Since I’m posting this you know I’m still alive. Not only alive, but I actually feel pretty good. So here’s how it all went down.
Friday night it was just one thing after another as I packed and repacked my backpack for the event and by the time we got to bed it was around 11 pm. I was hoping to get to bed by 8. I had a fitful few hours of sleep, and from about 2 am on had a hard time sleeping at all. But when my alarm went off at 3:30 am I wasn’t tired at all. We got up, got ready, got in the car, and headed over to the parking area. I left Brynn and Magdalena there, got on my bike with my backpack, and rode about a mile to the transition area to get set up.
The transition area is a participant/staff only area (no spectators, family, visitors, etc.). It consists mostly of a bunch of metal poles about four feet off the ground, horizontal, upon which you rest your bike. It is surrounded by fencing, some inflatable gates (see below), tents, etc. They have a medical tent (to be mentioned in dramatic fashion later), a food tent, a VIP tent (they wouldn’t let me in), and a lot of porta-potties.
You place all your other gear on the ground next to/underneath your bike, and you lay it out in such a way that as you come in from the swim you can quickly remove your swim gear, put on your bike gear, and go, and so that as you come in from the bike you can switch to running gear and be off as quickly as possible. The transition time in between swimming and biking and then biking and running counts against your total time and is sometimes referred to as “the fourth event” because when you’re a professional competing for the first-place prize of $100,000 in Hawaii every second counts. There wasn’t that much money at stake at this event, and obviously I wasn’t going for money, but I still didn’t want to dilly-dally in the transition area.
Now, the reason I showed up so early to the transition area was because I wanted to get a good spot. You generally want to be on the end of a rack so that as you come in and out to transition you don’t have to go as far up or down a rack to find your gear and you don’t have to worry as much about other people getting in your way. But as it turned out and contrary to the orientational video they made me watch the day before, everyone was assigned a specific spot and so being early didn’t matter anyway, and I ended up having a spare hour and a half. But I still enjoyed getting there before most of the other people. It gave me a chance to get to know some other participants and use the porta-potties three times.
The swim part is first, and participants start in “waves” meaning we were divided into groups and a group started each five minutes. Since there were about 2,000 in this event, this was a good thing. The pros go first, and then it’d divided by sex and age. Slower people go earlier, and faster people go later, so that everyone finishes closer together at the very end. Apparently my age group is considered the fastest age group, notwithstanding me being in it, so we started last, at 7:40 am. So although it was dark when I arrived and continued to be dark for some time, it was light outside by the time everything started. This also gave Brynn time to take a nap and then arrive on the scene in time to take this photo of me before I went and got my wetsuit on. Do I look excited?
The swim course is 1.2 miles in Oceanside Harbor. That means no real waves, other than from the other participants and the one staff boat that drove by when I was about to the halfway point, so although technically I was swimming in the ocean it wasn’t as though we were swimming out in the middle of the ocean or something with waves and fish and all that. It was more like swimming in a salt-water lake. There are large, colored, inflatable buoys to mark the path, and plenty of people on large surfboards and in boats to help anyone who needs it, including telling people to get back on course when they start swimming in the wrong direction. When I say “help,” I mean if you start drowning they’ll save you, and then they’ll disqualify you. In fact, if you grab a hold of a surfboard or boat and use it to move, you get disqualified. You are, however, allowed to hold on to one and then continue as long as you stay in the same place.
I got my swim gear on, including my pink swim cap (each wave has a uniquely colored swim cap and they decided the 30-33 year old men would have bright pink caps). I then got in line with my wave and we inched forward as the preceding waves went into the water at the start zone of the swim.
The photo above is the start area of the swim. It’s a boat ramp, which you walk down and then your wave enters the water. You swim out past the end of the dock and then out to where you see a red, inflatable pyramid and a guy sitting on a surfboard. You then tread water there until a horn sounds which is when the timer starts going and you start swimming.
As I was waiting to get into the water I tried to put my goggles on but they wouldn’t seal. I thought perhaps it was due to them being dry, so I spat in them, but then we started moving into the water. I got them wet, but they still wouldn’t seal. I didn’t have much time to think about it though, because we had to swim out to the starting line. I got there and treaded water while trying to get my goggles to seal, but they wouldn’t even begin to seal. It was then I realized what nobody has ever told me and which has never been an issue before, which is that when you put sunblock all over your face, the greasy nature of it prevents your goggles from being able to maintain suction around your eyes. Then I heard “10, 9, 8, 7…” and I realized I didn’t have time to fix this problem. The horn blew, and I was off, loose goggles and all.
Within seconds my goggles were full of seawater. “Ok,” I thought, “this is no worse than swimming in the ocean and opening my eyes underwater. It would be nice to have goggles, but I can do this.” But no, it was worse. It was like swimming in the ocean with cups full of briny seawater tied to my eyes. Then the sunscreen started to get in my eyes and sting. But what could I do? I just kept on swimming and dealt with it as best I could, which meant stopping every 200 meters or so to empty the goggles and try to seal them on again, which they never did in anything close to an effective way.
The swim, as I mentioned, is 1.2 miles. I wasn’t too worried about this, because I’ve been swimming that far 2-3 times per week for about two months. But swimming in open water with a tight wetsuit on (did I mention I asked for the wrong size when I rented it and it was a size too small and I could barely get into it? Oh well, just more drama I’m sure you wouldn’t be interested in), in cold water, with goggles that aren’t working, with 200 people around you, half of whom are swimming crooked and swimming into or right over you, is a different experience entirely. I swear one guy ran into me four times and never even looked up, or down, in the cases where he swam over my back.
