The HITS Palm Springs triathlon takes place this coming weekend. I’m not racing it again this year since it’s too close to the marathon I did 19 days ago (no, I will not ever stop bringing that up in all its glory!) Instead, it’s time for me to flashback to last year for a recap and review of my first Olympic distance triathlon. It was my second triathlon ever and it included my first 10K run. I’m tempted to apologize for how wordy this summary is but gosh darn it, it just might help some other triathlon newbie out there and it’s fun (for me anyway) to peek back into my mind as a relative beginner.
In the days leading up to the triathlon I was nervous and wondering what I had gotten myself into and why I had gotten myself into it. It’s a huge challenge – mental, physical, organizational – and I hoped nothing would go wrong. It’s funny though, because the closer I get to the race start time the better I feel. It’s an accomplishment in itself to arrive at race day healthy, well-trained, and prepared with all the gear and race information.
On Friday Mike picked up the girls early from preschool and elementary school. By the time he did all that, I was done packing and double-checking my triathlon gear list. We left at 1:30 and had an easy 2-hour drive to La Quinta. The resort is gorgeous and the kids were delighted to see one giant Christmas tree outside and a few more inside the lobby.
While the kids played tennis with Mike and the ball machine someone had left on the court, I went out on the bike to make sure everything was in working order (both me and the bike). I ran for 5 minutes after I got off the bike. By that time it was already starting to get dark and we needed to head out to the horse park to pick up my race registration packet. First we swung by Lake Cahuilla so I knew that I would know how to get there in the wee hours of the morning on race day.
We got to the horse park at 5:30 and it was completely dark outside and freezing cold as we waited in line in the outdoor area. I got my race pack no problem and then we waited for the mandatory athlete’s meeting to start at 6. There was also supposed to be a dinner at 6, but they didn’t start serving the food right away. Mike and I were desperate to feed the kids so he went up to the food and helped himself, not waiting for the servers. I’m sure people were glad because the food kept the kids quiet.
The race director did a poor job on the athlete’s talk — too much rambling and not enough info, especially for us nervous newbies. I had questions and he only took 3 questions from the audience including one of mine. At least I learned that we had assigned spots in transition (unlike SheROX, where you just had to get there early and grab the best spot you could), transition wouldn’t open til 5 and not 4 like the athlete’s guide had said, and we’d be starting on the beach and running into the water. I didn’t find out until the morning what the swim would look like — where the buoys would be placed and how to do the two loops (more confusing than it sounds, as it turned out). He did introduce actor/triathlete/marathoner Mario Lopez, which was important (ha).
We didn’t get enough food because Mike could only carry two plates and by the time the servers started serving, the line was huge and we weren’t willing to wait in the cold. We went back to the room and ate leftover Panera.
Mike helped me get all the race numbers on all the gear properly. Stickers for the bike, my helmet, my transition bag, my race belt and my swim cap. “TriTats” for me — temporary tattoos for both my biceps, my outer left calf and my back left calf.
These cool race tats made me feel like a pro! I have no idea why my toenails look like they’re glowing. Pink sparkly nail polish maybe?
The tattoo applications actually took quite a long time. At least it distracted me from my race nerves. I packed all my gear and made sure I had everything. I almost forgot the parking pass I needed to park at Lake Cahuilla! After that we got ready for bed. I needed to be up at 4:30 a.m. and we set 3 different alarms just to make sure we had backup in case one didn’t go off like last time. Lights out at 9:30 and I was asleep by 10 so I got 6.5 hours of sleep. Quite good for the night before a race!
I got up with the alarm and Mike hit the “on” button on the coffee for me and went back to bed. I had coffee and instant oatmeal. I got in my swimsuit and sweats, double-checked my gear and headed out into the dark “night” at 4:55 a.m. I could see lots of stars in the clear desert sky. I saw a couple of other cars getting ready to go too. I followed my nav system directions for the 15-minute drive. Along the way I saw a car stopped at an intersection. The interior lights were on and the people were obviously looking at a map. I saw the bikes on the back of their car and I knew where they were going! I rolled down my window and gave them a “follow me” wave and led them to the park. I was worried I would steer them wrong but soon we met up with even more cars with bikes and I knew we were good. 🙂 I figured I earned some good race karma by helping those people. Everyone in triathlon is super nice. Competitive mainly against themselves, serious about the sport, friendly and helpful to other triathletes because we all know how much work it took to get to that point.
