This section of my website used to be dedicated to triathlon training, personal race results and certification reviews, like Turbo Kick. I am expanding it to include more generic health & fitness topics. Also, I talk a lot about "D" -- he's my husband (Dave Liu)!

Thursday, August 28, 2003

My First Triathlon

I did it! I completed my first triathlon - Tri for Fun #3 on August 16, 2003 in Pleasanton, CA. It consisted of a 400 yd swim, 11 mile bike ride and 3 mile run. It is a miracle I finished given that I had no idea what I was doing and made every triathlon mistake possible.

Last Minute Switcheroo!

I had originally planned on using my Giant for the race. I wasn't sure that I would be able to actually ride it on the course, so I was mentally prepared to run alongside it and push it for 11 miles if I had to. Fortunately, my guardian angel, also known as Laura Brisbee, came to my rescue.

I met Laura at my YMCA Group Exercise Instructor Certification. She is an athletic woman who has completed a marathon, triathlon and regularly participates in century rides: on a MOUNTAIN BIKE. Not surprisingly, she is an aspiring indoor group cycling instructor.

Two days before the race, I emailed Laura for some last minute advice to see if she had any ideas on overcoming my bike phobia. Not only did she give me helpful suggestions, but she even offered to loan me her 13.5" Trek mountain bike (MTB). Since the Trek is small, low, has wide handle bars and is easy to steer, she thought riding it may help me increase my confidence on bikes in general. She warmed me, however, that mtbs are heavy, so I wouldn't be able to go fast. I told her that no matter how slowly I was going on that bike, it would still beat running. I just wanted to complete the biking portion of the race without hurting myself.

I picked up the bike that evening on Thursday, August 14th (yes, two days before the race). Laura & I are about the same size so I didn't even have to change the seat height or anything. I tried riding it for a total of 40 yds to make sure I knew how the gears worked but that was all the practice I got. It was going to be my racing bike on Saturday. [Hint: Do NOT use untested gear for the day of your triathlon!]


I woke up at 4:30AM, ate a LUNA bar, grabbed two frozen bottles of diluted Gatorade from the freezer, and headed out the door at 5:10AM. I arrived at 6:00AM, and followed the long trail of cars, SUVs and trucks (all loaded with bicycles) into Shadow Cliff Park. By the time I parked my car, signed the waiver, obtained my number and had myself marked, it was already 6:15AM and all the bike racks were full! I ended up leaning my bike against the end of one of the racks and laid out my towel to the side to set up my gear.

Nobody wore a wetsuit. I dipped my fingers in the water to find that the lake was warm. Rather than putz around with body glide and spend 20 minutes getting my wetsuit on, I decided to forgo it. Instead, I just swam with a Champion sports bra top and Zoox triathlon shorts that I had bought at Sports Basement the day before. [Hint: again, you are NOT supposed to wear something on race day that you've never tried training in!]

There was a helpful pre-race talk for first-timers by one of the organizers. There was a show of hands for first time triathletes; I was in good company, there were dozens and dozens of us. The organizer talked about the Spectrum of Will which is the thought process most first-timers go through when they consider doing a tri:

I won't --> I can't --> I'd like to --> I'll try --> I can --> I will --> I did

She congratulated us for having the courage to get to "I will", and made us feel proud for coming out to race. She also gave us some tips for swimming and running.

  • Swim: most people are most worried about the swim. 400 yds isn't far, but I wish I had tried an open water swim beforehand. We were encouraged to lift our heads and "sight" about every 10 strokes to avoid straying off course. There were lifeguards floating around on boards everywhere to assist those in need. If somebody came to "rescue" you at any point, your swim was over for the day. But you were welcome to participate in the remaining two events.
  • Bike: the course starts with an uphill section, so we were advised to put our bikes in the appropriate gear before the start of the race. I put mine in "granny gear".
  • Run: focus on putting one foot in front of the other. That sounded like strange advice until I actually got to that section of the race.

Afterwards, there was a general pre-race talk for all participants where another organizer gave us an introduction to the race and a preview of the course. Our race was part of the 16th Annual Tri for Fun Series, and the last Tri for Fun event for 2003. The maximum capacity is 1,000 participants and this one was sold out. That's right, more than 1,000 people wanted to participate in this tri and some were turned away. Another fun fact: at the first Tri for Fun 16 years ago, only 10% of the participants were women. In the past few years, this percentage has increased and stabilized at 55%-60%! The Triathlon Sisterhood is alive and well.

