How I got Into Triathlon

I started running in the winter 1991-1992. I had worked for two years as a forest worker but got laid off, and being 20 years old and having to move back home with my mother, waiting for my 6 months of civil service, I gained a lot of weight. I had been used to eat a lot with my previous years of hard physical labour, and all of a sudden I sat around reading or watching TV, with an undimished appetite. I got fat quickly.

Something had to be done. The completely natural choice was of course to become a triatlete. I’ve always loved riding my bike, and I’ve always loved bikes as technology, and to me triathlon bikes are the ultimate in aerodynamics and comfort, all at once. So I wanted one of those bikes, and it would look silly without also doing some swimming and running. And really; how hard could it be?

I already knew very well that running would be my weak link, and to this day it still is. I knew how to swim breaststroke, and I was confident I could do the distance that way, and cycling was no problem whatsoever, I only had to get that cool bike. I only had a very worn down yellow 1989 Nishiki Ariel mountain bike.

So in the autumn of 1991 I started running. I looked at a map and carefully measured the distance with a piece of string to a good point that would be approximately 2 km from home. Then I ran out there, turned around and ran home. Lather, rinse, repeat. I tried to run 6 days per week, but most weeks I’d have one or two days where I was too tired. I didn’t just run easy of course, I tried to set a new personal best almost every time, timing my runs by taking note of the exact time on my watch when I started and stopped. I was the quintessential boneheaded beginner.

I think I made it down to about 22-23 minutes on that approximately 4 km course, going as fast as I could.

Over that winter I trained reasonably well, although I was frequently plagued by shin splints. I came into contact with a local bike shop (HeMeBa in Thisted, I later worked there a little) where I gradually bought the parts for my bike. The wheels, gears, brakes and crankset I got from a Specialized Transition, the severely pink model they made that year. It was Shimano 105 with Wolber Aero something-22 rims (remember Wolber?). Late in the winter I got a 54 cm Principia 700 frame, a red aluminium frame with standard road geometry. I think they also made a model named 650 after the wheel size, 650C, with a more appropriate geometry for triathlon, but I guess I thought that since I had a perfectly fine 700C set of wheels I’d just buy a standard road frame and set it up with a forward pointing seatpost, that’d be the same, right? (Wrong, of course, but I didn’t know better back then).

I don’t think I had rounded 100 km on my awesome neon yellow Avocet 40 computer, with cadence, before I did my first multisport event. It was the national championship in duathlon 1992 in Silkeborg on the old 5-30-5 distance.

That is still the most windy race I’ve ever done, noone were on race wheels, rims deeper than 30-40 mm were dangerously hard to control on that day. When you rode along and looked to the horizon it was just a brown haze from all the soil being blown up from the still bare fields, and it got in everywhere, you could see and taste it in the cups in the water handed out. The runs were evil too, about 2 km slightly downhill, 1 km flat, then 2 km slightly uphill. A nasty one the second time around. But I made it through, and I was very proud of that. Can’t remember the time anymore, but think I still have the diploma somewhere.

I think I have only once since tried riding my bike in stronger wind, years later, on a day where I had a 45 minute time trial scheduled, so I did that going flat out against the wind — struggling to do 20 km/h. Then I turned around and was home in 20 minutes doing 50 km/h with absolutely no effort…

I did 3 other races that year, all of them the then popular ⅙ ironman distance, 650 m swim, 30 km bike and 7 km run. I still think that’s a perfect distance, although the swim could be longer. The second of those races were in Aalborg with a open fresh-water swim, and I was a very weak breaststroker at about 17 minutes for 650 m, and suddenly in deep water with less bouyancy than I was used to I almost paniced and swam to a boat and quit the race. I claimed I’d been accidentally kicked in the stomach by another swimmer, just to save face. There was another swimmer with a similar story in that boat, although he was probably not lying. It turned out to be Bent Nielsen, the race organizer of the ironman distance race in Rødekro that I would end up doing 2 years later.

I was nonetheless completely hooked on triathlon by then, I really liked it, except for the humiliation of spending the last third of the swim alone in the pool; something had to be done.

I lived and studied in Thisted by then, and they had a really good swim team with some world cup swimmers among them, so I went and looked at their practice and after having done that a few times I pulled myself together and went and talked to the coach, Bjarne Kragh. I told him I was a triathlete swimming breaststroke, and wanted to learn freestyle. What I didn’t know was that Bjarne was himself interested in triathlon and wanted to try it, and that was probably a huge reason he agreed to take me on and teach me.

So that autumn I started swimming 4 times per week, sometimes even 5, with all the 11-14 year old kids. All of them of course real swimmers doing freestyle like they’d been swimming for many years. And they probably had.

Swimming became my focus, almost never missing practice. I didn’t really do much other training that winter except for the occasional run and even more occasional ride on the rare days with exceptional weather.

Bjarne had me swimming alone in a lane while I learned freestyle; he’d give me something to work on and then occasionally check up on me and help me when he could while doing his real job with the rest of the squad. In that environment I learned quickly, and I loved it. The kids would always be faster than me in the just over two years I trained with their squad, but especially in the beginning I closed the gap quickly, and that was tremendously satisfying. Especially when I started to do the same sets they did.

I am still incredibly thankful for the help Bjarne gave me, I’d never become a reasonable freestyler without him. I later trained with Bjarne, and one time when the pool was closed for a few days for a holiday Bjarne, Thomas (another local triathlete who also helped me with training programs) and I exploited the fact that Bjarne had the keys and went swimming. I jumped in first in a completely quiet pool without lane ropes or anything. As I streamlined off the wall, just ahead of the waves I’d made, I looked forward seeing a perfectly symmetric underwater world, the bottom of the pool perfectly mirrored in the still surface of the water. A completely unexpected beautiful sight. That memory is still vivid in my mind. It only lasted for a few seconds until Bjarne and Thomas jumped in.

I started the 1993 season with the ⅙ ironman distance race in Billund that I’d done the year before as my first triathlon, and I almost halved my swim time from around 17 minutes the year before, to something like 9’35" or so, I also went way too hard, but I was learning. I was so happy, from one of the slowest to one of the faster swimmers in a year. My bike form was about the same as the year before, but my run was improving too.

That race set the tone for the rest of my triathlon “career”, I swam well, biked very well without having to train much for it, and then everybody would run past me on the run no matter what I did.

I still haven’t really figured out how to run as relatively fast as my swim & bike used to be, but I have figured out how to run almost daily now, without injuries, and that will no doubt prove extremely valuable as I get back into it.