Plant-based Diet and Training Drive Sprint, Triathlon Athlete

It was January of 2011 and I had just registered for my first triathlon, the Door County Half Iron. Most newbies in the sport start with a sprint distance but I was going all in with a characteristic immoderation I have come to embrace. I grabbed my swimsuit from my lowest dresser drawer and walked to the pool to swim my first lap since freshman gym class.

I figured that if I could finish each leg separately, I would simply put them together and complete the race comfortably. Every time I got in the water I swam a continuous 88 lengths. Every time I got on my bike I didn’t return until my speedometer read 56 miles. Every run was a half marathon. On race day, as I struggled my way through the miles to the finish line, I dwelled on my poor training tactics and wondered if I would ever dare to attempt a triathlon again.

Now, a week out from the 2013 Door County Triathlon, I find myself facing the Sprint and Half Iron distance. I registered for both races on back-to-back days, once again revealing the immoderate approach I take to training and racing. Needless to say, I developed a loving relationship with the sport that punished me on the first time around.

Completing a triathlon for many participants is the pinnacle of their athletic year. To swim, bike and run continuously for any distance is an accomplishment not to be sniffed at. Yet as a member of my collegiate triathlon team at the University of Iowa, I am required to race nearly five times each summer season. Finishing a race no longer stood as the only objective. I became a competitive triathlete, not against others in the race, but against the clock and myself.

I have never won and I will never own a bicycle worth more than my estate, but I do wonder about the physical limitations of the human body and mind that remain undiscovered. Since reading up on events such as the Badwater 135-mile footrace through Death Valley and Epic 5, a five-day event with an Ironman on each day, I realized that to a determined and mindful racer, a double triathlon was a manageable feat. That is not to say it came without intense and meticulous training.

There is a noticeable difference in a sprint and half iron distance triathlon. Simply put, sprints are fast and half irons are long. I needed to train for both. I knew that I could finish. I have come a long way in the two years since my first attempt. But at this point in my triathlon career, I wanted to perform.

Racing the Door County Sprint in 2012, I came in 6th place and my competitive juices want more. The Half Iron will be my first attempt at the distance since my flop on the same course two years prior and I want to prove that I can manage the distance comfortably.

In training, 15-mile runs and 60-mile bike rides were supplemented with sprint workouts on the local track and high intensity sets in the pool. I had to build a long endurance engine while holding onto the pop of short sprint race. The heart rates, distances and times are intricate and precise but the overarching rule was that it took a lot of swimming, biking and running.

Nutritionally, my process probably turns more heads than the double triathlon. I train and race almost entirely on a plant-based diet. This means if you were to search my refrigerator for meat, fish, dairy or eggs, you would come up empty. Vegan is out of the question since I do enjoy honey on my morning toast. I believe that my switch to plant-based nutrition seven months ago has been the single most important factor in my racing success, yet it is a controversial and socially awkward conversation among skeptics. I will be happy to explain how I get my protein for all those who find me at the finish line.

A watchful eye or careful listener might notice my black and yellow Iowa Hawkeye kit entering transition an unusual number of times over the two days of racing. Or hear my spirited self-support during both races. But as triathletes rain down on Door County this weekend, adjusting aerobars and squeezing into wetsuits, I will remain more or less unnoticed in the crowd.

These past few months when I tell people about my upcoming weekend they often ask, “Why would you do that? Why do two in one weekend?” I usually lied and said that it will be good training for future races or that I might as well since I’ll be in town. But truthfully, I don’t know if I can finish it and that is the allure of the whole thing. We will find out on Sunday afternoon.