Editor’s Note: Yes, I’m aware that the Olympics start tonight – seriously, you’d think I’d really be oblivious about something as monumentally relevant to my life as the Olympics? – but something really huge is happening for me tomorrow, so hence the slightly non-topical post.
A couple of weeks ago, I blew through Chrissie Wellington’s book “A Life Without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey.” I had to snag myself a used copy from overseas, because it doesn’t appear as though the book has been released in the US yet. It was worth the extra cost and wait, though, because Wellington’s book was eminently readable. She not only writes about her unprecedented domination of the ironman distance in triathlon, but also about her previous career as a British civil servant working on international development and her travels around the world, where she does things like mountain-bike her way through the Himalayas and works on important global issues like sustainable development and post-conflict environmental policy. It would have been quite easy to hate her, as she’s one of those overachievers who makes us mere mortals seem like…well, mere mortals. I don’t even want to tell you what I was doing when I was twenty-five, but it sure as fuck wasn’t working at the United Nations.
And yet, instead of hating her, I put down the book and immediately wanted to meet her so we could be friends. How could I not? She’s an intelligent, compassionate woman with a sense of humor about herself. Plus she has no compunction about sharing that she pees on her bike – a point of pride among ironman athletes, I gather – or that she once had, uh, GI issues while bobbing in the water ahead of a race. There are few things I love in the world quite like some quality scatalogical humor. (Really, it doesn’t even have to be quality.)
Poop jokes aside, what I dug most about her book was getting a glimpse into what it’s like to be a world-class endurance athlete – the kind of training involved, the relationships she built with her coaches, teammates and competitors, the experience of working so hard to fine-tune one’s body until it’s capable of performing almost superhuman feats. I’m nowhere even close to being that kind of athlete, and yet reading about it tugged at my heart, partly out of a sad kind of longing due to the understanding that my opportunity to be that kind of athlete has passed, but also partly because I recognized a little bit of myself in her hard work. After all, just because I may never be the best in the world – or even my city – at something, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth putting in the effort to be the best that I can be.
So after I finished reading her book and deciding that I wanted to be BFF with her, I did what I do with all women with whom I want to be BFFs: I starting doing what she does. In this case, that “what she does” is triathlon.
I had been toying with the idea of doing a triathlon since Brian started doing them last year. From the very beginning I was enamored of the everything about triathlon: the gear, the logistics, the bikes, the spandex one pieces that look like superhero uniforms. So many triathletes were part of teams with names like Team Psych and TriGals, and their teammates cheered for them as they barreled down the finisher’s chute like they were at Game 7 of the World Series. I also noticed that the best triathletes tended to be a bit more muscular than the best runners, and I can’t deny, that appealed to me too. Because I am secretly shallow.
But triathlon also posed a problem for me – mainly, that I couldn’t swim. Okay, I could swim, if by swimming you meant “keep your face out of the water” and “not drown.” But if by swimming you mean “move from point A to point B as efficiently as possible,” then no, I couldn’t really swim. So instead, I spent the first part of this season doing a handful of duathlons, which is basically triathlon but with another run instead of the swim. I really liked the duathlon, but it just wasn’t quite the same as triathlon. However, my fear of open water swimming was so great that I demurred.
There was something about reading Chrissie Wellington’s book, though, that made me reconsider. She writes a lot about overcoming fear and self-doubt, and as I read her words, I realized that my fear of swimming was yet another example of my long history of letting my big, dumb brain get in the way of leading the kind of life I really want.
It was about that time that Brian mentioned the one sprint triathlon I felt like I might be able to do – because it had the shortest swim leg of all local triathlons, only a quarter-mile – was about a month away. In a fit of carpe diem, I told him to sign me up, and that I was going to learn how to swim even if it killed me to do so (which I was still afraid it would).
I don’t really have it in me any more to just half-ass this kind of stuff, so I girded my ovaries and dove face-first into triathlon training. I ran three times a week, rode my bike three times a week, and swam three times a week. I already felt okay about the bike and the run, but I knew I needed to work on the swim, and so I attacked it with every bit of force I could muster. The first time I swam with Brian in the pool, it was a bloody disaster. He actually told me later on, after I’d managed to swim a couple of times to the buoys in the Gulf of Mexico, that after that first session in the pool, he was actually thinking that maybe it was a bad idea for me to sign up. And he didn’t mean it jokingly, either. Like, I think he thought I might actually die.
But I kept swimming laps in the condo pool and watching videos and taking some tips, and the strangest thing happened: I became a swimmer. With just a little bit of coaching and some effort, I’ve learned that my body – my big old tall body with my gangly arms and paddle-like feet and hands and my shoulders like a steamship – is actually perfectly suited for swimming. Go figure, right? That a lady who was terrified to swim in ocean water over her head can, within three weeks, confidently swim a half-mile in the Gulf without stopping? I suppose stranger things have happened, although I’m not sure what they are.
In the midst of all of this training, another curious thing happened. I realized that I was hungry all the time. I wanted to eat everything in sight. I started packing huge bags of food to bring to work with me so I could eat all day long. And not only that, but I was so tired, too. I used to tease Brian about his constant grazing and his 8:30 bedtimes, but then suddenly I found myself raiding the fridge for yogurt and fruit, and crawling into bed before the clock had flipped to 9 p.m. If it hadn’t been for reading Wellington’s book, and later “The Triathlete’s Bible,” in which rest and recovery are described as the “fourth discipline,” I would have thought I had been infected by some horrible tropical sleeping disease.
Now I’m tapering in preparation for the triathlon, which takes place tomorrow. My mind is dealing with the lack of physical activity and the heightened anxiety in its own jacked-up way, by throwing all of my emotions and images into a psychological Cuisinart and spinning that shit into unmitigated nonsense. For instance, last night I dreamed that I killed the swim leg in six minutes, only to spend twenty minutes in Transition 1 searching for my swimsuit top. The top I should have theoretically been wearing while swimming. Logic does not intrude on my dream world, I suppose. And I keep trying to do visualizations about the swim leg, because I hear that’s what legit athletes do, and yet every time I try my heart starts pounding against my rib cage like a double-kick drum.
Clearly at this point, I’m about as prepared as I can possibly be. I’m just going to cross my fingers and trust that the work I’ve done will be enough, and then I’m going to go out there and have some fun.