As of this day, the 27th of August 2023, I have become a triathlete. I competed in an event involving swimming, biking, and running and I finished. It was simultaneously easier and harder than I expected, and entirely worth it.
So what is a triathlon anyways? Conceptually it's pretty straightforward: you swim; you bike; you run. In that order. There's a few different lengths which is what differentiate different triathlons. In the middle there's olympic distance, which is the most famous length. 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride, and 10km run. Pretty intense. It can go up from there, to a half ironman and a full ironman. Fun fact: in a full ironman the running portion is the length of a whole marathon, which you have to do after you've swam and biked almost 200km. As much as I'd like to be able to call myself an ironman, I think that might be a bit much.
On the other end, there are a few shorter distances than olympic. Half an olympic triathlon is called a sprint, and is kind of a beginner event. Half of that again is a supersprint. 400m of swimming, 10km of biking, topped off with a nice 2.5km run. That's the one I signed up for, and is one of the most popular for first timers.
My reasoning was that I'd be fine with the biking portion, and running can't be that hard. I'll walk across the finish line if I must. So, all I'd have to do is train swimming. Easy, right?
I find it quite interesting that each individual leg of the race is its own entire full sport. People spend their whole lives to become better runners or better cyclists. Me? I see myself as more of a master of none. I'd honestly rather be able to do three different things medocre than do one of them really well. I just find it more interesting. Honestly speaking, I probably wouldn't have ever signed up for just a swim or a run. The novelty of doing all three, and plus being able to call myself a triathlete afterwards, is what gets me.
Let's start with biking, which I expected to be the most straightforward leg of the race. A 10km bike ride isn't too daunting, and I have quite a lot of cycling experience from the past few years. Every time I went anywhere in Toronto I'd usually rely on a trusty bikeshare bike, and the same is true in Chicago. Whether I'm going uptown, downtown, commuting to work in the morning or going to the beach I use a bike to take me there. Biking should be pretty easy then, right?
Well, there were a few complications. First of all, Chicago's bikeshare system, Divvy, has some pretty fantastic ebikes. I'd started to use these due to their convenience and speed; few forms of transport feel as good as being propelled on an electric motor, zooming past traffic with the wind in your hair. Unfortunately these aren't quite as taxing for your legs and lungs and I was worried I'd be out of practice.
To make things even more difficult, I signed up for a special division that used Divvy bikeshare bikes for the bike portion of the triathlon. I did this mostly out of appreciation for the role bikeshare played throughout my years in the city, and also because I thought it would be very cool to use them to compete in a real event. There's only one issue with this: these bikes are very heavy and very slow. For years in Toronto I'd gotten used to this and used to ride for hours but it had been years since then. Luckily everyone else in the Divvy division would be using these bikes as well so I wouldn't be at any particular disadvantage.
I only had one practice session on the bike; despite everything I figured it was all I needed. It took me about 45 minutes to make it just under 10km on the busy lakefront trail. I felt fine afterwards too; in fact, I felt like I could have kept going for much longer. My only issue was that my calf started cramping halfway through, but I quick 3 minute sit and stretch took care of that. I should probably get into a habit of stretching beforehand instead of during, but once I start doing that I should be fine.
Something different about biking compared to the other two legs of the race is that biking is much less dependant on aerobic fitness. Of course it's important, but swimming and running speed are (in my experience) almost entirely determined by your lung capacity and for how long you can maintain a high heart rate. When I bike, on the other hand, my legs start complaining far sooner than my lungs. This might also have to do with the fact that the bikeshare bikes I practice on are very heavy and riding them takes a lot more strength. Ultimately, it made me optimistic that I'd be able to slightly catch my breath during the biking portion, after the swim and before the run.
Ah swimming. The triathlon required us to swim 375m in open water, right in the Great Lake Michigan. I knew how to swim, and I'd even practiced swimming laps when I was younger, but 375m is longer than you might think. I had a feeling this would be the hardest portion, so I made sure to start practicing early - months before the day of the triathlon.
