Thirty-six is too young for a mid-life crisis, so it’s still a bit of a mystery what inspired me to attempt my first triathlon.
Having always considered myself reasonably fit, despite being a few kilograms overweight for a couple of decades, I’d never really attempted the seemingly impossible or done anything that one could consider physically grueling.
Despite mulling running a marathon for several years, the prospect had always filled me with dread, as being a “marathon man” — with the hour upon hour of running it entails — seemed far too painful.
Another obstacle was the fact that running is just plain boring. When it comes to exercise I’m a bit like a puppy: not really interested unless there is a ball or some other object to chase, hit, or kick.
The triathlon seemed like the best option, as having worked as a lifeguard during senior high school, the swimming side didn’t hold any worries, and cycling is the main form of exercise for me these days (a 20-minute ride from the MRT to the office almost every day).
Even so, completing the Olympic distance triathlon (1.5km swim, 40km cycling, 10km run) in Taiwan’s heat and humidity seemed a bridge too far for a beginner, so when I heard about the half-distance sprint triathlon, or the “girly one” as one of my politically incorrect friends put it, my mind was made up.
The Uni-President sprint triathlon (750m swim, 28km cycling, 5km run) at scenic Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County, which took place on July 5, was firmly fixed in the sights.
It was mid-April, so with just over two months to whip myself into shape the first challenge was finding the time to do the training. Having a two-year-old child to look after and a busy work schedule meant there was limited time in which to squeeze in the training.
But it worked out that the cycling and running could be factored into the one-hour commute to and from the office, while the swimming would have to be done at the expense of lunch after dropping my daughter off at day care.
Training began in earnest at the end of April when the local swimming pool opened for the summer.
Overall, the training went well, but there were a few times when motivation was lacking as it becomes easy to skip a day thinking it would do no harm. Fortunately, I only missed one training session during the whole two months. Physically everything went well, but the mental stress got to me on more than one occasion.
The worst example of this was when, with less than two weeks before the big day, I learned that the winner of last year’s race had completed the course in just one hour and two minutes, a full hour faster than my combined time in training. Panic set in. The pace was duly stepped up and the target time was revised downwards from two hours to one hour and 45 minutes. It was not until after the race, and feeling rather foolish, that I discovered last year’s bike ride was 8km shorter, at 20km.
Eventually, the weekend of the race arrived and in the company of my cheerleading squad (my wife and daughter), we made the four-hour drive down to Nantou. We had booked a minsu (民宿), or guesthouse, in Yuchi (魚池), about a 10-minute drive from the race venue, but with hindsight it would have been better to book a place right on the lake and avoid the traffic controls in force on race day.
Nevertheless, we reached the race venue unscathed and I joined the throng of competitors as it headed down to the transition area, where you change between stages, to get ready.
It was about now that the nerves started to kick in, and this was made worse by having to walk 1km around the side of the lake to the starting point in just swimming trunks.
Signing up early for the event meant bagging a place in the second group of swimmers to start. After horrifying those around me by spitting into my goggles to prevent fogging (is this a British-only phenomenon?) I found a position near the front confident of being one of the fastest.
How wrong that assumption was.
Just seconds after diving in, the sheer volume of writhing, kicking bodies became overwhelming. One cheeky young scamp practically swam right over me, and several kicks to the legs and ribs later, the outside of the pack seemed the best place, as it ensured a clear, bruise-free path.
The combination of stragglers from the first group and the odd faster swimmer coming from behind made it difficult to swim crawl, which meant switching between breaststroke and crawl to stay on course. But the rest of the swim was navigated without much trouble and I finished the stage in good time.
The changeover to the bike stage went smoothly as the powerful sun had done the trick in the run back to the transition area and saved me the trouble of having to slip the cycling gear on while wet.
As expected, the bike stage went well, but the really long, hot and murderously steep climb shortly after the 20km mark was the worst preparation possible for what was always going to be my worst leg — the run.
In the miniscule amount of reading done before the race, I’d seen something about a phenomenon called “jelly legs,” the sensation one supposedly gets during the run after being on the bike for a long time.
This had not cropped up during training, but shortly after starting the run, the old legs began to feel like they would soon collapse from underneath me. The cobblestone path climb from the transition area to the lakeside road didn’t make matters any better, but determined not to stop, I gritted my teeth and on went the running, even though it felt like I was going no faster than a leisurely walk.
The rest of the run went by in a heat-induced blur before the finish line eventually came into sight. Crossing the line in 1 hour, 51 minutes and 36 seconds, just six minutes outside my target time, I sat down for a well-deserved rest.
It was a very rewarding experience and the sense of achievement attained just by finishing made it all worthwhile. This feeling was compounded when a couple of days later a colleague informed me I had finished 23rd in the “society” category and 57th overall out of the more than 1,000 people to start the race.
The one complaint about the whole day was that the race could have started earlier, because at 8am the summer sun was already high in the sky and the heat was intense. Besides, it’s not as if the kind of people who do triathlons for fun have trouble getting up early.
Swimming gear (swim suit, goggles)
Running gear (shoes, shorts, vest)
► As a committed biker, I already had a suitable road bike in my Giant FCR, but for the less serious there were plenty of mountain bikes and even folding bikes in evidence. The only extra equipment I invested in was a set of aluminum triathlon bars (NT$600), which were not really necessary, and a Thule bike rack (NT$4,200) for the car.
Otherwise, you can get by without buying any professional gear. I used the same pair of running shoes that I’ve had for the last six or seven years.
► The Chinese Taipei Triathlon Association is involved in organizing several events that take place here in Taiwan. The group’s spartan Web site: www.ctta.tw (in Chinese only) has a basic introduction to triathlon, assorted results and a list of the year’s scheduled events. Registration details for CTTA-affiliated races usually appear on the Web site a couple of months before each race. The registration fee for the Sun Moon Lake race was NT$1,600.
There are also lots of useful English-language tips about training for triathlons on the Internet, which you can find by doing a simple Google search.
► For the first full month of training, in May, I swam, ran or cycled five times a week. Swimming was my main focus, as I had not done any distance work for years. Starting with 800m sessions, I added 100m each week while gradually increasing the proportion of front crawl. Running was a flat 5km to 6km route along the Keelung River from the office to the MRT, while cycling involved once weekly rides from home to the office (26km one way) whenever the weather was agreeable.
The second month, June, saw the workouts increase to six days a week, including two double sessions, a swim followed by cycling or cycling followed by a run.
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