This post is intended for two purposes. First and foremost it should be useful to any new triathletes wading into the sport with little or no knowledge of what they’re actually getting into. I found there to be many seemingly obvious, yet curiously undocumented, aspects to triathlons that more veteran athletes took for granted. Hopefully this post addresses many of those questions (and, let’s be honest, fears). The second goal is for this post to serve as something of a “remember when…”, pointing out how naive and innocent I was before getting semi-serious into the triathlon scene. I’m sure I’m already missing some things that I’ve taken for granted at this point, but I hope this is helpful to at least one person.
I’ll try to section this off by race event. There may be some overlap; don’t hold it against me.
Lay everything out before the night before the race. You’re not going to be able to run out to get a new [whatever] at 9pm on a Saturday night, so make sure you have everything you’re going to need during the week leading up to the race. That way, when you go get your race packet (including your race number and timing chip), you can get those little extra items at the same time.
Set some goals, but please make them realistic. If you’re working hard to run a 5K road race in 25 minutes, it wouldn’t be fair to yourself to assume you can run the same 25 minute 5K after swimming and biking.
Practice transitions at least once. I didn’t do this, which meant I learned the hard way exactly how difficult it is to put on socks when your feet are wet.
GO PRACTICE SWIMMING IN OPEN WATER. Believe it or not, there are no lane lines on the bottom of a lake, river, or ocean. Practice “spotting”, which means looking ahead of you every so often to make sure you’re going the right way.
In shorter triathlons, you will wear the same clothes from start to finish. You will swim, you will bike, and you will run in the same shirt and shorts (though you could change your shirt I suppose). You should do a practice run-through with exactly what you’ll wear during the race to make sure it all works for you.
The night before, put your socks on, then roll them down to the ball of your foot so that they bunch up. Now sprinkle a generous amount of baby powder into your sock and leave it just like that. You’ll thank me when you’re putting your shoes on before you go ride.
If you get your race packet before race day, you’ll have several race numbers. One goes on the front of your helmet. One goes on your bike and usually wraps around the center tube or vertically under your seat (either is fine). Lastly you’ll have a bib to wear when you run. This should be pinned to your shirt or a race belt. I found the belt to be easier so that I don’t need to wear the running bib on my shirt while swimming and biking.
When entering the transition area before the race there will be volunteers with Sharpie markers. They are going to write your race number on each arm and your age on your calf. It is recommended not to apply sunscreen to these areas until AFTER you have been marked to make sure the marker doesn’t rub off during the race.
You’ll most likely set your bike up in the transition area the morning of the race. There will be a designated window of time when you are allowed to enter the transition area, rack your bike in your designated group’s area (bike racks are typically labeled by your wave, like Male 20-29, etc). During this time is when you’ll also set up your other gear, like laying out your helmet, running shoes, and the like.
I recommend leaving an extra towel and spare bottle of water in the transition area to use to rinse and dry your feet after running from the water up to your bike in Transition 1.
Make sure you have your goggles and swim cap with you before exiting the pre-race transition area.
Also make sure you’re wearing your timing chip around your ankle.
Wait for your age-group to be summoned to the starting area. When in doubt, just do what everyone else with the same color swim cap is doing.
In the less competitive local races I’ve done I haven’t had any problems with people clawing and scraping their way to get over me, so unless you’re trying to win an Ironman, don’t worry about potential underwater brawls with fellow participants.
However, it’s fully likely you’ll get inadvertently kicked or slapped at some point during the swim. Don’t take it personally; most of the people in the water only have one thing on their minds, which is to simply finish the swim without drowning.
For me, a wetsuit never felt necessary for the “shorter” swims (up to 800 meters). Even if permitted by the triathlon’s rules, you won’t save that much time over the course of 750 meters compared to the time it will take to remove the wetsuit once you’re out of the water.
It’s just fine to switch up your stroke to whatever is most comfortable.
Try to remain calm during the entire swim. YOU WILL GET THROUGH IT. Focus on staying under control, even if it means slowing down. No need to get your heart rate up more than it needs to be this early in the race.
Related to pre-race, when you set up your swim-to-bike gear, put your helmet upside down and then put your sunglasses inside the helmet. This should help you from forgetting to put them on.
You’ll see some people have their bike shoes already clipped onto their bike pedals. Whatever they told themselves to think this is a good idea was a lie. It’s not worth the risk to save a few seconds by having your shoes attached to your bike. Take your time putting you shoes on in transition and then walk/jog/run your bike out to the bike start.
DON’T FORGET YOUR HELMET.
Listen to the volunteers when you exit transition with your bike. There will be a very clearly defined line called the Mounting Line. Don’t get on your bike before walking/jogging/running past this line or you’ll get penalized.
Remember to keep right except when passing.
No drafting! You need to keep at least 3 bike lengths in between you and the person in front of you. There is some time window where it is acceptable to be in someone else’s draft, but only for the purposes of passing them.
I’ve found it helpful to duct tape an energy gel onto the tube of my bike for easy access during the ride. For a short enough race you may not need to eat anything, but it’s nice to have the option easily accessible.
Don’t kill yourself on the bike because it will certainly have an impact on the upcoming run. During the last stretch of the bike course, downshift into an easier gear and spin your legs at a faster cadence to get your legs loosened up.
Like before, listen to the volunteers when you are finishing up the bike. There will be a very clearly defined line called the Dismounting Line. Don’t ride your bike beyond that line or you’ll get penalized.
If you are changing shoes between biking and running, put your race belt on top of your running shoes (if using a running belt with number attached).
Rack your bike in the same exact place as before.
You’ll be in a rush, but make sure you don’t throw your stuff all over the place. Be respectful of other participants and their space.
You’re going to be tired coming out of the transition area, but that’s ok, because all you have to do is get from point A to point B and you’re done.
Your body is going to be on the verge of overheating, especially if you’re racing the middle of summer in Texas (like I was), so take it easy.
If you have a lot of energy left, pace yourself. If you don’t, pace yourself.
Similar to changing your stroke on the swim, it’s ok to walk on the run. There should be several water stations that you can use as designated walking sections.
Be warned: you cannot get take your bike out of the transition area until EVERYONE has finished the bike course and started the run. You can enter the transition area and pack up your other gear, but your bike is imprisoned until volunteers and race officials say otherwise.
There will be lots of free recovery food and drinks for participants, so take full advantage. Be warned that some vendors will charge for spectators, so have cash on hand in case you want to get your amazing fans something to eat or drink.
You did it! Relax and take some time to think about how awesome you are.
I hope this laundry list / stream-of-consciousness is helpful to some people. Like I said it is not all-encompassing. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions about what I did or didn’t mention here. Lastly, remember I’m no pro. With 3 short triathlons under my belt, this is strictly meant to convey what I have learned as a new-to-the-sport triathlete.