Luckily my apartment building had a pool, so I had easy access to practice. I already enjoyed using the hot tub occasionally, so I just added pool swimming to my routine. I'd go down every week or two to enjoy a nice soak and then top it off with a nice swim. That was the plan anyway.
One of the first things I noticed about swimming was how it solved the temperature problem I often have. I'm pretty skinny, with not a lot of insulation on me, and going for a dip even in a heated pool usually leaves me shivering after just a few minutes. When exerting myself to swim, however, I stayed nice and toasty - maybe even a little too warm. I guess it should have been obvious, but much like how I jog when cold in the winter, I should swim when cold in a pool.
Another thing is that swimming in the pool is kind of like swimming on easy mode. There's no deep end, so when tired I could always stand up, and it was so short I got to boost off the wall every thirty seconds. Clearly not ideal practice for swimming in Lake Michigan but it helped me get comfortable with what a 375m swim felt like. It did not feel great.
I couldn't swim anywhere close to that distance when I first started; I took plenty of short breaks. Eventually over the course of a few months I improved my swimming ability, but still had to rest. Luckily, when swimming, if you need to take a breather you can flip around and swim on your back for a little bit. I definitely used that technique quite a lot, along with literally stopping to stand when I needed it (which isn't good because you can't stand up when swimming in the lake). Eventually I made it even farther than 375m with only a handful of breaks; hopefully sufficient preparation for open water.
The next challenge would be to do this in Lake Michigan. In open water. Cold open water. I never did too well in cold water, and the great lakes aren't known for their balmy shores. That left only one course of action: I'd need to get a wetsuit.
A quick wetsuit tangent. Contrary to what I believed, these are designed to get wet on the inside. The water trapped inside creates a warm thermal layer that insulates you. That also means that when you get into chilly water, you sometimes start by letting all the water right in to kickstart that insulating process (unless you just pour some warm water into the neck before getting in, which some people like to do). It's not the most pleasant feeling; let's just say it really wakes you up.
Wetsuits are designed to fit you like a second skin; they're typically sold with a target weight and height. I happen to be shaped like a noodle, long and skinny, so I'd have to either compromise on wetsuit length or fit. I chose length, so that my wetsuit would conform to my skinny frame. Wearing one feels almost uncomfortably tight, but snug at the same time. And warm. Even on a hot summer's day, I really like the feeling and intend to wear one whenever I can go swimming in a lake.
First though, I prepared for my first swim in the lake. I'd intended to do it earlier, but it ended up happening (like all my other training) just a couple weeks before the day of the event. After struggling to get the wetsuit on without assistance, which was certainly not easy, I began my swim. Almost immediately it didn't go well.
When I got to water too deep to stand in, I think I kind of panicked. I wasted a ton of energy seeing if I could touch the bottom, and was then out of breath right away. Luckily flipping to my back meant I could breathe, but it still didn't feel like I was getting much oxygen. I didn't know if my wetsuit was too tight (I actually considered calling to return it) or if the waves were too big, but later I realized I just wasn't used to the sensation. Especially since I was 200m out into the lake with no easy way to abort. I'm not usually afraid of water, but I think that was the most worried I've been while swimming. I did swim my way back, slowly and carefully, but even after shambling my way onto shore like some kind of sea monster I didn't feel too well
Another fun side effect of that day was that it somehow got my ears clogged, and half my hearing was muffled until I got a doctor to clean my ears out.
I tried again a week later and took it a lot slower. I made sure the wetsuit fit, didn't tire myself out by treading water, and enjoyed the swim. Luckily, this time it went amazing! The feeling of being deep in open water is surprisingly calming. Just you, the sound of the waves, warm sun above and cool water below. All you can see is a beautiful shade of ultramarine blue. The temperature that day was also perfect for swimming, and I eventually even unzipped my wetsuit slightly which also felt really good. It was almost meditative, much more than biking or running could ever be.
I also happened to be doing this on the day of the Chicago air show, so I was out there swimming while F16s screamed by overhead. I admit I stopped a few times to see if I could spot them, and it made the experience all the more memorable.
