I have a history of doing 'interesting' things on my birthdays. I think digging latrines in Ghana on my 18th is probably the most random, but I think this year classes as the most painful!
My birthday started at 4am EST with me hopping in a car to drive 40 minutes away to Mercer County Park. Why would I do such a thing? To put myself through over 3 hours of endurance sport of course! Yes, I was going to compete in my first ever triathlon, and to make things a little harder for myself I had chosen to do the 'olympic distance' rather than the usual beginners' route of 'sprint'.
A sprint triathlon consists of a 750m swim followed by a 20km bike and finally a 5km run (approximately 1/2 mile swim, 13 mile bike and 3 mile run). Instead, I would be doing double that - 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run.
Now I was never the sportiest child (as many of you know!), and although I rowed (a lot!) at Wadham and joined the cycling team at Rutgers, my body isn't exactly made for running and I've never been a strong swimmer. In fact, as of January this year I couldn't swim with my head underwater - in fact I couldn't really put my head under water without panicking a little and gulping in a lungful of water...
So why on Earth would I choose to put myself through this? Well for two very special reasons. First, to help raise money for KEEN New York, the most amazing charity I volunteer with. KEEN runs a sports program for disabled and special needs children in New York - for absolutely free. It's a charity I feel very passionate about so being able to help them raise money means an awful lot to me.
My other reason is my Granda, Robin Wilson. A year and a half ago my Granda passed away after a relentless year-long fight with Motor Neurone Disease. MND is a horrific disease that attacks the connections in your brain leaving the sufferer with little to no control over their bodies. Even though there have been some high profile cases (for example Stephen Hawking) it remains a relatively unknown disease. The MND Association works to help sufferers and their families as well as conducting research into finding a cure for this horrible disease.
When my Granda lost his fight against MND, my Gran set up a 'Tribute Fund' so that any money the family and friends raise or donate to the MND Association would be recognized under my Granda's name.
So on a cold December night I decided that on my 23rd Birthday I would complete the NJ State triathlon to raise money in the US for KEEN New York and back home for my Granda's Tribute Fund and the MND Association.
7 months of (relatively) intense training followed: for the swim I took group swimming lessons to upgrade from 'head-out-of-the-water-breaststroke' to 'head-in-the-water-freestyle'; for the bike I completed my first ever college road season with the Rutgers Cycling Team and in the process got two podium finishes in Men's Intro and upgraded to racing in Cat D; and for the run I pretty much tried to ignore and avoid running as much as I could!
So let's get onto the actual race! I arrived at the Park at around 5:30am, just as transition was opening. For those of you that don't know, transition is where you leave your bike and running gear for you to change into mid-race. I unpacked and built my bike and headed over to set up my towel by my rack. I placed my running shoes, cycling shoes, running cap, race number, a couple of carbohydrate gels on the towel and put my helmet and sunglasses on my bike ready to put on in a very speedy fashion.
As recommended I headed out for a quick spin on the bike to make sure it was all working ok (although after checking it about 20 times the night before I would have been shocked if it didn't!) and came back to find transition filling up. We were all grouped together by our 'waves' - that is the group of people we would be starting the swim with. Waves went off in 5minute intervals, starting at 7:30 with the elites, Under 19's, Men 20-24 and Men 60+. The next wave would be me, with other 20-24 year old men and 50-54 year old men and the waves would continue until the final wave at 8:20. I started chatting to the guy next to me who was also 23, and it was his first ever olympic triathlon too which made me feel a bit better about being a 'newbie'. What didn't make me feel better was seeing the guy opposite me (with his age, 20, on his calf like the rest of us) put on a Team USA speedsuit with his name plastered all over! Intimidated doesn't begin to cover it...
I tried to put this out of my mind and set off for a quick run just to keep my legs moving - it was already warming up and promised to be a scorcher which didn't bode well. With the quick run out of the way I headed over to the swim area and the nerves started to build. Originally I was going to be using my amazing Xterra wetsuit during the swim but the USA Triathlon council rule that if the water temperature is above 78F (25.5C) then using wetsuits makes you ineligible for prizes and if it is above 84F (29C) then no-one can use wetsuits. The water temperature got taken at 6:30am and was found to be 88.5F (31.5C) - way too hot to even think about using a wetsuit! I hopped in the water with my sexy bright orange swim cap and goggles for a warm up swim, and my first experience of open water.
Now, everyone had warned me about open water swimming and how different it was to being in a pool, and it certainly is! I was slightly surprised to find the lake warmer than the pool - I mean it was just like walking into a bath - but started off with my freestyle. I did a quick 100m to get the feel of it - and was feeling pretty good! Feeling confident I got out of the water and waited in the holding area for my wave to be called.
