Your First Triathlon – Perspective and Advice

It took me just under two years to complete my first triathlon.  I knew how to run and bike but I was starting from zero on the swim.  If you are reading this because you are thinking of doing your first triathlon my perspectives and advice are going to be focused on the swim because of my personal challenges and achievements – besides most people have the most anxiety about the swim.

Why a triathlon?

Everyone will have their own reason to do a triathlon.  My main reason was simply an excuse to learn how to swim.  With two young kids in swimming lessons I felt a bit like a hypocrite encouraging them to keep pushing when they had challenges yet I had no idea how to swim myself.  It was time to learn.

A secondary reason was simply cross-training.  I have been a runner for upwards of 10 years and I have read a lot of stories about the body breaking down if you don’t cross-train.  Even if I never do a triathlon again (I will probably do them for at least one more year) I will always be a fitness swimmer.

Why not a triathlon?

When I got into training one thing I promised myself and my family is that it would not interfere with other more important aspects of my life – such as faith and family.  This meant getting up at 5:30 and even those evenings where I may have been tired and wanted to shut down I refused to.  If you are thinking about doing a triathlon you first need to decide where it stacks in your priorities and time.

Reflecting back there was a time that I was just about to walk away.  It wasn’t because my training was taking up too much time but the challenges that I was experiencing were consuming my every thought.  This was impacting my family and faith.  I gave myself two weeks to get a handle on this or walk away.  It was a great two weeks.  I had the chance to reset and remind myself to focus on what is important.  The rest of my experience was much better since it was no longer consuming every piece of me.

Getting Started

You need to find a triathlon that will be your first.  Even though you may be anxious to get started I would find one that is further out than your earliest date you think you can be ready.  Remember that I stated from scratch on the swim but it took me about 18 months.  If you have some comfort in the water or no other commitments and you train constantly then you can probably cut a lot of time off of this.  I would also focus on the swim when looking at races.  Don’t make my mistake and sign up for a 1/2 mile swim for your first triathlon.  You should not do a triathlon that has a swim any further than 1/3 mile but would encourage you to look for a race that the swim is 1/4 mile or less.


The Swim

For someone that does not know how to swim at all this may be the hardest piece.  During my journey I questioned a lot of things that I did but looking back I think I would do it all the same way.  Here is a brief outline of what I did and what I would recommend.

– Start out by getting comfortable in the water.  Do this by simply going to the local pool.  Don’t try to swim laps but just play around, dunking your head, holding your breath, floating on floaties, etc.  Just have fun and get more comfortable in the water.

– Then sign up for a group lesson.  Even though the class selection times may be limited many local swim schools have adult lessons.  With the first bullet I was able to get comfortable enough in the water to go to level two of the adult classes but if you are having a hard time getting comfortable do not hesitate to start with level one – which is usually water comfort.  You may want to take one or two sessions.

– I would then start spending time in a community pool.  Take a break from lessons and just focus on pool time.  You may want to put aside your run and bike training for as much pool time as you can get.  Start with small expectations.  Work on one length, then one lap, and work up from there.  To work up from one lap I would set a goal of total laps – say five – and do one lap at a time with a break between each lap up to five.  Then think about the break you took between each lap and start timing it.  Once you know what your baseline is reduce it each time you go.  For example, say your average break between each lap was three minutes, next swim take a break of two minutes and forty-five seconds between laps.  Work this down until you need no break.  Then you can add laps.  This will be the most frustrating time in your swim training.  Do not be afraid to take a break from pushing yourself and just have some fun in the pool if you are getting frustrated.  This could be doing a workout on your back, doing  individual lengths, putting on flippers, etc.  While you are working up your distance you do want to take time and work on your form.  No goal on length or time but simply swimming smoothly.  There are a lot of resources online to help.

– Once you are able to get to 3 – 5 laps it is time for a group of personal one on one lessons.  This is very important to do before you get too far into your training to stop you from developing really bad habits.  Anything that you read says that successful swimming is more about form than fitness.  So take a lesson every two weeks for about two or three months.