It's amazing how much non physical factors can affect your experience. Swimming doesn't just require a large lung capacity and big back muscles. The mental aspect of being comfortable in open water and knowing your rhythm and keeping to it are even more important than how buff you are. After getting used to the idea and learning how to pace myself (tip: never stop to tread water it just sucks away all your energy) I decided I really liked swimming.
Even putting the triathlon aside, this is something I'd like to do again. People talk about how lucky cities like Chicago and Toronto are to have beaches located so close to downtown, and now I understand why. Being just 15 minutes away from taking a swim like this on any beautiful summer weekend is an amazing amenity, and I can't wait to do it again next summer.
I swam double the distance I needed to on that day, 800m, which would even be enough for the sprint distance. My speed is objectively pretty horrible and my technique is in desperate need of refinement, but I think I conquered swimming that day.
This is the portion I was worried the least about. "I'll just walk if I have to!". Regardless, I dutifully made my way to the treadmill to make sure I was as prepared as I could be.
I personally found running to be the most physically taxing leg of the race. My heart rate agrees; running is the most dependant on aerobic fitness and maintaining a high heart rate. Like I said above, biking is more taxing on your legs and when swimming you don't have to support your body weight. I recall before training my run that I considered 150bpm a high heart rate when swimming and biking. I eventually learned that 150 was nothing - my heart rate could be maintained at 170bpm or higher and would have to stay up there if I wanted to run faster than I walked.
Unfortunately, I once again wasn't able to begin until about 2 weeks before the race. I essentially trained by going on the treadmill and running at the fastest speed I could maintain (with walking breaks to catch my breath) until I hit 2.5mi. I'm not a runner, and the first time I did this was grueling. I took plenty of breaks to walk, and really I think it takes a while to get adjusted to the feeling of a constant high heart rate. I remember almost feeling woozy getting off the treadmill after that first walk/run; it wasn't necessarily bad, but felt like nothing else I'd done before.
Some people hate the feeling of running, and I can understand why. Exerting yourself at that limit for that long doesn't feel good, especially for the first few times. I guess it's kind of an acquired taste. Demanding that level of performance from your body can turn it into a fine tuned machine that feels amazing to inhabit, but until you get to that point it certainly won't be comfortable.
One of the most important skills I developed around this stage, and this helps for biking and swimming and well, is getting a feel of your heart rate. When it's going higher and higher that means you're exerting yourself too much and need to slow down. However, if you can figure out how to put in just enough effort so that your heart rate is high but stable, that's perfect. If you can keep your heart rate in check you can keep going forever, or at least long enough to do a triathlon.
This was really useful for swimming as well; you don't want to run out of steam in the middle of the lake. Conquering swimming mainly required learning to pace myself so that I could go for as far as I wanted while maintaining a stable heart rate. Once I could do that, that's how I made it almost a whole kilometre. I admit that having fancy tools like a fitness watch to keep a live status of my heart rate helped, but I think developing this skill is vital for any endurance challenges.
Luckily though, it got better after the first few difficult attempts. I got better at running for longer without taking breaks, and I also got better at managing it mentally so it didn't feel as brutally punishing. My biggest achievement came from my final training run, where I managed to run for a whole mile without walking (albiet at a pretty slow pace). I typically ran 15 minute miles, with my best being 14 minutes.
However, my biggest break came from randomly checking the website one day, and realizing I had it all wrong. The supersprint distance doesn't involve a 2.5mi run, it's a 2.5km (or 1.5mi) run! This was huge - while I always struggled to hit 2.5mi, it made 1.5mi seem easy in comparison. I'd inadverdantly overtrained myself and become all the more capable.
The final issue was the soreness in my calves. I don't know if I have particularly weak calves, poor technique, or bad running shoes, but my calves always took a while to recover after a run. I did my last run on a Tuesday, and on the Saturday of the race I was still slightly sore. Hopefully this is something that my body will soon get used to.
Soon, the big day arrived. I was a little nervous, but confident. Swimming should be easy, biking would be hard but practiced, and running would much shorter than I trained for. Aside from a little residual soreness, I was ready.
