how i learned to stop worrying and love cross-training : the road to an olympic distance triathlon

I remember the first shot of pain very clearly.

Just three weeks after running my fastest marathon so far, I’d gone out for a short, easy run just prior to flying to New York City for a short business trip.  As I headed out of my driveway on a cool October morning, the side of my left knee lit up like a neon sign.  I ran through the pain, and continued to run for the next month.  Amazingly, my leg did not get better.

Through several months of doctor and chiropractor visits, we’d determined that the pain was not a stress fracture or muscle tear.  Our best guess remains tendonitis.  Their advice was consistent : something about stretching being good for me, and taking it easy on the running until the pain went away. 

That last part was a real problem for me.  Although I’m not particularly fast, I found that running had come to define part of who I am.  I loved the mental and physical challenge of training for and completing a marathon.  I loved the rituals of preparation : arranging my stuff the night before, filling up my bottles with sport drink, and then finally standing at the starting line with assorted other crazy people.  More significantly, I enjoy the social outlet distance running provides, and the stories our long runs and races generate.

After a laying off for a couple of months, I was able to run a bit.  I really missed my long runs, but if I ramped too quickly the leg pain came back.  Getting stir crazy, I started biking a bit on the weekends.  I really enjoyed getting out and riding the trails or roads for several hours. 

Upon returning from a long ride one sunny spring afternoon, I realized that I’d locked myself out of the house.  My wife and kids wouldn’t be back for another hour or so.  So I pulled on a pair of running shoes and did a loop around nearby Bridle Trails State Park.  I wouldn’t say I ran fast, but I felt pretty good about being able to complete a 5.5 mile run after being on my bike for 30 miles.

The idea of doing an Olympic distance triathlon had been banging around in my head for a while by then.  Since doing a single sprint tri in 1993, I had maintained that I was just too lazy to train for more than one sport.  On the other hand, cross training was one way to do a long workout without subjecting my sore leg to too much impact.  Also – training inside of a gym is really boring.

But even with the biking and running in hand, there’s the matter of the required swimming.  I knew I could swim the required distance.  The problem is I’d expend twice the amount of effort necessary because I’m very inefficient at it.  Friends have remarked that between my wheezing and sputtering, it’s unclear whether they should offer me a flotation device or just call an ambulance.

After watching me churn the water on a July afternoon swim, a lifeguard friend offered a few easy pointers : keep my head in the water farther, and try alternating sides with my breathing to even out my mechanics a bit.  Buoyed by false confidence (well – she didn’t call my stroke pathetic), I began to imagine that I could do this.  At my wife’s suggestion, I started attending coached workouts a couple of morning a week.  Soon, I was developing some real confidence, and getting a bit faster too.

It was just about then I realized how much went into really doing a triathlon.  I thought that preparing for the distance was enough, but a transition workshop in Seattle taught me that I had a ways to go.  I nearly fell into the bike rack the first time jogged out of the water and tried to remove my rented wetsuit quickly.  The more experienced folks (everyone else), pointed out that I’d probably want to consider using Body Glide or PAM to help the wet suit slide off of my legs.  Apparently sitting down to put my shoes on was wrong too – might be difficult to stand up, and it might cause me to cramp.  It was pretty humbling making all of these rookie mistakes, but I got used to it.  It’s a good thing too, because I imagine I’ll make rookie mistakes for some time to come.

By the time August rolled around, I was getting a couple of reasonable bike rides, two good swims, and three or four runs per week.  I felt ready to test the waters in the Beaver Lake Spring Tri. 

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The sprint was a blast!  Although I didn’t exactly tear up the course, I felt good about the race, finishing in 1:31.  I had a good swim, averaged over 18 mph on the bike course, and had an okay run.  I also gave away at least a minute with sloppy transitions.  So I had some things to feel good about, and some lessons learned.  My favorite part of the BLT was that my daughters were helping to hand out water and medals to the finishers, so they were there to greet me.

