In July 2012, I took part in my first triathlon. Over the few days that followed, I wrote a short story about my adventure which I never made public. Here it is, in full. I hope you enjoy it.
She just won’t give up!I thought to myself as the woman in purple overtook me for the second time. Having been passed by almost the entire field, I was in the unusual position of feeling fantastic, but battling to avoid last place.
FROM RUNNER TO TRIATHLETE-WANNABE
Four months earlier, off the back of half a dozen 10Ks and half-marathons, I set my sights on Ibigawa, the nearest full-marathon to my home here in Gifu, Japan. I started running longer and farther than I had ever gone before, covering 300km in April alone. And then it happened.
A sharp pain seared through my left foot as I neared the end of a 15km run, and that added to the soreness I had been feeling in my right foot for a while. It was time to take a break. A few days of rest turned into a week and then two weeks and the pain still hadn’t subsided. Worried that all my hard work had been for nothing, I talked my wife, Mami, into letting me buy a mountain bike so I could continue to work out.
Getting a bike didn’t just give my feet time to get better; it allowed me to explore places I never even knew existed. It also meant that I was only one discipline short of becoming a triathlete. Even then, though, I didn’t really expect that I’d be swimming, cycling and running back-to-back any time soon.
Andy Holgate’s book “Can’t Swim, Can’t Ride, Can’t Run” planted the seeds of thought, but I wasn’t truly inspired until I finished reading Matt Long’s “The Long Run”. I figured that if this guy, who had been run over by a 20-ton bus, could do an Ironman triathlon then surely I could do a shorter one. And that was it. The very night I finished his book, I signed up for a “Challenge” triathlon. I’d worry about the swimming later.
LEARNING TO SWIM AGAIN
I’d love too, but I can’t swim. I mean I can swim, but not in a straight line and not for 750m….
That was a friend’s response when I asked him if he would join me, and I knew exactly how he felt. I had only been in a pool once in the last 15 years, and that ended disastrously when my goggles filled with water and washed my contact lenses out. This time, however, I absolutely had to succeed in the pool or risk death out in the ocean. And I had only six weeks to do it.
I’ve always been rather self-conscious, and being the only non-Japanese in the swimming pool doesn’t help much. The first few times in the water were especially tough as I battled to look at least somewhat competent. The prescription goggles I got did their job, but I often found myself crossing lanes, bumping into other swimmers and stopping for coughing fits when I frequently choked on water. Fortunately, another book, “Total Immersion”, gave me some great pointers on how to swim efficiently, and with two or three visits to the pool each week, I quickly gained in confidence and ability. Not enough to compete, but at least enough to survive.
THE TRIP TO TOYAMA
The event I signed up for wasn’t exactly local. It was in the seaside town of Imizu in Japan’s Toyama prefecture, 200km away. Check-in was due to start at 6am so I had either the choice of getting a hotel the night before, or driving up overnight. I chose the latter.
On Saturday, July 14th, I got up early, packed my stuff for the triathlon and went back to bed in the afternoon, hoping to get some sleep before setting off that night. As is typical before any big event, sleep is nigh on impossible. I spent two hours asleep and three hours rolling around, half trying to sleep and half checking Twitter, Facebook, the weather, the news and photos of cats.
One plate of pasta and then I was driving my little Suzuki north towards the Japan Sea on what must be one of the most incredible expressways in the world. The Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway crosses the Japan Alps and despite being only 185km long, boasts about 200 bridges and 50 tunnels each way. Courtesy of Wikipedia, I can tell you that the 118m Washimi Bridge is the tallest in Japan, the 11km Hida Tunnel is the third longest in Japan, and the Matsunoki Pass, at 1,086m, is the highest point on any expressway in the country.
I arrived at Ebie Marine Park just before 2am, much earlier than I expected. I spent the first couple of hours sitting in my car, walking around the park and using the portaloo in the dark. I wasn’t the first to arrive, but when the sun came up at 4:30 and I got my bike out, I was surprised to see the other triathletes take fishing rods out of their cars. Either I was the first competitor to arrive, or they knew how to pass the time better than I did.
It was a cloudy, wet morning so I missed the chance to snap a photo of the sun rising behind the enormous Mount Tate. Instead, I hopped on my bike to check I had put the wheel back on properly and got the seat straight. Two minutes later, I crashed.
I had never fallen off my bike before, but the wet, wooden boardwalk along the harbor was like an ice rink and my rear wheel skidded out from under me as soon as I touched it. I landed on my side with my ankle trapped under the bike peddle. It hurt quite a bit, but fortunately was nothing more than a scratch and slight bruising. I was lucky.
