My First Triathlon – Is This How George Plimpton Felt?
Buffalo, Minnesota; June 5, 2011 – Buffalo Triathlon, Sturges Park.
Why would I do a triathlon, my first, at age 59? The answer begins with the need for better health. I continue with triathlon today for many more reasons.
April 2010 was the launching point for what has become a significant life adventure for my wife, Joy, and me.
I was 57 years old. During my annual physical exam, my doctor shared his concern about the trends in my blood sugar and cholesterol. I was already on medication for blood pressure.
However, the doctor also encouraged me when he said, “This is nothing that losing 20 pounds won’t fix.”
I knew I had become a little more full in my face. My pants were also a little tighter. However, this was not enough motivation for me to exercise regularly. It was also not an incentive for me to give up burgers for salads.
My doctor’s remarks did, however, get me to think about losing weight. I was sure this would come with exercise. After all, I had been semi-active with some swimming, biking, running, basketball, and racquetball. I had also become a Minnesota State High School League certified basketball referee, knowing that I wanted to stay active.
However, months later, nothing had changed except my weight. It was still slowly increasing.
Making the Commitment
In late September, my friend Jim, along with his oldest son and my youngest son, were on the patio of our house in Chicopee, Massachusetts, where I was spending half my time for work.
During our conversation, I mentioned the doctor’s concerns and my struggle to lose weight. Jim, who had completed a few triathlons, suggested that we sign up for the Buffalo Triathlon in Buffalo, Minnesota.
When I mentioned this to our daughter, Liza, a few days later, she promptly said that a triathlon would be a good father-daughter adventure.
Then, around the middle of December, Joy registered both of us for membership at LA Fitness. LA Fitness had facilities near our houses in Minnesota and Massachusetts.
I had run out of excuses. In my daughter, I had a training partner. I also had access to facilities in which to train. On December 31, 2010, my daughter and I registered for the Buffalo Triathlon.
I quickly learned how little I knew about preparing for a triathlon. However, I took this as a new challenge. I read whatever I had time to consume. I swam, biked, ran, and did various body weight and core strengthening exercises six days each week.
Following six months of training in swimming, biking, and running, I was still not sure if I could finish the triathlon. However, after Liza and I completed a practice triathlon near our home on Fish Lake in Maple Grove, Minnesota, two weeks before the Buffalo Triathlon, we were confident that we could at least finish our first sprint triathlon.
While my daughter insisted on setting a time goal for the race, I had been content to set ‘finishing the race’ as my goal. Eventually, we agreed to the goal of 1 hour 45 minutes. This seemed reasonable after our practice triathlon.
8th Annual Buffalo Triathlon
Beginning in 2004, the Buffalo Triathlon quickly became the most popular early season triathlon in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Minnesotans were ready to get outside after the long winter and often dreary spring with its ‘April showers’. And, 883 of us showed to do a triathlon.
The advertised distances for the individual legs of this sprint triathlon were:
- Swim: 0.25 mile (400 yards)
- Bike: 13.3 miles (21.3 km)
- Run: 3.1 miles (5 km)
Joy, Liza, and I left home at 5 am for the one-hour drive to Sturges Park. Liza’s family would come a little later, before the triathlon’s start.
After checking in, picking up our race packets, and getting our body markings, we found our respective assigned places in the transition area. It was then time to soak in the anticipation, excitement, conversation – including some occasional boastings – and equipment leading up to the race. The number of expensive looking bicycles especially struck me.
Fifteen minutes before the race meeting that led up to the race’s start, I went into the lake for a short practice swim to become acclimated to the water.
Being early June in central Minnesota meant that the water was cold, in the upper 60s °F.
The water temperature was not a surprise. I also knew that the water temperature was bearable with my triathlon suit and a rash guard swimming shirt since I had been in the lake on the previous Tuesday.
Before we knew it, the race was underway. I watched as wave after wave of swimmers took off.
The internet had told of the chaos accompanying fifty swimmers starting together. There had been a small taste of this at the practice swim in Buffalo Lake a few days earlier.
