Wednesday, June 28, 2017

No Shame in Progress – My First Triathlon


I can’t remember the exact time when I knew I wanted to train for triathlon. I remember telling my running buddy Jeannine in 2014 that my future goal was to become a triathlete. I had learned from social media that Sheri Fraser in London, Ontario was famous for training top notch athletes. In 2015, a friend of mine who was an ironman and had trained with Sheri Fraser provided me some sound advice after hearing I wanted to sign up for some triathlon races. Obviously, I was totally clueless how much more training is involved compare to training for marathon. We had coffee and he talked about his experience training with Sheri and how much that had helped him to accomplish his goals. He knew I was not a swimmer and suggested to visit the Aquatic Centre to find out how much I can swim!
I went to the Aquatic Centre with my son and my friend Jeannine who had already trained that year and had signed up for some triathlon races. I had never put my face in the water and had doggy pedaled during our summer visit to the beach! Jeannine started swimming some fast impressive laps and I jumped in too. I started swimming but got only to the middle of the pool and felt I was drowning. Wait! I was drowning! It was really embarrassing as the life guard jumped in to rescue me. Up to this day my son thinks that was the most embarrassing moment of HIS life!
In the fall of 2015, I registered with the YMCA triathlon. I learned how to blow bubbles but life took over and I didn’t continue with swim lessons. Later in the fall of 2016, I contacted Sheri expressing interest that I wanted to sign up for her coaching program. In February 2017, I started training with Scott Mallory, one of Sheri’s coaches.

I wrote in my email to Scott, I’m a runner but can’t swim and don’t know how to clip/unclip on the bike! That’s how the training got started. There were many moments in the pool that I felt frustrated, embarrassed, and panicked. But I was determined to learn and improve.
Learning how to swim with proper technique has not been easy. I’m very aware of everything that I do wrong but still, improvement is taking place very slowly. Swimmers and coaches at the Y have been very supportive.
The first night I rode with my clipless pedals, I fell many times and got lots of bruises.

I injured my left knee and even to this day I can’t really sit in one position too long with the knee bent. I need to constantly change position and massage my leg. The first night I was clueless and fearless. After those falls, I was a bit fearful. I had some practice here and there. Scott kept asking me if I was getting out on my bike practicing on the grass. I told him I had some practice but I knew it wasn’t enough. Finally, I did what I’ve always done. Talking myself out of fear and into believing that I CAN. I had to face my fear. I went to my son’s school yard and rode on the grass. I clipped and unclipped many times. Then slowly, I went to the pavement. I clipped and unclipped. I was really happy knowing I could do it without falling. I kept reminding myself I’m learning lots of new things at age 49. As long as I’m learning, it doesn’t matter how fast or how slow I’m learning it. The point is to tell your mind to shut up and face your fear. I was excited for me. That meant no more staying behind in the parking lot practicing clipping and unclipping. That meant, I could ride with the group.
On May 31, 2017, I went to my first Splash N Dash practice to learn how to swim in open water. There is always a 5K run following the swim. The weather was cloudy, the dark lake looked darker under clouds, the wind created choppy conditions or little waves. I was in the water wearing my wetsuit. All the swimmers started swimming and were gone. I really couldn’t swim. Scott was in his kayak beside me providing encouragement. He reminded me of the drills we had done in the pool, he said it’s a beautiful outdoor setting with all the nature around us, .…but I couldn’t breathe…I was panicking, the suit felt tight on my chest, I was overwhelmed. All I saw in the water was darkness…I headed back to the shore…I only swam 100 m…I couldn’t even do the full run after that swim, I just ran and walked 2.5K. I felt my chest was still heavy. That night, I had nightmares and woke up feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
Talking to Scott after my first open water swim disaster!
I told coach Sheri "I sucked!" She replied " "Each week you'll suck less!" :)

I had to face my fear. I sent an email out saying who wanted to go for a swim at the lake on Saturday. Shelley said she could. I’m forever grateful to Shelley for showing up. I told her what had happened. She is a great swimmer and a more experienced triathlete. She had started training with Scott in July 2016. When we got to the lake she coached me slowly and gave me lots of good tips. The weather was perfect. It was sunny and the water was calm. Shelley and I ended up swimming 500 meters closer to the shore. I was more comfortable although still the panic would kick in once in a while when I couldn’t breathe. But I wasn’t afraid of the lake and the open water. I was so happy she was there with me. Afterwards, we ran a short 2.5K and had a great time doing it.
Thank you Shelley!

