Book Review:The Distance (An Average Joe’s Path to Balancing Family, Work, and Triathlon) by David Mills

David Mills is not the kind of person you could make a lot of excuses to.  He trained for, and completed an Ironman triathlon (Louisville) while working as a navigator for the US Airforce in Okinawa (that means not only long but irregular hours), being a father to 2 children (including changing diapers), completing grad school courses, and attending church.  His book ‘The Distance’ chronicles his route to the finish line as ‘an Average Joe’… Although the description above doesn’t make him sound so average!

Let me get one thing out of the way: the author is a Christian, and not at all shy about it.  If you want your reading material to be 100% secular, you should be aware of this.  If you’re like me, and interested in being part of a tolerant society, you can treat an author’s faith as part of their voice, like a naughty sense of humour, or a tendency to overuse parentheses (like this!).

I generally stay away from biography and non-fiction, as I like my reading to have an escapist quality, but I did enjoy this book.  The book is fairly light reading; it is broken up into short chapters that give David’s overall journey a logical structure.  He starts off with not only a good overview of triathlons (specifically Ironmans) but also a self-examination of what made him want to attempt something he admits is ‘crazy’.

After a little insight into the mind of Average Joe Ironman, he spends a few chapters giving us background on his family (including how to include them in training), work, athletic background and surroundings.  This sets the stage for us to understand how little time he would have to spare, but the other nice part, is we feel like we’re getting to know the man, and the whole read feels like a conversation with a regular guy.  His humour and spirit really help in this regard.

From there he moves into the 3 disciplines of triathlon, one chapter at a time.  These were my favourite parts; even though I have my share of triathlon experience, I found David’s take to be enlightening (especially from the perspective of training longer distances) without alienating me by being overly technical or daunting.

“The swim portion is like the bouncer at the door and if you want to make it to the party inside you’ve got to train and find a way to overcome your fear in order to get past that beast of a swim.  The swim portion keeps out the riff-raff”

David’s advice is to be as relaxed as possible, not only for energy conservation, keep your technique clean, avoid the melee of feet and elbows, but also from a ‘stop and smell the roses’ perspective.  It’s solid and sensible advice.

I got the most out of the bike chapter; since Ironman biking distance represents the biggest jump from my comfort zone (I’ve run a marathon and swam 2.1km in races before, but never biked more than 55km) in my weakest discipline.  David correctly identifies cycling as the most time consuming discipline, as well as illustrating the importance of knowing basic bike repair:

Part of the spirit of Ironman is self-sufficiency.  You can’t accept any outside aid from friends or family, and no one else on a bike can lend you any tools or help either….Flat tire? Change it yourself. Broken Chain? Should’ve carried a chain tool and a spare link…”

 He also stresses the necessity of eating while on the road.  I always knew to take in calories during the race (I usually use gels and sport drinks) but I didn’t know that most Iron distance athletes use real, solid food like bagels (or rice balls wrapped in seaweed if you’re in Okinawa!).  The idea of taking nutrition breaks at local stores/cafes makes longer rides seem more appealing, I’ve got to admit.

Once you get to the run chapter, you’ll see where David’s ideas get a little revolutionary.

“…you don’t have to run as much as someone training for a marathon… all that swimming and biking you’re doing is also increasing your overall fitness… If you must err, then err on the side of undertraining.”

Obviously his advice is always geared toward completing the Ironman, not competing or achieving a specific performance goal.  He also highlights a difference between marathons and Ironman: the lack of headphones forces the athletes to be more ‘in the moment’ and cultivates a more communal atmosphere as athletes talk with each other and get engaged with spectators.  I liked that he was able to see a positive side to what most of us see as a real negative to triathlon racing.

For my part, what I’ve gathered from this book and other sources that the obstacle is simply wanting it badly enough; everything else is just an excuse.  So will I be doing an Ironman next year? No, I don’t want to.  I don’t want to spend hours and hours on my bike (I could live with more running and swimming, I guess), or ask my family to make sacrifices on my behalf, or handle the more complicated logistics of travel and accomodation.  I will tell you though, that after reading this book, I don’t want to do it a lot less.

Wetsuits and Weigh-ins

Remember when I won the free wet-suit from TYR?  Well it arrived and I’m stoked!  When I spoke to the rep, he told me to pick my size from the following chart and if I was between sizes I should pick the larger, as their suits tend to fit very tightly:

Size Height (ft/in) Weight (lbs) Height (cm) Weight (kg)
XS 4’9-5’4 118-142 146-160 54-65
S 5’3-5’9 138-166 158-170 62-75
S/M 5’7-6’0 146-173 165-181 66-78
M 5’8-6’1 155-188 172-184 71-85
M/L 5’10-6′-2 158-191 179-187 72-86
L 5’10-6’3 175-199 181-189 79-90
XL 5’10-6’4 191-220 183-194 86-100
XXL 6’0-6’8 208+ 185-201 94+

But here’s the thing:

OOPS!

