When I wrote about me running the New York City Marathon last year, I described my accomplishment as being as “extremely improbable” as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series and Donald Trump being elected president.
So how can I categorize me completing the New York City Triathlon last month? (Spoiler alert: I did finish the race!) After all, the lion’s share of my time — a 1500 meter (.93 mile) swim in the Hudson River and a 40K (almost 25 miles) bike ride — was spent in two sports I not only had no natural ability in, but that I had almost no experience in. And doing a 10K run after those two activities in the triathlon was no picnic.
And let’s face it, it’s not like I have any natural ability in running! I am a slow runner, although I have gone from the “back of the pack” to the “front of the back of the pack” over the past year, finally getting below 35 minutes for a 5K. And as hard as it was for somebody who once weighed over 250 pounds to run the NYC Marathon, especially given how slow a runner I am, I had done over 100 road races and had been running for nearly four years by the time I did that race.
But I am not exactly Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong when it comes to swimming and cycling. Despite growing up with a pool, all I knew how to do until this year was the doggy paddle. And while I took spin classes regularly, cycling outside was totally new to me. I had been on a bike outdoors exactly once in the last 30 years until May, when I did the 5 Boro Bike Tour. This, even though I had paid for CitiBike (twice!) but was too frightened at the time to actually do it. Also, I didn’t even buy a bike until early June.
I’m recounting this not to say “Wow, I’m awesome,” but to point out how much I jumped out of my comfort zone to become a triathlete. And it all started with a Facebook post.
So you may ask yourself, how did I get there?
Looking back while writing this, even I’m shocked I was able to go from that pathetic baseline to finishing this triathlon. So how did I get to become a triathlete? And why did I decide to do this in the first place? It has something to do with my inability to resist a good freebie.
My Facebook friend (and now real-life friend) Janelle Hartman volunteered at the 2016 NYC Triathlon and got a free entry for her hard work. But she didn’t want to do the race, so she offered it up on Facebook last October. When I saw her post, and looked up how much the race entry was worth (over $300!) I raised my hand online and said yes, despite my total inexperience with swimming and cycling. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that, even though I hadn’t even done the NYC Marathon yet. I figured I had nine months to figure it all out. First goal was getting through the marathon, and then I would worry about the triathlon after recovering from that.
So I started taking free swim lessons from the New York City in January (and I took the class again in the spring to work on my skills). I increased my time on the spin bike at New York Health and Racquet Club, my gym, going to classes two to four times a week. I also started using the Expresso bike at the gym, which simulates intense road routes.
But my triathlon timetable didn’t completely work out as planned. I ended up signing up to do a spring marathon, thanks to another freebie (the folks at the New Jersey Marathon comped me admission!) so I trained for that in 2017 until the end of April, when I ran the race.
While I did work on my swimming and cycling then, I was mostly focused on getting my mileage in for the marathon until that race was over. So that meant I really had about 11 weeks of tri-only training before the race, with a sprint triathlon in June to give me a taste of what it was like. Given that, maybe I was overreaching here. Was I all wet to try a tri?
How getting sick helped me
I had had high hopes for my performance April 30 in the New Jersey Marathon — I wanted to finish under six hours and achieve a PR (personal record). Unfortunately, after a great 13.1 miles in the race, I felt nauseated and basically staggered to the finish line in just over 6 1/2 hours. Picture feeling like you’re going to vomit for the distance of a half marathon, and you’ll imagine how I felt.
I was so sick, it was the only time I ever felt like I was going to get a DNF (did not finish) after my name. After the race, I was in the medical tent (really an ambulance, where I proceeded to hit my head on the roof) with sky-high pulse and blood pressure rates. I was shivering, despite the heat that day, and the EMTs gave me two blankets to keep me warm. They also asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I declined after my pulse rate went down.
I was also so sore, I could barely walk. And we had to take a cab just to go 1/2 mile to the train station. I missed work the next day and was in awful shape.
But something snapped in me after that race. In too many areas of my life, I was still acting like the sad fat girl, putting up with too much nonsense from others, happy for any crumb. After that race, my attitude became, “Screw you, I ran two marathons!” It really made me think of myself as not just an athlete but a warrior.
This attitude adjustment paid off. I noticed that my running speeds got faster and I got stronger at weight training, in part because of dumping this mental baggage I had been carrying around for way too long.
Until then, I figured I always had a way out of doing the NYC Triathlon. After all, since I was so new to swimming and cycling, I could always admit that I wasn’t ready and beg out of the race. But after the New Jersey Marathon, I decided I wasn’t going to take the easy way out and quit, no matter what. I would buy the bike, something I had been vacillating over for months, finish the Patenella’s Pancake sprint triathlon in June, and then do the NYC Triathlon. I would also do two more half-marathons, including one in upstate New York in June.
A (wo)man’s got to know their limitations
Can I say I was 100% ready for the NYC Triathlon? Of course not. But I knew enough to know what I did not know. I had originally planned to swim in a tri suit, the way I did in the Pancake race. But after an open water swim at Coney Island in early July with the Empire Tri Club, where the instructors strongly advised me to get a wetsuit, I was able to rent one with Paragon Sports for $75, which could be applied to buying a wetsuit if I chose to do that. Also, both the Pancake tri and doing the open water swim prepared me for what swimming in the Hudson River with other people would be like. I had heard numerous horror stories about people who had confined their training to the pool, and were completely panicked when swimming in the NYC Triathlon. I was determined not to be one of them.
And while I had made it up to being able to cycle 25 miles at a time, I knew that the hills in the triathlon were pretty fierce, especially the one leaving Riverside Park in the race, so I was prepared to walk the hills if needed. I also knew that I had not yet mastered being able to grab a water bottle on the bike while in motion, so I prepared myself to safely stop and do so during the race so I would not be a hazard to myself or anybody else.
I even took a week off from work in early July to prepare for the triathlon, and be comfortable working out for so long a time at once. I figured it would take me at least 4 hours and 45 minutes to finish the race, and even wrote that prediction down at Athlinks. But my goal wasn’t to set a world-class record, after all. It was to simply finish.
The night before
I knew enough from doing two marathons that 1) I wouldn’t get much sleep the night before the race, and 2) it was important to get rest earlier in the week and not around much on the day before. I did an easy 5K Saturday morning as a shakeout run and also used the opportunity to do a trial run for the tri suit I picked up at the expo the day before. I also went to Coney Island and tested out the wetsuit I rented. Both things gave me comfort I would be ready for the triathlon. I stayed over at Squawker Jon’s place, as he lives just two blocks away from the transition area. I had to check my bike in there the night before.
I had finished doing so and was getting ready to leave the area when I asked a volunteer to make sure my bike was racked correctly. He said it was, but noticed an issue with the back wheel. He suggested I get it checked out with the volunteer bike mechanics on site.
Good thing I did. Something was wonky with my back brake, which would have caused me issues in the race. The mechanics fixed it, put some air in the tires, and I was ready to carbo-load at Patsy’s Pizzeria (a tradition of sorts — I ate there the night before my first Brooklyn Half Marathon) and then went to sleep. In just a few hours, I had to get up for the race!
So how would I do? You’ll have to wait for the next installment in my NYC Triathlon report to see how everything went down!