Sunday, July 26, 2009

First Is Always the Hardest

Trying something new is hard. I remember my first marathon, in Philadelphia in 2000. I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. I ended up running the race in something like 3:47, including some unforeseen walk breaks the last few miles that made me feel like a total failure. I learned. Within two years, I finished a marathon in 3:02.

So I approached the New Jersey State Triathlon with realistic expectations. Cycling is entirely new to me, and I took two decades off swimming. My main goal was to feel strong at the end. By that admittedly tame measure, I succeeded. The breakdown.

Pre-race: I got to the start area early enough to warm up plenty in the lake. My big dilemma was whether to wear a wetsuit. The water temp in Lake Mercer registered an incredible 77.9, meaning it was .1 within the legal zone for wearing a wetsuit. I was told to wear one if allowed because it makes swimming much, much easier. The purist in me blanched, and I didn't want to try something new on race day. In the end, I decided to dance with the girl I brung, so to speak, and swim in a suit. I knew I made the right decision once I got into the water, which by that point was at least 80 degrees.

My other concern was about my bike, particularly my complete inability to care for it. By luck, I asked a guy near me with a floor pump what he thought of my tire pressure. He told me they were "basically flat," so we added quite a bit more pressure. It gave me a lot of confidence knowing that at least my tires were right heading into the 23-mile bike.

Swim: I got a nice surprise in that nobody kicked me in the head. Overall, it was very civilized. What I struggled with is the vagaries of open-water swimming. I never felt comfortable I knew where I was or where I should be. That meant I tended to look up quite often and sometimes just stop swimming to assess the situation. There were collissions, probably about a half dozen times. These also slowed me down. Still, I finished up feeling OK. 31:40, rank: 341/743

Transition1: No, I didn't practice, and it showed. I ran past my bike, got confused, ran back again, still missed it. The whole thing was a total fiasco. I'm shocked I got out of there in four minutes. I was also struck by how much harder it was to run out of the water than I thought.

Bike: As much as I love the Tour de France, I'm not a good cyclist. Something about the bike makes me lazy. I tend to take it easy when I can. Maybe I just need to work at it more. Whatever the case, it was humbling. I got passed by dozens of people. The NJT marks your age on your calf, so I saw the numbers streaming by. When I saw 53, I finally picked it up a bit. The overall effect was dispiriting. It's no fun getting passed constantly, and I fell into a rhythm of ignoring it and concentrating on enjoying my ride, with a lot of focus on hydration and eating. In this area, I definitely succeeded, drinking a bottle of Gatorade and another of water and eating a gel. I felt ready to do well in the run. 1:14: 32. 428th.

Transition2: Much easier time, mostly because there wasn't much to do. I put on socks for the run, kept my sunglasses on, then took off.

Run: I'm a runner. I threw off my helmet and couldn't wait to get at the trail and find some of the people who passed me on the bike. I was hurting a bit at this point but I have a lot of faith in my ability to run through fatigue. Mostly, I did well. I started the first couple of miles at or below 7-minute pace. After mile 3, I eased up, mostly because I wanted to finish feeling alright and without blowing up. I picked off people the entire time, probably about 30 of the 40 who passed me on the bike. 45: 15. 68th.

All told, I finished in 2:37:42, smack dab in the middle of my age group. I'm OK with that, although I know I should do much better than 31/75 in my group. It's pretty clear what I need to work on to get better. For one, I have to get more comfortable in open water. My guess is I wasted a lot of energy taking short breaths and worrying about where I was. Cycling is a must. I just don't know what I'm doing out there. My bike times are an embarrassment. To put it into perspective, the finisher immediately before me rode seven minutes faster and the one following me rode nine minutes faster. That's crazy. The run is the run. I should do it at 7-minute pace or below, but it's not that big of a deal. I was within the top 10 percent in that category.

My big decision now is whether to find another race to work on those things, move up to the half Ironman or start training for a marathon in the fall.

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