Thursday, September 23, 2010

I'm a Triathlete!

About four and a quarter centuries ago the first English settlers in America disappeared from Roanoke Island, never to be seen again.   To this day no one knows what became of the first English Colony, most of whom, as it happens, came from the same part of south west England as me at the bequest of Sir Walter Raleigh.  Could drowning in the Pamlico Sound still be considered a possibility?  Could a hurricane have carried them away?   I pondered this fact at 0 dark thirty on the morning of September 19th 2010 as Hurricane Igor swirled somewhere off the North Carolina coast and I made the short trip from Nags Head, through Manteo and on towards the site of the FS Series Outer Banks Triathlon Weekend next to the Manteo Airport and North Carolina aquarium on the north side of Roanoke Island.
I know the drive well and noticed that, unusually for any time of day let alone five o’clock in the morning, every single traffic light was red.  An omen?  Was the ghost of Virginia Dare sending a countryman a warning? Would another Englishman disappear under unusual circumstances as he swam, rode and ran within shouting distance of that first English colony?
Well, thankfully no.  I’m happy to report that last Saturday I didn’t drown or get blown away (despite the winds!) and earned the title “triathlete” by completing my first event and having a lot of fun along the way!
My alarm went off rather rudely at 4:00 am.  Showering seemed pretty pointless as I was about to throw myself into the waters of Pamlico Sound and generate plenty of sweat on what promised to be a sunny, warm and, most of all, windy day.   Because of the recent saga of the wisdom teeth (see post below) I’m still on a “soft food” diet, so I chose two bottles of Ensure for my early morning pre-race nutrition.  I looked long and hard at the coffee pot, but thought better of it.
I put on my new IOSDT tri top; tri shorts and a sweatshirt before double checking the contents of the bag that I had so carefully packed the night before.  Are all triathletes this paranoid?  Surely I’ve forgotten something?  After a little fretting I decided that everything I needed was present and correct and headed out to check tire pressure on the bike and put it onto the car.  Holy crap!  The wind hit me straight in the face as soon as I walked outside.  Pretty much straight off the ocean and blowing hard courtesy of Hurricane Igor – things were going to be interesting!
I was a relatively early arrival so I parked the car and strolled over to the registration desk.   Later in the day it looked like this….

…..but as I strolled nonchalantly over trying to look as if I had done this fifty times before it looked very much more like this…..

…..and I realized that one very handy piece of equipment that I hadn’t considered would have been a flash light!
I arrived much earlier than I probably needed to but the site was still a hive of activity as volunteers were finishing off preparations for the day.  Pretty soon, however, a stream of headlights and a small army of shadowy figures started to appear as feint glow of the rising sun started to appear over the Atlantic to our east.
Checking-in was very straightforward and the pleasant ladies behind the registration desk handed me my three race numbers (for bike, helmet and shirt); my bright neon orange swim cap (which I thought screamed “watch this guy he may need to be rescued” but in fact just corresponded to my age group) and my pirate booty bag which contained a cool OBX Tri tech. shirt. 
After check-in it was on to body marking – not quite as elaborate as the body art that you see in the occasional copy of Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition, just a permanent Sharpie.  Pretty soon I had “226” written in bold letters on both arms and on the back of each hand and “50” written on the back of my right calf so that anyone who got smug when they came up to overtake me later would be completely deflated when they realized that all they had passed was a fat middle aged guy!
Next it was time to pick-up my timing chip – a little yellow device that is attached to your ankle with a Velcro strap and which you wear throughout the race.  At the start, finish and the entrance and exit of the transition area you pass over blue mats which contain the sensing devices that track your time for each part of the race.  Apparently these little yellow chips must be pretty valuable, because losing one is apparently punishable by death and as soon as you cross the finish line a swarm of volunteers appear to take it from you quicker that the LAPD confiscates cocaine from Paris Hilton!
So now it was time to return to the car to get my bike and transition bag containing all of my gear.  At this point it was still pretty dark and the transition area looked something like this:

I soon got to know my new neighbors and was comforted by the fact that at least two of them were also first timers.   It then suddenly dawned on me that of the twelve people carefully placing their bikes on the appointed rack and setting-up their transition area, I was the only male – was I in the wrong place?  Was somebody trying to tell me something?  No, it was just coincidence, but I did make an extra effort to keep my area tidy and to avoid bad language!  As I was to find out throughout the day, those crazy like-minded people who call themselves triathletes are incredibly friendly, helpful and supportive and I was soon enjoying some good natured banter with several of my new found friends.
Here’s a picture of what my little piece of female triathlete nirvana looked like once I was set-up.

