The night before a race, I usually pin my bib number to my shirt and set out everything else I need so that I don’t have to think about anything in the morning. This is easy enough for a running race: shoes, socks, run shorts, sports bra, GPS watch, and maybe a running cap and a small bottle of water.
Adding two more sports on to that was a bit more stressful! I gathered my swimming things: wetsuit, swim cap, goggles, and put them with things I would need in the morning: BodyGlide (to lube up before jumping into the wetsuit) and plastic bags (they go over my hands/feet and make getting into the wetsuit easier).
Next up, the things I would need in transition: cycling shoes, running shoes, socks, GPS watch, water bottle, sport towel, plastic bags to protect from the rain. Oh yes, the rain – I’d been neurotically refreshing the weather page for days, hoping that prediction for “thunderstorms” on race morning would magically disappear – alas, they did not! Thinking about the rain, I grabbed my running cap as well. My partner, Kevin, suggested I put it on under my helmet for the cycling portion as well – professional cyclists do it all the time, he said. Good idea, I thought. More on that later.
We then went to remove the rear rack from my bike. It turns out that the rack was affixed by screws on the interior of the seat stays, and we had to remove the rear wheel to get at them. The V-brakes on my bike were unusually tight and difficult to release, turning a simple task into a frustrating endeavor. When I saw that it wasn’t going to be as simple as it should have, I wanted to say, “forget it,” and leave the rack on. I had wanted it off for two reasons: 1) I didn’t know how heavy it was, and it would be nice to have the bike as light as possible in case I needed to carry it up/down the hill to the mount line, and 2) I thought I’d look a little silly with a bike rack at a triathlon. But I also really didn’t want to mess with the bike the night before the race, especially because I just had it tuned up.
Anyways, Kevin said he could do it, so we persisted. We got the rack off but in the process messed up the brake alignment. Nothing too bad, but cue an increase in already-high levels of race anxiety.
I’ve learned by now that while I definitely need coffee to be considered a functional human being, drinking too much of it before a race is NOT kind on my nervous stomach, so I only had a tiny cup of coffee. Transition opened at 8am for the sprint distance, and I was going to meet my friend Megan there at 8:15. At 7:55 we got our bikes and headed off. As luck would have it, we actually ran into Megan on the ride to the race area – a good start to the day!
We set our transition areas up. Run cap and helmet went on the handle of my bike and everything else inside a plastic bag on top of my towel, which was on top of another plastic bag. It had already been raining in the morning, though thankfully it had stopped in time for our set up (the Olympic distance competitors were not so lucky).
We waited a lot longer to put our wetsuits on than most of the people around us. I realized that was perhaps a bad idea when it was close to my wave’s starting time and I wasn’t zipped up yet! Eeek! Megan quickly shoehorned my shoulders in and zipped me up, then bade me farewell – she was in the wave behind me.
I’m not sure what the water temperature actually was – I think they said around 15-17 degrees? – but I knew from trying out part of the swim course the day before that it was going to be frigid. I was not wrong. It was COLD. And due to the nature of the course, we didn’t have any opportunity to warm up. Into the water, and a minute later our horn goes off. Oof.
I positioned myself to the side and back, letting the stronger swimmers go out first. I quickly realized that many around me had the same idea. Most of them seemed as uncomfortable in the water as I felt. I tried to do front crawl, but every time I stuck my face in the water, I wanted to take it right back out again. I also had trouble exhaling. It’s funny because the whole time, I *knew* what the problem was. “Breathe out,” I’d think to myself, but for some reason I couldn’t make myself do it.
I later discovered that there might be a physiological explanation for this. It’s called “Mammalian Diving Reflex.” In a nutshell, when you stick your face into cold water, your heart rate drops and blood flow gets diverted from your extremities. Your body enters a state where it tries to conserve oxygen. Don’t breathe out, my body said! You need that! It was hard to fight.
So I ended up doing a true medley of strokes: front crawl, back crawl, breast stroke, elementary back stroke, and side stroke. I used literally every stroke I knew to propel myself through the water. I kept trying front crawl, hoping I would settle into a rhythm. I found it very difficult whenever there was someone remotely near me (in front, behind, or to the side). I kept thinking, “I hope I’m not going too slow for the person behind me,” and “I hope I don’t crash into the person in front of me.” It’s a race, I know, but I’m just not used to swimming with so many people, especially with no lane ropes!
By the last buoy, I had finally discovered some semblance of a rhythm with my front crawl stroke. I honestly think that if I had 15 minutes to warm up in the water, my swim would have gone much more smoothly. Maybe if I do another tri, I’ll pick one where I can have a warm up.
