Laura Sophiea (born in 1955) plunged into Kailua Bay for the first leg of the 2007 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and followed a friend through the chaos of arms and legs splashing through the water. Almost immediately two men-"big, rude, and mean," as Sophiea put it-swam over her. She panicked and began to tread water. Then she found a pair of quick feet and followed them until the three-quarter mark where she was kicked so hard in the nose and lips that she saw stars. She checked for blood and kept going. Sophiea always expects tumult in the swim of the Ironman and trains in the pool by swimming fast at the start of her workout and then backs off a bit in the middle before piling on strong intervals at the end to mimic the mad rush at the conclusion of the 2.4-mile (3.9 km) swim.
Next up, the bike. The 112-mile (180 km) ride is famous for its heat and winds, and in 2007 it was worse than usual. Aside from a 7-mile (11.2 km) stretch when the coastal breezes were at her back, Sophiea was buffeted by headwinds and crosswinds over the entire course. She saw one rider get hit by a car. Sometimes the wind was so strong over the lava fields that it pushed her bike at will. Usually cyclists share their annoyance as they pass each other. But on this day, they were quiet.
The marathon is what worried her the most. She had torn her hamstring some three months earlier. Sophiea was 52 years old and this was her 17th Ironman. She has fared remarkably well over the years while training for one of the toughest endurance events in the world. True, there was the time in 2000 when she competed in Ironman with a broken back. And in 1991, she wondered whether she would be suitably hydrated if she had to pull off the course and breast-feed her youngest daughter. But the run would be a test. She had spent hours getting massages to speed the healing of her leg. And she had practiced visualization to help her run pain free. She had backed off on her running from 35 miles (56 km) a week to 20 (32 km) in the final run-up to the race. She wondered whether the lower mileage would hurt her endurance or if all of the pounding would harm the hamstring.
It turned out it was the front of her legs, the quadriceps, that seemed tired as she transitioned into the run. She had already logged nearly an eight-hour day on the course. She was in first place in her age group. But the woman in second was only eight minutes behind. Mentally, miles 7 to 14 were the toughest in years-there was still so much ahead. As the miles droned on, so did the self-doubt. Why had she taken this on again?
She tried sipping a Coke, which helped her pick up the pace. In the final miles, she began feeling better and started to enjoy the race. As she neared the end, she could hear the music playing. I watched footage of Sophiea finishing the race on Ironman’s Web site. Thousands of people lined Alii Drive in Kona and cheered as the athletes passed. The pace quickened as Ironman announcer Mike Reilly told the runners the clock was closing in on 11 hours.
The men and women around her were all younger. Most of the finishers seemed to ignore their fatigue and were bounding for joy as the end drew near. One man brought in his children for the final yards as athlete, son, and daughter held hands and crossed the finish line together.
"Laura Sophiea from Birmingham, Michigan," Reilly shouted over the loudspeaker as she rounded the corner and came into view. Sophiea was running strong, wearing a white sleeveless top and black running shorts.
"Way to go, Laura! Course record holder right here, 50 to 54! Laura Sophiea! Breaking 11 hours!"
Sophiea had won her age group in the Ironman again, coming in at 10:59:32, maintaining an 8-minute gap on her closest challenger. She pumped her arms triumphantly and smiled and waved to the crowd.
Then suddenly she veered sideways and started to fall. Two red-shirted attendants grabbed her and threw a towel over her shoulders. Then came a third, a fourth, and a fifth-all of them struggling to hold her up. In a moment, her joy turned to pain; the sparkle in her eyes grew as distant as a fallen prizefighter’s.
Medical personnel rushed her into a tent, where two liters of saline dripped into the vein of an arm. An hour afterward, she vomited what little remained in her stomach.
For Sophiea, it was a typical Ironman finish. For all of her training and experience, each year she always bonks at the end, sapping every ounce of energy until it doesn’t matter anymore. She told me her collapses at the Ironman do not bother her. She even viewed the extra liter of saline she received as a bonus-a gift-that helped her get back in the groove for her next race a month later in Clearwater, Florida.
Ordinarily, she would have flown back to Michigan a day after Ironman and sleepwalked her way through work for the rest of the week. But it had been a momentous year. She had taken a leave from her job as a librarian and media specialist at a middle school. Afterward, she stayed an extra two weeks in Kona to recuperate and resume training.
Selecting a bike
"If you’ve only recently been bitten by the triathlon bug, the very first, most obvious symptom is an inexplicable need to visit the nearest bicycle shop. Once you’re there, your symptoms might progress toward writing out a check for a thousand bucks, or worse, taking out the plastic. Hold on there. You might not need to shell out four figures at this point.
If you currently own a bicycle and just want to finish your first triathlon, you might be able to get by with what you have until you’re sure you’ll be a lifelong multisport maniac. It’s not uncommon for beginners to use a beat-up old road bike or a fat-tire mountain bike for their first event, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you don’t have a bicycle (or can’t borrow one), then you have no alternative but to look into buying a triathlon bicycle. Also, if you’ve done a few triathlons and are looking for some advice on making your first serious multisport bicycle purchase, the following sections provide some guidance for you.
Tri-Bikes, Step by Step
Making your entry into the complicated world of cycling equipment can be expensive and intimidating. Somewhere among the fancy designs, shiny components, and black rubber is what you need. Without some basic knowledge, a good understanding of your current needs, and a clear vision of what lurks on your triathlon horizon, there’s a strong chance that you’ll purchase the wrong bicycle.