The Swim

We self-seeded into six waves, each one separated by a five-minute gap:

  • Wave 1: Competitive group: "This wave is for varsity water polo players or for those who have already done 100-200 triathlons," warned the organizer. "If you didn't get the joke I just made, DO NOT START IN WAVE 1!!"
  • Wave 2: "Children, aka men 30 and under!" - his words, not mine
  • Wave 3: Men over 30
  • Wave 4: Women 30 and under
  • Wave 5: Women over 30
  • Wave 6: Everybody else, including those who have absolutely no intention whatsoever of being competitive

I wanted to start in wave 5, but it was maxed out so I started with wave 6. Slower swimmers were asked to move further back, and those who were struggling swimmers were told to count to 10 after the start, and then WALK (not run) to the water. In waves 1-5, everybody wanted to be at the front of the group, so it was funny to see that in wave 6, everybody hung back. I played it safe and planted myself in the middle of the pack.

After the countdown, I waded in the water and started swimming. The water was muddy and dark and smelled swampy. I could not see a blinking thing. I was somewhat prepared for this because I had read a bunch of triathlon books, articles and websites, and they all comment about the lack of visibility during the swim. It was still a shock nonetheless. [Hint: train in open water before the race!]

I started off with a lazy and leisurely stroke. Everything went well until I was hit by flailing arms and legs as people swam into me. I can't blame them - they couldn't see anything either. I tried to focus on my stroke and form, but in a moment of panic, everything I learned from Terry Laughlin's Total Immersion book went out the window. All my bad habits came flooding back as my legs sank [Hint: a wetsuit would have helped with buoyancy].

The one piece of equipment I used that was extremely helpful was a Seal Mask. They have incredible suction so they stick to your face and do not let a single drop of water in. They provide great visibility in clear water as well. Of course, I have small head so I kept on having to press my mask to my face to make sure water did get in. I think I need to switch to a child's mask instead.

Halfway through the course (200 yd), I switched to breastroke for the rest of the way. It made sighting a lot easier (you're looking forward) but it's a slow stroke, and requires too much leg movement.


I had logically laid out all my gear so the transition was smooth: slow, but smooth. I dunked my feet in a little pail of water I had placed in my area to rinse off any sand/crud, and then toweled them off before putting on my socks. Before the race, I had prerolled my socks inside out so I could slide them on like a condom. Putting on my shoes were also easy because I had put some lace locks on them the day before. [Hint: did I mention that you're not supposed to try out new gear on race day??] I put on a shirt which had my number pre-pinned on it (I was at least smart enough not to pin the front of the short to the back), put on my biking gloves and helmet (it actually perched on top of my head because I had not yet figured on how to put it on correctly) and then pushed my bike onto the starting area.

I can't be sure, but I think some people were finishing their bike ride as I was just starting mine. I know I started 25 minutes later than wave 1, but still... gee whiz - that's quick!

The Bike Ride

I somehow managed to get on the bike, and started pedaling. And pedaling. My bike was steady and I was balanced thanks to the mtb's lower center of gravity and upright handle bars. Wow! What a great feeling! I switched to a suitable gear and got my legs moving at a great clip, probably even in the suggested 80-100 rpm range.

I thought I was doing well until a couple of cyclists passed me. Then a couple more. "This sucks," I thought, "Why am I so slow?" Then it dawned on me - it's what Laura warned me about. Heavy mountain bikes were not meant for road racing because they're slow. She said her Trek weighs 37 lb. In fact:

  • It weighs more than a third of my body mass
  • It weighs more than D's bike, but he weighs almost twice as much as I do

No wonder I wasn't going anywhere! Meanwhile, my Giant weights only 17.5 lbs - less than Lance Armstrong's racing bike in his autobiography It's Not About the Bike. How ironic. Regardless, I was ecstatic to be riding at all, even though I was going really slowly.

Part of my confidence stemmed from the fact that a wide, dedicated lane was created on the road for us to use. For the most part, we were separated from mainstream traffic by a row of orange cones. Maybe because it was a Sunday morning, but there weren't that many cars in the area, so I felt even safer.

There were points in the course where he had to make 90 degree turns. It was the first time I had made such sharp turns and I discovered, real-time, that they're really hard to do! I made these ridiculously wide turns, and had to brake to a very slow pace in the process as well. [Hint: learn how to make right angle turns before the race!] The sharpest turn, however, came at the turnaround point for the ride - a u-turn. Of course, I completely missed the turn and rode right by it, as did the guy I was following. But I heard all these people behind me yell, "HEY!!! You turn HERE!!!" Good thing too, because I was about to head straight onto a busy highway. After failing to make a u-turn, I stoped, got off my bike, duck walked while straddling and turning my bike simultaneously, and then started biking again.