So I guess I should pick the XL right? Especially because it’s the off-season, and I’m likely to only gain weight before next season… Well, I might be dumb but I ordered the large.  I guess, I want the wet-suit to be the stick (or the carrot, depending on your point of view) that will keep me policing my own weight, even when my life derails my training/dietary plans…

It (TYR Hurricane Cat 5) fits great, and I can’t wait to try (tri?) it in the water.  Thanks Multi-Sport Canada and TYR!

The Multi-sport Mind: Introduction to Burbathlon

I wanted to make a post about my ‘Burbathon’ idea a multimedia affair, with photographs, video, maybe even maps so that I could really communicate the concept and have it be well-understood enough that other who wanted to give it a try could implement a comparable workout.  Time has been very hard to come by this week, so I think I’ll try and keep it short, with a promise of follow-up posts in the future.

I’ve often said that I seem to have fitness-ADD.  Once I had started running (and liked it), I worked my way up to the half-marathon level, and after having explained that I only did a HALF marathon for the umpteen thousandth time, I worked my way up to the full 42.2km.  While I’m proud of the accomplishment (if not my finishing time), my big problem with the whole experience: TOO MUCH RUNNING.  I love running, but following a marathon training program is about 6 days a week; and to me, it just got monotonous.  You can break some of those running sessions up with cross-training, but what if the cross training, was the sport itself? Enter triathlon, and I’ve never looked back.

Fitness ADD could be renamed to a more politically correct Multi-sport Mind; since I made up both terms, why not?  I guess I’m always wondering what else I could be doing.  Once I was swimming, biking and running, adding strength training to the mix was inevitable.  There is a school of thought that treats strength training as a sub-optimal distraction from triathlon training, but the multi-sport mind simply ignores such opinions.  So, when you add in the occasional strength exercise into a run, you’re starting to get the right idea; I had discussed this over twitter with Andie ‘The Fit Geek’, and she says she does this in what she calls ‘fun runs’.
You see a park bench, a picnic table, a fence, do squats so your butt touches the bench, or decline pushups.

But that’s not all!  I’m also attracted to trail-running for the simple reasons that I like the outdoors and forest environments especially, and trails (being softer) have lower impact which is nice to keep my Achilles tendinitis at bay.  I’m lucky to have the Etobicoke creek near where I live, and part of the trail is very rough and wild (suitable for mountain biking, if only too short, I believe).  So leaping over the bumps and jumps, hopping over logs, or balancing on them adds to the fun.  It’s like ‘Parkour Lite’ – since I’m too old and have too many injuries to try the really crazy stuff.  It’s largely inspired by events like the Spartan Race, Warrior Dash (which I did in July), and the Men’s Health Urbanathlon.

I think I’ve given you some idea as to the general gist of this kind of a workout, and I promise to elaborate in future posts.  Anybody else have fun things that they do while running to work on strength, agility or balance or just to break up the monotony?

Triathlon Training vs. Family or Triathlon Training WITH Family

Disclosure: I didn’t want this post to turn into a shill-fest of promotion, but I did want to give specific examples of things I use and link to them.  All products mentioned in this post were bought and paid for by me or a loved one.  I do not receive any compensation for presenting these.

Family is more important than anything, and certainly more-so than training. Still, you take better care of your family when you take better care of yourself. When you’re able to combine family time with training time, it’s not just good time management – it sets an example to the kids about living an active lifestyle. Some caveats:

  • First of all, I stick to sprint and Olympic distance triathlon; my biggest problem with half- and Iron distance is less about the overall volume of training time , but the uninterrupted stretches of time spent on long rides/runs. It’s simply too much to ask my wife to hold down the fort for that long (besides the time I spend at work). There are those that manage to do Iron distance and claim to balance work and family too (I hope to review David Mills’ “The Distance” soon), but I know what will and won’t work for my family.
  • Second of all, these tips and tricks can’t be *all* of your training regimen. You’ll still have to get out there on your own sometimes.

Endurance Training with Family

My biggest tool in balancing family and training is our Chariot Cougar 2Jogging strollers and bike trailers are popular with active families, but what I love about our Chariot is that it’s designed from the ground up to be modular.  If your bike trailer simply add a kit to become a jogging stroller (or vice-versa), the functionality and your experience (including that of your child) will suffer, in my opinion.

