No one is immune to rookie mistakes.
I just watched a YouTube video of 2-year-old Titus Ashby, the basketball-trick-shot-sinking boy wonder with a talent most adults—nay, most NBA players—would envy. Wouldn’t it be cool if we all showed such mad skill straight from the start of our athletic careers? But that’s rarely the case. Most of us are not prodigies; instead, we navigate through awkward but necessary beginner seasons, replete with rookie mistakes.
Whether in preparation for or practice of our newfound passion, we learn through trial and error, through radical bonks and moments of ridicule, until ultimately we’ve been around the block enough to earn expert status. And then we often enjoy a laugh at the new round of fledgling recruits struggling to make their way through the maze of multisport. But it’s good to reflect on our rookie errors and remember that we were all beginners once.
I polled my Facebook friends to see who among them would fess up to first-timer foibles. Some reported on the pain of learning proper pace, or the rapid rise and fall of their race-day egos:
“I came out of the swim and went straight onto the run. I was winning!” – Fletch
“I crushed the swim and came out with the lead pack. Rode my mountain bike and got passed by the entire field.” – Chris
“My first open-water swim was the day of the event. Ouch. Then I caught over half the field on the bike. Ouch. Hit the wall on the run. Ouch. In the end I finished mid-field.” – Scott
Others admitted embarrassing equipment mishaps:
“I set off on the run still wearing my bike helmet.” – Kathryn
“I didn’t realize my swimsuit had gotten so thin from chlorine. And I couldn’t afford a wetsuit, so I did the lake swim without one. Spectators got an eye-full when I got out of the water!” – Deb
“I borrowed a bike three sizes too big and I could barely pedal with my toes. When I got off the bike my front wheel flew away because I never secured the skewer.” – Lorena
“The first time I ever tried aerobars was during the race at Vineman 70.3—but I was far too scared to use them, so I sat upright the entire way. Then my gel flask—containing all my bike nutrition and secured only by Velcro to my top tube—flew off going over the first bump.” – Holly (yes, that was me)
Nutrition techniques are always tricky, and take a bit of testing:
“I wore a Camelbak on the bike during my first Ironman, plus four water bottles. I was a rolling tank.” – Cindy
“The only things I put in my special needs bag at my first Ironman were two Diet Cokes, a South Beach Diet bar, mascara and a hair brush. None of it was helpful.” – Laura
One guy I know—now a seasoned coach dispensing sound advice to his clients—started off with a major oopsie in his Kona debut:
“I drank only distilled water on the bike. Like the stuff you put in a clothes iron. No salt, no electrolytes, nada. I figured it would digest faster. I still did OK, just had a lot of cramping on the run.” – Dave
And then there was this gem of amateur emotion:
“Before the race, I cried. Does that count?” – Gina
Yes Gina, it does. In fact, hands up anyone who’s shed a tear while racing—especially during your first mass-start swim, while being reduced to dog-paddling your way through a panic attack (and please allow me a moment while my own hand returns to the keyboard).
But it’s not just age-group athletes who own up to spectacular guffaws. Every person making his living as a full-time professional started somewhere—often with his fair share of embarrassment. Over the years of interviewing these folks, I’ve collected anecdotes of several favorite flubs. One accidentally entered the men’s change tent at her first half-Ironman (Heather Jackson). Another didn’t know she needed to eat or drink at all during a half-Ironman, subsequently losing 14 pounds and being lucky just to finish (Sarah Piampiano). An Olympic medalist admitted wearing her aero helmet backward two years in a row at the same race (Michellie Jones). And then there was the rookie pro who wore his swimskin onto the bike in Kona. Oh wait, that was two-time Olympian and longtime pro Rasmus Henning in one of the final races of his lengthy career.
My point being, even the most experienced among us still make mistakes. Heck, Ironman champion Andy Potts famously tries something new at every single race—in a sense making him a rookie on each start line. Chances are not everything he attempts works out wonderfully, but he’s not afraid to try—and potentially fail.
And that’s the beauty of our sport. There’s plenty of room for learning and improvement, even at the tippy top. So be kind to those who are new to triathlon. Offer your insight, your intimate perspective, your advice. Because, guaranteed, you’re going to make another significant gaffe somewhere, someday again soon. And the real wisdom of experience is not in having the last laugh, but rather the best one—which more often than not is at oneself.