Lessons Learned From My First Olympic Distance Triathlon

The start cannon erupted with a quake “BOOM!” I took off from the beach and sprinted into to ocean. The dark choppy water was a balmy 78 degrees Fahrenheit and would be my fate for the next 30 minutes along with a few hundred other athletes… “wait a second, where are those other athletes?” Looking around, I only see one or two other people along side of me as I start my first few swim strokes. That’s when I hear it, “stop, turn around, COME BACK!”, I thought maybe there had been a false start, but as I stood up out of the water, I saw a few hundred other people waiting patiently to go under the inflatable race arch that allowed our ankle fastened time chips to officially track our progress. I felt like such a doofus! My pre-race adrenaline had made me completely miss the announcement that all athletes were to first enter under the race arch then head out into the water. Not a great start. Undeterred though, I ran back to the start line and jumped into the mass of athletes all taking on the same challenge of completing an Olympic Distance Triathlon. Let’s do this!

After being postponed due to COVID-19 in 2020, I was ecstatic to hear that the Pensacola Triathlon, held at the illustrious Vince J. Wibbs Community Park, was once again on for 2021. Leading up the race I had to take a different approach to my training than in years past and fit in a swim, bike, or run in every nook and cranny of time that I could carve out between being a full-time husband, father, home renovator, and department director at work. However, arriving at the starting transition area of the race before the sun rose on race day morning, I knew it was worth all the hard work and sacrifice. The feeling at the transition area was electric, athletes were busy tending to their noble steeds (bicycles for the un-initiated) and stocking their various race gear essentials; race number, helmet, sunglasses, snacks, water bottles, and running shoes. I was elated to be there and was even more thrilled that Heather and the boys were able to make the trip to Pensacola with me. Fortunately, there had been last minute cancelation at a hotel not more than a quarter mile away from the starting line. With a final hug and kiss of my family I ran the three tenths of mile to the start of the swim course to begin my first ever attempt at an Olympic Distance Triathlon, over the next 2 hours and 38 minutes I figured out a few things about myself and life in general that I think are worth sharing.  

First, always follow directions. Even though I had a less than perfect start, when I did make it back into the salty bay, I was able to really begin the race in earnest. Which is where I learned the second thing of the day. Humans are tough, or crazy…not sure which yet. The open water swim consisted of one giant 1500-meter square loop heading out into the Pensacola Bay and back to the starting beach area. During the swim, us athletes were pounded with what I felt to be 4-foot minor tsunami waves but later discovered to be more like a foot and half. Still, for a pool trained boy like me, the waves were grueling. For much of the swim out I was reduced to a breaststroke as I could not nail down my freestyle stroke with the constant bashing of waves. I noticed on the swim I was not the only person who had to do so, yet I also noticed a lot of athletes, over half the field, ahead of me. I consider myself to be a pretty fit guy, but the swim was a great equalizer as most of the people who were ahead of me were several years my senior. Nice going folks. During the swim, there were instances where I felt like I was being waterboarded by the waves and in those recovery moments you realize that you are essentially in the middle of the ocean swimming away from shore and your visibility is very limited, it almost was claustrophobia inducing. I really questioned why myself or anyone would put themselves through something like this but at the same time I knew that I truly wanted to complete the event because it would mean something to me, to do something I had never done before. I continued on. Once I made it past the turnaround point was able to get into a steady rhythm with the waves pushing me to shore. Even with the waves though; sighting, or seeing where your going while in full swim, was difficult at such a long distance.

Thoroughly drenched, I emerged from the water feeling a bit tired, but excited to get onto the next leg of the race. I threw on my shoes and ran to the transition area. During the 26-mile bike course I learned that everybody is living their own life out on the racecourse. Some people like to pace themselves; some like to draft and take it easy, others like to go all out then blow up later. I saw all these things and more on the bike leg and looking back my reflection is that in the sense of the triathlon we were all in the race together pursuing the same goal yet each one of us was having our own unique race experience apart. After the race, no matter what journey we had we all got to celebrate our shared goal of finishing. Wouldn’t it be nice if in life we all had a shared goal or vision?

For me, my goal was to keep it together on the bike and my training paid off big time here as I was able to keep a steady 20 mph pace throughout the whole ride. The day was beginning to heat up here and I took in a lot of fluids to prevent, as best I could, a “hit the wall” type moment on the run portion. Coming into transition for the last leg of the race I was able to receive a surge of energy from seeing my wife and kids another time and set off onto the 10K with led filled legs. Thankfully, the “brick phase”, or the moment between when your legs adjust from cycling to running, did not last long for me and I was able to settle into my race pace of around 6:05 minutes per mile. Out on the run I began to notice all of the other athletes. Prior to the race we were all body marked with our race number and age. Oddly enough, they marked our age on the backside of our calves so every runner I passed on the two-loop course I was able to see how old they were. Very few of the athletes were in their twenties like me, most were in the 35-65 range. It was nice to see so many people, at different points in their lives, compete in such a strenuous event. It was gratifying and sobering. I felt glad to be a part of something like the triathlon and was proud of all the athletes and volunteers who gave their time to make the race possible.

Even with the thoughts of appreciation settling in, the day was heating up into the high 80s and my endurance was starting to wane with the quick pace I was pushing. At the halfway point on the run I had to backoff the speed and focus solely on finishing. During the last mile or so it was all a mental game. My body was ready to throw in the towel but, for pride and to honor my family support group at the finish line, I was not going to walk for anything. I imagine it was the same feeling for many of the other athletes on the day. Endurance sports, like triathlon, enable us “weekend warriors” to get out of our daily lives for a few hours and truly live in the moment. Even though these races are exhausting, the sense of accomplishment and respect for life we gain from completing them is something we take with us and apply back in the real world. I think that is one of the reasons why people pursue things that are difficult to them.

In the end, with a 100 meters to go I gave what remaining energy I had to flow down the finishing shoot to hear the announcer rattle off my name. “I did it!”. It was a great feeling and made all the more sweeter by being able to walk over to my family and give them a big sweaty hug. We stayed around the finish line area to enjoy in the reverie of the music blasting on the loudspeakers. it was fun seeing all the athletes with their respective friends and families enjoy themselves and catch up on the event they had just completed. Thankfully, the boys took a nap in their stroller while Heather and I were able to refuel at the race provided taco bar. Additionally, to most everyone’s liking, Michelob Ultra was a sponsor of the event and subsequently, I consumed my earliest ever beer at 9:00am in the morning. Not sure if that is a life lesson or not but ice-cold beer after a grueling sporting event was a plus. As we were waiting around the finish to see who the overall winners were, I learned that I had placed 1st in my age group and 9th overall. As I started to come down from my high, I realized how uncomfortable I was in my salt-dried tri-suit and began to long for a hot shower and dry clothes. With that, we packed up our gear and said goodbye to the bay. Now almost two weeks later, I still feel proud of accomplishing the race and am considering doing it again next. My heart says I should try for an even bigger challenge, maybe a half or full Ironman distance race but we will see. For now, I am happy to dial down the training and enjoy the process. I look forward to the next time when I can don a race number!

Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength. – Arnold Schwarzenegger

3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From My First Olympic Distance Triathlon

  1. Great summary. Glad you were able to get out and do a tri.


    1. Thanks a lot! Definitely would like to do another one.


  2. Robin Calloway June 22, 2021 — 2:47 pm

    Awesome Job Hunter! What determination! So proud of your accomplishment. For those like me, who whine when we have to walk to the mailbox (lol…jk), you are certainly an inspiration! Keep up the good work. It will certainly help you keep up with those baby boys for years to come! Congrats on your accomplishment!


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