An Ultrarunner’s (Almost) First Triathlon Adventure
I’ve been to race expos before. I’ve picked up race materials, perused the vendors’ various sales and enjoyed samples of nutrition products I’d most likely never actually purchase. I’m still a bit uncertain as to why companies seem so intent on pouring in as much sugar as possible onto their products, seemingly covering up the nutritional benefit of the other ingredients and making our bodies work for it like a polar bear clawing at the arctic ice in the dead of winter. I’d much rather the fish swim to me, upstream, flying out of the water and into my mouth like a grizzly bear catching salmon. In fact, maybe I’m on to something there. Perhaps the ideal aid station is full of volunteers with bladders full of water, ready to run alongside you while you pull the water from the flexible straw. Nah, there’s something to be said for actually resting for a few minutes in the middle of a 100 mile race, eh? Perhaps I’ll make that suggestion for my next marathon, though. Ok, I seem to have gotten off track a bit. What was I talking about, again? Oh, right, race expos.
I drove down to Des Moines last Friday to pick up my race materials for the HyVee Triathlon. Although many of my friends are fantastic triathletes, I’ve never ventured into the sport. I’ve always said I’d much rather run the full distance than break it up into other activities. Heck, I’m pretty sure I’ll run 140.6 miles straight through before I finish an Ironman. More than anything, though, I’ve avoided them because I’m allergic to water. Well, perhaps I’m not allergic in the “break out in hives and go into anaphylactic shock” sense, but more in the “this asthmatic kid never really learned how to swim all that well and now associates water with fears of drowning, sharks, jellyfish, and other biting creatures I can’t see” way. This may be an irrational fear but it’s my irrational fear and I’m quite comfortable holding onto it. Thus, when a couple (both in the “two” and “married” sense) of friends suggested we compete in the HyVee Triathlon as a relay team, I was interested. All I’d need to do is run a 10K, and I’d get to experience the race-day spectacle that is a triathlon. This was just the sort of adventure I needed to break up the race season, and satisfy my curiosity. Step 1 was then to pick up my bib before the Sunday race. Well, I guess if you want to be picky, then this was step 2 after we registered our little group, “The Team of Earthly Delights”.
Before picking anything up, I had to attend a race briefing. The amounted to a 15 minute presentation with a representative from the race telling us about the route, transitions, parking, and other logistics. All of this information was clearly posted on the website for anyone to read, but, alas, we live in a culture that doesn’t pay nearly enough attention and certainly doesn’t read what they are given. Can you tell that the academic year just began as well? It’s in the syllabus! The expo itself was very well-organized, and I breezed through packet pick-up. I found it humorous that included in the packet were numbered tattoos to apply to my body. It certainly makes sense if you are going to be swimming because you can’t exactly pin a bib to a spandex swimsuit. However, I was amused at the thought of applying them to myself, along with my bib, just for the run. There would be no question that I was #3646! I was most surprised by the amount of swag I received. It began with a very nice backpack. Interestingly enough, I’ve been searching for a suitable dedicated race bag, and this pack just happens to fit the bill nicely. The bag was even stocked with other samples, including chocolate almond milk, a full bottle of vitamin D (random, right?), a pair of Ironman brand sunglasses, a micro-hand towel, and various other coupons. I was then directed further down to pick up a high quality cycling jersey, as well as a mesh running hat. This haul was a far cry from a single tech shirt, and I certainly wasn’t complaining. I’m pretty sure this is the first race I’ve entered where I received enough swag to balance the full cost of registration!
Since I was completing the running leg, I didn’t need to worry about the logistics of a bike. My friends would venture down the next day, however, to drop the bike off. In the meantime, the logistical nightmare that is an urban triathlon with a closed cycling course was spiraling into emergency road. Recent rains in the area had created some flooding on a portion of the bike course. The HyVee Triathlon also serves as the 5150 U.S. Championships, so they attract elite athletes from all over the world and hand out a rather considerable prize purse as well. Thus, the pressure on the organizers to make sure things go smoothly is that much greater. Unfortunately, these rains meant that they would need to reroute the bike course. More importantly for us, the decision was made to switch from an Olympic distance triathlon (1500 m swim, 40K bike, 10K run) to a sprint distance triathlon (750 m swim, 20K bike, 5K run). The elite athletes would still compete in the full distance, but our race experience would be shortened considerably. Well, I should say that our actual physical activity would be shortened considerably.
In order to get everything ready for a triathlon experience, you need to set out your gear in a transition area before the race begins. Typically this area closes prior to the start of the race so there is no risk of people running into each other. Originally, the transition area was scheduled to be open from 4:30am to 6:30am, with our race beginning at 7:45am. They decided to keep the transition area open during the same hours, but move back the start of our race to 9:00am so that all of the elite athletes (who would start earlier) would be further along and off of the bike course. This meant that we still needed to wake up at 3:00am, leave by 4:00am, drop everything off in transition, and then wait for around 3 hours before our race would begin. This schedule meant I would most likely be beginning my 5K run around 10:30, after standing around waiting to run for 5 hours or so. Although this was far from ideal, I was committed and ready to do what needed to be done. We we racing for fun and not time, so I even considered squeezing in a marathon through downtown Des Moines before my turn came around. It would have certainly made for an interesting story, but also that I wouldn’t be on site to take in the full spectacle of the triathlon experience either.
Unfortunately, an event like this also creates logistical challenges for participants. As a team, we had our schedule figured out perfectly, and my teammates had made arrangements for childcare during the race. The timing of these plans, however, were based on a schedule that had now changed. So, the combination of a changing schedule, a shortened course (and presumably more chaotic, especially on the bike), and at least one rational mind amongst the three of us, meant that we decided not to compete. I was disappointed to have not had my first triathlon experience, but still quite happy with the opportunity to share the whole experience with two great friends (and come away with some great swag!). Although I didn’t actually race, I still got a much better sense of the logistics and chaos that goes into a triathlon. It was all a far-cry from the laid-back attitude of most ultras and ultrarunners I’ve encountered. When it rains the week before an ultra, it just means you’ll be getting muddy! If you aren’t comfortable with the full distance, then just go out there and run until you can’t. Then stop, head back to the start, and we’ll pour you a beer 🙂 Many folks in the ultra community have also tackled Ironman races, and vice-versa, and they are most certainly two distinctly different sports. There is nothing inherently good or bad about the highly organized, logistics-heavy, gear intensive nature of triathlons or the go-with-the-flow, laid-back, just run nature of ultras. They both encourage people to push their limits, and hopefully find joy in what they are doing along the way. I’ll get my triathlon experience in the future. In the meantime, I think I’ll go run 100 miles in a few weeks 🙂