Jan. 22, 2016 – Vol.2 | No.2 – Focus On: Triathlons

Those Who Tri

Story and Photos by Katie McLean


There is no greater feeling than crossing the finish line of a race that requires you step out of your comfort zone. The only thing that might top it is helping someone else achieve his or her goal in a race, whether that’s a time, distance or simply completing it on their own two feet.

I love being around people participating in their first triathlon as it allows me to share that feeling of crossing a finish line and I relive it all over again.

I will never forget the process after I decided to try my first triathlon. I picked an entry level triathlon just outside of Toronto in 1998, which was just before I got pregnant with our third child of four. I knew how to run and my swimming ability was okay. But cycling – that was my greatest fear.

I borrowed a bike that I didn’t ride before the race believing that I would figure it out during the race and besides, I could make up for it with my running fitness. But I didn’t figure it out and stayed in the same gear for the whole race (I’m not even sure how I did that).

I knew in that moment that triathlon was my sport

When I crossed the finish line, I knew in that moment that triathlon was my sport. I found it amusing, the three sports. Here I am swimming, oops now I’m cycling and oh yeah, now I’m running, how fun!

Still, it took me years after that first race to pick up the sport in a consistent and serious way. By serious, I mean that I hired a coach, started training between eight and 15 hours per week and tried to win my age category in the races I competed in.

My youngest child was five when I was inspired to try my first Ironman race. An Ironman includes a 3.86-kilometre swim, 180.25-kilometre road bike ride and 42.2-kilometre run (a full marathon distance). What inspired me to give it a try was listening to my friend Tim talk about how he felt when he completed the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. At that time, Tim was already a veteran triathlete and managed to qualify every year for the Ironman World Championship. It’s not an easy feat when you consider that he was in the toughest category – males, 40 to 44 – and you have to be in the top three of another qualifying event to gain entry to Kona’s race. For an average Ironman race, there are between 300 to 500 men competing in the 40 to 44 age category.

I did my first sprint triathlon race when I was 34 and started training for Ironman when I was 44. I didn’t know many other women my age who also wanted to train and compete for something like this, it was mostly men.

Katie competing in Ironman Canada

To me, it made sense to just jump in, sign up for my first Ironman and figure it out as I went along. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I signed up for the Lake Placid Ironman in New York with two friends, Carmine and Gord, who were also new to triathlons. Tim was our mentor and guide.

I took one step and challenge at a time.

I signed up for a 90-minute triathlon swim training class at 6 a.m. that ran twice a week. It was the first time I ever swam in an organized swim training group and I had no idea what equipment I needed nor did I understand the lingo. Yet my biggest fear was walking out on the swim deck in my bathing suit in front of some pretty buff athletes. It seems silly now but it was really hard at the time. (I know I’m not alone in that fear because when I was coaching a man for his first triathlon, he said the exact same thing.)

To decide which lane we were to train in, we had to swim 100 metres as fast as we could. Swim lanes in most pools are 25 or 50 metres long, requiring multiple lengths of the pool for this initial test. I managed to be somewhere in the middle of the pack, however my ability versus my understanding of the etiquette and workouts were not at the same level. Learning things like leaving space between people in your lane, how to pass, how to use the clock, what the short form of different strokes is and so on.

I was thrilled to learn something new from a person who genuinely cared about my success

I also wasn’t used to the level of coaching that I received: The swim coach would walk the length of the pool and watch my stroke to give me feedback. I was thrilled to learn something new from a person who genuinely cared about my success. He told me to buy a pull buoy, paddles and fins – these are standard accessories for those in a swim or triathlon swim club and are available at stores that carry general triathlon or specialty swim gear. It took me weeks to find the time to actually buy the accessories but when I finally did, I felt like a part of the team. Having the support of a group allowed me to ramp-up and improve much more quickly than I would have on my own.

I had no clue what bike to buy or where to buy one from, so I put it off for quite a while. I put it off to the point where I had to force myself to act or else I would have to pull the plug on the whole Ironman idea. I asked my swim coach for some advice, as I discovered that he owned a bike studio where clients brought their own bikes and instructors put them through a workout using a computrainer (i.e. a stationary bike trainer that shows your speed, cadence and power – like a spin class but with your own bike). My coach suggested that I buy an entry level Cervélo bike and where to find it. I did exactly as he said except I got a blue one rather than black as it really came down to colour for me.

Katie and her blue Cervelo bike

Once I got the bike, the next challenge came along of how did I train in the winter? I decided to go to my swim coach’s cycling studio on a day he was coaching. I was following his workout when he looked at me to just pedal rather than trying to follow the workout. I could not keep up any type of cadence (the rhythm and turnover rate of the pedals, or feet if talking about running). The motion of cycling versus running was hard for me to adjust to so my coach worked with me on form and pacing.

Generally, you want to keep a cadence above 90-rpm (revolutions per minute), use a full pedal stroke and have a relaxed upper body. I learned that engaging your glutes and abs are key to a creating a faster cadence. It helped immensely to be on a bike trainer for my first ride, rather than outside, so I could just focus on riding technique and not on directions, traffic or other obstacles I would be faced with outside.

Ah yes, nutrition on the bike matters, too!

Then came my nutrition no, no. I tried my first three-hour, indoor ride completely unaware that I would need fuel (i.e. food and hydration) to get through it. The guy next to me brought a huge cooler filled with fruit, water, nutrition bars, electrolyte drinks and more. Ah yes, nutrition on the bike matters, too!

