Subaru Shawnigan Lake International Triathlon: My First Tri! / by Jonas Caruana

So Shawni Lake Triathlon was – for me – equal parts excitement (my first tri!), performance of a newly acquired skill (swimming), facing fears (that I’d suck at it and / or potentially drown), practicing what I love (racing), and livin’ a dream. 

For the longest time I’ve wanted to do a triathlon and not being a swimmer has been the barrier to entry. For whatever reason: busy at work, busy with other projects, busy with life – I didn’t make learning to swim a priority until this year. Aussies also have a particularly strong background in the sport of triathlon, and I can remember as a kid watching triathletes on TV, in awe at how fast they’d swim, how fast they’d ride (and the rocket ships they’d ride!) and how quick they’d run – and that they did that all in one race. I’ve always admired triathletes.

So this post gives the blow-by-blow of my first triathlon experience. If you’re a first-time triathlete, and in particular, someone who’s struggled with the swim part of the training, I hope that sharing my experience helps you along your path to getting that first triathlon under your belt. And for my friends and family – I finally did it! And here are all the gory details.

The Work: Learning to Swim

Think about the last time you tried to learn a skill for which you had absolutely zero prior knowledge or competency. For example, if you’re not a musical person and you’ve tried your hand at guitar, or not an ‘artsy’ person and tried to paint, or not multi-lingual and tried to pick up a foreign language whose letters or sounds bear no resemblance to your native tongue (say, an English speaker trying to learn Mandarin). It’s a humbling experience, right? Because you really have to start at square one, and it’s a while before you hit an inflection point where things start to get dramatically easier, as your learnings begin to compound.

So it was for me and swimming. It was all the above, with the added fear of being in a completely foreign environment (water) along with maybe drowning each practice. And after 4+ months of being in the pool 3-4 times per week, I’m yet to hit that inflection point. 

Now, I don’t necessarily have a fear of water – I love pools, the beach, diving in and swimming around. But I lack the kind of confidence that comes from knowing I can be self-sufficient  (i.e. stay afloat without any help) in the water for an extended period of time. 

December 2013: At the Vancouver Aquatic Centre with Coach Therèse from the BC Dolphins

And that was the work these last few months. Getting in the pool. Developing a new sense: “you must feel the water!” Coach Therèse would urge me, “Press down on the water; pull the water!” Easier said than done, lady! Hearing those words and translating that to what you actually do in the water felt hard and frustrating. It didn’t come naturally. My first reaction was to work harder: kick harder, pull my arms through the water faster, take bigger breaths. It seemed like the harder I tried, the worse it got. The coaching? “Relaaax in the water!”. Huh? I’m fighting for survival out here!!

So I found swimming really counter-intuitive. As compared to most other athletic pursuits where harder, faster and stronger usually gets better results, swimming – at least when you’re learning – is the exact opposite. Because as soon as you try to strong arm your way to the other end of the pool, everything falls apart with a rapid, domino-like effect: you tense up, which causes your body to sink in the water, which creates more drag, which makes it harder to move forward, which makes you fatigue faster and need more air, which makes you panic a little, and now everything’s gone to hell! 

Listen up, beginners! (Can't believe I'm about to say this.) Truly, the work in learning to swim is really about learning not to fight it, but to feel it: to tune in and work with the water, and really develop a sense for how to move through it. Stick with it, even if it feels like the slowest progress, session after session. Do your drills. I hate some of those damn drills, but they teach you building blocks and they do add up over time. You will get there!

Personally, I have a long way to go. But the good news is I like eating humble pie and every time I jump in the water I get a big ‘ol serve of it! And before I knew it, the weekend of May 25th – Subaru Shawnigan Lake Triathlon – had arrived. Time to jump into the lake and see what happens. Here’s how the day went!

