Intro to Triathlon: What They Don’t Tell You
Ever wondered what you’re thinking about getting into as a beginner triathlete? What’s the first race like? What do you need to get through it? How does one even prepare for one of these? Which race do you do as your first? Here’s VibeOn’s very own, Tiffany O’Reilly, sharing some of her first experience and what to expect!
Those closest to me know me as a bit of a ‘cliff jumper’, so this episode will dive into mistakes I made as a rookie and share what not to do. As more of a ‘act now apologize later’ type of personality, I jumped (pun intended) right into the world of triathlons without a second thought. My first race, which was located out on the eastern shore of Maryland, was in early October (mistake number 1 – weather can be a complete toss up this time of year; it was windy as all get out and not exactly warm either), and an Olympic distance. Really, for anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t start out easy or small – a sprint distance choice would just be silly. Before I dive into further details of the actual race, let me provide a bit of flashback as to my ‘race day preparation’ first.
For anyone thinking of getting into triathlons, you likely have a million and one questions. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK THEM! I didn’t have any type of community back in 2003 as I/we do today. What do I need to buy – or rather – what don’t I need to buy? Anyone who is or knows a triathlete knows we love to spend money on all the coolest, latest gear. We refer to this as race and gear porn. So, naturally I had to get it all or I just wouldn’t survive my first race! FALSE. As I share with you my personal experience and introduction to the world of triathlon, I will provide details and product recommendations as they pertain to each portion of the race – the swim, the bike and then the run. As each person begins their journey, they’ll have their own comfort (or discomfort) levels and preferences as to product but having that baseline understanding can be invaluable headed into your first race.
Given I’ve already ‘mastered’ master’s swimming at our local rec center (solely in my mind of course – what could go wrong?), my first experience with open water racing will be no problem whatsoever. Thinking this way was the first of many mistakes which I learned along the way. What I was missing was a wetsuit though – you should have one, right? Number 2. on my shopping/rental list: wetsuit. I would recommend renting and testing out a few wetsuits first prior to making the investment. Be sure you select what YOU are comfortable in, not what your friend or fellow triathlete recommends. I already had goggles and swim cap that I use regularly and a swimsuit of course. What I use in the pool will work in open water, no? Well, yes and no. Depending on your comfort level with competition pool goggles vs. more open vision goggles/mask, you may want to test a few out too. Also, don’t forget, you’re racing outside! Tinted goggles are life savers in sunny, open water conditions. Always have a few pairs to pick from and have back-ups too should you have any malfunctions prior to swim start. Typically, you will be given a race day swim cap either with stickers to put on them with your race number (this is for identification purposes, including race day photos!) or they give you markers for you to write your race number on them. I always double cap – this is for multiple reasons. One being if conditions are colder than average, it helps with insulation. Two, putting goggles on before second swim cap helps to keep goggles in place should you get caught up in a bit of a ‘water shuffle’ or kicked, etc. Yes, these things do happen and there’s nothing more terrifying than losing goggles in the middle of the swim and not being able to really see while swimming!
Must have swim gear:
1. Bathing suit and/or tri suit (can be one piece or top and bottom – you may want to try both and see what is most comfortable for YOU). Keep in mind, you won’t train in the tri suit(s) – chlorine breaks them down quickly, so it isn’t recommended. Just stick to your good ole’ speedo/TYR option for counting laps.
a. Average costs – swimsuit (speedo/TYR) $70; Tri suit – one piece $175-$200; top/bottom $100/ea.
2. Wetsuit – RENT and try out a few first! Yes, you will likely want to invest once you determine you’re going to stick with the sport. Learning how to even get into a wetsuit is a lesson in itself and usually ends in a sweat fest. If you don’t believe me, wear your heartrate monitor during and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. But, before you invest, give it a few races or even your first season to determine this and also which one you’re most comfortable in. You’ll have the chance to try full sleeve and sleeveless options and entry level up to higher end suits.
a. Average costs – New, full sleeve $350 up to $950+; Sleeveless $225 up to $550+
b. Renting – $40+
3. Body Glide – What the heck is that you ask? Exactly what it sounds like – anti-chaffing lube. Trust anyone who offers it to you – just do it. Around the neck while wearing a wetsuit, thighs (for those of us not blessed with a thigh gap, between breasts and over nipple (men and ladies – if you think I’m kidding, just go watch the end of any long course tri or marathon and you’ll know to what I’m referring – essentially, it looks like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, starting with bloody nipples).