I found my spot in transition and was disappointed to see that it was the absolute last slot in the row, meaning that to get in and out I would need to travel farther than an athlete who had a lucky assignment on the aisle. It not only costs precious seconds in the race but makes it harder to find your spot when running in for T1 or T2 (that would be foreshadowing right there).
I got my timing chip, which was attached to a velcro strap that I was to wrap around my right ankle on the outside of the wetsuit (which meant that you’d need to take it off to get the wetsuit off, then remember to put it back on for the bike — costing more seconds and it could potentially be a huge problem if you forgot to put it back on!)
I went to the bike support tent and had the guy pump up my tires with air. He said I shouldn’t pump them up to 120 like the number on the tire says; that’s bursting point. He recommended 105-115, the softer they were the more grip I’d have on the road, which is good for someone like me who isn’t so confident in the turns. He said I could even go down to 95 in rainy conditions. Then I had him run through the gears and put it in second gear for me for the race start.
As I was setting up, another triathlete in my row asked me what was said at the athlete’s meeting. I told him he didn’t miss much. He asked me if we were getting out of the water on the swim at the end of the first loop. I hadn’t heard that — that clearly should have been discussed at the meeting! I cornered the race organizer and asked him that. Sure enough, there were 4 buoys for the Olympic distance. One on the shore, 3 in the water (with smaller buoys in between). To do the full two loops, we’d need to go to the 3rd one in the water, swim back to shore, get out on the sand and run around the shore buoy back into the water.
By the time I got all set up it was 6 a.m., the time the officials were going to close the in-and-out of cars from the park. If I didn’t hurry I wouldn’t get out to go back to the hotel to get Mike and the girls (they needed the car while I was at the race).
I called them at 6:15 on the way to make sure they were up. We were cutting the time close. I got there at 6:30 and got my swim gear on. It’s hard to remember what stays at transition and what I need to keep for the swim — my race cap, goggles, anti-fog for the goggles (which I put on the night before just in case), my swimsuit, wetsuit, Glide for under the wetsuit. Parking pass again.
We all headed out around 7 and got there around 7:20 for a 7:30 race start time. I had plenty of time to talk to some of the other “green caps” on the beach. The sprint was underway. Apparently there had been some scary panic attacks at the start of the sprint swim. The water was 60 degrees and even with a wetsuit that was quite cold. Unfortunately this was the first event this organizer had put on and he didn’t hire enough lifeguards! They had pulled volunteers from the vendors and even some of the Olympic racers to lifeguard for the sprint! Good karma for one racer who was 19 years old and ended up still coming in 6th place overall, even after treading water as a lifeguard before his event started.
I chose not to do a warm up swim in the water. I think that was wise. The people coming out of the water were absolutely shivering. The organizer called us around and said he’d be saying “Set!” and then sounding the horn.
Immediately after the talk I walked to edge of the water, dipped my toes in, went to back out, and I heard the organizer say “Set” and blow the horn! Totally caught me and all the other racers off guard. I didn’t realize he was starting so fast — we hadn’t even all gathered on the shore.
Gorgeous but cold Lake Cahuilla for the mass swim start
I took off and was in a good place — quickly getting toward the front and having enough room to swim in spite of the fact that all 191 racers were starting at once, not in age group waves like at other events.
The water was cold and choppy due to high winds. I took in a few mouthfuls of water during the race and each time I was grateful that it was fresh water in the reservoir and not saltwater from the ocean! I’ve known racers who have thrown up from ingesting saltwater on ocean swims. The swim was tough for me. I don’t know if it was the cold or the waves or both, but it was really tough. The only saving grace was that the water was relatively clear, better than Mission Bay. My mantra on the swim was “motorboat” — said to the three-beat arm strokes: “Mo-tor-boat! Mo-tor-boat!” At a few points on the swim I did backstroke to catch my breath. Backstroke is way faster than breaststroke for me, and I noticed that even when doing backstroke I was faster than most others doing freestyle. Still, I wanted my time to be under 30 minutes and I missed that by a minute some. 31:11.686. There is plenty of room for improvement on the swim for me.