I take my son jogging, and sometimes ride on the bike; I’m lucky in that I have a second bike beyond my racing/tri bike that I use for commuting to work sometimes (another time saver/training tip).  The earliest I’d recommend putting them in one of these things is 6 months, but it depends on their neck strength and your individual judgement as to their safety.

We both wear helmets during the bike (he knows it’s time for fun when I break them out of storage in the basement) and the suspension system on the Chariot is adjustable according to his weight (I need to adjust mine soon, he keeps growing!).  I recommend helmets for biking as you are moving faster than while jogging; it’s the law where I live anyway.  The Chariot is designed to have enough room for the helmet as well as the child’s head, which is important to consider.  Finally, if I did take a spill, the hitch is a ball-joint, meaning the carrier would stay upright, guaranteeing safety.

The jogging kit is a little puzzling at first, since the front wheel actually prevents steering with the wheel locked straight ahead, but I’ve realized that keeping a straight line can actually be challenging when your body is jostling at a run.  Try jogging a regular stroller (preferably without the child in it) and watch it weave all over the road – any lateral motion in your upper body translates through the handle to the stroller.  I just pop the front wheel a few inches off the ground when I need to corner.

In addition to biking and jogging, we use our Chariot cross-country skiing, the benefits of which I’ve mentioned here.  That kit is my favourite, because I was shocked to find that skiing while towing the carrier feels so similar to skiing without it – my technique is the same, it’s just a little harder going uphill and a little faster going downhill.  I skied once with my son in a backpack carrier; it really affected my centre of gravity and made me extremely nervous.  The benefit of a backpack carrier is that the child gets some of your body heat, and it’s easier to monitor their temperature and well-being, so if you do take your child out in colder weather, please bundle them up adequately and take a break to check up on them periodically.

I spoke with a sales rep who takes their kids inline skating (there are kits for hiking, regular walking too), but without a hand-brake (other models have this, or you can install one separately, but it looked too complicated for me), and considering my lack of skill on skates, I’ve opted to leave this out.

Pushing/pulling your child’s extra weight requires extra strength, so I recommend using these workouts as a substitute for heavier workouts like speed or hill training.

I haven’t found a way to include swim training in family time, but I do want to recommend swimming lessons from an early age (ours started at 6 months).  It’s a great bonding experience, and giving kids a positive attitude toward the water is the first step in a) teaching them to swim, which may save their lives at some point and b) having a family that likes spending time near the water – important for triathletes!

Strength Training With Family

There’s a lot of back and forth discussion as to how beneficial strength-training is for endurance athletes (as compared to whether they put that time back into swim/bike/run), but if you’re like me, multi-sport appeals because it is multi-faceted, and you want multi-dimensional fitness, so you try to address things like strength, balance and flexibility when they don’t get addressed through swim/bike/run – so here’s some strength training tips for family-oriented athletes.

Immediately after my son’s birth, I used a book called Buff Dad to get back in shape.  Training at home was crucial, because I needed to be on hand/on call even when the baby was sleeping, so a gym or a run wasn’t a great option.  The workouts in the book can be done with a few dumbbells and a Swiss ball.  Though workouts are advertised as taking 30 minutes, I found them to be closer to 40 or 45 in practice; especially if you want to ensure good technique and stretch afterwards (you do).  Still they were strength circuits, which are quite fashionable these days since they save time, and since they also offer a simultaneous cardio challenge (in addition to the strength work) I found the workouts to be right up my alley as a triathlete.

During his waking hours I try to find ways to get extra exercise; chasing kids is exhausting, but it doesn’t burn as many calories as you might think.  If you’re just that tired, I’ve been advised to try and structure games with ball or other toys that have them running around, and you sitting still, but if you want to keep in shape reverse that structure.

There is a whole school of thought dedicated to natural movement and play-based exercise – so why not turn playtime into exercise?  It probably looks like I’m ‘helicopter parenting’ when I follow my boy up onto playground equipment rather than sit on the sidelines (or they just think I’m crazy) but since being a parent means being judged by strangers all the time anyway, I have nothing to lose but calories.

I have even used my son as a weight during squats, lunges and push-ups (with him on my back), or I will adopt a crab walk position

during horseplay (which comes with the occasional bump or bruise, so this is more of a toddler activity than an infant one) and see if he can ride on my torso.  Turning this into a structured workout isn’t necessarily possible since attention spans are even more limited than my endurance, but I do like to squeeze every ounce of potential exercise out of a given moment.

If you ever find time when the kids are in bed or somehow not underfoot, re-connecting with your partner is important for happy family life too.  If you can’t leave the house to go for a run together, for example, there is the Fit2Touch DVD which demonstrates how to get a workout at home using your partner for assistance/resistance; the physical contact involved build intimacy.  It’s a little sexy, so be sure to do it with your partner, not a sibling/buddy!