Time for swim – 21:14
Well, this could have gone more smoothly! My time was the third slowest in my age group for the transition. I had difficulty getting my wetsuit off (I’ve never NOT had that difficulty, though, so…). I also took a couple of moments to ensure that I had everything in order, then un-racked my bike.
Cue race official. “Can you re-rack your bike please?”
Oh no oh no oh no what have I done wrong?!
“You have to take off your hat. It’s a safety issue.”
I honestly wasn’t aware that wearing a running cap under my helmet could be unsafe, but I certainly wasn’t about to argue with the race official. I took off my hat, then grabbed my bike again and set off to run up the ramp to the mounting line.
Time for T1 – 4:46
The bike course started on a pedestrian bridge that took us into Exhibition Grounds. I knew that the bridge was a “no passing” zone, but I wasn’t sure at which point the “no passing” ended. There was a man in front of me going awfully slowly, and I just wanted to pass him and get going!
Shortly after getting on the Gardiner (we got to bike on the Gardiner!!), Megan passed me. I wasn’t surprised – although her wave was four minutes after mine, she’s an extremely strong swimmer. I had actually expected her to pass me during the swim!
I settled into a pace that I felt I could keep for 20km. I don’t have very much experience with being able to bike for 20km without stopping for traffic lights or small children dashing in front of me on the trail, so I didn’t exactly have a benchmark for what my speed ‘ought’ to be, and decided to do it by effort.
My rear brakes started rubbing somewhere just before we got on the Gardiner, and for the first half of the bike course I was woefully regretting removing the rear rack. They sorted themselves out just before the first turnaround point, which was a fairly sharp U-turn.
It felt like I was hitting a brick wall when I turned. It was only then that I realized we had had a fairly substantial tailwind on the way out – and now we faced a fairly substantial headwind. Grr, argh.
I wished at that point that I had a real road bike. The hybrid commuter that I ride is a very nice bike (on loan to me indefinitely from my uncle, after mine got stolen last summer). It’s pretty light and I’ve been told the specs are comparable to an entry-level road bike. But a road bike it is not, and I was envious of all the people around me who could get down low and alleviate some of the wind resistance. Maybe next year!
With about 6km to go, the skies just opened up. Now we had a headwind and a torrential downpour! Yikes! There was a second U-turn that we had to make before coming back onto Exhibition grounds, and I had the sense to brake well ahead of time to avoid hydroplaning or skidding in the turn. I was seriously wishing that hats were allowed, because with so much rain, I could barely see through my glasses. Definitely quite the weather for my first tri!
Time for bike – 43:38
We had to run down a ramp into transition with our bikes, and I remembered the advice that my friend Al gave me. He told me to take off my cleats before going down the ramp, especially if it was raining, to avoid falling. Good advice! My feet were so wet anyways that it didn’t matter that I was running in just my socks.
The second transition was much easier. I put on my running shoes and off I went. Forgot my running cap, though – and again regretted it, as I could still barely see through the rain. Megan was a minute or so ahead of me. “Come catch me,” she said as she took off.
Time for T2 – 1:58
I wanted to catch Megan. I really did. My legs felt so dead, though. Despite my brick workouts, I wasn’t quite used to the feeling of coming off of 20km straight cycling, at a speed faster that what I usually ride at. I was also just feeling generally exhausted by this point. I stopped to walk a couple of times throughout the run, seeing Megan get further and further away.
A woman ran up beside me when I was slowing to a walk and said, “I remember you from the bike course – we played leap frog a couple of times. Come on, it’s only 1.5km left, we can do this.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. I asked her name. “Julie,” she said. Well – thank you, Julie. With her encouragement, I ran the rest of the way without stopping.
Time for run – 27:59
At the finish line, I felt so many things at once. Pride that I finished. Relief that it was over. I may have teared up a bit. Okay I definitely did.
Megan finished a few minutes ahead of me and was waiting to hug me at the finish line. She had a great race, smashing her time from last year. I’m so proud of her, and very grateful to have been able to train and race with such a fun, strong, and inspiring person.
My family asked me at the finish line if I would do it again. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to say. Now that I’ve had time to process, I think the answer is yes. I might like to do one where I have time to warm up before the swim, though! Although overall I’m proud of my finishing time, it’s very clear that there’s room for improvement in all of the events. And that’s okay by me – it just gives me something to work towards for next year.
Total time: 1:39:34
Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newly minted triathlete.