Category Archives: Triathlons

Swim, Bike, Run – As Nature Intended?

An email newsletter from a local racing company landed in my inbox recently. It carried this interesting announcement:

NEW RACE! We are excited to let you know about our 2021 schedule – we will see the return of our regular schedule along with bringing back an old-time classic.

Well, hey, a new race means more business for Happy Planet Running, as this event company is one of my clients. So, naturally, I had to find out about it.

WTF? For reals? Why yes, there was even a “Register” button included. And Portland has the same thing, also sponsored by WHY bars!

My astute readers have guessed by now that both newsletters, though real, were dated April 1. I found it hard to believe anyway. Early spring in Michigan is definitely not a time to hold an outdoor event in the buff. The water temperature alone would require a wetsuit, which kind of defeats the purpose. And yet, the race director told me a number of people fell for it!

I can’t really blame them; it could happen. As a veteran of the World Naked Bike Ride (Portland, 2018) and the clothing-optional Burning Man 50K, (the links are to my experiences there) I know two of the three sports have such events. Toss in some skinny-dipping (and who hasn’t?) and there you go!

2018 WNBR Portland. I’m the one on the right, just to be clear.

But I couldn’t just let the subject (or anything else) drop there. Being an inquisitive sort, I went to the all-knowing Internet to find out if there really is such as thing as the titular (*) tri in the newsletter. (Purely for research, you understand.)

I thought I’d found one in England. Nope – another April 1 announcement. The Wildflower Triathlons Festival has been dubbed “The Woodstock of Triathlon” and based on the review it sounds pretty much like that. No naked athletes, though, just one naked aid station, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

I also came across, “Don’t Get Naked In Transition,” a book full of practical advice about doing triathlons. As a triathlete that particular rule sounds pretty self-evident to me, but you never know.

So I can conclude a couple of things from my investigation. One, the nude triathlon is an as-yet unexplored market for a young and hungry race company to exploit. (My client does many triathlons but is sticking with her core competency of clothed events.) And based on the number of people who clicked on the “Register” button in the newsletter, there would seem to be a guaranteed respectable headcount. Of course, there would be some challenges, like where you would put your race bib. Nothing that couldn’t be overcome with a little American ingenuity.

Now having pitched the idea (you’re welcome, no charge) would I actually do one? That depends, I’d want reasonably warm water, and shoes and bike helmets would have to be allowed. And decent beer. Like Oberon. Offer Bud Light and I’ll find somewhere else to shake my booty, thank you.

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(*) You know I had to get that word in there somehow.

Why a Helmet is Worth a Bad Hair Day

THIS COULD HAVE BEEN A MUCH DIFFERENT STORY.

Last week we camped with some good friends in the Empire area. One day we decided to take a group ride along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The ten miles between Empire and Glen Arbor are pretty and not terribly difficult. But for one friend, it was a milestone. For the last couple of years he’s struggled with knee issues. Thanks to PT and regular workouts he’s much improved, but this was his first ride of any real distance in a long time.

Seven miles in, we stopped for a water break. As my friend dismounted, his foot caught on the bike frame and he went down.

His head smacked the pavement.

Hard.

This-is-not-good

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute reports that of all cycling-related deaths, 74 percent involved a head injury. And 97 percent of the riders who died were not wearing helmets. You might think, therefore, that if a First Rule of Cycling existed, it would be this:

WEAR A F***ING HELMET.

Hitting the trail! (Yes, I know, but he put the helmet on before we started.)

Hitting the trail! (Yes, I know, but he put the helmet on before we started.)

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. He was wearing a helmet, and it absorbed the impact instead of his skull. He was dizzy for a few minutes, but after some rest he was able to continue, and we completed the ride. He suffered a bruise to his ego, but his body is intact to ride another day.

Our group wears helmets on every ride, and when our kids were growing up, we insisted they wear them too. To me, it’s a no-brainer, so to speak. And yet there are those out there who argue against their use. Among the claims this article makes are:

  • the accident rate goes up when people wear helmets
  • when cars pass cyclists, they give helmeted riders less room than non-helmeted ones
  • requiring helmets discourages more people from riding bikes at all.

And CNET reports here that a brain surgeon says if you’re hit hard enough by a car to kill you, a helmet won’t do you much good. Perhaps so – but last week’s situation didn’t involve a speeding car, or any speed at all. He fell from a standing position. Without a helmet, we have no doubt he’d have been in the emergency room, with potential long-term consequences.

Every year I see many helmetless riders on the Heritage Trail, or the Betsie Valley Trailway, including entire families with small children. I can guess at their mindset. They’re on vacation, released from stress, riding slowly on a smooth, flat trail with no motor vehicles allowed. What could happen? Well, one young guy panicked and slid right off the trail when I announced my presence behind him. He was okay, fortunately, but elsewhere on the trail he could have struck a fallen log and taken a nasty spill.

