Tips For Triathlon Rookies

Your first international distance triathlon can be exhilarating, mesmerizing, and amazing experience. Thousands of racers will face a myriad of emotions leading up to and including race day.

The race is about many things to many people – meeting the challenge of a lifetime, reaching a new goal, raising money for a good cause, showing those who say you can’t do it, proving something to yourself, living life to the fullest.

To paraphrase NBC triathlon commentator Al Trautwig: every single athlete who races in the Chicago Triathlon this year – from rookies to veterans and pros — will at one point in their lives considered finishing a triathlon impossible, even ridiculous. Swim, Bike, Run, Finish.

Yet each of them will be out there defying those early impressions, proving that it is possible. You will, too.

I’ve been a Chicago Triathlon rookie, now I’m a long-time veteran. From both perspectives, here's what you need to know.

[Also see our sections on Triathlon AdviceTriathlon FAQ and The Chicago Triathlon Experience: What to Expect on Race Day]

A Rookie’s Experience

You can have a terrific experience in your debut triathlon. Just try to avoid the mistakes I made in my first triathlon in 1995.

I’ll admit, I was terrified before that first Chicago Olympic Distance Triathlon. I had finished my first marathon nine months earlier and considered triathlon the next challenge. Never mind that I couldn’t swim well, and only rode my LL Bean mountain bike occasionally. I signed up, thinking: how hard can a triathlon be? But inside, I was worried about it.

My first triathlon was both hard and easy, but it overall it was a great experience. And chances are, yours will be better.

In that debut, I struggled to finish the 1500 meter swim in 1995 in more than 46 minutes, possibly the slowest swim time on record. If you’ve trained at all, believe me, you’ll swim faster.

You’re also probably better prepared for the bike potion than I was. After the swim, I got on that mountain bike, and proceeded to ride 40k on Lake Shore drive. And there, I was greeted by one of the things that makes the Chicago Triathlon great: the beautiful skyline, the lake views, and the camaraderie of other smiling athletes.

Once off the bike, I started to run, my favorite event. The 10k run along the lakefront path was even better than the ride along the lake. A cool breeze and nearby spectators brought a smile and an appreciation about how lucky I was to be racing that day.

I crossed the finish line feeling like a transformed person. Hours earlier it had seemed impossible, and now I had finished a Triathlon.

A Veteran’s Perspective

Having finished dozens of triathlons since then, I’ve just about seen it all. Here are some pointers to help you avoid my rookie mistakes and to make the most of your First Triathlon:
  • Transition Area: Get there early, set up, and go. You don’t need much space for your bike and transition gear. Just find a small spot, learn how to spot it as you enter transition during the race.
  • Waiting: You may have to wait an hour or two to start. Prepare to sit in the grass with friends. I like to sit on the seawall and watch swimmers from earlier waves glide through the water.
  • Swim: If you’re not a great swimmer, hang near the back. After horn sounds, let others get a small head start. I swim to the outside to minimize contact. Some accidental bumping is inevitable; know that no one is trying to be malicious. We’re all trying to go the same way.Transition 1: It’s a long walk or run to the transition area. Take your time, move at a pace you want. This is time to let your head clear a little.
  • Bike: Have fun out there on the bike. You’ll see athletes of all abilities. Some will pass you like you’re sitting still; you will pass others. Always announce your pass ‘on your right’, and say ‘thank you’ when you go by. Enjoy the beauty of the city as you ride the Drive.Transition 2: Expect your legs to feel wobbly as you shift from bike to run. You’ll feel more natural in a few minutes.
  • Run: enjoy the best part of the triathlon – the run along the lake, around Shedd Aquarium and into Grant Park. Not feeling fast? Don’t worry about it. Most others aren’t either.
  • Volunteers: Every time a volunteer assists you, starting in race registration, all the way to the finish, thank them for being there for you.
  • Finish: Smile for the finisher’s photo. Make it look easy.
When you make it to the finish, you yourself will have transformed a little. You will have started the day an athlete, and will have ended it as a Triathlete. Remember, once this was impossible.