Integrating physical activity into the family routine is almost more of a mental exercise than a physical one; you need to flex your creativity and create flexibility in your routine but just as the effort goes beyond the physical, so do the rewards.

UPDATE: Here‘s an article about kids, playgrounds and parental activity.

Wasaga Olympic Triathlon Race Report – My Lucky Day

It feels like the first time…

Due to:

  1. My success at the Orillia Tri when I didn’t feel I’d been adequately trained for it, and
  2. The difficulty of getting my family/cheerleaders up to the race site in time for the Sprint

I opted to move up to the Olympic Distance at Wasaga.  I had done this race twice before (a personal best of 2:52 last year) and been to the venue every year since 2007.  I think it might be my favourite race, and knowing I couldn’t break any personal records freed me to simply enjoy the race for what it was: a nice day out swimming, biking, then running. Not only was I better able to ‘smell the roses’ during the race, because my main focus was merely finishing, it was like being a first timer; a triathlon virgin, if you will.  On to the details:

In spite of a traffic jam going up Highway 400, I was able to get to the race site with plenty of time to get  my transition area, my gear, and myself set up just the way I like it, which goes a long way to keeping pre-race nerves away.

I got into the water, which is quite shallow for a good distance.  Just to get water in the wetsuit and my hair wet (for putting on my swim cap), I had to lie down in a bit of a ‘flop’.  In doing this, I lost my grip on my goggles, and though I noticed immediately, I was not able to find them.  I asked other nearby swimmers if they had seen them: nothing.  I began to get a little panicked and wondered if/how the swim could be done without the goggles – sighting is important at that distance and on that kind of wide open water.  I began to look at other swimmers to see if anyone would dare attempt such a task.  There were plenty with no wet-suit, but none without goggles that I could see.  Though I had spiritually resigned myself to the bad luck I seemed to be having, my eyes continued to scan the water and though I was nowhere close to the spot I had been at when I lost them, with 2 minutes before my wave start, suddenly I found them floating in front of me.  Nearby triathletes must have wondered what the heck I was giggling about, but I was definitely a happy camper and glad to be having a lucky day.

Our horn sounded and off we went. The first bit of the swim course is spent alternately walking, and doing dolphin dives, but the good news is that even when the water is deep enough to force you to swim, you can always see the bottom – good news for those that find open water swimming intimidating because you can’t see the bottom.  In fact, I found a little trick: in a pool you swim straighter because the lane line gives you a visual cue.

Here, the little grooves in the sand bottom can be used similarly when you are swimming parallel to the shoreline, or with some mental reconfiguration, when you are swimming perpendicularly to it.  It… almost works; let’s say it helps.

The last stretch of the swim is back to walking and dolphin dives, but interestingly, the timing company provides you a time it took to get from the water to transition if that interests you.

I always find the bike course to be simpler than they describe, apparently since the first section only uses one side of the street people need a lot of extra reminding of which side of the pylons to ride on, but I’m usually able to follow the leader, so to speak.

While the bike course is comparatively flat, and I always remember it as such, there are some slow climbs that deceive you, making you wonder where your speed went.  I knew the Olympic distance would be a challenge for me this year physically, but I soon realized staying focused on keeping up the right speed would be a mental challenge I hadn’t practised enough either.  Both the bike and run course have a nice mixtures of environments; the bike has some residential streets where you can see the blue water between some houses, some treed lanes and open farmers’ fields.  Be warned though, if you stop and smell the roses here, you may find they smell like manure.

I got to see a wide variety of bikes passing me, which I find heartening: when somebody passes me on a bike that older/cheaper than mine, I know they’re doing it through heart and training/conditioning, not by spending money.  I feel conversely guilty when I pass someone going downhill merely because I can go aero position and they can’t, but I’m not going to go any slower than I can out of a misplaced sense of honour either.

Overall, the bike ride was uneventful – that’s the way I like it, and it means everything was safe for all I observed.

I took my time again in transition #2, because I wanted to ensure my achilles tendon support band was on properly (I also needed a bathroom break – another benefit of the Wasaga course is that there are not only port-a-potties in the transition area, but there’s a public washroom just under a kilometer into the run course).

The first stretch of the run is along the beach road, which means there’s plenty of spectators – not just those that showed up to support the racers, but also some who just wanted some beach time and now have something extra to watch.  As nice as that part is, I always look forward to hitting the boardwalk next, as I find the impacts softer.  The crowds peter out somewhat and I find that’s where participants chat and give each other encouragement the most.  The 5k loop has sections through a wooded park, along Mosley St (the main drag, if you will) and again through some residential lanes.

