Spudman Triathlon: A First-Time Triathlete’s Perspective

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In July I completed my first triathlon, The Spudman, in Burley, Idaho. My goal here is to not only share with you some tips I learned during six months of fair-weather triathlon training, but also to give rookie race-day tips and Spudman insights alike.

Training for Your First Triathlon

I’m convinced that the best way to get yourself to start training for a triathlon is to just go ahead and register for one and then start telling everyone that you did. In fact, here’s what I want you to do right now:

  1. Stop reading, and go to the registration site of that triathlon you’ve been thinking about.
  2. Register now. Just do it. Don’t go registering for some Ironman that’s in 6 weeks. Be realistic.
  3. Tell everyone that you registered. Put it on Facebook, Twitter, etc… You need to tell people.
  4. Train. You’ll figure it out. There are plenty of free resources online to help you out.

The net effect is you’ve spent the money, and now everyone is going to ask you how the training is going. You’ve made a commitment to yourself and invited a slew of people to hold you accountable. This is exactly what I did, and hardly two days went by that I didn’t get asked “How’s your training going?” Do you really want to let these people down, let alone yourself? Go. Register. Now!

I registered for Spudman seven months before the race.

What On Earth is Spudman?

Spudman is an Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run) that takes place in the small farming town of Burley in Southern Idaho and is organized by the Burley Lion’s Club.

One of the race officials mentioned there were more than 2200 participants in this year’s race, so to put it lightly, Spudman is a big deal for this little potato town. Between racers and their families, as well as other spectators and area volunteers, the city population probably increases 30 percent on race weekend. That’s a big race in terms of participants.

Pre-Race Setup/Race Prep

A list of things to know.

1) We setup our bikes around 6 p.m. the night before. Approximately 20 percent of the racers had done so before us, and by 8:30 p.m. there was little left in terms of picking your spot, but there was still room for everyone. I was there to finish, not win. Race spots really don’t matter for beginners as much as it does to the Elites (pros) in these races because they can win or lose by seconds. Enjoy yourself.

2) You aren’t allowed in T1 without your race number or timing chip, so you need to pick up your race packet first because it has your race number and timing chip. They had plenty of people at packet pickup, so it went quick. T2 was not as strict about who went in and out, and there was plenty of room there because it’s only stacked with running shoes and not full bike setups.

3) They feed you a spaghetti dinner the night before. It was extremely delicious, and included green beans, a roll and of course an Idaho Russet, but the tomatoes actually gave me acid reflux and made my run leg extremely difficult. If you haven’t learned this already, don’t eat things you aren’t used to eating the day before a race, and especially not on race day.

4) If you forget something small (hat, number holder, etc…) there were a few booths where you can purchase these items.

5) Something will go wrong. It may be small, big, or just a side note, but I’ll give a few examples below.

Vendor Booths.

Vendor Booths Swim Start is Off to the Right.

Spudman Lodging?

I remembered I needed to get a hotel room at least 3-4 months before the July 30 race, and when I tried booking a place everything in Burley was already sold out, so book early. We ended up renting a room in Twin Falls, Idaho, which was a 40-minute drive. Personally, I’m glad I did this because I was able to get a couple hours of really solid sleep as well as enjoy a gorgeous early morning drive through farm fields and over the Twin Falls Gorge on our way to the race. A lot of people just camped right near the course starting line and on the local golf course, which was turned into a small city of cars, motorhomes and tents. It was like it’s own little Spudville.

Spudman Swim Course

I’d mentioned to a few people that the swim course took place in the Snake River, and they appear to imagine something like the photo on the left:

Not the Spudman Swim.

More Like the Spudman Swim.

The truth is, you get a nice current to swim in, but it’s a lot like a miniature Mississippi. The Snake River is extremely gentle with smooth water pretty much like a calm pool with a nice current and no chlorine. The water temperature on race day was mild enough that a number of racers used no wetsuit, but they do provide buoyancy. If you don’t have a wetsuit, you can rent them at most local running or cycling stores. You can also buy them from Fezzari Bicycles.

The swim is extremely gorgeous, and although .93 miles long, it isn’t terribly difficult for those like me who can swim, but not “swim” with excellent technique per se’. Some of the top swim times this year were within 12 minutes, which is two minutes faster than the 1500 meter world record.

Does the Triathlon Swim Frighten You?

At one point the night before I noticed a man consoling his presumable girlfriend/spouse/sister as she looked in horror at the swim distance and began to cry. I understood her concern. Swimming was my weakness here, and I didn’t know what to expect, but I learned a few things that calmed my nerves quickly.

1) Wetsuits are slightly buoyant. As soon as you hop in the water you’ll notice it. It’s not a life preserver, but it does help you “float.”

2) If you were to get in trouble, there’s hundreds of other people around to help.

3) All swimmers had to wear hunter orange swim caps, so they’re easy to spot in the water.

4) You can literally lay on your back and float the entire Spudman swim in under 30 minutes.

