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Bucket List Item “Triathlon” Crossed Off

We all have things that either are officially written down or unofficially stored in our minds as “bucket list” items!  These bucket list items can range in variety from extreme sports (sky diving) to DIY skills (woodworking) to physical disciplines (martial arts) to cooking (make a three layer cake) to travel (visit all 50 states) goals.  It’s normal to have a range and variety of bucket list items and mine have always included completing a marathon and a triathlon.  (I think an Ironman might be on there as well…shhhh).  So, these bucket list items float around in our minds and we sometimes work intentionally toward them or a series of events might ignite them or perhaps they are spontaneously achieved – this is the story of how I achieved bucket list item: Triathlon! BREAKUP THERAPY = BUCKET LIST CHECK LIST I’ll have to take you back to this time last year.  I was in the aftermath of a breakup and was looking for productive engagement.  I was heartbroken and hungry for healthy distractions.  So, I lost myself in capoiera classes, summer movies in the park, boat rides on the Hudsoncookinglots. of. cooking., and then I thought to myself – triathlon!  I threw a post on Facebook inquiring as to the process of engaging in the famous NYC Triathlon and immediately learned that it was a  week away and that volunteering for it would guarantee my entry for the following year.  I signed up to volunteer and one week later found me ringing a cowbell and cheering on triathletes in the rain – it was a glorious time!  Soon after, I paid my $300+ to secure my guaranteed entry (volunteering essentially exempts you from having to win the lottery process for entry) and soon after that, began training with my gym’s triathlon team, Full Throttle!  Suddenly, I was rising at 5am to run, swim, and bike and it was quite brutal (the getting up part, mostly!)  And so, it looked like I was on my way to this triathlon goal. TRIATHLON TRAINING: NOT SO MUCH Well, there’s more…there’s always more…haha!  So, triathlon training took a break with plans to resume in the beginning of the year.  Finances shifted – for the worse – and for budgetary reasons, I decided to pay for the luxury of training with a team when the race grew closer.  Months passed and I hadn’t really trained on my own as I should have been doing – I was dawdling – I’ll admit it!  I was comfortable teaching my fitness classes and felt that the race was far away enough to relieve me of any urgency.  In the back of my mind, I also had the security that I had purchased insurance and could always, if absolutely necessary, be back out and be refunded.  Well, with the triathlon three weeks away and without so much as a decent bike ride or swim under my belt, I decided to look into this little refund policy.  I was aghast upon learning that the refund of $300+ required filing a claim that would only be assessed after the triathlon date.  And so, there lurked the very uncomfortable possibility that I could file a claim, the triathlon would pass, I would not compete, my claim would be rejected, and my registration fee would simply be a nice tip to NYC.  And so, in true Chinese fashion, to not waste that hard-earned registration fee, I finally committed to making good on my place in the 2015 NYC Triathlon! IT’S REAL: THIS IS REALLY GOING TO HAPPEN And so it began – I had to get serious about training!  Luckily, I have some triathletes in my church and I consulted with them, confessing that I was desperately unprepared and had three weeks to change that.  The notable pieces of advice that I received were to swim in open water, to ride outside, not to worry if I didn’t have biking shoes, not to introduce anything brand new into my regimen at this point, and not to worry. With my mind more at ease, that week, I began swimming and biking outside.  I was not concerned with the running as I regularly run and have run many a race in the past.  I was not, however, familiar with open water swimming, biking for long distances, or outdoor biking.  I will skip ahead to the race, but first, I want to share some anecdotes from my Triathlon learning curve!