A couple of kilometres into the run, I experienced another bit of nostalgia: a stitch.  You know, those cramps in your side you get when you don’t breathe properly?  I doubt I’d had one since high school!  Taking walk breaks (especially at the water stations) allowed me to keep the pain at bay.  I finished the first loop at over 30 minutes, but I’m happy to say I picked up enough pace on the second loop to have a negative split.

But here’s the best part: as I’m nearing the finish line, I hear the speakers say:”…the next racer to cross the finish line will win a free wetsuit.”  I couldn’t believe my ears! I scanned ahead and couldn’t see anyone between me and the finish line, so I started hauling it.  You’d think achieving the best time possible is enough to overcome pain and fatigue, but it turns out the lure of free stuff trumps that. Woot!

Not only do I recommend this race to anyone, but also I’d recommend the experience of getting back to the basic joy of racing to finish, not to outperform.

Motivation, Such an Aggravation

I recently participated in a #fitblog chat (check it out! They can be fun) where a question was asked: what is your daily inspiration?

I found answering it a little tough, as I had been recently in a downward spiral with motivation constantly decreasing.  This summer I had resolved to stick to Sprint triathlons; shorter distances would mean less time away from family, enabling me to help with house and home more.  Ideally, what I would be missing in terms of uninterrupted training time I’d be able to make up with more frequent yet shorter sessions.  Well, for a multitude of reasons, that didn’t happen.  What can I say? Real life (family, social, medical commitments) can get in the way; and they should since they really are more important.

So I’m feeling down about myself as I’m not getting in the training times I should, but I’m not completely out of the running.  Conventional wisdom about ways to stay motivated include:

  1. Train in groups/with buddies.  I rarely do this, as I find I need flexibility to be able to train and other people means scheduling appointments (and keeping them!).  When I train by myself, getting a 15-20 minute late start, but would you want to be kept waiting?
  2. Take inspiration from elites/pros/experts.  I follow a ton of triathletes on Twitter, which ought to be a way for me to feel part of a community, but all it did was make me feel inferior.  This person’s already done Umpteen kilometers today, and I’m not even out of pajamas.  Ho-hum.
The problem was that I was focused on performance based goals (achieving a time that was competitive with prior race performances) and the kind of training I “should” be doing: more frequent, more structured.  When that wasn’t happening, I began to worry, and get down on myself.  Fortunately, I have an angel who reminded me that I do this stuff for fun – and that is so important.  Here are my “new” motivation tips:
  1. Have fun.  Whatever you’re doing, make sure it’s fun for you.  This is your free time, you’re not going to spend it on self-torture.
  2. Anything is better than nothing.  Maybe a 7k tempo run is what would be prescribed for this juncture in time – but you can’t.  Not enough time, not enough energy, whatever… but 3k pushing the jogging stroller is still going to put strength in those legs that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

So that’s it: unless you’re overtraining (no danger of that here!), exercise makes you an alchemist: you are turning time into strength.

P.S. If you figure out how to turn fat into time, please contact me… we’re going to be rich!

      Orillia Sprint Triathlon Race Report

      I usually find other people’s race reports to be a little boring, so I’ll try to keep this short and succinct. This was my first time doing this particular race, and I only found out that the distances 3 weeks beforehand; a busy summer had me dropping from last year’s Olympic distance training levels to ‘Sprint’ levels (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run) but Orillia upped the bike-run distance by 60% (33km bike, 7km)! I was under-trained, and being underprepared is going to be a bit of a theme in this story.


      An 8AM start time meant getting up a 4:45AM, and this doesn’t lead to a sharp mind by the time you’re at the race site; I hadn’t filled my water bottles, and been unable to get my bib pinned – but I had a saviour (via his mom): Trevor Clark. This young man finished 3rd in Junior Men, he’s friendly and incredibly polite, and obviously has a great future ahead of him. Most important to me, he had an extra race belt!


      To calm my pre-race nerves and fears, my wife gave me the following advice: “This is something you enjoy; go out there, and take your time, you’ll be sure to finish, and have fun doing it.” Words to live by, for sure. I hit the water with barely a minute to spare, and though Lake Couchiching is big enough to have some chop, the swim was smooth and simple, and sure enough, I was enjoying myself! The swim was over all too soon.  


      I found the bike course to have a lot of nice variety; country houses, farmer’s fields, shady treed lanes. There were a couple of times where I saw a turn coming, and rather than try to pass shortly before the bottleneck that would result, I kept my gear light, my cadence high and simply enjoyed the ride. It probably made my ride more efficient. There were some riders whose *bike budget clearly overpowers their swim ability* who passed me at the 8k, 15k and 25k (!) mark, but I was pleased to see an overall mix of athletes who were able to hang together (alternately passing and being passed) with bikes of various qualities and fitness levels of which to be proud. Climbing over Highway 11 near the 28km mark was nasty, as the hill was steep, and fatigue was starting to set in.


