I am always looking for an athletic challenge. I need something to train for or I lose my motivation. This year I decided to try a triathlon: swimming, biking and running, one after the other.
Total disclosure: I am a niece of triathlon greats. My aunt and uncle created the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii in 1978, and in June they were inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in Chicago. From afar, they inspire.
For anyone thinking about this event, here are some guidelines I used:
Picking my race
I would sign up for a small triathlon within driving distance of my home in Los Angeles, and I would not make any major investments in equipment. I would go simple: a cap, bathing suit and goggles, a bike and helmet, and running shoes.
Triathlon season runs from March to September, with the majority of the races clustered in June, July and August. The Goleta Beach Triathlon was in late July. The race was just short of Olympic distance, with a mile swim, a 22-mile bike ride and a five-mile run. It was an hour and a half away, the swim was in a sheltered cove and the race organizers said the event was geared toward beginning and intermediate triathletes. Plus, the setting was supposed to be beautiful.
Triathlons aren't cheap. This one was at the low end, at $131.48. The event is a fundraiser for the Santa Barbara County Parks Foundation. . And it was small. Only 180 people competed in the long course event.
Next, I wrote to my aunt and uncle for advice. They recommended "The Triathlete's Training Bible" by Joe Friel. Finally, I called the fittest friend I have, a guy from San Francisco who has a dozen triathlons under his belt. He turned out to be indispensable, an on-call sage I could text whenever I had a question.
First thing I did was sign up for my race. Then I would be committed, no excuses. I had exactly 12 weeks to race day, and I was pretty much starting from zero. That may have been overly ambitious.
I ordered the book, a fantastic resource on everything from workouts to diet to training regimens. I referred to it repeatedly. First you had to decide how serious you were and how many hours a week you wanted to train. I set the bar low: six hours a week.
I also signed up for an email list in which a coach would send me encouraging words every couple of days. He gave me one important tip: Concentrate on your weakest event. For me, that was biking. I have no technique and no experience. Also, the bike leg is the longest, so if you are weak, that will kill you.
Setting your training schedule is complicated because it has to be so diverse. There are tri-clubs, but I trained on my own.
I took Spin classes at the Y, swam with a masters' swim group during lunch a couple of times a week and ran on my own in the mornings. I also did yoga to keep limber and help prevent injury. On the weekends, I vowed to do a long run, a long bike ride or a combo.
Once I started working out six days a week, I realized how out of shape I really was.
By week five, I could feel myself getting stronger. In weeks six and seven, I finally started seriously doing bricks, as the back-to-back workouts are known. Experienced triathletes will tell you the hardest part of the triathlon is the transitions, particularly from biking to running. I did a swim and then a Spin class at the Y and a long bike ride, followed by a two-mile run. The first mile my feet were numb and my legs felt like clubs.
Then I went on vacation for two weeks. I did not run or bike the whole time, though I did a couple of easy ocean swims.
Week 10 I was sick, and I wondered if I should drop out. But the week before the race, I swam a mile a couple of times and did an 18-mile ride followed by a 20-minute run.
I ate oatmeal and drank coffee, then swallowed a banana a half-hour before the race. I splurged on triathlon bike shorts that I could swim, bike and run in. And I bought some bars to eat during the race.
I got up at 4 a.m. and drove to Santa Barbara. I followed the example of everyone around me and laid out my shoes, towel, bike and snacks in my own personal station. Some people had little basins of water to wash their feet, so they wouldn't have sand between their toes for the rest of the race. I wish I'd done that.
The beach was so foggy we could only see the first buoy on the swim course, but officials assured us we would be able to see where we were going. The sea was glassy, the water 65 to 68 degrees. Nearly everyone was wearing a wet suit. Should I have gotten one? I was starting to freak out.
The hard-core competitors had everything packed onto their bodies. A wetsuit over their biking suit, which was in turn packed with Gu and other snacks for the rest of the race. You could see their food bulging out in little bumps. Some women told me they wore wet suits not for warmth but for buoyancy. People who aren't comfortable in the water say wet suits help.
At 8:10 a.m., our wave hit the water. The water was cold and gray, people kick you in the head and knock off your goggles, and you are guaranteed to swallow some seawater. But the swim was the part of the race in which I felt most comfortable.
For most of the race I moved forward in fear, praying I would finish. The pacing is so tricky — to know how hard to push when you are using different muscle groups. But there were a few minutes when I felt gloriously strong. The last half mile in the ocean, I hit my rhythm.
The Goleta Beach bike course is a narrow county bike trail winding through marsh habitat, woods and suburban neighborhoods. It was hard to pass, and there were a lot of sharp turns. We flew down the trail, over bridges, beneath underpasses. We had to duck low branches. I felt like a kid again on a crazy, grown-up obstacle course. It was fun!
By the time I got to the run I hurt, but I finished strong and walked around dizzy and grateful.
A 52-year-old man won the event. At 2:38, I was last in my age group, 45- to 49-year-old women, but that was good enough to earn me a place on the podium and to leave with a third-place medal.
And I caught the bug. Next year I will do the Nautica Malibu Triathlon.
Some of the triathlons in Southern California
If you want to try a "tri," here are a few good ones in the Los Angeles area.
Goleta Beach Triathlon
Small, beautiful, driving distance from L.A.
When: July 26, 2015
Sprint triathlon: A quarter-mile ocean swim, an 11-mile bike ride, and a 2.5-mile run.
Long course triathlon: A one-mile swim, a 22-mile bike and a 5-mile run.
Hansen Dam Triathlon
This is a great race in the San Fernando Valley for novices and professional athletes. The swim is in a lake, so for those who fear ocean swimming this is an excellent option.
When: Aug. 15-16, 2015
Sprint triathlon: A 500-yard swim, an 11-mile bike course, and a 3.1-mile (5k) run.
Olympic distance: A 1,500-meter (about 1 mile) swim, a 22-mile bike ride, and a 6.2-mile (10k) run.
Nautica Malibu Triathlon
If you are going to be in the ocean, you might as well be somewhere gorgeous. This race is big, and fills up fast, so sign up early.
When: Sept. 19-20, 2015
Classic triathlon: A half-mile ocean swim, an 18-mile bike and a 4-mile run.
International triathlon: A 1,500-meter ocean swim, a 24.9-mile (40k) bike ride on the Pacific Coast Highway and a 6.2-mile run on the blacktop and sands of Zuma Beach.