The swim was honestly much easier than I thought it would be, and this was also my first time in a wetsuit. When I got tired, I turned on my back and just pushed myself down river. When I got my breath back, I’d swim for 100-200 yards and then go to my back again.

Spudman T1: Swim to Bike Transition

There were easily a few million dollars worth of road bikes sitting in T1. (See video below). The transition area was well organized with each bike rack listed by letter, so you could easily spot your bike when coming out of the water. Since T2 and the finish line were about one mile from T1, the race crew provided a plastic garbage bag with your number on it so you could drop your wetsuit, goggles and cap in the bag, which you then dropped on the ground as you left T1. Race officials then hauled your wet gear to the finish area, so it was waiting for you at the finish under protection of race volunteers.

Video Of Spudman Bike Transition


Vendor Booths. Swim Start is Off to the Right.

Spudman Bike Course

The Spudman bike course has a few rolling spots during the first 3-4 miles, but it’s basically flat the rest of the ride. I actually felt there was a slight incline during the first long section away from T1 and the starting line because I could only keep about a 19-22 mph pace during that leg, but I could keep a 22-25 mph pace coming back. Maybe I had a new burst of energy, but I don’t think I would have been able to tell a real difference unless I had a bike computer I was watching.

A Warning to First-Time Spudman Bikers!

I’m not a professional, but I’ve ridden in groups quite a bit, and it was clear on this bike course that there were many people who hadn’t ridden in groups much. There’s a tendency to want to ride close behind other riders, which is a common thing to do in road biking because it allows you to rest behind another rider’s slip stream, but it’s almost always against the rules in triathlon. Spudman officials didn’t seem to have anyone enforcing the rule, and there were plenty of riders taking advantage of it.

The problem is, there’s almost always a crash with riders who are new to drafting, and I watched numerous times as the competitive spirit took over and someone would cut another rider off just to get ahead a few meters. It was complete stupidity. I was personally involved in one very ugly wreck caused by the rider next to me drafting another rider. He wasn’t paying attention, rammed into the back of the girl in front of him, and they both went down on pavement at about 20 mph. They then took out additional riders while I luckily swerved and missed it, but ended up in the farm field at a dead stop. I saw one of the participants during the run, and the entire tip of his finger looked like hamburger from the crash. Just be aware that competition mixed with fatigue can bring out some poor decision making. There were two other wrecks on that same stretch of road involving more than one biker.

Spudman Run Course and T2

T2 is quick. You hang up your bike helmet and cycling shoes and pull on the running shoes and number belt then head off on the grass. There was a hydration station at this point.

A Few Spudman Run Course Suggestions

I brought the following items for my run, and I’m glad I did.

  • A thin running hat. I was able to soak it wet, and it kept me cool.
  • Chewing gum. It keeps your mouth and throat moist between hydration stops.
  • A number belt. They cost $8-$12, and then you don’t have to put holes in your running clothes.
  • Sunglasses. Enough said.
  • One energy gel. Your body needs fuel.

The more you can focus on running the better. Do what you can to make yourself comfortable.
The Spudman run course heads up a steep hill for about 500 yards before heading off into farm fields. The cool thing about this is the step hill is goes through an old cowboys back yard.  He was sitting on his back porch waving at all the racers and they ran through his yard.  I thought this initial hill was the toughest part of the entire race because your legs are still in bike mode, you’re getting tired because you’re on the last leg of the race, and hills are just tough to run. I don’t have many photos of the run course, but there was about a 1.5-mile stretch down a dirt road that followed an irrigation canal. Surprisingly, there was little dust, and I suspect race organizers drove a water truck down it before the run started because there was one sitting on a stretch of the road spraying water you could run through to cool off.

One of my favorite things about the run course is the many locals who drag their hose to the street and turn on a sprinkler, so you can run through it to cool down. The hospitality of the Burley people during Spudman was incredible.

Spudman in Summary

Spudman is well organized, and the entire community seems to volunteer with smiles on their faces. One of first things I noticed was how kind and welcoming the people were to all of the racers, and the volunteer staff included young and old as well as community sports teams and local law enforcement. The officer directing traffic near the bike drop off was the first I’d ever seen wearing a uniform and Wrangler jeans, but it was all part of the small-town atmosphere.

My goal was to finish, and that’s what I did. By the time I had completed the race I felt like I never wanted to do it again, but I couldn’t quit thinking about it the next day, but this first-time triathlete can’t wait for Spudman 2012.

My Spudman Finish Time:

Swim Bike Run Total
00:22:07.966 01:11:39.751 00:59:57.992 02:35:52.4

Spudman 2012 Goals

Swim Bike Run Total
00:20:00.000 01:07:00.00 00:53:00.000 02:20:00.0

What are Your Triathlon Goals? What about cycling goals or running goals?

  1. Preparing for my first tri in two weeks at the Standsbury. Excited but a little nervous about the open water swim. Thanks for you post.

  2. Thanks for this full write-up! Headed to the Spudman for my first Olympic-distance tri in 2 months, and this article is going to be very beneficial in knowing how to train and prepare. Thanks again!

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