These two words were etched in my mind after participating in the 2016 Transamerica Chicago Triathlon.
Laboring through the chute in the home stretch of the final leg of the race, then scaling what felt like a mountain but really was a small hill, the huge Finish banner was in my sights, something I wasn’t sure I’d see. With appreciation for friends and family and many other onlookers sharing encouragement, I made it.
It’s humbling to be surrounded by so many talented, or sometimes simply dedicated, athletes. Before competing in the race, I thought the triathlon was just another competition, like my years of competitive swimming and water polo, and later social basketball, softball and others.
Nothing compared to this. When I swam competitively in high school and college, a “sprint” was 50-100 yards and was completed in less than a minute, though extensive training preceded the race; in triathlon-speak, a sprint is about 30 kilometers, or over 18 miles, and the Olympic distance is almost double. Sprint, indeed.
This was my first triathlon, at age 59. Our four adult children gave me the Tri registration as a Christmas gift; last time I’ll answer the question “what would you like” with “surprise me”!
While I considered myself in decent shape, as did my doctor, I knew that running was a weakness, so I spent the Chicago winter primarily on a treadmill at the Y. I started running outdoors and spin cycling in April. I realized in early June, after a 15 mile trail ride with my long-time friend Lynn that I had grossly underestimated the difficulty of the cycling leg – everyone can ride a bike, right? I had poor conditioning, no speedometer or odometer, and a 25 year-old hybrid bike. I was so tired before we reached the 5 mile mark that I was ready to quit. Subsequent training sessions built some endurance and clocked me in the 17-18 mpg range. A look-see at last year’s Tri results showed that my competitors would be in the +/-20 mph range. My simple math told me that if I lost the bike ride by 2 mph, which sounds small, I would lose 5 minutes to the field.
My first swim of the season was on May 28; I concluded correctly that the swim warranted the least amount of my training time, in part because it’s the shortest leg of the Tri, and in part because of my competitive swim experience, albeit 40 years ago! In oversimplified sprint distance terms, the run takes twice as long as the swim, and the cycling takes 3 times as long as the swim, though results vary based on one’s individual strengths.
I trained hard, always trying to balance conditioning vs. injury. Early-on I was a bit neurotic about aches and pains. Eventually I realized that my 59 year old body was talking, and pain was unavoidable. I remembered the advice from my doctor about ten years ago when I complained of a lingering groin strain from playing basketball – “take more Advil”, though I rarely do. My blood pressure reading a week before the race was 106/66; my doctor joked that I have the body of a teenager, but it doesn’t feel like it. I lost 5-10 pounds while training, but competed at a weight that is in my optimal range – not below. The most pleasant surprise is that I trained for 8 months and experienced no back problems, no doubt influenced by a decent amount of ab work last winter.
The biggest impediment to preparation for the race is the time it takes to train. I don’t know how the leaders in my age group, or any other age group for that matter, find the time to train – it’s a time suck. Once I entered June, I upped my training to 6 days per week, sometimes 2 hours per day, usually composed of a swim and a ride or run, or a ride and a run, which triathletes call a brick; I call it hell. But really, who has 10 or more hours per week to train?
Overall I finished 15 of 57 in my age bracket.
Not bad, about a minute and a half out of top-ten. Even though I was ecstatic to cross the finish line, now my competitive juices are wondering where I lost a minute and a half! T1 (the first transition, between swimming and biking) was 7:35, compared to an approximate average for the top ten finishers of about 6 minutes – I found it! It took too long to put on my shoes and socks, I didn’t have my water bottles in their cages, I had to put on my race belt, my helmet strap broke (weird), and I put on a fanny pack with a spare inner tube that should have been in a saddle bag – you can drive yourself crazy thinking about the lost seconds, though during the race your only thought is survival. And my “run” actually was half-run, half-walk; quite embarrassing, but I was wasted.
What’s not to love about my swim – first place, my 12 minutes of fame (placed in the top 3% of all half-mile swimmers of all ages, just to boast)! I basked in this glory for a few minutes, but it wasn’t long before I got passed on Lake Shore Drive by 14 guys who cycled 19-22 mph. Before the start of the swim, a Tri regular said that he had heard a triathlon described as a bike race, preceded by a swim and followed by a run – I have no argument with that description.
What’s next? While I spent 8 months preparing for the race, I still felt unprepared. Not due to a lack of effort, which I’m proud of, but due to a lack of experience, and especially due to a cumulative lack of training – I don’t think many people can excel at competitive cycling in only one season; I sure couldn’t. And then run a 5K; I know athletes complete Olympic and Ironman distances in the triathlon, but I had my hands full in the Sprint distance.
Now I’m faced with a decision. Do I continue, or do I quit? The absolute hardest thing about this race was starting in January to train from almost zero in all three legs of the race; I will not do that again – it’s too hard, and I expect that my performance simply would decline with age.
So, I am going to forge on – I am going to finish in the top ten in the 60+ division next year! Remarkably, this year’s tenth place time in the 60+ division was 1 minute faster than tenth place in my 55-59 division, so there is plenty of reach in my goal. There were five guys aged 68-70 who handily beat my time!
How do I do it? Stay tuned – I’m thinking one minute in T1, 2 minutes on the bike, which roughly is an improvement from 18 mph to 19 mph, and a 2 minute improvement in the run. I’m not sure that I’ll focus too much on the swim, though I’m starting a daily push up routine, which will benefit the swim, bike and run by strengthening my upper body and abs; my abs were burning during this year’s bike ride.
Also, I’m wondering if my pre-race taper, or rest, was optimal; I took 5 days off after the race and then cycled 10.5 miles fresh and averaged 1 mph faster than my pre-race training, so I have another variable to test. I realize that my training was done by feel and seat-of-the-pants, and recognize that more discipline is needed.
Sounds easy on paper! I’m also going to apply some science to my training, and hope to develop a 12 month plan that strengthens my legs while avoiding injury; it’s hard to train with strained hamstring and groin muscles. For starters, I’m reading “Running Strong: The Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide to Staying Healthy and Injury-Free for Life” by Dr. Jordan Metzl ; it seems exactly like what I’m looking for, and may influence my training for the rest of my life. According to Dr. Metzl, a sports medicine doctor and marathon and Ironman athlete, “strength training is one of the most important things you can do to build a healthy kinetic chain and prevent injury. I recommend at least one and preferably two dedicated strength sessions per week.”
I’m also going to learn more about nutrition – at both the Chicago Triathlon and the related Men’s Health Expo I was bombarded with samples of protein and other supplements that included ingredients like beets, kale and quinoa. I don’t use any of these products, and want to study the evidence a bit; I’m skeptical that a power bar or drink is going to push me into the top ten, but if they help, I’m in! I drink a lot of water and eat pretty healthily, but am open to new ideas.
The sprint triathlon really tested my conditioning, and will influence my approach to conditioning for the rest of my life. I don’t know if there is a fountain of youth, but as long as guys 10 years my senior are smoking me, I’ll keep looking!
Gary Radville is the owner of Lively Bottle, which sells custom water bottles that are reusable, two-walled, made in USA, dishwasher safe, and fit in a bike cage.