Have fun with that weakness
BY CHRIS SCHOTZ
For decades, I’ve looked at triathlons and thought they looked like a lot of fun. There are those transitions that make you think and send you off on a new discipline that keeps it interesting, but there was always that one element of the triathlon that scared me away. I finally decided to quit being a baby and do it anyway. I’m a mountain biker who loves to splash around, but I’ve had a fear of running since my single grinding marathon in 1993 and haven’t bought a pair of running shoes since.
The easy part was finding the fun event. There are numerous triathlons all over the Midwest in every shape and size. For years, I’d heard tales of the Wolfman Triathlon which was held around Langlade, Wisconsin, for the 24th time this past September. That’s the one that runs your boat down three Class II Wolf River rapids and then makes you portage your bike through the river on a twisted ride around boulders on the black-diamond difficult Nicolet Roche trails. That all sounded like the fun part to me, but I’m kind of an odd duck. Actually, anyone who saw me run might think I was part duck with my toes out and my heels flailing east and west. The secret was finding the running course that suited my legs – short and crooked. The 3.5-mile course at Wolfman was just the right amount of rugged hiking trail to hide my unconventional form, so I borrowed my son’s gym shoes and hoped for the best. I even rang the bell at the summit of the steepest crawl while hoping I wouldn’t alert anyone chasing me down. I ran like an old wildebeest and finally made it across the suspension bridge and finish line without falling prey to the sleek lions out to cull me from the herd. Eventually, a few late starters beat my time, but by then the brews and band of the Wolfman party were in full swing, so I was a happy old animal.
More conventional beasts out to tame the Wolfman might seek counsel for the more exciting legs of the event. The paddle segment is not dangerous, but it is serious with a real chance of going for a swim. The race advises that beginning athletes use a sit-on-top kayak to make it easy to get back in the game after a spill. I borrowed a spray skirt and 12-foot kayak that had just enough length to be fast on the flat sections but still get me through the rapids upright. This year I might try the tandem canoe option, but I’ll have to track down some proper float bags to pass inspection. Either way, it’s a good idea to scout the river ahead of time unless you seek a chilly morning swim in bike shoes. The Nicolet Roche bike trails also warrant some scouting for a first timer. They are awesome, but also some of the trickiest trails in the Midwest with steep pitches and tight squeezes between boulder and tree.
This year I came across a new event also in Langlade County, Wisconsin, where a new single-track trail was built by bulldozer to bestow a flowy ride that can be enjoyed without any suspension. The MK Triathlon was held in conjunction with a splash-n-dash to benefit the Antigo Swim Club, so it would include that discipline which I imagine is the most discouraging to potential triathletes – swimming. I had the advantage of being an adequate high school swimmer and later coach to numerous athletes that were much faster in the water than I ever was, but still, I hadn’t swum competitively in over 30 years. I would need to teach myself to swim again.
There are a few tricks that a new swimmer can use to develop a technique that will allow them to survive the water leg with marginal time deficits. The most efficient stroke over time is the front crawl, which does require a good pair of goggles and your face in the water. The trick is to use your hips, which are the hidden source of power in a lot of sports. Fast swimming does not come from windmilling your arms around at the shoulder like a 19th-century paddlewheel steamboat. That inefficient flailing burns a lot of energy just splashing around. An efficient stroke is long and methodical with a swimmer fully extended and almost on their side during a glide phase. This is easier said than done, but years ago I discovered two tools that allow a swimmer to feel correct technique and the power that comes from a snap of the hips.
Freestyler paddles are attached to the hands with just a small rubber cord so they flop around and get awkward if a swimmer messes up their stroke – basically acting as a coach in your ear telling you to catch the water with your palm on the underwater phase of the stroke. The real magic happens when the hand passes the head and stabs into the water during the recovery phase of the stroke. Those paddles seem to pull the hand way out in front of the head and snap the hips over to that side. I don’t think freestylers would allow a swimmer to windmill their arms around without a long extension and proper glide phase. Swim with the paddles long enough to get the feel for an extension, glide and hip snap, but then take them off and try to recall that same feel with bare hands.bThe paddles are large and can put pressure on the shoulders so I only use them for a few hundred yards at a time to get the feel for the water, but not for an extended swim or any kind of strength training.
Another invention that helps focus on the stroke, is the center-mounted snorkel – where the tube of the snorkel is attached to a band in the middle of the forehead so that it doesn’t create drag to one side. While using the snorkel, a swimmer can actually forget about breathing for a while in order to focus on technique – full extension on the glide phase, hip rotation and below water catch with the hand. Triathlons won’t allow these toys during the competition, so eventually, they have to come off and a swimmer has to learn to breathe efficiently during the stoke. Let’s say for example that my left arm is fully extended in front of me and I’m on my left side in the water. At the same time, my right arm is passing my head above the water, which is my chance to turn my head to the right and grab a quick breath out of the wake of my chin. It does take practice. Some swimmers will breathe on every stroke, some on every other stroke, while some will breathe left and right. I’ve given up on breathing to my left which is probably the reason I can’t swim straight in the open water.
During the MK Triathlon, I started with my eye on some collegiate swimmers who I hoped could swim in a straight line across Jack Lake. It wasn’t long before they got ahead of me, so I had to take my head out for a few water polo strokes every once in a while to spot the buoys in the distance. By the first buoy, I had settled in with a group that matched my pace. Another guy and I did our best to swim straight to the next buoy, but it must have been frustrating to the woman behind us to try to follow our zigzags. We made the last turn and hit the beach a few minutes behind the collegiate swimmers, well within striking distance during the much longer bike and run phases of the race.
A good triathlon transition has everything laid out in its place ahead of time so that a tired athlete doesn’t have too much to think about. Towels are laid out with socks in shoes and helmet hanging on the handlebars, so there is no way to mess it up. I didn’t get on the bike wearing a life jacket at Wolfman, and I didn’t put my helmet on over my swim cap at the MK. My worst moment came while trying to wrestle my way into a snug jersey while soaking wet, but I have no dramatic calamities to report from either event and actually got to the point where I didn’t mind my weakness so much.
The calendar is now full of trail triathlons I’d like to try. The Chequamegon Fat Tire Triathlon was held at the end of August with a swim in Silverthorn Lake near Seely. I’ve always wanted to paddle through the rock outcrops of the Kickapoo River, and the Dam Challenge would allow me to explore seven miles of the river in October before a hilly road ride and trail run. A serious adventurer might want to experience the XTERRA series which has stops in Ionia, Michigan, and Thunder Bay, Ontario. A real challenge for me would be the Rockport Rugged which starts with an open water swim in Lake Huron. I grew up in the ‘70s when Jaws came out, but I never saw the whole movie. Just that poster was enough to scare me and make me imagine a giant shark coming out of the deep whenever I swim with my face down in deep water. I know there are no great white sharks in Lake Huron so I think I could get over my fear if I wasn’t alone out there.
There is a challenge out there for everyone, just as we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I’m looking forward to confronting a few more of those!