I’m not a fitness fanatic. I do not own one piece of Under Armour clothing. I do not eat egg whites and I do not drink whey protein shakes. True, the bathroom cupboards in my house contain at least three different types of vitamins. However, they belong to Joe.
I mention this only to reiterate that I’m not a fitness fanatic.
Except that, I am. Kind of.
I signed up for a triathlon for many, many reasons. I signed up because I love the idea of pushing my body, conditioning it to do things it is perfectly capable of doing. There’s no reason why I can’t run a triathlon. I’m a healthy 28-year-old with legs that move fairly swift in an organized one-foot-in-front-of-the-other fashion that is conducive to both running and biking. Secondly, my father taught me how to swim when I was five years old, so I don’t see why I should waste those skills now that I’m an adult.
It’s like being handed all the tools to build a house. Of course you have to want to be a carpenter first and therein lies the truth: I want to be an athlete.
That’s the practical explanation for why I signed up for a triathlon; why I embarked on a three-mile-a-day running regimen for a month, even though I was certain I would hate it, even though I had failed at previous attempts at running throughout various points of my life.
I started running because I needed to be able to run four miles after swimming a 1/2 mile and biking 10. I started swimming 40 laps in a 50-meter pool because without preparing for the first leg of the race, I’d have suffered in the second and third legs.
Those are the facts. The philosophical reasons, while heavier, are what keep me moving every day.
I signed up for a triathlon because I wanted to suck up every ounce of my health, because one day, despite my spirit, it might not be there. Because there are people in my life who I love more than anything in the world whose bodies aren’t so able. Because I’ve got youth and health on my side and I should be celebrating this good fortune every day.
But what about the tri, you ask?
Well, let’s see …
Joe and I arrived on Fort Desoto Beach at 6:15 a.m. I was operating on little sleep, which typically bodes well for my adrenaline levels and Saturday was no exception. Bianchi was curled up in the backseat of Joe’s car, my bag was packed with Clif Bars, Luna Bars, bottled water, two pairs of socks and my running boats. Joe was surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sharing in my excitement like a parent on Christmas morning, which I found not only endearing but motivating.
If you’ve ever participated in a triathlon before, you’re obviously familiar with the transition area.
I (being a newbie) was not.
Navigating the transition area before the start of the race was without a doubt the most stressful part of my morning. I was overwhelmed and trembling from the cold. Remember, it’s 6:15 a.m. and still dark outside. The only thing familiar to me in a sea of muscled triathletes in black wet suits was my darling husband and one nearly invisible crescent moon. My friend, whom some of you know as Zipper Boy, had also registered for this event. But at 6:15, he was nowhere to be found.
I was a nervous wreck.
I walked into the transition area without getting marked, without wearing my wrist band and without strapping on my ankle timing chip. Three big no-no’s.
After sliding past six USA Triathlon staffers barking at people who weren’t moving through transition quick enough, I hung Bianchi on the wrong rack and immediately scrambled for help. Joe wasn’t allowed in transition, but that didn’t stop him from hanging out behind the fence, where he snapped pictures of me looking like a bewildered kindergartner on the first day of school.
I felt like a total amateur. The sun wasn’t even close to up and I was already lost in a sea of athletes.
When I found a guy in a USAT shirt, I immediately fired off a million questions.
“I’m not marked yet. Should I be marked?”
“You’re not even supposed to be in here if you’re not marked.”
“Shit. Um. Where do I go for that?”
“Walk out of transition. There’s a dozen people out there with markers.”
“What about my bike? Can I hang it anywhere?”
“No. Look for your number on the rack. Where’s your wrist band?”
“It’s in my bag.”
“You better put that on. They’re not gonna like that.”
After getting marked, (212 on my arm and my age, 28, on my calf) I ran back into transition and grabbed Bianchi.
“You 212?” Some athlete asked as I approached the rack.
“Your bike is in the wrong place.”
“I know,” I squeaked as a dude on a loud-speaker bellowed that transition would be closing in 20 minutes.
I found the proper rack, hung Bianchi by her saddle, asked the girl next to me to help fasten my ankle chip and then watched in horror as she did it in three seconds, smiled kindly, wished me good luck and disappeared. We’d only known each other for less than 30 seconds, yet I wanted to yell at her to come back. I felt so lost … until a Hungarian water polo player wheeled into my space.
“Hey there,” I stammered.
“I’m new at this. Can I follow you?”
“Of course,” she replied in an accent not unlike my German grandmothers. “I vill adopt you.”
So I latched onto the Hungarian water polo player and together we proceeded to the beach, where I reunited with Joe and waited in my pink swim cap with butterflies in my stomach for my age group (“wave”) to be called.
During this time, I learned that the Hungarian water polo player is a member of a triathlon club and like many die-hard triathletes, has a coach. Unlike my goal, which was simply to complete the race, the water polo player planned to finish in the top 5 in swimming and the top 10 in cycling and running. As she zipped up a wet suit over her bikini, I thought, I could scrub a load of laundry over those abs.
Did I mention I was freezing? Everyone around me looked like seals in their wet suits. Other than a few fat guys in swim trunks, I felt like I was the only clown braving 67-degree water temps in a bathing suit.
Did I mention I was nervous? Incredibly, incredibly nervous. So nervous I could barely tell I was freezing.
