You wake up at 4am. Yes, 4am. But that’s OK because you haven’t slept much the night before. Pre-race jitters happens to everyone. After eating a good breakfast (it is the most important meal after all) you’ll load the gear you packed the night before into your car and you and your friends and family will drive out to the race area well before the sun comes up. There’s a long wait for parking and it will seem like you’ll never get in, but eventually you do and wind up parking very far away from where you want to be. There will be a lot of really lean people walking their bikes by holding the seat (how do they do that?) and wearing lamps on their foreheads. They will wear the biggest backpacks you’ve ever seen.
It’s a long walk but you find some friends that you’ve trained with and it will be good to see them as excited as you are. You’ll realize you have to break away from your supporters and you make a hasty plan on where they’re going to be to spectate. This is a necessary but fruitless exercise as you will realize later when you fly by a blur of faces at 20 mph.
You and your teammates have your wristband checked by a volunteer who is very friendly at 5:30am and you make your way to the transition racks. There you’ll spend at least a minute trying to hang your bike from the rack which is somehow a different height than the racks you’ve practiced with. Finally you manage to get the handlebars or the bike seat in place.
Next to your bike you lay out a small towel and on it you place your bike shoes, your running shoes, you stuff a pair of socks into the bike shoes, you put down your goggles and your swim cap and then you unroll the wetsuit from your bag and lay it over your bike. You now have an hour to kill because hey, you’re early. You spend some time being social with friends, hugging and being giddy, but don’t forget you should still be drinking a sports beverage. It’s been more than an hour since breakfast and you should really be hydrating.
The line for the bathroom is already half a mile long. So you wait. And wait. And do the crossed knee shuffle because you’ve been drinking sports beverage.
Before long you’re back in the transition area putting on your wetsuit, putting bodyglide or trislide in the right places (your neck, your groin, your ankles and wrists) and someone tells you to use Pam spray and you think they’re crazy.
You pull on your wetsuit halfway because there’s still time, right? You grab your cap and goggles and double check your bike to make sure your bottles and food are in place. You make it all the way to the gate before you run back to your bike and check it all over again. Brakes are good. Gear is set to an easy spin. Bottles are ready. Helmet is laid out, straps open. Water bottle open and ready to wash off your feet.
You leave it behind and make your way to the beach. Wow. Those waves are big.
You hear the thank-you’s and the inspirational words and it’s mostly background noise because you keep staring at the water and reciting mantras. Dive for five. Shoot the buoy. Don’t check your watch. Thank a volunteer. Wow, those waves are big.
Someone sings the Star Spangled banner. A canon goes off loud as thunder. The pros are off and goodness, they are fast.
Then you are shuffling towards the chute as wave after wave of people go off. You zip up your wetsuit and put on your goggles. You pull your cap down over the goggles so they stay on your face. Everyone looks like lean, fit penguins. This thought would be funny if you weren’t next and your heart wasn’t pounding in your ears.
The gun goes off and you run down the sand towards the waves. The pros showed you which way the current was going so you adjust yourself to the left or right to compensate. You let the insane ex-collegiate swimmers go first, muscling their way to the front with their closet hangar shoulders and lats like sides of beef.
You’re in the water before you know it, pulling up your ankles until the water is too high and then you dolphin dive forward. An incoming wave and you dive underneath it counting for five seconds before surfacing, and when you do another wave is coming in so down you go and grab ocean floor. Up, sight, dive, count, surface, and over again with arms and legs and foam and salt water and noise everywhere.
Then, your arms do what they are supposed to do and propel you forwards. You find a little space and are swimming. Or paddling. Or surviving. There’s a lot of people around you but you make it. That orange buoy seems so far but every stroke it gets a little closer. And closer. And closer.
You’re at the buoy and you hook a right turn and there’s suddenly even more room. You’re swimming. Really swimming! It’s a rhythm that comes to you after thousands of meters in the pool.
You’re turning right at the last buoy sooner than you expected. The waves carry you in, even though a few threaten to toss you like a rag doll. You even manage to body surf one past two stragglers and it feels good.
