Culture

My First COVID-Era Triathlon: A Test of Body and Mind

Dr. Jim Taylor describes the physical and mental challenges of returning to racing during these strange times.

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I just competed in my first COVID-era triathlon on Sunday at Huntington Lake, about 1.5 hours east of Fresno, California. It was an Olympic-distance race at 7,000 feet elevation. The experience was both exciting and a huge relief. Like so many triathletes around the US and the world, I’ve been living this surreal life of training my butt off in preparation for races that have continued to be cancelled. With every cancellation, a little air has been let out of my triathlon tires that I’ve had to find a way to re-inflate. But I’ve stayed focused on my passion for our sport and just the pure joy I get out of swimming, biking, and running. And it has sustained me well for these last six months.

Let’s start with the challenges of running an event in the age of COVID-19. The race was the Crow’s Nest Triathlon (and other endurance events) organized by Sierra Cascades Multisport in support of the nonprofit Activitynut. Even without considering the coronavirus, forest fires were raging all over Northern and Central California, putting the event at risk. The drive through the Central Valley was almost apocalyptic feeling with dense smog and a rank odor from the fires. Fortunately, the air was mostly clear at 7,000 feet.

Huntington Lake lies in a very remote part of the central California mountains in which, well, adherence to best practices for preventing the spread of COVID appear to be widely ignored (when I walked into a restaurant and general store there, no one was wearing a mask or maintaining a distance of six feet). I can assure you that I felt much safer surrounded by several hundred endurance athletes. The race organizers followed the USAT-recommended protocols to the letter (e.g., temperature check, symptom and contact questions, masks in the transition area, physical distancing, 15-second staggered swim start) and, from start to finish, the races went off safely and without a hitch. Bravo to the race crew!

Before I dive back into my report (pun intended), I thought I would provide a bit of back story that has led me to my place in triathlon and my becoming a columnist for Triathlete.

I was a pretty serious triathlete from 2002 to 2008 after transitioning out of marathon running. I completed two Ironmans and many other shorter races. During that period, I also got married (I met my wife through triathlon!), had two children, and, as I turned my focus to my family life, my competitive life slowly faded away. To be honest, I simply lost my competitive mojo. I stayed active through the years, of course, continuing to bike and run, as well as alpine and Nordic ski during the winter (though I didn’t swim a lap that entire time). I always had the idea of returning to triathlon at some point, but never felt the urge… until last summer.

All of a sudden, last July, oddly, during a run in Ecuador at 9,500 feet, my tri-mojo began coursing through my veins once again. So, when I got home, I pulled my old tri-bike out of storage (it sure was dusty after 11 years!) and began training. To my surprise and satisfaction, I had two victories, as well as 3rd and 4th place finishes in my age group in my four Olympic-distance races in 2019. I also earned a USA Triathlon national ranking and an invitation to the National Age-Group Championships this summer (sadly cancelled).

I spent the winter training really hard, with a special emphasis on improving my swimming and biking (both real liabilities) and bought a rocket of a new tri-bike (I bought the frameset, sourced the parts myself, and had it built locally, so it wasn’t nearly that expensive!). I began my 2020 race season with a gratifying 2nd place finish at a sprint-distance race in early March (pre-COVID), just behind the #6 USAT-ranked triathlete in my age group. Then, of course, coronavirus struck, derailing our race season and frustrating all of us. But after almost six months of praying to the almighty triathlon gods, my prayers were finally answered!

Now, back to my race report.

Physically, I was feeling pretty good about the race. I have been training intensely for months and have seen myself get stronger, faster, and leaner since my reentry into triathlon last year. I wish I could tell you that I’ve been on a fancy training program developed by one of the big online training companies or a famous triathlon coach, but that’s just not the case. I tend to train alone and make up my training program based on my own experience. My program has involved twice-daily workouts combining intervals, tempo, distance, and recovery in all three events without, admittedly, enough rest and recovery. I even had the chance to spend five weeks at various times over the summer at elevation in Oregon, Idaho, and Northern California swimming, biking, and running. I have been even more fortunate to have been swimming three times a week in the very cold waters of San Francisco Bay during the pool closures.

Oddly, given what I do for a living, my mind wasn’t feeling quite as good as my body. Although at a basic level I felt confident in my ability to have a good race, I was, nonetheless, a bit apprehensive and nervous. A couple of things contributed to this less-than-ideal mindset going into the race. First, I don’t really enjoy swimming very much. Yes, I see it as a challenge and an opportunity to improve my weakest event. At the same time, I didn’t grow up swimming (as a kid, I was decidedly in the non-drowning category) and hadn’t ever swum a lap until I began doing triathlons in 2002, so I don’t have that natural feel in the water or get joy out of the experience of flowing through the water. Second, I’m not a power guy, meaning that I’m not a great climber on the bike, and I knew the bike segment had a lot of vertical. Finally, whether I trained at elevation or not, I didn’t think that pushing myself hard at 7,000 feet (up to 8,500 feet at the top of the long climb) was going to be particularly fun for me.

My unease grew when I arrived at my hotel in Huntington Lake. To say that it was more than a few decades beyond needing a refresh was an understatement. My room didn’t have air conditioning, so it was really hot. It was also a very warm night. What added insult to injury was that there was a wedding reception on the patio outside my room that didn’t end till midnight, so I couldn’t open the windows of my room due to the noise. Even with earplugs, the noise was too much, so I lay in bed sweating and didn’t fall asleep until after midnight and only got about four hours of sleep. But I was determined not to stress out from these not-ideal conditions and turned to my recent source of inspiration to guide me.

