Are you looking for a great beginner triathlon? Want some beginner tips and understanding of how a triathlon goes and how to eat, transition, etc?
My review of the PlayTri Desert Triathlon in La Quinta, CA should help! This was my first Olympic Distance Triathlon, and second ever triathlon (first was a sprint distance about 12 years ago!) I chose this triathlon because I read was a good course for beginners and one of the first of the season (early March) – I was anxious to get started when I decided to compete the prior November!
The race offers both sprint and Olympic distances triathlons, plus aquabike, duathlon, and a 2D challenge (sprint + Olympic races on the same day). An Olympic distance triathlon consists of an approximately 1-mile swim, a 25-mile bike, and a 6-mile run (exact distances can vary by race). The Desert Triathlon is a 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike, 10 kilometer run.
Beginner Triathlon Tips
Before I dive into the narrative of the whole weekend experience, here is a summary of the tips I learned and used for a fun and successful first tri:
- Arrive 1 day early (or more if you’re not local) for wetsuit decontamination, info meetings, and rest/prep time
- Take support. A race will be more stressful and far less fun if you don’t have a “sherpa” to help keep you calm, carry belongings and cheer you along the way.
- Be thoughtful and careful about planning your supplements and nutrition. This is part 4 of any triathlon in addition to the swim, run, bike (much more on this below).
- Arrive early on race day to have time to get a good spot in the transition area – and set your things up in order of how and when you’ll put them on. And leave space for people next to you – don’t spread your stuff out all over the place. It should all fit on a folded towel.
- You can also keep items like chapstick, sunscreen, supplements, etc there in case you need them during the race rather than worry about carrying them around.
- Get a good night of sleep two days prior to the race, since the night before you likely won’t sleep well. Sleep is key!
- Eat foods you know your stomach can handle from practice – don’t try anything new on race day.
- Use waterproof athletic/kinesiology tape if you have joint issues
- Take an extra swim cap (they’ll give you one according to your age group). Put your cap on first, then your swim goggles, then the required swim cap in order to help keep your goggles from getting kicked or hit off your head.
- Wear a trisuit rather than swimsuit, bike shorts, and tank top as separate pieces.
- Keep your transitions quick! Don’t waste too much time wiping off water or sand, or eating during transition. Just change and keep moving!
- Keep your nutrition on you – in your bike pouch, in your trisuit pocket, in a run belt. Eat as you move to avoid wasting time.
- Push yourself! This isn’t training or the time to hold back worrying about how you’ll feel. This is the one time to redline it and push through discomfort. Do pace yourself, but show yourself what you can do!
- Have fun!! It’s not that serious. 😊
Below is the rundown of how this all played out and details about the race in case you want to consider competing in the Desert Triathlon, or are a triathlon beginner and want to know what to expect.
Day Before Race Prep
I headed to La Quinta on Saturday morning with my two friends who were also competing, plus two of our friends along to support. We did so because for this race you have to decontaminate your wetsuit due to quagga mussels in the water that can attach to your suit. Plus, they do a detailed talk on the race course that day, as well as a meeting for first time triathletes to give helpful tips. I figured I should get all of the info I could to be better prepared, so we arrived around 11am to dunk our wetsuits into the decontamination pool, attend the meetings, and then get in a practice swim in the lake. I would definitely recommend going a day early to be very clear on the race course and don’t end up going the wrong way or skipping a loop, and get the wetsuit dealt with before race day so it’s one less thing to deal with (it can be done morning of, however).
The week before, there had been lots of rain and the water was around 51 degrees. At one point, they considered cancelling or shortening the swim due to the temperature. Luckily, by Saturday, it had warmed up to about 61 degrees. While that sounds freezing compared to my 80-degree community pool, it actually wasn’t bad with the sun out and wetsuits on. Slightly chilly but nothing like the week before when I’d swam in Long Beach Bay in about 55-degree weather and was shaking once out of the water. My friend and I dove in and swam a very short out and back just to get used to the feel of the water and swimming around other people. Again, something I would recommend if you’re new to triathlons or this race to get an idea of how the water will feel, what it’s like to swim around other people, and mentally prepare for the next day’s race.
How to Carb Load
After that, we headed off to a higher-carb late lunch. About 24 hours out from any endurance race, you’ll want to carb load. Ideally, spread this out through the day and keep it clean. Your body will run much more efficiently, you’ll have less gastric destress, and you’ll benefit your long-term health if you’re avoiding processed foods and sugars. These foods should also be foods you’ve eaten many times during training and in daily life so that you know your stomach will handle them well (don’t want to make any unnecessary bathroom stops or be racing on an upset stomach!)