Goals for the Day

Target times for the Olympic distance:

  • Swim: 35mins
  • T1: 3mins
  • Bike: 1h 5mins
  • T2: 2mins
  • Run: 45mins
  • Total: 2h 30mins

Intention: most of all, the day was about getting that first triathlon under my belt. First, I wanted to get it done. I borrowed a friend’s goals here: “Don’t get pulled from the water because you’re drowning, and don’t get pulled from the water because you’re outta time.” Thanks Robert!  Second, I wanted to notice everything I needed to notice so I could learn for next time – there’s a lot going on in a triathlon. And third – perhaps most of all – I wanted to finish the day thinking “That was fun and I want to do it again!”


The day before the race is pre-race briefing and bike check-in. You learn a ton of tricks just by watching and listening. Your bike’s outside overnight. What if it rains? Turns out there are bike-fitting ‘raincoats’. Hot temperatures forecasted? Let some air out of your tyres so they don’t blow out. Gear selection: put it into take-off gear straight up. You won’t be riding it ’til you’re flying out of T1 tomorrow anyway. Where do I stash my gear bag on race day? Along the fence, where everyone else will be stashing theirs. You’ll pick up a ton of helpful tips that first race.

With all the pre-race stuff done, it was time to get an early night, and get ready for…

Race Day

Tip: have a race-morning routine planned. Everything from the breakfast you will eat and the clothes you will wear, to how you’ll get to the race site and how much time you’ll need for body marking, setting up your gear by your bike, getting into your wetsuit (this still takes me the better part of 20mins) and warming up in the water. The more planned this is, the less curve balls you’ll have that will stress you out. 

Because before you know it, you’ll be shuffling down the bank to the water’s edge with everyone else, and it’s game time…

That’s me hanging out at the back of the men’s wave. Red caps = Men. White caps = Women. Bright orange caps = beginners!

The Swim

Here we go! The gun goes off and I let the men’s wave go off in front of me. I wait around a bit because I want some clear water - doing 1,500m is still a challenge for me without the open water wrestling involved! 

See that orange cap looking around? That might be me...

Straight up: the swim was rough. Lots of new sensations: first time in my wetsuit (oh the buoyancy!), first time in open water (zoiks! So murky!), first time swimming with all those people around (the women’s wave caught up to me reeeal quick). Beginners, practice in that wetsuit in open water before game day. I knew this beforehand but didn’t do it for a variety of reasons.... lesson learned.

There are waves in my face, goggles are fogging up (making it hard to see the buoys, and you really want to swim the shortest line possible). Lots of things that could make you tense up and forget everything you’ve learned in the pool. Which is exactly what happens. 

About 150m in, I have a mini-freak out: someone brushes up against me, I turn to breathe and suck in a wave of water. In a split-second of wetsuit-constricted choking and spluttering I’m really panicked. A wave of emergency thoughts flood my head: “Man you are WAY out of your depth! Stick to biking! Today is not your day. Do I go back?!”. At which point, the rational brain kicks in with “Dude, you couldn’t sink in this wetsuit if you tried. Caaalm the heck down. Just keep moving your arms. Keep moving forward. Get to the buoy!”

Happy to feel terra firma under my feet!

So having rounded the first buoy, about 280m from shore, I swim over to the safety paddle boarder and hang on for a break (it’s legal so long as the object you’re clinging to isn’t providing propulsion). It feels like minutes but I need to reset and regroup mentally. By this point, the women’s wave – which had started three minutes after the men’s – has passed me for the most part and there is less traffic in the water. Time to go again.

I swim to the next buoy; hang on to another boarder for a break. Regroup, reset. I’m really working hard; at the same time, trying to relax, knowing that will help me go faster. I also start to realize that this is the ‘worst’ part of the day, and that I don’t get to bike if I wuss out, and I really want to ride. So it’s non-stop from that point on. 

I probably swam breast stroke for 95% of the swim, and finish it in 34:43. No shame in that though: I’m stoked simply to have covered the distance, in that water, in race conditions. Mission accomplished!

T1 (transition from swim to bike)

Getting out of the water, I’m a bit disoriented and wobbly (experienced triathletes say this is due to the blood being in your upper body, not your legs), and my body feels kinda shocked.