– Then it is time to get back into the pool.  Set some goals and keep swimming.  If you are able to, one nice thing to have done is to have someone record you swimming once and awhile.  you will be surprised about some of the things that you are doing.

The Bike

– When choosing a bike simply walk to your garage and whatever bike is there is the bike you should ride.  Before my first triathlon I am sure that I drove my wife crazy talking about buying a new road bike.  In the end, I am very happy that I didn’t.  I ride a Trek FX and was very happy with it for my triathlon racing.  One thing that I was concerned about is that I would be the only one without a road or triathlon bike – far from the truth.  There are all sorts of bikes at a triathlon, even the smaller triathlons.

– One thing that I learned is that bike fitness does matter.  With not allowing myself to get wrapped into the potential training demands I did very little biking.  If I were to focus on improving my overall time at a triathlon this is probably one area that I could focus on.

– Being a very slow swimmer I had the chance to pass several people on the bike.  It may sound weird but I have no desire to be a front of the pack triathlete or runner.  When you are in the back of the pack you get a chance to get to know other racers.  I believe the bike is the best opportunity for this.  So as you are on the bike do not be shy about starting short conversations as you pass others or as others pass  you.  I remember talking to two sisters who trained together, a daughter who was riding for her dying mother, teasing my coworker as I passed him, and so on.

The Run

– With running being the final sport of the three I would encourage you to have a pretty good base.  By the time  you get to this sport you are getting tired.  Be sure that you are able to run a few miles further than the race distance itself.

– I would also practice what they call brick workouts.  This would be going for a bike ride and then a run.  Your first time you will be amazed at how your legs feel like, well, bricks.

– If you don’t have a history of running I would sign up for a quick local 5k.  Most communities have them on most summer weekends.  This will help  you get a taste of a race.

– Mix things up (this can actually go for all three sports).  For me I usually focus on three types of running workouts.  They would be long (long and easy), tempo (shorter but all out) and hills (probably doesn’t need any explaining – running up and down hills – hurts like hell but so much fun).  This helps you mix things up and encourages better fitness.  If you have time there are other types of workouts so feel free to just do a quick search and many websites will explain those.

– Otherwise, simply enjoy this portion as you are guiding in to the finish of your first triathlon.


– Put together a schedule.  This will help you keep everything organized but also encourage you to do it – no different from getting up for work (you know what days and what time you are needed in the office and you show up).

– Remember to check yourself here and there to make sure that you are having fun.

– Keep it prioritized as it should be.  In my case it is behind faith, family, friends, and many more other things.  For me, it is truly a hobby and how much time it takes up must match that.  I would encourage you to take a deep look at this as well.

– Find someone who is willing to answer your questions as you train, but even more so as the race day gets closer, you will have questions.  I am also happy to answer any you leave in comments here.

Finally, be safe and have fun.

Join me as my 2015 triathlon race will be the Lifetime Minneapolis Triathlon.  Would love to hear about others doing their first triathlon this weekend.

Also, feel free to join Team Compassion and get your team gear here.

See you in the waters!





Swimming Video 2014

Here is a video of me swimming a couple weeks after my first triathlon.  I would love your input on what you see right and/or wrong.  Any advice on how to fix it would be appreciated as well.  2015 will be about form improvement.

Some things like the lifting of my head are obvious.  I have worked so hard on this and to see me still doing it on video is frustrating – even though it is a lot better.

On Again, Off Again, On Again – Never Again

I signed up for what was to be my first triathlon back in November during a Black Friday deal.  The triathlon was to take place in June and consist of a 1/2 mile swim.  Early June I knew that I would not be ready and emailed the race organization and asked if I could change my registration to a similar race but one that takes part in September.  They allowed me to do this.

The race took place on September 6th, Square Lake Triathlon – Short Course.  Even though this was not much longer than my first triathlon the 1/2 mile swim still intimidated me.  How much?  A month prior to the triathlon I decided not do it.  I was OK with this.  It allowed me to celebrate the completion of the triathlon that I finished in July and focus on becoming a better swimmer rather than just a swimmer that can swim further.