After a rendition of the National Anthem (American not British!) it was soon my time to start and I entered the water along with the 100+ other people in my wave. I immediately noticed how close we were going to be during the race, and I positioned myself towards the side and back so I would stay away from the main free-for-all. Even so, as soon as the start gun was fired I immediately found myself in a sea of flailing limbs. I tried to keep calm and just concentrated on keeping a steady rhythm in my freestyle. This was great until around 100m in when I suddenly got kicked square in the face (a fairly common experience in open-water swimming it seems) and proceeded to swallow what seemed to be half the lake. In reality I just took in a mouthful of water, but needless to say I started to panic.
This was one of the points where my training and preparation really helped - I did just what the Rutgers Triathlon Training Course (Keith Cook) and my swim teacher (Jess Pogo) told me to do, I flipped onto my back and started back stroke while trying to calm myself down. A lovely lifeguard came over to check if I was ok, and after reassuring them I was fine and had just had a scare I flipped back over and tried to get back into the swim. I realized that if I stayed with freestyle I would probably have the same thing happen again, so I started breaststroke and continued with this for the rest of the course.
I knew that swimming breaststroke for the 1500m would be slower than freestyle, and that it would take more out of my legs - but on the other hand I could sight really well and was a lot more comfortable like this. I set off and caught up with the stragglers of my wave and cemented myself in the back 10-20 swimmers. After a little bit the wave behind us caught up and I got passed by a few of the faster swimmers (swimming close enough to earn me a couple more kicks to the face) but as an added benefit I could keep them in the corner of my eye and use them to sight rather than concentrate on the buoys. I worked my way up a little in my wave to the front of the trailing group of 20 or so and settled in for the swim - even passing a couple of the slow swimmers from the first wave. The turnaround came and all was going well - until we turned around.
It was nearing 8am and the sun was rising above the tree tops - a picturesque scene, unless the sun happens to be straight in your line of vision and consequently near blinds you! I had on my tinted goggles but this made no difference, there was so much glare and my goggles soon started to fog up. This made sighting hard, if not impossible, and I don't think I actually could see a single buoy on the way back. However, luckily for me (?) the bulk of the wave behind me had caught up (as well as some faster swimmers from the wave after that) so I simply kept an eye on the various legs passing me and tried to follow them to help me sight. There were a couple of times I was sure I had gone off course (and I dread to think what my line must have looked like from the shore) but soon I hit (almost literally) the final yellow buoy and made my turn to the shore.
Once again I could see, and sped up my stroke to get out the water and into transition as soon as I could. I toyed with the idea of doing the last stretch freestyle, but decided not to push my luck. As my goggles had fogged up, I still didn't have perfect vision and so found it slightly difficult to see when people were standing up to get out of the water. I had read in one of my books that you should leave standing up until last minute so that you didn't have to do lots of energy-sapping running through the water. That seemed a particularly smart idea and so I kept swimming. It turns out that what the book didn't warn you about is underwater shelves of concrete. You see, we were exiting at the ramp for the marina, and said concrete shelf occurred a few feet out from shore, ending in a rather sharp edge. So I proceeded to hit both knees rather hard, drawing blood on my right that didn't really hurt but did make me look hardcore for the rest of the race!
I took that as a sign to stand up, proceeded to do so and stumbled out of the water and up to transition. I had a mental image in my head of me jumping out of the water and sprinting to transition and out on my bike in super quick time - instead I stumbled and half-jogged up the hill to the transition area to find everyone on my rack had already headed out on the ride. I was a little disheartened but knew that the bike was my strongest area so I had a chance to catch some of them. I quickly wiped my feet on my towel, put on my sunglasses and helmet, grabbed a couple of gu's (carb gels) and put on my shoes to head out of transition. For safety, you are not allowed to exit transition on your bike so I had to run a good couple of hundred yards to the mounting area. Now if anyone has tried to run while holding a bike they will know it is kinda awkward. If anyone has tried running (or even walking) in cycling shoes with cleats then they'll know that it is kinda awkward too. Combining the two resulted in a weird half-jog half-skip to the mounting line.
Soon enough though I was mounted and off on the ride. Finally I felt comfortable - I knew what I had to do, knew I could do it and knew I wasn't going to die (unlike he swim!). The day before I had been discussing with Molly (a seasoned triathlete on the Rutgers Cycling Team) about what I should aim for in terms of speed for the 25.5 mile course. I originally thought I would try for an average of 19-20mph and she agreed with me: "Just make sure you don't drop below 17mph (except on corners) and don't go over 21-22mph unless you're really feeling great". Well I wasn't feeling all that amazing after the swim so started by aiming for the 19mph mark.
It was slightly strange that the hardest part of the whole bike was probably the first mile or two - my legs had gone from 38 minutes of lateral movement in the swim to strictly vertical movement in a short space of time and it took them a little time to get adjusted. It also took a little time for my tri shorts and top to dry, during which there was a fair amount of shuffling on the saddle to try and get comfortable (I should have known better than to expect to get comfortable on a racing saddle!).
