This race was my first in Texas. I flew into Houston and headed a bit west to Katy. This felt like a true Texas town. Wide open expanses with a traditional feeling downtown. The high school served as the anchor of the town. This race went off without a hitch. Going through the details of this race would probably be fairly uninteresting. It was a 300 yard swim followed by a 14 mile bike with a 3.1 mile run to top it off. This race was very well run and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
However, I thought it may be a bit more interesting to talk about what a race, in general, is like for a racer. I know this may be difficult to relate to if you have never participated in a triathlon but I figured I would try to give an accurate depiction. I paid close attention to the “experience” on Saturday in anticipation of this entry. So here we go.
The morning normally starts very early for a triathlon. 5 am or earlier is not uncommon. For some this is not a big challenge but for most this takes some effort to get the body going that early. Further, most people don’t sleep all that well the night before a race as your nerves of the day to come and sleeping through your alarm keep you away from sound sleep. When the alarm tolls your mind is a bit foggy from the distractions that creeped into your sleep. However, your body is usually energized. The first early shots of endorphin from your mind start to take hold.
One of the first things that a racer should try and do after waking up is get some calories into their body. You want the calories available for your race without sitting heavy on the top of your stomach. That is why you want to eat as far ahead of race time as you can. Sometimes this is difficult though. As your body is starting the flow of endorphins into your blood stream it has a seemingly adverse side-effect on your gut. Your stomach feels disinterested in taking in food. Not that you are full but rather that you stomach is churning a bit. Your mind knows that it needs the calories but the stomach makes it hard to accept.
When you arrive at the race site it is usually still dark. You now have to really focus your mind and visualize the race as you stand before your transition spot. Not because it will help you swim, bike or run faster but rather because you need to anticipate what challenges the day will bring you in the three disciplines and how you are going to address those from a gear standpoint. Often you go through this mental exercise days leading up to the race but it all has to come together at that moment race morning. This is a much harder task for new racers as they have not been through the experience many times. With each race it seems to get easier. You go through the mental checklist of items you need for the swim, the bike and the run. You place them in a fashion that allows for quick transitions. All this is going on as your body is getting more and more excited. Typically the skin starts to get its first sensation of perspiration. It senses that there is energy all around you. As transition is buzzing your body knows that it is about to be called upon. Again, for new racers these sensations tend to overshadow the mental focus necessary to set up a good transition. This often leads to mistakes later in the race.
After your transition is set up it is time to go to the swim start. Since this race was a pool swim I will talk about that experience as it is vastly different from an open water swim. As you line up around the pool your body gets more and more energized. Your mind begins to align with your body more clearly. It is thinking of the immediate event that is about to begin. The sweating pics up a bit..even in cold weather. The chattering all around is incessant. Everyone from new racers to crusty veterans are talking about how their day will go, how their training has gone, their new gear, their excuses that will save a bad day, etc. Your mind has to deal with this overload and try to maintain focus.
The focus that I shoot for is not one of strict execution of the race plan. Rather, my focus is to remain calm. Your body is a lot like an engine. There is only so much it can do. At this point you have filled it with all of the fuel that you can to help get you through a race of this distance (longer races have more fueling opportunities). Therefore, I want to make sure that I am not unnecessarily wasting my fuel and energy on stress inducing matters. Listening to the chatter can cause a lot of stress for racers. It makes you question your performance at a time where it doesn’t help to do so. Therefore, the focus has to be one of calm and relaxation….as best as possible.
As you toe the start line and wait for your mark to go you really try to push that focus up a notch. Calm is the word at those times. As you step off the pool deck into a pool of chaos (there are already swimmers in the pool) you know your day has begun. You are now racing. The noise is still there until you sink under the water. Then silence. All you hear is yourself and the noise of the water. That is the most interesting thing about triathlon racing. From the very beginning of the race you are alone with your mind. The internal race talk then begins. The sensation of the water becomes highly evident. This causes weak swimmers to get very agitated. The sense of isolation and envelopment of the water. However, especially at the beginning of swim, the key is to remain calm. Fight the urge to sprint (unless you are a swimmer by background). Rather, the only thing that you should hurry towards is rhythm. You should get into a rhythm as fast as you can. Feel the rhythm. Triathlon is a sport that is all about rhythm and fatigue that is trying to destroy that rhythm.
Water, especially cold water, has a very peculiar tendency to accelerate your breathing upon submersion of your face. Your body, naturally, does not want to maintain your mouth and nose underwater where we can’t have easy access to oxygen. Swimming, as part of developing the rhythm, is striking the balance between oxygen deprivation and speed. The slowest part of the swim stroke is the breath stroke. That is why rhythm is important. If you can get into a rhythm where your body can begin predicting its next breath then it relaxes your body. However, if you push the effort harder then your oxygen demand becomes greater. You have to find a new rhythm to provide more oxygen more quickly. This is hard for those who are not true swimmers. True swimmers have different speeds. Most swimmers do not. We have one true speed and if we try to push above that it directly impacts everything.
Now that your heart rate is up and your body is accustomed to the water it is time to swim. Stroke, stroke, stroke-breath, stroke, stroke, stroke-breath. Hit the wall, make your turn. In a pool swim you are confined. You are, unlike an open water swim, worried about swimming head on into a swimmer heading the opposite way. Being in a rhythm with your body allows your mind to be focused on the task of navigating you through the swim as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible.
As you come into the final stretch of the swim your mind changes focus. It now is onto the next phase of your race. Getting from the pool to your transition and out on the bike. You pop out of the water onto your feet and head to your bike. You strip off your cap and goggles. You are often surprised at how elevated your breathing is upon making this transition from swimming to biking. After all, when you were in the water you were breathing intermittently as you did not have free access to air. Now that you do your body begins taking full advantage. Your heart rate also feels more present. The rate is elevated along with your breathing.
You are dripping wet. Getting to your bike you have to place immediate focus on the task at hand. Get everything swim related out of your mind and only focus on bike related items. Tunnel vision sets in as you try to black out everything ancillary that is occurring around you. The cow bells are ringing, screams from the crowd for other racers, the emcee screaming over the speakers, the music blaring. All those things are distractions from the task at hand. Helmet on. Sunglasses on. Shoes on. Slow down your breathing. Deep breaths. Get out of transition without forgetting anything, running into anyone or breaking any rules. Get it done fast. But get it done right.
I will stop this post here. I will finish up with the bike and the run in my post for race 30 – Conroe Tri for Fun.
The No Label Triathlon added 17.3 miles to the tally. This brings us up to 647.4 miles.