Goal for first triathlon? Just finish

Karla Bruning raced her first triathlon in Peterborough, Ontario on July 10 with one goal in mind: just finish.

NEW YORK, July 19, 2011—Firsts are special because you only get one of them: your first kiss, first car, first job, and of course, your first triathlon.

The Peterborough Sprint Triathlon in the Subaru Triathlon Series was my first triathlon, and after completing the race on Sunday, July 10, I’m guessing it won’t be my last. My training for the 750-meter swim, 20K bike and 5K run was less than ideal. So I didn’t wear a watch. I just wanted to go out there and have some fun, with one main goal in mind: just finish. Sure, I wanted to finish under two hours, or better yet, under 1:45. But with my namby-pamby training, I knew that might be a tall order.

Going into the race, I was excited and a little nervous. I’d hatched the plan to tackle my first tri with my good friend Tania, who helped cheer and pace me to a PR in the 2009 Chicago Marathon. As we picked up our rental bikes in Toronto before driving almost two hours outside the city to Peterborough, Ontario, it just didn’t seem like we were really going to do it. It seemed like a good joke we’d been telling each other the last few months.

We discovered that the race would serve as a qualifier for the 2012 ITU Short Course World Championships in New Zealand. To us, this meant we newbies would be surrounded by a bunch of sprint tri titans. Per the race director’s suggestion to first-timers in the pre-race e-mail, we promptly had ourselves switched from our age-group start to the last swim start. Purple swim cap in hand, I was ready to race. 

My strategy was this: power through the swim, survive the bike and glide through the run. I figured the run would be the easiest part. I’d scored a 5K personal best just three weeks before the race, and had trained that portion the most. I wasn’t too worried about the swim; I’m a confident swimmer and don’t get spooked in the water, even with all the flailing limbs I’d heard about in those manic swim starts. And the bike, well, that’s what I was worried about. With just one real ride under my belt, I knew this was going to be tough. I just wanted to survive it in once piece with enough juice left to run.

The Swim

Well, I was right—and I was wrong. The easiest part of the race? The swim. Sure, we were like salmon swimming upstream, and I found myself boxed in at the start by slower swimmers. There were a lot of limbs bobbing about, but I eventually found a break in the bodies and forged my own swimming space. I’d been hoping to complete the swim between 15 and 20 minutes. I clocked 17:43, which included a 2-minute run to the transition area where the timing chip on my ankle checked me in. I felt strong and confident, but also knew that would be my best of the three legs. I was kind of sad it was over so quickly.

The Bike

I grabbed my bike, ran out of the transition area and prayed for the best. Tania wasn’t back from the swim, so I headed out alone. It was the first time I’d ridden my rental bike, and as I pedaled, I tried to remember all the advice I’d gotten about this portion of the race: keep a high cadence and pedal in circles (pulling up and pushing down.) I managed to stay upright, but my stream of consciousness sounded a lot like this:

Karla before the triathlon (top); Karla and Tania after finishing their first triathlon (above).

“Okay, I’m on the bike. This feels okay. Just keep pedaling. Circular pedaling, circular pedaling. Wow, this is a big hill. I’m not going anywhere. A lot of people are passing me. Maybe Tania will catch me and I can try to keep up with her! I wonder how far I’ve gone? Where’s the turn around again? Wow, I think I might be able to catch that man in front of me. I did it! I actually just passed someone. Oh, and he’s passing me now. Another hill. Ugh. Just make it to the top of the hill. Control your breath, Karla. Hee hoo. Hee hoo. Top of the hill! Wheeeeeeeeee! This is actually fun. That breeze feels great. It’s pretty hot out here. Argh! I keep forgetting: circular pedaling, circular pedaling. My front wheel is squeaking. What does that mean? Did I screw it on tight enough? I hope it doesn’t fall off. What if it falls off? What if it falls off while I’m going down a hill?! My helmet will stay on. It will stay on, right? Where is the turn-around? This seems really long. What if I’m accidentally on the half-ironman bike course and not the sprint bike course? Oh no! I’m on the wrong course. I’m on the—oh, the turn around is ahead. Thank God! Ahhh, circular pedaling circular pedaling! I keep forgetting!”

When I managed to think about pedaling in circles, I noticed a nice difference as my speed and cadence ticked up. But most of the time, a slew of other thoughts were racing through my head, and I just managed to survive the bike.

One rider and I kept trading “leads” even though neither of us where anywhere near the lead. We chatted each time we passed by each other charging up one of the many hills, saying, “I’ve got this one!” It was really helpful.

After the turn around, I scanned the bikers still on the “out” while I was heading “back.” I was happy to spot Tania not too far back among them, and I hoped she might catch up with me on the back half.

One last woman passed me in the last kilometer and shouted to me, “Keep pushing! We’re almost there!” I was amazed at just how cheerful and supportive this triathlon crowd was.

The Run

I cruised into the transition area, grateful that the bike was over. I racked my bike and heard a shout behind me: “Karla!”

It was Tania waving as she ran her bike in. I waited for her to rack her bike and yelled to her, “Come on! Want some water?”

We headed into the run together sharing water from the hydration belt I was wearing to double as a race belt for my bib. I told her to forge ahead if she wanted to. I was winded and my legs felt like a rolling stack of bowling balls. We ran together and traded leads. One snarky spectator shouted to us as we passed, “Hey! You guys are drafting!” I shook my head and laughed between gulps of air. Can you call it drafting when you feel like you’re crawling at a snail’s pace?

Much to my surprise, and for all my bellyaching about the bike, the run turned out to be the hardest part of the race. It was hot, I was tired, my legs were burnt-out, and I just couldn’t get enough air.

I kept pushing though. Tania slowed at a water station for a drink. I was afraid that if I walked, I wouldn’t be able to get myself going again. So I pushed on.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the clock at the finish line. “Karla Bruning, from New York state,” the finish line announcer shouted. “Welcome to Canada!”

I hadn’t worn a watch, so I had no idea how long any of this had taken me: 1:41:07.

I finished the swim (and run to the transition area) in a respectable 17:43, the bike in a lethargic 51:43 and the run in 29:07, which was actually a lot faster than I felt like I was moving. I could have sworn I was running at an 11 minute pace and not 9:20. My transitions were 1:37 and 1:01. And there you have it: my first triathlon done.

Tania was just 40 seconds behind me. I cheered her as she came in. We did it; we finished. But not only that, we finished well under our goal. We did so much more than “just finish.” We had fun, and we’re already plotting our next triathlons. I might have a new addiction.

Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.

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Karla Bruning

Karla Bruning is the host of On The Run, a TV and web show from New York Road Runners. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, American Athlete Magazine, RunnersWorld.com, Active.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, and two dozen other outlets including ESPN2, Universal Sports and ABC in New York. She and her work have also received mentions from The New York Times, Runner's World, Fox Sports, Canadian Running, The Baltimore Sun, and PBS among others. She also covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for The Washington Times.


A former Newsweek reporter, Karla has won a Fulbright scholarship for American journalists and reporting grants from the Scripps Howard, Carnegie and Knight Foundations. Karla holds degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed seven marathons, four triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. She is a writer, editor, and on-camera reporter dedicated to covering the sport of running from a runner’s perspective. Find Karla on RunKarlaRun.com, Twitter@KBruning, Facebook and Google+.

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