      Both of my transitions were not the fastest, but it didn’t bother me since I was treating this race with more of a ‘smell the roses’ attitude anyway. The run course was all road, so I opted for my cushioned Salomons rather than my Zoot racing flats, and suffered no problems. It felt like I had a conservative start with a strong finish for a negative split, but after reviewing the statistics that doesn’t seem to be the case. The course was nice and flat, and the final half kilometer was through the park, allowing for lots of cheering (Spectator tip: “Way to go” and “great job” are always welcome but “All downhill from here” is like music to my ears).


      Post race food is plentiful, and some of those snacks are right up my alley (the key ingredient is chocolate, people). World Endurance Canada still knows how to run an event (maybe more rack space though guys?).

      Learn to swim you @$#%!

      There are other topics I wanted to tackle but since this one is in the news a lot lately, and it’s something that I feel strongly about, that makes it the perfect subject to blog about. You’ll have to bear with me if it gets a little ‘rant-y’…

      Two deaths in the NYC triathlon made headlines at the same time that a study came to light: the overwhelming majority of deaths in triathlon occur in the swim portion.

      The knee-jerk reaction has been to question whether race organizers are doing enough to screen participants for health issues and swimming proficiency.

      I have my own take on the matter, but I want to give you some background that has influenced my line of thinking.
      When I talk to non-triathletes who have aspirations (or at least pipe-dreams) of doing a tri, it’s always a lack of swimming ability that is keeping them from taking part. Either that, or an irrational fear of open water. Swimming seems to be the biggest barrier to entry for potential triathletes.

      Even within a race, I see a dearth of swimming ability where I really shouldn’t. Every single race, I’ll be anywhere from a quarter to halfway done the bike portion when I’ll be passed by a faster cyclist. I don’t just mean overtaken – these guys blow by me like I’m standing still. Now based on my results, it’s fair to say that I’m above average in swimming and below average (by age group) so this is somewhat likely: I’ll exit the water before weaker swimmers and get caught by the faster cyclists. Maybe some of them are starting in later waves. But by the time I’m at the 20k mark (out of 40k) around 70 minutes will have gone by, and I’m being passed by racers moving around 10km/h faster than me (most often on much better bikes): assuming that’s true, and they’re moving at 40km/h on average (to my 30km/h) they’ll have gotten to that 20km mark in 30 minutes, meaning it’s taken them 40 min to finish a 1.5km swim (to my 30 min). I’ve left out differences in wave times and transition, for simplicity. The ueber-cyclist will finish much faster than me (assuming equal or at least comparable run times) for being 40/30=33% faster than me on the bike compared to me being 33% faster in the swim.

      I can’t blame these guys for being weak on the swim – why bother getting better when there is no apparent payoff for improving your swim? This dis-proportionality was notice by guys named Wainer and De Veaux who proposed the Equilateral Triathlon.

      The ITU sanctions the following distances (from the ITU website):

      Name
      Swim
      Bike
      Run
      Super Sprint
      400m
      10km
      2.5km
      Sprint
      750m
      20km
      5km
      Standard
      1500m
      40km
      10km
      Middle
      2.5km
      80km
      20km
      Long
      4km
      120km
      30km
      Ironman
      3.8
      180km
      42km

      and the Equilateral Triathlon distances look like (times are based on world record holders):
      Name
      Time per leg
      Swim
      Bike
      Run
      Sprint
      10 minutes
      1 km
      (0.6 mi)
      8.5 km
      (5.3 mi)
      3.9 km
      (2.4 mi)
      Olympic
      28 minutes
      2.7 km
      (1.7 mi)
      22.4 km
      (13.9 mi)
      10 km
      (6.2 mi)
      Ironman
      127 minutes
      12 km
      (7.5 mi)
      96.2 km
      (59.8 mi)
      42.2 km
      (26.2 mi)

      Now let’s look at some sample race distances around Ontario:
      Name
      Swim
      Bike
      Run
      Milton Triathlon
      750m
      30km
      7.5km
      Orillia ‘Sprint’ Triathlon
      750m
      33km
      7km
      Goderich Triathlon
      1km
      42km
      10km

      Notice anything? Race directors are adding distance to those categories on the bike and run while keeping the swim short. Or, they keep the recommended bike and run distances while shortening the swim. And I don’t blame them either; they need participants, and by making the swim shorter, the race becomes more accessible.