Now I need to digress to introduce you to that new source of inspiration. Have you ever heard of Mark Beaumont? If you’re just of the triathlon world, you probably haven’t. If you live in the broader world of extreme sports, including endurance cycling, you may very well have. Up until two months ago, I hadn’t heard of Mark either. Then, one day, I received an email from him asking if he could interview me about the psychology of cycling for his podcast and upcoming book. He told he was a Scotsman who was an endurance cyclist (an understatement if ever I heard one). It sounded like fun, so I said sure (still not thinking much about who he was).

The interview was interesting as he was an engaging conversationalist, but I still didn’t give it much thought. Then, a few weeks later, I received a signed copy of his most recent book, Around the World in 80 Days (yes, playing on the iconic Jules Verne story). When I leafed through the book, I began to realize the enormity of who Mark was and what he had accomplished. If you’re into endurance sports in any way, shape, or form, his book will blow your mind (as it did mine). Try these stats on for size: Mark cycled more than 18,000 miles. He rode 16 hours a day at an average distance of 240 miles a day (that’s about 15 mph) and had days in which he had to climb upwards of 10,000 feet. All of this on around five hours of sleep a night, with all manner of aches, pains, soreness, and injury, and in some of the worst possible riding conditions (e.g., heat, cold, rain, snow, headwind, dirt roads, traffic). Also, just an FYI, he has ridden the lengths of Africa and the Americas (on separate journeys)!

As you can imagine, Mark’s mind-blowing adventure put my paltry and mundane triathlon challenges in perspective. While lying in bed the night before the race, I kept asking myself, “WWMD” (What Would Mark Do?). He would stay positive, relaxed, focused on the task at hand, simply accept the hand that he was dealt, and just grind through it. So, by gosh, that is what I was going to do!

The start of the race seemed to take forever to arrive. I guess that’s what happens when you wake up at 4:30 and arrive at the race venue before the sun is up. But I kept myself busy by warming up, laying out my transition area, checking out the swim start, and doing mental imagery of my transitions and parts of each leg of the race. My apprehension declined and my excitement for the race increased. I also felt calm and happy to be there.

The swim began with a time-trial start of 15-second intervals. I actually loved this because there was no jostling and it was easy to get into a good rhythm, plus less splashing that always prevents me from sighting the buoys. As a late-to-the-game swimmer, the swim for me is about staying focused, not getting lulled into a lazy pace, not hating it, and, well, just getting through it. I came out of the water feeling fine, but, after seeing my time after the race, was disappointed because I had put a lot of time and energy into my swim training this winter and summer, yet my time was slower than I had hoped for by a lot. But I was just happy to have a good T1 transition (third fastest!) and get out on my bike.

Oh, BTW, another source of uncertainty had been deciding whether to use my tri-bike (a rocket on flats) or my road bike (more comfortable and better for climbing). After much inner turmoil, I decided to use my road bike because there was a lot of climbing and the road didn’t seem to have any real flat and straight sections (this turned out to be a good decision!). Though I have to admit that a triathlon just doesn’t feel like a triathlon on a road bike.

My bike leg was solid, particularly the first ten miles, which involved a steady 1,300-foot climb followed by a fast descent back past the transition area. The remaining ten miles or so were rolling with some very steep spikes. I still haven’t figured out how much I can push myself on the bike while still having good legs for the run. I felt like I took it pretty easy and my time, I later learned, was far behind the competitors around me. Again, a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, after a fast T2 (fastest of the day!), I began the 10K run course. Running is, by far, my strongest leg of a triathlon. I have to admit that I love having the run last because I always pass a lot of people. This race was no different. It was a tough, two-lap course combining narrow, windy, and soft single-track along the lake with two long climbs on pavement. I did weekly bike-run bricks in my training, so I was confident that my legs would feel good for the run and they did. I powered along comfortably, breathing fairly heavily, but no leg burn. I finished strong, passing two more people near the end.

My first thought after picking up my finisher’s medal and post-race food bag was: “I don’t feel like I just swam, biked, and ran for almost three hours.” I wasn’t particularly tired, stiff, or sore. I suppose that could be a testament to my fitness or an indictment on having left a ton of time on the course. But, all things considered and amid the otherworldliness of COVID, I was pleased with my return to triathlon and felt that giddy sensation that comes from overcoming the external and internal challenges that we are all familiar with in this crazy sport of ours.

Though results, of course, don’t matter (he said wryly), I was pleased with how I finished. I was 5th overall (and the oldest by 25 years) and won my age group (the second-place finisher was a many-times USAT World Team member who had crushed me in my first race back to the sport a year ago, so nice progress there).

More importantly, I was motivated to keep training hard and, yes, racing as much as possible! Thankfully, it looks like triathlon season in California is heating up (no pun intended re: the forest fires) as I have three races on my schedule in September, including a weekend doubleheader of Olympic- and sprint-distance events (I was going to do this double at the USAT Age-Group Championships in Milwaukee, so I figured it would be a good test for 2021).

I thought I would conclude this race report with brief lessons learned:

  1. My triathlon training kept me sane during COVID-19
  2. Though I’ve improved, I have more work to do
  3. I need to push myself more on the swim and bike in my next few races, even at the risk of blowing up, because I want to find out what my limits are
  4. I love triathlon!

About Dr. Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., psychology, is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of endurance sports. Jim has been a consultant to USA Triathlon and works with Olympic, professional, and age-group endurance athletes in triathlon, cycling, running, swimming, and Nordic skiing. A former alpine ski racer who competed internationally, Jim is a 2nd-degree black belt in karate, sub-3-hour marathoner, Ironman, and USAT nationally ranked triathlete. Jim is the author of 17 books, including The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training (with Terri Schneider) and Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation for Achieving Your Sports Goals. Jim is also the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast. To learn more, visit drjimtaylor.com.