A Runner’s Flirtation with Tri

By Hayden Shearman.

On Sunday I raced the ITU Auckland standard distance triathlon (which doubled as the age group NZ champs). 

I have entered three sprint triathlons before: the first on a rusty mountain bike with a carrier, the second wearing a thick surfing wetsuit and borrowing a friend’s road bike, and the third just last weekend as a warm up for this.

My preparation for this race was better than any before and this time I was actually going to RACE rather than complete. Plus, this would be the first time I would take on the seemingly massive 1500m swim. 

Triathlon Flirtation

THE SWIM

Being in the 30-34 age group, I was in the first wave of starters (years 16 to 34), which meant a clear road in front of us. The gun went and the splashing began. After entering both a sprint triathlon last weekend and a swim/run event a month ago, I had a fair idea of what to expect. But I still felt I was in the midst of a shark feeding frenzy with splashing everywhere and limbs flying at you from all directions.

Despite all the chaos, I was pleased to discover that I was actually moving forward and my six weeks of 3-5 swims per week were actually paying off.

I’ve been a surfer for decades so have roughly always known what my arms are meant to do when swimming, but it’s the legs that needed training in the pool. Without a surfboard to prop them up, I’ve had to learn to kick and not let my feet sink behind me.

The other major struggle I’ve found with swimming is the boredom. I think I view swimming like most people do running. I’d do 10 minutes and think I had swum for at least 30. I’d do 25 or 50m sprints, be totally out of breath, and realise the guy next to me is just cruising at the same speed (and taking about half as many strokes).

Getting to the pool or sea and doing a session longer than 15 minutes was a really massive mental challenge. So I did with myself what I encourage many of the beginner runners I coach to do. I swam regularly, but short.

A long, hard workout has great physiological benefits, but it can also leave you apprehensive about going out there and doing it again at the same distance and intensity. Meaning you don’t workout as often. If I did a 2.5k swim one day it would seem too big a hurdle to drag myself out of bed early two days later to do the same. So instead I’d just swim 500m to 1500m almost everyday. Just tick the box, get in the water, and get a few hundred metres under my belt.

This regularity gave me the confidence to start seeing myself as a swimmer and created a habit of regularly heading to the water.

The other factors that really helped my swim were:

  • doing a one-on-one technique lesson with local legend Brent Foster (who did an incredible 17:34 swim on Sunday),
  • spending hours watching Ian Thorpe in slow-mo,
  • and introducing some workouts into my swimming.

The speed work in particular transformed my swimming from just two paces (easy and all out) to find those comfortably hard middle speeds.

Many of my workouts leading up to the race were done at around 1:30 per 100m pace. This helped to set a target of 22:30 for the swim. So after having a few other guys around me to draft/get kicked in the goggles, at half way I was alone and in clear water, leaving me to find my rhythm and spot the buoys. I came out of the water a little dizzy and puffed but otherwise fine as I took a look at my watch.

22:19. (I later found out that this time was 60th overall out of 396 finishers, 6th in my age group.)

Stoked. Job number one done.

THE BIKE

I had played around with different approaches to the first transition. But my bike shoes have annoying straps that are difficult to put on when riding. So I was resigned to putting the shoes on first, running on the cleats, then stopping at the bike mount line, clipping in and finally get riding. It worked okay except that the combo of wet concrete (due to people exiting the swim), a 150m run, and two tight corners made me look more like a drunk ice skater pushing a bike than a triathlete.

Once on the bike, I started hammering the pedals, forgetting for the first few kilometres that it was a 40km-long bike ride. My GPS was reading well over 40kph so I eased back and just focused on clearing the nostrils of salt water snot (seriously gross and apologies to any marshals who I may have inadvertently sprayed) and taking on some fluids.

Cycling was the sport I gave the least time to in training. I do use my bike to get to the gym or store a few times a week but only really dusted it off three weeks beforehand for some 2-hour rides and some 1-hour interval/hill sessions. And the Mt Eden Cycles groups on Tuesday and Thursday mornings helped to throw me back in the deep end to some faster riding.

The bike course on the triathlon was 3 x 13.3km loops with one hair pin turn, ideal for judging my place. As expected, at this first turn I was around 5 minutes back from the leader, but the others were spread out nicely with a handful coming back to me (who clearly were more swimmers than cyclists). I figured I was sitting in about 22nd place mid way through that first bike lap.

At the end of each lap we shot two thirds the way up Queen Street, pedaling up a nice hill near Aotea Square. I love hills on the bike, so embraced this every time, getting up out of my seat, hammering the pedals, and passing a few guys. Back on the flat these guys would pass me again, but I found I was able to hold that 39-40kph speed alright.

The most confusing thing about triathlons is the drafting rule. You’re allowed to draft in the swim and run but not on the bike. Sure it makes a huge advantage if you can draft, but it makes for a logistical nightmare for officials and athletes.

We were told to leave a no-go zone of 10m behind a cyclist and 1.5m either side. But distances are so hard to judge when sweat is pouring off your goggle-lined face, trying to work out what gear to sit in, fumbling for gels and drink bottles, and dodging the slower cyclists who were now joining the race from the later starting waves. So I erred on the side of caution and left massive gaps to guys riding a similar speed as me and so never really had any company on the bike.

At the final hill my legs where probably 95% jelly, but I like hills so much that I channeled my inner Chris Froome, jumped on the pedals and smashed it like the race finish line was at the top. The downhill gave me a little rest and a chance to spin the legs, getting them ready for the run.

My bike time for the 40km was a rather magical 1:01:11 (more magical numbers still to come!).