Then I was laying in bed the Wednesday before the race having issues with the fact that I was quitting.  I may not always succeed at things but I don’t quit things.  So I woke up Thursday morning and informed my wife that I was doing the triathlon.  I could see the concern in her eyes but she knew that I was determined and supported me.

Saturday morning arrived, I packed up like I usually do and hit the road.  There was one very important thing not in the van with me this morning, my family.  This was the first race that I have done where we decided the kids wouldn’t join me.  We had a busy weekend scheduled and with my daughter just going into her second week of school and my son starting preschool on Monday we decided that the sleep was more important.

So I arrived, got my number, got marked, finalized my transition area, and walked down to the lake.  Second thoughts immediately started to fill my head when I saw how far out the buoys were.

Half-Mile Swim

As I was lining up for the race my thoughts were filled with doubt.  Up until I hit the water I continued to wonder if I should just disappear into the background and become a spectator.  In the end, would finishing a race really prove anything?  My heat took off and into the water I went.  With my head games going on I immediately had troubles and couldn’t get into a freestyle zone.  I pretty much went right into the breast stroke and soon after the back stroke.  I was only about 150 yards into the swim.  I knew that it was going to be a long swim at this point.  I also knew that I had time because there were some 6 or 7 heats behind me.

At the half-way point I came across another fellow back-stroker and we shared a couple of encouraging words.  I am now half-way done, have fogged up goggles, and swimming into the sun.  I heard one of the life-guards yell that I was way off course and they helped direct me on the right track.

Still on my back I am now starting to get tired and feel my body sinking further and further into the water.  The waves were starting to roll over my head as I continue.  Suddenly I notice it getting harder and harder to breathe.  At a time I started to wonder if I could unzip my wetsuit to loosen things up to help me breathe.  At this time I knew it was more than just being tired.  I think that I realized that I was slowly starting to panic.  Remembering my promise to my wife that if there was any risk to my health that I would take the appropriate precautions, “life guard, LIFE GUARD, I need a break over here.”  He quickly rowed over and threw me a floaty.  I sat there for a minute or two and off I went.  As I fluttered away he yelled, are you sure you are OK.  I yelled back and reassured him.  After all I only had about 150 yards to go.

Trying to stay parallel to the buoys I was keeping my eye out at the swimmers swimming next to me.  I had my eye on one guy that kept lifting his head to view, more often than normal, and thought to myself – we have to be close.  Suddenly I see him stand up and I wanted to sing for joy.  But then I started to wonder, what if I have a drop-off or this guy is like 7 feet tall so I make a few more strokes and attempt to stand up with success.  My nightmare is over.  I get out having the 4th slowest time in the water out of nearly 300 swimmers.

Nothing too much to report on the bike.  It took me about 4 miles to get my head in the game and get over what just happened in the water.  Then I tried to simply enjoy the scenic bike through the country roads of Minnesota.

As I approached the last transition I felt a slight need to use the urinal.  I have never needed to use the urinal during a race so I started to talk myself out of it.  As you run out of transition you run right next to the port-a- potties.  They pulled me in and I am so glad they did.  Once I got in there my bladder was about to explode and I had one of those epic 40 second peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees.  Not good for my transition time but happy I didn’t have to hold all of that in for the 5 mile run that was ahead.

I probably passed about 15 people on the run, mostly on the hills.  I have been doing 1 to 2 hill workouts each week so my hill running is in tip-top shape.

I finished the race and even though I was happy to be done I did not have the same feeling that I had at the first triathlon that I did this summer.  If this would have been my first triathlon I can promise you that it would have been my first and last.  Thankfully it wasn’t, and I am looking forward to doing them next year.  One thing that I will not budge on though is that I will only do triathlons with swims of 1/4 mile or shorter.


