One of the more curious things that has happened to me since I started getting really into endurance sports is that I now have a tendency to say things like “It was so hard and I had so much fun!” and what’s more, to actually mean it. Few things summarize this paradoxical duality of “really hard” and “really fun” like a triathlon. I know this first hand, because I have officially completed one now!
As I wrote in my last post, I spent about three and a half weeks preparing for the Top Gun Triathlon in Fort De Soto. It was pretty much a crash course in triathlon – nothing close to what I would consider ideal, especially when you consider the fact that I was – and still am – trying to deal with my fear of open-water swimming.
With swimming – as with most other things – I’ve found the best way to cope with fear is to put my head down and charge right through it like a pissed-off bull. That really only works when I’m the middle of something that scares me, though. It doesn’t do much when I’m trying to prepare in advance for said scary moment. Night after night, I laid in bed and visualized the beginning of the swim and felt a wall of panic press down on my chest.
And of course, because brains operate according to something other than earth logic, it was only when I was standing on the beach in the middle of a group of women in their early 30s, all of us in hot pink swim caps, that I felt at ease. Standing with my fists on my hips, I felt a bit like a military general serenely surveying the chaos around me as I prepared to wade into battle.
After a couple of minutes of standing around like MacArthur in a Spandex onesie, the horn sounded, and we stampeded into the water. I found myself dodging a barrage of body parts as my fellow triathletes started dolphin-diving. I would have dolphin-dove too – it’s a really fast way to get through water without expending a ton of energy – were it not for the fact that I was surrounded by feet. Feet in front of me, feet to the right of me and the left of me, and I’m pretty sure there were feet underneath me. I decided against diving onto some poor woman’s legs and waded out until it was chest deep before I started swimming.
Almost right away I realized that my skills as a swimmer were not going to be my biggest obstacle; I could swim a quarter-mile just fine. No, the problem was going to be swimming alongside the women who were not at all confident in their abilities, because those women were thrashing about with what seemed like thinly-veiled panic, their arms and legs churning up huge amounts of water, most of which ended up in my mouth. A few women even started crawling up my back, and it took all my self-control from whipping around and going Full Bitch Face on them.
I separated myself from the group in an attempt to extricate myself from the splashing and started focusing on my strokes. Arm up then back, drag thumb to the hip, roll to the side, breathe in. Arm up, thumb to hip, roll to the other side, breathe out. Head down, butt up, make sure to check the buoys so I don’t end up in the middle of the gulf. Over and over again. Occasionally I flipped to backstroke to catch my breath, but mostly I just crawled.
And then suddenly, there was the last buoy. I turned and swam for shore. When the water was shallow enough for me to walk, I pulled off my goggles, glanced at my watch and saw 7:05. I practically fell over with shock. I was hoping I might be able to finish in nine minutes. Seven minutes was beyond even my most optimistic expectations.
I let myself be excited for approximately 0.42 seconds, because I still had a lot of shit to do and now was not the time for self-congratulatory back-slapping. I ran through the sand while peeling off my swim cap and chugged a paper cup’s worth of Gatorade as I ran into transition.
I don’t have cycling shoes that clip on to my bike, plus the last time I tried to run without socks ended with huge pus-y blisters, so I had to take a minute to dry off my feet and put on some socks. I then put on my running shoes – which I’d tricked out the night before with some elastic shoelaces I could yank tight – grabbed my helmet and bike and ran some more.
I tried to mount my bike but my foot wouldn’t go in the cage. A spiral of suck was threatening to suck me down and spit me out, so I stopped, took a deep breath, then tried again. After thirty seconds (!) I got on my bike and started riding.
My bike is a hand-me-down from my husband, who upgraded to one of those fancy-pants Cervelo triathlon bikes – you know, the ones that look like goddamned spaceships – earlier this year. My bike is a Specialized road bike from the late 1980s, so it’s not nearly as slick looking as a lot of the other bikes out there. But you know what? To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the bike. That ended up being my theme for the bike leg. It’s not about the bike; it’s about me and my desire to kick ass.
I crouched down on my drops, adjusted my gears until I found the right cadence and started pedaling my ass off. Soon I was picking off other women in my age group, then men in the 55+ age group ahead of me, then women in the age group ahead of those men. I was passed a few times by men in the wave behind me, the 25-29 age-groupers, most of whom were on those aforementioned space-age bikes with the big disc wheels, but I was fine with that.
I did have a funny moment when I was passed by a guy in the last couple of miles. I heard him holler “on your left!” as he came up behind me, so I moved to give him room. He got in front of me….and then he slowed down? When I get passed, I expect that person to be gone, not to have to slow down for that person. I stared at his back with disbelief for a moment, then started pedaling hard and passed him about thirty seconds later.
Pro tip: if you are going to pass someone, for fuck’s sake, pass them.
I made the last turn and dismounted, then looked at my watch and realized I’d clocked that ten-mile ride in just under 30 minutes, making it the first time I’d ever ridden my bike at a 20-mph pace. Again, I was flabbergasted. I had given myself 33 minutes, and I’d beaten my estimate by a full three minutes.
The week before, I’d plotted out estimates for each leg and transition that would have had me finishing in 1:15:00 at the fastest and 1:20:00 at the slowest. Brian reminded me that no matter what, my time was going to be a PR, but I like to have goals to target – it helps me stay focused.
Well, as I ran through transition and did the math in my head, I realized I was going to have to blow up pretty hard on the 5K to miss even my more ambitious goal. The only way I was going to miss it was if I tripped and face-planted in a pile of poisonous snakes.
It was good I had all that cushion time, because oh my god, the run was so hard! I find it ridiculous and more than a little bit disappointing that I can be such a strong runner in road races and yet I post such crummy times (for me) for my final run legs when it comes to multi-sport events. This one was no different. I shuffled my way through the first mile, trying not to wilt under the heat and the direct sunshine. I was able to keep running, which was good, but I couldn’t find the speed I know I’m capable of. My legs just didn’t have it.
Instead of despairing, I put my head down and focused on each step. When we hit mile two, I walked for a bit while I grabbed some water and a cold soaked towel provided by a sponsor, then I kept running. Brian saw me at the final turn and started cheering me on, but it was all I could do to lift my hand and wave and groan a bit. I was very frustrated with myself at that point. Running normally comes easily for me, but on that day, it was the discipline that was most difficult. I swore to myself as I ran that I was going to improve, even if it meant doing speedwork at high noon in August on tired-ass legs.
I managed to summon enough energy to sprint across the finish line and come in at just under 1:11:00. My finishing time was 1:10:54. Once I had stopped moving, I was able to process the fact that I’d beat my goal! I was totally pumped. My time was good enough to get me into the top third of my age group, and I was tenth out of all of the women doing a triathlon for the first time that day.
My elation lasted about ten minutes. After I ate a hot dog and had some Vitamin Water, Brian and I sat down and started obsessing over our splits. At every point, I saw things I could do better. I could have started my swim further outside the pack. I could work more on my stroke so I am more efficient. I could spend more time doing speedwork on the bike. I could practice getting on the bike faster. I could work on my bike-to-run transition. I could see if I can do a sprint without the tri suit on, which made me feel hotter than usual.
The list of things I could do better was really long, but instead of discouraging me, I got excited. I looked up training plans later that day and signed up for my second triathlon. This one is in October, which gives me a full two months to train. I have so much room for improvement that all I have to do is put in the effort and the time, and I will get better. I know it. I’m excited about it. I think I can be good at this. I just have to be willing to work for it – which I am.