I had a hard time getting into the rhythm I have when I swim at the pool in the gym. I couldn’t breath right, and I felt as though I were totally out of shape, even though I had swam two days before and felt great. But soon enough it got easier, and I was able to make decent headway. Every time I raise my head to get my bearings the buoys were closer and when I finally finished I was surprised how fast it had gone. To be honest, it seemed shorter than the swims on my first two triathlons, which were 1/3 the distance.
As I exited the swim and ran up the boat ramp I noticed something on my left toe was hurting. I figured it was from the rough patches of asphalt I had run over to get into the swim. Then I realized I had become a balding, middle-aged, black man!
Oh wait, no, I’m the chubby white guy in the middle. So I figured my toe was just hurting because I have very tender feet with thin skin and I had kicked the pavement or something with my toe and it was just a little sore or something.
I got to my bike, got the wetsuit off, put my bike shoes on, and ran out of the transition area. Then I went back to get my bike. But I kid. The bike ride was beautiful. We rode north along the coast on Old Pacific Highway. I think “Old” is an official part of the name. There was a slight breeze and scattered clouds. Everything was green and nice and cool and refreshing. Most of the bike course was through the military base called Camp Pendleton. They had military people everywhere directing traffic and giving us drinks and food, which was great. The ride was mostly mellow until about halfway through when I came around a corner and there was a huge hill that reminded me of riding up and over Point of the Mountain in Utah. Half of the people on the hill were walking their bikes up it. I made it up and over without having to get off my bike, but it was pretty tough. That was the biggest hill, but there were plenty more after it and it wasn’t what I would classify an “easy” ride by any stretch.
During the entire ride my toe kept hurting and I ended up favoring that foot to keep my toe from moving. It felt like a blister, and I kept thinking “I must be the only guy in this race who got a blister on his foot during the swim.” When I got back to the transition area I took off my bike shoe and lo and behold, there was a one-inch gash in my toe and it was bleeding a little. I could hardly believe how lucky I was! “There must be a big diamond in my bike shoe!” I thought. But no, my positive attitude had got the better of me once again. Apparently I had stepped on something either right before the swim or right afterwards, and although I had made it through the bike ride with only mild discomfort, I knew I couldn’t run 13 miles with a deep cut in my big toe.
Here’s a photo taken later, but it doesn’t do it justice. You can see more or less how big it was, but trust me, it looked better with dirt and sand and blood all around it. Plus in this photo it’s closed up, whereas it was open when I pulled my bike shoe off. The medic in the medical tent had to inspect it before she told me I wouldn’t need stitches.
The medic put a bandaid on it and wrapped my toe in medical tape. I put my running shoes on, and ran out of the gate.
Up until this point I was feeling great, other than my cut toe and my stinging eyes. And my shoulders were a little sore after the bike ride. But I had plenty of energy and my legs weren’t hurting or tired or anything. As I left running I was feeling pretty good. The course took me south, mostly along the beachfront in Oceanside. As you know, the run is 13.1 miles. I felt pretty good up until around 11 miles. That’s when I started wondering if my legs were going to hold out. I wasn’t tired. I was breathing fine and had plenty of energy. It just felt as though my legs might get the idea that it would be nice thing to go on strike and quit working. But I knew if I started walking I wouldn’t start again. I did walk through the aid stations where I got liquids and bananas and such, but that was more out of practicality than necessity, since it was hard to drink while jogging, and the total distance I walked throughout the 13 miles was perhaps 150 feet due to those aid stations. But as soon as I was done drinking I was off running again.
The last two miles went by in a painfully slow manner. My legs felt like lead, I felt as though I was shuffling more than running, and it was all I could do to keep running and not just walk. The temptation to walk was huge, especially since there were a lot of people around me who appeared to be much more fit than I was and many of them were walking. But I kept running and finally, I started coming to the finish area, ran past the crowds, and through the finish line.
My final times were:
Swim: 40 minutes, 52 seconds
Bike: 3 hours, 30 minutes, 19 seconds
Run: 2 hours, 33 minutes, 58 seconds
Overall: 7 hours, 2 minutes, 41 seconds
For the record, the guy who won did it all in 3 hours, 58 minutes, and 22 seconds, so just a hair faster.
How did I feel upon finishing? Sore, thirsty, hungry, and tired, in that order. I had just been running, but all of a sudden I felt as though I could hardly walk. I managed to walk to the food tent where I drank down some liquids, and tried to eat some pizza but then started feeling like I was going to vomit if I ate more than three bites, so I quit that and kept drinking. I ended up not eating for another two and a half hours until we went to Souplantation, and then I feasted on carbs.
It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, at least physically. And perhaps in other ways as well. It was grueling. I still have a hard time believing I’ve done it, mostly because six months ago I had never run over a mile in my life. A year ago I weighed 236 lbs and was as out of shape as I had ever been in my life. Now I’m at 215 lbs and falling, and I feel as good as I did when I was a 17 year old. My clothes are getting looser, I feel more energy, and I know better than ever that although some things in life are hard that I can do hard things if I put my mind to it and keep moving forward. And I’m sure the next one will be easier.
My daughter Magdalena was pleased with the results.