And people fall off bikes for less reason than that. I’ve fallen many times, usually when I can’t get my foot out of the clips during a stop. I’ve managed to avoid banging my head (thanks, Aikido) but I have that foam and plastic insurance policy up there just in case.

And if you want to participate in one of our local triathlons? Experienced riders and no drafting allowed. What could be safer? Yet you’re not leaving the transition area to start the bike portion without a fastened helmet.

Yep, we check!

Yep, we check!

Yes, one reason is liability, but if a helmet is so useless, what’s the point? Other than all the evidence (like here) that wearing a helmet reduces the severity of injuries. Guess I forgot.

Yes, I know I shouldn’t tell you what to do. And I can’t make you wear the f***ing helmet. Why should I even care what you do?

Because if you’re reading this post, you’re one of my readers, which makes you special to me. And I want you to stay alive and healthy so you can keep reading my posts.

So go out for that ride, and wear the f***ing helmet, okay?

Swimming in Proverbial Soup

I COULDN’T FINISH THE SWIM CLASS. One hour into the 90-minute workout, I pulled myself out of the pool and told the instructors I could not continue. I was exhausted and my legs were cramping so badly I could no longer kick.

It was a Sunday morning in April, week one of a 10-week masters-coached swim class to help me train for my summer triathlons. I knew I was in trouble when I could not go more than 50 yards without stopping, and the other students were warming up with 100-yard intervals. I can run for hours, but swimming worked my body in an entirely different way. The half-mile (880 yards) swim needed by June was going to require a lot of work.

I pondered what to do for the next week. Should I stop going to the class and swim by myself? Should I hire a coach and get some private lessons? Or, since I’d paid a handsome price for the class, should I just “suck it up” and struggle through the remaining sessions?

Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I wonder…Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I thought of the classic English proverb:

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Was my “thing worth doing” the end goal of completing a triathlon? Or was it rather the training that made the goal possible? If the class would make me a better swimmer in the end, I should continue with it. But given where I was at the time, could I get the most out of the class? It didn’t seem likely.

And if “doing well” meant becoming a strong swimmer, I’d need a lot of coaching and time in the pool, taking time away from running and cycling. Perhaps if I “went at it” by myself, I could improve enough to get by. And that brought to mind this related saying from Tom West:

Not everything worth doing is worth doing well.

In the early 1980s, West was the project leader for Data General’s next-generation minicomputer. He believed if they waited for the perfect design and technology, they’d never finish it. So they went with the best they had, making compromises along the way, but ended with a product that outperformed their main competitor.

My former Aikido instructor had a related take: “If you never fail a test,” he said, “you probably aren’t testing enough.” If your training and conditioning was so good that passing would be easy, it wouldn’t be a real “test” of your limits and capabilities. That seemed to argue for “sucking it up,” going back to the class, and doing my best.

At Kent Lake, "not doing well" the best I can.

At Kent Lake, “not doing well” the best I can.

Or did it? If you test too quickly in Aikido, you won’t absorb the training well enough to understand what you’re doing. Without a solid foundation in the basics, you are ‘building upon sand,” as both Sensei and the Bible put it. That suggested I work on the fundamentals before jumping in with the more advanced swimmers.

Perhaps All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has the answer:

If something’s not worth doing, it’s worth not doing well.

In running, the cardinal rule is “listen to your body” and adjust your training if you’re tired or injured. Do what you can and don’t make your situation worse. In Aikido, we are told that if you are hurt and can only watch, then watch with focus and energy. You may not be “doing” but you are still learning.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Could I just watch the swim class, pick up tips, and use them to help train on my own? That seemed awkward. And how could I tell what good form was and was not? I’ve practiced Aikido techniques enough to be able to learn something from just watching, but I couldn’t think of a way  to “not swim” and benefit from it.

And, finally, this from Ayn Rand:

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

I’d gone to the swim class the day after running an all-out half marathon. So my poor performance might not have reflected my actual capability. Nevertheless, it was obvious that swimming myself to exhaustion wasn’t going to get me there. Sorry, Ayn.

So which of these did I end up following the most closely? None entirely, but a little of each of the first three.

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

I chose to train on my own, at my own pace. I also watched some videos, and used a swimming coach a few times to observe my form and suggest improvements. By the end of May I was swimming 800 meters (slightly over a half mile) without stopping, and while I’m still a slow swimmer, I completed the June and July triathlons without trouble.

As for the class, I did not return. Catching up was unlikely, and my racing schedule meant there would be more “day after” sessions, too. So my single class turned out to be an expensive one. As I learned just how much work I had to do, however, it was worth it to me.

Much improvement remains, but I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. And to me that’s “doing it” well enough.

Tri-day the 18th

“BE SAFE OUT THERE,” the race organizer said, standing in the water by the inflatable dinosaur. “Grab onto a kayak if you need a break.” (He was looking at me. I know he was.)