After the first couple of miles I got into my groove (and my bum got into it's groove in the saddle) and settled down for the rest of the ride. I hit a comfortable 19mph and soon started to gain and pass people. That being said, every few minutes a guy with a crazily nice triathlon bike (with aero bars, disc tires and aero helmet) would waltz past me like he wasn't even putting any effort into going 25mph in a time trial. That being said, I kept an eye out on everyone's calves to check what age group they were in and was pleased to see me pass a couple of 20-24 year olds during the first lap of the two lap course.
In triathlon you aren't allowed to 'draft' at all - that is, ride close behind another bike to avoid air resistance slowing you down. I never realized until I started racing on the cycling team how much drafting assists you - that is why team time trial times (where you race in a line to assist drafting) are so much faster than individual times. In fact, triathlon rules dictate that you have to stay 3 bike lengths behind the person in front, unless you are passing them. The only problem with this course was that, on the second lap round there ended up being a mix of fast and slow riders that resulted in a bit of a mess to be frank. That being said, there was no need for a few of the more professional riders to hurl abuse at the other riders - I thought it was a bit disrespectful to be honest, everyone was there to compete in the same race after all!
Coming towards the end of the second lap I was feeling pretty nice, and finished my second carb gel as I was turning into the home straight. I ended with an average of around 19.5mph, pretty much exactly where I wanted to be. Hopping off the bike I started to jog towards transition in that same awkward gait and was pretty relieved to get my bike shoes off and running shoes on. I also put on my cap and running belt (a elasticated belt with my race number attached) and headed out onto the trail.
The running course consisted of two 5K loops, and we were assured that there would be "plenty of shade". This would be pretty important as the temperature had kept rising all morning and the sun was beating down pretty strong. Luckily we would also pass water stations seven times - stocking not just ice-cold water but also Heed, an electrolyte drink to help replenish all the minerals we'd be sweating out during the course.
I started off on the run with that familiar lead feeling in my legs I'd experienced in Brick workouts (cycling followed immediately by running) during my training and by the time I hit the first water station my hamstrings had loosened a little and I started to feel pretty good. Then however we exited the shaded forest and the sun started to beat down.
And how the sun did beat! The heat started to really get to me and by the second water station (only about a mile and a half in) I was really feeling it, stopping to not just have one cup of water, but two and another one tipped over my head to cool me down. I later found out from the EMT (first-aid person) that the temperature had hit over 100F (38C) during the run, although all I knew during the race was that it was far too hot for me! As the run carried on I got hotter and hotter and found the run harder and harder.
Pretty soon after the second station I had to stop running and walk for a short portion, just to get my pulse under control and also as a vain attempt to cool down. I proceeded to run for sections and take short walks to stop me from dying and at the next couple of water stations I took at least a couple of waters, poured a couple over my head and made sure I drank some Heed.
Crossing the halfway mark felt great and as I passed transition I could really feel the burn in my legs. We had been warned that the second half of the run was less shaded and they weren't lying - luckily just after the halfway mark we hit one of two 'special' water stations. What was so special was that these water stations had buckets filled with ice cold water and a load of flannels. Competitors could take these flannels and put them on their neck and run with them for a bit to help cool down. I can't even describe how amazing it felt in that kind of heat to have something so cold - needless to say every single runner was stopping and picking one up!
As the heat was rising and my fatigue growing I started distracting myself in various ways - first off by singing to myself (and sometimes out loud). Unfortunately the song I had stuck in my head was "Run Away With Me" by Kerrigan & Lowdermilk (an amazing song that I urge you to check out) that starts with the following lyrics:
"Let me catch my breath,
This is really hard.
If I start to look like I'm sweating,
That's because I am."
Needless to say, every time I started singing I couldn't get past these lyrics because I would start laughing at how apt they were (I think the picture shows pretty well how sweaty I was by this point!). About 4 miles in though, I found a strategy that worked well for me - I would count every time my left foot hit the floor and started by running to a count of 100, then walking to a count of 50 and repeating. I then started to lengthen my runs getting to 150 running, 50 walking.
Just so you don't think I was 'wimping out' by doing this running/walking thing, I didn't see many competitors around me that didn't walk for at least a small portion of the run. I mean, it was seriously hot out there. So hot, in fact, that just before the turnaround in the second 5K I passed the guy who was next to me in transition lying passed out next to the road with an EMT. It turned out he had heat stroke and I paused to make sure he was okay. The EMT assured me he would be fine and I carried on to the turnaround (and the second set of cold flannels). I was pretty shocked to see him like that and made sure I drank 3 or 4 waters at the station to ensure I didn't collapse like him. As I headed back I noticed he had regained consciousness and his father (also competing in our wave) was with him while the EMT poured cold water over him and made him drink water and Heed. As I passed I made sure he was okay and carried on, relieved he was okay but slightly shocked too. I carried on with my counting steps and resoaked my flannel (which was now looking very sexy under my cap [thank goodness no-one took any pictures!]) at each water station. I got into a strange kind of groove and before I knew it I was hitting the 6 mile marker (after passing someone else in my age group along the way).