1/2 mile swim – 30:19 or pace of 3:27

T1 – 2:54

16.5 mile bike – 1:09:42 or 15.5 mph pace

T2 – 1:29 (not bad considering my pit stop)

5 mile run – 45:18 or 9:04 pace

Total – 2:29:40

I could sit here and beat myself up over the performance, but I will not.  I could be mad about how little I have progressed over the years, but I wont.  What I got out of this experience was perspective, simply perspective.


Square Lake


Next up is a duathlon relay – I will be doing the running and thank goodness there will be no swimming.



My First Triathlon – Bike Summary

As I run into the first transition and hear the announcer saying something like “here comes the first place athlete” I took one brief moment to pretend it was me even though I was well aware that the first place athlete was coming in off of the bike just as I was about to begin. 

I still had to do a double take to verify that there was another swimmer behind me though because there was one lonely bike sitting in transition, mine.  After getting over the fact that my bike was the only one sitting there I quickly realized that this was not the worst part, the worst part was not having anyone to follow out of transition – which way was I suppose to go.

I found my way out and off I went.  After biking just a short distance I saw two women biking together.  That was my first target.  I got up to them and as I passed them they both said something like “just out for a country ride on our bikes.”  What a great attitude to have.


Shortly after this I spotted a man wearing a black shirt probably a half mile ahead.  Why is the black shirt relevant?  I had a coworker who started swimming 3 seconds before me who I knew was wearing a black shirt.  Is that him?  After pushing it and getting closer I knew it was.  Hey Mark, have a nice ride, I said as I biked by.  We had a little bet to see who would win.  I knew that he would beat me in the swim and that I would win in the run but the bike was the unknown. 

After passing others and having a few quick casual conversations I came across a woman that had a picture of a woman pinned on to her back.  As I rode by I asked if she was riding with her mom and she confirmed that she was.  I felt a little bad because I couldn’t come up with any words to expand on the conversation – is she sick, just because, did she pass away – nothing.  Looking back at the race I probably think of this more than anything else.  After all, people are much more important than some meaningless hobby.  I pray that whatever the reason she had her mom with her that she truly felt her presence that day biking on those peaceful country roads.

After that it was actually a very lonely ride to the point I was starting to wonder if I took a wrong turn somewhere.  Thankfully, I finally came across another intersection where there were some volunteers.  It was good to know that I was still on the correct route but just had a large distance between me and anyone in front of or behind me.

The final hill that goes into town was a nice one.  I do not have a speedometer on my bike but from experience riding with my Garmin I would bet that I topped off at around 30 – 35 mph.  That was fun but then you had to hit the breaks hard for a quick left turn, that was disappointing.

I finally rolled into transition 2 and happy to say that I was not the last bike in.


One thing that I really enjoy about not being the best athlete out there are the conversations that take place while out on the open rode.  I am pretty sure this doesn’t happy to the top racers and even though every race needs those people I would not trade anything to switch positions with them.  I look forward to the many more conversation that take place with complete strangers while biking on the country roads that take us home.


My First Triathlon = Swim Summary

This triathlon was a time trial triathlon which means they start one person at a time.  The time between racers was to be around 3-4 seconds.  For a first triathlon this is a great way to start rather than the crowds and nerves of a mass wave start.  The only problem for me was that my number was about 10 people from the very back.  Not a good number for someone who is afraid of being last and a very slow swimmer.

After waiting for some time it was finally time for me to step into the water.  Not long before I stepped up to the line the race direct said those word, “go.”  Amazingly enough I didn’t even think twice.  I took several steps into the water and right into my swim.


The first few strokes were actually very enjoyable.  Being that I have never been a swimmer I have never seen lakes from this point of view.  Even though no one wants a green lake the green plants flowing in the water a few feet below me were actually quite beautiful.  Knowing that my biggest concern in the water was being able to relax I tried to relax like those relaxed flowing plants.


No luck.  About 100 yards into this 580 yard swim I quickly got tired.  My breathing was really heavy.  I could see my wife and kids along the shore and tried my best to impress them but I had to bail.  No, not from the race but from doing the freestyle form.  I went to my back.  I can only imagine what my wife was thinking since I was doing this so early, “oh boy.”

