MAY 31ST, 7AM

Am I ready? I keep wondering if I am while bustling to get all of my belongings into a borrowed car. In the process, I discover a slow leak in the tube of my fancy front wheel. In the rush to change this and grab a few last-minute items (all irrelevant, I come to discover), I lock my keys inside the building. Thankfully, a neighbour (and I have only two) is sleeping lightly with his window open!

Finally on the road, I dive into English muffins with peanut butter and Nutella. Spray from an 18- wheeler ahead of me continually coats the windshield. It is 9 degrees Celsius and windy. It is, of course, raining. Perfect triathlon weather. I try not to think about the temperature of the water. Nevertheless, the excitement and trepidation about the unknown begins to take hold.

I am about to fulfill a long-held plan to compete in a triathlon. The race in Joliette is a Sprint, comprising of a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run. This is half the Olympic distance — one I will attempt in three weeks at Mont-Tremblant, Québec. Am I ready? Have I trained enough? I cannot answer the first question, though the answer to the second is a resounding “no”!

Two more cars with road bikes on their roof racks join me on the highway heading east. I smile. They must surely be going to the same place since no one else in their right mind would be heading to play outdoors on a morning such as this.

TRANSITION ZONE

The town of Joliette is in full triathlon mode. Roads are blocked off and volunteers expertly direct traffic. I pull into a parking spot as directed and finally connect the physical reality with Google Map images and diagrams from the triathlon website. Sitting still for a moment, I watch groups of people neatly preparing their equipment. They all seem old hands at this triathlon stuff. Some look to have already changed into parts of their race clothes. Everyone seems to know what to do and where to go. I feel unprepared.

Leaving the stuff in the car, I walk down to the gym to register. Three minutes later I stand amidst the flux and flow of athletes and entourages, clutching my free t-shirt, bib number and racing cap. I have numbers written on shoulder and calf and I start to have serious reservations. It is so cold. Everyone seems so…together. With a deep breath and motivated by complete incertitude I return to the car, deciding to change into my “tri” suit there. Others seem to be doing the same so there’s a good chance no one will be getting arrested for indecent exposure. Everyone is quite calm, happy and relaxed. One half ready, I reorganize my stuff into one waterproof backpack, clip my shoes into my pedals and head for the transition zone.

It is quite something. It’s like we’re crossing international borders. We pass checkpoints where bikes are inspected, and registration documents scrutinized. At a few points, my heart anxiously as thoughts of being barred from competition over a technicality flutter in my brain. When I finally slip through into the transition zone, it feels almost illicit. It’s hard to process that I am actually here. It also means that soon I must squeeze into my borrowed wetsuit and jump into a fast-moving river!

It is in the transition zone, though, that I discover an unanticipated aspect to triathlon racing – perhaps in the Joliette event in particular. Despite their serious, competitive exterior the people are friendly. I meet a guy in his second triathlon. We exchange pleasantries and then immediately start sharing experiences. I talk to another woman, remarking on the weather. She looks like a serious athlete, but she is unguarded and unpretentious. No matter our levels, we are all in the same situation, slowly getting ready, warming up and squeezing into our uncomfortable wetsuits.

IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO FEEL LIKE THIS

I had a slight inkling that something may be wrong. The wetsuit didn’t feel like it did at the shop. There was more pressure on my throat – it felt more constricted. By then however we are all literally getting cold feet from the wet grass, impatiently listening to the final instructions ahead of the starting horn. The temperature at 10:30AM is still shivering in single digits but the water temperature is a balmy 19C. The faster athletes—those in the Quebec Cup competition—are already in the water and started off and the rest of us start slowly, almost unwillingly getting into the brown water.

“Just jump in!” someone yells from behind. People are reluctantly getting into the water. It is clear from their faces that 19 Celsius is not that balmy! I plunge into the water and feel dry for a few seconds. Then the shock as cold water seeps into the suit, stirring up something akin to indignation. Why would anyone create a garment that gets you wet? This being a water start we all tread water waiting for the horn to sound.