You’re on the sand running towards a balloon archway and people are so excited and cheering for you. As you exit the water you peel off your cap and goggles while the other hand is unzipping the quick release of the wetsuit. With your swim cap and goggles in hand you pull your arm through the sleeve and leave the stuff inside and the arms of the suit flap against your legs as you cross the timing mat and hear the confirmation chirp. Somewhere you remember not to look at your watch, because the third rule of triathlon is never look at your watch out of the swim.
The rows of bikes all look the same but there, on the far end, that’s your rack. Numbers make more sense now and there, there at the end is your bike. “Why did I put it so far down?”, you wonder. The wetsuit comes off the rest of the way and you roll it up into a ball. On goes the helmet, straps get buckled. Bending over you grab the open water bottle and wash the debris off your feet. Pulling on socks over wet feet sucks and now you see why so many triathletes go sockless. Still, it will feel good later. Bike shoes on, race belt clipped and you wrestle your bike off the rack.
Running out of transition you can already hear your inner voice congratulating yourself on making it past the swim. You can do this.
You cross the timing mat and mount up the bike. No matter how many times you see someone with their bike shoes already clipped to the bike it’s still impressive to see them run, mount, and slid into their shoes without breaking stride. As you stop to mount your bike you remind yourself to practice those moves later.
Spinning feels too easy and it’s good to remind yourself that your heart rate is still high from the swim. It takes a few minutes but you settle into a pace and the sick feeling from the sea water and waves subsides. You pass a few people along the beach driveways and each speedbump seems deadly, but you make it around each one. You give shout outs to friends, wondering how so much snot can just pour out of your nose.
The volunteers wave you to slow down going under the bridge and you can see why – that wooden plank system seems shoddy. You make it through and then really worry about the loose gravel under your thin tires.
Then there’s the road. You’ve ridden this road dozens of times by now and it’s best not to think of the hills just yet. For now it’s important to focus on perfect circles, good cadence, and not drafting.
Up and down the rollers. This road is never flat, often cruelly not so. But still, it’s miles to go and the way to get there is perfect circles. “On your left!” you yell as you pass someone and it feels good to do it. Sometimes you hear the telltale WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP of a very expensive bike with swanky disk wheels coming up behind you and as the wraith goes by you let yourself fantasize that one day you’ll have those wheels, too. You also remind yourself that even with the fancy bike, the age on that person’s leg means you beat them out of the water, expensive bike or not. You drink your sports drink and get a zing of energy when it hits your system. Now is the time to refuel.
Was that really all the miles? That felt harder than you remember. You guess that’s what they mean by “race pace”.
You pedal all the way up to the dismount line and are suddenly running. You hit your rack, the bike goes back on, the helmet comes off, and you bend over to swap shoes. You run away from your rack and towards the exit again and spin your race belt around so the number faces forward.
This is not the greatest feeling on earth. Who decided to put a run into this event?
People are watching. Smile. Oh, please, maybe this sick feeling will go away. Maybe not. I can suck it up for a few miles. Right?
The sick feeling does go away, that first aid station is a blessing. You drink something sweet and salty and realize you needed that a lot. You yell “thank you!” to the volunteers, remembering that the second rule of triathlon is always thank a volunteer. You’re not running doubled over now, your feet are falling the way they should and you can run faster.
Concrete is unforgiving and hard. Asphalt would be a welcome relief. There sure are a lot of people here today! Look how many are wearing your team uniform! Smiling and waving, shouting cheers – this is fantastic.
The miles flow along beautiful coastline, waves crashing alongside you (did you really just swim in that?), and cheering people everywhere. For you. For your team. Amazed. Energized.
As you come in for the final half mile people are going crazy. Bells, horns, whistles. You can see the finish area and it’s almost done. You find there’s more energy left in the tank so you stand up taller and find your kick. People are making so much noise you can’t hear yourself breathe. That’s not so bad, it probably sounds wheezy.
Into the chute, a quick turn (why is there a turn there?), and WHOOSH you cross the finish line. You did it. YOU DID IT. Your arms, your legs, your heart got you there. Months of work. Mile after mile. You and your family, your friends, your team, together. This is your moment and theirs. It’s a celebration of what one person can do and what a group of people can achieve together. Three events, thousands of people, one ecstatic moment. Because the first rule, really the only rule, is to have fun.
That is a triathlon.