Philadelphia Triathlon-turned-Duathlon

On the eve of the Philly tri, I was excited to hear confirmation that, as of 5 am that morning, the water temperature of the Schuylkill River was 83 degrees. Redemption!, I thought, thinking back to my last triathlon, when the Mooseman Triathlon had cancelled the lake swim because of early morning thundershowers. For any USAT-sanctioned triathlon, if the water temperature is above 78 degrees, wetsuits can be worn "at the participant's discretion," but disqualifies anyone who does so from receiving any age-group awards.

Wetsuits are known as the Great Equalizer; they help everyone due to their buoyancy factor, but they help poorer swimmers far more than better swimmers. I was wringing my hands in excitement at the thought of a non-wetsuit swim, which would help me tremendously; I should be able to distance myself from poorer swimmers more on the 0.9-mile swim - which would translate into a delayed passing on the bike (by far my weakest leg of the triathlon). I eagerly envisioned treading water, sans wetsuit, surrounded by other age-groupers who were blasting blasphemies at the sun and its effects on Schuylkill River warming.

Later that night, I wandered around downtown Philly and shuddered at the combination of ugly architecture, heavy humidity, a population that clearly exceeded their weekly quota of cheesesteaks, and smoke climbing out of sewage gutters. My friends who were also competing and I joined the DC Tri group at Buca di Beppo for a pasta feast. Thanks to our wonderful waitress who refilled our water pitcher about 5 times throughout the dinner!

The morning of the triathlon, my friend and I woke up at 4:15 am to an alarm ringing somewhere off in the distance. Usually, any night before a big event like a race or a book signing or a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance*, I don’t sleep well; I wake up every 45 minutes to check that I haven’t slept through my alarm, and the slightest sound will make me perk up, thinking that I’ve overslept. It might have been the pasta or the incessant heat in DC from the past two weeks, but I slept like a hibernating polar bear that night. When the alarm rang at 4:15, I had to mentally give myself a pep talk to open my heavy lids and get ready to race in heatstroke-impending weather. I groaned and mentally willed the alarm to turn back time; couldn’t I get just another 5 hours, please?

I accepted the inevitable and rolled out of bed at 4:17. Twenty minutes later, my friend Heather and I were out the door, wheeling our bikes through the hotel hallways and verbalizing out loud how excited we were. It took a bit – well, that’s being generous – to navigate our way through the one-way streets downtown, but eventually we pulled up alongside a sporty chic-mobile that had a tri bike on the back rack. She zealously proclaimed that “Yes! I’m on my way to the race! Just follow me – I’m leading other people there, too!” We hopped on the navigating-impaired train and found our way near the transition area. We’d wanted to get to the transition area as early as possible for two reasons: 1. there had been rumors that bike racking wasn’t assigned, and was done on a first-come, first-serve basis, and 2. we didn’t want to get caught behind a long line of triathletes waiting to board the shuttles to the swim start area 1 mile up the river bank.

I quickly made friends with the girls racked next to me, and we chatted about the topics that only newbie triathletes find titillating: what the race course was like, bike envy from the $5000+ tri bikes that were shining on rack spots 1-100, what nasty viruses we might contract from the river, and our idiosyncrasies: fear of open water, inability to slip out of our wetsuits in less than 20 seconds, and the different methods of peeing while racing.

Twenty minutes after the first shuttle was supposed to have left for the race start 1.5 km up the Schuylkill River, the race director’s voice boomed over the entire transition area: “Olympic-distance triathletes: welcome to the Philly Tri! As most of you know by now, a triathlete went missing yesterday during the swim portion of the sprint-distance triathlon. Philadelphia’s search-and-rescue team and the police are searching the Schuylkill River for his body, and today's swim has been canceled. The race today will be a duathlon, with the 1.5K swim replaced by a 5K run that follows the sprint run course in reverse."

Groans and cheers from the triathletes pointed to who the strong and the weak swimmers were. A swim teammate and I complained about the last-minute change, and I sullenly put away my Luna bar and peach. If I were running in 30 minutes, I didn't want still-digesting breakfast to be sitting heavily in my stomach.

The Mooseman triathlon only three weeks earlier had also canceled the swim due to early morning thundershowers, and I thought it a personal curse to have two consecutive triathlons cancel the swim. My friend Heather helped me put it into perspective when she turned the conversation away from the fact that the swim got canceled to the reason it did: a 46-year-old, first-time triathlete hadn't emerged from the swim portion, and at the end of the sprint-distance race, his bike was still racked and his family still waiting at the transition area. The Schuylkill River seemed calm from the banks, but apparently could have a strong undercurrent.

The pros kicked off the day at 6:50 am, and heats followed at 5-minute intervals. Before my 25-29 and 40-44 female heat took off, the first male pros were already barreling their way back from the 5K run. My friend and I stared at each other in disbelief - these guys were running around a 5:30 mile pace. Ridiculous.

Our heat took off at 7:20, and the 5K run was an out-and-back course. Nothing really ever goes through my mind when I run, and I usually amuse myself with reading the age numbers off of people's calves. The 5K was a relentlessly unshaded stretch that felt good because I was fresh and didn't see any female calves with the digits 25 through 29 ahead of me, but tortuous because I knew I'd soon be running in more intense heat and with far more depleted legs twice this distance for the final leg of the duathlon.