4. Goggles – you will want multiple pairs. Typically, you’ll be able to test different pairs while shopping, making sure they sit on your face well and actually fit. You can do this by just placing them over your eyes and pushing gently (no, you don’t need to try and suck your eyeballs out while testing the suction) – if they stay, then they should serve you well. If they don’t or if uncomfortable, move to a different shape or wider size. **Again, you’ll want clear and tinted options for racing; if you’re more comfortable with a wider field of vision and not as confident a swimmer, go for either the mask style or just a larger goggle style meant for open water vs. pool swimming.
a. Average cost: $20-$35
5. Swim cap – silicone all the way. The old school latex rip easily, pull your hair no matter how much you have, and honestly, aren’t really even sold any more. Have fun too – there are a lot of fun patterns and playful designs! Buy a couple too should you rip one putting on – never hurts to have back up!
a. Average cost: $10+
And queue the transition from swim to bike: Oh, but wait – can I ride a bike and then run in a swimsuit? Hmmmmm, have you seen these quads??!! #chubchaffe. Translation: trisuit. Thus, number 1. on my shopping list. Are you adding this up in your head yet? It’ll be fun she said………
Now that I finally made it through the first leg of the race (keep in mind this is just my initial shopping list!), it was now time to think about the bike portion. Sooooooo, I’m thinking I need a bike? Bike requirements – must be pretty and shiny, right? (does this cost extra I wondered?). I failed to even think about the other components of bike racing, like a helmet (will my hair be ok?), how do I handle water consumption – oh, I know, a camelback! (more on this later), shoes (what’s another pair of shoes to a girl anyway?), and let’s see, what else……
Next round of must have items: Bike, helmet (YES, this is required for every race), water holder thingy (yes – that’s the technical term) and shoes? Come to find out, as I purchased my super shiny and sparkly FIRST ROAD BIKE (yes, it was pink), I had to buy a lot more, like PEDALS??!!! How does a bike not come with pedals? And where’s my kickstand?
Thankfully, the guy at the bike shop knew I was crazy and I think just felt sorry for me so cut me a deal on my ‘much needed’ race day gear. Did I mention this was only about a week prior to my first race? No, my new best friend with wheels didn’t have a kickstand, apparently, it stands on its own, these so called ‘pedals’ are actually supposed to attach to bike shoes so I’m permanently affixed to my new best friend. Wait, what???!!! More to come on my weeks’ worth of race prep (no, this is NOT recommended), but first let’s go back to our race day gear checklist: Wetsuit, trisuit, helmet (you can’t race without one they say), water carrying apparatus, aka camelback (what do you mean the hand you bottles of water on the race course?), shoes and pedals. Did you get all that?
Must have bike gear:
1. Bike FITTING – At least go to your local tri shop and have them assist you in figuring out what is best bike for you. Yes, they’re all different and we don’t fit them all. Also, most shops will let you test ride, so do it!
2. Bike – Once you narrow down the field, you can determine if you’re going to invest in new or used. Ebay is where I’ve sold my last 3 bikes and seems to be most reliable. There is nothing wrong with buying used – just ask your questions like how old is it, how many miles, have components ever been replaced, and most importantly, just like cars – has it been wrecked?! We can do a future Q&A on buying a bike and do you go road frame or tri frame, etc. For now and your first adventure into the world of tri, you do not need to break the bank! However, remember, you do get what you pay for.
a. Average cost: new – $1800+; used – $1000+
3. Helmet – Ok, I’m just gonna say it: Don’t skimp here people! This is, after all, your BRAIN BUCKET! Need I say more? No, you don’t need to look like you’re in the Tour du France in a Time Trial segment, but you do need to stay alive should an accident occur. Helmets are typically sized, but again, not all will fit YOU, so try multiples.
a. Average cost: $100+
4. Water holder apparatus – Ok, so yes, I was one of those novice triathletes that raced her first race wearing a camelback. DO NOT BE THAT PERSON. First, it does nothing but trap heat in your core (you wear it on your back!); second, it just isn’t recommended to try and deal with a tube and a mouthpiece while riding a bike (insert imagery here – losing said mouthpiece and giving a nice shower to the riders behind me; #yeahthathappened). Go with a water cage or two on the bike and just learn to drink from water bottles. That’s what you’re working with on a race course too so you might as well get used to it.
a. Bottle cages – no, you don’t need to go carbon first time around. Simple, plastic options are inexpensive and all you need. Average cost: $10+
5. Bike shoes – Ok, so this is where it can become a bit foreign at first. Yes, most higher end bikes (and I mean entering ‘road’ category, not just racing frames), you’ll have the option of clipless pedals and then the shoes and cleats to fit the pedals. These are not necessary for first race by any means, but if you’re planning to stick with it, this is the route you’ll want to go.
