Saturday, August 25, 2012

I finished a triathlon!

Today I completed my first triathlon, and I learned the most important lesson: my training really didn’t prepare me for the intensity of the experience, but finishing has strengthened my resolve to train harder and smarter for the next time around.

We arrived (me, Amy, and our son Scott) at Lake Wappapello in southeast Missouri a little after 6 a.m. The parking lot at the visitor’s center was more than half full, and the bike racks were filling up quickly. Most of the competitors were clearly experienced triathletes, and I felt just like the new kid on the first day of school.

I was worried at first about the water temperature—the air was in the upper sixties when we arrived—but that didn’t turn out to be the major issue. As it turned out, I trained for a completely different environment. I did all of my swimming in a pool, but the lake’s water was so murky that swimming face down in the water was pointless. I tried to swim freestyle with my head up to keep on track with the buoy markers, but before long, I had to resort to breaststroking.

Anyone who remembers me from high school swim team knows that breaststroke was by far my worst event. Slow. Tired. Ugh. But I had no choice. By the time I made it to the furthest marker, I had 180 yards to go, and I could barely breathe. I switched to a slow backstroke and tried to conserve energy, but it took all I had left just to stay afloat and keep moving.

By the time I reached the boat ramp exit, I was spent, gasping for air and barely able to move. Lesson learned: if the event is open water swimming in a lake, train with breaststroke instead of freestyle. But the damage was done, because physically, I never did recover. I might have been better off just sitting out for five or ten minutes until my heart rate dropped, but I had already done what I was determined not to do—blow out my energy on the swim.

The bike route was next—almost 16 miles with a bunch of killer hills. By the time I got past the second mile, the leaders of the race were already on their way back. I had to not only walk up the first big hill, but I had to stop to catch my breath and lower my heart rate. I was breathing so hard that I started coughing, and even as I write this, I can’t take a deep breath without coughing—it feels like bronchitis. On the bright side, the rest of my body feels okay, and my pulse rate and blood pressure are both great.

As I mentioned earlier this week on Facebook, there was a steep hill that went for almost a full mile just after the halfway turn. I didn’t get far before I had to walk, but at least another biker was in the same spot, and we got to experience a little camaraderie on the way up. Once I made it to the top, getting back took a while just because I kept my bike low-geared and tried to conserve as much energy as I could for the run.

The run was uneventful—it was more like a walk interrupted by periods of slow jogging. This was the one area where my training did pay off. I knew to save enough energy on the bike that I could do 5 kilometers without collapsing. The final 3/4-mile ran along the long, straight road long the top of the lake dam. I had my iPod playing my two favorite finishing songs: “Rooftops” by Jesus Culture and “Cannons” by Phil Wickham, and even though I was the last to cross the finish line, the crowd at the finish was clapping and cheering me across the line. I found one last burst of speed, crossed the line, then collapsed in a heap of exhausted joy.

At one point during the bike ride, when it felt like I would never be able to finish, I wondered if I would even want to try this again. Now that I’ve had the day to consider the experience, I definitely want to do another triathlon. Next time I’ll know how to train better and what to expect. Perhaps the next time, whenever and wherever that may be, I’ll be able to enjoy the experience while I’m in the midst of it instead of just the satisfaction of knowing that I finished.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Into Uncharted Territory

About six weeks ago, I wrote here that my goal of completing a triathlon was my version of a midlife crisis. Turning 44 and watching my weight creep back up over 225 after getting as low as 205 (my marriage day weight) was disheartening. I have type 2 diabetes (thank you, Coca-Cola!) and was facing the prospect that my window for significant physical activity was rapidly closing.

Being a married father of six kind of rules out skydiving and mountain climbing for me, so this seemed like the kind of "big" physical challenge that carried an aspect of uncertainty. Could I really do this? A sprint triathlon for a forty-year-old is no big deal, but I was pretty sedentary before starting out on training for this event.

So what did I do this past week? I swam for 600 yards on two occasions. I biked for 30 minutes, ran for 10, and then walked for 20 (these are called "brick" workouts because when you're done, your muscles feel like bricks). On Saturday, I ran four miles in 50 minutes, and then yesterday, I biked 20 miles in a little more than an hour-and-a-half, followed immediately by a 30-minute walk covering two miles.

It was in the walk that I realized that I'm doing things physically today that I've never done at any point in my life, much less middle age. I played football and wrestled a little in high school, but I never took that seriously.

In college, I could run a mile in 6.5 minutes, but I also smoked about a pack of cigarettes a day. Twenty years ago I was 24 years old and weighed about 190. But I also smoked and drank to excess on a regular basis. Could I have trained for a triathlon back then? I'm sure that I could have, but I sure didn't, and I wouldn't have been interested in doing so, either.

I quit drinking about five months after turning 24, and that caused my smoking to increase dramatically for the next couple of years. I got married at 27, and two things happen to a lot of men that happened to me: having a loving wife means you're less concerned with staying fit and looking good, and my wife was (and still is) a tremendously good cook. I put on 30 pounds in the first year I was married and never took it off until last year, when I went from 265 to 205 by radically changing my eating habits in response to the diabetes diagnosis.

Physically, I never did more than walking and occasionally jogging while losing the bulk of my weight. But since the end of 2011, I've been backsliding into bad eating habits and avoiding exercise. However, the past six weeks of training have brought me to a place I've never been before. I can run for almost an hour and still function for the rest of the day. I biked 20 miles yesterday, and I'm walking around today (but sore, ouch! so sore).

The triathlon is 19 days from today. I'm no longer wondering or even worried if I'll finish. Now I'm actually starting to think about finishing times and maybe even competing for a spot in the top three. My body is transforming itself in ways that I never experienced, even when I was younger and it would have been easier to achieve this level of fitness. Who knew that my midlife crisis would actually turn out to be productive?