I came in from the 5K at 22:14 and quickly traded out my pink Zoots for my bike shoes. Helmet strapped, sunglasses on. There were a lot of non-racers standing in the transition area who just seemed to be chatting, which confused me because they were in the way of people trying to navigate their bikes through the racks to the "Bike Out" chute. I still don't know why they were there; they didn't seem to be race officials, and they definitely weren't racing.

The 40K bike course was a double-loop course that took us through random streets in Philly, up a short but steep hill that had a Team in Training tent waiting at the top, complete with cowbell-yielding cheerers, and alongside the 10K run portion. The bike is by far my weakest leg, and I was getting passed by heavy guys on $3000+ Cervelos and pointy helmets and lapped by the pros who had started 25 minutes earlier. I winced each time a female passed me with the digits 25-29 engraved on her calf, knowing that she was displacing me in my age group. During my 2nd loop, I biked along pros who were finishing out the 10K run portion of the last leg, and had that fleeting jealousy of wishing that I were where they are now.

Yikes! 1:18:33 for the bike portion - about 6 minutes slower than the other girls in my age group who were posting similar run times. Gotta work on the bike. In the transition area, those floating people - chatters, really - were still standing around, naively blocking the way to bike racks. I ran around a group of 3 just standing there, and racked my bike. A burly, 200+ pound man barreled in next to me, focused on getting out of transition as fast as possible. The chatters sprang into action: "Hey! HEY! This isn't your rack! Your bike number - your rack's down there!" They shooed the confused-looking man away from the bike rack that hosted Female 25-29, and pointed him down to the racks for the older men. Who makes a mistake like that? Who can't read the numbers on their bib and bike and match them with the numbers in bold on each bike rack? At least those people standing around in the transition area had some purpose.

10K run was hot. Every water station, I grabbed a cup and poured it over my head. I could feel the water evaporating from the heat, and I knew that I should have hydrated and fueled better on the bike. It was surprising how many people were walking the course, and there were several people along the course who clearly had succumbed to the heat - I saw 2 rescue vehicles that were escorting dehydrated runners to the medical tent. Whenever I spotted a chick ahead of me, I targeted her flitting ponytail, convincing myself that she was in my age group. A 40-something-year-old man and I stayed within 10 meters of each other, trading spots throughout the last 6K of the run. The home stretch was a relief; I saw the balloon arches and envisioned water, G2, and plopping down in the shade. The 10K leg took me 46:07, but felt like it was 20 minutes slower.

For a triathlete like me, there is no glorious tape to break or wreath of shrubbery placed gently around your head or neck; the fans lining the chute cheer for anyone and everyone coming in as they wait for their own relative to cross the finish line. I'd only come down with my own friends who were racing, and had passed them on the course, so no "GOOOOOO, Mindy!" or bear hugs greeted me when I finished. The 40-year-old runner that I'd paced with gave me a high five and a nod, too tired to speak. I shuttled through the triathletes who were doubled over, recovering from the heat, or just standing there waiting for someone to guide them to the food and med tent. I came face-to-sweaty face with a chubby high-schooler who stared at me. I stared back. "I need your chip," he said, without breaking his stare. I placed my ankle with the chip a step forward, expecting him to bend down and tear off the timing strap that held my timing chip. His eyes didn't move from mine. I slowly bent down and unwrapped my timing strap, exaggerating the amount of effort it took for me to remove it. The boy tossed the timing chip into a bucket full of other wet and sweaty chips, and stepped in front of another about-to-collapse racer. "I need your chip."

I wandered around the finish area for a while, chatting with Eric from my swim team who I'd seen on the bike course, drinking two containers of chocolate milk, staring at the congealed cheese on the pizza before deciding it just looked too disgusting to justify eating it, and searching for my soon-to-finish friends. I caught up with most of them and we collectively complained about the heat. One of my fitter friends collapsed when he crossed the finish line and was carried off to the med tent to get fluids; another friend from Team in Training had injured his IT band during the 10K and was escorted to the med tent as well.

News circulated near the finish line that the body of the missing triathlete from Saturday's race had been recovered from the Schuylkill River during our duathlon. Rumors about the cause of his death - exhaustion, not knowing how to swim, strong undercurrents - flitted around the race results tent, but everyone was giving me different versions of the story, so of course I can't give any conclusive report. In a single, simple word, it's sad. Sad to think that a triathlete who had trained for his first triathlon and invited his family to support him through the race hadn't emerged from the water. Sad because a triathlon is supposed to be a celebratory event, no matter what time you cross that finish line or how many people finish in front of you. Triathlons are fun and addicting, and no matter how many people tout cycling as dangerous or open water swimming as a guarantee of contracting unpronounceable diseases, I'll keep on training and racing.

My numbers crunched from the Philly Duathlon:
5K Run: 22:14
40K Bike: 1:18:33
10K Run: 46:07
Total time out there in the brutal heat: 2:29:56
I placed 5th in my age group, which didn't qualify me for any of the shiny medals, but I rewarded myself with a fat, juicy, overflowing Philly cheesesteak and some crunchy, generously-oiled fries from Pat's before hitting the road back to DC.

*yet to happen

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