Triathlon – From A Runner’s Point Of View

By Scott DeFilippis

The beauty of non-drafting triathlon racing and the iron distance in particular, is  that the sport provides all different types of athletes an opportunity for success.  Triathlon generally attracts former swimmers or long distance runners but we’re also seeing ex-professional cyclists achieve great success after making the cross over.  Then you have the likes of Jordan Rapp and Todd Skipworth, both ex-rowers, or Heather Jackson who was an Ice Hockey player.  It’s not too often you see a sprinter make the jump to the Iron Distance but my girlfriend Carrie Lester, now a 4X Iron Distance Champ was once an Olympic Hopeful for Australian sprinting.  I think that’s pretty neat!

In my case, I was raised a pure runner.  I dabbled in just about everything as a boy but once I got to high school, I realized my body wasn’t going to grow much taller than 5’6” and that running was probably my best bet.  So when I made the crossover to triathlon, I thought riding a bike would piece of cake; I mean look at all the little guys that ride the Grand Tours.  I thought swimming would take a year to figure out – maybe two – and I thought a 2:42 marathon would happen no matter what…

For the purpose of this article I am writing about the difficulties of crossover from my sport, which as I mentioned is running… so let’s start with the swim. At first I thought, “well how hard could it be to swim, I was a lifeguard at my local beach, I surfed during the summer months, I have a strong heart and lungs”.   Boy, was I mistaken.  Learning how to swim as an adult is one of the hardest things in the world to figure out!  And as a runner it’s even more difficult most likely because we are so skinny that we don’t float, so Step 1 is learning how to float. Then we realize that even though we have strong running legs and ought to be able to kick really well, we kick like runners and that is not at all how swimmers kick.  It would be like if a breaststroke swimmer tried to run like they kick in the pool. It’s pretty inefficient!  So we have to learn to kick, that’s step 2.  Then when you bring the arms into play, well, we suddenly realize that we have the upper body strength of an 8 year old boy, since more than likely we haven’t done much strength work up top. No wonder the 12 and 13 year old girls can swim circles around us. All this can be very discouraging especially since the race starts with the swim and we are used to standing at the starting line of a race ready to play Catch Me If You Can – now it’s like the gun goes off and you are held at the starting line for 5-10mins while everyone disappears up the road. As you can imagine the ego takes a pretty big hit from the Go. But, if you can figure it out, you can do it!  It is possible to learn to swim, even as an adult. Swimming can become one of the most beautiful and enjoyable activities you could ever take up!  It’s taken me 6 years now and finally I feel kind of like a swimmer.  So keep the head down, learn to use your legs, and be patient!

Now we come to the bike and again runners we think we can ride a bike. But then once we ride with real cyclists we quickly learn that like our weak arms, once seated on a bicyle, our legs are about as strong as a 13 year old BMX rider.  I believe that the cycling part of the sport is easiest to get good at, but the hardest to stick with because it takes the most amount of time.  Stick anyone on a bike for long enough and they are going to get stronger and faster.  But in our case, – skinny little runners that is – we think a 2 hour long run (2 hours 15mins at the most) is such a looooonnnnngggg day. So wrapping our heads around spending 5-6 hours on a bicycle can be like trying to convince a child with ADD that 10mins in Time Out is not the end of the world.  We runners have a big advantage in that we have developed our cardiovascular system so we have potential to ride a bike, but you first have to embrace the bike.  Once you do that, just as with swimming, you have to be patient while you turn those skinny weak legs into cyclist’s legs.  If you can do this, cycling can also become a wonderful part of your life!  There’s nothing quite like seeing the world from a bicycle!

If we make it through the swim and bike, we finally get to the run.  The best part of the day! Right?  Not always the case… I thought the marathon would come so easily for me, I mean, I was a 29min 10k runner, 1:04 half marathon runner, 2:24 marathon (imploding at mile 21), 6:10 mile pace is a joke!  Hahahaha, think again you cocky little sh#t!  How quickly I had forgotten about my chicken arms and stubs for legs.  It took me 3 years and 4 months to finally run close to what I thought I was going to do in my first year racing Ironman. In the 2012 Ironman Switzerland, I ran 2:43.  If it had not been for Brett Sutton telling me 3 years and 4 months earlier that it was going to take that long and then jumping out of the bushes every 5km on that 3 lap course, I might not ever had truly believed I was going to figure out how to run the marathon in an Ironman. 

Not only are we weak physically but we are also weak mentally when we go long.  Runners are used to going 4mins-30mins and when we make the jump to the marathon it’s mind blowing to think of 2 hours plus…but long course triathlon is 4 – 9 hours. Yep, it takes some time to wrap our heads around that one as well. We have to learn how to race it, how to hold back, how to fuel; I mean in a marathon you need a couple cups of Gatorade and it’s all good right?  (Yeah, till mile 20 that is! hehehe.) 

So when I think about all the crossover our sport has, most people think coming from a running background would be the easiest. The run comes at the end, that’s what you excel at – but we are play catch up from the very get go and all these things I just wrote about are obstacles in the road that we must overcome. Once you do it though and once you get strong enough to get through the swim, hold the line on the bike, when you smash the marathon – it’s an even better feeling then learning how to swim and watching the world go by from a bicycle.

Once a runner, always a runner!

Thanks to Scott DeFilippis for this article, you can find Scott’s view on coaching age groupers here and did you see Todd Skipworth’s piece on triathlon from rower’s background here?

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