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My First Tri: North Shore Triathlon

The bike transition for the North Shore Triathlon
So, as I said in my Newcity review of the North Shore Triathlon, the triathlon is its own special animal - one part swimming, one part biking and one part running. And being good at any of those does not mean you'll even be competent at the triathlon as a whole. I definitely found that out yesterday morning when I competed in my first triathlon.

Well, maybe "competed" is a strong word. Let's just say I participated in it.

Obviously, being so involved in the running world I have heard a good deal about triathlons. A number of my friends do them and tell me how fun they are. But there's just never been a pull in that direction for me. I like to run and I don't really want to have to swim and bike before I can do it. Still, the triathlon concept is something that has been on the periphery for a while now and when a friend suggested I sign up a few weeks ago, I figured "Why not?" It's a first annual race, it's in a nearby suburb and it's a sprint distance (400 meter swim, 20K bike, 5K run) so I wouldn't have to be particularly worried about my lack of ability in both swimming and biking.

I borrowed a bike from Fuzzy (the hardcore beast of a man who completed IRONMAN Wisconsin last weekend). While I was taking advantage of his kindness, I also borrowed a bike helmet and a wetsuit vest for the swim. It's good to have very generous friends (especially when you're attempting a triathlon and have no appropriate gear).

I rode either four or five practice rides (the farthest I got was ten miles on an evening ride) and felt okay about my biking skills - knowing how to slide my feet into the clips with (relative) ease gave me a sense of accomplishment, as did getting the hang of shifting gears and using the brakes (the bike I borrowed had the brakes reversed - front brakes on the right side, back brakes on the left - so that took some getting used to).

Still there's the swim - I know how to swim, by the very basic definition of swimming. By this I mean I got swimming lessons as a kid and if you throw me into the water I will not drown. Beyond that, I'm not much use when it comes to swimming. And I didn't really have too much time to practice this. Luckily, the swim portion of the race was short and in relatively shallow water (on race day it turned out that I couldn't quite touch the bottom for most of it but being able to see the shore very close by provided a strange sense of comfort).

On Friday I went to Sports Authority (yes, I should have gone to a better sports store, but I had a gift card) to get some tri shorts. As it turns out, they don't have tri anything... but I bought some bike pants (they were sold out of bike shorts - yes, the EIGHT STORY Sports Authority on LaSalle and Ontario was sold out of bike shorts). For some reason I figured these would be okay to wear for the swim, bike and run. Spoiler alert - dumb idea.

Sunday morning I woke up at 5, threw on all my stuff and drove to Wilmette. As a side note, I don't own a car, but in a happy coincidence, one of my friends is out of town and let me borrow his car - in other words, I was driving a borrowed car with a borrowed bike in the back of it. That's how I roll.

Here's one really good aspect of getting to a triathlon: you're already bringing a bike to the race so you don't actually have to park that close to the starting line. If you can get within a mile that's more than good. I parked near the Linden purple line stop at Linden and 4th street, reassembled the bike and rode to the starting line in the dark (following other bikers doing the same thing).

To me, the pre-race buzz at this triathlon (and maybe at all of them) was one of the most memorable experiences of the day - participants are darting around trying to find a place to rack their bike and set up their gear, volunteers are writing on you with marker and you get a timing chip that wraps around your ankle like an ankle monitor. I found a spot for my bike in the middle of my wave's rack (Wave 2, to be exact), grabbed a spare plastic bag from the wetsuit rental area to cover my stuff with (this was probably the best move I made all day) and started following other participants to the beach for the 6:45 start.

On the beach before the first wave kicked off I walked around watching all the other participants and their preparation style - some were warming up in the water (the water was warmer than the air at this point) and some were stretching. I really had no idea what to do so I just walked around and spent a good deal of time wondering why I was wearing bike pants instead of just athletic boxers (which I saw a few other guys wearing). I ran into Dina and Kate and wished them good luck - they had just done TriRock Lake Geneva the day before and were pulling a double-header.

As 6:45 approached and Wave 1 got into the lake, I got in with Wave 2 (makes age 30-34 and half the males age 35-39) and waited for the cue to start wading into the (thankfully calm) waters of Lake Michigan.