      The main ideas of increasing the safety margin of the swim seem to be either swim proficiency testing or health testing of participants. One of the the casualties in the NYC triathlon was formerly a high-school varsity swimmer, with previous triathlon experience and only 40 years old. Certainly she had enough swim proficiency and training to complete the swim portion, and I doubt anything short of an EEG would have revealed health issues; the woman would have been observed to be in good shape by a doctor. So what would a swim test or doctor’s note really have accomplished in this case.

      So here’s my idea: increase the length of the swim in most triathlons. Participants will either drop out (better yet, switch to duathlon), start taking swimming more seriously in their training to compensate. While monitoring a longer swim course with kayaks and lifeguards is a daunting proposition to the race organizer, this needs to be weighed against whatever additional measures are being proposed instead (proof of good health, open water swimming certification); what will those cost?

      Swimming is a low impact, whole body exercise, and it behooves us as a society to develop it as much as possible; being a good swimmer might save your life or that of someone else. Furthermore, it’s cheap! It’s been pointed out that triathlon is expensive, and the biggest expense has to be the bike (plus helmet, shoes, shorts, jerseys, bottles, etc.). The longer the bike portion, the more the event favours the athlete with more money, and the more those who are using a simple road bike (or even a commuter/mountain bike) might feel an event isn’t for them since they’ll be too slow and it will take too long. A race that approaches the equilateral proportions might actually be both less risky and more accessible. Go figure.


      Now, I’m not saying *any* change is absolutely necessary. I’m a big fan of the saying: ”Nothing is sometimes the right thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.” Statistically speaking, triathlons and endurance sports are not dangerous, and have probably saved more lives through promotion of exercise and healthy living than they have cost. Still, if change is desired, I’d prefer the sport to look at a simple modification to the race format than introducing extra levels of bureaucracy.
      ***UPDATE: Autopsy results on the NYC triathlon deaths were inconclusive
      ***UPDATE2: Death caused by cardiac arrhythmia due to prolapsed mitrial valve

      What’s this all about then?

      Triathlon and endurance sports are steeped in ‘Iron Man’ imagery – being made of metaphorical iron is necessary if you want to hold up against what the distances do to you.

      If you’re enthusiastic about comic books, fantasy and/or martial arts the idea of a ‘Warrior’ is a kind of paragon. The warrior lives by a code of honour, and struggles against adversity. These are the ideals athletes strive for; where we equate honour with discipline, and the adversity comes through pain and fatigue.

      Furthermore, the Warrior is the mascot of the University of Waterloo (my alma mater), and ‘The Iron Warrior’ is the name of the Engineering Student newspaper.

      But ‘Iron Warrior’ was taken on Blogger. Which is just as well, since I’ve often been drawn more to characters who use wits, guile or even trickery rather than brute force as a means to their ends. Even at a glance, the average triathlon training program seems to be not only extremely demanding in terms of volume of time spent; but logistically difficulty with 2 disciplines (or strength training) being addressed on most days.

      So what if you want to be ‘iron’-like, and live a multi-sport lifestyle while keeping enough flexibility for a ‘life’? You know, family, career, friends, or heaven forbid… Other interests and commitments; is it possible? Might there be shortcuts or loopholes to the multi-sport code of discipline? Ways to even, dare I say… cheat (in training, not in competition)?

      I don’t know, but this blog is about trying to figure that out.

      Lessons Learned from my Rookie Year

      I’ve heard of a few people now who want to get into triathlon as one of their first (or the first in a long time) athletic endeavours. Part of me thinks it’s more sensible to get some other kind of endurance event (or several) such as a 5k or 10k running race before diving into the complexities of multisport, but the other part of me wants to just have them get involved in this great sport as soon as possible; I mean, why wait?

      Looking back at my first season, I try to think what the bigger lessons and philosophies I took away were. Some were based on research I had done on my own, others are more rooted in my own choices and personality. They should apply to a rookie/newbie going into a try-a-tri, sprint or short (750m/30km/7.5km) event. Here are the top ten lessons I learned from my first year of doing triathlons.

      1.) Make sure your lane swimming training distance exceeds your race distance. Open water swimming is harder than pool swimming. Waves and wind slow you down (or interfere with your breathing), without the pool lines to keep you straight you end up swimming a zig-zag for extra distance, and of course the traffic of other racers makes for added difficulty too. Stopping at the end of the lane to turn around may not seem like much of a rest while training, but compared to simply stroking continuously through, it’s like a nano-vacation every 25m. Being able to exceed the required distance by about 10% or so ought to do it.

