After choosing a race distance, you must pick a race. When I say “pick a race,” I mean to actually register online, pay the entry fee, circle the date on your calendar, and tell your friends and family. This will give you the impetus you need to take this whole experiment seriously. The main race of a racing season is called your “A” race and is the number one priority on your training schedule. After that race is booked, you can then work backwards and book several “B” or “C” races, generally of shorter distances, to coincide with your training progression. These lower-priority races are highly recommended to simulate race day scenarios and gain experience with your race weekend sleep schedule, nutrition, fueling, transitions, clothing, and all the innumerable variables which you don’t want to leave to chance for your “A” race. You will still race hard and try to achieve your best times in these “B” and “C” races; the main logistical difference is that you will not taper as strongly for these lower-priority races because it would disrupt the training program for your main race. This means that your legs will probably not be as fresh for these races, and subsequently you will not perform at your peak capability. This is ok.
For those of us who are used to running road races, be aware that travelling for a triathlon is a much more laborious process than packing a pair of tennis shoes. I would highly recommend choosing a race within driving distance for your first “A” race. You will have much more gear to pack than you ever thought possible; my own triathlon packing checklist pushes 50 items (see Appendix A). Additionally, flying with a bike is, to put it simply, an enormous headache. I travelled cross-country for an Ironman in 2016 and paid Delta $300 each way for the privilege of bringing my bicycle on the plane with me. In addition to that cost – which totaled the price I paid for my bike – I had to dissemble the bike and pack it into a borrowed hard bike case, then reassemble it the day before the race without my trusty neighborhood bike shop to fall back on in the event that I screwed something up. In fact, upon returning from the race, I went for a short recovery ride in my hometown. At the first intersection, my hands and handlebars turned left while my front bike wheel remained pointed forward, and I ignominiously plowed into a curb. I had forgotten to tighten a hard-to-see bolt; had this happened on race day it could’ve spelled disaster.
There are a few services which will handle the bike shipping process for you; two of the most popular are tribiketransport.com and bikeflights.com. While these sites receive praise for the peace of mind they bring to stressed travelling athletes, their prices are commensurately high. For this reason I would recommend the easiest bike transport option, which is making sure your first “A” race is within driving distance. Keep in mind that if you live in a low-altitude area and choose a race in a high-altitude city such as Denver, you will probably want to arrive to the race location several days before the race to give your body the chance to acclimate.
When registering for a triathlon, be advised that the race will require you to be a member of USA Triathlon (USAT), a national organization serving as the governing body for triathlons in the United States. You can either pay $15 for a one-day pass which will be used on your race day, or you can pay an annual fee of $50 which can be used for unlimited races all year. If you initially purchase the one-day license and later want to upgrade to the full annual membership, your $15 will be credited towards the annual membership purchase. A USAT annual membership card will also get you discounts from certain USAT sponsors as well as a subscription to their quarterly publication.
Back on your race registration page, you will enter your name, contact information, and information for your emergency contact. Most races award trophies based on age group categories, and for these purposes they will use the age that you will be on December 31 of the race year. Your age will be written on your right calf in Sharpie at the body marking station on race morning (see Chapter 11), and one nice byproduct of this practice is that you can clearly see your competition for age group awards on the bike and run sections just by looking at the calves around you. (Don’t stare too hard. My 2016 Ironman took place in beautiful Sonoma Valley, California, and I was captivated by the scenery during my bike ride. At one point I was looking to my left at the endless vineyards below and exclaimed loudly to the man riding beside me, “That sure is a nice view!” I then turned my attention back to the road and saw that we had gained very quickly on an extremely fit young lady cycling in white spandex shorts, who shot me a dirty look as we passed by.)
While overall and age group awards are the most common awards given out during the race, some races offer additional competitor designations, most notably the “heavyweight” categories called Clydesdale (for men) and Athena (for women). Each race differs, but the cutoffs for these categories are generally over 200 or 220 lbs for Clydesdales and over 145 or 160 lbs for Athenas. Every triathlete knows that weight is almost directly correlated with race times, especially over long distances, and these categories give the lumpier of us the chance to stand on a podium. (As my training partner used to say: “I’m in shape…round is a shape.”) If you meet the cutoff for one of these categories and self-select that option on the registration page, you will get a “C” or “A” written on your calf during body marking instead of your age. While Ironman-branded races did away with these categories in 2008, it is common for smaller, local races to include them. While it’s technically possible for these races to require an actual weigh-in at check-in to make sure you meet the criteria, I have never been asked to do so and don’t know anyone who ever has.
In addition to age/weight categories, some races will have you enter an estimated swim pace or time. This means the race will have a wave swim start where each athlete will start at a scheduled time or in a pre-selected order instead of everyone just jumping in and swimming together. Faster swimmers will go first so they are not held up by the slower ones. If there will be professionals racing, it’s common for the professional men to start, followed by the professional women, a few minutes ahead of the rest of the athletes. You can enter your swim time estimate based on your times in the pool, but don’t worry too much about the exact number.
Next: Choose a Training Plan