On Sunday, 4,200 women competed in the Danskin Triathlon in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and I was one of them. It was my first triathlon. I was persuaded, convinced, cajoled, even bribed by my younger sister, Alison White, to join her in the race. Alison competed in the grueling race last year. "It's fun," she said matter-of-factly upon its conclusion. Going in, my ultimate goal was, "Please, don't let me be last."
I grew up in Oak Park, and like many others, I moved back to the village as an adult. I have been running on the track at Concordia University the past few years, so it was natural for me to do all of my training for the race in the area. The villages of Oak Park and River Forest have it all: two running tracks, fairly smooth paved streets and two park district swimming pools. "Why aren't we all triathletes?" I asked myself as I began my quest, and then I soon found out.
This was a sprint triathlon, which in this case consists of an 8K (1/2 mile) swim, followed by a 20K (12.4 miles) bike, and concluded with a 5K (3.1 miles) run. The race takes a tremendous amount of preparation physically and mentally. My training schedule began mentally soon after I signed up for the race 10 weeks before the start as I pondered what I had gotten myself into. My physical prep came a little later. I had a good running base as that has been my sport of choice for many years, but the bulk of my swimming and biking preparation started six weeks before the race. Here's a first hand account of the highlights and lowlights of the training.
In the water
My first swim was a disaster. I only managed three laps. The pool was very crowded with what seemed to be professional swimmers. I clearly was not one of them. I gave it another try a few days later and had much better results. An inclination stirred that I could actually participate in this race. The next morning's swim, at 5:30 a.m. no less, reinforced my belief. I swam over a half mile with only one collision with another swimmer. Clearly, I was on a roll. My swim confidence was building, not to mention I was receiving feedback from some of the area's experienced triathletes.
While none of the other early morning swimmers at Ridgeland Common I met were training for the Danskin, many were prepping for other triathlons. They encouraged and offered me great advice. River Forest residents Mary Ann Parolin and Ginny Vecchio have done triathlons together and are planning to compete in a triathlon in Las Vegas in September to celebrate Ginny's birthday.
"Train with a friend or a family member. Ginny and I both did that with our daughters, which made it a lot of fun, except, they didn't beat us, did they?" said Parolin.
"They did!" laughed Vecchio.
"They bring the best out of you and so does your friend," added Parolin.
The two introduced me to sisters and Oak Park residents Carol Ungaretti and Germaine Caprio, who have both competed in the Danskin Triathlon in past years. Caprio is a local business owner of Majamas. She sells her specialty line of nursing mother's clothes all over the country and now on South Lombard by the Buzz Café. Caprio was featured last week on the ABC midday news show. Ungaretti has completed a total of 26 triathlons, from the very long ones to the sprint distance (the race I'm doing). "You're starting out where everybody else does," she told me, and "that training with someone helps keep you motivated."
After the pool training I followed everyone's advice and took a practice swim in Lake Andrea, the site of my race. The water was 76 degrees in the small lake, and I finished a half-mile swim in what may have been a record for me, if only I had remembered my watch.
On the roll
It wasn't until early June that I began riding the mean streets of Oak Park and River Forest. Actually, riding on the streets was great. There was very little traffic, few parked cars and the weather was beautiful most mornings. This was my favorite part of the training. I always had a big bottle of my secret mixture of Gatorade and water for fuel. Most of my rides were from 12 to 15 miles. I did some training rides with my sister, Alison. The rides were always the most fun as we would talk and laugh as we trained.
Step for step
I have been running for over 25 years, so I thought the running part of the race would be a piece of cake. However, in mid-May, a sinus cold set me back for almost two weeks, and my running partner and neighbor moved to San Francisco. Jennifer Gustafson, how could you?
I like to run over at the Concordia track because it has the cushion that someone who has been running for over 25 years appreciates. I did my training runs at different times of the day. As I started to swim more in the mornings, I would do my runs in the evenings after work. Although it was often quite hot when I ran, all I needed to do was to think back on when I used to run in South Florida in the summertime. It would start to feel much cooler after that.
Sue O'Hearn-Brennan was another local triathlete I met as I trained. O'Hearn-Brennan will compete in her fifth race, the Accenture Triathlon, in late August. She offered advice for each leg of the race.
"The swimming part can be daunting if you haven't done it before. A lake is much different than a pool, so make sure you swim in open water," she advised graciously. "The other thing is to practice bricks. That's where you bike and then immediately do a run. You need to get used to that transition from the bike to the run. Your legs are like jello."
After speaking with O'Hearn-Brennan, I started to ride my bike for a few miles and then head over to the track. I'd run about three to four miles and then hop back on the bike for more training miles. I was getting into a triathlon groove.
After my somewhat crash course of a training regimen, race day arrived and I was ready. The day before everyone completes their race registration by racking their bikes and getting their numbers. Your number is not only put on your bike and your helmet, but also written on both your arms and legs.
Although the race started at 7 a.m. with the swim, I had to get up around 4 a.m. to deal with all the logistics of such a large race. The swim start is done in waves of about 125 swimmers; this race had 33 waves. Luckily, I was in wave five and my sister was in wave seven. Before the race, the swim part gave me the most anxiety and from talking to others, I was not alone in that feeling.
Outside of watching out for the big frog-kick swimmer to my left, the swim part went much better than I expected. The bike portion of the race had its challenges with its many hills, but I finally got to use all of the gears on my bike. I think the big surprise for me was how hard it was going from the bike to the run. My legs felt very sluggish for the first mile. The day was really heating up by the time I started the run around the lake. As I looked over and saw the few remaining waves yet to start, I was happy to be on the last leg of the race. My unofficial time was just under two hours for the race.
It was great doing the race with my sister. She had some challenges with a knee injury so we did not get a chance to train together as much as we both wanted to.
"I could have easily talked myself out of doing this if I hadn't talked [you] into doing it," she told me after the race.
We are already talking about doing the race again next year and training longer and harder. Thanks to all of the great women I met along the way for all the advice and encouragement. Now I can say, "I am a triathlete."