As I turned the corner towards the finish line I couldn't quite believe it was actually there and I started to run for the line. Carrying on counting I hit 326 steps as I crossed the finish line - with the race commentator announcing my name. To say I was knackered was an understatement, but to say I was ecstatic was even more so!
I had finished in 3 hours, 16 minutes and 25 seconds - pretty much smack bang in the middle of my target 3-3.5 hours so I was pretty chuffed! That being said, I definitely think next time (and there will be a next time!) I can get sub-3hrs... I placed 592nd out of a field of around 1000 which I was pretty pleased with, and I was even more pleased to find out I hadn't come last in my age group! In fact I was 25th out of 32, not great but not too bad either. Unsurprisingly my rank in the bike was much better than in the swim or the run (in the 400s for the bike, 600s for the swim/run) and I placed in around the top two thirds for all the men.
All in all I was really pleased with how I did - I started by just really wanting to complete the whole thing (and not come last!) and in the end I feel I logged a respectable time considering how hot it was and the fact it was my first ever triathlon. I certainly have caught a little bit of the triathlon bug and am looking to do a sprint in September with Molly. I don't know if I'll ever get to the obsession level of Ironman's (or even half-Ironman's) but I'm certainly looking forward to racing again.
At the end of the day though, I wasn't doing this just so I could do a triathlon (although that is now ticked off my Bucket list), I was doing it for the two spectacular charities I mentined earlier. At the current moment my fundraising totals stand at $320 for KEEN New York and £400 for MND Association, far outstripping my aims of $250 and £250! I want to take a moment to thank each and every single person who donated, no matter how large or small the sum of money was - I can't express my gratitude enough, and the money you have given will enable both of these charities to carry on their excellent work.
While on the subject of thank you's, I have a few more to give. First off, to Keith and Michelle Cook from Solis Performance Training, who ran the Rutgers Triathlon Training Team. I had a lot of fun learning about training for the triathlon (with all the other awesome people on the course!) and without some of that knowledge I would have found the race a much harder ordeal. Also a big thank you to Jess Pogo who ran the group swim lessons and without whom I wouldn't have even managed 100m in the swim, never mind 1500m.
On a similar vein I want to thank Molly Hurford who I know from the cycling team and is a hardcore triathlete (she's training for an Ironman this year - that's a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, followed by a full marathon - mental, right?) but was so nice in responding to the many stupid questions I had about tri's. I can't wait to race with her in September at the Skylands sprint, and if you get a chance have a look at her blog at Death Before DNF - it's a really good read!
I've also got to thank all the people outside the training side. First off, Nichole and all the KEEN bunch (especially the ridiculously awesome Coaches Committee) - you guys are amazing! Next to the Rutgers Cycling Team who taught me how to ride competitively (even if I do still get scared in a peloton). Next to all my friends from home, Oxford and across here in the States who never failed to tell me how crazy I was for doing this.
Finally I want to thank my family and all their support - Gran, James, Sam and most of all my mum and dad. Thank you for listening to me endlessly waffle on about what training I had been doing and thank you mum and dad for buying me the wetsuit for my birthday even if I didn't get a chance to use it (I'll use it at Skylands, I promise!). A special thanks to dad for nagging me to do more training and stop complaining - he might not know much about triathlons but he certainly got me to train more (even if it was through guilt-tripping!).
Most of all I want to thank my Granda, who inspired me to do the triathlon and kept me going throughout. He was an amazing man, and if I grow up to be even half the man he was I will be very lucky. I'm honored to have been able to call him my Grandfather and was thinking about him a lot during the race. I'm not going to lie, when my Dad told me on the phone that "Granda would have been proud of you" after I had finished, I was in tears, but this turned to laughter as my dad reminded me that his actual response would probably have been "That's good, but why didn't you break 3 hours?!?".
Well, that is it for my race report - if you have made it through all 5000 words I am highly impressed - it probably was just as much an effort as doing the triathlon itself! Even if you just skimmed to the end - thanks for checking in anyway! And if anyone still hasn't donated and wants to, my sites are:
and these will be staying open for 3 months so there is plenty time left to donate! (Also, if you want to enter the prize draws, I'll be conducting the draw on August 15th so make sure you donate, and tell me which draw you want to enter, before then)
That's all for now - I've got my written qualifying exams at the end of August so I have a month of heavy revision coming up so there will be more radio silence (sorry!) but hopefully I'll be able to put a few more posts up in the Fall!