My First Triathlon Race

I prepared for my first triathlon race (Give-It-A-Try) as I have done in the past for my running races. Scott had prepared our group for racing and had given us lots of instructions and information. But I still needed to do my own race preparation. A week prior to the race, I visited the Multisport Canada’s website and read everything I could from how to get there, what to do on the race day, and most important of all, I studied the race course and the maps. They had lots of good information from how to rack your bike, race etiquette, rules, and even the water temperature! 

In a triathlon, there are two transitions; one is from swimming to biking (T1) and the other is from biking to running (T2). The proper and efficient way of setting up one’s transition area can greatly impact the overall success of the race. Despite the fact that I had learned how to set up my transition area during training; and habitually being super fast at getting ready; I still read articles to learn more about the transition, and practiced in my living room how I wanted my transition to look like.  I set up my transition area, laid down all my race gear, took a picture, and reviewed it again making sure I had everything before I packed them up.

I have 3 little bags labeled “Swimming”, “Biking”, and “Running”. Organized packing means when setting up your transition area on race day, you are not flustered looking for items and you’ll save time opening each bag and placing them on the towel in your transition area the way you will be using them during T1 and T2. I packed everything by midday on Friday.


As an athlete, eating healthy and hydrating properly gets incorporated into everyday life and not just the day before a race. I kept drinking and ate 4 or 5 small portions of food as usual. I don’t eat anything after 7 pm. Every morning I have my oatmeal (with cinnamon, walnut, raisin, milk, and maple syrup). Nothing changes on race day. No special diet except if I’m racing a half or full marathon with some serious carbloading the week before my race.
"Athletes EAT and TRAIN, they don't diet and exercise."
Mentally, I visualized myself many times being happy and confident. I visualized my race from start to finish. Many things could go wrong but I didn’t think of all that but rather saw myself smiling, having fun, and being happy with the result. It is important to arrive at the race confident and prepared.

On the day of the race, I woke up at 5:30, left London at 7:00 a.m. and arrived in Welland at 9:00 a.m. My race was scheduled for 11:30. I had plenty of time to look for parking space, register, get my age written on my calf, my bib number on my arm, to get my coloured race cap based on my age group, find my designated area based on my bib number, go for a short jog to check out the race course, chat with a volunteer to get confirmation about the bike route which I already had studied, chat with those who were chatty, and to keep my distance from those who showed they didn’t want to chat…I had enough time to find a perfect spot for me and set up my transition area quickly and efficiently. I didn’t need to question or doubt myself.
Thanks Wilma for this memorable picture!

During our training, we were taught to warm up properly prior to start of the race. As a group we went for a short run, a short ride, and we swam just before the start of the race. It was a great feeling being with our group. We had trained together, we were warming up together and in a short time we would be competing together. For a few of us, this was our first ever triathlon. Some of our group members were seasoned triathletes with many accomplishments.

Scott gave us last minute instructions about the buoys and where we would start and where we would exit the water. We entered the water and I felt how it was colder than Lake Whittaker where we practice. It was much clearer than Lake Whittaker as well.  But rather than the soft sand I was used to, we had to step on slippery, slimy stones to get to the deep end. The sun was shining. It was a gorgeous and beautiful day. I wasn’t nervous. I just wanted the race to get under way.  
Fear or Courage?

Swim: 400 m - 13:47.6
During our training at Lake Whittaker, I always took my place at the very back since I was the slowest swimmer and also swimming in the middle of the pack wasn’t my thing. I did not have the necessary skills to maneuver my way between the waves and the limbs! Unfortunately, in this race, swimmers were sent out in waves based on their age group (your age as of December of 2017). I was in the 3rd wave which meant even if I positioned myself at the back, some very fast swimmers from the 4th and the last wave would swim over and around me. Swimmers were treading in the water waiting for our wave to start. Somehow I found myself right in the middle and at the front. I knew this was not where I wanted to be, but immediately I started talking to myself by saying don’t panic, everyone will pass you by and you’ll find your quiet place. Before I knew it, the horn sounded and the race began. Swimmers were all around me and the waves were hitting me left and right.

For the past 5 months at the Y, coaches have been working with me to teach me all there is to know about swimming. Yes, I have learned to swim, I have learned bilateral breathing, and just recently I started rotating my body (when I remember it!), but there are lots of technique that need correction and fine tuning. The most important element that would help me swim faster and more comfortably is my head position and breathing that I have not mastered yet. I have read many articles, watched many videos, and yes my coaches and many other swimmers have told me how I should do it but I still do it wrong. What can I say? I’m not a fast learner when it comes to swimming.

