Sunday I finished the Olympic-distance 2012 Aquaphor NYC Triathlon in 2:40:55, 886th best of the 3485 finishers.
This race was my longest triathlon to date and was the one that got the whole “triathlon thing” started for me when Caroline asked in 2010 if I would do a tri with her and a friend. While I didn’t get picked in the lottery that year, she and I volunteered to cheer for all of the triathletes running up 72nd Street. After more than 20 months of thinking about it while swimming laps, I finally completed it.
The “NYC Triathlon” = “NYC” + “Triathlon.” Let’s break this up into two parts.
Logistics: This trip to New York City was stressing me out hardcore. Usually, I’m pretty mellow about these things, but I’ve learned that, when it comes to situations where I might look the part of a fool—or a tourist or newb or whatever—and I can’t think of the right way to handle the situation in advance, I get pretty stressed out. How was I going to handle the bike + check-in + Midtown valet parking + crowds issue? What about the late check-out on Sunday morning after the tri? How would I get my bike and stuff to transition, which was 2.5 miles from the hotel? Furthermore, Lisa isn’t a huge fan of New York; how was I going to avoid her murdering me at 4:00AM on Sunday morning when the alarm was set to go off?
Turns out, I am not the first person to come to New York City to do this event, so I needn’t have worried. The hotel wasn’t completely given over to triathletes—a pack of hundreds of young teenage girls from some exotic locale annoyed the ever-lovin’ humanity out of everyone—but our special circumstances weren’t that special. The race organizers—who really thought of everything—had a place to check my bike before hotel check-in while I attended my pre-race briefing. It was straightforward (but not convenient) to get my stuff to and from transition. (If we were true New Yorkers, we would have taken a cab to save some time on the way there with my bike. We did take the Subway back on Saturday because it was too damn hot out there for another long walk. So, good on us. Yeah, whatever.)
(With all that said, the event really is much more manageable—and much, much less expensive—for people who live in or near NYC. It’s a great race for locals and for people who want to travel to the Big Apple and don’t mind the expense and everything else that comes along with it. It’s a great race, and I enjoyed the race itself very much. I’m looking forward to doing another Oly again some day, just probably not NYC. It’s not you, New York; it’s me. I mean it. I had a great time on the course and interacting with the volunteers and staff. Plus, they say if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere. Now I just have to go and prove that Old Blue Eyes was telling the truth.)
Diabetes Logistics: The only really special circumstances that the race organizers didn’t plan for was my diabetes. The transition zone (where we switched from swimming to cycling to running) was a mile from the swim start. I needed to meet my insulin pump in transition, but I couldn’t be disconnected from it for too long. The time between when everyone had to leave transition to the start of my swim wave was unknown—due to the nature of the “time trial start”—and turned out to be close to three hours. I probably could have asked some of the race staff for help as a physically challenged athlete, maybe having someone shuttle my pump to the transition area after my swim start, like they did with other athletes’ wheelchairs, etc. But in comparison to people without the use of limbs or sight, diabetes ranks kind of low on the “challenged athlete” hierarchy, and I don’t like to make a big deal out of it. As a result, I treated diabetes like I normally do: a pain in the ass to be worked around and managed the best I can without special dispensation from event organizers.
Eventually I struck upon a plan involving my backup insulin pump that seemed like it would work. I would fill both of my pumps with insulin, leave the backup in transition on the morning of the event with all of the settings exactly the same as the other one, and wear my regular pump + CGM to the start. My plan was to eat the pre-race breakfast that had been working for me earlier in the week just 20 minutes before the start, deliver a small insulin bolus for the meal, give Lisa my newer pump just about 10-15 minutes my swim start, hook up my older pump after the swim, and rock the rest of the tri. Having Lisa there was a real help, since it meant that I could keep everything with me until the very last minute.
It was an excellent plan. Unfortunately, it was also the source of my undoing later in the race.
The Swim: — 1,500m (0.9 miles) in 22:31 = 1:21/100 yards.
Let’s talk about swimming in the Hudson River. Everyone joked about it. It’s dirty. It’s radioactive. I’ll get out with (insert your favorite disease here). Blah blah blah. The only real advice I got came last year from someone who just finished (stay to the right where the current is faster) and from this year’s athlete’s packet (it’s saltier than you might expect).
We had to leave transition by 5:40AM for the swim start, which was not a problem. Our 4:45AM bus from the hotel was met with gridlock at 72nd street by Riverside Park. Ah, the city that never sleeps. . . . Except that we went to bed at 8:00PM the night before, which might technically be against the law. Someone next door woke us at midnight by taking a shower. A half hour later an enormous thunderstorm rolled right over us in Midtown. I knew my bike was getting drenched, but I was happy knowing that I hadn’t left anything else there.
After setting up my transition area—I’m a minimalist, and I keep as much stuff as I can in the shoes that I need to wear during the next event—Lisa and I walked the mile up to start. While we waited for my turn to get in the water, we watched the river flow by, carrying twigs and leaves and driftwood along with a dead fish here and there. I was promised a PR because of the current. The course record was 9:00 . . . for 1500m. Some people don’t run that fast. (My typical mile time is 32-35 minutes.)
We waited and waited. Along the way, we saw the pros and elites start . . . and almost everyone else. Not knowing when I was going to start made me nervous, and I ate my breakfast too soon. My plan was to do what I had tried earlier in the week a couple times: eat a Clif Bar 20 minutes before starting the swim, bolusing a small amount for it. Instead, I ate almost an hour before my swim wave. By the time I got in the water, my BG had risen from just under 200 mg/dL (11.1 mmol) when I awoke to around 350 (19.5). For those of you without diabetes, that’s very high, which threw off my whole nutrition plan. More about that later.
