Feature Story: Racing For A Reason

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Saturday marked the date for the O’Bleness Health Systems’ Ohio University Race for a Reason, a series of three events in which participants could raise money for whatever charity they chose, their reason. The Athletes in Action Triathlon was one of the events put on by O’Bleness Saturday morning. I documented my day to give readers insight into what goes into completing a triathlon.

First, a bit of background about the race and my training: this was a sprint distance triathlon – that is a 500-meter swim, a 25-kilometer bike and a 5-kilometer run. The distance is daunting for a beginner, like myself, and a nice weekend workout for a professional. (Both were present at this race.) I trained for 11 weeks by swimming, cycling and running twice per week with a mix of light strength training of the same amount. That is how much I was scheduled to exercise, however, I was not exactly the most devoted to swimming.

Although I did not complete every workout on my schedule, I did train a substantial amount for the duration of the 11-week period. I did not focus as much on nutrition until the final week before the race…mistake. But isn’t that what first times are for?

I understood that hydration was critical to performing well. However, I did not practice steady timing in my hydration. Typically caffeinated beverages are to be avoided, especially the day before the race. I learned this only after slurping down a large “Shot in the Dark” (two shots of espresso in a cup of house blend) from Donkey Coffee & Espresso Friday afternoon.

It is also understood inside the triathlon community that hydration should occur early and often, but the core of hydration should occur long before bedtime. If an athlete drinks large amounts of water only a few hours before hitting the sheets, sleep is likely to be disturbed several times during the night by that obnoxious bladder (as I learned Friday night).

I started sleeping around 8:30 p.m. Friday night and slept through most of the night fairly solidly, despite those pesky trips to the restroom.

Around 4:15 a.m. I entered that state of pretending to sleep while checking the clock every five minutes, anxiously waiting for my alarm to sound. I essentially forced myself to stay in bed for an extra 30 minutes just to say I got a full eight hours of “sleep.”

At 4:45 a.m., Tracy Chapman finally sang out a wakeup call from the innards of my cell phone, prompting me to fling the covers off in a fit of excitement and prepare for the race.

I ate a breakfast of one piece of whole grain bread with peanut butter, an apple, a handful of pretzels and water (readers’ mouths collectively water). It was essential that I finished all of my food before 6:00 a.m. – two hours before the start of the race – giving my food ample time to be digested. I finished by 5:20 a.m. It is safe to say I was a little anxious.

I arrived unnecessarily early to the transition area outside Walter Hall and the Aquatic Center; the transition area is the designated spot for athletes to park their bicycles and store clothes, shoes, food and drink, etc. It is essentially race central. This is where the action happens.

I found a nice cozy spot on the edge of the aisle, which is prime real estate for the triathlete. Being on the edge allows a racer the ability to dominate the row. One would not need to worry about knocking over other bikes to get back the aisle and moving around other participants’ belongings. I was the first to arrive to my row, Row V, so I propped my bicycle up right on the edge. This is great I thought. I was very much pleased.

As I set up my section, I saw other athletes moving into the area to set up their respective sections. While I was propping up my Schwinn hybrid-touring bike purchased at my local Target in Cincinnati, I saw others rolling in professional triathlon bikes worth up to several thousand dollars. I laid out a couple of bottles of water I purchased from the vending machine in my residence hall. (I got lucky because I only paid for one, but two bottles popped out of the machine. Score.) Meanwhile, other athletes were filling up internal hydration systems in the frames of their bicycles. I saw men and women donning quick-drying triathlon suits, while I was inconspicuously standing by my bicycle wearing sweatpants and my Ohio hoodie. This illustrates the amazing dichotomy of racers I mentioned earlier: the beginners and the professionals.

After picking up my timing chip, I went over everything I read about race day practices. I laid out my section how I wanted it. I walked the course from the pool to the transition area, counting the number of rows I had to pass to get to my bicycle, eight. I did it without my glasses because I knew that I would not be able to see coming out of the pool without my specs. I was ready.

Approximately 30 minutes before the race began, one of the organizers got on the microphone in the Aquatic Center to make a few announcements over the PA system. Understand that the acoustics in a building that houses nothing but an Olympic sized swimming pool are not ideal. The pre-race speech going over some of the important rules and regulations turned into a big ball of echoes. Great.

Participants began lining up according to estimated swim time. Each athlete was given a bracelet with his or her seeding based on the time they expected to take in the pool. I was ahead of all of about ten people. Like I said, I am not a good swimmer.

From my long and lean appearance (I am 6’4” 135 lbs.), many of the middle-aged men and old women I was in the back of the line with began to get nervous. Apparently, I gave the appearance of a strong swimmer. I remember one person in particular calling me a “speed demon.” That’s what you think, I thought.

I watched the first few swimmers take off and it was then that I began to get those butterflies that I swore I would not have. I was downright intimidated. Incredibly strong swimmers came down the lanes bouncing off the edge of the pool with their flip-turns like a pinball machine, one after another. The first swimmer made it out of the pool in five minutes. Gulp.

