Guest Post: Ben Collin's DIY Triathlon
The idea was presented to me last month while Chris and I were in the first 20 miles of a 72 mile 2-day trail run across the Santa Monica mountains.
Chris said, “I saw this documentary short-film VeloNews did about two of their writers riding a self-supported half-Everest. It was a stupid ride, but the video looked awesome.” I had a pretty good idea where this was going, but since I was out of water and starting to feel a tightness in my hip, I only managed a grunt--enough to let him know I was listening.
“I think we could do something way more awesome," Chris said. "Like, what if we went out to Catalina and did a triathlon with camping gear and then spent the night out at Parson’s Landing?” That basic idea really didn’t change. It took some effort on Chris’ part to get things in order. He managed to secure the pitch with Triathlete Magazine and found us an amazing campsite at Parson’s Landing. He also found a videographer that was able to join us and document the adventure.
Chris rounded up gear support from brands who wanted to be featured - meaning I finally got the Black Diamond Distance Tent I’ve been eyeing, and some sweet Blackburn bike packing bags for my gravel bike. The only part that really changed from the original plan was that we decided not to swim across an active boat harbor in the little town of Twin Harbors. Instead we decided to bikepack all our stuff to Parson’s Landing and start the triathlon there.
The course: From Parson’s Landing, swim 1500-2,000 meters from our campsite to a cool looking rock and back. It looked about half a mile, turns out it was a little bit longer. Then, bike from Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors and back, about 17 miles. Finally, run from Parson’s Landing to West End, and out on the ridge until the sign that says “don’t pass, bald eagle nesting area” (I think that's what it said, when we saw the sign I was so awestruck I didn’t read it).
Logistics: I had to be on a 9am ferry out of San Pedro. I decided to ride from home, which meant leaving at 6am for a casual 26 mile ride. I left around 6:30 for a less casual ride. About a mile away I realized I’d left my face mask, so I rode home and got it. It was now 6:42 as I left my apartment--it was already a race.
The ferry took us out to Twin Harbors, which is a tiny little town with a small grocery store and a restaurant. There are a few other places, but they aren’t open to the public (like a yacht club that is not on the water). The town was buzzing with people. There must have been 200 boats on the mooring buoys. The ferry was packed with people (despite the website saying limited capacity for social distancing). It was amazing we had campsite reservations!
The plan was to get lunch, ride to Parson's, drop off the camping gear, get ready, then do a triathlon. Our spouses and one of Chris’ neighbors and friends were planning to come out on a late ferry to join us, so there would be campfire S’mores and such when we finished. The second day, we planned to ride back to Two Harbors where we would camp for the second night. We wanted to ride around the island and just explore for fun.
Videography takes forever. We had lunch in Two Harbors and then got moving. The photographer was on a borrowed mountain bike and it was slow. We waited; we took time to get a little drone footage; we set up a few shots; we scouted the points around the course that seemed like good places to get shots, etc.
We didn’t get to the campsite until around 1pm. Still, we figured we’d have plenty of time. So we dropped stuff off, chatted logistics with the photographer, then set out for the swim.
The water was awesomely warm. The waves were pretty rough, but the visibility was amazing. I love swimming on Catalina, it’s like a tropical island - you can see forever underwater. And there’s all kinds of kelp trees sticking up. It's like a huge underwater forest with tons of fish swimming around.
We went out to the rock we chose as the turnaround point, and Chris took a GoPro from his wetsuit pocket (these swim/run wetsuits are pretty cool). I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit, which meant I was able to dive down pretty far and we got some great underwater pictures. Chasing fish and swimming through kelp forests was amazing. And only in a DIY triathlon are you going to take time to enjoy the scenery.
I don’t think I fully believed Chris when he said this wasn’t a race until this point--that we were here to prove that a triathlon can just be a fun adventure that you plan yourself and it doesn’t have to be a competition. It’s just a swim/bike/run. And, when it’s a big adventure, you train for it just the same as if you’re training for a race.
We swam back and the photographer said he wanted to get one more drone shot in the water, so we did a little out and back along a nearby cliff. It was getting windier and the water was pretty rough, but the images were probably great.
We took our time in T1, making sure we had water and tools for our bikes and everything we needed, then we took off. Going up the first climb we looked back and decided we should get a shot of us hike-a-biking up the narrow single-track. By the time we finished that I had a flat tire.
I set about fixing it while the photographer headed out to the place we had chosen for drone footage on the bike. It took me a while to fix because the tube I’d brought was not taking air and the tube I’d punctured had multiple holes that needed patching. But, we finally got rolling.
We were chatting and rolling along, then we heard the buzz of the drone and we made sure we were looking cool. We did a couple takes--with the drone, with the camera on ground, telephoto lens, wide angle, from the next ridge over… took about 20 minutes to make sure we had enough footage on the bike in enough different areas. Then, we finished riding out to Two Harbors.
On the way, we saw the girls and realized they’d forgotten some of the food they were supposed to bring for dinner. So, we sent Chris’ neighbor to pick up stuff while we finished up our triathlon. Turning around, we realized it was already 5:45. I have no idea where the time went, but finishing everything before dark was going to be really f***ing tight.