By now it was starting to get light, so I headed down to the “Old Swimming Hole” where the swim leg was due to start and finish.  Given how windy it was (did I mention that it was windy?) I was pleasantly surprised that the water was relatively flat – thankfully we were protected by the island.   On the picture below (taken later in the day) I’ve tried to give you an idea of what the swim course looked like.

At this point I ran into the only other person I saw wearing Delta Triathlon gear – Hilton Herndon from Greensboro, NC.   Hilton was going to do the swim and bike over the Olympic distance, but couldn’t run because of injury.  We had a nice chat before heading back to prepare for the swim start.
The water temperature was around 72 F, making it “wetsuit legal”.  Many of the more experienced folks decided to swim without a wetsuit, but I decided that for the first time out the extra buoyancy was more valuable than the time I would lose in transition, so I donned my wetsuit and headed to join the assembled masses at the start.  While I’m confident in the water and had no particular concerns about either open water swimming or my ability to finish the course, I knew that swimming was the discipline that I had not devoted much time to and had not yet developed much stamina (or style!) in my freestyle stroke, so it was with a small amount of trepidation that I watched the members of the beach patrol get their briefing before heading out on boards, kayaks and boats to take their positions ready to keep us all safe.
First wave away was the Olympic Distance men , followed by the women, and they soon disappeared in a  maelstrom of splash and foam towards the distant first turn buoy that defined their course.  Less than 30 minutes to the start of the sprint race now and to make us feel important a helicopter hovered over the course as if filming for coverage of the Kona Ironman event .   Our time soon arrived and men 39 and under were called down first, followed by we “orange cappers” – the 40 and over group.  We remained on the beach while the “young uns” waded into the water and waited for their start.  Soon they were off and we waded into the pleasantly warm water at the four minute warning.  I checked my goggles one last time and splashed water over myself before positioning myself, knee deep in water, at the back and towards the right hand side.  I had heard horror stories about the start and the chaos that can ensue with people swimming over you, ripping off goggles and so on.  This wasn’t a huge group, but I wasn’t about to get involved in a melee on my first event.   Suddenly it was “go” and we ploughed forward before diving in and starting the 750 m swim leg.

As I mentioned above, I really haven’t devoted enough time to swimming yet (that’s on deck for the coming winter off season) but I have spent some time brushing-up on freestyle technique – maintaining balance, body roll, long in the water, long slow strokes, tempo  and so on – by studying the Total Immersion system.  It had been feeling great in the pool, and I was mentally rehearsing it on the beach as we waited for the start, but within about…   oh, 30 nanoseconds of the start all of that completely went out of the window!   None-the-less, I was pleasantly surprised to find that as we approached the first buoy there were more people behind me than in front.  I was aware, however, that my freestyle was not going to hold-up for the whole race because of simple lack of endurance and somewhere after the first turn I switched to breaststroke and kept to it for the rest of the way with a few brief turns at freestyle thrown in for good measure.  Now the wetsuit helps your freestyle by keeping your legs up and reducing drag, but I think that it hinders the breaststroke kick.  It’s always been my strongest stroke, however, and I basically swam the rest of the swim leg side-by-side with another guy who was freestyling.  He may well have been the slowest guy out there, but it made me feel better!  We were certainly passed by some swimmers, but we passed a few too.  Pretty soon we were close to shore and it was time to stand up and do a couple of dolphin dives to propel myself to terra firma.  The crowd gave some generous applause and I gave what I thought might be a smile to the photographer who was documenting things. 
                750 m Swim:       18 mins 39.9  secs   (much slower than I had been swimming in the pool!)
                Pace:                     2 min 30 sec per 100 m
                Rank:                    Men:                     40th (of 88) a surprise!
                                                Age Group:         4th (of  9)

Now it was time to run to the transition area – a relatively long distance across a corner of the Manteo airport property.   Goggles and hat came off without incident and I was able to roll the top half of my wetsuit down to my waist while running.   I was soon within the “organized chaos” of the T1 transition area.

