All Together. Now.
I attempt my first mock triathlon. Since my race looms a mere six weeks away, I make a personal declaration of war, unveiling my titanium-blue Speedo. The strategy helps. Sort of. The 300-meter swim breezes by, but the five-mile trial ride—I'm still using a mountain bike—leaves me winded, and I cramp up during the run. Incremental, perhaps. But it's progress. Two months ago I wouldn't have been able to imagine this—or the Speedo. Now that I know I can do it, it's time to do it well. Intervals during the runs. Sprints in the pool. An actual road bike.
On the Road
I coast into the Cole Sport parking lot on a loaner road bike and, finally, in spandex cycling gear. My first group ride. A bit unnerved, I explain my project to Scott Ford, a 37-year-old triathlon veteran who heads up the local outdoor retailer's bike team, and ask for advice. "In the swim you just try to survive," he says. "The bike should be fun, a time to recover. The run? Lots of suffering. Just don't stop."
About 20 cyclists show for the weekly ride, and we set off on a 22-mile loop. We start off at an easy pace that allows me to pass, draft, talk, and experiment with the gears. By mile seven I'm antsy, aching to take off. But around mile 14, I'm simply aching as we hit an interminable, desolate, uphill stretch alongside Old Highway 40. The climb splits the crew into two groups, a mile of asphalt between them. I can't catch the leaders, but, encouragingly, I don't fall back with the experienced riders in the back group, either. It's just me and the road. Brutal. But it's a good brutal.
I sit in the darkness of my house, trying to cope with the realization that my body has turned to mulch, my will blown away.
"Six weeks is the magic number for hitting the wall," McKown explains as he walks through the front door for a scheduled visit. "Your body's made major adaptations; now it's settling. But we're gonna get you past this."
He explains that the body needs variety. "Active rest"—light workouts—will ease the transition to the next plateau. Triathlon training is notorious for making people obsessive. I should step back sans guilt.
We drive to a nearby restaurant and eat. Put back a few beers. The topic of training never arises. The next morning I kill it at the pool.
This Might Work
I've been dreading this. With my race 11 days away, it's time for another mock tri, this one approximating race distance—750 meters in the pool, 13.4 miles on the bike, and a three-mile run. During the swim, I alternate between freestyle and breaststroke, pacing myself. Eighteen minutes later, I've coasted through the longest swim of my life. Cake.
The ride consists of five 2.64-mile laps through town. I don't know how it's possible, but from every direction it seems I'm pedaling into a headwind. It takes 47 minutes, meaning I averaged just over 17 miles per hour. Elite triathletes ride about 50 percent faster. The transition from bike to run, even for the most seasoned Ironman vet, sucks—different muscles and rhythms, a new sort of battle with gravity. After only a few strides, I have a piercing pain under my kneecap, and my legs feel like wet sacks of sand. But I make it through. My total time is around 1:30, which would place me tenth in my age group, judging by last year's finishing times.
"Great," says Brittany. She says this in the same tone that I used when my parents, after four years of VCR ownership, called to tell me they'd finally figured out how to record programs. I don't take umbrage. She's 20. Her possibilities are wide, expanding. But it's different for older guys, with faltering IT bands, trick knees, and slowing recovery time. Anything that can make us forget that, even for an hour and a half, feels like Christmas morning.
Race Day, Part 2 Oh, shit ...
We're off. My hope for a smooth, unmolested swim ends five seconds in. I can't see. I'm getting kicked. I'm out of breath. I revert to the breaststroke and entertain thoughts that I'm not going to make it. But I carry on. How? Shame. The thought of the boat ride back, the stares. Hey, when I'm 300 meters out in the middle of a reservoir, I'll take whatever impetus I can get. Remarkably, though I feel shell-shocked, I exit the water 34th out of 42 in my division, men's 35–39.
The bike is a welcome relief, but I take Scott Ford's "recovery time" advice perhaps a bit too far. My split is 48:07, and I drop a spot in the standings.
The run is a surprise—no pain. So I decide to empty the tank and hold an 8:01-per-mile pace. My split is 11th fastest in my division, and my 1:42:55 total time places me 30th among my peers and 175th out of 293 overall.
As I cross the finish line, I can't hear the crowds. All I know are my burning legs, my throbbing head, lungs clawing for air. Then I hear a lone voice. "Tim Struby!" the announcer yells. "From New York, New York!"
Bring It On
Two days later I'm back training. Just because I've finished with the race doesn't mean I'm finished. I'm still only nine weeks in.
And guess what? I'm having more fun than ever. Without the pressure of an impending race, I'm trying different swimming drills, exploring new mountain-bike trails, and testing various stride lengths for my runs.
At the end of my 12 weeks, my running splits dip below eight minutes, my swim sessions go longer than ever, and my final ride delivers my fastest time yet—21.15 miles in 1:03:24.
I'm in the best shape of my life and primed for my next event. Whatever it might be.