What I Loved about my First Sprint Triathlon

By Nick Hehemann, USA Triathlon | Aug. 26, 2019, 5:01 p.m. (ET)

My job allows me to tell stories of athletes crossing the finish line, and this weekend, I finally got to experience what that's actually like. 

As the Social Media and Video Content Coordinator at USA Triathlon, producing videos and coming up with funny social posts about multisport has been a career that I love, but actually participating in multisport hasn’t been a part of my life until very recently. 

If you’ve met me before or seen me working at one of our National Championship races, you know that I’m awkward and tall — gangly, like one of those wacky inflatable arm flailing tube men you see at car dealerships. I wear basketball shorts whenever I can, and my legs look like string beans held together by tooth picks and dental floss. What I’m trying to say is, you wouldn’t look at me and immediately think “triathlete.”

But that’s the cool thing about triathlon. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your experience is with endurance sports (for me, that’s zero) or how old you are. If you set a goal and take practical steps toward it every day, you can accomplish it.

My story pales in comparison to the thousands of inspiring folks in our community — people with amazing weight loss journeys, or those who have overcome drug addictions, the loss of a loved one, a disability — you name it.  But I think my Tri journey does show how beginner-friendly triathlon truly is.

I played basketball through high school and college but was never a runner. I could not possibly look more uncoordinated riding a bicycle. Aside from going to the beach or lake with my family, I hadn’t really done much swimming since taking lessons as a kid. All in all — the makings of a great triathlete, right?

Still, I felt inspired to give the sport a try after working at USA Triathlon for almost a year.

I started with an indoor USA Tri60 here in Colorado Springs back in March. For those unfamiliar with our Tri60 program, it allows you to earn the title of triathlete in one hour (10-minute pool swim, 30-minute stationary bike ride and a 20-minute treadmill run), all at your own pace. It’s fun, sociable and a great way to check out the sport for the first time.

The second I finished and got my medal, I decided I was ready for a sprint. That’s when my journey to this weekend’s Boulder Sunset Triathlon began.

I started running a few times a week. I bought a bike (with some winnings I made at my bachelor party this Spring...but that’s another story), a helmet and a wetsuit. I finally started training somewhat consistently over the past five to six weeks. 

As a basketball player, I'm used to short sprints with a purpose. The whole long-distance thing was new for me. "Wait, so I just like...run? To where? And for how long?"

Pacing was a challenge, as was getting back in shape. It began with a half mile, then a full mile, then a full 5k run with some walking mixed in, before I finally got to the point where I felt like I could run the entire 5K distance without stopping. 

As for swimming, I needed a lot of help. I started taking private lessons once a week at SafeSplash Swim School. I even did SwimLabs where the instructors could analyze my stroke with some really cool Go Pro pool shots and then display it on a TV for review. 

While it confirmed that my technique was really ugly, seeing it and listening to their tips helped me improve a ton even over the span of just one lesson. 

I also got some helpful triathlon-specific training tips on MyTimeToTri.com — things like run-bike-run brick workouts to get my legs used to running on tired muscles after the bike. 

While I obviously still had a ton to improve in every area, I got to the point where I felt ready for race day.

Of course, like most first-timers, I had some nerves and questions going into the race. What’s the swim going to be like with so many people? How will the open water compare to my training in the pool? What if I make a wrong turn on the bike? Should I use safety pins or a race belt for this bib number?

All those questions and more were answered by friendly folks around me, who recognized the “deer in the headlights” look on my face as I set up my transition area.

Joking around with other athletes at swim start calmed all nerves I had. If I ever got tired on the bike or run, other athletes would yell words of encouragement to help me keep going. It was the most positive competitive environment I’ve ever been a part of.

After a half-mile swim, 17.3-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run on a beautiful course, I crossed the finish line — with a personal cheering section made up of my wife and my parents there to congratulate me.

Hearing my name called and getting the finisher medal was one of the coolest and most rewarding moments of my life — an accomplishment that I won’t ever forget. 

A couple years ago for me, a triathlon would have seemed crazy. But I’ve realized something. There’s nothing crazy about this sport at all. The only thing that IS crazy is to immediately think you can’t do something without giving it a second of thought.

As someone who came into the sport with little knowledge or experience and a whole lot of questions, now I have just one. What’s next?