What I saw was like what I expected. I was ready for swimming as a contact sport, even though it was not something I relished.
The contact finally came. Unfortunately, I was the one who made contact.
As I swam, I came upon two females who had left in an earlier wave than mine treading water beside each other. I accidentally hit one of them with my hand. The tongue lashing began immediately as she told me I should have watched out where I was going.
The damage was done. All I could do was say ‘Sorry’ and keep swimming.
Triathlon tip: Having now completed tens of triathlons with open water swims, I have one piece of advice. If you are going to stop and rest along the swim course, please move away from the main traffic lane.
My First Transition
I took my sweet time getting from the swim exit to the transition area. By the time I reached the transition area, I saw my friend, now very serious, already heading out of transition with his bicycle.
In what I later learned was a long transition time, I sat down, washed the grass and dirt off my feet, put on my socks and shoes, and grabbed a few gummy snacks before taking my bike to the mounting area.
I realized other racers were proceeding to the mount line with a much greater sense of urgency than me. I felt as if I were blocking some of them.
Eventually, I got on my bicycle and faced a steep hill. Having not thought this part through, I had left my bike in a high gear.
Oops. Another lesson.
The bicycle ride was fantastic.
My Giant hybrid bicycle sped along the course as it never had on the rides in Maple Grove over the past couple of years. After the race, I learned I had ridden the 13.3 miles at an average speed of 17.7 miles per hour. Before today, averaging 15 miles per hour would have made me happy.
What struck me was the way those on triathlon bikes passed me. Despite my legs pedaling as fast as they could, I felt as if I were on a casual stroll with my wife. I was sure the gearing of their bikes differed from mine. (Within a month, I had purchased my first triathlon bike, a Trek SpeedConcept 7.5).
The effort to maintain the average speed during the bike leg had apparently taxed my running muscles. Despite having trained many times to run after biking, both at LA Fitness and around my home, I found the run today to be incredibly difficult.
After about one mile, I simply had to stop and walk. It humiliated me to have to walk during the run. Of course, this would not be the only time I would mix a little walking in the run.
From this point through the end of the race, including within the last quarter mile, I found it necessary to mix running and walking.
Somewhere near the middle of the run course, I met my daughter. Her smiling face and ‘Go Dad!’ encouragement were much appreciated.
I pushed myself to run through the section where my wife, son-in-law, and grandchildren were sitting. As I passed them, I gave my grandson a ‘high five’. I remember him shouting to his grandmother ‘Boy, is he sweaty’. I couldn’t help but smile despite a tough run.
Not only did Liza and I finish the race, but we both finished it in well under the 1 hour 45 minutes goal. Astounding!
I returned to earth when I saw the times of others in my age group, including that of my friend. My place was 16th of the 20 within my age group.
I had finished my first triathlon. It was an accomplishment that I will always share with my daughter. And, I had learned a lot.
In some ways, I felt a lot like how I imagine George Plimpton would have felt. Plimpton was a journalist who took part in various professional sports so that he could more effectively write about the athlete’s life.
I had a sense of the triathlon but was not as much an athlete as I thought.
Yet, by now I had lost about 40 pounds. My last physical exam, the one in 2011, had already shown marked improvement in my health metrics.
Expanding the Triathlon Journey
Even before the Buffalo Triathlon, Joy had convinced me to register for the Maple Grove, Minnesota triathlon in August near our home.
Joy and I wondered where this first triathlon would lead us. We started talking about this even while sitting on the grassy hill while waiting for the awards ceremony for the Buffalo Triathlon to begin.
Days after the race, we were still talking about triathlon, training, racing, and traveling to the many race locations. What if we combined triathlon with road trips that we had always enjoyed with our children?
It was then that we set the goal of me completing a triathlon in each state of the United States by the time I was 70 years old.
You can find links to stories about the triathlons in each of the 50 states in which I have completed one in a post titled Exploring the USA Through Triathlon.
What About Your First Triathlon?
After preparing for your first triathlon, what was the biggest surprise during the race? Let us know in the Comments.
I originally published this post on February 28, 2016. I rewrote and republished it on September 23, 2022.