Special thanks to Stephanie, who supplied the starting point for today’s post.  Stephanie writes that she’s been convinced by a merry band of triathlete hooligans to compete in her first race a full MONTH before she originally intended.  She wonders if I have any advice for her, and I’m happy to oblige!

Will I stand out like a woman with a baby stroller in the “Expert Security” line at the airport as a Plus Athlete?

Okay, so perhaps I’ve got traveling on the brain, but the question I get a lot – and is similar to the one Stephanie asked – is pretty normal:  Just how out-of-the-ordinary am I, as a Plus Athlete?  Will people stare?  I mean, I’m used to being B-I-G-G-E-R than others, but am I going to feel like a freak of nature?

In short: it all depends on you.  What I’ve found is that if you’re doing a Sprint Triathlon, there really are people of all shapes and sizes out there.  If you’re familiar with the bell curve, I think that applies here – 10% of your racers are super, super fit.  20% are merely super fit, or just a smidge heavier than the average (which comprises 40% of the runners).  And that last 10% are folks who carry more than a fair share of extra poundage.  Okay, maybe it’s more like 5%, but you get the idea.  You won’t be alone – especially if your race is a women’s only race, which tends to be VERY open and encouraging of women of all shapes and sizes. 

The other thing I’ve consistently found is this:  the spectators are amazing.  Simply amazing.  They will actually cheer HARDER for you because you’re bigger – because they know, watching, that it’s incredibly difficult to complete a triathlon, and you are inspiring THEM with the fact that you’re doing it.   So if someone cheers for you when you leave the swim (and they will – by number) smile, and say THANK YOU.  Or whatever makes you feel good.  Just realize they’re not going to mock you – they’re really just going to support you.  On the course, you’ll find the same thing – riders who are more experienced or thinner will go out of their way to tell you “good job” because they admire what you’re doing, and they want the sport to feel inclusive. 

How you handle that attention is up to you.  Some people are okay with the fact that others are looking at you in some skimpy tri wear.  Some are less comfortable.  I’d encourage you to think through what your response will be, and to own the fact that you’re doing something amazing in your body.  If you exude pride on race day, you will FEEL it, and it will help you perform better – I promise.

Any tips for the swim?  How does one execute a chop block in the water, and any tips for not drowning?

Two questions here that deserve answering, really:  first, how do you survive the craziness of a mass swim start, and second, what if I panic in open water? 

The open swim start has a few variations, so before you get worried about what it will feel like, let me share them with you.  First, some triathlons do a “mass start” where you go off in waves of 25-200 people.  This start is what most of us think of when we think “crazy”.  If you’re a first-timer, start at the back, and line yourself up with the series of bouys that you see heading into the distance.  Then, after the masses have kicked for a few seconds (or 20), get into the water, and go.  They’ll have cleared out, you’ll get to swim behind them, and you won’t be swimming over (or getting swum over.) 

The second type of start is a timed interval – where you start on a beach, and someone goes into the water every 3-5 seconds.  This is a bit more of an “on display” start as everyone watches you run into the water (which I always thought was an invitation for me to hold my hands over my chest so the girls wouldn’t knock me out, but that’s me).  It’s also far less stressful because the water is mostly clear.  Yes, you’ll get swum over, but it won’t happen as often. 

The second question here is about managing the fear in the deep water.  If you’re a regular open-water swimmer, this probably isn’t the biggest issue for you. But if it’s got you concerned,  think of it like this:  there is a USA Triathlon requirement that for every 75 swimmers in the water, there are X number of lifeguards.  All races must meet these requirements.  (I think it’s 1 per 75, but I’ll have to check).  This means that generally, on most courses, IF you get into trouble, there is a lifeguard or a boat nearby.  Per the USAT rules, you can sidle on up to that boat or guard, ask how the weather is doing, and hang on for a chat – as long as you aren’t moved forward by that boat or guard.  So the thing to remember about the deep water is that there will always be someone within swimming distance of you – and even if you’re having a hard time, you can tread water for a few minutes, then make your way over to them, hold on, regroup, and head back out there. 