There was one big surprise however. The water was rough on that day, bad enough that the bouys making the swim course wouldn't stay in place. The organizers were forced to slash the swim portion to a paltry 130m, essentially a 2 minute run in and out of the water. It was a little disappointing since the swim was something I felt pretty ready for, but at least it meant I could forgo my wetsuit and not bother with having to put it on and off. I later learned that the swim for the longer sprint and olympic distances was entirely cancelled, which is quite a shame.
The jovial atmosphere of the crowd was energizing. The supersprint took place after the kids tri, and so I got to see people competing as young as 7 and as old as 70. There were a lot of families there too, which I liked to see. Everybody was upbeat and positively brimming with energy, which kept me entertaining while waiting to begin.
There's a special group of people doing what was called the Triple Challenge, which meant doing the supersprint, sprint, and olympic distances all in one weekend. They went first, and it really was funny to see these elite ironman level atheletes waddling and skipping through the shallow chest high water since it wasn't really worth it to swim. After that different age groups took turns going, and some were really inspiring to watch. The above 70 year old men and women had amazing levels of determination and willpower.
Then, it was my turn. As I hit the water I was glad the temperature was warm. It was surprisingly difficult to make my way through the strong waves. Ironically, this required raising my legs high on every step and tired out my leg muscles more than swimming probably would have done. Not ideal for the biking portion.
After that extremely short splash and dash, we were at the bikes. We got to pick out the Divvy bike of our choice - I wish every Divvy bike in the city was as new and maintained as those were since they all looked immaculate. After struggling to get my socks and shoes onto my sandy feet, I hopped on the bike and I was off. I was used to the feel and handling of these heavy bikes and I had a speedy start, but my legs tired out faster than I expected them too.
There were a few slight hills on the course which sapped my energy. There was also a pretty strong crosswind which, while great for running, isn't so nice on a bike. I find that while running is quite rough on the calves, biking hits the quads pretty hard and they were burning pretty hard at about 6km in. One technique I copied from the other atheletes is to lean all the way forward on the bike while riding.
I normally sit like the top right, which is the most comfortable and how the Divvy bikes are designed. Leaning all the forward though, like on the bottom left, helped immensely to fight the crosswind by becoming more aerodynamic. It also felt like activated slightly different muscles, so I used it as my secret weapon when climbing a hill or when I really needed to pass someone. I was getting passed quite a lot during the middle of this portion, but I gained a little at the end.
Unfortunately, my already sore calves were getting tired by this point and I hadn't even started the run. Once again, in my overconfidence, I hadn't really stretched. While the bike was coasting I was rotating my ankle around and trying to make sure my calves weren't too tired. Eventually, I hit 10km after 35 minutes on the bike and I started to jog.
All my training to keep a slow consistent pace so I wouldn't have to take breaks immediately went out the window. It doesn't feel good to run slowly when everybody else is running faster, so I kind of alternated between pushing myself hard and shuffling along. There were plenty of aid stations along the route with water and gatorade, but I could barely move and drink at the same time.
My calves were rock hard at this point. When I first tried climbing, my grip strength was so weak that at the end of the session my forearms became strongly clenched and tight. It was so bad I couldn't open the cap of a plastic water bottle the next day. That was what my calves felt like at this point.
Honestly though, it wasn't that bad in terms of running performance. They were sore but fine, my main obstacle was my heart rate. Like I said, I was running faster than planned so I kept getting out of breath and having to slow down. I think I eventually got into rhythm though, and the second half of the run went smoother than the first.
At the start I was being passed left and right which didn't feel great. Near the end, I was the one passing some people! I'd found my pace and I was able to keep going for longer without stopping, and admittedly seeing the person behind gaining on me was very motivating. With this final burst of energy I finished strong, with a pace of 12 minutes per mile compared to my 14 on the treadmill. I don't know how it was possible to do so well after being so tired, but I guess I just wasn't pushing myself enough.
At the finish line I got my finisher medal, cold towel, and finally I got to relax and have some water. All in all the experience only took about an hour (even though some athletes finished in just 40 minutes) so I wasn't that thirsty or hungry. It was just nice to hang out with everybody and experience all of the positive energy.