Then he gave the “go signal” and my group splashed across the starting line and out into Kent Lake for the start of the Triceratops Triathlon.

This was not only my first triathlon, it was my first-ever swim of any distance in open water. But one thought was clear in my mind as we struck out for the first buoy: ain’t no way I’m gonna grab a kayak.

The staging area. You rack your bike here before the start, and come back for each transition.

The staging area. You rack your bike here before the start, and come back for each transition.

A triathlon is a swim, bike, and run event, completed in that order. Perhaps the most famous is the Ironman: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run (yes, a marathon) for 140.6 miles total. Other popular distances include the half Ironman (70.3 miles), the Olympic distance (51.5 km, or 32 miles), and the so-called “sprint triathlon” (0.5 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike ride, 5K run). The Running Fit T-Rex series I signed up for are sprints.

Triathlon gear. Clockwise from top right: swim cap in wave color, ankle strap with timing chip, bib for the run, bike tag with race number, "tri top" with the event's logo.

Triathlon gear. Clockwise from top right: swim cap in wave color, ankle strap with timing chip, bib for the run, bike tag with race number, “tri top” with the event’s logo. (Bike and bike gear shown separately.)

Most sprinters finish in 90 minutes or less, which means one can be squeezed into a weekday evening, as this one was. If  there was going to be a race, that is: a nasty thunderstorm knocked out power at home Wednesday morning, and the weather radar promised another set that afternoon. Fortunately, they’d come and gone by 5:00, so our 6:00 start had a comfortable water temperature (77 degrees) and air temps in the 60s, perfect for the bike and run.

Displaying a confidence he didn't entirely feel...

Displaying a confidence he didn’t entirely feel…

The swimming was my biggest worry. Never in my life had I done any meaningful distance, and I found out at a swim class in April just how much work I needed with form, breathing, and especially, endurance. I couldn’t swim more than 50 meters without stopping, and I needed to get to 800. With regular practice and some coaching, I reached it in late May – in the pool. Could I do that in the lake? I wasn’t so sure. But I’d decided no matter what, I wasn’t reaching for any kayaks.

The swim course. The kayaks help swimmers stay on course, rescue people in trouble, and provide float breaks to those who may need them.

The swim course. The kayaks help swimmers stay on course, rescue people in trouble, and provide float breaks to those who may need them.

The race started in waves (no pun intended) to minimize crowding in the water. When you’re swimming hard it’s difficult to see who’s around you, and everyone has his or her stories about getting elbowed and kicked. I got a little of that, but not much. Even better, my goggles never fogged up like they did in practice, and I was able to track the course buoys the entire way. Even though many swimmers passed me (along with a few turtles), I emerged from the water in one piece.

 

Run for your lives! It's the Creature from the White Lagoon!

Run for your lives! It’s the Creature from the White Lagoon!

Transitioning to the bike was reasonably smooth, the hardest part getting the gloves onto my wet hands, and I pretty much held my own, being passed by many better riders, but doing my share of passing as well. And “drafting” (staying close behind someone to take advantage of lessened air resistance) was not allowed in this event, which made a bike non-racer like me feel a lot safer.

Triceratops Bike GS - 0889

They write your race number on your arms with a grease pencil – and your age on the back of your calf. (Still lower than my race numbers, for the time being.)

Then it was off with the bike shoes and into the running shoes for the 5K. My legs were stiff and heavy at first (as was everyone’s), and someone looking at us runners for that first quarter mile might have wondered which senior citizen’s facility had just had a massive escape. But I got my legs back and finished with a strong time, feeling good. I was a triathlete!

Triceratops Run GS - 411

The race results show my swim, bike, and run splits separately, along with where I placed in each category. As expected, I was slow in the swim. Turned out I was in the middle on the bike portion, and strong in the run – in the top 15 percent. The “T1” and “T2” are my times in transition from one activity to the next. T1 is from end of the swim to the start of the bike, and T2 is from the end of the bike portion to the start of the run.

My race resultsSo, in all there are five opportunities for improvement in the remaining two triathlons. However, as my next one comes just four days after the Devil’s Lake 50K, I’ll not try to set my sights too high.

Next up – some time off of training, which I’m already enjoying more than I oughta. Then Devil’s Lake on July 12.

This group I lined up with here pack some power. Chrissy (second from left) is my swimming coach. She was the second overall woman finisher. Michael, leftmost, is her husband, and finished seventh overall. To my immediate left is Tracy, who also runs ultramarathons and is also an Ironman. Yikes!

This group I lined up with here packs some power. Chrissy (second from left) is my swim coach and was the second overall woman finisher. Next to me is her husband Michael, who finished seventh overall. Leftmost is Tracy, who also runs ultramarathons and is an Ironman. Yikes!