I didn’t have any great difficulties in T1.   Wetsuit removal can be a challenge, but apart from getting it stuck for a short while on that super-valuable timing chip attached to my left ankle it went well.  Then sunglasses and helmet on;  a quick sip of Accelerade; socks and bike shoes on and I was off.  Short jog with the bike through the exit, over the blue timing mat and then a steady bike mount with no difficulty clipping shoes to pedals.  [Note:  I was originally going to leave my shoes clipped to my pedals because I don’t like running in my bike shoes, but we were on grass and my bike rack was pretty close to the exit, so I changed my mind on race morning and it worked out well].
                                Transition One:    3 mins 24 secs.
                                Rank:                    Men:                     38th (of 88)
                                                                Age Group:         5th (of 9)
Overall I feel that T1 went pretty well.  Steady – not too hurried.  I suspect that many ahead of me weren’t wearing wetsuits, so I’m certainly not going to beat myself up over anything!
I had left my bike in a middle gear and had no difficulty getting going, but almost immediately I ran into my first problem….   I had been excited to try out my nifty new Profile Design water bottle that fits between the aerobars and has a long straw so that you can drink while maintaining an aerodynamic position and without the fuss of having to grope around to find your water bottle attached somewhere on the frame of your bike.  Within less than 100 yards of the transition area I realized that the bottle was loose and that there was no way that it would stay in-place.  After a fleeting moment of panic I realized that I could remove it and that the more traditional bottle mount on the down tube would hold it – phew!  I lost a few seconds for sure, but not a disaster.   The bottle did eventually fall out, but luck was on my side – it happened within just a few yards of the transition area on the return leg of the ride and some kind soul picked it up and propped it against a fence and I was able to retrieve it later.
The 13 mile bike course featured a few miles ride through the northern end of Roanoke Island before heading out onto the old Route 64 road bridge (which I think is officially called the William B. Umstead bridge, but commonly known as the Manns Harbor bridge).  Here’s what it looks like……

I was feeling pretty good, staying down on the aerobars and peddling at a good steady cadence.  I passed several people and, in turn, was passed by a few.   No problems with the drafting and blocking rules as there was always plenty of room.  I had the wind at my back (did I mention that it was windy?) and was feeling pretty good.  According to the data collected on my Garmin 301xt, I was riding in the 22 to 25 mph range over the bridge and I was basically cruising and trying not to burn too much energy.  Once over the bridge (which is about 2.75 miles long) it was a short distance before we reached the turnaround point and, at that point, it quickly became very apparent why the faster riders that I had seen passing in the opposite direction had all been grimacing as if someone was poking hot steel rods under their fingernails!  Did I mention that it was windy?   Holy crap!  It was suddenly like riding into a brick wall.  There are no significant hills on the Outer Banks, but who needs them when you can spend your time riding directly into sustained 30 knot winds?  (that’s just a wild guesstimate on my part by the way).   There’s a good reason that Wilbur and Orville decided to come to Kitty Hawk to try out their new fangled flying machine!  I went down a few gears, stayed in the aero position and basically just tried to maintain a good cadence and get home.  My average speed over the bridge on the return leg dropped to somewhere around 13 mph – brutal!   The good news was that the only people who passed me on that return leg appeared to be the elite guys coming home from the Olympic Distance course on their fancy $5,000 bikes!
Soon enough I found myself back at the transition area.  Coming in I slid my feet out of my shoes and had an uneventful dismount before running with my bike to the rack.
                                Bike – 13 miles:                  46 mins 32 secs.
                                Rank:    Men:                     42nd (of 88)
                                                Age Group:         4th (of 9)

Transition two was uneventful.  Bike on rack; helmet off; running shoes on and off and running.  I wasn’t exactly doing my best Usain Bolt impression, but my legs felt fine – no “post-bike wobbles”.
                                Transition Two:                 1 min 08 secs
                                Rank:    Men:                     47th (of 88)
                                                Age Group:         7th (of 9)              
The 5k run course was over a rough track through the airport for the first 0.75 miles or so before heading onto some suburban streets and back again.  Nothing much to report here other than the fact that I felt as if I was plodding!  I knew that I was slow and didn’t pass many people (anyone?) but at the same time, despite moving at the speed of a well trained slug, I was surprised at how relatively few people passed me.    By looking at the marked calves of those who went past, I could also tell that most of those passing me were significantly younger than me, which made me feel better about things.  Somehow getting passed by an attractive 25 year old lady in spandex doesn’t feel as bad as being passed by a chubby 45 year old or a spry 72 year old – small victories!
Finally I returned to the start finish area and the encouraging spectators  and was happy to see the finish line in the distance and hear the tunes being blasted from the FS Series tent.   I heard the announcer call my name as I ran down the finishing shoot.  Maybe I’m not yet ready to hear the well known “you are an Ironman” call, but at least I could now claim “you are a triathlete”.

