After months of training, the big day finally arrived and yesterday I participated in the Chicago Triathlon. Actually, let me emphasize, yesterday I finished the Chicago Triathlon. Woo-oo! If you don't mind a little rambling, let me step you through the day.
Transition setup: The Chicago Triathlon is the world's largest with, this year, 9300 participants. That means that a) they have to secure 9300 bikes while you're out swimming and running and b) there are 59 waves that they let start 4 to 10 minutes apart. And that means that we had to be done setting up in the transition area by 5:45 am but then I wouldn't start the race until 9:04 am (Shaun was a few waves ahead of me and had an 8:50 am start time). So we got up at 4 am, drove downtown and set up our transition spots, and then went back to Shaun's truck and got an hour or so of as-good-sleep-as-you-can-get-in-a-truck. (On the upside, we did get to see a spectacular sunrise.)
Swim: Before this summer, I hadn't swum any sort of serious laps since I was 12 or 13. So I was quite impressed with myself that I went from a gasping-and-sore 200m to swimming 2000m in just a few months. I have to give a shout-out to the Chicago Parks for providing great swim facilities -- there are plenty of open adult lap hours at Gill Park where I swim, and registration is about $10/month.
As well, I went out swimming in Lake Michigan 5 or 6 times over the summer, renting and then buy a full-length blueseventy wetsuit from Fleet Feet Sports. Even with a wetsuit, a couple of those outings were real bears -- big waves, really cold, etc. I'm really glad I had that experience (as sad as I may have been any particular day) as it made race day seem quite pleasant.
It had been so rainy and chilly the week leading up to the triathlon that I was sure the water was going to be frigid, but it was about 64° and with a wetsuit it felt downright comfortable. The swim leg was in Monroe Harbor and so there weren't any big waves. The only surprise over training was just how crowded swimming with other people in open water can be. There was plenty of accidental feet grabs, and so on, and I got smacked in the back of the head really good once and pushed under the water by someone's downward stroke landing right in the small of my back.
Other than that, the swim was long, but I didn't ever go hang into the rope to rest or float on my back. I did take plenty of dog-paddling breathers/sightings, but it didn't feel especially hard until I got out of the water and I was really disoriented. I had previously decided to take the swim-to-bike transition really calmly, but for some reason straight out of the water I felt like I needed to go-go-go and so I kinda stumbled off down the path.
Bike: Biking was a series of good news-bad news. Bad news: there was a really strong headwind going north. Good news: that meant there was a nice tailwind coming south. Good news: It was really nice to ride on two cleared-out lanes of Lake Shore Drive. Usually I'm a very defensive rider, always on the lookout for an erratic pedestrian or rollerblader darting into my way. With two car-lanes of bikes headed the same direction, it was great to just get head-down and ride. Bad news: I think of Chicago as very flat, but Lake Shore Drive goes up and over every major road that cuts over to the lake. I'm sure for anyone from anywhere actually hilly, it would seem like nothing, but to me it seemed like I was shifting every few seconds.
I think I could have gone out a little more on the bike ride, but never having done a triathlon before I really wasn't sure how much energy I need to save for the run. It turned out that energy wasn't my problem in that leg…
Run: OK, my bad. I didn't run enough this summer. Especially, I didn't run far enough -- I never got beyond 3 miles in any one run. Somehow, I thought that having run 18 miles two years ago would magically translate into being able to do 6 this year, which is carefully forgetting everything I learned about training and my body that year. I am a creaky old man and I need to work my body up to even reasonable distances.
The biking had felt really smooth, but as soon as I got off the bike in the transition area, my knees felt a little wobbly. "It's just finding my land-legs," I thought and I headed out of the transition at a reasonable jog. I managed to pass by Erica and our friends Scot, Noah, and Stephanie looking pretty good, like I was a runner or something, but just a bit down the path my right knee started giving me a very distinctive twinge. "I am Fuzzy's IT Band and you continue to irritate me at your peril." I'm well acquainted with my IT Band problems and the big danger is not the pain that day, which I can handle ("pain just hurts", as I'm fond of saying), but that it'll ruin my knee for days and days afterwards. If I was going for some sort of time goal, I might have made the sacrifice, but since I was mainly trying to finish this thing, I slowed to a walk.
An unusual thing about the Chicago Triathlon, compared to most major races that combine professional and amateur events, is that they have the pros go last. So just as the path was thinning out with just me and other schlubs just trying to finish, a bike rider came along blowing a whistle and warning us that the pro runners were coming along. So I had the honor of getting passed by Matty Reed and Sarah Haskins* on their way to winning the Chicago Triathlon.
Speaking of other celebrity sightings, we saw Peter Harsch (of The Amazing Race 10) at the Expo on Saturday and then Erica saw his ex-partner Sarah Reinertsen running in the race.
So anyway, about a mile from the end, Shaun had worked his way back from his much-earlier finish and met up to keep me company to the finish. Just before the bridge under Lake Shore, there was a photographer sitting in the middle of the path, so I jogged past him, saying out loud "oh look, how much running I have been doing the whole way!" Yeah, I'm clever. I walked again right after passing him until we got into the chute leading to the finish line when I tried to run again. I was hobbling pretty bad and the announcers took a guess and called out "this guy has a blister the size of Kansas, but he's finishing!" But yes, I crossed the finish line running and got my medal (and roses that Erica had brought for me!). And hey, I came in 4183 / 4243 overall, so there are 60 people slower than me!
Cheerleaders: I'm really grateful to Erica, who's been super-supportive all through my training (often in the form of telling me to get out of bed very early in the morning, when I was contemplating turning off the alarm and skipping a run) and who put in a full day at the race, getting up at 4 am with me and cheering me on at every leg of the race. And Shaun has been a great training partner — there were plenty of (again) early mornings where one or the other of us would have skipped if we didn't know the other was waiting. I was also humbled by the number of friends who made the trek downtown just to see me swim or run by for a few moments. Thanks to Jodi, Noah, Stephanie, Kristen, Holly, and Scot (the last for sticking around after his own sprint triathlon).
Next Year? There was an interview with someone in the Triathlon program who noted that with this sort of event you either finish and check it off your list or get hooked. Right now, I'm feeling pretty check-listy, but I've certainly set myself enough of a low bar that it shouldn't be that hard (start training a little earlier in the year, run more) to set a better time next year, and do it without wrecking my knees again… We'll see.
* No, not that one.