A first-time triathlete finds satisfaction begins before the race. 

In Training

The icy water stole my breath as if I'd fallen from some height and landed on my back. It might have paralyzed me if I hadn't been forced to protect myself from the frenzied, thrashing battery of arms and legs. The women around me seemed more like shipwreck victims than triathletes! After taking a swift kick to the jaw, I thrust my face into the numbing water and started to swim. My wetsuit was tight around my throat and the cresting waves made it hard to see the buoys that marked the course.

Thankfully, I'd been forewarned of this inevitable melee during my training sessions. Experienced triathletes had told my team of 27 first-timers exactly what to expect at the start of the race. They told us to stay calm, to tread water if necessary, not to worry about making it to the front of the pack, not to panic. It may sound melodramatic but, for a beginner, the start of a triathlon is more unnerving than that of any other race.

I was just that, a beginner, a neophyte, eager to call myself a triathlete. I had chosen to train with the Leukemia Society's Team In Training program for Norfolk's Breezy Point Triathlon, a sprint-distance race that includes a 1K swim, 20K bike, and 5K run. I thought I had a decent athletic foundation — I ran three or four miles several times a week; I enjoyed cycling and mountain biking; and as a child I had been a ridiculously dedicated member of the swim team. I had the basic skills and the motivation, but I had no idea how to prepare for a race. Team In Training offered the guidance of an experienced coach and the camaraderie of teammates, as well as an opportunity to help local children with leukemia. So, I resolved to add both the training and the fundraising to my schedule, and registered for the race.

I began the three-month regimen with the individualized training schedule that our coach had set up for me. I started with short distances: 3-mile runs, 800-meter swims, and 10-mile bike rides. I alternated sports daily and took two days off per week, doing a transition workout (two sports consecutively) on the day between them.

Because my diet was already fairly healthy, I didn't much alter its content during the time I trained; but I did begin to eat more. I found myself ravenous after workouts, especially after long bike rides and on transition days. This was a new, primitive hunger, not a craving for a certain food, but a simple need for fuel. I could tell exactly when I ran out of it; I became weak, shaky, and dazed. I am a person who loves food, so I thought I would relish feeling such rare justification to eat with abandon, but I found I cared less about taste than simply filling my hollow stomach. Packed with carbohydrates and low in fat, bananas and Clif bars became new favorite snacks.

Aside from the thrill of competition and the magnificent satisfaction of finishing, for me the greatest aspect of triathloning was the training. Having a goal, a competition for which to train and strategize gave me new motivation. Instead of thinking about burning off what I'd recently eaten, I concentrated on technique, speed and endurance. I was pleased to see my body grow leaner and more toned, but that was no longer my purpose in exercising; it was an added bonus.

I gradually increased my training so that I was logging distances slightly greater than those required by the race. I took only one day off per week. I ran long runs at a slow, steady pace and short runs fast and hard. When I had time I took my bike out into the country, or even to Charlottesville to ride but, usually, I rode laps in the West Creek office park on Patterson Avenue.

The second transition, from bike to run, is by far the most difficult. The first time I hopped off my bike and started running my legs almost buckled beneath me. I laughed, because I'd felt so good on the bike, as if I could've ridden several more miles. But when I got off, my legs were like rubber. They felt numb, disembodied for several yards before finally stumbling into rhythm. It takes time to get used to the feeling, so I followed our coach's advice and practiced the transition often. By race day I knew I had to start the run at a slow jog to allow my legs to adjust.

Swimming turned out to be my strong suit. I loved swimming laps, loved the streamline feel of stretching the whole length of my body for a smooth, efficient stroke. Although I trained in the pool, I wasn't worried about racing in open water because I had grown up swimming in rivers and at the beach. Still, our coach urged us to practice open-water swims before the race, and I complied. When I splashed into the Atlantic in late April, the freezing water immediately washed away my confidence. The water knocked the breath out of me and, although it gave me more buoyancy, my borrowed wetsuit further constricted my breathing. I was surprised to find myself slightly panicked. The sky was gray, the wind was high and it seemed to take forever to get out past the breaking waves. Once I finally got going, I found it impossible to swim in a straight line. I was used to breathing on both sides but, when I turned my head sea-side, I opened my mouth into the rising swell of a wave. Humbled, I went back to the beach for three more training swims before the race.

Physically, training for the triathlon was challenging. Mentally, however, I found it quite simple. The training naturally occupied my thoughts because it occupied much of my time, but rotating among three sports made it easy to stay motivated. The cross-training prevented me from getting burned out on any one activity; and, on race day, the logistics distracted me from fatigue. As a first-timer I had so many questions: where to change, what to wear, what to eat, when to sprint…. The questions were interminable and I was immensely grateful to know people with answers. The Team In Training coach must have felt more like a first-grade teacher than a coach at times, but his patient explanations made it possible for me to successfully complete my first triathlon. When I signed up for my second race I was eager, determined and proud to call myself a triathlete.

Mayo Island is host to the XTERRA triathlon July 18 beginning at 8 a.m. For more information, contact Richmond Sports Backers 285-9495.

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