After a short time I decided to try freestyle again only to last a few more minutes.  My initial goal was to get at least to the halfway point before trying something else to catch my breath.  At this time I could see a good triathlon buddy yelling some sort of advice but no idea what he was saying.


During my second try at freestyle I recall someone touching my foot.  Reading books on triathlon I knew this was their polite way of telling me to get out of the way, so I did.  Not long after this I hit someone’s foot.  I had no intention on telling the person that just passed me that I wanted to pass them.  I think there needs to be an etiquette added saying “sorry man, didn’t mean to tap your foot – keep moving on.”  Maybe a rub of the foot – that would be weird.

After a lot of swimming I finally got to the turnaround buoy.  As I turned, still on my back, I asked the lifeguard if I was the last one.  She said no and out of the corner of my eye I could see one last person about 50 yards behind me.  I knew that spending a lot of time on my back was not going to work for the rest of the race if I didn’t want to be the last person out of the water.

I tried freestyle again only to bail out after a few short strokes.  Then I got the idea of doing what I call lifeguard freestyle.  It is freestyle but you never put your eyes in the water – lifeguards need to keep their eyes on the target.

This was the best choice as I was finally moving and able to see where I was going at the same time.  I saw one person in front of me that I really wanted to catch – no luck.

After doing this for about five minutes my arms were burning.  I had to keep this up though so I pushed through that.  I finally exited the water to two awesome high-fives from my daughter and my son.


I did look back to confirm that there was still one more swimmer in the water and there was.  I was a little confused though as I got to the transition and only saw one bike – mine.  I think the announcer was a little confused when I came into transition though because as I came running in he said “and here comes the leader.”

My First Triathon = Complete

So I finally did it.  I finished my first triathlon which took me two years to accomplish.  This last Saturday I finished the Chaska Triathlon.  The triathlon consisted of a .3 mile swim, ~16 mile bike and 3.1 mile run.  I will be doing a total of five posts summarizing the triathlon.

Summary – This post




Overall Experience

Going into the triathlon I had two simple goals – finish and have fun.  Jumping to the chase I will tell you that I both finished and had fun.

Swim – The swim was 1/3 of a mile and was in a very small lake also known as a clay hole.  My goal pace was 2:30/100 yards.  My overall time was 18:00 minutes which equates to a pace of 3:16.

T1 – 1:52

Bike – The bike was to be 16 miles but was cut a little short this year because of flooding.  I believe the official distance this year was about 15.8.  My time was 1:01:03 which equates to a 15.7 mph pace.

T2 – 1:08

Run – The run was a typical 5k or 3.1 miles.  The first mile is literally all up hill.  My time was 25:42 which equates to a pace of 8:17 per mile.

Total Time – 1:47:43

Place 162 of 222 overall.

Place 108 of 129 for males.

Place 19 of 20 in age group.

Here is the proof!


More details about the experience coming in the other posts.

My First Tri – Will you help?


This weekend I will be doing my first ever triathlon. It has been two years in the making. It all started while watching my kids at swimming lessons and encouraging them on when I realized what a hypocrite I was since I couldn’t even put my head under water. Saturday I prove to myself that I can now say that I am a swimmer.

More importantly though, I will be wearing Team Compassion gear hoping to have the chance to share about Compassion International to others out at the race course. My goal for partnering with Team Compassion and Compassion International isn’t to raise a ton of money (even though that would be cool) but to simply encourage a single child to get sponsored.


My wife and I have been sponsoring children since the day we were married. When it all started we thought that we were simply helping a child that had great needs get simple needs like food, water, clothing, education, etc. Little did we know that over the years we would be encouraged in amazing ways by the letters we receive from our sponsored children.

So as I try not to die this weekend (half serious) think about those kids that truly may be wondering where their next meal may come from and if they may die an early death (fully serious). If you have a little compassion and a little extra money please consider making a difference in a child’s life and sponsor a child through Compassion International.

Not ready for such a commitment yet. Feel free to donate to Compassion International through Team Compassion – MN.