I picked myself up, straightened my helmet and headed back along the seafront only to see that my cycle computer wasn’t working. Normally I wouldn’t be bothered, but this race required a computer so they could check you completed the full cycling distance. If I couldn’t fix it, I’d get a “DNF” (Did Not Finish) by my name. No amount of tapping the computer with my finger helped. I started to panic and did what all good technicians do; I pulled the thing off the wheel and stuck it back on again. Bingo.
Just before six o’clock, I joined the large group of volunteers in blue t-shirts who had gathered to hear directions from the event organizer. After that, I collected my race number, “287”, and stood around for two hours watching and learning as much as I could about triathlon: where the bike goes, which direction it faces, where to attach the number stickers, how transitions work, etc. etc. I also spent a good deal of time looking around at other people.
I was signed up for the “Challenge” class triathlon – a 750m swim, 24km bike ride and a 6km run. Despite the name and a shorter distance than the “Athlete” class, everyone seemed to know what they were doing. If there were other newbies, they disguised themselves well. To my left, Number 286 looked a seasoned professional despite forgetting his cycling shoes. To my right, Number 288 said it was his first time, but later told me the hardest part of triathlon was getting his wife’s permission to buy a $4,000 racing bike.
As the start loomed closer, I donned my borrowed wetsuit and sat on the grass to hear the race organizer give a nerve-calming, if not brilliant, speech:
If you’re not confident in the water, start at the back.
Don’t worry about time, just get around the swim course any way you can.
If you can’t complete the swim, don’t worry. You can still take part in the bike and run.
If you need assistance, raise both hands in the air, wave them around and scream for help.
As instructed, I joined some other nervous people at the back of Wave 2. We had just watched the first wave enter the water and were relieved to see the tail-enders breaststroke and doggy-paddle their way from the beach.
Minutes later my wave raced into the water, followed tentatively by myself and others, casually tip-toeing forward and walking in as far as physically possible before treading water and leaning towards the first buoy.
At this point, I realized that the water wasn’t all that cold and I was quite comfortably floating in the wetsuit. We hadn’t been given the chance to warm-up in the water beforehand, and this was my first time in a wetsuit so was pleasantly surprised by the extra buoyancy.
Next I tried to swim properly, just as I had been practicing for six weeks in the pool. I put my face into the water and then withdrew it just as quickly. The water was foul. It was dark, murky green and impossible to see through. I knew I wouldn’t be gliding over colorful coral reefs teeming with aquatic life, but I thought the water might be at least blue. Worse than the color was the taste. The salt was so sickly I was very close to throwing up. I was looking forward to swimming in non-chlorinated waters, but at that moment, not so much.
Over 22 minutes and 18 seconds, I breaststroked my way around the buoys, occasionally putting my left ear in the water and doing about five strokes of front crawl. Surprisingly, even though I had abandoned my Total Immersion swimming skills in favor of keeping my head above water, those few bursts of makeshift freestyle pulled me closer to the next group of swimmers. I’d rest with some breaststroke and then go again. Much to my amazement, I passed quite a few people during the swim, including one poor guy without a wetsuit hanging onto a buoy for dear life.
As I neared the end of the swim, my neck was killing me. I guess there’s a limit to how long you can hold your head out of the water. I staggered up onto the beach, delighted at having completed the swim, but feeling somewhat queasy. I stopped still, looked at the official and mustered the Japanese for “disgusting.” Of course, I meant the taste of the water, but he thought I meant my swim performance.
I dried myself down with the free bath towel they handed me, put my glasses on and readied myself for the bike stage. Although I really enjoy cycling, I knew this stage would be extremely tough as I had never done 20km in one hour on my mountain bike, let alone 24km, and if I didn’t go quickly I’d miss the 10:00 cut-off time and be disqualified. Fortunately, I was out of the water much earlier than expected, giving me about 75 minutes to cover the distance.
I burst out of transition and put everything I had into pushing down on the pedals, forcing my speed up and over 30km/hour on the relatively flat course. I got to the first turnaround, took it nice and slow to avoid falling off again, and powered back along the road for the longest stretch of the three-lap course.
I couldn’t have been going for very long before the first bike passed me, and then another, and another, and yet another. Even when back up to top speed, they just kept coming and coming, coasting past me with relative ease. I tried reassuring myself that they weren’t all this fast, and that most of them were real triathletes, probably on their last lap already, but then another guy overtook me, only he was hardly pedaling at all! He seemed to be stretching his back out, while I was breaking my back just turning the pedals as fast as I could in the highest gear.