Though no stranger to water of all sorts, it is a lot rockier than I had imagined. Suddenly, the horn sounds and we’re off. Well, most people are. As I start swimming, I am immediately beset by a panicky feeling of not being able to breathe. Is this anxiety? I have no idea. Regardless, I cannot swim more than a few meters before I need to stop to take in air. This is not supposed to feel like this. It must be the wetsuit. It is too small. Or, perhaps it is not on quite right! Droves of swimmers over take me, thrashing the water and creating more chop that makes breathing even more difficult. Someone kicks my shoulder. To my utter surprise the swimmer slows momentarily and apologizes as he glides by.

Panic never really sets in, only a grim realization that this will really suck — if I don’t drown, that is! I swim a few strokes and stop, panting madly, trying to force more air into my too-compressed ribcage. This is what an asthma attack must feel like. I grudgingly give up on the freestyle technique. Switching to breaststroke I plough forward and finally establish a rhythm of sorts that doesn’t exhaust me and reduces my intake of river water. The lack of air has disoriented me. I find I am tacking back and forth like a confused sailboat. Stopping yet again, I sight a straight line to the impossibly distant finish, at which some are already exiting the water, and start inching forward again.

Breaststroke is my best stroke! Even with less oxygen, I am passing swimmers who are using the faster technique. This could mean two things: that I am very efficient at this technique or that they are less efficient than even me at theirs. No matter, I start to gain a little momentum and the swim finish gets steadily closer. At this point I feel like I’ve been swimming for at least an hour. Visions of getting to the transition zone to find everyone packed up and gone home float ahead of me through the chop. My arms are tired; I am flirting with calf cramps and I force nearly a third of my torso out of the water in order to get a decent breath.

Finally, I get to the finish. I am so glad this is over. I run gingerly desperately unzipping my suit to getting my arms and chest free like I’ve seen the pros do. Ahead of me someone slips and wipes out turning a corner. Able to breathe now, I find I am not dead last. No one has gone home. I run through the transition zone momentarily unable to remember where my bike is and run past it. People who were behind me are already jogging to the bike start line. The wind gusts up and chills every part of me as I dance and jerk around in attempts to free myself of the neoprene iron maiden. Finally out, I get my stuff on as quickly as possible and start the awkward road bike cleat run to the bike start line.

EVEN UPHILL, IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE

I diligently run my bike past the start point and jump on my bike for a rolling start. I narrowly miss rear-ending someone who has planted himself in the middle of the road to clip into his pedals. Thankfully I didn’t cause an accident. There is so much going on around me. A short false climb and we’re into the course proper. It is windy and cold. I have three layers on my torso but only my triathlon shorts on the bottom. Rules say we must stay at least 10m behind another cyclist as drafting is prohibited. This proves nearly impossible as many riders are evenly matched. I accelerate, pass a few people and then hear the wooden sound of carbon frame and wheels from behind. It sounds like a high speed train! My speed meter reads about 38kph; this means that the athletes passing me are flying at well over 40kph. Amazing! Triathlon bikes may be more efficient but so are their owners’ muscles. It is humbling and exciting to be here.

The course is narrow and smooth (for Quebec country town pavement). At times, when certain I don’t have the power to pass, I must slow down in order to respect the course rules. Coming up to the turn-around, there is a short fast downhill section that levels out and loops around to a short intense uphill. There I find a disaster of riders lumbering awkwardly up the grade with their flats- friendly triathlon bikes. Others on regular road bikes struggle with gearing, spinning madly in their granny gears. I pass many people knowing full well that once they all hit their cruising speeds, they will reel me in like a tired fish. Still it feels good to be proficient at something!

The rest of the ride settles into passing some folks and getting passed. Volunteers and curious bystanders — many in settled into lawn chairs on their properties watch us whizz by. I am feeling comfortable though chilled. For the first time since I’ve been riding road bikes, have I stayed down in my drops for this long. Aerodynamics seem to make a huge difference. Guess I’m getting triathlon bars. On the second loop, I ride a little harder, using the few sections of relative tail wind to cover more ground. The wind doesn’t help. I wonder if I will have enough for the run. The last part of the second loop feels really good. I come into the stop line pumped and smiling but, once off the bike, I feel like my lower legs and feet are only partially there! At this point, my feet may as well be hooves.

THANK YOU BROOKS!