OPEN WATER SWIMMING I’ve always been a decent swimmer.  I come from a past where I swam on the high school swim team, lifeguarded during summer breaks, and taught swim lessons for extra cash.  Open water swimming, on the other hand – and open water swimming in a wetsuit, at that, are veery different!  I was instructed by the triathlete in my church (We shall refer to him as “the Ironman” from here on out) to be sure to take a trip(s) out to Coney Island and swim in Brighton Beach.  So, the next Sunday, I donned my swimsuit underneath my church clothes and headed straight to the beach after service.  I disliked open-water swimming immediately because 1) you can’t see anything in the murky water so it’s disorienting and actually frightening!  2) there is no touching the ground or resting and so you are committed to swimming to your destination 3) the sensation of not touching any ground, having zero ability see your surroundings, and knowing that creatures could be nearby is truly unsettling and uncomfortable.  I swam a second time with my wetsuit on and felt more comfortable snug in a suit, but the lesson here was that open-water swimming in NYC still certainly is not my preference! LEARNING MY BIKE’S GEARS An angel gave me a bicycle – a Specialized Sequoia bicycle
(a very good brand) – allowing me to have a major component of competing in a triathlon and essentially making such even a consideration for me.  The challenge then became: understanding this new bike.  I had no recollection of gear shifting.  And so, here I was with a gorgeous 21 speed bike and no confidence in the operation of it.  I was told by the Ironman to take a ride and be sure to use all my gears, to practice shifting up and down on a flat road and going uphill and downhill.  And so, I made it a point to take a 27 mile bike ride for the first time in my life during which I would 1) get the entire mileage of the race (25miles) under my belt and 2) become proficient in gear-shifting.  Let me give you an example of how far I was from gear-shift proficiency!  In the months that I had had that bike, I never shifted the gears from the state they were given to me in – I simply did not know where to begin!  And so, whenever I had to go up a hill, I would actually get off and walk the bike up when I had a bicycle perfectly capable of handling the hill!  I truly did not understand how to shift the gears up and down and which hand to shift with.  Even when I took my long ride and finally figured out how to shift to the small gear for uphill riding, I then didn’t know how to shift back up to the larger gear.  And so, I actually stopped by a bike shop and asked the guy, “How do I shift my gear back up?”  He looked at me like I was an alien [understandably] and used his hand to push the gear shifter on my left handlebar very far in (farther than I naturally pushed it) and took the chain to the larger gear.  And I was off to complete my 27 mile ride!  I had a blast and it was positively exhilarating to ride all those miles.  I have gained the joy of outdoor riding from this experience, for sure. TRIATHLON MENTAL FLOSS One of the advantages of training with a team for events such as a triathlon is the comfort of thoroughly understanding everything.  A coach’s job is to ensure your complete preparation, from physical to mental, filling in every blank and checking for gaps in your preparedness.  When prepping as an individual, your information comes from a combination of research, official race information, and then the advice of everyone and anyone that you talk with about it – everyone will have advice and opinions if they’ve done it before.  As you can imagine, I certainly felt lacking in this area and one of the biggest helps to me was when the Ironman took me out to the race course one-on-one and toured me through the race, event by event, doling out relevant advice along the way.  With knowledge of the lay of the land, I was so much more at ease.  One piece of advice I embraced: carb-loading!  I made a pizza date at my favorite joint: BSide Pizza and chowed down the night before. Then I put myself to bed at 9pm, setting the alarm for 4am and popping a sleep aid chewable for good measure.  The next morning, I rose right on time, had my breakfast, and I was out off to the races!  The hushed activity on triathlon morning is like none other – crowds and cars walking quietly, hurriedly in the dark, at 4:30am, is something you don’t often see.  72nd street near the River, where everyone was setting up their bicycle stations, was flooded with lights, activity, and music, setting the stage for what was about to take place!  I had my bags meticulously packed with every item I believed that I needed for my race and checked against the athlete’s packet checklist.  I set up my bike exactly how I needed it for my biking, my clothes for changing, my nutrition in my bike satchel and inside my tri-top pockets, and everything else I left in a bag right next to my bike.  I kissed my bike good-bye and headed off to walk the mile up to the swim start, carrying my wetsuit, goggles, and cap.  I walked with the crowd up to swim start and quietly, as the sun rose, the army of 4,000 triathletes made its way to 99th street, where an MC would entertain us with live ongoing commentary and cue our starts. FRIEND/ FAMILY SUPPORT Another advantage of racing with a team is the built in cheering squad and support system.  When competing as an individual, you may know some other competitors, but not necessarily.  I did not make a big hoopla around this event because I truly was not sure what my performance would be and approached this as more of an individual goal rather than a public affair.  I wanted to compete privately and announce my completion publicly.  However, just by chance, in chatting with one of my mentors from church, she asked to cheer me on.  I was certainly open to that and started setting her up with the Ironman’s advice on spectating.  I equipped her with a sign with my name on it and my volunteer’s cowbell from last year and she was all set to cheer me on!  At this point, I was genuinely excited about the race.  I had gone from truly being terrified to truly being excited.  After some solid, albeit brief preparation and now with even a support in the crowds for me, I was ready to be proud of my endeavor.  There is true joy that bubbles over when you see familiar faces in the crowd.  I gave Betty a big ole hug and was absolutely elated and humbled by her rising at such an early hour just to support me.
