Monday, January 28, 2008

Beginners' Guide: Setting Out

My first few months of triathlon are a blur. I can't remember what the original impetus was that caused me to sign up for my first race. A few of my friends did races, which was my primary exposure to the sport; I watched a film at an Intervarsity Chrisfitan Fellowship retreat about Dick and Rick Hoyt; there was a girl in my songwriting class who was training with the USC Tri team . . . I think that all of those separate events combined to make me ask, "If they can do it, why not me?" So I browsed around online, found a race close (but not too close) to where I live, and told myself in my mind, "I'm gonna do it." How, then, do you get started in this sport? If you're an absolute, true beginner here's your first step: Find a race, and commit to doing it. Tell other people that you're shooting for that race. Register and start making travel plans. Invest time and money in making that race a reality for you. The more real you can make it in your mind, the more likely you'll be to work hard to get there.

Well, Jamie, that's all well and good. But what exactly do I do?! Never fear, grasshopper; just ask yourself a few questions . . .

- What distance race are you going to do? Figure out your weakest sport (for most people, it's swimming), and decide how far you'll be able to go by the time your race rolls around. That's the upper limit of your racing distance. For example, when I first started out to do a triathlon, I couldn't swim. I had to take a swim class so that I wouldn't drown. I couldn't swim 50 yards without stopping. But I was pretty sure that I would be able to swim at least 800 yards straight by the summer. So I looked for a race that had a swim of 800 yards or less, and settled on Shawnee Mission, because I originally thought that the short course race required a 600 yard swim. And I knew that I could do that. (Note: I actually ended up swimming 1000 meters in my first race because I had mistaken how long the short course option was at Shawnee Mission--500 meters. I knew that the short course wouldn't pose enough of a challenge, so I decided in the last month to go for the long course. All that to say that you might eventually surprise yourself with how far you can go.)
When should you race? I would recommend racing sometime in June (if you're in North America). Racing early in the season gives you the option of recovering and training for another race if you get hooked (which you will). And it's generally cooler in June than in July or August, so you don't have to worry as much about problems involving heat and dehydration. Finally, you're going to be so excited to race that you won't want to wait until late in the season to get that first race under your belt! (Note: If you'd really like to get that first race out of the way a bit earlier, look for a small, indoor race. We've had three of those this winter in the Wichita area, so I know they're out there!)
- How should you train? This merits a whole post in itself--several actually--and I'll address it in greater detail later in the series. Basic rule, start by finding a training plan. For the true beginner, I recommend using Ontri, because that's what I used and my experience with it was very good. I've also heard lots of good things about Beginner Triathlete, although I have no personal experience. And there are lots of places online where you can purchase a training plan for minimal cost (Active, Ontri, and Beginner Triathlete all have those services). Once you have a training plan, just get out and do what it says!
- What are your goals?
Make this question a priority. Even if you can swim, bike, and run, having some tangible goals will make your training and racing more exciting and more fulfilling. For most people, the goal at their first triathlon is to finish, and that's an awesome goal. If you achieve that, you've already accomplished something that most people will never even attempt. But I recommend that you set two or three goals, organized hierarchically. In my first race, I made three goals: finish, don't be last, and run on a 10-minute pace. I managed the first two (although just barely; I finished second-to-last). The first goal was the bare minimum, the second was more ambitious (and I had less control over it), and the last goal was a true challenge for me at that point. So set a series of progressively harder goals; that will encourage you to really push yourself to achieve without completely destroying you if you don't meet your most difficult goal.

That's it, guys. Find a race, find a plan, get out there, and start training! Train train train!

p.s. Note that in the photo above, all the bikes are already racked in T2. All of them (except for those belonging to people who had already gone home). I was the last one out on the bike course.


  1. Great post Jamie. I was dead last out of the water on my first tri. It wasn't even a sprint distance, kind of a mini-sprint. My goals were similar to yours: just finish, and not be last. But guess what? I ended up winning not only my age group (I'm 42), but coming in ahead of all the women, all the under (yes under) 40 men. The only guys ahead of me were two men who were seasoned triathletes and they were over 40. And I finished ahead of my husband -- he is still mad about that. Really mad, pouting mad, and actually it has caused some problems between us. He really had a cow when I got written up in the paper for my accomplishment -- the whole finishing first on my first tri. I have to refrain from talking about it around him which kinda stinks.

  2. What an awesome story! In my first race, my poor performance made me want to keep training and racing (even though on the run I swore to myself that I would never do anything like that again), because I knew that I could do better; I wanted to see what my body was capable of. How did your early success affect your desire to train?

  3. You know, it just makes me want to train harder and do a "real" tri. I actually get very inspired by race reports on blogs and (after reading a few of those) have it in the back of my head that I would love to do an Iron distance in 2010 -- when I turn 45. We'll see. The beauty of this too is that I used to weigh 210 lbs. I lost over 80 lbs. in 2006. Just goes to show that you can do anything if you try or tri -- ha ha.