THE RUN

T2 went far smoother than T1. And this time I remembered to take my helmet off, which I failed to do at my practice sprint triathlon a week earlier!

Thankfully they had a marshall telling us what place we were overall at the start of the run. I was in 20th.

Before the race I had quietly hoped for a top-10 finish in my age group, so given that my starting wave included four age groups, I was confident I must already be in the top-10.

Twentieth soon became 16th as a handful of guys faded early in the run.

I looked at my GPS at about 1k. After thinking I was running about 4min/km, it read 3:17min/km! My legs felt so dead after the bike ride and I felt like my stride length was only about a foot long—so I assumed my watch was playing up. But either the watch or my body settled down and I found a nice rhythm at a pace of 3:28min/km.

Somewhere around 3k of the 10k run I picked up 15th place and began scanning the course ahead for my next target. But I couldn’t see a soul. There was just this massive chasm between me and the next place (it could have been 90 seconds or it could have been 10 minutes).

By the turnaround, at 5k, I still hadn’t spotted anyone and there were also more runners joining the two-lap course, so it now became virtually impossible to spot my competitors. I also realised here that I would need to pull out a 15min final 5k (3min/km pace) to go sub-2 hours. This was not going to happen.

Whoever said that “without vision the people perish” must have raced a triathlon, because with the two carrots of a sub-2 time and of picking up extra places gone from my view I really began to suffer.

The fine weather that had produced the beautifully calm swim surface and relatively easy bike ride, now made the run feel like a sauna. The shaded areas provided incredible reprieve, but the white apartment blocks, glassy harbour and cobbled pavements transformed the waterfront run course into the insides of a thermos flask. I felt like I was running through soup and my legs were noodles.

It was here, and not on the bike itself, where my lack of cycle training and slightly inadequate hydration (I drank one electrolyte bottle on the bike and probably should have had two) started to really hurt. I began groaning (not a good sign) from about 7km and was so delirious that when a marshal signaled which way to go about one second too late I ran straight into a tree! At the time, I thought I had broken my finger trying to fend off it’s branches, but it (my finger, not the tree—the tree was fine) has come right since then.

My pace slipped into the high 3:30s and the groaning increased.

My only goal now was to get to the finish without a trip to ED. Turning the tight corners on the course became increasingly harder and when some spectators crossed the course in front of me I was relieved I didn’t have to side step them because I don’t know if my legs could have pulled the manoeuvre off.

The ocean blue of the finish line carpet is now officially my favourite colour (and I don’t even believe in favourite colours!). It was such a relief to feel it beneath my feet and hear the beep of my transponder crossing the timing mats.

The announcer read out my name, saying I was in 5th place in the 30-34 age group. I stumbled straight into the first aid tent and waddled around in its shade asking for water. I took off my shoes and realised I had two massive burst blisters on my toes (the price of not wearing socks). Eventually the first aid staff pointed me to the recovery hydration tables where I downed some electrolyte, a banana and an ice cream. Heck yes. Thank you Tip Top!

My run time was 34:39 (although I felt the course must have been a wee bit short).

SUMMING UP THE FLIRTATION

At 16th overall (disregarding teams) and 5th in my age group, incredibly, my finishing time was 2:02:22—exactly double my bike time. Amazing.

It’s a sign from heaven that triathlons are for me.

So long running.

Hello Triathlon World Champs in Canada in September. Hello five pool sessions of 4-5km per week. Hello twelve hours of cycling per week. Hello again to 100k of running each week. Hello expensive racing gear and expensive race entries. Goodbye life.

No, I’m still a runner through and through.

The natural simplicity of it compared to triathlon is what I love about running. Just getting from A to B as fast you can using only your own body—you can’t beat that.

Triathlon is fun and I’m sure I’ll do one or two each summer. But as a runner, at no point in the race did I feel comfortable or in control. I was expecting to feel that way during the run once my legs warmed up, but if you’re feeling comfortable on the run I think it’s a good sign you haven’t gone hard enough on the bike and swim.

It’s what I love about running a half marathon or marathon: that first half of the race where you feel like a runner, then fatigue sets in and you switch to racing mode. But in this triathlon I felt I was racing the whole time. Always on edge. Always pushing harder. Always with some sort of gear, drafting, course, or placing factor to think about. In a running race you only need shoes, shorts and a race number. The race leader is the leader, there are no age groups, just you vs the clock. Simple. Brilliant.

PS. Sticking around to watch the men’s and women’s pro races made me really appreciate how phenomenal they are. On a much hillier course, the guys were pounding the bike the whole way. The racing was ruthless as guys were getting dropped off packs and pulled off the course (for being too slow). Then to run 31 or 30 minutes for 10k after all that. In the heat of the day. Very impressed. 

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6 responses to “A Runner’s Flirtation with Tri

  1. As a spectator I was suffering in the heat so I can onlly imagine what running in it must have been like. Yet still you completed it in a phenomenal time! Congratulations, Hayden!

  2. Well done my friend. Great to hear of your “flirtation” with triathlon panning out so well. I was glad I was there to see the rusty bike in the first one at Scorching Bay – and you still won – so I knew then you were born to be a triathlete. I am so glad you have embraced it more fully and had such a great result on the weekend. Good on you cobber and the best of luck in Edmonton. Go give ’em a taste of Kiwi. Kind regards, Steve.

    • Thanks Steve. Yeah I remember your kind encouragement on that first triathlon. I think I will give Edmonton a miss though as I’m really keen to nail a good half marathon this year and maybe a full at the end of the year, so the bike will have to be resigned to grocery store trips again. I’m going to keep up some swimming though and then perhaps line up another tri next summer.

      Hope you are well!

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