You can tell how happy I was to see my friend!
You can tell how happy I was to see my friend!
TRIATHLON PLAY-BY-PLAY So there I am, standing in my corral, with my 35-40 year old cohorts and I’m just taking it all in.  I’m watching the other swimmers head down the Hudson.  I’m chatting with a few people that I know who are competing.  I’m scanning the crowds for my friend and before long, we are on our way! I’M NOT CRAZY ABOUT SWIMMING We are ushered onto a barge on 99th St about a dozen at time.  Suddenly, it’s our turn.  The feeling as you sit on the edge of the barge is not unlike that of sitting inside a seat on a roller coaster.  You wait in line for a while, the line moves you closer and closer until you are next, you sit in position and ready yourself for takeoff, the emotions felt are a mixture of excitement and anxiety and surrealism.  That’s exactly how I felt sitting on the edge of the barge, feet dangling over the Hudson.  I thought to myself, “This is really happening, we’re going to jump in in a matter of seconds and our race will have begun!  And they counted us down and just like that, I pushed myself into that water and into the Hudson!  I can say that overall, I did not enjoy the swimming.  I was not scared or panicked, but I did feel that it took a long time, I felt people pawing at me, I was also guilty of pawing at others, and it was difficult to swim straight!  I ended up completing the swim in 25 minutes, but certainly wasn’t swimming straight and nonstop, so I know I could have done better.  It just felt like it was taking forever!  You know that feeling when you’re waiting for something to be over and you’re either counting down the distance or the time?  That’s what I was doing and it doesn’t help to make things pass any faster!  Finally, I made it to the exit barge and grabbed the hand of a volunteer/lifeguard and was done with it! I’M A TERRIBLE TRANSITIONER At least when it comes to transitioning barefoot on rocky pavement!  They told us that the pavement would be swept and vacuumed and that we wouldn’t experience issues traveling barefoot on it.  However, for 1.15 miles – yes, that’s how far we had to transition for – I was wincing and walking gingerly over what felt like glass to the bottom of my feet.  What a nightmare!  Virtually follow T1 here and imagine it being filled with rocks – these people must honestly have feet made of steel.  And so, the deal is that I took 19 minutes to transition.  That is a record long time…haha!  Folks were literally baffled by how long I took.  I got questions such as, “What were you doing, hanging out?!”  “What did you do, crawl through transition?!”  One friend was frightened for me, thinking that something had happened, an accident of some sort; because the only other time he had seen someone take that long to transition, that person had suffered hypothermia and was forced to sit under a heat lamp for over 10 minutes before they allowed him to move on.  Unfortunately, I could boast no such story other than, “The pavement was rocky!”  haha!  Now I know that these transitions are supposed to happen quick, quick, quick!  And apparently, you must turn off the nerve-endings in your feet to make that happen.  Now I know. I LOVE BIKING Alas, we move on to my new favorite sport: biking! I absolutely killed it on the bike, keeping up an 18mph pace and making up for what I had lost in transition.  This huge grin on my face is real:
A shot of me biking that I'm too cheap to purchase
A shot of me biking that I’m too cheap to purchase