Throughout the whole race random spectators and strangers were constantly cheering everybody on. People were giving high fives, police officers were giving cheers and thumbs ups, and everybody was extremely supportive. Even though it was technically a race, in that there is technically a winner, it never felt too competitive. As they say, the only person you're trying to beat is the you of yesterday.
I stayed to watch the awards ceremony for the top 3 finishers of each age group, even though I was nowhere close. I made sure to clap for each one of them since the crowd had so much energy. I then gathered my things, walked to a restaurant for some empanadas (the beach happened to be right next to a columbian neighbourhood), and then took the bus home all while wearing my medal. I had officially become a triathlete, and for the next 30 minutes I made sure everybody would know.
Here are some of my main takeaways after the race:
- I thought in order of difficulty it would go swimming, biking, then running but it turned out to be almost the exact opposite. I guess it shows how important it is to be prepared for anything and everything
- In general, I underestimated how hard running is. I figured it wouldn't be too much worse than walking, but I now know running takes a lot of practice and muscle endurance to do properly
- I did all my important training in 2 weeks. Even though that's not really enough time for serious physical changes, I improved a ton in both swimming and running. It goes to show how much of the preparation is mental as well as physical
- I really do think any reasonably fit adult could do this without too much training. I did it, and I was definitely in the bottom quartile but I finished. If you wanted to, you probably could too
- There was a 14 year old who apparently was eligible for the kids tri and the triple challenge, so he was going to attempt all 4! What a madlad, I wonder how it went.
- Everybody who finished got a medal, and the awards for the top 3were nice (framed pictures) but not as cool as the medal. I think that's the right way to do it, where finished is emphasized way more than coming in first
- I think there were a lot of families who first had their kids compete and then the parents competed. Seems fun, I'd probably enjoy doing that if I had kids
- The event was really well organized, and the event photography was especially well done. It might be worth the registration fee just to get some good action shots of yourself
A lot of people, when witnessing an accomplishment like this, might think that it's a tremendous feat of willpower and grit to take each step and to pull yourself across the finish line. That is true, but not in the way you might think.
The willpower required to accomplish this feat isn't exercised on the day of the event; it instead is required in the days and weeks leading up to it. It's not willpower to grit your teeth, ignore the pain, and run another 100 meters. Rather, it's willpower to get up in the mornings. Go to the gym. Train even when you're feeling lazy, especially the parts you don't want to do. Eat right and sleep well. As they say, the hardest part is not getting to the finish; that's simply inevitable if you've trained right. The hard part is getting to the start.
When I see people faster or stronger than me, I realize there's no shortcuts or secret advantages that they have and I don't. The only difference is that they did the exact same thing I'm doing but for longer.
I recall when I was first considering signing up, and being amazed at the even just the sprint distance. "There's no chance I could ever do that" I remember thinking to myself. It seemed like such a herculean feat. Now, frankly speaking? It doesn't seem so bad. Swimming 800m? I got that in the bag. Biking 20km? With a proper road bike I don't think it'd be harder than 10km on a Divvy. The worst part would be the 5km run but I'd have a whole year to train for that. People do couch to 5k programs all the time, how bad could it be?
Will I do a sprint triathlon next? I'm sure I will one day, but maybe not next year.
I think I'd like to do at least one more supersprint. The swimming portion was slashed so I feel like we were kind of robbed on that front. Plus it would be cool to do it again on a real road bike and after another year of training to see how much I improve. I don't know if there'll be a big difference in the run; since it's my least favorite portion I can't see myself running much in the off season. It would be really cool to be able to do 5k though - in laboratory conditions (on the treadmill) I hit 4k so I think it might be doable.
My biggest takeaway? It's really not that hard. I performed better on the day of the triathlon than I ever did before, because on that day I asked more of myself than I ever did before. I think if I continue to commit to even more difficult activities I'm sure I'd rise to those challenges as well. The only way we can improve at anything is by continuing to challenge and push ourselves, and you don't know what you're capable of until you commit to doing something great. Nothing feels as good as rush of accomplishment, and by continuing to push myself I intend to rise to ever greater heights