With all the books, magazines, and websites now focused on the sport of triathlon, it amazes me sometimes how one can appear to be an expert in the field with very little experience. Last weekend, for example, I completed my first race of my third tri season EVER, and found myself at the swim start explaining to a first-timer how kicking during the swim while wearing a wetsuit is unnecessary. I went on to explain that kicking is really only needed to keep the body afloat while rotating the shoulders to breathe, and the wetsuit does that for you. I listened to myself give this dissertation as if having an out-of-body experience. Who was this person who spoke with such authority, who but a mere 7 months ago had managed to complete, for the first time, an open water swim without panicking and "swimming" 700 yards with a combination of doggy paddle and backstroke? With every race and every training workout I learn so much about this sport and how I have failed or have improved. At every race, I keep my eyes and ears open, and inevitably come away with some new idea about how to train harder or race better. I try it out, and if it works for me, it becomes my little nugget. Then, it's my turn to share it with my fellow athletes. This is what we call in surgical training the principal of "see one, do one, teach one."
The similarities between my life as a surgeon and my training as a triathlete are uncanny. Hard to believe? Well, think about it. Do you frequently find yourself thrown into situations that are familiar yet somehow different than anything you've encountered before? And in these situations do you quickly draw on your training or a handful of previous similar experiences to devise a plan to overcome a huge obstacle? Now, am I referring to my last three triathlons or an operative trauma case where I was surprised to find a hole in the diaphragm from a bullet wound to the right buttock? In either arena, calculated "snap" decisions must be made as circumstances (often nature) throw us curveballs. These decisions are frequently made based on very little direct experience.
In my relatively short life as a triathlete, I have "seen" so many things that I have then "done" in my own training. A great example is the use of Tri Slide to ease the wetsuit off in T1. As I was suiting up for an end-of-season sprint tri, I giggled as I watched a man--who clearly had no idea what Tri Slide was for--spray it on the OUTSIDE of his wetsuit from the knees down. I then overheard another athlete (who was clearly more open-minded than I) ask him why he did that. He explained that it helped him easily peel off the legs of the suit in T1 by placing lubricant between the two layers of neoprene. Huh. Sounded pretty damn smart after all. So I tried it. And it worked. Another little nugget for me to "teach" the next anxious newcomer I meet in transition.
As I gear up for my first Ironman triathlon this summer, I pray that the same "see one, do one, teach one" principle applies. I've seen the Lake Placid Ironman twice--once as a spectator and once as a volunteer. Watching the athletes deal with nature's curveballs each year was training in and of itself. In 2013, the day was perfect for friends and family--sunny, warm, and a bit humid. I learned about the wonder of the sponge that day--like a cold, wet oasis to the athletes slogging it in the sweltering sun. The following year, I watched as hundreds of women rushed into the T1 tent where I was volunteering after being whisked from the water during a thunderstorm. They then embarked on a cold, wet 112 mile ride on bikes weighing no more than a pair of shoes, on slippery roads at break-neck speeds. What did I learn from all of this "seeing"? First of all, there is no natural curveball that man/womankind cannot outsmart. But on a practical level: be flexible with your apparel and pack a variety of things so you have options; hydration can make or break you; and your nutrition should be waterproof (though I'm still trying to devise a way to pack my pretzels for the bike). I soak up nuggets like this and many others from my friend-triathletes with the hope that as I add them to my armamentarium, I prepare myself to "do one" with relatively little experience.
As race day approaches, my nerves will unravel a bit, and I'll experience that very familiar flutter of uncertainty in the pit of my stomach. But I know that feeling well, and I'll embrace it. I know from my training--in surgery and in triathlon--that it is times like this that I fall back on what I have seen and done. All else falls away, and my focus is only on the task at hand. And whatever nuggets I have in my easy-access tri suit pockets--singing "One, two, buckle my shoe" during some particularly tedious miles of the run or mentally reciting the mantra "face down, breathe out; face up, breathe in" until I overcome the breathless panic in the first 150 yards of the swim--will arm me with the weapons I need to conquer this next mammoth feat. If all goes as planned, I'll be setting up my transition area next Fall at my end-of-season sprint tri, telling a newbie triathlete my tale of how I struggled to change my tire at mile 102 in Lake Placid, and how I learned to always carry extra CO2 cartridges after misfiring my only cartridge while connecting it to my inflator. And the circle will be complete. Go forth, and "see one, do one, teach one".