No race director wants you to be unsupported in the water, so you should feel going in that you will have a safety net.  That said, keep your eyes on moving forward – and on those bouys – to feel like you’re breaking up the swim into manageable chunks.  Sometimes if I’m worried about how long the swim will feel, I set the interval on my watch to go off every five minutes, knowing, for example, that when it beeps twice, I’m usually halfway through my swim.  You might want to do the same – it’s a nice reminder that you’re making progress and moving forward on your own.

I think I might require some food on race day.  Any thoughts?

Ah, food.  Race day food is something that presents a special challenge when you haven’t had a chance to train with it, so I’ll just share a few tips. 

First, if you can, road-test your pre-race food with at least a few workouts before the Big Day.  You’ll want to test out whether your toast sticks with you for two hours; or whether you need some peanut butter on that bagel. 

I generally go with two pieces of dry toast (Cinnamon Raisin, thank you very much) and have a half of a banana at least 2 hours before the race.  The night before is important too – have something that won’t upset your stomach, (pasta or a sandwich with some protein); throw in some greens, and dont’ forget the water. 

My friend Lisa has an approach you may also find helpful if you have used it before – she has one Clif Shot or Gu about 30 minutes before the race to top off her carb stores and she says that for a Sprint race, it’s really all the fuel she needs.


So that’s it for my race advice for Stephanie, and anyone else thrown into a race this weekend!  Thanks for asking, and good luck with your race!!!

5 thoughts

  1. Thanks so much for the timely input!! One more question… due to perpetual balance issues… I am unable to grab my water bottle off my bike while riding. Standing still, no problem… you get the picture. Anyway, if I hydrate well the day before and gu before the bike ride and run and drink sport drink (I usually prefer Vitamin Water) in the transition area will I be fine for my 1o mi ride. I just hate the thought of stopping to take a drink!
    Thanks for your help, your humor, and your encouragement!!

  2. Sallie,

    You flippin, flappin ROCK. I especially love the part about the spectators. I’ve had nightmares of laughs and stares… especially with only 2 days away. I never thought of it the way you explained, and it really makes me feel a TON better to think that they’ll be cheering me on. I’ll also have my own cheering section- we’re Spanish (Cuban descent to be exact), so we’re naturally already decibels higher than the normal human being- so I’ll be sure to hear my cheering section!

    Thanks again for ALL of the info. If I think of anything else from here until Saturday, I’ll pop you another email! Wish me luck! =)


  3. Good luck everybody! I just did my first tri last Saturday, and thanks to lots of support, lots of reading, and lots of training, I did just fine. I keep telling people that it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fast, but at least I crossed over that finish line. I was expecting the swim to be easy, but it ended up being anything but – in fact, the swim was the hardest part for me, even though I am a strong swimmer and I thought the run would be hard. I didn’t train much in open water and I see now what a serious mistake that was. However, I only finished a few minutes slower than what I thought I would – I took my time, treading water when I needed to, flipping to a back stroke once, and doing alot (A LOT!) of side stroke, before finishing with my strongest stroke, the breast stroke. I actually only did a few yards of freestyle because I found it difficult to see where I was going, who was in front of me, and had problems getting a good full breath of air when the water kept splashing in my face. However, the important thing is that I finished – and you can too!

    I finished sixth from last at the St. Croix Valley Sprint Triathlon, but considering how I started, I’ll take that! 🙂 Now I’m ready to do my next one.

    Good luck!

  4. Thank you thank you thank you! My first tri is Sept 19th and I’m fairly freaking out. Your expert advice and shared experiences are much appreciated! Keep ’em coming, girl!

  5. How have I never seen this website before? It’s awesome and you rock!

    I’m terrified of the triathlon, but it keeps creeping into my mind…. maybe next year.

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