As it happens, I have a friend who has signed up for her very first triathlon and I enlisted her help (is that cheating?). I asked her to send me whatever questions she might have as she prepares for her first race. I also offer some general advice at the end of this post.
The first thing she mentioned to me was not so much a question, but a concern about the swim. I think the swim is the scariest and most daunting of all the events if you are not already a swimmer. There is no doubt that swimming in open water has it's own particular set of challenges. Her main concern was building the endurance to make it through the swim without drowning. There are plenty of volunteers in the water at most races watching for anyone in distress, so you can set your mind at ease. Certainly you want to spend time in the pool working on your endurance. Even if your technique isn't up to snuff, you want to be able to go the distance. This doesn't mean you have to do crazy intervals or speed drills; just put in the time. You are also NOT required to do only freestyle in a race. Sure, that is the stroke of choice, but I have seen people breast stroke and back stroke it out. Hell, I even saw someone using a noodle to help her finish the swim, but I discourage that! I remember my first Olympic distance race when I swam my first mile in open water. I got in the water, I swam, and almost immediately started panicking. I swear, if there had been a kayak right there I would have quit. It was a point to point swim and seeing how far away that finish point was set me into a panic, "Holy crap! That is really far, I am never going to be able to do that!" (of course I could, I did it in practice many times, but seeing the distance was scary, otherwise it is just a number). What was actually going through my head was, "What am I doing here? How do I get out? I am in the Hudson River, no one swims in the Hudson River! I am insane, why did I think I could do this?" Because I could and I did. So I rolled over on my back, talked myself off the ledge, calmed down and then rolled back over and finished that swim. It was scary as hell, but I did it. You can do it too.
How do the transitions work? Do you put your bike/running stuff there in the beginning, then switch that with the swimming stuff? Do you lock up your stuff or is it just safe sitting there?
How much time before the race should I get there to set up?
Good questions! Most races have one transition area where you rack your bike and set up your stuff and yes, you put everything there before the race begins. The area is closed off and there are people at the entrances checking that only the athletes are going in and out, so your stuff is secure and there is no need to lock anything up (obviously, you don't want to bring the crown jewels with you, but you are all in the same boat, so I wouldn't worry). I would allow plenty of time in the morning to get there and set up. You don't know how crowded the race will be, if you're driving you could be waiting in a long line of cars to park? How far will you have to walk from parking to the site? You don't want to feel rushed. For example, if my wave start is at 7AM, I will leave by 5 AM. I usually like to get there shortly after transition opens and that info will be provided by your race director or race website.
Now, setting up your transition area. Here is a picture of my first ever race transition.
What is good about this transition is my position at the end of the rack = more room for your stuff! Some spots are predesignated, some are first come, first serve. Lay out a towel (I now use a brightly colored one to spot my area, because the bright yellow of my bike just isn't enough, ha!), then put my helmet on my bars (or on my shoes) with sunglasses in the helmet, bike shoes (or sneakers if you are using that for both bike and run) and race number. then behind that I put my running shoes and visor (I keep my sunglasses and race number on when going from bike to run). I leave a bit of towel to stand on to wipe my feet and have a dedicated water bottle handy for rinsing my feet they are very sandy.
Note: MAKE NOTE OF WHERE YOUR BIKE IS SO YOU ARE NOT RUNNING AROUND LOOKING FOR IT!!! OK, I'm done yelling now....moving on. You will take your swim stuff with you when you go to the swim start. You will dump your swim stuff when you get back to transition and pick up your bike stuff (have water and a gel on your bike, depending on bike distance), return from bike, dump bike stuff and pick up run stuff. Be somewhat neat and considerate of the folks around you. Everyone has their own set of minor details when they set up their transition area. Over time, you will discover what works best for you. My coach always encourages me to practice transitions before race day; good advice!!
How many hours per week should I spend on each sport? I’m by far the weakest at swimming so assuming I should spend a lot of time focused on that.
This depends a lot on how long your race is. Is it a Sprint, Olympic, International, Half Iron, Ironman? In this case, I know my friend is doing a sprint distance: Swim 1/3 mile, bike 12 miles, run 4 miles (this can vary from race to race). I would tell her to spend a bit more time working on her swim since that is her weakest event; three times a week, 30-45 minutes a day for that distance and to feel comfortable. I would also recommend at least once, try to get in an open water swim; lake, beach whatever. As for bike and run, without specifics, I would bike twice a week and run twice a week working towards the distance of each event for the race. This all depends on what your goal is: do really well, or just have fun and finish it.
Is a tri-suit necessary? If not, what’s good to put on after the swim? I'm debating getting one.
A tri-suit is NOT necessary, understanding that a tri-suit is a one piece racing item that is well, unforgiving: I give you exhibit 'A'. This was two years ago, I am slimmer now and it has not seen the light of day again, but I digress. So check your comfort level with relationship to Lycra and swimsuits. I have seen people at this distance do the whole race in a one piece speedo type swimsuit, a two piece sports type swimsuit, tri shorts and a sport bra, tri shorts and a tri top or the tri-suit. Any of these will work fine, you just have to decide what is comfortable for you. You might even try what you want to wear at the pool if it is something other than what you normally wear to swim.
The wetsuit; to wear or not to wear, that is the question. And it depends on a lot of things. What part of the country is your race in, what time of year, what is the water temp? sleeves or no sleeves? Do you want to spend the money since they can be pricey? My friend's race is in August and I would tell her not to bother with the wetsuit. The water will be plenty warm enough, but be sure that you use one of the suit choices above, as you don't want to have a loose fitting garment slowing you down.
The Big Picture:
This is your first race. Don't take yourself too seriously. Things may go wrong, if it's out of your control, just roll with it. Make the best of a bad situation. We are not pros at this and we don't get paid to compete. Don't compare yourself with others, just do the best you can do. This is a hobby and we need to keep that in perspective, so have fun! As my coach always tell me, "....and don't forget to smile and thank the volunteers!" This goes a long way towards keeping your mindset positive, this I can tell you through experience. Some of my best memories are of races where the plan didn't come together, but I smiled anyway, made sure I thanked the volunteers for coming out and high fived the kids cheering me on. There is no race without the volunteers and the spectators are more valuable than you think when you feel like you can't go on. And if you can, volunteer yourself at a race; it's a great way to give back to the sport and it is really great fun!