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The Creative Ways Triathletes are Training and Racing at Home

A DIY endless pool and Ironmans at home–triathletes are showing off their inventive chops as they work to train and race through the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Bespoke “Endless Pool” in the Garage

Who: Katie and Matias Palavecino
Where: Alexandria, VA

Matias Palavacino gave stretch bands a try. His coach prescribed some swim-alternative workouts when public pools closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing regulations. But they just weren’t cutting it. 

“I couldn’t just stand in one place, getting sweaty,” said the elite age-grouper, who won the overall age-group title at Ironman Atlantic City 70.3 last September. “I missed the feeling of being submerged, of feeling fresh after a workout. Swimming wakes you up.” 

So Palavecino and his wife, fellow triathlete Katie, 41, started exploring their options. First, they considered acquiring a Vasa Trainer–which Katie relied on while recovering from hamstring surgery in 2018. But they’d since sold theirs to a friend who didn’t want to sell it back, and, as a non-essential business, Vasa has stalled sales during the pandemic. They spoke to a rep at Endless Pools but nixed that idea when presented with a $30,000 price tag. Then, Matias hopped on the phone and looked up large personal pools he could potentially set up in his garage. His scrolling stopped when he saw that Walmart offered a 1,915-gallon, 14′ x 8’2″ x 39.5″ above-ground steel pool with a pump and filter for under $400. 

“Within a couple of days, it was delivered to our doorstep, even with free shipping,” says Matias, who cleared out their 19’x 16’ garage to make room for the pool. (Incidentally, the Palavecinos are not alone in this endeavor: a Canadian triathlete also built her own set-up using an above-ground pool in her garage.) “I bought an immersion heating element for $39.99, chlorine tablets, a dispenser, and test kit on Amazon. I set it up, ran the hose into the garage, and 12 hours later, it was filled.”

By the next morning, Matias—a systems engineer for Washington, D.C.-based Regulus Group—took his inaugural dip, wearing a full wetsuit as the temperature was a chilly 63 degrees F. (The heating element raises the water about two degrees per day; Katie didn’t get in until the water hit 70F.) He submerged an old bathroom mirror on the pool’s floor for form checks and rigged swim-specific stretch cords to the adjacent garage door, which attach to a belt on his waist to provide tension as he swims in place. He also brought his Amazon Alexa into the garage, to provide background music and help with timing his workouts. 

“I’ll tell Alexa to start a 10-minute timer, and then I’ll try to swim until the timer is up,” he explains, adding that he also favors Tabata-style workouts with short bursts of speed with quick turnover on a high tension. “I swim as hard as I can try to stay within view of the mirror, which is motivating–and really hard.” 

The Palavecinos are well aware that this is an unconventional approach—and of the potential caveats of having a pool in their garage. “The filter it came with isn’t the best, and even though we have fans running to circulate air, we likely will have to worry about mold and rust over time and once it gets warmer,” says Matias, adding that safety is also a concern since they have two young kids who can swim, but aren’t allowed in the pool unsupervised. When the time comes, the water can be drained and run out to the sewer just beyond the Palavecino’s driveway.   

To date, the Palevecinos have spent about $536 on the pool, including the cost of water and electricity (they calculate that their electric bill will increase about $40 per month if they continue to heat it). Which, all told, is a small price to pay for two top triathletes to stay fit–and sane–during quarantine. 

“Maybe the novelty will wear off, who knows,” says Matias. “But for now, it’s a great quick fix. And hopefully, a temporary one.” 

A Backyard Ironman

Who: Charlotte Raubenheimer
Where: Summerstrand, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

A long-time triathlon sherpa for her husband, Jean, Charlotte Raubenheimer, 41, had finally decided to leap into long-distance racing herself last year. But her training for Ironman South Africa (originally set for March 29) came to a screeching halt when the country enforced a 21-day lockdown period. Considered one of the strictest shelter-in-place mandates in the world, South Africans cannot leave their homes unless for emergencies, doctors appointments, or food shopping. Neighborhood walks and bike rides are out—they can’t even walk their dogs.

