I’ve always associated Triathlons with mythic feats of strength and endurance. When I was young, my dad competed in the Naples Fitness Challenge Triathlon for a record 12 years in a row. He trained hard and kicked ass, all while helping raise three crazy kids and managing a small business.
Looking back, I’m still not sure how he did it.
Last fall Kay and I relocated back to my hometown and I thought - you know what? I’m in pretty good shape (so i thought), I’ve always wanted to do this, maybe this is the year. So with that, Kay and I both signed up and started training.
I quickly learned that jogging and weightlifting a few times a week does not make one “in shape.” I built out a 12 week plan, assembled from numerous training guides and basically turned our casual approach to exercise on it’s head.
In retrospect, we should have trained longer and very differently. I assumed that I could easily swing back into my competitive running habits from high school (ignoring the 12-15 years that had passed), and ready myself to keep pace with the peloton thanks to my college cycling fanaticism (again, ignoring the obvious differences between all-city fixed gear alley cat races and distance cycling).
The truth is, running is hard and takes a lot of dedication to make progress. The race was three weeks before my 30th birthday and my age was never as apparent as when I labored struggled to break a 21 minute 5k - 5 minutes slower than my high school pace.
Cycling too presented it’s own challenges. Without the camaraderie of scrappy 20-somethings whipping through traffic on fixed gear death machines, I found cycling training pretty boring. Both the local terrain and race course were flat, straight, and uninspiring.
Then there was the swimming. Oh god the swimming. “I’m a great swimmer,” I thought. “I swam constantly in my youth - It’ll be just like riding a bike.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. While the race required a swim in the Gulf of Mexico - we started our training in the pool at the gym. I dove in, started with 12 laps of the freestyle and had to drag my soggy ass out of the pool. My back, arms and shoulders ached for days. Then there were our open-water swims. Despite the infinite hours spent in the gulf in my youth I had developed a healthy fear of sharks in my years away. I was positive a prehistoric killing machine would strike at any moment, tearing me apart as i floundered in the waves.
How was I going to do this?
For starters - having a “partner” helps. The fact that Kay and I opted to both compete meant we held each other accountable and motivated one another when that alarm went off at 6am every day. We kept our noses to the grindstone and set our goals. We worked out five to six days a week, and towards the end, most of those days incorporated two-a-day workouts with a “brick” (practice triathlon) every other week.
We kept at it week after sweaty week and eventually it was here: race day!
Excitement, anxiety, confidence and nerves rolled over me in successive waves. We had our race numbers, timing chips, bikes were staged, swim goggles ready and we took to the starting line. Whether I was ready or not, this was happening.
The gun went off and we tore off on the run. I probably went out a little too hard and too fast, but that’s a habit neither I nor my high school coaches could break me of. 5k down in just over 21 minutes. I ran my bike to the next line, helmet buckled, mounted and took off. What I had anticipated to be a tight pack of rabid cyclists was much more spread out, but that could be due to the fact that I just couldn’t keep pace with seasoned riders sprinting out on carbon fiber laden-bikes. 15k bike down in under 30 minutes. Dismounting my bike my legs felt like jell-o. I started off towards the swim, but doubled back after realizing I forgot my goggles. The jog to the shoreline felt longer than the 5k run, and when it came time to execute my perfectly-practiced run-into-the-waves-and-dive I tripped, floundered and practically belly flopped into the water. Not a great start. Despite almost glass-like water conditions, the swim felt insurmountable - each buoy seeming farther and farther away. Then, as if designed to disorient - the home stretch of the swim was a straight shot to the finish line - and the rising sun. Foggy goggles, staring into the sun, I hit the shoreline and gave it one last sprint to the line.
It was done! I did it! Kay crossed the line shortly after and we caught our breath, chowed down on some watermelon and celebrated with our family.
In the hardest weeks of training I grew to dread the race, resenting it for imposing such a huge presence over my life. Yet here it was, vanquished. I had finished in an hour and five minutes, just missing my target time, but surprised to have placed third in my age group. True to my dad’s prediction, I started analyzing my performance, nitpicking things, finding ways to improve and push harder. The next day i started searching for other triathlons in south Florida. Not yet ready for Olympic grade ones, I sought out other sprint-distance races. Unfortunately most of them have already passed, and I refuse to swim in stagnant fresh water here in Florida (my fear of sharks has since been replaced by a fear of water-borne brain eating amoebas). Regardless, I hope to compete in this same race next year.
Sure, the finish line seems more attainable now, but my dad still maintains super-human status in my book for completing 12 in a row a top being a father of three and small business owner.
Physical achievement and trophies aside, it was a really great way to connect with my him. To share our experiences, training guides, to see his beaming face and open arms as I crossed the line - It’s something I’ll never forget.