on my triathlon experience

impatience. a silly quest for efficiency.

results, right now

Most of you want results immediately. Well, if not today, by next week. You want to undo all the damages of sitting too much, moving too little, eating too poorly for a decade RIGHT NOW. Why? Because you've decided to make a change and you've been off sugar for all of 3 whole days and exercised for 2 of them. Why aren't angels singing and showering flowers around you and applauding your herculean efforts? And why aren't those pants/dresses magically loose already?!?! This is so unfair.

Well, I was no different. Let me tell you about the time I trained for a triathlon and why I did rather poorly because I was impatient and trying to be efficient.

an Olympic-distance triathlon

In June 2009, I did a sprint-distance triathlon - ~500m swim, 20k bike, 5k run. I didn't do any training for this. I just showed up and did this one, even though I was not too confident about swimming. But I was in good shape, I had been CrossFitting regularly and all that. This was in June 2010.

This was the time when I felt like a kid in a candy store. Suddenly, an entire universe was accessible to me. Only running felt too boring and I didn't know much about strength training. So, I thought I'd do more triathlons as they seemed fun. A friend of mine, an avid runner who would go on to run a marathon in 3.5 hours at 40 years old a few years later, suggested the gorgeous Pacific Grove triathlon. My wife and I loved our time at Carmel and this sounded perfect.

but ...

My swimming skills were non-existent. My cycling prowess was non-existent. My running skills were intact - well, meaning I could run a 10k under 60 minutes any day. While that might seem a slow time to most runners, to me it was insane that I could run continuously for an hour and actually be confident about saying something like that out loud.

I had also stopped working on my aerobic endurance i.e. working at a slow-and-steady pace, at a lowish heart rate. There were a few warning signs that my high-intensity approach at CrossFit was not built on a good foundation (of strength and endurance) but I didn't know to see the obvious signs. I went running with my triathlon buddy (who is about 7 years older than me) up a 3-mile hill and I had to stop after a mile. We'd go cycling near his house and the last stretch was a 5-mile uphill where the entire time I was one whimper away from stopping.

But I didn't know enough to realise these were skills I could systematically work on. Instead, I wanted to keep CrossFitting and keep playing Ultimate. And train for the triathlon in as efficient a fashion as possible. So, I looked at CrossFit Endurance (please note that this is not a gripe about the method but that I lacked the foundation for it. Sensible high-intensity training protocols do exist but they are not the ones you see most people doing today)

I also needed to learn to swim in open water - the SF bay was perfect. I'd motivate myself with a hot chocolate at Ghirardelli after the swim or rather, fool myself that I would do that. The water was about 10 degrees celsius - I'll write another post, if relevant, about my swimming.

I needed to learn to ride a bike faster. I sucked at it i.e. while I was not gonna fall off and while I could comfortably do 20 miles, I was horribly slow. I did not know to generate enough power on the bike.

So, I lacked the basic skills to do a triathlon - missing 2 of the 3. I lacked a solid base to do my triathlon - enough aerobic endurance. While I was stronger than I was, while I had better endurance - comparing to zero is always a bit silly.

hindsight

In hindsight, I should've worked on my aerobic endurance and built it back up. All the CrossFit work I was doing, while it developed other things, it did not work well for me to develop my aerobic capacity.

I did get one thing right throughout my early years though - process over outcomes, journey before destination. My ignorance and lack of knowledge and complete joy at having discovered my way out of my hole were enough for me to keep going. Unbeknownst to me, I was getting a significant mental approach right.

But my impatience - signing up for an Olympic distance triathlon ( 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run) - and giving myself a 3-month window to be ready for it was silly. It was just that I was extremely excited and simply wanted to complete it. I was going for the sheer experience of being able to do it.

the joy and the experience

It was a success. It was my first time swimming 1.5 km ever. Add the fact that I swam in open water (very calm open water though) - I was exhilarated. The bike ride was comfortable as I just kept to my pace and watched about a hundred people overtake me. I managed to overtake about a hundred during the 10k which is the last leg of the race.

But if I look at it with a critical eye, my impatience stands out. My search for efficiency was not smart. Efficiency in this case would've meant working on one skill at a time - improve my swimming skills and work on my aerobic base. And then look at improving my cycling skills and work on my aerobic base.

If I had to do it now, I would do it for over a year. Spend 3 months getting my strength levels to a baseline. Then, spend 2-3 months on swimming skills. Post that, spend 2-3 months on cycling. All the while, tracking my strength (to be maintained above a specific level) and aerobic capacity. And then spend the last 4-6 months putting it all together.

But to a kid in a candy store, it is hard to explain all of this. Hindsight is wonderful and all that. Looking back at this experience, I wouldn't change any of it. There are some wonderful lessons here that I think I am still unpacking.

how does this apply to you?

  • All of us have to travel our own path.

  • The textbook answer (of spending a year) might've put me off and gotten me bored because I was not smart enough to understand it. What worked for me then was to feed my excitement, and maybe that's okay.

  • As long as it is not hurting you or is harmful over the long term, there's nothing wrong.

  • My friend, who did the triathlon with me, continued to focus on running. And ended up running a marathon in 3 and a half hours. A great achievement at any age but doing it at 40 years old is phenomenal. He continues to run meditatively and constantly works on improving his running skill.

  • You will be impatient. You will get things wrong. It's okay.

  • Some of you will be smarter than me. Signing up with a coach who's made these mistakes might benefit you but only if you are smart enough to avoid the mistakes they've made. At the same time, we learn from our failures and our mistakes. So, unless you learn from what you are doing, chances are that you will mess something up later.

  • Process over outcomes. Journey over destination. Enjoy it.

  • Rejoice in being an amateur. You have a job, friends, family and all that. This is a hobby, however serious. Being a pro is unforgiving.

  • Being professional in your approach is vital though. But since the results truly don't matter, don't be too harsh on yourself.