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My First Triathlon: Training Tips and More!

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The Audacity to Tri

It's 80 degrees in the oven-dry Nevada desert at just past 8 a.m., and I still have two more miles to run. Problem is, my quads and calves strain against all forward movement. As women around me slow from run to walk, I pass them in what feels like the stop-motion mode of an astronaut jogging on the moon. I ignore my deepest urge to collapse on a roadside curb by dumping a cup of ice-cold water from the nearby aid station over my head.

I didn't come all the way from New York City to become roadkill on the final leg of the Aflac Iron Girl Lake Las Vegas Women's Triathlon. And wasn't I once a kick-butt middle-distance runner in college who flew through a mile in 4:43? I could eat a 5K like this for breakfast — if it weren't for that 800-meter swim and 30K bike ride that I spent the past hour and a half racing. It's unfair that this last leg, the one I should have in the bag, feels the hardest.

Yet I keep moving. Because the craziest part of this triathlon is not the pain or the fact that I trained three and a half months to endure it, but that despite my exhaustion, I love every second of it.

Let the Training Begin

Back in New York, I'd burned out on competing with my amateur running club and had spent the previous year without so much as a gym membership. Last time I remember swimming was from a sandbar to a raft in my neighborhood lake as a kid, and the one and only bike I'd ever owned had a makeshift second seat for my Barbie. Somehow this didn't stop me from volunteering when FITNESS was looking for a guinea pig to do a triathlon.

Before I knew it, I was posting online polls for readers to pick my coach (Neil Cook at Asphalt Green Triathlon Club in New York City) and everything from my wetsuit to my wheels. I relearned to swim at Friday night lessons, where my sagging legs were captured instant replay-style on video, and to ride a bike while clipped into the pedals — in city traffic! At the crack of dawn every Tuesday from February through April, I met up with other sleepy amateurs to run sprints across a soccer field on Coach Cook's command. I hauled around sweaty gear nonstop — to the office, work events, and dinners with friends.

All of which was meant to get me to a starting line some 2,200 miles away on an early spring morning.

Coach's Tip: Begin all training runs with plyometric drills like butt kicks, skipping, and high knees to warm up properly.

Check out the gear Rachel used, including items selected by you, the readers!

Ready, Set, Go!

In my wetsuit and pink race-issued swim cap, I'm hard to pick out among the 661 other women being released one by one into 320-acre man-made Lake Las Vegas, just 17 miles from the Strip. Within the first five minutes, some are already backstroking, others cling to safety paddleboards to catch their breath, and the rest of us swim over, under, and on top of one another.

I rehearsed this inevitable collision course for months in the pool, but I'm not prepared for the swelling waves. During the first part of the half-mile course, I pop my head up for a look-see like a gopher every time I turn it for a breath. Except that this tactic breaks my flow and causes drag. I imagine my vigilant swim coach, Mike Galvan, yelling "Keep your head down!" at me and heed his advice at the halfway point. I begin passing people for the first time.

Coach's Tip: As you stroke, use your lats, or upper back muscles, not just your shoulders. Imagine stretching your arms to reach over something.

On the dash up the beach to the parking lot transition area, I peel off the top part of my wetsuit down to my next layer of spandex. When I reach my bike, I quickly kick off the bottom half. I put on my helmet and sunglasses and towel sand off my feet before I strap on my clip-in cycling shoes. The 30K (about 19 miles) bike course begins with a half mile uphill — a sign that this will be no leisurely ride. I'm surrounded by almost every kind of bike imaginable: sleek tri racers, 1970s road bikes, mountain bikes, and cruisers with baskets. I overtake a girl half my age and then get passed by a woman more than twice my years. Recalling all the times Coach Galvan pushed the pace in practice to see if I could keep up, I shift to a higher gear and pedal behind her.

Coach's Tip: Make sure you buckle your helmet before mounting your bike in a race or you'll automatically be disqualified.

After nine miles of trailing her, something suddenly clicks in my head: I want to compete. "Go get her," I think. I feel an adrenaline rush I haven't experienced since I was on the straightaway to the finish line in college track, seven years ago. Coach Cook always said to empty the tank on the second half, and now I understand what that means. Instead of just pushing your pedals, push your limits. At mile 15, I pass her as I mentally high-five myself. I go hard for the last three miles, barely noticing the charming residential neighborhood around me. On the final mile downhill I fearlessly pedal and feather the brakes only when I come to 45-degree turns.

I pull into the transition area to drop off my bike and make a run for it on the concrete racecourse. The 5K starts with a mini hill, which proves to be an instant buzz kill. Though I trained for this very moment by practicing bike-to-run "bricks" in Central Park, my legs are shaky and miss the momentum of pedaling. I continue into the desert — a stark contrast to the resort's emerald green trees and manicured lawns. A mile later I reach the turnaround point of the out-and-back course: a giant hard-packed sand hill. As I struggle to hold my pace on the way up, I focus on the downhill in my future, when gravity will give me a shove.

Coach's Tip: Nothing new on race day. That means food, socks, shoes — everything — should have been tested at least once during practice.

I'm weighing the bliss of walking (it's my first triathlon; I can do whatever I want!) when a group of three women, just now heading into the desert, wish me luck. I gasp out a "You, too!" and find the energy to power through the slight yet excruciating incline to the finish.

When I pass under the arching pink banner at the end, I'm happy, but oddly not Rocky-moment happy. No Breaking Away celebration. No Chariots of Fire sound track. I realize it's because my head is no longer in this race; it's already in the next one. I walk my bike back to my hotel and, unshowered, begin surfing the Web for race number two — when I'll really be ready for a comeback!

Four Races Worth a Tri

Earn your bragging rights at one of these sprint or Olympic-distance races.

1. Avia Wildflower Triathlon Festival

The 29th annual Avia Wildflower Triathlon Festival race in Bradley, California, boasts more than 7,500 competitors (beginner and elite), who camp out on-site, sit around bonfires, and listen to live music — true to its nickname, the Woodstock of Triathlon. (May 1, 2011; 1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run; $150 registration fee)

Learn more at tricalifornia.com

2. Danskin Triathlon Series

The Danskin Triathlon Series is the largest and longest-running race of its kind. Among the six beginner-friendly courses in six states, our favorite is the sprint tri in Orlando, which cuts through Walt Disney World. (May 8, 2011; half-mile swim, 12-mile bike, 3.1-mile run; $115 registration fee)

Learn more at danskintriathlon.net

Iron Girl National Event Series

Race alongside other newbies in the women-only Iron Girl National Event Series in locations such as California, Colorado, Georgia, New York, and Wisconsin. (March through November; distances and prices vary)

Learn more at irongirl.com

Nautica New York City Triathlon

While the Big Apple is known for its marathon, the Nautica New York City Triathlon is equally memorable. You'll swim with the fast-moving Hudson River current (and surely break your old swim PRs), pedal in and out of the Bronx, and run to the finish in Central Park. (August 7, 2011; 1,500-meter swim, 40K bike, 10K run; $245 registration fee)

Learn more at nyctri.com

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2010

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