Last weekend I flew to Omaha, Nebraska to compete in USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals. It was surreal to qualify and get the chance to race against some of the top competitors in the country in my age group, not to mention the Iron Nun was there competing(!!).
Just how does someone get started in triathlons? People begin in a variety of ways, having raced and enjoyed one or more of the three sports separately, and then decide, why not do a triathlon? Most people I know (probably because I have a lot of runner friends) were runners initially. Others swam in high school, or cycled in and after college for fun. Because running and cycling are woven so tightly into my social life, I have a very personal relationship with and am very sentimental about how my experiences in each sport led me to the next. Here’s how I got started:
I am first and foremost a runner. My parents run, my sister runs, we take runcations together. In middle school, I had pretty much given up on team sports; I hated being punished when one of my teammates misbehaved during practice. For volleyball in particular (which was bad to begin with as I lack hand-eye coordination) our coaches would make us run “suicides” (wind sprint ladders) every time someone missed a big shot or wasn’t paying attention on the court. The sprinting was hard at first, but by the end of my one and only volleyball season, I actually really liked the sprints rather than the spiking part. Either because I was that terrible at volleyball, or because I showed some kind of running ability (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt), my volleyball coaches had suggested I try cross country or track.
So, to get me ready for cross country the following fall, I got up before school and started running with my mom that winter. Learning to run in the winter was a challenge (and cold, and dark, and snowy) but it has made every other winter a little easier. I remember running our 3 mile out-and-back and requesting that we walk on the way back, but my mom had a rule that if we walked, we had to power walk, which was somehow harder than running, so we ran. The following summer, my dad took me to summer XC practice and ran with me nearly every day. Thanks to the conditioning, I was able to really enjoy cross country that first fall and have never looked back.
Long story short I loved running so much that I ended up doing cross country and track in high school, and in college kept running on my own, then with my sister when her time in law school and mine in undergrad overlapped. We even trained for our first marathon together in 2012, a time I look back on with much nostalgia, and the year I decided to try a triathlon...
Cycling found me at Indiana University in the form of the Little 500. Anyone who's familiar with IU or has seen the movie Breaking Away can tell you, Little 500 is the pinnacle sporting/partying event of the year. My sophomore year (2012 was a good year for me), a friend from high school approached me about riding for our dorm team (Collins, known on campus as the perpetual hippie dorm) so we could join in on the tradition. “We’ll be really chill about it, if we want to train, we’ll train, if not, we won't.” This was her pitch. Without thinking I said “count me in!”. A few weeks later she announced she would be studying abroad in the spring and would thus not be riding, but that she would get me in contact with the one other girl who wanted a Collins team. I met her for dinner in the Collins dining hall and that was the start of our team.
A few weeks later we attended a Little 500 dinner where the keynote speaker was one of the women who had started the Little 500 women's race, Martha Gillum. She and her friends had trained for the men’s race one year and almost qualified, and when they didn’t, they decided to take matters into their own hands and start a women’s race. Martha voiced all our concerns and insecurities about doing the race; they had zero bike gear when they got started-they were training on mountain bikes and Keds- they just wanted to ride their bikes and be apart of the tradition at IU. We spoke with her afterwards, and that was our point of no return; we were obsessed. From that point on we had to train and do the best we possibly could. Her coach, Little 500 legend Tom Schwoelger helped us find road bikes and even outlined a basic training plan for us until we found a coach of our own. Then he showed us how to find a coach and has continued to be an outstanding resource. Once we found a coach, former Cutters rider Zach Lusk, we started training 10-15 hours a week. At first, even a one-hour ride on the stationary bike seemed like FOREVER. We spent hours on stationary bikes in the university gym because we had no budget to speak of and we couldn't afford trainers or rollers. Amazingly, as a rookie team we ended up placing 7th that year (the top 6 were all seasoned teams that were vying for first).
Again, long story short, cycling became a huge part of my college experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything. It opened up the world of cycling to me and I was immediately hooked; I raced for a local team that summer with some of the top female cyclists at IU (and a lot of REALLY fast middle-aged men), got clipless pedals, crashed and got a ton of road rash, the whole shebang. That was the year I decided to try a triathlon.
My running and cycling experiences, paired with my naturally competitive nature created a perfect storm formula for a new triathlete. Swimming is still by far my weakest of the three legs, and maybe because I never had the same close-knit team environment, I have yet to love it the way I love running and cycling. But if I wanted to do a triathlon, swimming was the last piece of the puzzle.
One of my L5 teammate’s mother (wonderful humans Cailin and Maureen Kennedy) was a 3-time Ironman finisher, so I turned to her for tri and swim advice. Ironmans were (and still are) baffling to me. How on earth could someone run a marathon after swimming 2.5 miles and cycling OVER a century, topped off by a full marathon. Maureen recommended I start with a site called Tri-Newbies. I took her training recommendations and even though I only was signed up for sprint tri’s that summer, I started a Tri-Newbies plan for a half-ironman, just in case I decided to do one at the end of the season. Because I was already signed up for Chicago marathon, getting the running mileage in was easy; because I was racing with a local team that summer, I’d already carved out time to bike and people to ride with. I started swimming by myself twice a week in Bloomington, using the workouts in the Tri-Newbies plan, and eventually convinced a few of my swimmer friends to train with me. I am still not fast as swimmers go, but training with other people was a huge help as they were able to help correct my form and breathing (disclaimer: still a work in progress, ask my USMS people).
Back to Tri
Last October, after my first summer working full time, I caved and joined Equinox to work off some of the chub I’d gained from sitting for 9 hours a day. I went to Team Lipstick founder Laura Cozik’s spin class one morning, during which she told us about how her newbie triathletes had done an Olympic tri in Montauk the weekend before and that if we wanted to join the team, she had spots for NYC Triathlon for us. I remember wanting to be apart of something so badly when I first moved to New York; I missed my Little 500 people and my IU Run Club people, and it was really hard to make friends while working full-time. I was afraid that I would never have that kind of bond with a team again, or that I would never be as athletic again. Three days later, I Venmo’d her the money to save my NYC Tri spot and trained with the team all winter, with the goal of placing in the top 10% of my age group.
Pretty much all I did when I wasn’t at work was train, sleep, and feed my voracious appetite. During this time I started running with North Brooklyn Runners for extra running workouts, Brooklyn Tri Club as their cycling schedule fit mine better, and swimming (sometimes) with my very patient USMS group( someday I will learn flipturns guys I promise!). It all paid off, and I ended up winning my age group in NYC Tri. I started crying after I found out I’d won my AG, and over the course of the last few months realized that not only did I find the close-knit team environment that I’d been craving, I’m actually my best version of myself that I’ve ever been here in New York, working and training for tri’s. Check back next week for more on USAT Nationals!