For years when asked for my advice on doing triathlon my key words of wisdom were: "Triathlon isn’t won or lost in the water." My point being, don’t kill yourself on the swim because the swim is a very small part of the race.
I have to change that statement, however. Now I say "Triathlon is never won in the water." It *IS* possible to lose in the water. How? Like this:
You’re in the water, you’re feeling good. The horn sounds and the splashing and kicking starts. You find yourself on the ankles of the leaders and they’re going out fast. You go with them. You’re pulling and kicking, working hard and holding your own right there with the elites. With every gasped breath you catch a glimpse of the leaders and are elated to see that despite their best efforts you are tenaciously right on their tails.
Suddenly your hands hit sand. You leap up out of the water just behind them and follow them up the beach, pulling your goggles off. You trot into the bike transition area and suddenly you notice something funny. Your legs. They’re rubbery. Your breathing is labored. You’re having a hard time finding your bike and your thighs are screaming from the effort. You finally find your bike, take a moment to steady yourself, start to pull on your gear. Your hands are shaking. You drop your water bottle and have to retrieve it. You struggle briefly with your bike shoes, then finally pull your bike off the rack. The elites are already pedalling away and the other racers are all around you starting to get their gear on too. You stagger to the transition exit, jump on your bike and start to pedal.
Are you in the wrong gear?! You’re struggling against your pedals, check your gear, and reluctantly downshift to gain some momentum. Other racers are starting to pass you. You shift awkwardly in the seat, trying to regain your legs. They don’t show up. By the time you get to the run transition area you know your energy is sapped. You hop off the bike, now much farther back in the field than you expected to be. You get your run gear on and set off on the run. You have an acceptable but not extraordinary run and finish somewhat slower than you had hoped to and having battled every step of the way. A miserable race.
It’s happened to most of us. What happened? You went out too fast on the swim. You let faster swimmers goad you into swimming their race instead of yours. You had no business on the ankles of those faster swimmers and you left your whole race in the water. If you had held back, focused on staying smooth and efficient in the water, you’d have gotten out of the water 90 seconds or 2 minutes later, but you’d have been comfortable and had plenty of energy for the bike and the run. You’d have been the one cruising past strugglers ahead of you rather than the one getting passed.
Triathlon is not won in the water. Get out of the water feeling great, warmed up and ready to transition well and then hammer on the bike, you’ll have a much better time, a much better finish and a much better race experience.