I jumped in the water (literally) at 7:45AM. Every twenty seconds, fifteen of us hopped into the water, our times starting as soon as the timing chip strapped around our ankles left the timing mats at the edge of the starting barge. The whistle blew, I held my nose to keep the saltwater out, and I hoped that my goggles had a good seal.
Slightly more than 22 minutes later I was being helped out of the river by burly guys. That’s a PR by over ten minutes! I know the current helped me quite a lot, but I was really happy that I passed people all along the way. Lisa followed my progress down the river and took a lot of pictures of me. “And there’s the person you kinda swam over. . . . And there are people doing the backstroke. . . . And there’s the dead fish you probably grabbed and jokingly thought was a piece of driftwood that you could use as a paddle. . . .”
Looking at these photos afterward, here’s what I’ve learned. (1) I over-rotate when I breathe. (2) I need to keep my head pointed downward more. (3) When my hand enters the water, it’s not ready for a good catch. (4) Etc. Still, I’m really happy with my swim.
The Bike — 40K (24.8 miles) in 1:16:04 = 19.6 mph.
My ride was the strongest discipline of the day and the one I enjoyed the most. I had a plan to stay near lactate threshold—the place where muscles switch from aerobic to anaerobic energy—based on my heart rate monitor, and only go over for short periods of time when going up hills or passing. The idea is to put the maximum sustainable effort out there on the course and refuel along the way to keep the energy up.
Having driven along the eastern shore of the Hudson River several times on my way to and from the George Washington bridge, I knew that the course would be hilly. The route mainly used the northbound side of the Henry Hudson Parkway / West Side Highway from 79th Street north into the Bronx and onto the Mosholu Parkway before turning around at Gun Hill Road and returning all the way back to 57th Street, where we did a U-turn to reenter Riverside Park at 79th. (Look at me sounding like a local.) Being a highway, most of these grades were shallow and long. But having touched 40 mph on the downhill, I can tell you that some of the climbs, especially the Bronx were the real deal.
As in most races, I passed a bunch of people, partly because I started so far back in the swim and partly because I had a really good ride. About two or three dozen passed me, and many of them went past me like I was barely moving. They were mainly from the 30-35 age group and had some seriously aggressive aero going on. I was in my own aerodynamic tuck most of the time, too. I really only got out of it when climbing a few big hills and when I was drinking. It was also the first time I ate on the bike in the aero position; I actually think that might be easier. (I’m also kind of amazed at how many people I passed who were riding tri bikes like mine but who weren’t riding in aero. Maybe I just caught them at a bad moment.)
Speaking of eating and drinking, I didn’t drink enough water. Nor did I eat as I had planned because of my high blood sugar. These mistakes were to be my undoing during the run on this hot, humid day.
The Run — 10K (6.2 miles) in 52:21 = 8:26/mile.
Before I jumped in the water, the announcers reported the men’s winner. Lisa reminds me that it was humid and warm even before his wave started, but when he crossed the line at 7:20AM, it was still fairly cool. By the time I finished my swim around 8:00, the air was warming right up. By 9:30, as I was running up 72nd Street into Central Park, it was hot. I had dumped some of the water I didn’t drink on the run over my head before leaving transition for the last time, but I was still warm. I drank from my palm-held bottle until I ran out around 5K in the park, but by then I was already starting to realize I wasn’t going to be able to make up the debt I racked up on the bike.
I have a bad habit of not pacing myself well and heading out too fast when I run. So I tried to be mindful of that, running by perceived exertion and HR and giving the best effort I could without going into the red zone.
In case you didn’t know, Central Park is hilly. It’s hilly where I live, too, but these hills demoralized me a bit. Running a hilly course for the first time is never fun. I was feeling good through the first 5K, averaging about 7:30-7:40/mile, but then I hit the wall going up a hill. The combination of dehydration, too little food, and high blood glucose (over 380 mg/dL, or 21 mmol) was too much. I kept running, but I slowed. My leg muscles hurt like they were full of lactic acid because of the blood sugar, and the world was starting to look bleached because of the lack of water.
As I grabbed more water at the remaining aid stations, I hoped I didn’t look as bad as I felt, since I didn’t want to get pulled from the course so close to the end of my race. I thought about walking a couple of times, but I pushed on until just before mile 5. On a hill just uptown of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I let myself walk. I was tired and trying to figure out whether I was going to pass out. After about 3-4 minutes of walking, I felt better—not perfect, but well enough to run again. I was running when I heard Lisa cheering for me. I gave her a smile and a wave and picked up the pace and finished the last little bit really strong.
Recovery: I pumped my fist crossing the line, happy to have finished on my feet, already thinking about the lessons I could take from this race and use in Maine for my Ironman-70.3. A young woman handed me a cool, soothing, wet towel that I put over my head. It was so wonderful! I think I would have kissed her if I weren’t in that “if someone touches me I might pass out (or worse)” phase—well, that and I’m married, you know. Another woman smiled at me and put a finishers’ medal over my towel-covered head and around my neck. Then there were bottles of cold water and a chocolate milk-like recovery drink and a banana, all from happy volunteers.
By the time that Lisa caught up with me and we had walked back to transition to get my bike, all of the sparklies and worries about needing medical attention were gone, and I felt really great. We talked about the race and the weekend on the way back to the hotel. It was a great experience . . . logistics, dehydration, and diabetes notwithstanding. I’m super excited about Maine next month!