ATLX Blog: My First Triathlon

By: Sarah McWilliams

I Finished!

September 10, 2013

1234731_10151765063316832_386912604_nOverall, I have to say it was a really great experience, and sometimes I have to remind myself how much I accomplished before scrutinizing too much. There is definitely room for improvement, but it feels good to have benchmarks and to know what to expect, in case I ever get the crazy idea to do another one or even challenge myself further.

The swim went surprisingly well. Swimming out to the first buoy was a challenge; swimming against the surf and through the waves and bumping into other swimmers all while getting kicked a couple times was a little discouraging. I did quietly gloat in the fact that I didn’t try swimming too soon quickly passing those trying to swim when the water was still shallow enough to stand.

After passing the first buoy, the swimmers spread out, and it was actually kind of fun. Once I started the swim parallel to the shore, I got in a groove, and before I knew it I was swimming toward the shore. I will say there were some schools of fish that got alarmingly close, but no jellyfish, shark sightings or dead bodies. Thank God.

The bike was bad. Worse than bad.

If they took a minute off my time every time I heard “on your left,” I probably would’ve won the pro division.

I know part of it was my bike – and my decision to purchase a hybrid for the long-term convenience as opposed to getting a racing bike I may use only once – but a bigger issue was that I was undertrained for the “rolling hills” aka mountain peaks of Malibu. Riding through the flat lands of LA surprisingly did not translate to the hills in Malibu, and that was a never-ending ride full of mild defeat and major relief when it was finally over.

IMG_2886The run was tough only because the bike was so tough, but it went ok. I passed quite a few people on the run. My pace was much slower than I had wanted, but I’m not going to beat myself about any aspect of the race. I finished it. Who cares about the rest?

The only really tough part of the race came at about mile five. I’ve read that when your body mentally knows the finish is near, it starts to shut down. Whether that’s true or not, toward the end of the race, I wasn’t sure if I could run anymore. Somewhere deep down, in the speck of rationalism deep inside me, I knew that my body wasn’t even close to spent.

But at that point, waves of emotions shot through me in desperate angry spurts, and I swore I would never do something so idiotic again.

And then, there was the finish line. And the ticking time clock and the crowd of people cheering me on. And the medal around my neck and the smiles on my friends’ faces. Somehow those feelings tend to erase all the negativity and pain and aching muscles, and within minutes of finishing that race, I knew there would be more down the road.

The Highs

triathlonThe highs of this experience were definitely the volunteers. I can’t say enough about all of the volunteers that were there passing out water and sports drinks along the way. Although I appreciate them all, the best were stationed right around mile four of the run. They were wildly cheering for every single runner that came by their drink station.

My personal best of the entire experience had to be the way I timed my nutrition. Typically, I’m not great about planning eating around training, but I was very cognizant of timing and what I was putting into my body the entire week before. Despite all the things I would have done differently, I feel like that was something I did perfectly. There were no side cramps, no stomachaches, no real issues concerning my eating and drinking whatsoever.

The Lows

By far, the low of the entire event were the people working the course that did not offer any encouragement. There were paramedics on the course that were cheering for everyone, but on the ride, a couple cops that were there stood stone-faced. I get that you probably didn’t choose to work on a Saturday, but it would have been nice to hear a “great job” or “keep it up” instead of standing in complete silence scowling at every person that passed.

It was also a little discouraging that all of the women who weren’t pros started last. Starting almost an hour after the first wave took off made it difficult to time my nutrition and stay warmed-up. It was also disheartening to finish the swim and see the pros take off on their run. It also meant our group was running later in the day and on that very hot day, I think an hour made a big difference between a warm run and the sun beating down on your body for 6.2 straight miles.  It just seems a little unfair that the women had to be the very last.

So what was my time and where did I finish? Well I didn’t get disqualified for missing any of the time cutoffs, and I didn’t get last. That’s all that ever mattered to me. However, the woman who did come in last brightened my day. She came in all smiles, waving her arms, and you just knew that she had accomplished something great that day.

If you’re training for your first or garnering the courage to sign up, stop making excuses and just do it. You can make time for training, and you will finish. And even if it’s in last place, people will cheer for you just as though you were in first. And no matter what place you finish, the fact that you finished at all means you have accomplished something amazing and something you won’t ever forget.

Open Water Swim

September 6, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.59.29 PMI typically don’t freak out. I’ve never had a panic attack. I consider myself a thrill-seeker of sorts. I’ve been whitewater rafting in South Africa, I’ve bungee jumped, I’m not afraid of heights and make fun of people who are, but I’ve finally met my match.

Being from the Midwest, I am not very familiar with the Pacific Ocean, and I have never particularly cared for the ocean, in general. When I was little, my brother was stung by a Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish, and that day is burned into my brain.

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 2.00.50 PMThe ocean freaks me out, because there is a serious lack of control. If a jellyfish is coming your way, it’s hard to escape because you don’t know which direction it’s going to go. I figured it may be an issue that I would have to get past during my open water swim, but I figured I would summon the courage.


Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 2.17.02 PMThree laps around the buoy would be the equivalent of the swim. I made it halfway through the first lap before I turned around. The Pacific Ocean is gross and murky, and if I had a GoPro on my head, it would look like the beginning of a scary horror film. I couldn’t get it out of my head that, out of nowhere, there would be a shark or a jellyfish or a dead body floating right in my face.

At least on the day of the race, there will be plenty of other swimmers around to block me from all of the scary things in the ocean (even if those things only live in my mind).

I probably should get my act together, quick. I have a feeling if I fail, it won’t be my body that lets me down…it will be my mind.

The Interview that Changed it All

September 4, 2013

blog1Five weeks in, and I still hadn’t run more than two miles. The swims were going fine, the bike was ok too, but I could not get past the running. Two miles in, and I was tired and over it. I was running those two miles way too fast, and I knew I needed to slow down, but that wasn’t the real problem. The first mile felt bad, and I hated running, and I would never like running, and this was all crap, and I’d walk the run part if I had to, and triathlons were for the birds.

But just as my Rich Roll interview inspired me to sign up for an Olympic distance tri instead of holding out for the next sprinters tri, Ultrarunner Zack Schor made me a runner. I’ve had the opportunity to interview some pretty incredible people, and don’t tell my boss, but sometimes I squeeze in questions under the radar. When I interviewed one of the top orthopedic doctors in the world, I squeezed in a question about plantar fasciitis because my mom was suffering from it, and when I interviewed celebrity trainer Valerie Waters, I made sure to slip in a few questions about slimming down my trouble areas.

Such was the case when I interviewed Schor providing the “hypothetical” question about not being able to get past that two-mile mark. Schor responded, “Your body takes some time to warm up. It became a running joke that a training buddy and I used to ask each other why we were doing this, always after the first mile.” If someone who was running 50-mile races still struggled (that word is relative) to get past the first couple miles before he felt good, then obviously I wasn’t giving it a fair chance.

So this isn’t the part where I go out and run five miles the next day. But, I did figure out something that worked for me. My next few runs, I would run two miles, walk the third, and then run the fourth. Next, I started running three miles, walking the fourth, and then running the fifth. I kept it up until one day, I didn’t feel the need to walk at all.

blog2I feel pretty strongly that there isn’t one thing that will work for everyone. This worked for me. And now, the self-proclaimed running hater is running six miles, no problem. I don’t think my cross country coach would believe it if he heard it. But what I know for sure, is that everyone is physically capable of running, and almost everyone is mentally capable of liking running. You just have to figure out what works for you, and forget what anyone else thinks about it.

My mom is still plagued with plantar fasciitis (it’s a tough injury) and I haven’t slimmed down my trouble areas, but I can call myself a runner, and maybe even enjoy it a little bit, and I give Zack a lot of credit for that.

Bumps in the road

September 3, 2013

My biggest fear when I started riding my bike around Los Angeles was getting hit by a car or a bus. My second was a flat tire compliments of the glass that is all over LA’s lovely streets. Nowhere on my radar was having my pedal fly off, while riding uphill. I was about eight miles in (and eight miles away from my apartment) trekking up a pretty tough hill. My arms were locked and I was almost standing straight up trying to get up the hill.

It was a busy road and all of the sudden my foot slipped off the pedal and I almost crashed (probably wouldn’t have happened if I had bike shoes). Since my arms had been locked, I was scared to look down because I was almost sure my elbow was dislocated. Turns out I was totally fine, but my bike was not. My pedal had completely fallen off and was resting a few yards behind me.

Slightly embarrassed I worked to try and screw the pedal back in, but to no avail. Luckily I was about a mile away from my office building and so I was able to walk my bike to the office. I considered whether or not I could run all the way home, but ended up calling a friend to come pick me up. On Monday, I got to find out what a bike wrench is and why I need one. The pedal is back on and I’m back in business, but it won’t be the only major issue I face.

Generous Donations

September 2, 2013

My grandmother recently passed away. I have never met someone who was more proud of her grandchildren—almost to a fault. At points in my childhood, I would become resentful of my cousins because of how much she would brag about them to me.

“Jessica is excelling at piano.”

“Victoria is an incredible athlete, and she’s already taller than you (the only time I’ve felt inadequate in my 5-foot-9 frame).”

“Joanna and Jenny will both be competing in the Texas State Track meet. Texas is very competitive.”

It wasn’t until her funeral when the cousins were all together that I found out she would brag about me just as much to them as she would them to me. We all thought that she was pushing us to be better, and maybe that was part of it, but she was also just immensely proud of each and every one of us. I know without a doubt that my grandmother would be incredibly proud of this effort (and hopefully bragging to my cousins).

After hearing about my financial woes in regard to this triathlon, my father decided that my grandma would have donated to my cause and used a piece of his inheritance to buy me a bike.

It’s amazing the generosity people provide when you run a race. You can see it all over the place with all of the charity runs and races. Just about every road race involves a charity, and people gladly donate to you and the charity when you are pushing yourself to accomplish a goal. That’s what makes physical activity, such as triathlons and road races so incredible. People become much more generous when you set out to do something big. I have had both my bike and my wetsuit donated to me, and I’m only doing a measly Olympic Distance—not even a full Ironman!