When it was my turn to jump into the pool, I thought, just take it slowly, no need to rush. Pace yourself. As soon as I got in the water and began swimming, strong cramps began to attack my feet. These were the type of cramps that feel as if someone were attacking the foot’s arch with a knife. There was that maniac, hacking away at my arches. In swimming, kicking should be done with a flat foot. However, I had to constantly pull my toes back toward my shins to keep the cramps away, greatly hindering my kicking ability. After one lap (50 meters), I was exhausted. “Nine more to go,” said the snarky voice in my head. “You should have spent more time training in the pool.” Like I said, I am not a good swimmer.

I was lucky enough to last three laps swimming in a standard freestyle stroke. My belly was down, my feet were up and my breathing was on point. It was after three laps that I began gulping for air. This was also the point where I began to question whether or not I would make it to the finish.

I tackled another three laps with less-than-perfect form, taking large breathers in between, clutching the side of the pool for dear life. My feet dropped, my belly sank and my head was above water searching for all of the oxygen I could take in. I still had another 200 meters to swim at this point and I was seriously questioning how in the world I would be able to finish.

Race officials had no strict stipulations on how to tackle the swim. As long as a participant is moving and not crying for help, they are in the clear. I knew I would not be able to finish swimming freestyle. I would not last. I thought back to what was the most effective method for taking in oxygen while not exerting a lot of energy on strokes. I remembered summers spent in my cousins’ pool when I pretended to swim like a jellyfish, lying on my back with my head above water and giving a quick flap of my arms and legs at the same time.

With only a couple participants left behind me in the pool, I figured I had nothing to lose. I turned into a jellyfish. I ended up “jellyfishing” my way through the final four laps in the pool, as embarrassing as it was. But as soon as I got out, I knew I had accomplished at least something during the course of this race.

But I had a terrible feeling of fear coming out of the pool. It felt as if someone had squeezed my ribs the entire length of the swim, severely restricting my breathing. I could not feel my arms or legs. I exited the Aquatic Center down the stairs to the open air. It was 40 degrees. Cold overtook my body. I saw the transition area and knew I had to get there, but I was exhausted. I told myself, “Run!” But I couldn’t. I walked for a few seconds in the cold grass and felt the few drops of leftover sleet coming off the trees hit my shoulders. I was frozen, physically and mentally.

That was the only moment that I doubted my ability to finish. I told myself throughout the course of training that if I was able to make it out of the swimming pool, I could finish. I remembered that at that moment and suddenly I began to jog toward the transition area.

I started to muster some strength once again as a few race workers shouted encouraging words. It was less encouraging hearing the race announcer say over the PA system that the leader was coming into the transition area from the cycling portion. Only a few bicycles remained in the transition area as most were already out on the course. (I’m glad I got that aisle spot.) It was then that I realized I was not breaking any records. All I needed to do was finish.

After I got to my bicycle, I was at home once again. What I had constantly told myself turned out to be true. After taking a few drinks of water and Gatorade and choking down a horrendous huckleberry-flavored energy gel (not recommended), I got my clothes on and brought my bike to the end of the transition area.

I gradually began to regain confidence from when I started pedaling to when I began passing cyclists walking their bikes up the hills. I began to cruise and maintained a steady speed on my bicycle throughout the approximately 16-mile course featuring more than 900 feet of gain (i.e. hills). I didn’t get off the bike once. I was in my zone.

The second half of the cycling portion was downhill for the most part, so I switched into my highest gear to achieve a steady cadence on my downhill pedaling. It made the uphill parts much easier because, while others were coasting, I was picking up speed. My energy was restored and I passed more than 20 riders.

When I got to the end of the cycling portion, I saw my mother and grandparents on the sidewalk cheering me on, which gave me even more confidence to finish strong. I got to the transition area, re-racked my bicycle and put on my cap. With a few more swigs of water and Gatorade, I was onto the running course, getting even more into my zone.

I cruised through the 3.2-mile course, breezing by racers and spectators alike. As I got toward the end of the run, I began to gain that sense of accomplishment. It was a great feeling. The feeling I got when I crossed the finish line was incredible. I did it. I finished. (The feeling I got after that – the feeling of my legs having been beaten by deranged savages with clubs – was not so good.)

Despite the soreness in my legs, I remembered all of the reasons I finished that race. I did it for the sports journalists. Many of us are the biggest wannabe athletes, compensating for lack of athletic ability with knowledge and insight to the sports we cover. I did it for my family and friends. I hope to inspire others to test their physical ability and take pride in their fitness. If I can do it, you can. Most importantly, I did it for myself. I have always wanted to put my athleticism to the test. Like many other sportswriters, I was not cut out to be a professional athlete. However, the love of sports is what brought us into this field. I always had that desire to compete and this was my way to show it. As I mentioned, I was not out to break records, but to prove to myself that I too could achieve athletic glory. That glory materialized in my first-time triathlete participation medal. That medal is Olympic gold to me.

The athletes competing in the O’Bleness Race for a Reason all had their reasons. The event raised money for the charities of choice for participants. Athletes raised money for, among others, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, children’s services and even scholarship funds.

I know what I accomplished when I crossed that finish line, and I hope all of my fellow athletes did too. The entirety of the training, hard work and dedication finally had come to fruition in the form of money raised and athletic glory achieved. I hope to see more people next year, and the next year, and the year after that. Events like this are unique, bringing people together with the common task: To race for a reason.