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Chapter 1 - Earning the triathlete status

I didn't know anyone competing in a triathlon; I wasn't a good swimmer (breaststroke was okay for holidays, but front crawl was non-existent), and I didn't like road bikes since my twenties when I got so bored after riding only 500 meters that I turned around and went back home, only to put my bike in a shed and never touch it again. As of today, I still have no idea why I started in triathlon, but again, it was making perfect sense.


So, to come back to the first question, what was I doing there? Well, I was about to race in the most famous triathlon in the world, right there with the World Championship, a triathlon in its longest possible version, so famous I even met someone that day during the marathon who flew from New Zealand only to "race the Legend," as they say. And when I say marathon, I mean the running bit of this triathlon. But before running those 42k, I would have to cycle 180k, and before that swim 3800m.


So there you go; that's a full-distance triathlon. Smaller than that is the half-distance, which is exactly what's written on the tin, i.e., half of each distance mentioned earlier. Then shorter than that is the Olympic one, which was my first choice of format but quickly forgotten, and distance-wise that is 1500m swim, 40k bike, and 10k run. Then you go into sprint and super sprint, respectively half and a quarter of the Olympic distances.


To start in triathlon, you need a swimsuit, a bike, and a pair of running shoes. I only had the latter but was quick to buy the first item on the list while carefully reviewing choices for the bike.


I quickly decided to go for a triathlon bike, as I still remember the U-turn on my road bike, and I thought investing in a proper bike would be good for my motivation. Of course, it's more expensive but an improvement in performance and style. Plus, at this time, few of us had a tri bike, so I was guaranteed to stick out, my bike constantly shouting at others, "my owner is a triathlete."

Source: Giant 

Although technically, I had to own the triathlete status, and for that, swimming was a requirement. Now swimming is different from cycling and running in the sense that you not only need a lot of practice but also some good technique. And as I knew from golf, you can't invent technique but you can learn.


So, I went to my local swimming pool and started lessons to master the art of front crawling. It took me 6 months to have decent skills, but still, as I had never swum the distance before, I had a little doubt whether or not I would be able to swim it. So, one day at lunchtime, I went to the pool, which was 25m long, and started to swim. I didn't stop before I did 60 lengths, and suddenly, no more doubt, I was good enough to tackle the 1500m of the first-ever triathlon I was aiming to compete in. Retrospectively, the 6 months it took to be able to swim the distance weren't that much given now, 5 years later, my swimming is only marginally faster, but it immensely improved on the efficiency side. And that's where technique really helps, when you can go as fast but produce much less effort, saving much-needed energy for the other 2 activities.


At the end of August 2012, on a Sunday morning (already), I was then wearing a wetsuit after having racked my bike and prepared my shoes next to it and was ready to earn my triathlete status.


The first thing to worry about in your first triathlon is the swim. The second thing to worry about, closely related to the swim, is the look of the water you're about to dive into. We all dream about crystal-clear Mediterranean Sea water. Well, the water I was about to jump into was slightly muddier and smellier too. Anyway, I had to go in, and I happily followed the crowd. Of course, all these people agitating the water made the mud at the bottom mix with it, releasing the smell in its full force. At this moment, I really wondered what I was doing here and if that was normal conditions for a triathlon. Well, since I saw better and worse, but this one still has to rank at the bottom.


The way the swim works is everybody nervously stands still in the water until the start when we'll all suddenly and frenetically move arms and legs in what we wish is a coordinated manner, so from the outside, it can be called swimming. From the inside, though, it feels closer to being in a washing machine with pictures of clusters of fish repeatedly turning into my head.

This is pretty much what it feels like:

Copyright Tripoint

The other important thing to worry about is to swim in a straight line, and that's easier said than done. You can't really train for that unless closing your eyes while at the pool, but it could be risky to hit another swimmer head first, so nobody is really keen to try. The solution is to stick your head out from time to time to check for directions and follow the group. The good thing is that for your first triathlon, chances of being in the lead are quite slim, so you won't have to open the route and can just gently follow others.


Once this is done, you will run to your bike, get changed, and start riding. That's assuming you find your bike in the middle of all the other competitors' machines. Again, for your first triathlon, being at the end of your wave helps as most bikes will be gone, clearing the view and making finding yours easier. At this stage, some will wonder if you take the time to dry yourself with a towel before riding the bike, and the short answer is 'No.' Triathlon is all about switching from one activity to the next one as quickly as you can, so there is no time for any superfluous luxury.


The bike ride is usually eventless except for the basics such as watching out for traffic, eating and drinking some tasty energy bar and fluid (more on that later). Right after the swim, at the beginning of the bike, is my favourite part of a triathlon. It is the time where you settle into the race, look at the surroundings if you can, listen to your body (legs, joints, heart, etc.) and realize this is just the beginning, and you're only riding to your running shoes so you can complete your race. At the same time, you already achieved the swim, and being there feels like all the hours spent training are now paying off. It's a great feeling and a greater source of motivation to actually realize that you're cashing in on your investment. It also feels a bit exclusive as without training you couldn't ride after a swim. And finally, that's the beginning of being a triathlete, as nobody with a sound mind would go for a ride immediately after such a long swim.


Back in the bike park, the same routine applies. First, find where you left your shoes. You can't stick your bike wherever you feel like and take your shoes out of your pocket to start running. Instead, you need to go back to where you left them, rack your bike, leave your helmet, put your shoes on and go running.


Racers with a running background like me tend to always underestimate the difficulties of running on your first triathlon. I trained for marathons, and 10k was my breakfast. But this time my breakfast was after the swim and the bike, and it's a much more difficult breakfast to digest. So inevitably, you'll be slower than usual, some will walk, some will suffer, but at the end of it is the way to prove your bike wasn't lying during all its shouting; it was only anticipating the reality: You are a triathlete!

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