American Triple-T Race Recap: A Lesson in Suffering

The American Triple-T is a unique endurance challenge. Taking place over three days, the race begins with a super sprint on Friday night, two Olympic-ish distance races on Saturday, and a half iron distance race on Sunday. You have the option of doing the race with a teammate, and mine was good friend and stellar athlete Dr. Mike Halstead. Having a teammate affords you the privilege of drafting during the bikes on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, but you race Friday and Saturday morning solo no matter what. The race attracts a unique blend of athletes and spectators, who venture to Shawnee State Park in southwest Ohio to do battle with some extremely tough climbs and course conditions. Mostly importantly, the caliber of person attending represents the best qualities of individual triathletes and fans of the sport. I didn’t meet a single person who wasn’t incredibly encouraging, welcoming, and friendly. Shout outs to Dan Payton and Chris Rotelli, two of the most enthusiastic triathletes I have ever met. But the example stands out comes from a young man whose name I may never learn.

The water was in the low-mid 50’s all weekend, with the end of the swim being a few degrees colder. On Sunday morning, entering transition, I could not stop shivering. I couldn’t put my arm warmers on for the bike, and had very little control over my convulsions. I don’t ever remember being so cold; not during winter morning rides, not during open water swims, not standing outside during the winter in flip flops. I thought my race was over. But this young man, who unfortunately dropped out of the race the day earlier, was standing in the spectator section watching me struggle. He took off his windbreaker, helped put it over me, and started to warm me up, encouraging me to go finish my race. The entire weekend and everyone involved - athletes, volunteers, and spectators - encompassed the same spirit, which makes me want to participate again.

But the spirit of the weekend was the only thing that didn’t suck, because the Triple-T is an absolute sufferfest. You want cold water temperatures and frigid air? Sign up next year, there is space available. How about hellacious climbs, tight turns, and roaring descents? This is the race for you! Steep uphill trail runs?!? Why not?! Insanity aside, finishing this thing was my most gratifying accomplishment in the sport. The weekend shook my confidence as an athlete so thoroughly that I could not sleep despite how tired I was. Going forward, I will know that I have more in my back pocket than I ever thought before. Below is a recap of each event.

Friday 5 pm: Super Sprint: 250 meter swim, 4 mile bike, 1 mile run

The good: we arrived on time. Seriously, it was in doubt. On the way to Ohio Friday morning, Dr. Mike’s car had trouble with one of the wheel bearings and we had to feather it in to the Ashland Nissan Dealer. The ensuing chaos ended with us arriving 5 minutes before the start of the race. So much for a warm-up.

The stupid: do not wear arm warmers meant for the bike if you’re going to swim. One of my major mistakes over the course of the weekend was packing with the expectation that it was going to be warm. Temperatures ranged from high 30’s to 60, so I didn’t exactly nail that one. My sleeveless wet suit wasn’t enough, so I had the bright idea of wearing the arm warmers I expected to need in case of emergency on the bike. As soon as I got into the water, the warmers (again, not meant to get wet), filled with water and acted as a weird floaty like device that made it rather difficult to swing my arm around and stroke properly.

The harrowing: One of my discussions with others over the weekend centered on the unique challenges each individual race distance brings to the table. My fellow competitors and I agreed that the best (read: worst) part about sprints is finding the above threshold pace and sticking it out. Normally, you don’t do that during a race when you know you have three to follow, but this race isn’t normal. By the end of the first bike climb my legs were screaming, and I pretty much sprinted the run. It occurred to me that maybe I had gone too hard. But that is how this race works you; by luring you into chaos and grinding from start to finish.

Olympic – Saturday AM – NO DRAFTING ALLOWED – 1 mile swim, 25 mile bike, 6.55 mile run

The good: strategy and pacing are paramount in a series of races that adds up to more than an ironman. I am proud to say that I paced myself pretty well. My final kick on Sunday was everything I had holstered. That mindset really began with this race, and is the thing that I was most pleased about. I raced hard, but left plenty in my tank for the afternoon Olympic. I was also extremely happy with my run, which I felt great about despite grueling uphill sections.

The tough: I’ve been bemoaning my fitness on the bike all year, and the strength and technical skills of the riders at this course furthered my frustrations. Dr. Mike took the wood to me time wise, and although I beat him on the run, it wasn’t enough to make up for the fact that my cycling still has ways to go before I’m satisfied with it. But I’ll never be satisfied with it realistically, so we’ll get there.

Olympic – Saturday Afternoon – DRAFT LEGAL – 25 mile bike, 1 mile swim, 6.55 mile run

The good: Dr. Mike is a studly cycling machine, and this was the most fun I have ever had on the bike. Although we went out by repeating the phrase, “we will not hammer this bike,” out loud, once we got started the course was just begging for a throw down! Lord knows the doctor did most of the work, and we were flying. I have never had so much fun hammering what amounted to a Time Trial ride that we were forced to swim and run after finishing. Mike and I were in transition together putting on our wetsuits, and we started bugging out over how incredible the bike course was. This race is definitely inspiring me to look into some time trials in the local area (haha, time trials in and around New York City).

The hilarious: somewhere in the webs of the internet, there exists a picture of me standing up after finishing the swim, and look on my face is probably the most priceless picture I never want to see. As I approached the shallow section of the water I saw four people all gingerly walking up the beach to transition. In my mind, I was SCREAMING at them!!! “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!! RUN TO TRANSITION, TAKE YOUR WETSUIT OFF!!! GO GO GO!!!” And then I stood up. And then I couldn’t move. And then I fell backwards into the water. From the end of my swim to crossing the timing mat into transition took me, I am not exaggerating, 3 minutes. How far did I travel in that 3 minutes? About 50 feet. Never have I ever cramped up so badly. Mike caught up to me in transition, and I said to him, “my race is over! I can’t move!” But he pushed me towards the start of the run and assured me to start running and my legs would loosen up. He was right.

Half – Sunday Morning – Draft Legal Bike – 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run.

The good: this was one of the best days I have ever had in the sport. Before beginning, I knew that one of two things was going to happen; I would start the swim and immediately want to quit, or my mind and body would bring it. Thankfully, as soon as I got started my mindset shifted to the former. “Move over pain, I got this.” I swam strongly, and after the aforementioned saint helped take care of me during transition, Mike and I hopped out on our bikes. Unfortunately, Dr. Mike was also reeling from the cold, and never warmed up to the extent that I did. That in conjunction with his monster effort from the day before, and I had the realization very early on during the 56 mile ride that if we were going to finish, I was going to carry us. I hammered. I left everything I had on that bike course, and it felt amazing.

The rough: Unfortunately, leaving everything I had on that bike course meant I was going to slog through a 13.1 mile run, whoops. Dr. Mike and I were crushing 9 plus minute miles to start on the trail, and I never envisioned us getting much faster. My legs eventually warmed up and I put down some solid mile times beginning at around the 6-7 mile marker, but needless to say, I did not PR this half.

The emotional: when Mike and I crossed the finish line…I don’t know how to describe it. Never have I ever felt so overtaken when finishing anything. We collapsed after the race, and I was nearly crying. I think many of us who compete place a lot of expectations on ourselves to continually do better, go faster, and push harder. It felt so liberating to not have the weight of placing, a finish time, or expectations. The weekend was about starting healthy, finishing alive, and suffer plenty in between. I managed to smile through most of it, and met some amazing people along the way. It’s easy to lose sight of the simplest things that make this sport great: tough challenges, a good attitude, and better people. The American Triple-T is a weekend refuge from splits and numbers, and reminds competitors that just finishing is an accomplishment.

See you next year Triple-T.