6. Glasses/Sunglasses – definitely recommended, especially if you’re like me and wear contact lenses. Just keeping those eyes safe from debris is a smart idea. Sport frames like Rudy Project and others offer photochromic (automatic tint adjustment) and these are life changing out on the course! Average cost: $50-$300
Now we move onto the run, which was at the time my expertise, because I’d been road racing forever, a whole year. Piece of cake. I just need running shoes. Item number 8. Running shoes – already have, check. Wait, what about sunscreen, sunglasses, hat/visor, wardrobe change? How does this work? Oh, that’s right, you come out of the water, dripping wet, hopefully dry off with some sort of towel in what is considered a ‘transition’ area and continue onto the bike and run in same said dripping wet outfit. Sounds like a blast! Running in what feels like a wet diaper (don’t forget, bike shorts and/or trisuits have a chamois) is what everyone wants to do on the weekend, no? As for the accessories, such as hat/visor, sunglasses, etc., no they aren’t necessary but you should think about what you would normally wear while running. The only difference with a run in a triathlon is that it comes after a what usually feels like a water polo match swim, and a bike ride while likely soaking wet and nothing but what feels like a heart rate way above what you thought was your max. NBD, right? What could be so hard about that! Let’s just say just about EVERYTHING. If you’ve never done a run off a bike ride, which is known as a brick workout, it is like trying to run with what feels like bricks attached to your feet. Hence the name. The best reaction I’ve had came from a dear friend of mine who decided to try it just to see what it was all about. Definitely no interest nor plan to get into this insanity we call triathlon, but nonetheless wanted to try. Afterward, she just said these words: WHY WOULD ANYONE VOLUNTEER TO DO THAT???!!!
Once you are lucky enough to find your legs somewhere along the run course, likely after about an hour (wait, isn’t the race over yet?), you begin to realize you’re almost there! Keep in mind, depending on what distance you’ve decided to race (the different distance courses will be a topic of a future blog), this is a total lie. A lie told by total and complete strangers and volunteers along the course (folks who insist on saying you’re almost there!) and your own mind sending its own trickery as you trudge along too. My usual mind trick is something along the lines of this is ‘just a lunch time run’ – meaning only as many miles left as I could run during a lunch break. Really? #whateverworks. Honestly, this is where you somehow figure out how to really dig deep and your legs just keep moving forward, one in front of the other. Usually you can hear the finish line announcer shouting the names of all the people that passed you at some point during the race. But instead of letting it get in your head, usually it pumps you up. You think holy cow, I’m doing it and I’m so close! Yet, you totally forget how far sound can travel across water, but whatever, details.
And queue autopilot. Or, what is also known as pure adrenaline which your body is now producing to keep itself from literally dying. But somehow, you’re starting to smile and completely ignore the agony you’re in and you’ve totally convinced yourself this is SO MUCH FUN! Wait, huh? Yes, that’s correct. This is what they DON’T tell you! Once you set that finish line in your sites, you hear the cheers getting closer and closer, and you hear the names being read off one after another, that’s when you realize this is exactly what you signed up for, blood, sweat and tears included. Entering that finisher’s chute, your name is announced, strangers and friends alike begin cheering, you cross that timing mat and do so with a smile. It’s so much more than what you signed up for, definitely more ways than one, but when you finish, I guarantee the first thing in your mind will be: ‘When’s the next one?!’
Must have run gear:
1. Running shoes – Seems simple enough, no? Well, yes and no. This can be a lot of trial and error throughout training. Typically, I recommend going through a shop that evaluates your biomechanics, at least your gait. By this, I mean running on a treadmill in different shoe options better suiting your biomechanics. You should be able to find most tri and running specialty stores offering this. This may mean you don’t get the cool or cute colored options – function before fashion in this case. You’ll thank me on your last few miles of the run.
2. Race belt – This is what your race bib attaches too. Why they think we will even be able to make safety pins work on race day is beyond me. So, buy a couple (they’re inexpensive and you always lose them) and keep in your race day gear bag. Average cost: $7+
3. Sunglasses – use the same as you did on the bike to keep it simple and economical. You can rinse the lenses with water from a water bottle if need be.
4. Hat/visor – If you’re a sweater like me, I recommend having some head cover option. It also protects from the sun, which helps when you’re out there racing all day during a half or full ironman distance event. It also helps your Sherpa section pick you out on the course too! Average cost: $25+
5. Body Glide – reapply; you’re welcome.
6. Sunscreen –Most Ironman branded events will have volunteer stations providing sunscreen application, however, be ready to wander the run course looking a bit like a Coppertone commercial gone wrong. If time allows or you don’t care about transition times, re-apply on your own. What I’ve found to be the best race day sunscreen is BullFrog brand. I apply it in the am prior to start and don’t even have to put more on and I’ve yet to get burned, even on long courses!
Up next, Race day prep and play by play. Until then – keep tri-ing and VibeOn 😉
See you in the comments. Feel free to ask questions or share your training/race day experiences.