07/18/2014 08:21 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2014

7 Lessons I Learned During My First Triathlon

Sarah Klein, The Huffington Post

Nearly two years ago, I put "complete sprint triathlon" at the very top of my fitness bucket list. In December 2012, I told everyone I could that it was my New Year's resolution, thinking the more I talked about it, the more convinced I would become that it was possible. After 2013 came and went, I knew all the talking wasn't going to cut it and enlisted a partner in crime with the same goal to hold me accountable to picking a race and sticking to a training plan. Last weekend, I finally got to cross "complete sprint triathlon" off my to-do list. Here are a few of the lessons I learned in the process.

You can always be a complete beginner at something.
At this point, I've been a runner for about half of my life, and I've participated in road races for nearly a third of it. I've pretty much nailed down my pre-race routine, I can pinpoint roughly how comfortable (or uncomfortable) I'm going to be at different paces and distances, and I know I'm pretty much always going to want chocolate milk afterward. It was humbling to toe the line of a race where I knew next to nothing about what to expect, an experience I think more athletes could benefit from. Rather than stressing about how many seconds it took to tie my shoes and buckle my helmet, my goal was to finish in one piece. Sure, I had a rough idea of how long it would take me to swim, bike and run the allotted distances, but I had nothing precise to compare it to, an entirely unique experience to racing a new distance or a new event.

And the beginners need the pros.
Maybe it was the fact that the hybrid road-mountain bike I was pedaling wasn't exactly built for racing, or that I seemed to be climbing hills at roughly half the speed of some of the other cyclists zooming by me, but a handful of them called out words of encouragement as they passed, telling me I was looking good and to keep it up. The fact that they were willing to expend precious breath and energy to cheer along little ol' me was a little disheartening -- did I look that bad?! -- but mostly encouraging. These triathletes leaving me in their dust knew where I was coming from; they had all had a first race, too. By the time I got to the running portion -- finally, something I'm good at, I thought to myself -- I had to pay that encouragement forward and did my best to cheer along the runners who needed a lift.

You can't prepare for everything.
Despite following every little detail of an eight-week training plan, there were moments during the race that I couldn't have practiced anywhere but during the race. I couldn't have known, for example, that I would knock another bike out of its "parking spot" in the transition area and have to spend a few precious seconds restoring order. I couldn't have known I would spot a crab along the bottom of the lake who would thoroughly skeeve me out. I felt like I was as ready as I was ever going to be, yet simultaneously hopelessly in the dark, the way approaching the unknown always feels. But there isn't any other way I could have learned to do it better next time.

There is a big difference between "have" to work out and "get" to work out.
I never dread exercise I have a say in. When I'm not training for a race, I make the most of my freedom to mix up my workouts on a whim -- or even occasionally decide sleeping a few more minutes is more important than a trip to the gym. When I have control over my fitness plans, I look forward to working out. But around the fifth week of my eight-week triathlon training plan, I started wishing the reins were back in my hands. I appreciate the motivation of working toward an end goal, but I realized exercise for me personally is more sustainable when I can pick and choose what I feel like doing and when, rather than fearing that if I don't stick to the plan, I'll fall behind.

I can wake up earlier than I thought.
I think it's safe to say at one point or another we have all used the "but I don't have time" excuse when it comes to exercise. Although I do appreciate a morning workout a couple of times a week, I typically save my longer workouts for evenings or weekends; I really didn't think I could wake up any earlier and still be productive at the gym, or at work afterward, for that matter. But with increasingly lengthy bike rides followed by short runs on the training plan, I had to do some readjusting to my schedule. I quickly found that as ungodly as the words "6 a.m." sound to me (still), 6 a.m. didn't actually feel all that bad. (Of course, this is highly dependent on your bedtime: Skimping on sleep to exercise won't do anyone any good.) Just because I didn't want to crawl out of bed didn't mean I couldn't.

Good workout buddies are always there, even when they aren't.
I consider myself very lucky to have a handful of supremely motivating workout pals in my life. Whether ahead of, beside or just behind me, they have pushed me to run harder and faster in countless races and workouts. I've chased them around enough tracks and up enough hills to be able to picture them perfectly, so that even when only one of them was actually triathlon-ing with me, I could feel the others pushing me along. The final 15 minutes of the race would have taken a whole lot longer without them, even though they don't know it.

Ice cream has never tasted better.
The post-race spread of fresh fruit, crunchy granola and just-beginning-to-melt ice cream will make my mouth water for weeks to come. Forget chocolate milk -- absolutely nothing other than that cookie dough cone could have satisfied me in that moment.

Thinking about doing your own first triathlon? Don't be intimidated by hardcore triathletes -- anyone can do one. The proof: Within approximately 60 seconds I was passed during the run portion by a 14-year-old boy and a 53-year-old woman (I know because our ages were Sharpie'd onto our calves). Here are a few tips to get involved:

  • Find a training plan. An Internet search will turn up lots of options, so I recommend following something from a website or magazine you trust, not one you've never heard of before. Read through a bunch of them before you make a final decision. Some are even catered to what you're already good at. For example, I followed this plan for runners.
  • Read up on gear. From the outside, triathlons seem to require a lot of gear you might not have lying around. Some you'll definitely want to invest in, like a helmet. Others, like a wetsuit, you'll probably be able to rent or you might not even need.
  • Buy some bike shorts. This is one piece of gear you don't want to skip, promise.
  • Talk to friends. Even if you don't know anyone who has completed a triathlon, you probably know someone who owns a bike or who swam in high school or who just loves to compete. Get their input on your training plan or gear or nerves.
  • Try some other races if you haven't already. It will help give you a sense of starting-line nerves and the all-powerful forces of race-day adrenaline.
  • Remember, training is a commitment -- but it doesn't have to rule your life. Yes, I may have wished for a few more mornings to sleep in, but I also didn't feel like triathlon training took over. The workouts never lasted much more than an hour, and the swim workouts were under 30 minutes.