Patrick Parish of Circle Pines, Minnesota, broke the hour mark en route to winning the 2010 USA National Sprint Triathlon Championship. He completed the race—a 750m swim, 20k bike ride, and 5k run—in 59:06. I learn this fact halfway through the riding portion of my first-ever triathlon. I wanted to know what a good time was so I googled it on my iPhone. Riding, typing, and reading all at the same time is dangerous, but significantly less so for me than for Parish or the vast majority of other sprint-tri participants.
You see, I was on a stationary bike. I did the entire thing in my apartment building.
New York City residents get exercise in strange ways. Because of the physical limitations of living on a concrete island, traditional outdoor activities get brought inside. New Yorkers race up the Empire State Building. We climb in retrofitted warehouses. And some of us are lucky enough to have lap pools and a gym in our buildings so we can do a full sprint triathlon on a Friday afternoon.
THE POOL PORTION CONSISTED of 46 laps. Flip turns were not going to happen because I tend to inhale water and choke whenever I try one, so the necessity of turning around every 20 seconds negated the speed advantage of pushing off of the wall. (While searching for Parish's time, I discovered that most pool-based sprint tris only require swims of 400 or 500 meters so as to limit the number of laps. This would have been nice to know earlier. I also need a waterproof phone.) Except for the lifeguard, I was alone the entire time. My left calf started to tighten around the 36-lap mark, but I managed to finish fine. The swim took 16 minutes and 30 seconds, hardly a record-breaking pace but not bad for someone whose entire training regimen consisted of completing one set of 30 laps the previous week to prove to himself he could make it through a half-mile. Drowning in a three-and-a-half-foot deep pool would have been so embarrassing.
Also embarrassing: Struggling into skintight Under Armour speedshorts in the locker room. Apartment-building decorum dictated that I couldn't run into the gym located 10 feet from the pool dripping wet, so I changed. Consideration for your fellow city dwellers, however, costs time. Traditional triathletes complete the transition from the swim to the bike in between 60 and 70 seconds. It took me more than three minutes to move from the pool to the locker room to the bike. In my defense, I was carrying a plastic bag of bananas and a sopping towel. The lifeguard, understandably, looked on confused.
"Hill Plus Level Five" seemed like an appropriately difficult and unnecessarily dramatic setting for the first ever Gold Street Apartment Building Triathlon, so I pressed a couple of buttons and started riding. Then, I realized that I needed to adjust the seat higher if I was going to be sitting on the hilariously uncomfortable not-so-soft rubber for the next 40-plus minutes. I figured I could ride at least 15 miles per hour, finishing the 12 miles in roughly three-quarters of an hour.
I went faster. Hill Plus Level Five consisted of one long, not-very-steep incline. The first mile took three minutes. The second 2:55. I was flying; I was hungry. I looked around for the pair of bananas I’d bought earlier in the day, intending to eat one of them during the ride. The well-traveled fruits were in the bag on the floor. I couldn't reach them. They were, however, significantly closer than the water bottle I conscientiously filled before leaving my apartment and then proceeded to leave on the counter. [See picture.] It’s a complete amateur hour at this point.
With RPMs north of 120, a heart rate pushing 160, and no fuel or hydration, I started to get a little weird. I spent miles seven through 10 weighing the pros and cons of expanding the triathlon into a quadathlon featuring the elliptical. I decided against making such a move, then reached the end of 12 miles in 35:40.
I had no idea how my legs would feel after nearly an hour of sustained effort. During the transition between the bike and the treadmill, which—somehow—took 80 seconds, I pecked out the following line on my iPhone notepad: "Legs heavy. Knees weak. Moms spaghetti. (Losing it?) lose yourself." I was starting to fade. Three miles remaining. Seven miles per hour. One percent incline. And go.
My left leg started cramping, but I shuffled along, images of those struggling triathletes at the end of an Ironman filling my brain. I wasn't them, not anywhere close, but this was a battle in a different way. For the biking and running portions of my own personal event, it was me and my reflection in the mirrors. That tableau gets old, quick. Running on a treadmill, a machine that limits speed and cannot be quickly re-calibrated, presents its own challenges. It forces you to set the pace at the lowest common denominator in order to avoid potential disaster. So I continued trotting along at seven-miles-per-hour even after working out the cramps, concerned that a faster pace would send me tumbling off the back of the machine if and when my leg seized up again.
A little more than 25 minutes and 400 calories later, I neared the finish line. Instead of doing the full 5k, I decided to stop after three miles, grab my stuff, run from the gym to the stairwell, then sprint up 15 flights to the roof. At least that was the intention. My right quad gave way on the landing of the ninth floor. (How do the Empire State Building racers do it?) I limped the rest of the way, still carrying the plastic bag that contained my towel, flip flops, wet boxers, goggles, two uneaten bananas, and no water bottle. I burst through the rooftop door in 1:22:55.6 and was greeted by a beautiful early-winter night. Office lights lit up lower Manhattan. Headlights illuminated the traffic-snarled BQE.
I FELT GOOD. PRESUMABLY, I was the record-holder of the Gold Street Apartment Building Triathlon Series, and possibly even the greatest Apartment Triathlete in all of Brooklyn (although not the NYC indoor record holder). I finished well behind Parish's time, but in front of the hypothetical 90-minute goal I set before I started based upon my lack of swimming experience, my lack of distance riding, and the fact that it's difficult to run faster than 7:30 miles on a treadmill. Although, I wish I could have convinced a friend to tag along. It would have been fun to try to chase someone down on a stationary bike.
I started plotting for the next tri. Pat Parish's time didn't seem that far away. A couple minutes here, a few minutes there, an actual training swim or two. I’d even eat a banana and remember to bring some water. Breaking the hour mark might be impossible indoors, but the 70-minute barrier doesn't seem unreasonable. If nothing else, I know I can make up some time in the transitions.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.