Then it felt more like a race. We booked it back to Parson’s Landing; no more stops; no chatting; just riding. We quickly got ready for the run and got a shot of us running out of the campsite and onto the run. It was 6:30 pm. We feared not finishing before dark, so we grabbed headlights and filmed a finish - just in case.
The photographer followed us out on the run, and took a few shots with his hand camera and some from the drone. Then we continued up the switchbacks. The plan was to send the drone up to get an epic view of us rounding the ridge into the sunset (about 500 feet above the beach).
We got up to the top of a dry waterfall, where we’d planned for him to get us on the drone, but we didn’t see him yet. We paused, then heard the buzz of the drone so we started running. The buzz got louder and louder. I kept thinking “don’t look, don’t look, don’t look” but then it got so close I had to flinch and look. It was RIGHT OVER MY HEAD.
I got a bit of a jolt and ran a little faster. Then I stopped hearing it. We rounded the bend and Chris whipped out the GoPro. We took a few more shots as we ran, going from big hill to single track to big hill. I was stupid and didn’t wear a hat, so I was struggling as we ran into the sun, but managed to stay upright.
We got out to the West End and started running the ridge. The sun was getting low on the horizon and it was absolutely as amazing as Chris said it would be. Massive blue ocean; jagged peaks; grassland and cacti; cliffs and crashing waves. All of that and more!
We ran along a narrow ridge, slowing only to scramble past a few catus patches and rocky ledges. Along the way, we traded off being GoPro handler and eventually made it all the way to the sign.
We only saw one Eagle (not bald), but the scene was incredible. High above the ocean with the sun setting over the infinite horizon, rocks below us, island behind us, a little light house at the end of the ridge (past the do not pass sign). It was truly remarkable. We took a couple of short GoPro clips then turned and hauled ass back to Parson’s to try to beat the sun.
Rounding the final ridge before descending into Parson’s Landing I joked “Hey Chris, remember when a drone almost took our heads off here?” We laughed. “I hope the drone didn’t crash or anything.” “no, these things will return to the base when the batteries get too low, I’m sure it was fine.”
We rounded the next corner and, all of the sudden, there’s the photographer. I’m thinking, “what the hell? Did he want pictures up here? I didn’t think that was the plan! How’s he going to get the finish?”
“The drone did a low-battery emergency landing right after you guys rounded the corner! I had to hike up and look for it, but luckily it was right off the trail and not on a cliff” Unbelievable. I grabbed the drone and Chris grabbed the controller. The photographer grabbed his camera and all three of us jogged down to the beach to film the actual finish.
I have to say, it felt good. It was a hard day and it was a fun day.
I’m glad I’m fit enough to do something like this. Not many people are. I’m also glad that we took our time and enjoyed the experience. The idea of snorkeling in the middle of a triathlon sounded absurd before doing this. Now the idea of going to a race and hammering with my head down for four hours and NOT seeing the fishes - that sounds absurd.
Creating an adventure video and having an adventure are not mutually exclusive, but it takes a lot of time to make an adventure video. This detail must be considered when planning. Finishing at dusk is a great idea either way.
DIY and Self-supported can mean a lot of things. For us it meant bringing camping gear, nutrition, repair tools, and choosing a course that was both challenging and inspiring. The DIY we did also required us to complete the event together. It’s just not safe doing this stuff alone, so we were partners rather than competitors.
The order of events seems arbitrary when you consider the possibilities. Bikepack to a mountain lake, swim across and run up a ridge on the other side? Ride to the pool for a swim, ride home and run to your favorite pizza take-out? Run to see the sunrise then swim around a lake and take a bike-share home? All of those sound like triathlons to me.
For a long time I blamed triathlon for things I couldn’t do. I missed a lot of weddings, a lot of late-night dancing, a lot of weekends with friends. It wasn’t until I retired from pro racing that I realized how much I could do because of triathlon training. I’ve run around Patagonia and across mountain passes in the Cascades, I’ve bike commuted 30 miles each way, I’ve joined friends for 3 mile open water swims, and done 50 mile mountain bike rides--all because it sounded like fun.
Who can run 72 miles across the Santa Monica mountains on a whim? Who can ride to Catalina and then do a self-supported triathlon? I train for triathlons every day - not like I did before - and that training allows me to do all kinds of adventures that most people couldn’t dream of.
The more of these kinds of adventures I do, the more inspired I become. They also make me more grateful for the fitness I’ve earned and for the people in my life who share my passion for adventure. Racing triathlons professionally was an incredible life experience, but that was just the first chapter of my triathlon life.
Ben Collins is coached by Coach Mark Sortino
Mark Sortino is a Boise, ID based Coach wi is a USA Triathlon Level III and Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, FIST Certified Bike Fitter, USAT Certified Race Director and Paralympic Coach for Team USA. From brand new Triathletes and MTB-ers to World Championship qualifiers, Mark enjoys working for and with all types of athletes as they pursue their dreams. Mark is also a US Veteran having served 20 years in the US Navy as a Naval Flight Officer and is a graduate of the US Naval Academy. He can be reached at mark@teamMPI.com.