After months of training with coach Ian Murray, writer Mike Senese toes his very first start line. In this final installment of a three-part series, Senese describes his newbie pitfalls and lessons, and how the swim-bike-run ultimately changed his own self-perception.
I huddled into the packed crowd of 35–39-year-olds, 120 in total, dressed in black rubber with fluorescent yellow caps. Shoulders and arms were being spun and stretched. The countdown ticked through the last 10 seconds before the start of the race—and of my transformation from car accident victim into actual triathlete. “Finish this,” I told myself, “and you can do anything.” The horn sounded. I pulled my goggles over my eyes, smiled and dashed into San Diego’s Mission Bay.
Eighteen months prior I had awoken in an ambulance after a late-night highway collision with a tractor-trailer. The trauma had left me broken and scarred, incapable of sitting upright in my hospital bed. Still, I was lucky. With rehabilitation I was able to get mobile again, but I was also now determined to emphasize the largely ignored capabilities of my body. Training for my first triathlon started eight months later.
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Early on, I peeked at the final couple of months of my training calendar and raised my eyebrows at the sessions that were planned for me. And just a few months later, I was cranking up hills and settling into hour-long runs in preparation for the big day. I had learned about bricks, recovery rides and the smirk-inducing term “fartlek.” There were only a couple of pieces left before my race: transitions and open-water swimming.
Transitions came first. Ian Murray, the USAT Level III coach who was guiding me on my training journey, set up a rack near his Malibu, Calif., home and hung our two bikes by their seats, shoes clipped into pedals. He explained that experienced triathletes minimize the time taken to get from the water to the ride, and from the ride to the run. On the first transition, I’d yank my wetsuit halfway down while running to my bike; pull off the suit and quickly plonk on my helmet (strategically waiting on the aerobars); I’d push my bike by the seat, running barefoot toward the bike mount line. Once across, a tricky running-jump mount would get me past the racers statically clambering on their bikes. With my bare feet on top of my shoes, I’d pedal up to speed, and then slip my feet into place and power into the bike leg. The key was the mount. If it was mistimed, it could be bad. Very bad. Transition 2 posed less of a threat to my manhood: slip feet from shoes while approaching the transition area; kick my right leg over the seat so I’d be standing barefoot on the left pedal. Just before the dismount line, I’d hop off the pedal into a run, pushing my bike over the line. Dart back to my space and hang my bike, remove helmet, flick the gravel off my feet and slide on my shoes, then quickly head toward the run exit while clipping the number belt into place.
A couple of weeks later, Ian and I met again, this time on the southern side of Venice, where a manmade cove protects the boats moored at Marina del Rey. Never a swimmer, I had become a regular in the lap lanes at my local YMCA, secretly racing the other swimmers who were about 40 years older than me. It was time to learn how to swim without lanes or a wall to push off of every 25 yards.
I assumed that I’d be able to combine my general familiarity of paddling a surfboard (I’m a novice) with my lap swimming to handle open-water swims. Not the case. Wearing two caps to keep my head warm, I dove into the water behind Ian and started toward the buoy we were aiming for. Instantly and painfully, the skin on my face turned to ice. I had overlooked the fact that I’d have to stay submerged, face down, through 1,500 meters of bone-chilling water. And I was immediately disoriented by the murky brown view under the surface. I looked up and spun around, trying to get my bearings. Ian was far to my left—I had swum quite a ways off course. The cold was making it difficult to get a decent breath of air.
Ian showed me a few open-water pointers—how to follow the bubbles of the person in front of you, how to sight every few breaths to make sure you’re still moving straight. He said if I got panicky, to roll on my back, where I could float and reset for a moment. And when approaching the shore, to keep swimming until my fingers were scraping the sand—it’s easier to swim through shallow water than run through it.
Still, I was pretty nervous about what I had just experienced. I headed back to the same spot on my own a few overcast days later, intent to conquer this new anxiety; instead, I only amplified it. I lasted about five minutes in the water before spinning back and packing up. Easily my worst day of the entire training, it cast internal doubts on whether I’d be able to complete the triathlon.
