The Guinea Pig, Part I

The author begins his 12-week challenge

Jul 8, 2008
Outside Magazine
Fitness: Twelve Weeks to a Better You

The author at rest

Race Day, Part 1
A few months ago I decided I'd had enough of physical mediocrity. This isn't to imply that I'm of the fat-oaf variety. Despite my self-destructive proclivities, I regularly jog, hit the heavy bag, and lift weights.

But I wanted the kind of all-around fitness that would enable me to get up a climbing wall, try surfing on a whim, motor through a full-on pickup basketball game without being hobbled the next day, or maybe even complete a triathlon. That's why I left my Manhattan apartment nine weeks ago for the mountains of Park City, Utah—why I endured a summer of exhaustion and pain, dished out by a personal coach. Simply to answer the question: Can I change from athletic into an athlete?

I'm about to find out.

A voice booms through the air.

"Are you ready?!"

It's the announcer at my first-ever triathlon, perched on a rocky ledge in Utah's Jordanelle State Park, 50 feet from the water.

I pull my goggles over my eyes and take a deep breath.

"Five!" yells the announcer.

Did I train enough? I ask myself.


I never should have taken that time off for my buddy's wedding.


Those buoys look awfully far.


What's the worst that could happen?


Oh, shit ...


The Beginning
Four days after arriving in Salt Lake City, I meet Mark McKown at the Utah Jazz practice facility. McKown (see "The Coach") has agreed to train me, and our first day will involve a hike. "A little test," he says. "See where you're at."

The sun shines mercilessly as we trudge up Mailman Ridge, a trail named for retired Jazz All-Star Karl Malone. My lungs grasp for air a mile above sea level. We cover 2.33 miles in 47 minutes. Good time, says McKown, considering the 93-degree heat. Handing me an AdvoCare recovery drink, he launches into a disquisition on stride length, efficiency, lung capacity, recovery time, genetic potential, and perceived exertion rates. My stomach churns.

He hands me a stack of papers detailing the training regimen he tailored specifically for me (see "The Plan"). Running, swimming, and biking two to three days a week; strength training two to three days a week; sprint and endurance work one to two days a week; core work every other day; and daily stretching.

I Only Kinda Suck
I escape the kiln that is Salt Lake City for a friend's Park City digs and begin training in earnest. I start with what I know best, the run, and spend much of the paltry 25 minutes walking and wheezing. I manage only 2.79 miles, according to my Garmin GPS watch. The following day, dressed in gym shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers, I cover 10.41 miles on a creaky steel loaner mountain bike. I don't stop. I don't suffer. Encouraging.

Out of My Element
My first swim in eight years is not pretty. Flailing. Inhaling water. I manage two laps of the 25-yard pool at the Park City Racquet Club and take a break. After six laps, I haul myself out and assess. I'll require some coaching.

Baby Steps
I join nearly 1,000 others for the Park City July 4 "Fun Run," a 5K race along rolling hills behind a golf course.

I don't like running. My regular jogs along the East River are done solely to stave off a widening midsection. Today, however, the experience is relatively pleasant as I settle into a respectable 8:20-per-mile pace. Despite only ten days of exercise, already I sense stronger legs, a tighter midsection, better stamina. I've dropped seven pounds, down to 148 (I'm five ten).

The finish line is within shouting distance when a competitor passes me. It's a woman—my age, maybe older. She's pushing a stroller with two toddlers inside.

McKown says my transformation will come not in leaps but in small steps. Today is a step.

Calmer Waters
PCRC swim instructor Brittany Coyle paces poolside. A 20-year-old business major, she has agreed to teach me swimming fundamentals and devise a training plan. As I begin the 1,700-meter workout, I ruminate over her advice—kick less frequently, relax my arms when possible, keep my head down.

There is something to be said for human interaction during solitary pursuits. I'll take warm blood over books and magazines any day. Triathlon literature only proves that I've undertrained, overtrained, bought the wrong gear, or adopted the wrong attitude. I prefer instant feedback.

Near the end of the swim, I develop a rhythm. My lats are tight and my breath short, but I feel good—like I might not drown.

Gut Check
Almost a month in. Biking 13 miles presents little problem, my running splits are now under 8:15 per mile, and I no longer envision authorities dragging the bottom of the reservoir. I'm up with the magpies at dawn, to bed with Jon Stewart at night. I eat five to six small meals daily. I read, write letters, rest. I've forgotten the taste of beer. I weigh 145.

Training is no longer just a daily accessory; it's a necessity. Everything revolves around it.

Of course, all is not gilded on my path. There's random pain. A tender Achilles tendon, a clicking shoulder, and sharp stabbing beneath the ball of my right foot. Also, to be honest, I'm a bit bored.

In need of a lift, I call McKown. I don't mention my maladies, but he senses something's amiss. Later, I receive an e-mail: "Your fitness is at a level where you could go out today and complete a triathlon. But just completing is no longer good enough. Think about winning—whether it's beating the guy next to you, all other first-timers, or everyone in your age group." He closes by paraphrasing legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine: "Some people race to win. I race to see who has the most guts."

Filed To: Triathlons

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