      2.) Train your race, race your training. I keep a very conservative pace while racing; I learned this while running. It doesn’t guarantee your best time or optimal performance, but it’s your best chance to finish and finish strong. Make sure your race pace is as close to your training pace as possible; don’t let the excitement of the race get to you. This is especially important in the swim. At my first event (the highly recommended Milton triathlon) my fiancée/ roadie observed a swimmer who made it as far as the first buoy (about 50m) before having to hang on to it and call for help. While it’s possible this guy simply had showed up to this event without proving to himself he could swim 2 lengths of a pool, I think it’s more likely he got so keyed up that he went like a wild man for 30 seconds and found himself completely gassed. I’d rather keep my head, and when the end is in (figurative) sight, I can use any extra energy (some of which might have been supplied by race-excitement-adrenaline) to sprint to the transition zone/finish line. A heart-rate monitor and/or GPS can help you know how hard you’re going during training and the race (I use the Garmin Forerunner 305 though I used to have the 301).

      3.) During the race, take the outside lane in the swim. I probably did more than 750m of swimming in my races thanks to widening the loop, but I was able to swim at the pace I wanted (see lesson #2) and got a lot less interference from other swimmers. I figure I made up the time I lost swimming extra distance by not having to get untangled from other people.

      4.) Have a roadie. You’ll be carrying a fair bit of gear: bike, helmet, towel, shoes, water bottles/gels, etc. It ought to be possible for one body to manage all that, but I sure appreciated the extra pair of hands. If you don’t have a significant other to rely on, ask a friend to help you as a favour. In a triathlon you get to watch the athletes go by at least 3 times (unlike other kinds of races), so it can be exciting for spectators. In that vein (though from a shallower perspective), a lot of the athletes have really good bodies.

      5.) Spend some time and mental effort on orientation and visualization. The race kit pickup for Milton was actually the day before the event at Kelso conservation area, so I had a good idea of where I’d be entering/exiting the water, how to get my bike in/out of the transition area, and that I’d be starting my run going uphill. When setting up in the transition area, visualize how you want to change your equipment; e.g. do you want to towel off before putting on shoes? Keep in mind that athletes get disqualified for taking their bike off the rack before putting on a helmet. I like to set it up so that putting on the helmet is one of the first things I do.

      6.) Take spinning classes. Getting geared up for bike rides is time consuming, and it’s hard to find the time to get long training rides in. When you do, you spend time at red lights or negotiating traffic that you wish you were devoting to turning the pedals and getting in shape. I was really worried about my cycling ability and endurance, and lasting for an hour in those classes without stopping, while simulating hills and other challenges made all the difference in having a successful season. It gave me bike training during the week, regardless of the weather, which isn’t easy in Canada. Having said all that, you need to get on your real bike sometimes to learn how to deal with the real life issues, and how to use the gears effectively.

      7.) Get speed laces. While there are special triathlon shoes which offer quick entry to minimize the transition time from bike to run, I found a product much like these can be attached to normal running shoes. Not only do you save time on race day, but once you’ve got them on your shoes for training, you’re never bothered about tying a really good knot that won’t come undone while running ever again.

      8.) Beginner/semi-out-of-shape triathletes have an advantage over the elites. More advance triathletes spend big bucks on wet suits to provide buoyancy and insulation against the cold water, then have to learn to get out of them in a hurry while wet, but in my first season I had a natural solution that the rest of them didn’t seem to have access to: body fat. I’m lucky in that I’m used to swimming in fresh (and open) water which isn’t always as warm as a pool, but I do think the body fat I was carrying helped me stay warm enough in the water for the May and June races. I think the water at Milton was 18 degrees Celsius or so, which is too cold for flopping around in the water, but considering I was swimming a race, I generated enough body heat to stay warm during the swim, and was able to transition to the bike without fussing around in a wetsuit. I am buying one this year as I’ve lost a little weight and I’m serious enough about the sport now to merit the expense, but last year was a different story.

      9.) Have water bottles and gels, but don’t bother carrying them on the run. From running half (and one full) marathons, I used to carry a water bottle on a belt so I could hydrate whenever I wanted, instead of the crowded water stations. While a short/sprint triathlon is comparable to a half-marathon in terms of overall endurance, the run is short enough that carrying the bottle was just extra weight, and the stations were more than adequate. I did like having water on the bike ride and I was using gel mid-way through the ride and at the bike-to-run transition.

      10.) Look forward to more. Body marking means everyone can see your age. The few times I’d pass someone, I’d feel proud until I got close enough to see that they were in their upper 40s, 50s or 60s and I was surprised every time, because not only were they performing as younger, they looked it. This sport is so incredibly healthy as it uses muscles throughout your whole body, increases your cardio-vascular endurance, and is quite safe.