The transition goes smoother this time, except that I again pass my stuff. I throw on my runners and awkwardly try to fashion a headband out of the Bluff tube I use as a helmet liner while running for the exit to the run course. Passing through a narrow corridor jammed with cheering people we exit onto the run course proper. The first part of which is a beautiful asphalt path by the river. I glance over at the swim course and feel the press of the wetsuit against my chest. Ok, let’s concentrate on the run. No need to go back there. My legs feel fine — from the knees up. Below the knees, however, there is something wrong. I cannot feel my toes well and there are two slight points of pain deep in the middle of each calf. I know exactly what that is. The problem is I know exactly what that is! I keep a steady pace that is reasonably efficient though by no means fast — fast for me, that is. Runners are blowing past me. I wonder which lap they are on. The course has four laps for our distance of 5km. Despite all this, nothing really hurts and everything else feels fine. I am so happy to be breathing. I run along just enjoying breathing normally!

The situation in my calves is stabilizing. I feel more of my lower legs as I warm up. The course is protected but I’m still glad for the three layers I’ve decided to keep after the bike portion. I pass a few runners and begin the second lap. My breath comes easily. I don’t look at the river. Warmed up now, I begin to increase my pace, passing groups of runners some of whom appear to be struggling. Of course there more runners passing me but fewer now — all the good runners have probably finished already. I take a little water at the water station and keep going.

Into lap three, I start to accelerate. I am smiling. Things are going swimmingly — err no, things are running along. I think back to the decision to buy new running shoes, having been out of commission for almost two years after after running through an injury during a rather insane distance event. The advice and service I received at Boutique Endurance in Montreal was exemplary and the Brooks running shoes ended up being my saviours. I have never run so well, so pain free, in my life and I am sure the shoes have a lot to do with it.

Nothing hurts. My breathing is in control. I begin to push more, smiling as I start the final lap. I accelerate steadily but don’t go full out. I don’t feel like I need to do so. I don’t want to exhaust myself. I feel good about this event and I want to finish strong. Up a false grade, through a parking lot where groups of onlookers cheer, I round the final corner excited to be running into the finish lane. I run harder and harder all the way home.

A MEDAL, A SANDWICH AND CRAFT BEER

The Joliette Triathlon is a great event, perfect for beginner triathletes like myself. It is rather small and though the level of competition is high, I feel the event doesn’t take itself too seriously. People are friendly and relaxed. There is a family atmosphere. After being asked for my chip bracelet and handed a “finisher” medal I saunter through the small tent city where various triathlon clubs have planted their flags. These clubs represent a portion of the athletes who train as a community and who pay to have a little more luxury at the end of the event. I admire these people; I admire their dedication.

I take my complimentary Subway sandwich, chocolate milk and banana and sit on the bleechers by the soccer pitch. Unbeknownst to me, this is where the McGill Triathlon club has set up and, only after I finish my lunch and a leisurely chat with some of its members, does it dawn on me that this section of the bleechers was intended as part of their encampment. As I walk away I overhear them asking if anyone knew me. The answer is no. I just happened to park there. Regardless, we are on the grounds of a public school so I don’t feel too bad. On the contrary, I feel a little pleased with having created a mystery!

I am alone, without an entourage and the whole thing starts to feel a little anti-climactic. After all the effort and excitement, I find myself floating about unsure how long I should stick around. I find out where the results are posted and go see. I can’t find my name. Anywhere. I begin to go over the race wondering if I missed something. Had I done enough laps? Oh god! I missed a lap. That must be it! I get that sinking feeling. That’s why the run felt so good. I didn’t run the whole distance. Finally, I find my name, shocked at the result. I was searching too low! My official time is 1:23:05. According to the results, I am completely average: 56th out of 104 male competitors. I am more than pleased. I came into the event hoping to finish around 1:45. This shows that I had no idea of my own pace. Fed, satisfied and feeling a little forlorn, I am out of here and on to the Albion — a local brew pub I’d read about.

After some typically neurotic worries about leaving my bike locked to a roof rack out of view, I have re-parked the car and am, yet again, settled into the patio chair facing my sampler of excellent ales. The Albion is housed in a Victorian villa on rue Manseau in Joliette’s historical downtown only a couple of hundred meters away from the transition zone! The waiter is friendly and knowledgable and the house’s speciality is recreating recipes of beer styles no longer in vogue. The character of the place, the town and their unique take on brewing make a great match. I am definitely coming back here — not just for the beer but for this awesome event that has kickstarted my life as a triathlete. But, let’s take the “athlete” part with a few grains of salt and a few sips of craft beer!

Ondrej