I was absolutely flying the entire time and the magical moment for me was when a dude turned around on his bike, pointed at me and revealed, “You’re my pacer!”  I was pacing after him, but we took turns passing each other and let’s just say that I was the last one to pass him. 😉  That was definitely a moment of validation right there.  For the first 5 miles on my bike, I was moving at 18mph, a speed that I had never even reached previously.  My legs were already experiencing a subtle burn and I thought to myself that there was no way that I could keep this  up for 20 more miles.  But at the same time, I could not allow myself to slow down.  I needed to know that I was pushing myself.  That was important to me.  And so I kept booking it and gradually 5 miles become 10 became 15 became 20 and I had never dropped under 17 mph!  I must say, I was impressed with myself!  Mentally and physically, I was fresh during the entire bike ride.  I was passing people consistently, cheerily chanting variations of “left,” “on your left,,” and “passing” (bike etiquette for passing on someone’s left).   I even made light conversation and cheered on those I passed, I was feeling so good!  I honestly have fond memories of this bike ride and will remember it forevermore! I RUN WELL…UNLESS I’M RUNNING AFTER 2 OTHER EVENTS
the Running Event of the 2015 NYC Tri
the Running Event of the 2015 NYC Tri
On the other hand…haha…the run…haha!  Yes, the run…was. brutal.  I am a runner.  I enjoy running.  I take 8 miles run for my personal workouts.  I love to join the Nike Run Club anytime I’m available for an even longer run – say 12 miles.  I am a runner and when I race – I am even moreso!  But, when I hit that pavement after hopping off my bike, my butt felt funny, sort of tight, my body felt heavy, and I was just tired!  I saw the Ironman and his daughter within the first 1/4 mile and they cheered me on heartily and I desperately embraced each of them, unabashedly confessing “I don’t want to do this anymore!”  They laughed at me and shoo’ed me onward.  But I was telling the truth!  I really couldn’t fathom how I would move my legs for 6 miles – I felt like I was moving in slow motion – it was worse than jogging – this felt like the slowest I had ever run – I can’t even respectfully refer to what I was doing as running – it was like I was just moving my legs in place – no exaggeration.  Luckily, I had my iPhone strapped to my arm and it spoke realtime metrics to me, citing my pace as 9:45ish to begin with and I committed to staying within the 9:00 minute range.  This would typically be a shameful race pace for me, but running after 2 other events was a whole other ballgame that I quickly adjusted my expectations for.  Gradually, the miles ticked themselves off: 1 mile down and a water/gatorade station, 2 miles down and another hydration station…and so it went, with the occasional sprinkler to break up the heat – which by the way, at that point was a sweltering 80+ degrees with a potent humidity.  I will tell you that the cheering fans were my saving grace during this run.  I made eye contact, I cheered back, I got them to say my name – these volunteers and friends and family collectively gave me enough bursts of energy to carry me over that finish.  I imagined that they were all there for me – playing [favourable] mind games with myself! “I’M NEVER DOING THIS” AGAIN BECOMES “WHAT NEXT?” At some point in the marathon and it happened again here with the triathlon, I asked myself the question:
Exhausted as I finished up my run
Exhausted as I finished up my run
“Why did I ever get myself into this?!” and then swore to myself that I would never do it again.  I remember it very clearly from the Brooklyn Marathon a few years ago.  Around mile 20, at my breaking point, I was both unsure whether or not I would finish the race and committed to never doing this to myself again.  That moment came back during mile 3 of the triathlon run when I was utterly exhausted, unsure of my capacity, and swearing to never ever ever do such a thing to myself again.  I’m not gonna lie: expletives were definitely a  part of my inner script at that point and I was just dying from the inside out, outside in.
