Thursday, June 3, 2010

WTHalf: The Swim

Alright, alright, I've put this off for long enough. It's about time I document my thoughts and feelings through the Auburn "World's Toughst" Triathlon that I raced the weekend before last. It was a truly fantastic event - gorgeous and well-run, though not without its' quirks.

This being my first-ever two-transition triathlon, my first-ever Half-Ironman-distance triathlon, and my first triathlon in two years or more, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Athletes were encouraged to arrive on the scene (T2/Finish) around 5:00 AM to drop their running shoes and begin the 7-mile ride down to T1/Start. The ride down was dark and cold, but I made it. The first transition zone was filled with shivering triathletes prepping their transition areas, shrugging on their wetsuits and moving through pre-race rituals.

Despite the early hour and the chilly temps, the atmosphere was intoxicating. The start and first transition were situated deep within a state park, down a windy, one-lane road closed to spectator traffic - meaning everyone there was either helping to run the event, or participating in it. We had all braved the cold and the dark to be there, and we were all in it together. There was an unspoken camaraderie between us as we tried in vain to warm up and set our things out just right for T1.

I hung my bike on the rack and set out a pair of (non-bib) shorts, my thermal Mission jacket (pockets packed with food), a pair of gloves and a set of knee-warmers. I had two towels - one to stand on and one to dry with. My sunglasses and helmet hunt on the bike itself. Then I set about donning my wetsuit before heading into the water.

The water, by the way, was about 65°- so compared to the air, the water was actually warm. My previous open-water swims were all 51°-56° bay swims and let me tell you: the difference between 51° and 65° is ENORMOUS. It felt like bathwater. The race director mandated a 10-minute warm-up for all swimmers, so everyone was swimming about or treading water and otherwise feeling thankful that they were no longer exposed to the 40-degree air. We started from in the water, too - everyone massed behind two large, orange pylons, waited for the horn to go off, and then set off!

I made sure to stay near the front before the start, and try to find enough space that I could float pseudo-horizontally so I could get into rhythm as quickly as possible. The plan was to use my kick to get out of the main back and into whatever lead group formed, and it worked. Before we reached the first turn (of seven total turns), I was swimming with two others and we were cruising at a comfortable clip.

The steam rising off the lake proved rather disconcerting - we were swimming almost completely blind. From the water, it was impossible to see one pylon from the next until you were about halfway between the two. Not having a ton of experience swimming in open water, or even sighting, I was more than happy to let the other two lead the way.

Until the second turn.

I don't know exactly what happened, but as soon as we hooked left around the second pylon, I was in front of the other two - in front of the entire pack. One of the race officials was paddling in front of me on a bright red kayak and I think he knew we had no idea where we were swimming. That's when he began to guide us. I settled into a good rhythm, following the red kayak almost suspiciously around the third turn and then in to the close of the first lap. By the beginning of the second, I had distanced myself from the other two leaders by about three body-lengths.

"Long and strong," was my mantra, and it was easy to adhere to owing to the buoyancy of the wetsuit I was wearing. If that's what cheating feels like, I know why more people do it. I felt like a cruise missle knifing through the water, around the fifth and sixth turns and into the seventh. I upped the tempo into the final segment into the finish and busted out of the water to cheers and applause - the first competitor to complete the swim!

I ran to the transition area in relative disbelief ("Seriously? First?!") and ripped off my wetsuit. There were a few photographers around; snapping photos and asking the occasional question as I went about toweling off. Crazy. "Disclaimer," I said, "I'm not actually a good triathlete, you should probably go photograph someone who might actually win!"

Getting my wet arms through the sleeves of my thermal jersey was not easy, but I managed, after a fashion. Socks were difficult, too. With all the time I was wasting, I decided to axe the gloves and knee-warmers: I'd have to just warm up on the road.

With that, I dashed with my bike to the mount-line and set out on phase two: the bike.