NEW YORK, June 27, 2012—On June 17, 2012, a triathlete was born. She emerged from the waters of the Long Island Sound, swathed in a wetsuit, and said to anyone who would listen, “I am triathlete. Watch me swim, bike and run.”
The Long Island Gold Coast Triathlon was only my second attempt at the crazy art of mashing three sports into one. The first was last summer at the Peterborough Sprint Triathlon in the Subaru Triathlon Series in Ontario, Canada. I did the race with my triathlon partner in crime, Tania, a Toronto-native. We had so much fun that we decided to make it an annual ritual.
Come race morning at 5 a.m. we departed New York City to do it all over again: a half-mile swim, 11.5 mile bike and 3 mile run.
The race was about 30 minutes outside the city in Port Washington, NY on the north shore of Long Island. It wasn’t the most scenic or the most organized race I’ve done. The transition zone was setup in a parking lot alongside the industrial looking waters of Hempstead Harbor Park and Bar Beach Town Park. There was some confusion at the start: the buoys marking the swim course had floated out of place, and the poor men in the first wave shivered in the water for at least 15 minutes before they got them back in line. But at the end of the day none of that mattered.
Once again, I was ill trained for the event. The last time I did a swim workout was precisely April 11, and I’d never swum in a wetsuit before. I did exactly eight bike workouts in the eight weeks leading up the race—and only two of those were on a real bike. The rest were at the gym.
But as usual, I ran. When in doubt, run it out has been my personal motto of late. And I had a lot to run for. When I set out to do the race, I pledged to swim, bike and mostly run 1,000 miles in an effort to raise $10,000 to help ease medical costs for my cousin Laura, who was battling clear cell sarcoma. I’d earmarked two key races to bookend my effort: the triathlon and the Philadelphia Marathon on Nov. 18. Stand Up To Cancer and K-Swiss sent me SU2C/K-Swiss gear—shoes, shorts and a tank—to help me. I’d raised $4,288 and logged over 150 miles by race time. But Laura lost her battle to cancer on June 6, just a week and a half before the race.
I was ready to work my heartbreak out on the triathlon course.
As an ex-swim teamer, I’m a confident swimmer who can easily knock out half a mile or 32 lengths of a standard 25-yard/meter pool. Heck, as a pre-teen I was one of the 10 fastest backstrokers in the state of Illinois. Last year, the swim was the easiest part of my race.
This year it was the toughest. I accidentally took a mouthful of saltwater down the wrong pipe halfway through. After a moment of slight panic, I tread water and coughed it out as I watched swimmers splash by me. That took a considerable amount of wind out of my sails, but after I regained my breath, I plunged back into the murky waters of Hempstead Harbor.
As I crawled out of the water sure I’d already blown my entire race by 1) not training for the swim and 2) choking on salt water, I was shocked to check my watch and discover I’d completed the swim in 10:20—12:08 officially after the run to the transition zone. My initial thought was the swim must have been shorter than a half mile. But after the race, Tania and I talked to some other racers, one of whom said he clocked the swim on his watch at .46 miles or 750 meters. Not that far off.
Regardless of what the distance actually was, I came in 7th out of 46 women in my age group. Not bad for not having swum at all for 2 whole months.
Still winded, I slowly trudged up the beach when I saw Tania jog past me. She’d come out of the water just behind me and we exchanged hellos as we readied for the bike.
I lost about a full minute on my first transition time compared with last year. But I wasn’t about to let Laura down. I pulled on my SU2C tank and shoes with Laura’s name on them and hit the road.
The bike has always been my nemesis. Even as a little kid, I wanted to walk to swim practice while my best friend wanted to bike. We’d compromise—she’d bike slowly while I jogged beside her.
The 2-loop course was largely flat, save for a few small bumps. I spotted Tania at every turn-around. She was a few minutes ahead of me, so I’d yell, “Tani!” in a silly voice. She giggled and smiled every time. She’s a far more serious biker than I—she actually owns her own road bike complete with clipless pedals and fancy biking shoes.
Like last year, there were plenty of speed demons that passed me, but unlike last year, I managed to do a good bit of passing myself. I concentrated on circular peddling and keeping my cadence high.
It seems those eight bike workouts paid off. I finished in 40:40, a whopping 11 minutes faster than my first triathlon. When adjusted for the slight difference in distance between the two bike courses (11.5 miles this year versus 12.4 miles last year), I dropped 8 minutes total off of my bike time. I finished 20th out of the 46 women in my age group on the bike. For a girl who has a life-long aversion to biking, I’ll take it.
I’ve had a few fantastic training runs lately—the kind of runs that restore your faith in yourself. So I was looking forward to this part of the race.
The run took us along the bike route, through a short nature trail, and then along the beach. There was one hill toward the end, but I was chugging along at a nice tempo pace just getting it done. The run didn’t feel nearly as hard this year as it did last year, and I was glad for that. My new Kwicky Blade-Light running shoes by K-Swiss were unbelievably light, which was great as my legs felt like lead after the bike. I actually noticed a difference running in them as opposed to my heavier trainers.
I spotted Tania twice on the run at the two turns in the course and kept yelling “Tani!” and making her laugh. We’d finished just 5 seconds apart on the swim, but she managed to gain a 4-minute lead between the first transition and the bike. I chipped away at her lead during the second transition and the run by 1 minute, but it wasn’t enough to catch up.
I finished the run in 26:15, slicing 2 minutes off my run time from last year after adjusting for the slight difference in the courses (3.1 miles last year, versus 3 this year). I came in 19th out of 46 women in my age group on the run.
Overall, I finished in 1:22:32, 15 minutes faster than my first triathlon when you adjust the course lengths to match. I finished 17th out of 46 women in my age group. I honestly never expected to do that well, considering how unprepared I felt. There were a few outside factors that certainly helped: cooler weather, a flatter bike course, wetsuits, an in-water start and a small current on the swim.
But I think I have to give a lot of the credit to the winter training I did this year—my 40-day running streak from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and the three half-marathons I did in the first three months of the year. I think they took my overall fitness to the next level, which helped at the triathlon.
And then there was Laura. When you run with someone else’s name marked on your body, it has a strong power. Any time I was flagging or wanted to ease up, I couldn’t—because I was doing this for her.
So here I am, wetsuit in hand, basking in the glory of a big triathlon personal record. Next time, I’d like to train properly to see what I’m really capable of. But for now, I think that in addition to “runner,” I might start calling myself “triathlete.”
Karla Bruning is a veteran journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, two triathlons, 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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