I wrote this for the Erie Times-News’ Her Times magazine, which published this past Sunday, August 3.


On a freezing cold Sunday afternoon in February, I was doing a water workout with a dozen friends in a local indoor pool when Karen Beebe, 41, of Harborcreek, asked me if I’d ever done a triathlon.

“No, but it’s been on my bucket list forever,” I said. “Why?”

“I think I’m going to do one this summer,” she said. “I’m taking lessons now so I can swim with my face in the water. I need to find a bike though. Or do you think I can do it with my mountain bike?”

“Wait, you can’t swim, you can’t run (she has bursitis in her hip), and you don’t have a road bike, but you’re going to do a triathlon?” I ask incredulously.

“Well, um … yeah,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been on a tri team four times before as the runner, and I was always impressed with the people who did the whole thing on their own.”

“Well, if you can do it, then I can do it,” I said. “I’ll do it with you.”

That night, I searched the Internet for triathlons in the area that would fit our schedule. We settled on the Dam Tri at Colonel Crawford Park in Crawford County on June 29. The sprint distance race included a .25-mile open water swim in Woodcock Creek Lake, an 11.3-mile bike ride, and a 5K (3.1-mile) run.

Here are 10 things I learned during my first triathlon:

1. It’s better with friends, especially experienced friends. After Karen and I decided to do the tri, three other friends joined us. Training with a team makes you accountable, and friends make early morning or late evening workouts bearable.

2. “Brick” workouts make you stronger. Separate swim, bike and run workouts aren’t enough. You must occasionally do all three (or at least two of the three) consecutively to get a real feel for the effort it will require. Brick workouts are so named because they train your body to run and/or bike on fatigued legs that feel like bricks. Our team often trained in Findley Lake, N.Y. We swam in the lake, then biked around the lake twice (10 miles), then ran around the lake (5 miles). I did a handful of bike-run workouts on my own.

3. Practice swimming safely in open water. It takes some time to become accustomed to swimming in an deep, murky lake water with waves and current. We asked a trained lifeguard to swim with us and tow a rescue tube. We also recruited friends to kayak or canoe alongside us to protect us from motor boats and to allow us to hang on and rest, if needed. Even strong swimmers have to quell the urge to panic in open water the first few times.

4. You don’t have to follow a plan. None of the people I trained with used a formal training plan because we were all pretty active anyway. We simply added some brick workouts to our regular fitness routine starting in early May. If you need a plan to follow, they are available online atwww.beginnertriathlete.com.

5. Always test-drive your race-day outfit. Nearly every time we practiced, I tweaked my outfit choice, trying different shoes, shorts, shirts and swimsuit combinations until I found an outfit I was comfortable with. A couple friends offered to lend me their wet suits, which offer bouyancy. I tried them, but the tight neck made me feel constricted and panicked. I wore a lap swimsuit with a sports bra (added support for the run) with Under Armour compression shorts. I had a lightweight tank top that I put on over my suit after the swim.

6. Triathloning is a love-hate thing. Your emotions and confidence range wildly throughout the three events. I went from nervous fear before the swim to relief it was over, and from happy confidence to angry fatigue (why didn’t anyone tell me it was this hilly?) on the bike. My emotional roller coaster ended with sheer, unabashed joy during the run because I was happy to get to the part I was good at.

7. There are five legs to the race. Transitions count, and the faster you can get to, into and out of the transition area before and after the bike race, the better your finish time. Organize your gear — bike shoes, running shoes, socks, tank top (with race number already pinned on), bike helmet (chin strap up), sunglasses, energy gel, etc. — in a logical manner next to your bike on a folded bath towel.

8. You can use your mountain or hybrid bike, but I wouldn’t. Road bikes are faster and easier. If you don’t have one and don’t want to make that investment (at least $500), borrow one from a friend and practice riding it. You must wear a helmet. They will not allow you to ride without one (and you shouldn’t anyway).

9. Don’t write off any part as “easy.” I was so focused on the swim that I didn’t prepare for the bike route, which turned out to be hardest for me because it was hilly. My flat training rides around Findley Lake and Presque Isle didn’t prepare me for it.

10. Consider the race date carefully. Early summer triathlons are harder to train for in Erie where the weather is unpredictable. Also, the water will be colder early in the season.

Heather Cass is the publications and design coordinator at Penn State Behrend and an avid runner. She finished the Dam Tri in 1:28:14, fourth place in her age group. Karen Beebe finished, too, with a time of 1:42:26. Follow Heather Cass at http://www.goerie.com/blogs/runnersnotes.

Upcoming triathlons

If you’re thinking of trying a tri, I’d suggest you watch one first. (Better yet, volunteer to help.) Here are a few upcoming events:

Can-Do Triathlon and Duathlon (run/bike/run)

– When: Aug. 16, 8:30 a.m.

– Where: Canadohta Lake Free Beach in Canadohta Lake.

– Triathlon includes: 800-yard swim, 10-mile bike, 3-mile run.

– Duathlon includes: 1.5-mile run, 10-mile bike, 3-mile run.

– Website:www.ymca-corry.org

Presque Isle Triathlon

– When: Aug. 23, 8 a.m.

– Where: Waterworks Pavilion, Presque Isle State Park.

– What: .35-mile swim, 13-mile bike, 3.5-mile run.

– Website: http://www.discoverpi.com/events/presque-isle-triathlon/

Life’s a Beach tri

If you’d like to start with something a little less serious, the Life’s a Beach triathlon is for you. Organizers say their mission is “to create an athletic event that is both fun and accessible.” Anything goes at this tri. You can wear floaties during the swim, ride a tricycle for the bike ride, and costumes are encouraged

– When: Aug. 16, 8 a.m.

– Where: Beach 11, Presque Isle State Park

– Triathlon includes: 200-yard swim, 5-mile bike, 2-mile run.

– Website:www.lifesabeachtriathlon.com