Most triathletes get their start in the sport by racing a sprint triathlon based in a local pool. This experience can be horrifying or exhilarating or maybe a bit of both. Let’s take a look at what race day looks like at a typical pool swim sprint triathlon. Knowing how the race usually plays out in advance should move the needle much closer to exhilarating.
So the week before the race you checked all of your gear including your bike and made sure that every item was ready and in good working order. Then the night before you used a checklist you found online to make sure that you and packed everything you would need including your bike. If possible you pick up your race packet the evening before the race.
Race Day Morning
You rise before dawn and go out to your car, truck or van and run through the checklist one last time. You head out early so you can be at the race site the minute that transition opens. Once you arrive you pick up your race packet including race number and timing chip, get body marked and take your bike and gear into transition. FYI the strap holding the timing chip goes on your left ankle because your chainrings are on the right side of your bike. You don’t want that strap to get caught in your chainrings.
In some transition areas you rack your bike by your race number. If this is the case you take your bike to that spot and set up your gear. At many small local sprints you can pick your spot on a first come basis. If so set up near the aisle close to the bike exit. In either case walk around the transition area. You especially want to walk in from the pool and make sure you can find your bike. Look for landmarks, count the number of rows from the swim entrance to your bike, bring a brightly colored towel. In short have a system. Once the race starts you don’t want to be running around trying to find your bike.
Now that you’re set up, hit the bathroom or portajohn. If there’s a line you didn’t get to the race site early enough. If allowed get in the pool for a couple practice laps before the race. Yes you’ll be cold and wet waiting for the race to start and yes, you will thank me later. Finally no matter what be at the pre-race meeting. The race director has important things to tell you.
The Swim: Nerves & Numbing Cold
You’ll start the swim by getting into a long line. You will usually line up based on your projected swim time. Sometimes you will be asked to enter your projected time when you sign up for the race. Sometime the race participants are just asked to line up by swim time. Some people will call out their time and folks will sort themselves accordingly.
So how do you determine your swim time? You go to a pool with a waterproof sports watch and time how long it takes you to swim the distance. If the swim is 300 yards then you time yourself swimming 300 yards and write it down to make sure you remember it correctly. Now you’re asking yourself can I just swim 100 yards as fast as I can and just multiply by 3? No because if you do that your swim time will be too fast, and you’ll wind up slowing down people who did it correctly.
You should also know that a fair percentage of people will get their swim time wrong or just guess. This will cause backups and bottlenecks in the swim. Pool-swim sprints are famous for these. It addition to people who got their swim times wrong, you may also bump into someone doing the elementary backstroke or someone power walking through the swim. If this happens, and it probably will, be patient. This is a local sprint triathlon not the Olympic trials. Perspective grasshopper perspective.
If this is your first race, you will probably be near the end of the swim line. At first the line will appear not to move at all. Then it will move slowly. Then suddenly it will be your turn to go. There will likely be a moment of panic. Don’t fight it. Just relax and swim your race. If it’s May and an outdoor pool and you didn’t do those practice laps, the coldness of the water will take your breath and maybe your focus.
There are three things you want to be very clear about on the swim: pool entry, traffic flow through the lanes and pool exit. The race director covers these at the pre-race meeting. Pool entry is usually done by jumping in feet first but there are some races where diving in is required. Depending on the size of the pool and the number of triathletes, you generally swim either a pool length or a pool lap in one lane then duck under the lane rope, enter a new lane and continue in this fashion until you come to the swim exit.
Traffic in the lanes can be one-way or two-way. If it’s one-way it will be easier to pass slow swimmers. If it’s two-way passing a slow swimmer means risking a head-on collusion with another swimmer.
Prediction: You will go out too fast on the swim. After a couple lengths you’ll realize that you can’t maintain this pace. Slow down and get back into the grove. You may get short of breath and have to hang on the side of the pool for a minute to collect yourself. This may be a blow to your ego, and you may think that everyone is looking at you. It’s not the end of the world, and the rest of the swimmers are way too busy to notice you. Breathe and get back in the race.
The pool exit may be steps, or running through a wading pool or just jumping out at the end of the lane.
The Bike: Hills & Thrills
Exiting the pool you run to transition and find your bike. Now you put on your bike gear including the all-important helmet. You run your bike through transition, pass the mount/dismount line, jump on and ride. If you checked out the course online and then drove it in your car or rode it on your bike, you know what you’re up against. If you haven’t or couldn’t check out the bike course, it’s likely that someone warned you to watch out for about a big hill after a sharp curve on a street with a lot of trees. You will either never find this hill or find three that fit this description. I don’t know why.
Prediction: You will go out too fast on the bike. You will discover after a couple miles that your paceis , to use an economics term, unsustainable. Slow down, breathe and ride. When you get close to transition, slow and look for the mount/dismount line. You have to stop and dismount before you get to the line.
The Run: Waddle Faster
You run your bike back into transition, rack it and put on your run gear. You’re about to learn why this blog is called Swim, Bike, Stumble. If you did some bike/run brick workouts before the race you’re prepared for what’s about to happen. If not you’ll discover that when you head out on the run, you can’t run. You’ll start out at a waddle. It will feel like you left your quads and hamstrings out on the bike course.
You will get closer and closer to an actual running stride the further you go. In a mile or so you’ll be running somewhat normally. Prediction: You will go out too fast on the run. Early in the run you’ll notice that you’re breathing hard, your legs are straining and people are passing you. Welcome to my world. Again slow down, breathe and find a rhythm. Run your race. Everyone is dying on the run. If you have to take a walk break or two to catch your breath do so. Don’t pass up the water stop. Keep chugging until you cross that finish line. Congratulations you just finished your first triathlon. Stumble on!