I quickly realized that the amount of training needed for an Ironman versus a sprint triathlon were very different. A sprint triathlon includes a 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre road bike ride and five-kilometre run, which you can do off of basic fitness. That allows you to finish a race somewhere between 90 minutes to two hours. An Ironman can take 12-plus hours to complete.

I lucked out again when I learned that my swim coach also coached triathletes. I asked him to coach me since I had four young children and a husband who travelled a lot, and I needed help prioritizing which workouts were crucial and how to properly prepare overall. I didn’t expect that I would also have to learn how to be coached– listen to everything he said and do it. That was another big lesson for me.

That was it, I was bitten by the Ironman bug

When I finally tried my first ride outside, I was incredibly fit but didn’t know anything about bike handling. I recruited my husband and a friend to join me for my first highway ride. I was scared but noticed the benefits of my fitness level and that boosted my confidence … until I forgot to unclip from the pedals when stopping and wiped out. It was embarrassing but not that uncommon. In fact, I’ve done it many more times over the years, including falling off a stationary trainer.

That was it, I was bitten by the Ironman bug.

My general routine became that I would compete in at least one Ironman or half-Ironman per year. I have done Ironman Lake Placid, Ironman Canada, Ironman Texas, Ironman 70.3 California, Ironman Calgary 70.3, Alcatraz Triathlon (x3), Joe’s Team triathlon (x12), Oliver Half Ironman and Chinook Triathlon. My triathlons followed a running history of 12 marathons including NYC, Chicago, Boston, Marine Corps, Ottawa and Toronto.

Unfortunately over the last few years, I needed to factor-in a major back injury into my training regimen. It also meant I had to retire from competing in full Ironman races.

Pumped and ready to run
June 2013: Michelle Lindstrom (New-Normal’s editor) before competing for the first time as an individual (did it as a relay in 2012) in Joe’s Team Calgary’s duathlon portion of the race (run 5Km, bike 20km & run 2.5km) … and then threw up at the finish line. Ewww.

Joe’s Team triathlon is my staple race that I do every year. I like to take part in it each year to help others achieve their goals and cross finish lines they didn’t know they could, while also giving back to a great cause. Joe Finley, who the race was named after, had Stage Four cancer but continued to inspire thousands of us to follow his example by trying a new experience – a triathlon – while raising money and awareness about cancer. Joe’s Team triathlon/duathlon began 10 years ago in Muskoka, Ontario that Joe’s family organized. When I moved from Ontario to Calgary, Alberta, I started the race up there in partnership with the Alberta Cancer Foundation and an amazing leadership team.

June 2013: Michelle Lindstrom (New-Normal’s editor) before competing for the first time as an individual (did it as a relay in 2012) in Joe’s Team Calgary’s duathlon portion of the race (run 5Km, bike 20km & run 2.5km) … and then threw up at the finish line. Ewww.

Although Joe passed away before we had our first Joe’s Team Calgary in 2010, I know that he is smiling down on us for carrying on his legacy. We’ve raised over $10-million for cancer research in Ontario and Alberta.

Encouraging others to overcome fear, adversity and lack of fitness by getting involved in this activity and community is a huge reward for me. I’m proud of making a difference for many people and that they are active today because they took a chance and tried their first triathlon.

For a first triathlon, most people dream to just finish and then the next one becomes about finishing faster. Triathlon is addictive and immerses you in a wonderful community of new friends of all ages. I work out with 20-year-old guys and 70-year-old women. The diversity is fun and inspiring. In triathlon, you can get passed by someone older and less fit looking than you and then you can kick ass with younger athletes who look more fit than you.

Stay fit, fight back and cross finish lines.


Katie’s Triathlon Tips:

-Find a mentor or coach – the triathlon community is quite generous
-Join a group to learn to swim or enhance what you already know
-Put one bag together for your swim stuff and keep in one place – there is a lot of stuff, so it’s easier to keep track of it and grab when you have race to the pool.
-Create an Ironman drawer/triathlon drawer for all the equipment so that you have everything you need in one place when you need to find it.
-Pick an entry race, like Joe’s Team, for your first because they are friendly to beginners. Some are for charity, but not all.
-Start reading up on the sport and follow some of the pros like these: http://www.trinewbies.com/ and http://www.slowtwitch.com/ or buy a triathlon magazine or book – I like the ones written by Joel Friel.
-Find a buddy to run with or join a running group
-Begin your bike training on a trainer indoors
-Set your next goal before you complete your first one
-Recruit a newbie friend to join you after you have tried your first triathlon; It’s exciting to share the experience.
-Study how to fuel yourself appropriately (i.e. 300 calories of fuel per hour plus one 750 mL bottle of water per hour.)
-Expect that you will say and do fairly stupid things as you try things out and it’s perfectly okay.
-Try a five-kilometre running race as preparation
-Try one triathlon a season to start
-Any general athletic ability helps but is not necessary. I trained a man who had only ever played hockey
-I love to add in yoga and strength training to prevent injury
-At more competitive races, they enforce the rules more (i.e. no drafting on the bike, which is following too close behind another athlete) and they all have super nice equipment and seem to know what they are doing
-As a beginner, training can include a couple of runs, one bike ride and one swim per week.
There are really two types of people who do them: those that compete to finish and those that compete to win (at least their age category) and both are worthy goals.

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