July 26th, Game Day, how exciting! Except I would not be playing in a game, rather my first triathlon – The Holiday Man Mega Sprint Triathlon. Although I’ve played in hundreds of games throughout my life those subtle, exciting and anxious feelings of competing in a race are all the same. I picked up my friend Michelle, who is not only an experienced triathlete, but was the person who encouraged me to get here.
I had just completed the Tough Mudder on May 9th for the 3rd year in a row and was sharing that experience with her. She shared her triathlon and biking experiences with me in return. Although I appreciated her stories and accomplishments, I could not relate never having gone through those experiences myself.
In mid-May, Michelle lent me one of her road bikes to try out, which turned out to be a fun experience. I believe we rode maybe 15 or 20 miles and my legs were pretty toasted. I thought, riding a bike regularly during the summer would be a fun way to keep in shape as I get older and save these abused knees of mine. Shortly thereafter, Michelle brought up the idea of doing a triathlon.
I was currently signing up for Chicago Spartan races, so without hesitation, I signed up for the Holiday Man Mega Sprint Triathlon. Had I given the thought more than two minutes, I would not have committed to the race due to my fear and lack of swimming experience.
Baseball, basketball, and football are sports I’ve had experience with and embrace the competition. When I line up against my opponent, I feel extremely confident regardless of their physical attributes or experience. A triathlon is completely out of my comfort zone and I was scared to death.
Running four miles at the end, okay, I can probably do that given I do mud races although I’m not a runner. A 17.6 mile bike, well, I just did 15 or 20 miles on my first ride so that sounds doable. A 700 meter swim, somebody please help me! Overcoming the fear of the swim leg of the race would be my primary focus.
During the last few years my emotional intelligence has grown leaps and bounds and is something I feel blessed to become aware of and try to understand. The primary reason I’ve seen growth has been due to trying things that I was afraid or uncomfortable with. As far as triathlon goes, the main challenge comes with the fact I don’t like being in water. When I was a kid, I would clean my parents’ pool for an hour to make sure it was spotless. I didn’t like dirt in a pool for some reason, but I could baseball all day with filthy hands and face and think nothing of it.
A few times during marco polo, I would get an extremely sharp pain in the left side of my head while swimming underwater. The handful of times it occurred, it was scary. I’ve told nobody about it to this day. As a kid, my dad took us on a friend’s boat in the lake. Everyone jumped in to go swimming except me. I knew how to swim; I just didn’t like dirty water.
After the swim, the adults pulled out water skis. All the guys and a few of the older girls either did it or attempted it. Then they let a few of us kids try to water ski. My dad gave me some instructions, plus I was observant with everyone before me. I couldn’t wait to go in the water and try it! So there I was, sitting in the water holding the rope, skis up. The engine floored and the boat started forward. Believe it or not, I got up on my first try and I went for about 30 seconds to a minute or so. Everyone was so excited for me.
So I am good at marco polo and water skiing, big freakin’ deal. Now I need to practice freestyle swimming here at the X Sport pool in Naperville. I gave it a shot and swam all the way to the other end, 25 meters, then rested for about two minutes to catch my breath. That first day of training I swam four more lengths, but only made it to the end of the pool two out of the four lengths without stopping and touching the bottom of the pool. I’m not a strong swimmer….and I call myself a natural athlete?
May 26th, I walked out of the Endure It bike shop in Naperville spending $3K after a bike fitting for a sweet Cervelo S2 road bike. The owner was very nice and she asked me about my intentions for purchasing this road bike. I explained I had my first triathlon scheduled in exactly 60 days and needed a bike. She gave me her training sessions and times for biking, running, and swimming.
I’m not sure what 60 day training plan I was expecting, but I didn’t worry about it. I’m a go with the flow person and sometimes lady luck follows those who are good natured, open and friendly with their energy. I took the advice from Endure It and booked a handful of computrainer sessions.
The instructor and fellow bikers were all very nice. I learned a lot from them. I took my road bike on the street a handful of times, usually 15 to 20 miles. Then one day in June I decided to go 50 miles. However, after eating lunch by the river in St. Charles after mile 40. I rode until I got tired and hit the 100 mile marker by the time I got home.
A few rides later, my friend Michelle invited me to ride with an experienced group for the 4th of July Joliet metric Century ride. That was truly a great experience riding with such a large group, I learned how to draft, shift gears efficiently and I completed my second century ride just over 5 weeks of owning my cool, new bike. I knew that evening I would probably enjoy fun future rides, let alone not have to worry at all about the 17 mile bike leg of the triathlon.
The running…. man! I’ve never enjoyed running to run. I enjoyed sprinting, running fast, and beating competition on the field, the court, or stealing bases on the diamond. What I don’t enjoy is running miles. So I joined the Endure It group and ran on the track with them for a handful of sessions. There were some good drills, training and exercises.
I was one of the slowest runners during the runs, but a) I was not in running shape, and b) I have knee issues. Aside from looking like a 40 year old dude wearing knee braces, I thought I did pretty good overall. During the basic 50 or 100 meter dashes (including hill runs one day), I was in the top three every dash. It’s good to know I still got a gear left. One morning I ran four miles. My prior running times were around a 9 minute mile pace, but that day I finished near a 7 minute 30 second mile pace. I knew then that the four miles for the triathlon post swim and bike would be fine …. as long as I didn’t drown in the lake swim.