And then the sun began to rise and a voice boomed over the loud speaker, drowning out the sound of jock jams at 7 in the morning and I stopped being anything altogether.
My wave had been called and like a cow to a feeding trough, I joined the mass of pink caps preparing to stampede the Gulf of Mexico.
I don’t know if the race began with a whistle blow, air horn or both, but as soon as my chest plunged under water I was nothing but game face. I didn’t have time to consider the cold because by the time my lower extremities communicated with my upper extremities I was 200 meters into my swim, swallowing salt water and trying not to kick the face of the girl behind me or get kicked in the face by the girl in front of me.
I’m not going to lie, the swimming was a bitch. I was grateful I had knocked out two days in a row of 40 solid laps in the public pool. It was my endurance that carried me, not my technique. I had fully intended to swim a clean stroke and had even practiced breathing exercises with a hardcore swimmer, but once I splashed into the gulf, my form went to shit and my finely tuned breathing diminished into loud, long gasps mixed with the occasional and sickening salt water gulp.
There’s nothing tidy about swimming on top of 75 women. Ever bobbed for apples? Try being an apple.
The swim seemed never-ending at first. I experienced at least five moments of sheer terror, during which I was convinced I’d sink like a stone. However, these moments of weakness were fleeting. At some point in the swim, my fear subsided and the realization that I had committed myself to the race took over.
That’s what I repeated to myself during the last 400 meters.
Lift your arm. Breathe. Lift your other arm. Don’t swallow salt water. Breathe. Lift your arm. Lift your other arm. Don’t swallow salt water. Breathe.
Before I knew it, I was passing men from the previous wave, including Zipper Boy, who had trained poorly for the swim and later suffered a cramped diaphragm.
From that moment on, the rest of the race was cake. As soon as I recognized how powerful my mind was, I was able to let my body do the things I had conditioned it to do. As soon as I stopped looking at the bigger picture and invested in every step, the distance became easier to digest; less insurmountable.
This moment was huge.
And let’s not forget my husband was at the water’s edge, cheering, camera in hand, recording me as I trudged out of the gulf, my limbs languid until I reached transition, where I slipped on a pair of socks, my old Pumas, mounted Bianchi and embarked on a 10-mile bike ride into the wind.
Bianchi wasn’t amused by the headwind and neither was I. But as any pilot will tell you, a headwind there means a tailwind back, unless of course the wind changes directions. On this particular morning I’m pleased to report it did not.
I felt at home in the saddle of my Bianchi. If the ride had been five miles longer, I wouldn’t have complained. The terrain was flat and the trail was paved. The route ran us up and down the length of the beach, which offered a breathtaking view of the Sunshine Skyway. By the time I was through biking, I was high on endorphins, machine-like in my movements. And once again there was Joe, standing at transition, cheering and recording me like a proud papa at a high school graduation.
Pure and ardent support. So encouraging.
I took two bites of a power bar, changed into my running boats, made a pee pit stop at a port-a-potty and set off on a four-mile run – the last leg of the tri.
It was during the run that I noticed the ages, written in black marker on the calf muscle of every triathlete: 45. 32. 53. 60. 77. I couldn’t stop staring at the numbers. We were cattle, branded by our ages. I know labels are considered offensive, but under these circumstances they were irrefutable, celebratory and understated.
Try running a triathlon on your 28th birthday with people almost three times your age. It’s humbling to say the least.
By mile three, I felt light and strong. I took advantage of every water cup I was offered, passing on the Gatorade, which does nothing for me. I tried to guess people’s ages as they galloped past and each time I guessed wrong. I wasn’t the only doing it either. One woman who trotted past at an impressive speed glanced down at my calf and remarked that she wished she could be 28 again.
I looked at her calf. She was 63 years old and I repeat: passing me.
I passed a mother in a parking lot pushing a stroller with two kids at her waist. She wasn’t a part of the race, but instead a park visitor taking her brood to the beach.
“I wish I had a nice body,” she mumbled as I passed.
I was embarrassed by the comment. What was I supposed to say back? So instead I waved to her kids and thought about the one-armed fisherman.
I never expected the run to be easy. Although I trained diligently for it, I anticipated fatigue and debilitating knee pain. I figured I’d need to invent mind games to carry myself through.
Run as far as the third palm tree past the first stop sign. That kind of thing.
Halfway in, I was neither exhausted nor in pain. I was on auto pilot.
I had heard about this stage – the part where we become vehicles powered by muscle memory and repetition – but I had never experienced it so intensely.
With my arms loose and my breath Lamaze-like, I ran steady and easy over pavement and packed sand. I caught up to a couple running neck-and-neck about 1/4 mile from the finish line. They were talking about their morning as if they were seated at the kitchen table, sharing stories over pancakes and a pot of coffee.
Running beside them, privy to their breakfast gossip, I felt like an old friend, a companion on the go. The moment however, didn’t last long. As soon as the finish line came into focus, the couple picked up speed, goading one another to outrun the other. I tried to keep up, but failed to catch them.
“C’mon,” I heard the girl yelp. “Let’s finish this thing.”
And off they galloped in tandem.
It didn’t take me long to spot Joe with his camera fixed on the finish line. His encouragement and support was better than any birthday present I’ve ever received and I ran into his arms as soon as I crossed the line.
If he hadn’t been there, I would have kept running. It felt that good.
PS. I completed the triathlon in 1 hour and 39 minutes.