* Ready . . . set . . . get nervous: The adrenaline rush that comes with butterflies can be an asset. "They can be good fuel," says the Los Angeles Tri Club's Ian Murray, adding that it's important to keep perspective, even when your palms are sweating. "Think about the successes you've had, the little breakthroughs and competencies you've developed." The first four minutes of a race can be the most harrowing, he adds. "You've got the tension of the race and people around you and you're about to run into the water together. If you're a good swimmer, get in the front of the group. If you're a slower swimmer, go to the back or the sides [of the pack] -- where one side will be calm and the other will be a scrum."
* For transitions, practice makes perfect. Not all athletes practice the changes in clothing and gear between events, but they should, says Murray. "I think most people figure it's a short time, they don't need to pay attention to it. An organized transition can be done in two minutes, but unpracticed, that can turn into six or seven minutes pretty easily."
* Go along swimmingly. Making contact with other swimmers in open water is inevitable, but it shouldn't derail your swim.
"The thing I didn't realize is that contact in the water is something that's probably going to happen, but "it's incidental contact," says amateur Larry Davidson, "like you're walking around in a crowded city. It's assumed that people are going to bump into each other, and they're not being rude; it just happens, so try to stay calm. When I got an arm on me, I didn't panic; I just reminded myself that no one was trying to hurt me."
* Don't expect a perfect race. "Someone once told me that a good day at Ironman is when you have two minor catastrophes," says triathlete Hillary Biscay. "The sport is really about the woes of the day, physical or mental, and it's how you deal with them that separates the best people in the sport. If you have to spend a few minutes at the side of the road, you can still make something of the day. I believe that if I keep running to the finish line and cross it, regardless of what my time is, I've done the best with what I had on that day. That's a victory."
* Enjoy the ride. Don't keep an eye on your watch. "For your very first race, don't even time yourself," says Mickie Shapiro, a 71-year-old triathlete from Costa Mesa who has competed in 19 Ironman races. "It seems like everybody who puts their foot in the ocean these days wants to go to Kona, but I would love for people to do it also for the camaraderie. There is a family of triathletes, and it's very fun, and everyone is very accepting."