For instance, I had oatmeal with protein that morning and some Barnana Bites; for lunch I’d brought along some chicken and rice/quinoa which I took along in Tupperware, then ate some pita bread and hummus from the restaurant; for dinner that night I had ground beef with sweet potatoes. Snacks included fruit, nuts, and some pastry our Airbnb host had made for us!
After lunch, we headed to our Airbnb for lots of prep time and relaxation. We napped, prepped for the race, and then all watched a TV show to chill out before bed around 9pm (although I actually slept around 10pm…too much to think about!) It’s common to not sleep well the night before, but rest is KEY to good performance. Aim to get quality sleep two nights before and then head to bed early the night before the race. Also make sure you do something that will relax you and take your mind off of pre-race jitters!
Race Day Nutrition, Agenda and Routine
I woke up at 4:20 the following morning after a decent night of sleep (thank God!). First order of business was decaf coffee (was saving my caffeine for about 30 minutes before the race), and Ground Based Nutrition Beet Root Powder mixed with chia seeds in water. This is because beet root juice or powder is a nitric oxide booster, known to improve endurance, blood flow, and performance; chia seeds help with energy and hydration (I had been taking the beet root powder for almost two weeks every day, and had some the night before as well. Beet juice should be taken about 3-4 hours prior to an endurance event and the effects can last up to 12 ). I taped up my knees really well with waterproof RockTape to help with knee pain I get from some biking and always from running. This type proved to be awesome as it stayed on through the water unlike others I’ve tried, and was still stuck on securely until I took it off that night.
After packing everything up, we headed out at 5:30am to arrive by 6am. On the way, I ate my really weird (but delicious and effective) breakfast of white rice mixed with almond butter, jelly, and bacon, plus 2 egg whites on the side. (High carbs for energy with just a little protein and fat for satiety). Hey, what can I say, it works for me!
When we arrived, we had to pick up our wetsuits and then set up our transition areas. An Ironman competitor was parked right next to me, and offered the tip of taping a long orange ribbon around the end of the rack. That way, it’s easy to find when you’re running into transition trying to find your stuff, and let me tell you I was super grateful for him – it truly made a huge difference! I’ll be using that tip in the future, for sure.
In my transition area I also made sure to have some critical items besides just gear:
- Body Glide for helping to get the wet suit on and off and avoiding neck chaffing. This is also good around the tri suit or your tank top around your arms/back. I also learned that if you put this around your cheek bones it can help with staying warmer in the water!
- Bare Republic Spray Sunscreen for easy, quick application before and during the race (did a quick spray of arms and legs before the bike (and probably should have done so before the run – still ended up with major tan lines)
- Coconut Oil – I’ve learned that if I put this on my long, thick hair right before swimming, it makes that mess much easier to get into the swim cap, as well as helps keep it under control during the rest of the race.
- Pre & Intra-race liquid energy – since many energy and endurance supplements are intended to be taken about 20-30 minutes pre-workout, I filled a little running flask with water, amino acids, beta alanine, creatine, MCT oil, Citrulline Malate and 100 mg of caffeine. I drank half of this before the swim, and the other half before the run during transition.
Once my transition area was set up and I did my pre-workout (a jog around the parking lot, some squats, leg swings, shoulder presses and pass-throughs with a band), I got a cup of coffee and drank about half for a little boost about an hour before the swim, while watching my girlfriend take off on her sprint race and getting the course straight in my head (which buoys do I go around, and do I go inside or outside of them?!)
About 30 minutes before my 30-39 age group started, I put on my wetsuit and swim caps (my own cap, then goggles, then my race designated cap to help keep goggles in place in case of kicks or punches to the head in the water – thank you, YouTube, for that tip!) Then I hopped into the water for a warm-up swim. The water was a pleasant (at least in a wetsuit) 61 degrees and it was high 70’s outside with no wind – amazing! I had come prepared with cold weather gear, but thankfully only needed my triathlon suit. Speaking of, a trisuit is the best thing to wear for a triathlon. It’s a one-piece item that has a slightly padded bottom for the bike, but swimsuit-like material and usually a pocket or two for holding items like a gel or chapstick. This eliminates the need for changing/removing/adding clothes so that your transition time can be much faster.