Once over the line the hoards descended to remove that precious timing chip from my ankle and I was handed my finisher’s medal, it was time for some welcome orange Gatorade and on to the post race festivities.
Run – 5k:                             30 min 22 secs (i.e. SLOW!)
                Rank:    Men:                     60th (of 88)
                                Age Group:         7th (of 9)

Overall Result:                   1 hour 40 mins 04.1 secs
                Rank:    Men:                     48th (of 88)
                                Age Group:         6th (of 9)

First port of call…..    ahhhhhhhhh!

Did I tell you that it was windy?  J

So…   I’m a triathlete yeah!.   I really enjoyed the experience and it has confirmed my plans to “get real” about my training over the winter and to plan a full race calendar for next year.  Clearly there are areas to be worked on (see post-mortem below) and I’m completely and utterly hooked!
In my IOS Delta Tri gear:

Overall, I'm a very happy camper:

......and very pleased that I didn't end up here:
 Which reminds me that even in a blog we shouldn't forget our manners, so thank you to the fine folks at FS Series and Outer Banks Sporting Events and especially to all of the folks who volunteered and the various safety and rescue crews!
So on to the serious stuff.  I wanted to do this race and the Lake Royale Triathlon in a couple of weeks with two main objectives:
(a) get some experience
(b) benchmark my performance beside other age groupers to see where I stand and to assist in targeting my training. 
I was actually quite surprised at a solid “middle of the pack” performance and I certainly don’t think that I stretched myself at all.  I could certainly have taken time off my bike leg (I was too keen to preserve my legs) and, looking back, I could and should have pushed much harder in the run.
So here are a few stats:
My time would have put me in the following positions by male age group:

Male Age Group
25 - 29
30 - 34
35 - 39
40 - 44
45 - 49
50 - 54
55 - 59
60 - 64
65 - 69
1st (yeah!)

Some of those older guys are fast!   So (based on this single race at least) where did I lose most time vs. my age group competition and where do I need to focus more effort?
The winner of my age group was a guy called Daniel Maddox from Rockville, MD, who smoked the rest of us by a full seven minutes and came in a very impressive 6th overall.  My hat goes off to Daniel as he’s obviously a stud at age 50, but I’m going to discount him from my assessment as he is more than a little out of my league at the moment.  His time of about 1 hour 22 minutes was a full 18 minutes ahead of me!
So let’s look at the other guys who finished ahead of me:

Delta vs. Best






Some interesting observations to be made:
1.  Swimming doesn’t win the race!  The two best swimmers were smoked in the bike leg (and, conversely, the two slowest swimmers easily caught-up on the bike leg).  It actually makes me feel pretty good – I know that I can improve considerably in my swim with work on technique and endurance – it’s just a matter of effort.  I don’t need to be the best swimmer, just stay with the pack.  I think that taking three minutes off my swim team should be relatively easy.
2.  T1.  Tough to assess as I’m pretty sure that many with faster times were not wearing a wetsuit.  Of course my slow running didn’t help!
3.  The bike.  While I felt pretty good about my bike, it’s clear that there’s a huge opportunity to improve.  A 7:30 gap is pretty significant!  Definitely something to enjoy working on over the winter and I will definitely go harder at the upcoming Lake Royale event and worry less about conserving my legs.
4.  T2.  This one’s interesting – tough to work out how some guys were about 30 seconds faster!  Just something to work on I guess.
5.  Run.  Ugh!  As if I didn’t already know, I’m a cart horse!  Will switch to almost all running after Lake Royale in preparation for the OBX half marathon in November and then up the mileage over the winter.
There is obviously lots of room for improvement, which is great because it will help me target my off-season training and give me some motivation!   I’m highly confident that I can relatively quickly improve the swim and bike – it’s the run that will take most effort. 
Bring it on!


  1. Way to go Roger :) No bike for me. Perhaps we can team up in a relay down the road?! You swim like Mark Spitz, get a biker and I'll do the running :)

  2. Congrats, Roger! Hope you had a fun. I was one of the 12 women racked in line with you. It was a fun day, despite that wind. Hope Lake Royale went well for you also.