T1: T1 was slow for me. 00:04:40.980. A long run to the transition area, then a rough time getting my wetsuit off. It’s hard when I’m panting from the swim and having trouble balancing to step on my wetsuit and pull it off. Again a tri-suit would have helped because it took me a long time to get on my bike shorts and long-sleeved shirt (the sleeves are tough — short sleeves are easier but I needed the long sleeves in the cold). I decided to put my bike gloves on too, so I wouldn’t freeze, but I think I would’ve been okay without them. I didn’t think I took 4 minutes in transition — it goes by fast for me. I thought I had a strong run with the bike to the bike start, and I got pedaling right away and then clipped my shoes in after I got going — a definite improvement over my first tri.
Bike: I passed several people on the bike — maybe 6? Nothing like SheROX where I was passing 10s of people. But this was 24.8 miles — double the length, and a far more competitive field. A couple people passed me — I’d trade spots with people and I think only a couple ended up ahead of me by the time we were done.
The bike course was not well marked. There were police officers at every turn and I finally realized I’d just have to rely on that fact to guide me that there was a turn, and then I’d yell out to the officer, “Which way?!” Sometimes there’d be a biker ahead of me to follow but often we were spread far apart. At one point an officer warned me that an upcoming turn was slippery due to sand on the road. I have wiped out in sand before so I was grateful he was warning everyone. And another officer was sweeping the sand off the road.
I was disappointed to see a farmer spraying chemicals on a field next to the bike course. I don’t want to know what was in that bright green spray!
The winds were high and certain parts of the course were really tough. I had a mantra on that part: “Head down, power on! Head down, power on!” Over and over again. That’s where tri-bars would have come in handy for the aerodynamics. It’s not enough to keep my head down, it would have helped to keep my arms in.
My feet were numb for the entire bike ride. I occasionally tried to pull with the top of my feet rather than push down on the pedal, just to try to get some circulation going and to use different muscles. That helped but not much. I later learned that other racers were also numb, and it was due to the cold, cold water. Swim booties would help with that.
Note the people starting out their run as I’m starting out on the bike!
I had Rain Berry Gatorade in my race bottles and a peppermint stick Luna Bar. I could hardly choke down any of the Luna Bar. I’d tried it before in training and liked it then. On the race it tasted like dirt. I had to force myself to eat a third of my bar at one point and another third during the second half of the bike.
I had put the power bar in an elastic slot on my race belt, which worked fine for holding it but once I took it out I couldn’t get it back in. FAIL. I stuffed it in my shorts. 🙂 Final time for the bike: 01:19:25.949 — 18.77 miles per hour. Not bad in all that wind.
T2: 00:02:04.585. T2 would have gone better had I not missed my row to rack my bike. I probably lost 20-30 seconds that way. Things look different in the light of day and I should not have relied on “I’m in the row by the big lights and the flag” and should have counted the number of rows from the “bike in” until my row. I also lost time when I clipped on my running water bottle and started running and the bottle promptly bounced right off the belt! I had to run back and pick it up. Obviously the belt wasn’t tight enough. I’d practiced this at home so I’m not sure why it wasn’t set right. I couldn’t get it tighter and didn’t want to risk losing the bottle again so I carried it the whole way. Good thing I had it though because I don’t like stopping for the aid stations and I heard that the aid stations later ran out of water anyway!