Triathlon Race Tactics and Route
Once we started the swim, I aimed to stay off to the side rather than right in the middle of the pack, and as close to the buoys as possible so I’d avoid swimming any extra and could keep things quick and away from as many hands and feet as possible. The swim was nice and calm, hard to see but water was nice. I didn’t have to work too hard on sighting, since plenty of people were around to keep me on track, but did try to keep the buoys in sight every once in a while to make sure I wasn’t drifting. I had mentally prepared to be nervous and panicky, but I ended up not feeling so much that way. One thing I had learned from reading the book, The Brave Athlete, is that a helpful tactic for staying calm and focused is simply to count with each stroke…1, 2, 3, 4. The other thing I learned in training was that if I focus on form, it calms me down, preventing me from panicking about being in a lake with 50 other people and imagining all that could go wrong. It worked, as the swim went off without a hitch. In fact, if anything, I’d say for next time I just need to push harder. I finished in 27:35, then hurried out to start the run to my bike.
At this race the ground is covered, so you won’t end up with too much sand all over your feet, and the run to transition area is not so long it’s tiring, but enough to kind of get your bearings back and strip the wetsuit (make sure to start pulling off the wetsuit as you run, so that when you get to transition it’s at your waist and you can get it off quicker).
I made a fairly quick transition for a newbie (3:29) – just sprayed on some sunscreen, put on my helmet, glasses, and cycling shoes without socks (which I learned is better so the feet can dry and any sand can fall into/out of the shoes rather than get trapped in socks and end up irritating during the run).
I had read prior that the bike course had a bit of an uphill portion, but the tiny “hill” up out of the transition area was so short and small it’s not even worth mentioning in my opinion. There were some potholes, however, that definitely needed to be paid attention to in and out of the course, but otherwise it’s a flat, easy, and beautiful course – great for going fast and giving it your all. My favorite part of the race for sure! For the Olympic distance, it was two loops of a big square. If you’re afraid, like me, you might miss a turn or go the wrong way, there are plenty of patrol there that mark off the path, and you will always have someone in front of you to follow – unless you win the first race of the day).
To stay fueled, I had one bottle of Vitargo – a quick-and-easy to digest carb – because I’ve found eating doesn’t work too well for me and my stomach, and gels are too messy and “blech”. I also had some amino acids and a tad of MCT oil for a touch of protein and fat that provides quick energy. I ended up drinking about ½ of the bottle, and in my other water bottle I had Ground-Based Nutrition Electrolyte Powder and more amino acids – although I probably only drank about a quarter of the bottle. On the way back into transition, I got an extra boost from my friends cheering me on. I made it back in 1:21.
Switching from cycling shoes to my running shoes laced with bungee laces to make putting them on quicker, I did a water shot of my remaining flask with aminos, caffeine, beta alanine and citrulline. T2 was done in 2:26, then I was off toward the beach for the run at about a 7:40 pace, which is crazy fast for me, so I went with it for a while to take advantage of the adrenaline, but tried to slow it down a bit by mile one so I could sustain the remainder of the run under 10 mph. The run portion is two loops, but not around the entire Lake Cahuilla. You run opposite of the direction of the swim, but start the run near the end of the swim. The run is about 3/4 around the lake, then a turnaround near the end. It’s a nice flat run, with some dirt and pavement and uneven surface and a small portion on the sand and grass. Because it circles the lake, it’s a nice view and pleasant run. There were several people there fishing and camping watching us, which was kind of strange, but some of them cheered us on. I passed my guy friend on the run who had started slightly after me, which was fun and gave me a boost to push a little harder, determined not to let him beat me to the finish line!
All of the water from the bike was feeling like a bit much in my stomach, and around mile 4 or so, I was starting to feel pretty yucky as well as crazy tired and dealing with some knee pain, although minimal because I’d taken ibuprofen beforehand. I had a water flask with amino acids and mct oil, and I knew I needed water but felt like I couldn’t stomach what was in my bottle. I started using the aid stations for a quick splash of clean, cool water, and around 4.5 miles took half of a Clif Gel from the aid station. I wasn’t hungry, but figured a little extra sugar would probably be good for me at this point even if it made me want to yack. The last mile in the heat and with legs dying, I just pushed through best I could and turned it up in the last 0.5 mile to finish as quickly as I could, knowing I gave it my all through the end.
I finished the run in 55:57, and completed the entire race in 2:50:55, and ended up placing 4th in my age group, 24 out of 72 females, and 148 overall out of 279 people. I ran across the line wanting to puke but with a smile on my face as I crossed the finish line – because isn’t that the point of these crazy races? To have fun and show yourself what you can do?! Now time to train for race #2….:)
If you have any questions about this particular race, race prep, or nutrition, please leave a comment! Any other comments or suggestions on what would be helpful to know, please share!