It was 6:00 p.m., Thursday, July 9th at Centennial Beach. I was working on my swim in the lanes trying to get better when I noticed I was off course. So I kicked my right leg out to get back on course when I twisted my knee. Holy mother fuckers! Talk about intense pain! At that moment, I knew I either sprained my knee or tore something. So just to mentally play it off I decided to go straight to yoga class that night as though everything was fine.
Months later in September I got an MRI to reveal torn meniscus, bone spurs, and grade 3 osteoarthritis. Eighty percent of my lateral meniscus was gone on the right side of my knee and some quadricep tendinitis. The leg kick that day did not cause all of that. ACL reconstruction at 17, plus years of athletics just brought conditions to that moment.
Back to July, the entire race was in jeopardy. Heck, I couldn’t even straighten my leg, walk downstairs, or bend my knee 90 degrees. Despite all of this, I decided to go to two Monday evening Experience Triathlon training swims at Centennial Beach. Prior to those two weeks, I would have backed out of the race, especially given the knee pain. However, I received priceless training in the beginner’s group that became the game changer: How to site your targets, how to swim on your back to regain your breath, and how to swim in open water.
The defining moment occurred after the second practice as I knew I could keep cool, regain my breath by swimming on my back and knowing I would not drown come race day. It probably sounds silly to swimmers or those who do triathlons, but my longest freestyle swim prior to race day was 100 meters. So there you have it, aside from two swimming sessions and some yoga, I rested for the next two weeks.
Thursday, July 23rd, I could walk downstairs! Knee would not straighten or bend 90 degrees, but I could at least walk downstairs! All I need to know now is if I can ride my bike without pain. I rode 4 laps around the block, no pain. Check!
Now, I’m standing in the sand at Lake Holiday the morning of July 26th. The bike and gear is all set up in transition area. I’m gauging the energy and vibe off of the other racers. I realized most racers are probably trying to hit some personal goal. My goal was to not drown. After taking in the moment, I held my composure and didn’t let the moment get bigger than it needed to be. It was probably being in this similar moment a hundred times before, but right before the start I was relaxed, cool, focused, and confident. Most of the time, you need to be in that focus to excel or win.
“Wave two, go!”
I decided to take my time to enter the water to not slow down the other competitors. I’m sure I was a number of times while swimming, but it didn’t faze or distract me. I knew this would happen, and a few bumps are easier to manage than getting blown up by a linebacker on the football field. I made my way through the swim rather nicely. I rolled on my back a number of times to catch my breath, and then I turned around to swim again. I noticed a few times when I turned from my back to the swim that I saw the same people. I felt as though I was swimming rather swiftly in general, maybe that’s a good sign if I let some guys pass me while on my back only to catch them again and again during my freestyle swim.
Finally, the beach! The swim was coming to an end and I thought, “Awesome, I didn’t drown!” I thought, “Okay, when you get out of the water, sprint to the transition area!”
I departed the water and what the hell? I am so flippin dizzy right now! Everybody is cheering, this is inspiring, so try not to fall from dizziness, you idiot. Just walk straight, don’t fall. After walking 30 seconds or so I jogged while dizzy to the transition area. I sat down, changed my shoes, put on my bike shirt, but I could not catch my breath. I watched a number of racers come and go. Finally, I started to get my breath and left the transition area. If my GPS didn’t fall off during the swim, I may have broken the record for worst post swim transition time ever in the history of Holiday Man.
Now it’s my favorite phase, biking. I had two goals for myself: 1) nobody passes you, and 2) stay at or above 20 mph. Well, I passed over twenty or thirty bikers during the ride, so that felt good. But I failed goal 1 as four bikers passed me, three of them women. They just didn’t pass me, they flew by me. I also realized more riders would have passed me but they were already ahead of me cause of the swim. Regardless, I held 20 mph for most of the ride, a few spots in the 19’s mph. My lower back started to hurt around mile 13, so I had to constantly stand up and sit down to relieve the lower back pressure. This approach worked fine and I completed the bike.
Transition two went so much better than transition one. I put on the mega knee brace and changed shoes rather quickly. Purpose of the mega knee brace was to prevent me from trying to burst during the run. The brace keeps my knee around fifty degrees, so I would never really straighten it or bend it too much. I was tired from the swim and bike, so odds of doing that anyway were low. With moderate knee pain aside, I ran okay and finished the race. I think I ran around a 8:45 to 9:00 minute mile pace, I can’t recall exactly and it doesn’t matter anyway.
It was nice having my friend Michelle there at the race. While I’ve done the Spartan races alone, it was nice to have a fellow racer there for support and encouragement. I also found the crowds near the transition area and during the run to be encouraging. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, confidences and fears. After crossing the finish line, I could not be more proud of the moment I entered the race. I knew not being an experienced swimmer, coupled with disliking water, would provide a huge mental challenge. I was extremely frustrated when I hurt my knee during the short training phase, but I was glad it was good enough to allow me to compete. I’m not a fan of excuses. I’m very grateful for the experience of my first triathlon, and the process leading up to it is something I will never forget.
About the Author: Daniel Surrett grew up playing baseball, football and basketball in Calumet City and is a graduate of North Central College in Naperville where he received an academic scholarship and played baseball. He played in-field, 2nd Team All Conference in 1995 and Conference Championships in 1994 and 1996 with a Regional appearance in 1994. He works as an accountant in Chicago, is a yogi and still an avid sports fan.