Run: I wore my visor to protect myself from the sun and that turned out to be a mistake. It was so windy that I nearly lost the visor two times and ended up keeping my head down against the wind. That made my already horrible running form worse. Mike took pictures of me toward the end of the run and I look like a hunchback! I was proud of my performance on the run though. I wanted to get under an hour and I came in at 00:55:35.306 — that’s 8:56 minutes per mile and 6.7 miles per hour for 6.2 miles! At the end of the bike, a race volunteer had told me I was 14th among the women. That heartened me! I wasn’t wearing any kind of watch and didn’t have a bike computer and there no clocks or even mile markers on the course. I had no clue how I was doing, aside from a swim volunteer having told me that I was around the 30-minute mark. I was grateful that guy said I was 14th. Three women passed me on the run (no surprise there) but a few must have been faster in transition too, because I ended up 20th. People were really nice on the run — often saying, “Good job!” or “Way to go!” or “Looking good!” etc. I couldn’t speak so I finally resorted to giving people a thumbs-up. 🙂
At one point during the run there was a sign that said “Run Turnaround.” Thank goodness I was following some people and they knew to keep going beyond that sign (which was for the sprint distance but not marked as such. At that point I’d been racing for over 2 hours and I had no idea where I was on the run — I didn’t think I’d gone 3.1 miles yet but I couldn’t be sure.) Finally I made it to the actual turnaround and was pleased to find that I felt pretty good for that point in the race. I picked up the pace toward the end and finished strong. My mantra, in addition to “Head down, power on!” same as the bike, was “locomotion” said to the 4-beat running steps: “lo-co-mo-tion.” My legs feel like a train, powering me on down the course. That’s even more true on the bike, but the “locomotion” mantra helps me keep my legs going on the run. I never wanted to stop or even to walk — I had trained well. I would love to improve my running form though, and get even better on the run. For now I was really happy. I was super fast on the finish. Total Time: 02:52:58.506.
Coming in for the finish with a smile and a thumbs-up!
Post-race: I didn’t hear the announcer and Mike had to tell me what my time was. I was just glad to be done and so so happy that it had gone as well as it had. It’s a feeling of relief, joy, and accomplishment. A race volunteer took my timing chip and gave me a luggage tag (instead of a race medal – very cool!) I got a banana and oranges and water, and Mike had brought me some OJ. I felt good. The biggest thing I noticed was that my lungs felt congested. My muscles were not sore exactly, just a little achy and if I stopped moving for any length of time, I felt like the Tin Man needing some oil. Once I got going again I was fine. I felt better after this Olympic than I did after the sprint. All that training paid off!
We waited around a long time to get the official results. A nice race volunteer suggested that I change out of my sweaty clothes so I didn’t freeze, and I took her advice. I had a sweatshirt and a blanket in the car and I got warm in those. It was sunny and relatively nice out but still only in the 50s and windy.
At SheROX the individual times were available for printout immediately, and that even included the rank by age group. At this race, it took an hour and a half before they even gave us the times and that didn’t include the rank — all I knew was I got 1st in the 40 age group (not the 40-44 age group — they had actual awards for each year of age). I had thought I was in the individual age group as 39, the age I was on 1/1/11, but either I got that wrong or they changed their minds. Whatever, it worked for me because I was the 1st of the two 40-year-olds! I got my plaque and then we went back to the hotel. I later learned I came in 20th out of 88 women total (top 22.73% to be exact! Can you tell how proud I was, given that this was my first Olympic distance tri?)
I talked to a couple of other Olympic distance racers after the race and they’d both had the same impressions I had — the race had some organizational glitches, and the water was super-cold and their feet were numb the whole time from the swim until about 15 minutes into the run (exactly what I’d told Mike!)
– Practice more open water swimming, both to get used to the waves and to practice sighting, and to get used to swimming in the cold. If the water temp is going to be 60 or below, consider buying swim booties.
– Get a tri suit and aerobars if I’m going to commit to do more races. [Done!]
– Don’t wear bike gloves unless air temps will be below 40.
– Figure out a better solution for race fuel and where to store it and practice that several times before the race.
– Count the number of rack rows to get to my row from the “swim in” and “bike in” towers.
– Ditch the run visor. Decide whether to put on sunscreen in transition.
– Work on running form. [Done! Half marathon training and marathon training took care of improving my form, although I continue to work on it].
– Think twice before signing up for a first-time organizer event. This organizer needed to do a better athlete talk, hire more swim lifeguards, do a better job of marking the course turns and turnarounds, ask the farmers not to spray on race day, NOT have it so the course had runners and bikers all together and going different directions on the same sections of course along with cars too, have better supplies for the aid stations, do a better job on reporting the race results.
I am glad that in spite of all that I had a wonderful race experience. And I did hear that the half-iron and full iron distance races both went much better the next day — those glitches were worked out for the really big races. I would do this race again now that the HITS organization has a full year of races under its belt. La Quinta is gorgeous, the resort is a fun place to stay, the freshwater lake for the swim is nice in spite of the cold, and the bike and run courses are relatively flat and scenic.
Have you done a HITS race? Have you competed in a triathlon at any level?
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