RR: Pittsburgh Triathlon

When I started this blog, I said I’d post the good, bad and ugly. This is the ugly.


In 2007 my New Year’s resolution was to either do a triathlon or run a marathon; we know which one I picked. Tris always seemed cool, I’ve always been a swimmer, I’ve recently become a runner, and when I bought a bike in April, I knew I had to knock a triathlon off my list. The Pittsburgh Triathlon seemed perfect: the timing didn’t interfere with any races and a hometown race makes logistics so much easier. I opted to do the Olympic, not sprint, distance because I swim 2,000 to 3,000 meters a few times a week, a 10K is my easy recovery run and… well, the bike would be an adventure. Marc, an Ironman I met picking up my packet, tells me that it takes about 5 years to get good on a bike- I’ve been biking for three months. And although I love my bike, she’s heavy (23 lbs?) and doesn’t have clipless pedals (I plan to upgrade next year). I’m not looking to break any records, especially since I didn’t train for this race beyond my usual running and cross-training routine.

Pre-Race Meeting 

Race Day

A cool, cloudy, but pretty morning. I befriended Nora and Kate who appear to be in my age group and who are my bike rack buddies. They are super nice and are each racing their third tri. Although they are nice, I am intimidated. I don’t know if I’ve ever been intimidated. I don’t get intimidated. But everywhere I look, I see really impressive bikes with athletes who look like they’ve stepped out of a fitness magazine. These athletes put the female Annies runners to shame. Seriously, if people want to know the secret to looking young and beautiful, have them show up to a triathlon or ultramarathon.

Athlete’s setting up in the transition area 

We head to the start and I run into Jill, one of Jen’s friends who I once ran with. It was Jill who encouraged me to sign up for the Pittsburgh tri, telling me the river didn’t have a current, the skyline was gorgeous (she said she had tears in her goggles she was so moved) and the bike has a slight incline but wasn’t too bad.

Jill is a liar.


Swim location: Allegheny River at the Roberto Clemente Bridge

I’m a swimmer. I’m psyched for the swim, possibly more than I’m psyched for the run. I’m ready to knock this out of the park. I grew up swimming, I’m a diver, I coached elite swimmers, I lifeguarded for years; you get the idea. I’m strong and comfortable in the water- possibly more so than on land.

We watch the first two waves start (women were in the third wave) and Jill and I notice that the current has swept the swimmers back about 75 yards while they were waiting to start. “Hmmm… looks like there’s a current this year,” states Jill. I’m not thrilled, but I’m also not concerned because, as I said, I’m good in the water.

It’s time for our wave and as I get in I immediately realize something is very wrong. I cannot breathe. I can’t breathe in, I can’t breathe out. I’m gasping. It feels like when I breathe air isn’t getting to my lungs, it’s just stopping in my throat. I know that it’s not uncommon for people to freak out in open water but I’m not freaking out; I’ve been SCUBA certified for 14 years and have done dozens of open water dives and swims- some in cold, murky water. Freaking out isn’t the issue but I have no idea what is.

I swim some combination of backstroke and side stroke for what seems like forever. I can’t even swim breast stroke, my breathing is so out of control. I’m glad I’m comfortable in the water because someone who was less comfortable and experiencing the sensations I was having could have been in trouble. I am safe but I am p!ssed. Livid. Furious. Fuming. There are not words for how angry and frustrated I am. I should be kicking @ss in the swim and my competition is leaving me in the dust. I’m the last in my wave and I feel like it’s totally out of my control. All I want to do is breathe and I can’t. A guy from an earlier wave swims near me, comments on how strong the current is, and heads back to shore. Suddenly, it seems completely out of nowhere, I felt 100% better. It’s like someone took my chest out of a vise- relief is immediate. I finally start swimming, but I have lost so much time and energy creeping up the river with strokes less efficient than freestyle. By the end of the swim I had picked off about a half dozen swimmers, chipping away at some of my deficit.

My swim takes 59 minutes-more than double what it should have. There are not words for how I feel about this. Even writing this report I am in tears because I have never, in my quarter century of swimming, had anything close to this happen. I didn’t even want to write this report because I am so embarrassed by that time; I am only writing in hopes that someone can get something out of it.

I head out to transition but the swim really played head games with me. I was planning to use the swim and the run to make up for my biking and now I’m down two sports of three. Mentally it gets worse as I come into transition to see people leaving for the run. WTF?!


The bike course is 2 runs of an out and back course. As I start on the first go, people immediately start lapping me. Gahhhh, so demoralizing. This is only made worse by what is roughly a 5 mile climb. Jill has lived in Pittsburgh too long and has lost perspective on hills. This is not a slight incline. As I pedal I wonder at one point if I could run faster. F*ck. I gut it out on the bike but my biking is pathetic and I wasn’t expecting anything pretty. The last 6 or so miles I ran over someone’s helmet sticker which subsequently adhered to my tire and made the most obnoxious flapping sound over and over and over and over again. FML. Bike time: 1:44. 14.3 mph pace. I suck at biking but it’s what I expected.

I am SO HAPPY to get into transition until I realize that people are already packing up and going home. I’ve been known to get teary when I have great runs and for a quick second I get choked up by how badly I suck at this race. At this point I am 307 of 310 finishers. I am so over this triathlon right now. Coming into the race, I just wanted to finish, but that was only because I never thought I’d do SO badly.


Everyone told me my legs would be dead after the bike but they were good to go. I’ve run this course before and it’s not a hard course, but it’s not easy, either. It’s on a trail but I really want to be running on the road so I can transfer energy more efficiently. I crush out mile 1 at 8:19, which is solid for me, especially during the last leg of a triathlon. Then it starts to drizzle. I don’t love running in the rain, but this is motivation to get this done more quickly. Miles 2 and 3 were uneventful. Then it started to POUR. Animals lined up in 2s. I’m not wearing a hat and the rain is in my eyes. The smell of the river is seeping out of my clothes. I want to be done. I see two runners ahead of me who could be in my age group, hereafter named Blueberry (the color of her shirt) and Cool Blue (cool baby blue singlet that was identical to mine ). I pick off Cool Blue pretty easily, but chase Blueberry for 2 miles. I finally pass her in the last mile and I honestly feel kind of guilty about it. I’m not quite out-kicking her with a full mile left, but after a long morning, it probably feels pretty lousy to be passed at the end. Overall, I was able to pick off about a dozen athletes during the run. I finish with a decent 10K pace and a PR for the course (53:57/8:40 pace). At the finish I am handed this tiny little medal the size of a dog tag on a chain; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. All that work for this little bitty thing?


Tiny little medal in the upper left. 

I’d rather have pie. 

My pie from last week  


It is raining BUCKETS. There is an inch of standing water in the parking lot; my transition area is soaked. On the drive home roads are flooded and I can barely see where I am going. Before I leave, I run into Elora’s dad, Dan. As we stand in the rain, we discuss how hard the bike course was and he congratulates me on my first tri. Maybe I should be congratulated; I finished an Olympic triathlon without training for it. But I am so abundantly disappointed in my race. Falling behind in the swim absolutely crushed me…. Not only was my swim abysmal, but it put me behind for the rest of the race. I’m torn between saying that tris aren’t for me and sticking with ultra running, but I also want vindication. I know I have much better in me and I want a race reflecting that. With a decent swim I would have finished around 3:05; instead I finished at 3:41. Again, disappointment is only a shade of what I feel. For now, the plan is to run the Drake Well marathon, hosted by my friend Dane, in two weeks; maybe if I can find a local tri I’ll give it another go.