly in a hurry. Once it was my turn, I realized how gross it probably is for the guy to be touching some hot sweaty guy in spandex. Oh well. It felt good.
I was wondering if there was any post-race food and drink for us, and there was: pizza and beer! I could hardly believe it. I was expecting Chex mix and Gatorade, but apparently they knew what we really wanted. Enjoyed a bit of what I'd been missing the past few weeks and hung out with a few of my fellow finishers.
Apparently you can get your race results almost instantly, and they even break down your time and ranking for each leg. Chip timing is a wonderful thing. My optimistic goal was 5:30, my realistic goal was 6:00, and anything slower than 6:30 would be considered a disappointment. Overall, my time was 5:14, and I ranked 311 out of 2,199. Not bad! Glad to be closer to the top than the bottom. At marathons I often place in the top 1%, and I even won my age group in Dallas one year, but today I'd have to be satisfied with the top 15%. Welcome to the big leagues.
It was when you break it down that I was surprised. For one thing, I was above average on the swim, ranked 619. I guess everyone else sucks as much as me on the swim? I understand most triathletes are former runners and bikers, but I figured as a rookie, that would be a glaring weak spot for me. My ranking on the bike surprised me too: 691. Lower than I'd think. I figured I was a good biker and a good runner, but a bad swimmer. Apparently, I'm a better swimmer than biker, at least in comparison to the other triathletes. And the running? 37th. I knew I was good, but that good? Oh well. The important thing was that I met my goal for each leg, so I was happy about that.
About that time, I was hoping to change into some non-sweaty clothes and head home. As it turns out, it's a rule that you can’t go back into the transition area to get your stuff until after the last athlete has done their second transition. I'd left my clothes in a drop bag, and I wasn't in a hurry to get home, so it wasn't a big deal. Changed into some sandals and a T-shirt, then realized there was something important that I'd left in the transition area: sunscreen. Mine was starting to wear off, having put it on six hours ago and gone swimming. Rookie mistake. I got burned.
Eventually, we were let back into the transition area, so I gathered my stuff and headed home. Once again, had to walk 15 minutes back to my car, this time carrying more stuff. Walking really should be considered the 4th event. I couldn't find the grass lot I where parked my car right away, so I had to walk a little farther this time. Threw everything in the back and headed home.
As I was driving away, I noticed there were still a substantial amount of people on the course. Man alive. The race had started about eight hours ago. They were subjecting themselves to a looooong day. Determination, they has it.
Surprisingly, I didn't get tired on the long drive back. I'd been expecting to have to pull over for a nap at one point.
Was it the hardest thing I’ve ever done? I dunno. Objectively, I would say it's harder than a marathon. I think a 2k swim and a 56-mile bike ride makes up for the 13.1 more miles that you run in a marathon, and the fact that you have to train for three different events is something. But I felt a lot less worn-out after this than I usually do after a marathon. When I got home, I even rode my bike to the store. I think a big part of it is that I know my limits with running, which means I can push myself right to the edge, to the point that I can barely walk afterward. Today, I was pacing myself the whole time, never truly testing myself.
I'm still a little disappointed that I walked, since I've never let myself do that when I wasn't injured. I’m fully confident I could've pressed on through the end of the race without walking if I had had the willpower. The thing is, it worked. I was slowing down for the three miles leading up to that, and may have continued slowing down if I hadn't done something about my overheating. Since it worked so well and I was able to pick up my pace and hold onto that faster pace afterward, I don't regret it completely.
Most importantly, I'm proud of what I did. Glad I actually got to finish a triathlon after the first two I signed up for got cancelled. With all the things that could've gone wrong, all the things I might not have been prepared for, I did well. And in five hours, I burned almost as many calories as most people do in three days. But mostly, I had a lot of fun. Now I wanna do another one. And I want a triathlon bike. Not that I didn’t want one before, I just want one more now. But I'll probably pay my tuition instead.