There I was in the middle of the lake with all my non efficient techniques trying to finish 400 meters of swimming. I got a severe case of vertigo and had experienced it on the lake a couple of times during our training. I had looked at the blue sky or the shorelines and top of trees to make myself feel better. But the vertigo that just happened in the middle of my race was the worst case ever. Looking up I could see the stands, the spectators were sitting but everything was still spinning. I put my face back in the water and it seemed to help. I kept swimming and kept talking to myself, “Don’t raise your head to look up again, just keep swimming and push through”. In life, we find ourselves in some very tight and uncomfortable situations, and the only way to survive is to push through and keep moving forward. Since 2014, I have used hashtag #movingforwad on my Instagram. I’m not just saying it, I’m doing it every day. I keep moving forward.

There were swimmers backstroking in my path and I had to move around them. I was slow as I kept lifting my head up, which would drop my body lower and I’d end up doing breast stroke before switching again to freestyle. I lost some time that way. I kept swimming towards the last buoy. I made the last turn and was between two other swimmers. I told myself just keep swimming and maybe a bit of drafting will help you to get to the finish line faster. For a bit I kept with them, but they were fast and gone. I did get to the finish and two race volunteers were right there to help us out by holding our hands on those slippery stones. As I was standing up, I heard my coach’s voice. Scott had the camera saying here’s Mahnaz. I was glad he was there but I wished he had not witnessed my awful swimming. As I ran in front of the spectators to go up the stairs to get back to the transition area, I told the two volunteers “This is my first race! I just finished my swim!” I realized that despite my incorrect techniques, I had overcome my fear and from a non-swimmer I was in the middle of a triathlon race!
Transition from Swim to Bike: T1 = 1:57

I quickly took off my wetsuit. I like socks, despite recommendations that it would be best for short distances to go without them. I was fast getting ready but made several mistakes here:

  • I should have included electrolytes as part of my transition practice. Based on experience, I have learned that during physical activities and races I sweat more than regular people. I take salt tablets for half or full marathons. I need to hydrate even for a short 5K distance when most people even don’t need to drink or drink only a bit. I had not included hydration in my transit area and I should have. Moving forward, there will be quick sip of my electrolyte. 
  • I wanted to use Strava to record my ride and run. I grabbed my phone as I had done during our training and tried to get Strava started but it was too slow! I was wasting time here.
  • I had not practiced riding my bike while my phone was tucked in the pocket of my race jersey. As I headed out towards the “Bike Exit” the phone fell. I picked up the phone and as I looked up, I saw Abe, a trusted community friend, an accomplished athlete who had competed in Sprint distance that morning and not to mention he’s very fast too! With no hesitation I asked him if he could hold on to my phone and gave it to him and quickly ran with my bike to start my ride.

I was already flustered when I heard Scott saying “Mahnaz, you have your phone?” I replied that I wanted Strava to record. I couldn’t clip as my frustration was oozing out from head to toe. I started talking out loud saying “take a deep breath, calm down” and I clipped and off I went. T1 will be much faster for the future races!

Bike Ride – 10K (25:28)
During my ride, my head was a jumble of thoughts when I heard someone saying: “Move Over! MAHNAZ, MOVE OVER!” It was Irene, one of my teammates. Evidently, she had been trying to pass me and I was in the middle of the road drowned in my jumbled thoughts. I moved to the right and she zoomed by... I refocused and made sure to stay on the right and not in the middle. I saw familiar faces and kept telling them good job. Some were really focused, but others smiled back and said good job, Mahnaz. I was feeling my quads and wished I had hydrated. I have not mastered drinking on my borrowed Cannondale race bike. I will be practicing drinking and riding for July and August as I want to be able to ride longer and faster. I rode my indoor trainer using Zwift for a few months in the fall. I put in some good mileage and speed. I know I can reach a speed of 30 km/h and have the muscles to push faster for longer distances.
It’s just a matter of improving some basic skills like hydrating while riding! My speed could certainly improve with proper hydration and more practice on the road.  

Transition from Bike to Run – T2 = 1:10

I got to the finish line, and had told my coach that I’d rather lift my bike on my shoulder and run to the transit rather than holding on to the bike with one hand and run. But when I lifted my bike the officials told me to put it down and keep hands on your bike. So, I ran fast and told the racer in front of me “ON YOUR LEFT” and I kept running.