Those things make all the difference when you’re training for something you’d never thought you would do.

The Workouts Commence

photo (3)August 30, 2013
It turns out, when you sign up for a triathlon, especially an Olympic Triathlon, you get one of two responses from people.

The first response is amazement and excitement.

The second is the misunderstanding that you are doing an Ironman.

I think that swimming one mile, biking 25 miles and then running 6.2 miles is pretty impressive, but that impressive factor gets taken down quite a bit when people initially think you’re doing an Ironman: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and a full 26.2-mile marathon. It’s pretty hard to make anything sound impressive compared to that.

Nonetheless, I was proud of what I was doing. On Day 1 of my training, 12 weeks exactly to the date, I pulled out a plan I found on the Internet and set out on my first run. I already knew that running was going to be my weakest leg, mostly because I didn’t like it. Besides my 5K, I rarely ran more than a mile, usually in some kind of a walk and jog fashion. According to my plan that I printed out and stored in my work bag, I needed to run 25 straight minutes in Z2 or Z3, which I didn’t really know exactly what that meant, but I assumed it was a somewhat easy pace.

I started out on my first official training run, in my carefully planned outfit, and when my legs started feeling heavy and breathing started getting shortened, I checked the time. I was a whole five minutes in. I walked the next block and then took off again. I ran for a total of 25 minutes, with a few couple minute walk breaks. I wasn’t going to beat myself up over it though. I had made the first step, and that was good enough for me. I completed the entire week without missing a workout and found pleasure in carefully crossing off each workout. For the first time, I started believing that this goal was attainable.

What the Heck are Bike Shoes?

August 28, 2013

publicdomainSomething had been nagging me about the Malibu Triathlon site, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I had skimmed the photos of all the celebrities from the Sprinters Tri, and many of the photos from the Olympic. Meanwhile, I was casually thinking about what I would need to buy for the triathlon. Well…I would definitely need to buy a bike, and after realizing how much they cost, I knew it would not be until my next paycheck. I had a swimsuit, goggles and swim cap so the swimming was taken care of. I had running shoes, so no problem there, and then it hit me.

What had been nagging me was that every swimmer in the pictures was wearing a wet suit. A wetsuit? I Googled wetsuits and realized that on top of the inevitable $400+ bike purchase I would need, I was also going to have to buy a wetsuit. That was going to have to wait until the next, next paycheck. I tried to talk myself into believing that I didn’t need one.

Surely, not everyone would have a wetsuit, but on closer inspection of the photos, everyone did have one. Well, there was another minimum $200 down the drain.

And those weren’t the only costs I had to look forward to. Whenever anyone heard I was going to be competing in a tri, I would find out more and more stuff I would need to buy.

Photo Credit: Denise Cross Photography
Photo Credit: Denise Cross Photography

Do you have bike shoes?

(What the hell are bike shoes?)

Are you going to change out your pedals?

(What’s wrong with the pedals I have?)

I hadn’t even started training yet, and I was already overwhelmed.

What Happened? I Blacked Out.

August 26, 2013

I would consider myself an athletic underachiever. Although somewhat competitive in high school in both swimming and track, I never liked cross country and only did it to stay in shape for the other two. I never enjoyed it, and I never particularly tried that hard.

It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that even though I was just an ok athlete in swimming and running, many people who start training for their triathlon only know how to swim recreationally. There was never a question of whether I was capable of doing a triathlon. But being the athletic underachiever that I am, I never cared to.

photo1A combination of events led me to sign up for the Nautica Annual Triathlon held in Malibu, Calif. I blame the author of “Finding Ultra,” Rich Roll, and my mother for the fact that I signed up for not only a triathlon, but an Olympic Distance Triathlon. I had recently interviewed the former alcoholic-turned-vegan. With his new lifestyle came a new competitive edge, and though he wanted to do an Ironman, there weren’t any soon enough he could qualify for…so he found an outrageous race called “Ultraman” to do in the meantime.

photoOn a recent trip to Pensacola, Fla, to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday, my mom had the bright idea of signing up the whole family for a 5K. While only six of us showed up, I nervously headed toward the starting line in the heat and the humidity to brave my first full 5K since high school.

As I crossed the finish line in an unimpressive time by anyone’s standards, it occurred to me that I was an athlete, and I should be trying bigger things. For God’s sakes, I wrote about it every day. Maybe it was time to start practicing what I preached.

I got back to California and searched for triathlons. Malibu is one of my favorite places in the world and coincidentally the place I interviewed Roll. It was almost exactly 12 weeks away, exactly the amount of time a random blog I found said I would need to train. But then, I realized that the classic/sprint was sold out and only the Olympic Distance was still open.

I immediately closed my laptop and resigned to the fact that it wasn’t meant to be. But, something was nagging inside of me, and I opened up my laptop to look at the Olympic Distance. The events are unclear as I’m pretty sure I blacked out, but the next thing I knew I had signed up for the Olympic Distance, paid the $230 registration fee – a lot of money for me at the time – and was Googling everything I would need to know to prepare for the event.

Soon I would realize that the entrance fee was pennies compared to the amount of money I would need to spend on gear.

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