My First Triathlon
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My First Triathlon
by Faith Sidlow
It’s 5 p.m. St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m standing chest-deep in Millerton Lake. The water is so cold I can’t breathe. Yes, I’m wearing a wetsuit. This is a defining moment for me in my quest to tackle yet another item on my bucket list. Should I continue training for a triathlon and possibly fail or give up now and never know whether I would have succeeded?
How exactly I got myself into this predicament, I’m not certain. It all started one day in October, after a particularly endorphin-filled bike ride with a couple friends from Women on Wheels, the cycling group that trains through the summer and fall for the Valley Girls Ride. One of us (they blame me) came up with a harebrained idea to try a triathlon. After all, we enjoyed bike riding together, why not take it to the next level? Truth be told, I didn’t think we were serious, but just for laughs we met at a pool to test our swimming skills.
I’m a mediocre swimmer, and I knew it would be difficult. I set out to do my first lap and was wiped out halfway through the first length, gasping for air after just 25 meters. My two friends, Kristine Walter, 55, and Kristin McIntyre, 47, fared much better, speeding through 750 meters with seemingly little effort. As we finished our workout, McIntyre snapped a “selfie” of the three of us in the pool and posted the photo on Facebook. She tagged all of us and announced we were training for a triathlon. We were committed.
We began researching triathlons and found plenty to choose from. The sport has been gaining popularity. The number of participants nationwide has doubled during the past five years, reaching 1.99 million in 2011, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. We searched for a “sprint” distance that agreed with all of our schedules and chose the HITS Napa Valley triathlon—a half-mile open-water swim in Lake Berryessa, followed by a 12.4-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.
Over the next 13 weeks, we met to swim, bike and run—sometimes doing all three on the same day. In March, we donned wetsuits and began training in Millerton Lake. On St. Patrick’s Day, I got in the water, took three strokes—and immediately got out.
Let me tell you something: Swimming in a cold, murky lake in a wetsuit is entirely different than swimming in an 80-degree, clear pool. I was starting to think I might not be able to do this thing.
I realized I needed help. A triathlon can be a tricky thing for a first-timer. Fortunately, we found the Triathlon Club of Central California—known as TC3—and a group of insanely adventurous athletes who call themselves the Catfish Crawlers. TC3 has about 200 members who train several days a week throughout the year. They are a amazingly supportive and compassionate group from all walks of life and fitness levels. They welcomed us with open arms, teaching us the finer points of open water swims and swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transitions. Immediately I began to feel more comfortable with the process.
Race day came fast. McIntyre, Walter and I met in front of our cabins at Markley Cove on Lake Berryessa, about 25 miles east of Napa. I woke up Sunday at 4 a.m. and sprang out of bed. The plan was to leave at 4:30 for the 45-minute drive to the northwest side of the lake.
I started to get a little nervous as we pulled into the parking lot, joining more than 800 other participants who were calmly pulling bikes off of racks and assembling their gear bags. We found our spots in the transition area and set up our gear for the race, laying out our bike helmets and shoes exactly the way the TC3 coaches taught us: helmet straps unbuckled, shoe laces untied, gloves in the cycling jersey pocket—anything to cut down on the time it takes to switch from swimming to biking and biking to running.
At 6:30, it was time to put on our wetsuits and walk down to the boat ramp. We listened to last-minute instructions and squeezed together to say a prayer with Race Director Mark Wilson. Then it was time head into the cold, 65-degree water.
I knew the swim was going to be the most difficult part of the race for me. I had been having panic attacks in Millerton during training and I was expecting the same to happen at Berryessa. Mads Schroeder from TC3 suggested I start at the rear and outside of the pack of swimmers, known as the wave. That was my plan, but when the race started, I was in the front and inside. I started swimming my slow, methodical stroke and suddenly realized women were all around me—pulling on my legs, kicking me in the face and churning the water. I started to panic and had to stop to catch my breath. I swam over to one of the kayaks and grabbed a flotation device, clinging to it like a barnacle to a rock. I watched as the pack swam off into the distance. I wondered if I would be able to compete in the rest of the race if I didn’t finish the swim but forced that thought out of my mind. I concentrated on one stroke after another and caught up with the stragglers at the back of the wave. I made it to shore, ran up the boat ramp and found my bike in the transition area.
The wetsuit came off easily and within minutes I was back out the gate, on my bike and headed out on the 12-mile ride. My husband and I had driven the route the night before and I was concerned about the grade. In the dark, the hills looked steep. As I pedaled up the first incline, I was relieved that it wasn’t as bad as I expected. My difficulty with cycling has always been letting go on the downhill. Normally, I brake most of the way. This time, I let if fly and pedaled downhill, reaching speeds of 25 to 30 mph—really fast for me. Four miles into the ride, I saw McIntyre and Walter on the other side of the road, on their way back. We cheered for each other and kept going.
I arrived back at the transition area, pulled off my bike helmet, took a pebble out of my shoe, and started the run. The first half was uphill. My legs felt like lead weights and my calves were cramping. I tried running but had to walk. Women running in the opposite direction shouted words of encouragement: “Good job!” “You’ve got this!” and “Almost there!” I huffed and puffed my way up to the aid station at the turnaround where a volunteer handed me a cup of sport drink. It tasted delicious and within minutes the cramping stopped in my calves. I felt a second wind and picked up the pace as I headed downhill. In just minutes I rounded the corner and headed down the homestretch. As I crossed the finish line, McIntyre and Walter were there to greet me while all of our husbands snapped photos. We hugged and congratulated each other and marked another item off our bucket lists.
After it was over, I realized I really enjoyed the triathlon—the training, camaraderie, and feeling of elation when we conquered it. Although it is my first triathlon, it won’t be my last. I want to improve my swimming, train more seriously and try again.
Triathlon Club of Central California: http://www.activitynut.me/go/tc3.go?club
Women On Wheels: http://www.clovishillswow.com/