In the tech industry, there’s this concept of Minimum Viable Product. An MVP is a really basic, stripped-down prototype of the ideal final product. It’s got just enough to work – barely.
Yesterday, I competed in my very first triathlon – the California International Triathlon. Summary: triathlons are awesome. This was an Olympic Triathlon, which means 1.5k swim, 40k cycle, and 10k run. I finished in 3:21ish, which was in the middle 1/3rd of my age group.
Triathlons are very tech and logistic-intensive. Having never done one before, I didn’t know if it was something I’d want to do again. As such, I adopted the MVA approach – Minimum Viable Athlete. What was the minimum amount of gear I could invest in while still competing in this event?
Before the race, all I knew about the swimming section was that there was one. I didn’t really know how long it was or where it would be. I hadn’t done any serious open-water swimming. Past the couple of miles I’d done in a heated pool, my main water adventures were splashing around near beaches.
I’d heard rumors of high-tech gear that allowed for seamless transitions between each section. For example, a tri-suit is an article of clothing that you can wear for the swim, the bike, and the run, effectively removing the need to juggle clothing. In true MVA style, my plan was to wear a sports bra and spandex shorts for the swim, then throw on a shirt and shoes for the cycle. No extra gear required.
When I arrived that morning, I was pretty excited about this very clever plan (it ended up working pretty well, actually). About 15 minutes before the start of the race, though, I noticed people putting on wetsuits.
As I stood shivering on the beach, a wetsuit seemed like it would have been a very good idea. Of all the women, there was exactly one other who was planning to brave the water without a wetsuit.
Despite their extra layers, other athletes seemed hesitant to jump into the water fot the deep-water start. The air temperature was in the 50s. The announcer seemed to notice our reluctance, and shared that the water temperature was actually warmer than the air temperature.
Skeptical, I dipped a toe in. The water was easily 10 or 15 degrees warmer than the air. This was great – definitely don’t need a wetsuit to swim in this water! MVA was reassured.
The swim was 1.5k, or about .93 miles. I quickly found out that I’m a terrible swimmer; I finished second to last in my wave. I was that hilarious swimmer who would periodically veer off to the side, stick her head up prairie-dog style, locate the next buoy, then paddle furiously - making no appreciable headway – in that direction, before veering off course again.
I guessed I would finish that section between 40 and 45 minutes, and was exactly on track – I think it was a 45-minute finish or so.
The bike transition was pretty quick. I brought a towel, which I had no time to use. I did briefly consider wiping off my sandy feet, but MVA thought that seemed like a lot of work. I instead pulled on socks and shoes over the sand and grit. Helmet and shirt on, I jumped on the bike and took off.
In my haste, I forgot to grab a Gu or water. Minimum Viable Athlete was proud that I didn’t take extra time at the transition to refuel. I was just relieved that this didn’t prove to be a terrible oversight later – I didn’t seem to need the extra calories.
During setup at the transition that morning, I felt like a bit of a triathlete poser. Everyone there had these fantastically expensive and streamlined bikes, some of which easily could have cost $10,000. My awesome Fuji bike cost between $250 and $300. It had normal boring handlebars, and no place to hold a waterbottle. Not only that, but my pedals didn’t have clips for clip-in bike shoes. I didn’t even have those pedal-baskets, the next best option. MVA strikes again!
Turns out I didn’t really need any of that stuff anyway. The cycle was easy and fast. The road was flat, with the exception of one hill around mile 13 or so. I powered up that hill, passing a couple of other athletes (many – but not all! – of whom caught me on the way down). I made good time on the cycling section.
There was an aid station somewhere around mile 14, but I blew past it. MVA didn’t need water or electrolytes!
As I approached the transition, I could see runners on their last section. They looked miserable, and I was so excited to start the running section. I sped down the last hill (wiping out pretty hard on the way down), and headed into the transition section.
Transition was easy. I dropped the bike, took of my helmet, and grabbed a Gu. Ready to run.
The most interesting part of the run was the physical adjustment from cycling to running. One of my triathlete friends had warned me that this would be a challenge; on his team in college, the athletes would always run a mile after the cycle, just to prep their body for the transition. MVA shrugged and decided I’d figure it out on the go.
The first two miles were pretty amusing. I felt like I was on an elliptigo - arms and legs pinwheeling randomly all over the place. I was doing 7:45 miles for a while because I couldn’t figure out how to pace myself – the motion was so unfamiliar.
I made up a lot of time on the run. The run was on a dirt trail, and there were two 5k loops to make the 10k. This meant that, on the first lap, you were running with athletes who were right about where you were, and also athletes who were about three miles ahead, and on the second lap, you were running with athletes who were about where you were, and also athletes who were three miles behind you.
I passed 20-30 runners on this section, and was passed by about two (both of whom were in the 3-miles-ahead category, based on their really expensive-looking tri-suits).
There were a couple of rolling hills – really small ones, but some people were walking them. I thought about walking the ten steps to the top, but then remembered that I ran the Inca Trail a few weeks ago, and these hills were nothing in comparison to that.
The run was easy and fun. I essentially sprinted the whole way – it felt great.
As mentioned, I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack. Not bad for pretty much zero targeted training, no gear, and no real race plan. MVA considers this a successful first triathlon.
I’ll definitely do another triathlon. Gear-wise, I feel pretty good about my choices; I don’t think I’d switch anything up there. I’d consider renting a wetsuit if the water temperature were significantly lower – I also hear they help improve swim speed.
Training-wise, I actually didn’t do too badly. I obviously lost time on the swim, but I think that’s primarily due to not really knowing how to swim. Swimming is technically challenging – it’s hard to nail the technique without guided practice, I think. I’ll probably get a few hours of swim lessons in before the next triathlon.
In terms of physical exertion, a triathlon seems to be around the same order of magnitude as a marathon. It’s probably a bit easier, because we get to switch up muscle use.
Mentally, it’s significantly easier. A marathon is really about doing the same thing over and over – first one foot, then the other. A triathlon is a lot more like a game. Should I sprint to the finish of this section, or save my energy for the next section? If I power up this hill, will I be depleting energy resources I can use later? How much time should I take at this transition to make sure my gear is 100% perfect, given that I’ll only be cycling for 90 or 100 minutes? Can I survive some sand in my shoes for the next few hours, or should I take the time to get it all off?
There’s a lot more strategy in a triathlon, which means there’s a lot more to think about during the actual race. Mentally, I was never bored of frustrated. The hours flew by.
Marathons are a lot of fun during the first mile, the last mile, and after the race. They’re sometimes fun at other parts during the race. Maybe it was because this was my first one, but this triathlon was fun the entire time, even when I was 2nd to DFL on the swim.
That being said, I still like running more. MVA – or, in this case – Minimum Viable Athlete, says don’t let logistics or details get in the way of your workout. During a triathlon, so many things can go wrong. You can forget gear, have the wrong gear, or break one of the multitude of rules (seriously, who has time to read all of that?).
Probably most importantly to me, the gear can break down. In a triathlon, if your bike breaks, that’s pretty much the end of the race.
In a marathon, the only thing that can break down is your body. Fixing that is usually just a matter of mental strength, making intelligent decisions, and powering through it.