Finished with the 2015 NYCTri
Finishing the 2015 NYCTri
Fast forward 3 miles: The spectators are thick at the last 1/2 mile and the cheers are loud.  I push myself across the finish line, arms up, grin wide and pose for the camera.  A few steps later, they knight me with a medal.  A few steps after that, someone is taking my timing chip off of my ankle for me.  A few steps after that, I’m offered a buffet of fruit, bagels, chips, drinks, etc.  And it is a GOOD time!  The pain is gone, the suffering is over, the insane feeling of accomplishment wells up within me and this little thought creeps into all the hubbub, asking, “What’re you going to do next?!” Auggggh!  How dare I even bring such a thing up!  My friend Betty likened it to birth and I imagine it’s a perfect analogy.  She said that while you are in labor, in the midst of the most excruciating pain of your life [cuz you are pushing a watermelon out of your vagina], you swear that you will never ever entertain another child.  Yet, as soon as that child is in your arms, you are in the equivalent amount of bliss and yes, ready to do it all over again.  Well, I cannot promise anything, but I am 100% glad that I went forth with competing in the NYC Triathlon and I’m happy with the turnout and everything that I learned along the way.  If there is another in my future, it will certainly be even better and if there is not, then there will certainly be more experiences to be had!  Btw, here are my final results: I finished in a total of 3 hrs, 12 mins, and 42 secs.  I took 25 mins to swim, 19 mins to transition (haha!), 1 hr, 26 mins to bike, 4 min, 33 sec to transition, and 55 mins, 43 secs to run.  It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t the best, but it was decent.  I will debrief and talk about what I learned and would do differently, but this is what my final numbers were!
LESSONS LEARNED The importance of Nutrition: I had never been concerned with nutrition in the past.  I would accept the occassional electrolyte packed gel or gummy from the Nike Club because they were complimentary and absolutely yum!  But never have I ever purchased them because I was really never working out for long enough that I needed to have sustenance on-person.  I was always working out for 1-2 hours at a time and then close enough to a gym or home that I would be able to simply eat afterward!  In a triathlon, however, (competing for 3 hours) and in triathlon training (riding for 2+ hours), that shot of nutrition staves hunger pangs and injects you with energy.  It is necessary.  And so I started to use nutrition in the form of nuun tablets, gels, and gummies during my training, during the race itself, and afterward, when I continued riding for exercise. Biking & Gear Shifting: As I mentioned, I had no idea how to shift between my three front gears.  I received my bike in the middle gear and rode it in that gear for the better part of a year.  Once I started actually training for the tri, I knew that I had to maximize my bike and started learning all the gears.  It took one ride for me to understand how to operate my back derailer to fully use my front middle gear.  It took another ride for me to solidify that.  It took a third ride for me to start to shift the front derailer and I had to stop off for a real-time demonstration to shift it back once I had shifted it to the smaller gear.  By the end of that ride I had used all of the back gears and two of the front gears and I felt ready.  Add to that one gear adjustment at my local bike shop set and I felt like I was ready.  And indeed, while I was on the road during the tri, I was a master shifter!  I was shifting however I needed to keep my cadence high high high; I took every uphill like a champ in my smallest gear; and I took every downhill like a speed racer in my largest gear.  I shifted gears to gain traction when passing and finally felt “at one” with my bike and it’s mechanisms! WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY Swim harder: I was swimming crooked and into people and not pushing myself the way that I was on the bike event.  I finished with a decent time, but I could have shaved some time off with a little more focus and intention. Transition Faster: I took 19 minutes during T1.  That is just unacceptable.  People go through full hair and makeup in 19 minutes.  People warm up from hypothermia in less than 19 minutes.  I definitely need to suck up the running on rocks aspect of the race or really have some water shoes waiting for me to run in.  Probably both! Run Faster: I was lethargic during my run.  When I think about it, I didn’t train very hard for my run, so I probably would have done better had I done that.  So, I would train in running and I would simply run faster, pushing harder. Listen to Music: One thing that really really really helps me and I understand it to be illegal, but I’ve done it during other races and I know that it injects me with so much energy….is music!  When I run w/ my music, I am literally dancing and pumping my arms.  And this is supported by the fact that during the tri, anytime I passed a live DJ, I was able to break into dance, but the music always passed quickly since you were running and it was right back to mundane soundtrack-less running.  sigh.  So next time, I would stow headphones on myself and pop ’em in for that boost. Rally a Crowd: I really competed in this race very privately.  I didn’t want to have folks come out and then perhaps do poorly, perhaps not even finishing.  It was a possibility in my head!  And so, rather than risk public humiliation, I kept the entire endeavor under wraps until I could no longer contain myself: I ended up posting two days prior to the race.  But if there’s a next time, I’m gettin’ a party together! So, that’s all folks,  if you want to compete in a tri, go ahead and give it a tri…haha!  get it?!  I hope that you learned from my experience and I look forward to hearing about yours!