Struggling to get the wetsuit off before I reach the bike!

That said, I’ve effin’ made it and stoked about it! I walk from the beach to the bike – need a minute to reset and make sure I set up properly for the ride, and that I don’t do anything dumb like break a rule (clip the helmet, then unrack the bike) or forget my timing chip. So I take my time and get everything right, but it eats the clock: T1 time = 5:03. 

Mentally, things were turning around fast: “Ok race: you owned me out in the water. I’m gonna own you out on the road.” #letsdothis

The Bike

The course was a hilly, two-lap ride around Shawnigan Lake, which actually totalled about 44km (standard Olympic distance is 40km). It was raining, the roads were bumpy and patchy in places, and the course wasn’t closed to the public, so there was occasional traffic and I got stuck behind a car for the longest descent of Lap 1 which sucked. 

But dammit I enjoyed that ride! My legs felt strong, I was moving fast and just chewing up people on the course. My ride position felt awesome, thanks to working with the fit master Ed at Mighty Riders in Vancouver. Beginner tip: get your bike fit by someone that knows what they’re doing! I have a Specialized Venge and at first, got the official Specialized BG Bike Fit done… which was fine, but that set me up as if I were an inflexible 50-year old. Ed got me set up like a racer: lengthening me out on the bike, getting me low and out of the way of the wind.

Now, the bike’s my favourite leg and when I’m on those two wheels I don’t think too much because I’m having such a blast. What I tried to keep in mind was fuelling (I had a couple gels to get down before the run), and some advice another racing friend – Erin Llewyk – gave me “Remember this ain’t a bike race – ride it strong, but leave plenty for the run. Because it’s even more fun smokin’ people on the run!”. It’s good advice.

It was a great ride with beautiful scenery and locals out cheering which I’m always grateful for. And after 1:15:23, the bike was done and it was time to run.

T2 (transition from bike to run)

Coming off the bike, I noticed my feet were really cold – I didn’t wear shoe covers or toe-thingys on the bike (though I did wear socks) and with the wet conditions and wind chill (temp was about 10ºC), the front half of my feet were numb. “Ok take it easy first part of the run – find your running legs and go from there”. I was checked-in and ready to rumble. This transition was a lot quicker at 2:20 and I felt good going into the run.

The Run

The first kilometre was slow: a stiff uphill climb out of transition to the Trans Canada Trail trailhead, whilst getting my running legs under me. At this point in the race, I’d learned a ton and more than anything, wanted to finish the race feeling awesome – so rather than pushing the pace to 4:00/km and saving 5 mins on the race clock, I settled into a nice 4:25-4:30 pace, started smiling and enjoyed the race to the end.


The bike ended up being a little over 4kms longer than expected, which at my average speed (~35km/h) added about 7mins, meaning I wasn’t far off my total goal time. Transition times need to come down as I could save whole minutes there without much work. 

Overall? I felt awesome coming across that line: a big personal goal achieved and one that did not come easy. I felt great (plenty of room for improvement next time!), learned a ton and most importantly, didn’t realize exactly how much I’d enjoy piecing together those five different bits together (Swim, T1, Bike, T2, Run) into one race. It really is a challenge and involves more than just a little bit of strategy!

With racing buddy Juliet Korver. This lady is fast!

The best thing? I discovered that the triathlon community is overwhelmingly inclusive, helpful and just plain nice! I asked a million questions and got a million helpful answers. And the Shawnigan Lake folks were awesome: just so kind and friendly; they put on a great race. I’d definitely do it again.

Shout-outs to racing friends Juliet Korver and Colin Knudy, who also crushed it out there at Shawnigan. It was wicked seeing you out on the course and trading stories on the ferry home.

Last but not least: huuuge thanks to my #1 fan Syd, who braved the cold and rain for 4+ hours to cheer me on and snap a ton of photos. You da bomb!

The next race? Four weeks today: Subaru Vancouver Half-Ironman.