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A Runner Tackles the Tri

The crowd cheered wildly as I ran out of T2. Too bad they weren't cheering for me.

The crowd cheered wildly as I ran out of T2. Too bad they weren’t cheering for me. Race announcer Kevin Mackinnon’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker: “Look at this – here comes Craig Alexander and he’s averaging 3:15 per kilometre. What an unbelievable finish!” I looked over in time to see the world champion from Australia flying across the finish line. I wanted to feel happy for him, to cheer for him, to bow down to him, but all I could do was look down at my sorry legs and curse.

I’m a long-time runner and this was my first 70.3 at the Subaru Ironman 70.3 Muskoka in Huntsville, Ont. As Alexander crossed the line, I was just taking the first tentative steps of the half-marathon after a gruelling, hilly 94 km bike loop around the Lake of Bays.

“It’s OK,” I told myself, “so what if Craig Alexander is a half-marathon ahead of you. He’s the best triathlete in the world. And anyway, this is the part of the triathlon you’ve been waiting for – running.” I saw a lot of muscular-looking cycling specialists ahead of me and expected to blow past them on the run, but my skinny marathoner legs were burned out from the three-hour bike ride and I couldn’t get them to move. I was running in slow motion.

I’ve run 30-some marathons, a few ultramarathons and countless other distance races, but the triathlon always intrigued me. I wondered what it would feel like to run a race after a long swim and a very long bike ride. If Craig Alexander can hammer out a 1:11 half-marathon after all of this, how hard could it be?

As the editor of Canadian Running magazine, I share office space with the staff of Triathlon Magazine Canada, so I sought some expert advice. Editor Kevin Mackinnon told me to swim almost every day and do lots of brick workouts. Sales staffer André Cheuk, an ultra-keen training junkie coached by Wolfgang Guembel, advised me to find a good coach, follow a customized program and to do several long bike rides. I ignored all of it, managing to fit in just four or five training swims and a handful of bike rides, arriving to the start line in Muskoka woefully under-prepared.

On the swim, I started in the second wave after the pros and was almost immediately overrun by strong swimmers from the third wave, then the fourth and fifth. I had to stop a few times near the end of the swim as my calves seized up. On my way out of T1 to the bike course, I ran past pro triathlete Tara Norton, who was spectating. I’ve known Tara since childhood and she looked pleased to see her runner friend venturing into the tri world, and probably stifling a laugh at my slow swim speed.

The bike leg was much better, but the hilly course took its toll on my legs. So, by the time I hit the run, I no longer felt like a running specialist – just an under-trained triathlete. Inspired by the looks of determination on the faces of the other athletes around me, I pushed on to the end, savouring the finish of my first 70.3, but humbled by the effort.

That afternoon, I bumped into Craig Alexander and women’s winner Mirinda Carfrae in the elevator of the race hotel. I told Alexander about watching him finish his race as I took the first steps of my run. He gave me a pat on back. “Don’t worry,” he said, “the next one will be easier.” I really hope so.

Michal Kapral set a world record for joggling a marathon. We’re waiting to see him joggle his way through a triathlon in 2010.