You’ve done the training. You’re tapered and ready to go. Now what? The alarm goes off and you are up and moving, so let’s keep organized and let it all flow. Let’s break it all down. Note: this guide is NOT for full IRONMAN events, which have a distinctively different transition process.
First, we’ll step back a couple days. Depending on whether the race is your local tri or a race that you have traveled to, let’s assume that you know the course. You have been to the swim start and looked for siting landmarks, noting whether or not you will be swimming into the bright morning sun at any time. You have driven or ridden the bike course and made notes of any key areas and possible challenges. You have studied and maybe run or ridden on the run course. You are prepared for this event and can’t wait to start, even though the butterflies are active in your stomach and you might not have slept well in anticipation. But the day has come and let’s get moving!
Start the day with a light breakfast a couple hours before the start time; coffee, juice, a bagel, maybe some toast and jam. Go with something that you have used before a solid training session so you know how your system will react. I like to avoid cereal or oatmeal because we don’t really want to deal with fiber moving through our system halfway through the bike ride. Speaking of our “system”….allow plenty of time to clear things out as much as possible. You will likely still need to visit the portables at the race site, but do what you can as early as you can. The lines will be long, for sure, at transition.
The car is packed and it’s off to the races. Get parked and join the masses marching silently toward the transition area with bikes and gear bags in tow. I like to pump my bike tires at the car instead of dealing with a pump (or having to borrow one) in the crowded transition area. Once at transition, the first task is usually body marking before entering. This is where volunteers with markers will write your race number and sometimes your age on your arms and legs, while you try to balance your bike and all of your gear as you roll up your sleeves and pant legs in the predawn darkness.
Now that we have been “branded” the next step is to find our spot on the bike racks. Some races have rack spaces assigned by number, others have racks assigned by a range of numbers, and some are “first come, first served”. Whatever the case, get the bike on the rack and get things unpacked. A previous post contained a list of items that should be in your bag. Space is limited, so we need to be efficient in setting things up.
Usually the first people to arrive have set the precedent on whether our transition towel will go on the ground to the right or the left of our bike. I prefer the left, but it is what it is. On the ground we put our towel and then the key is to be as efficient and as minimal as possible. KISS (keep it simple, stupid). Facing the rack, your bike shoes go on the towel closest to you, velcro straps open and ready to pull on. On top of the shoes will be your helmet, upside down and straps out to each side, ready to pick up and pull on your head and buckle the strap. If you are wearing sunglasses to ride, these should be opened up and inside your helmet so you can grab them and put them right on before picking up your helmet. So, the order after the swim is 1)sunglasses 2)helmet 3)shoes 4) grab bike from rack and go. More on this later. Directly behind your bike gear will be your run gear, also set up to flow efficiently after the bike is back on the rack. Shoes with laces open or elastic laces, ready to pull on. On top of the shoes will be your cap or visor and number belt. If you use an aero helmet with a visor instead of sunglasses on the bike, your sunglasses for the run will go on top of your cap/visor.
Once your transition spot is set up, your wetsuit, cap, and goggles can be hung over your bike for a moment while you do your recon. Taking 5 minutes here to take in the big picture is vital to a smooth transition and can save you minutes on your overall race time. Look around for landmarks to spot your transition area…trees, bushes, light poles, etc. Count the aisles and know which one is yours and about how far down your rack is is, as well as where your bike is on the rack. Now find the entrance to transition from the swim. Plan your route to your bike. Walk that route. From your bike, look to where the bike exit is. Plan the most direct route to get there and to the bike mount line which should be somewhere right outside the transition area. Next, find where you will return to transition at the end of the ride. Note where the dismount line is outside of transition and plan the best route back to your transition spot. IMPORTANT! Your helmet MUST be buckled whenever your bike is in your possession and not on the rack, so develop the habit of buckling your helmet BEFORE taking your bike from the rack and not unbuckling it until AFTER your bike is back on the rack. The final part of our transition recon is locating the run start and, again, planning our route from our rack to the run exit. Having this whole traffic pattern planned in advance can avoid wandering aimlessly, looking for our transition spot or trying to find our way out to the race course. Okay, race time is approaching and we’ve got to keep moving.
If you’ve allowed enough time, a short run is a nice shakeout at this time. I like to run an easy half mile or so out and pick it up a bit coming back. Put the shoes back in place, stash your bag out of the way, and grab your swim gear and head to the beach. Body Glide or something similar on the neck, ankles, and wrists can make the wetsuit come off easier later (but try not to get any on your goggles).
Wetsuit on, swim cap on, goggles on, timing chip on (if the race is using them), and get in the water for a brief warmup. This is especially good to do if the water is cold. Get your face in the water and get some water in your suit to avoid shock at the swim start. Swim a little bit and mix it up. Do some long easy strokes and some hard accelerations. It might have been a while since you swam in your wetsuit, so get a feel for things. Once you feel comfortable, get out and find your starting group if they are lining up. Take a last look at the course, the spacing of the buoys, and note if the turn buoys are a different color than the others. Take a last look for siting landmarks and you are ready to go. Noting the size of your starting wave, decide where to seed yourself based on your swim speed and confidence. Don’t put yourself in the front row if you are a slow swimmer and are uncomfortable in a crowd.
As you find yourself approaching the end of the swim, visualize what comes next. Remember just how you will get to your bike and picture yourself going through the motions. When you stand up, unzip your wetsuit and pull it off your arms and down to your waist, keeping moving all the time. Pull off your goggles and cap as you run to transition. When you get there, pull your wetsuit completely off, toss it under the rack just beyond your run gear, and everything is ready for the bike ride. Since you have prepared your area, planned your way in and out, and visualized yourself doing it, there is nothing left but to execute your plan. Just like with the end of the swim, when you are nearing the end of the bike ride you should start to visualize yourself transforming from cyclist to runner. Your gear is ready and the plan has been laid out. Again, just execute. Next stop is the finish line!