It took me a few minutes to calm down, realize that road bikes are indeed much faster than a mountain bike, and that I wasn’t racing them, I was racing to beat that 10am cut-off time. Physically, my back, abs and thighs were burning like crazy, but mentally I was feeling settled and focused on getting the job done. I had already finished the swim and was going fast enough to finish the bike with time to spare. What more could I wish for?
Before the race, I had walked through the transition area checking out the bikes. Some were high-end, time-trial bikes designed for triathlon. Others were less fancy, but nonetheless made for racing. Besides mine, I spotted one other mountain bike hanging on the racks, but there was one bike that didn’t catch my eye until now.
Ahead of me, pedaling furiously, and looking thoroughly dejected was a young guy on a bike with really small wheels; the kind of bike you can fold in half and carry on a train. Not realizing the irony, the voice in my head was shouting “You fool! Why would you bring a bike like that to a race like this?!” and I pushed even harder on the pedals as I caught him up and overtook him. The shine was taken off my moment of glory by another racer passing me as I passed him. That would have made a great photo.
My speed dropped a bit during the second lap as rain started to fall and I started to tire, but as the third and final lap began, I found a new source of energy. I slowed down to take a few swigs from my water bottle and was passed again. This time, however, since it was the final lap, I knew that everyone left on the course was in direct competition with me, and that those overtaking me had finished the swim behind me. Was I willing to let the whole field beat me? Heck no.
It was then that she first passed me. The woman in purple was going quickly, but if I could get my water bottle back in its holder I’d have a chance to catch her up. Typically, I fumbled with my bottle and was passed again before I could get back in the race. I stood up on the pedals and picked up speed quickly. Feeling good after the drink, I saw both cyclists ahead of me and started to chase them down. I surprisingly managed to catch them quite quickly and went passed feeling mightily proud of myself.
That wasn’t the end of the race, though. I still had about six kilometers to go, and looking over my shoulder I saw the woman in purple wasn’t so willing to be beaten by a guy on a mountain bike.
With the added motivation to finish ahead, I passed a couple more cyclists and was getting excited at the prospect of running more people down once I got off my bike. There would be one more twist, however, as I was slow out of a turnaround and the woman in purple overtook me again! There couldn’t have been more than one kilometer to the finish and I was absolutely determined to catch her. Everything I had went into reeling her in and passing her before the finish line, and then…
Stop! Stop here! Dismount here, please.
The bike was over. I had overtaken the woman in purple, but our head-to-head suddenly seemed rather trivial as we both prepared for the run on opposite sides of the bike rack. She hurriedly took off her pedal-clip cycling shoes, while I, already in my running shoes, downed a can of Mad Croc energy drink.
We left the transition area together, her slightly ahead with me on her shoulder. It wasn’t long before I realized she wasn’t nearly as fast without her bike so I moved ahead and got into my stride.
I love running. Of the three events in triathlon, running is my forte. It’s not something I’ve always been good at, but something I started just a couple of years ago and really enjoyed. I’m not especially fast, either, but not too shabby for a 36-year-old. I haven’t run an official full-marathon yet, but happily jogged 46km along a river once, and spent over 10 hours trail running across a mountain range on another day off.
I typically take small steps, lean forward slightly and let gravity do the rest, and that’s what I did with three laps of the Ebie Marine Park ahead of me. I didn’t wear a watch or use the running app on my phone to tell me how fast I was going. I just went as quickly as my body would allow. The sun had come out and people were slowing. I couldn’t believe how many of them I passed. And not one passed me!
The course was wonderful. It was a simple, mostly flat two kilometer loop around the park, with a detour out to the end of the stone pier and back. The sea breeze was refreshing and people cheered along much of the course. Despite the short distance, there were two drink stations with both sports drinks and water, and officials stood at the end of each lap, stretching out rubber bands through which to insert an arm. Three rubber bands and you can run to the finish line.
I’M A TRIATHLETE!
I crossed the finish line with the biggest smile on my face. Of the 110 starters, I came 64th in the swim, 91st in the bike stage and 22nd in the run. Overall I was 66th in a time of 1:45:59.
Crossing the finish line caps off months of hard work and sacrifice. I remember all the evenings I went to the pool when my son didn’t want me to go. I remember the days I’d be out on my bike, knowing my wife was worried sick I’d get hit by a car. I remember the times I’d run around the rice fields, wishing my friend was running with me again instead of lying in a hospital bed on chemotherapy.
Then I think of how proud of me they will be. Whether they know it or not, my close friends and family drive me to work that little bit harder and go that little bit farther with every workout I do. I can only hope that I, in turn, motivate them to achieve their goals.
Thanks for reading! I also made a video while I was at the triathlon. You can watch it here on YouTube.@longcountdown. I'd love to hear from you!