I racked my bike quickly, took my helmet and biking shoes, put running shoes on, and had a sip of very warm water from my bottle. There will be a small bottle of electrolyte on my towel next time!  
Run – 2.5 K – 14:37

I had set goals to run fast with a time of 12 min or less, but my run was pathetic. My legs were heavy and it felt more like I was jogging than running. I was too slow. I was thirsty and dehydrated and started having sharp pain in my left ovary. Yes, very specific! Such are the delights of being 49 and menopausal! At 1K I saw the hydration station. I took my time to drink electrolytes and wash it down with water. I saw teammates heading back saying “Great job” as we ran past each other. At the turn around I grabbed another water, drank a bit, and dumped it on my head as I was overheating (not weather related just hot flashes!) I zoomed toward the finish line and I heard Scott again saying “Great form or great run…not sure but I’m so glad he couldn’t read all my thoughts being angry with myself for my run!
Thank you Scott for capturing this!

I dashed to the finish line, and just like that the race was over! I got a handshake with I’m not sure …was that John Salt? Or someone else? I got my medal…I heard my team calling my name saying “Way to go Mahnaz”. It was nice having them there… they were cooling off in the lake…it looked like so much fun!

Then I saw Abe. It was so nice of him to stand and cheer us on after he had finished his sprint race early that morning. Then I saw Laura Wall, one of our coaches, who is also an amazing athlete and competitor herself and had raced with us that morning. She is super-fast! She asked me what I thought of the triathlon. I told her I had mix feelings and that I have lots to improve on. She smiled saying meaning you’ll do it again and I said yes.  
My plan A was to get my first triathlon race done within 45 minutes. I did not have my phone, I don’t have a watch and therefore, I did not know how I’ve done till heading back on my run I saw 12:20 something. That’s when I knew I had to run a bit faster to achieve plan B which was to finish under 1 hour.
 First Triathlon Race at age 49! -  00:56:59.1
I turned around to congratulate Shelley as she finished her race. We had exchanged a few words on the course while running and I wanted to give her a hug. We walked on the deck towards the team, I took my shoes and medal off and jumped in the water!
All the first timers had their picture taken together. It was an amazing feeling to stand there as a newbie and a first timer. A gorgeous sunny day with lots of friends and smiling faces. Many of my teammates got placed in their age group. They did amazing! I was so proud to be sitting there knowing I trained with these amazing and inspiring athletes. 

Multisport Canada: This was a great venue with many great volunteers, an awesome race shirt, and a finisher’s medal which is a huge bonus to remember your first triathlon race! The gorgeous weather made the whole experience even better. I will definitely go back next year for a race at Welland. My next race with MSC is at Lakeside in September. You can still sign up for their
races this summer! 

Driving on the back roads was peaceful. I thought about the whole experience. From talking to my friend Stephan to crossing the finish line. Many people had inspired, helped, supported, encouraged, and motivated me. I was thankful to all of them for this great experience.

My coach, Scott Mallory, for being patient, supportive, and encouraging from training to racing. The fact that he was there in the early hours of the morning to cheer, support, and perhaps make notes (hahah) says that he’s one dedicated coach.

My teammates who have supported me every day knowing I was struggling with my swim. Everyone has been kind, non-judgmental, and has helped me with my swim by offering tips and sharing their knowledge. My teammates are inspiring individuals who are dedicated to their training, work hard, and support one another.

I’m so glad I got connected with Sheri Fraser. I have attended one of her Swim Clinics and I also attend her Splash N Dash once a week for open water swim and a 5K run. She is an accomplished ironman athlete with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Listening to her, you can pick up little tips that can have major effect on how you will move forward. One of the things she mentioned at one of her clinics was an example of some international ironman who’s strokes are not that great but they have amazing strength in their kicks and therefore achieve some unbelievable fast times. When she shared this, she didn’t mean to say you don’t have to improve your stroke, rather she meant you can still finish the swim despite all the imperfections in your technique and in some cases athletes are able to finish well. That gave me hope. A twinkle of light. I am self-conscious about how I swim and I had this fear that I’d be the slowest person on the race course. Listening to her, I found a glimmer of hope that I may finish my swim with some decent time. I practiced more at the Y by myself and kept timing myself. I’m sure my technique was not proper but I practiced anyway and saw a drop in my time. Thank you Sheri for being a great mentor, developing your athletes, and providing the opportunity for all of us to achieve our goals.

"Set your goals high, and don't stop till you get there." Bo Jackson

Next? Back to the training with the tri family!

My times in all three sports were not fast by any means. But I'm happy with MY FIRST TRIATHLON race result.

There is no shame in progress!
~ Moving Forward ~

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