Fear not. Here’s a step-by-step guide to making that first big multisport purchase, with advice from triathlon bicycle dealers, manufacturers, and coaches. Add to that some tales of woe from professionals who can tell you (through their experience) what not to do when you’re making that big purchase, and you have no reason to panic.
Step 1: Set a Budget
Walking into a bicycle shop with no plan can mean walking away with no money. Although most bike dealers will not deliberately take advantage of an eager first-time buyer, by setting a budget you are taking the first step toward controlling a situation that might seem uncontrollable.
A cautionary word about overemphasizing equipment is warranted. “Your best bet is buying a reasonably priced, entry-level bike with a clip-on aero bar,” says cycling coach Bob Langan. “It all comes to this: It’s not the seconds equipment will save you; it’s the minutes a good aerodynamic position and proper training will.”
How much will you spend on your first triathlon bike? Generally speaking, prices for entry-level racing bikes range from $900 to $1,400. Of course, the sky’s the limit on how much you can spend (if your bank account can handle it), but spending more than $1,400 is risky for two reasons:
1. You might not know what you need.
2. You might think you know what you need, but you might be wrong.
Does that mean you should go the other way and get the cheapest two-wheeler you see on the dealer floor? No. Although the frugal side of you might want to buy the cheapest Wal-Mart special you can find, you’ll likely find it to be less than what you need. Better to buy the most bike you can afford and be able to train and race with comfortably, than have to start all over a few months down the road.
Step 2: Don’t Forget Accessories
One common mistake is excluding accessories from the budget. Earmark $300 to $500 for accessories, more if you intend to purchase optional equipment such as an aerodynamic disk, tri-spoke, or deep-rim wheel. Some of the more basic bicycle accessories include the following:
- Frame pump
- Patch kit
- Spare tubes
- Clothing (shorts, jerseys, jacket)
- Cycling shoes (optional)
- Clipless pedals (optional)
- Aerobars (optional, but highly recommended)
- Computer (optional)
- Sunglasses (optional)
As you can imagine, your $900 bicycle purchase can run well into four figures with the addition of these or other accessories. Is all this stuff really necessary? Most of it is. You can’t race without a helmet, and you need the additional comfort and safety that cycling shorts, jerseys, gloves, and the other necessities afford you.
If you intend to transport your bicycle in your car, a roof-mounted bicycle rack can run you well over $500. A less expensive alternative is a trunk-mounted rack. Still cheaper is taking the wheels off your bike and throwing it in the back seat or trunk.
In recent years, many bicycle manufacturers have included clipless pedals, contraptions that attach your shoes to the bike for an efficient, more comfortable pedal stroke, as basic equipment on entry-level road bike models. This addition will save you close to $150 that you might have earmarked for this accessory. (If the bicycle you’re interested in doesn’t include clipless pedals, it’s time to start negotiating with your dealer.) Though many people fear being attached to a bicycle with clipless pedals, you can get out of the pedals at any time simply by extending your heel outward.
Cycling shoes are designed for use with clipless pedals. Cycling shoes are stiff and transfer energy more directly to the bicycle than do rubber pedals or toe straps. Cycling shoes vary widely in price, from $100 on the low end to more than $200.
Aerobars help you slice through the wind. Better aerodynamics with aerobars increases your speed and helps you save energy for the run. As you train for longer distances, this accessory will definitely fall out of the “optional” category and into the “mandatory” list.
Speed Demon Fact
If you recall, Greg Lemond’s historic victory in the 1989 Tour de France came as a direct result of the performance advantage of his triathlon aerobars. Wind tunnel testing has shown an estimated average time savings of five minutes during an Olympic-distance bike leg (40K) when a cyclist maintains an aerodynamic position on aerobars. Other studies have shown that cyclists in a proper aerodynamic position are more relaxed and experience decreased heart rates.
Step 3: Understand the Choices and Know What You Need
Purchase a good racing bicycle that is versatile and durable. Buying an entry-level racing bike that is upgradable can save you time and money in the long term. For example, pioneering duathlete Ken Souza’s first duathlon bicycle was a Nishiki International he bought in 1982 for a scant $175. Though the bicycle served its initial purpose, it was a touring model (a bicycle designed primarily for casual riding) that Souza quickly outgrew. Yet the pioneering athlete who put duathlons on the map continued to pour money into a pocket full of holes. “It was ironic. I was spending all this money trying to upgrade, trying to save a few dollars by not buying a racing bike. I could have bought a real racing bike sooner if I hadn’t tried so hard to upgrade a bike that wasn’t worth it.” So Souza’s experience makes an important distinction—find a good upgradeable bicycle, but just be sure it’s something that’s worth upgrading over a reasonable period of time, You may very well outgrow an entry-level bicycle, but try and find something that will last you for as long as possible.
Souza’s solution to his novice woes was one that you might want to consider if the opportunity arises: “I bought a used racing bike—a Vitus carbon fiber—from ex-pro Mark Montgomery. I think that’s one of the smartest things a beginner can do. You’ll get top-of-the-line gear, you can get a great deal, and it’s usually not beat up.”
In this excerpt, we learn about reducing drag and increasing propulsion from the book "Swim Fastest", reprinted with permission of Human Kinetics.
"Fundamentals for Reducing Resistive Drag
- Maintain lateral alignment in the front crawl and backstroke by rotating the body around its longitudinal axis in synchronization with the downward and upward movements of the arms. The entire body must rotate, from head to toes, as an entire unit. Never try to maintain one part—the hips or legs, for example—in a flat position while the arms and shoulders