As an aside, whenever I stop my bike, my instinct is to lower my leg and try to touch the ground. The stupid thing is, I know that I'm too high up to be sitting on my saddle and have my foot touch the ground at the same time. So I end up tilting to one side while landing pretty hard on my foot. Good thing I have strong hamstrings and quads from kickboxing - otherwise my knees would be mangled by now.

I forgot to drink anything during T1, but I did put a water bottle in my bike cage. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to reach it while cycling. So I didn't drink anything during my 11 mile ride and had a completely parched throat. I think I may need to invest in a little camel back hydration unit so I don't die of thirst during bike rides. Dehydration aside, it was fantastic ride (for me) and I was really proud of myself for cycling for the duration of the course. I only coasted at one point, and that was for the downhill portion back to the transition area. I usually coast a lot on my road bike because I feel like I'm going too fast (not really, it just seems that way coz I'm chicken).


I racked up my bike, dumped my helmet and biking gloves, and strapped on a Nathan G-TREK II belt which was pre-loaded with my second water bottle before taking off.

The Run

I left the transition area, grabbed a cup of water from a volunteer ... and didn't know where to go next! There were people milling around in all directions because they had already finished the race. I went back to the water stand and asked, "Where do I go for the run?" Somebody made a wide sweep of their hand and said, "Over there!" Where? "Follow the arrows!" What arrows? I didn't see any arrows! I saw a couple of people look like they were starting their run too so I scurried after them. That's when I saw the arrows. They were wobbly lines on the ground drawn in chalk. [Hint: before the race, find out where you'll be entering/exiting the transition area, note the path to your belongings, and figure out where the heck you're supposed to go afterwards!]

I commanded my legs to run, but they weren't cooperating. It seemed that my synapses weren't firing properly because the motor neurons in my legs and feet weren't responding! I was disappointed because out of the three events, running was my strongest leg (pardon the pun) of the race. That's when I remembered what the race coordinator said, "Just focus on putting one foot in front of the other." So that's what I did. I half jogged, half trotted along the course.

I had finished my cup of water and wanted to drink more liquids since I didn't have anything the bike ride. So I took my bottle of diluted Gatorade, squeezed it, and ... nothing. My Gatorade was still frozen!! [Note: the Gatorade solution in my bike had melted because I was cycling in the sun, but my running belt was in the shade.] I ended up carrying unnecessary extra weight with me in the form of a block of ice.

Aside from the part through the parking lot, the run consisted mostly of trails. There were hills with mild gradients, what D calls "dipsy doos" or rolling hills. The path we followed was like the clover leaf roundabouts on a highway. You were pretty much always running in the opposite direction to somebody else on the other side of the same road. I initially thought it was stupid, but then I realized it was ingenious: not only were they able to create a much longer course over a smaller surface area, but since they put a water station in the middle of the clover, volunteers were able to serve runners 3-4 times from that single point at regular intervals throughout the run.

I eventually recovered some feeling in my legs but still couldn't run very fast. I promised myself that I would run the entire distance, no matter how slowly I was going. I refused to stop and walk. This was my best event (everything is relative) so dammit, I was going to do it properly! Even though I was going pretty slowly, I passed a lot of people who were even slower than I was (I guess everything really is relative). Most of the people I passed were walking, but I also passed people who were running. Like me, they looked like they had jelly legs. I think I passed a total of 10-15 people, making up some lost time on the bike.

The last section of the run was back through the parking lot, with a brief stretch of pavement to the finish line. As soon as I left the trail and saw this last section, I ran. I really ran. In fact I sprinted the rest of the way. Some lady I passed shouted, "Go for it!" as I went by. I glanced at the clock above me as I crossed the finish and saw that the time was 1:57:14. I started 25 minutes after gun time, which meant I completed the event in 1:32:14.

Post Race Thoughts

In the grand scheme of things, 1-1/2 hours is pretty slow for the distance I covered, but the important thing is that I I finished a triathlon. Me, the one who thought that runners were idiots - I guess I'm an idiot now! Me, the woman who would laugh out loud every time she saw a poster recruiting triathletes, and snicker, "Yeah, right!" Trust me, if I can do it, so can you. YES, YOU CAN.

Now that I've done a triathlon, I'm absolutely hooked. I don't intend to place or attempt anything heroic, but I'd like to incorporate training and competing as an integral part of my life. I do this for fun and for personal accomplishment. One more thing that D & I can do together for years to come.

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