Labor Day weekend found me plodding along in a 100 mile backup, heading to Oregon, for the Scoggins Valley Olympic distance Triathlon.  I’d picked this event for several reasons.  The timing was right, allowing me to give the Olympic distance a go without interfering with my training ramp for an October marathon.  It was supposed to be a very nice course, challenging but pretty.  And it was small and well-supported.

I woke up early on race morning and made the 20 minute drive to the start, at Henry Hagg Lake about 40 minutes west of Portland.  It’s a really nice spot, but I could see on the drive in that I’d be doing a bit of climbing on the bike and the run.  According to mapmyrun.com, we did about 1400′ of climbing on the bike course, and about half of that on the run course.  These ascents are well within my capability as solo events.  Doing them in sequence was interesting

Shortly before the start, I ambled into the lake to warm up a bit.  I nearly cartwheeled in headfirst, as the bottom was very slippery, with a quick dropoff.  The water was nice though – much warmer than expected.

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It took me about half the swim to settle down.  I felt anxious about swimming in the middle of the crowd in the open water, so I allowed myself to drop back a bit.  I probably gave away about a minute on the swim due to inexperience, but finally settled into a good pace.

After two loops totaling 1500 meters, it was time to make the jog up a good hill to the transition area.  I stepped out of the water carefully to avoid the cartwheel, and got ready for my ride.  This went more smoothly than my BLT transitions, but I still have a ways to go.  No – I didn’t sit down to put my shoes on, but did almost wipe out a row of bikes while climbing out of my wetsuit.

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The bike course begins with a pretty good climb, which was an indicator of how the whole ride would go.  It seemed we were always going up or down, rarely level.  In the beginning miles I traded places several times with another guy on a Specialized bike, but I eventually fell back a little when I noticed my front brake rubbing.  I futzed with it and the noise went away.  Then a few minutes later it came back again.  Eventually I pulled over and took a look.  Fixing the brake was a simple matter of tightening it up, and probably only cost me a minute or so.  No telling how much of my brake pad I lost before finally pulling over.  Another lesson learned – I really should have checked my bike more closely when I set my stuff up.

As I mentioned, the bike course goes around the lake twice, with a short out and back added on for distance.  Well, the first time going out from the loop, I noticed a nasty climb of about a mile and a half coming back the other way.  I don’t know how much ascent it is, but it’s a grind. 

Even with the fatigue in my legs, it felt really nice to be out in the sun, getting a great workout, and enjoying the energy of the race.  As I pulled into the transition area again, it crossed my mind that I’d now need to run back along the same stretch as I’d just ridden.  And with the sun feeling much warmer, I kind of wondered how that would go.

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Not very quickly – as things turned out.  I struggled with rubber legs coming back up to the road, and it took a good while before I felt like I caught my breath.  And then we slogged up the hills.  None of these hills were that challenging by themselves.  But the cumulative effect of maintaining nearly 18 mph on my bike (also on the hills, and counting my stop) had taken quite a bit of spring out of my strides.  I focused on a nice easy gait, a steady cadence, and tried to keep positive.

The cruelest twist of the day is that the final stretch on the road is a steady uphill.  You can see the turn into the chute for a while, but you’ve got to climb to get there.  I’d passed the five mile mark without feeling like I had much of a kick left, but did muster a bit more going up that last hill.  I finished tired, but satisfied.

I wandered over to get some food, and relaxed a bit.  Then I checked the posted results, and found that I’d finished third in my age group (that’s the beauty of a small race!).  It was a kick getting to go up and pick up a medal – the first time I’d ever gotten to do that in any event!

For years I’d sworn that I was too lazy to train for more than one event, and was convinced that my swimming was so lousy I’d be embarrassed.  It’s amazing what planning and a little encouragement can do though.  My wife Kris (an experienced triathlete herself) helped me out a lot, with various training tips, advice on bikes, and with an well-timed referral to some coached swimming workouts. 

I still don’t know very much about how to properly train.  There’s a lot more to think about when trying to prepare my body for three events.  And judging by the way I felt towards the end of Scoggins Valley, I need to figure out how to pace myself too.

A footnote to the story : all of the cross-training has helped me train in lower-impact ways so that my leg healed to a significant degree.

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