And so, the actual triathlon begins:

As the horn went off, most of the guys in my group took off running and started swimming as soon as the water was above their waist. I just kept wading until it made more sense to swim than to walk (which means I pretty much waited until I was kind of bouncing to stay above water and walk). And almost right away I realized what a horrible swimmer I am and how, even when you're only swimming 400 meters, you should really do some training before jumping into a lake to swim with 40 other guys. Though the water was relatively calm, there were still waves that made swimming and breathing properly a little difficult. Along with that, other people are around you trying to do the same thing (which doesn't make swimming any easier). I found myself focusing on just trying to catch my breath (forget about maintaining good form or kicking and stroking).

At this point I decided to stop swimming for a second, let everyone in my wave get past me and then start doing the backstroke. And, though this means that I finished the swim in 11:43 (442nd place out of 584) and that a good deal of the swimmers in the wave behind me passed me as well, it also meant that I wasn't freaking out and almost drowning myself. When I reached the end of the swim and was back where my feet could touch the ground I turned to another swimmer who had been next to me the entire time and we gave each other fist bumps of relief. "I thought I was going to have a panic attack," he told me, breathlessly, and I knew exactly what he meant.

From here we ran across the beach, through some grass and (after a brief hop into a small wading pool for cleaning off your feet) into the transition area. I took off the wetsuit vest, put on my waterproof socks and shoes and a long sleeve shirt, snapped on my helmet and rolled my bike out of there. At this point it was raining pretty steadily so I was really happy I had covered my stuff with a plastic bag.

The bike portion of the race wasn't particularly hard but twelve miles is the longest I've ever biked so it felt like a much longer time than it was. I finished that portion in 45:59 (457th out of 584) and I honestly don't think I passed a single person. People were flying past me the entire time. I have no experience with biking hard so my "bike muscles" are not particularly strong. I could have biked farther, but I don't know that I could have biked much harder without wearing out my legs. Mainly I was happy not to fall off the bike on the 180 turnarounds (of which there were three since this was a double loop out-and-back course).

Pulling into the transition area after the bike leg, I was completely soaked. Luckily, I had packed an extra pair of waterproof socks, another shirt and some running shorts. So I quickly changed out of all my wet clothes and into a new set of dry stuff (though my shoes were still soaked) and took off running.

Once I was running, I knew I was home free. This is the point where I really started enjoying myself and was able to let my mind wander rather than focusing on every aspect of what I was doing (handling the bike, maintaining my breath in the water, etc.). The course was wide, there were plenty of volunteers and even a surprising amount of spectators for such bad weather. On the way back (this course was also an out-and-back) I passed Dina starting the run and she gave me a high five and some words of encouragement which really helped push me through to the finish line. I finished in 26:31 (262nd out of 584) and happily put the medal on.

The weird part about the end of a triathlon is that, unlike a run where you just go grab your gear check bag and leave, you have to go gather all your used gear that you left in a pile by your bike and re-organize it, then walk your bike out and reload it into the car. It sounds like a small thing but it felt surprisingly elaborate at the time.

I stood around for a few minutes watching other participants finish and collect their gear and then got on the bike and rode back to my car to head home.

So... after completing my first triathlon I'm not completely convinced that I want to do another one. It was a lot of fun - I enjoyed all the coordination and transition stuff - but if the race were much bigger I'd be more concerned with working my way through all the people and gear to get to my stuff. This race was a nice size and distance and I can definitely understand why people enjoy a sprint tri. We'll see if there are any triathlons in my future - if so, I'll probably have to rely on the kindness of my friends to get me through it again.

Swim: 11:43 (442/584)
Bike: 45:59 (457/584)
Run: 26:31 (262/584)
Overall: 1:32:43 (435/584)


  1. Congrats on your first tri!! They sound so complicated. Just getting through all the transitions with the right gear sounds like an accomplishment.

  2. Like a re-gifter, I'm a re-loaner: both the vest and bike were loaned to me by Shaun. Anyway, congrats on your first tri! We have you doing Ironmans (Ironmen?) soon enough.

  3. A couple of minutes of research can save you a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money when it comes to shopping for the best triathlon gear for you, regardless if you are interesting in competing in an amateur event or striving for perfection in a professional event.

    Female Cycling Knicks


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