The thing is, Raubenheimer used her lofty goal of completing an Ironman as a fundraising platform to collect money to purchase a specialized wheelchair for her friend with cerebral palsy.  And, by March, she’d raised some $5,500 (R100,000) and the chair had been purchased. Raubenheimer couldn’t ignore the tug that she had to do something to honor her commitment. 

So, she staged her own Ironman. On her property. 

Using a tether system to cover the 2.4-mile swim in her 20-foot-long backyard pool, her bike trainer, and a dizzying run course of repeated 133-meter loops in her yard, Raubenheimer was able to complete her very first Ironman triathlon, after all. On March 30, at 8:11 p.m. local time, 13 hours and 11 minutes after she started, the mom of two crossed the “finish line” and collapsed onto the lush green grass in her yard.

“I was just so well prepared to race that it seemed like a shame to not at least try,” says Raubenheimer.  “At first I thought I’d break it up somewhat, or at least rest more. But once I started, something took over me. I didn’t want to stop.”

To stay motivated, Raubenheimer tapped into her “memory bank” of happier times with her training buddies, as well as thoughts of her wheelchair-bound friend, Phillip Jansen van Rensburg, for whom she fundraised. Her sons, aged 6 and 11, and husband stood by to offer support. And once friends caught on to her attempt (she kept it quiet until she was about halfway through the bike), they began sending text and video messages, acting like a virtual cheer squad to power her through the tougher times.

And there were tough times. Plenty of them. Raubenheimer ran out of fuel at one point, so she sent her husband to the store for provisions. Her iPad, which was connected to Zwift, shut down after about 56 miles on the bike, so she had to navigate some technical difficulties while continuing to pedal for six hours. And then there was the run: In the confined space of her backyard, she made 1,580 turns to cover the 26.2-mile distance in about five hours, most of it in the dark.

“When Jean realized that I was struggling, he would run behind me, either silently supporting me, or making jokes,” she says. “It helped.”

While the accomplishment is satisfying—Raubenheimer’s family even welcomed her with a handmade trophy and medal at the end—she says that she still wants to experience that unrivaled finish-line feeling of an actual competition, perhaps on November 15, Ironman South Africa’s new race date.

“That red carpet, the spectators, the camaraderie. I really missed that,” she says of her solo venture. “But this experience taught me so much about myself and my abilities. So when the time comes when we can race again, I know I can do it.”

An Ironman with an Audience

Who: Three-time Ironman world champion Jan Frodeno
Where: Girona, Spain

Like Raubenheimer, Frodeno will be attempting to complete the iron-distance within the confines of his home. Many of his fans initially took it to be an April Fool’s joke when he announced the “triathlon at home” earlier this month, but Frodeno is serious. He’ll make the attempt on Saturday, April 11, and will livestream it on his Facebook page so anyone can check in and cheer him on.

Frodeno will swim in his in-home pool. “Using the speed of the counter-current system, I can calculate how long I have to swim to cover 3.8 km,” he says of the swim. “That means that if the system is set to 1 minute and 10 seconds per 100 meters, I have to swim for 44 minutes and 20 seconds.”

Jan will hop on his trainer to complete the 112-mile bike ride before finishing up with a marathon on his treadmill.

Frodeno came up with the concept, and then his sponsors quickly jumped on board to support him. He’s set up a donation platform where athletes can buy into a raffle for prizes—including an all-expense paid trip to train with Frodeno for a day. The money will be split among several charities as well as local coronavirus relief efforts in Girona.

“We already thought of this idea a few weeks ago when things slowly started taking shape here in Spain and it became clear that the situation was really getting serious,” he says of the concept. “In the beginning it was actually just a crackpot idea, with me thinking: ‘If I can’t do my race, I’ll just do it at home.’

“Then we thought more about how and why we should actually do this: It’s certainly not about showing off. I just want to attract attention in order to raise money. I want to use this event to support those who are currently doing the competition in the hospitals day in and day out.”