Fast-forward two months to the ITU World Triathlon in San Diego’s Mission Bay. This would be a meeting of the world’s elite (and where the remaining members of Team USA were named), competing at the birthplace of the sport. Race organizers were opening the course to amateur athletes. This would be daunting—but awesome—for my first triathlon.
As we rushed into the bay, I told myself it would be different than my two failed open-water practices a couple of months earlier. Following Ian’s advice, I had done a short, five-minute swim that morning, just after transition setup, so I knew the water was comfortably warm and calm. I reminded myself to keep my own pace. Still, adrenaline is hard to ignore, and for the first hundred yards I pushed forward with the crowd. There were nudges and bumps, but nothing too aggressive. Then, as we neared the first buoy, the pack started pulling away from me, and I realized I was beginning to feel that same shortness of breath as during my swims in Venice. I eased up, but my breathing became shallower and my rhythm fell apart. I wondered if my race was going to end before I had even reached the first buoy.
I paused in the water and looked back toward shore. There was no one behind me. I felt embarrassed that the people on the beach might be noticing my struggle. A few more strokes, the same result—it felt like I was breathing into a plastic bag. Were the lifeguards on their paddleboards watching me? Did I need to adjust my goggles? I rolled on my back and tried to relax and remember the initial basic swim tips Ian taught me. Each time I’d restart, I’d find the same issue. Could it be the wetsuit? Finally, I reached back and tugged the zipper down. My lungs filled with fresh, energizing air.
Once again moving, I slowly zigzagged my way past each buoy. There were a few others pushing along around me, so I tried to stay with them. I even noticed a few swim caps from the age group that had left before us, and wanted to stop to cheer them on. We were all in this together.
I knew for sure that I’d be able to finish as I rounded the farthest buoy—all I had to do was swim back to shore. I had made it halfway through the most difficult leg! Picking up the pace, I moved past a couple of others. Once my fingers hit the bottom, I popped up and sprinted into the transition area. My wife was standing on the beach cheering for me. I was so happy.
The bike racks were pretty vacant by that point, which actually made the transition easier. T1 had two hiccups: First, it was a bit harder to yank the wetsuit off than I had anticipated. And second, I totally whiffed the jump-mount. I hoped no one noticed, but an official shouted, “It’s OK, you’ll get it back” as I sheepishly reset and climbed on my bike on the side of the mount line. It was more of a hit to my ego than to my groin, at least.
Ian was cheering on the side of the first bridge out of Mission Bay while I reached down to slip my bare feet into my shoes. The course started flat, then turned uphill, a 1.8-mile, 5.3 percent grade climb that people had warned me was a beast. I settled into the smallest gear and groaned along with everyone. About halfway up the hill, my sunglasses fell off and became part of the mess of empty gel packs and water bottles littering the street. I cut my finger on the spokes trying to catch them. On the second loop, I said hello to a few other riders, and we laughed about having to scale the big hill again. I was feeling good, keeping a pace that I was happy with, and loving the camaraderie.
I hit 43 mph going down Mount Soledad, officially the fastest I’ve ever gone on a bike. I tried to keep my speed up for the final few miles to the transition area. As I shot over the two bridges, I realized I was closing in on the last leg of my triathlon. I started to think about being in the hospital, 18 months earlier. My eyes began to well up. I pumped my fist in the air, shot around the corner and almost missed the dismount line.
By this point, my legs were spent, so I set a goal to do the run in less than an hour, and calculated the pace I’d need to sustain. If I could do 9-minute miles, I’d hit my time. All the racers’ ages were written on the back of their calves, so I stayed on the lookout for others from my age-group. I moved past a few runners, and a few others moved past me—some younger, but many who were decades older. Triathlon is an amazing sport in that younger athletes don’t necessarily have a major speed advantage, and proof of that kept passing by me.
The last few miles of the triathlon were spent ignoring fatigue in order to keep moving. The sun was bright overhead. I rounded the last turn toward the finish line. “Push,” I told myself, and kicked my legs over the blue carpet and past the grandstands that lined the finish area. Announcers were naming the approaching runners, and crowds of people cheered everyone on. I ran across the finish line and was handed a medal. It read “Finisher.” “No,” I thought. “I’ve just begun.”
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