Even after three sprint triathlons, the word still makes me feel uneasy, like I’m an imposter. For years, this word brought up images of super-focused athletes in those skimpy, floaty shorts who mainline quinoa and constantly check their giant-faced watches for total burned fat grams and torched carbs. I couldn’t possibly be one of those people. I had no desire to qualify for Kona. I had never worn a wetsuit. I had no dramatic backstory. I definitely had no floaty shorts.
Thank goodness I stopped worrying about what other people were doing.
I believe the universe brings us as many challenges as it does good fortune. Sprint triathlons bring both. I did my first sprint two years ago in Naperville. I didn’t officially train, nor was I part of a group. I was simply tired of trying to get friends to do the race with me, and, if I was to be totally honest, was resisting the end of an ill-fated romance. So I drove to the ‘burbs with my too-heavy commuter bike, a “how hard could it be?” attitude and begrudgingly joined the large group of strangers under a tree for the pre-race clinic.
Our coach was the classic leather-skinned, sinewy, laser-focused 60ish year-old who clearly served in the military. It turned out to be an invaluable but overwhelming experience. As the coach described the schedule, only then did I realize what I’d done. I was woefully unprepared and clearly had to back out. I didn’t even have an energy bar on me. What in the hell was I thinking? I couldn’t do this. Unfortunately, I had told too many people. I paid the registration fee. And I was raised Catholic, so the guilt alone wouldn’t let me bail.
On race day, I arrived in the pre-dawn dark and nervously unloaded my car. Everything the clinic coach talked about happened just as he said. I got marked up – age on the left calf, bib number on the right calf – and prepared for certain failure as I nauseously searched the parking lot for my assigned staging space.
Once again, the universe deftly stepped in and surrounded me with people who were just as wigged out as I was. No one had single-digit body fat. No one was bragging about Kona. In fact, three women had recently learned to swim for the first time in their lives. One woman had lost a bet. Another was making good on a promise to her dying father. We all had our reasons for showing up, and sharing stories really helped to calm our nerves. This inevitably vulnerable downtime has now become one of my favorite parts of race day. It really helps to humanize the experience.
As the sun rose, we were summoned to the beach. I intentionally placed myself in the next-to-last wave so I could watch everyone go, and possibly disappear into the surrounding woods. I didn’t realize it would be over an hour before we would touch the water. By then, the pros had finished the bike portion and were well on their way to the finish line. I hit the water and started to swim. I suddenly found myself in what could only be described as the scene from “Titanic” as the ship sank. Many people were flailing, panicking, screaming for dear life as they clung to the ropes… all while being able to touch the bottom of the quarry. I called upon my pre-K swimming skills, swam around the chaos and prayed I wouldn’t bite it on the ramp as I half-jogged to my bike. Transition was maddening slow. Everything stuck instead of slid on. I approached the 20K ride like I’d been racing more than the 2½-mile commute to work. I smirked as I blew the doors off of a 34 year-old, only to feel the karmic “see ya” of the 62 year-old who left me in the dust. Man, those calf numbers don’t mince words.
I hopped off the bike and couldn’t believe I was almost done – just 3.2 miles left. Unfortunately, the run was – and is – my weakest, most dreaded part of the tri. All of the rumors were true. The transition is indeed buzzing quads to spaghetti legs. Once again, had I practiced the bricks, I would’ve been better prepared. There was a fair amount of swearing as my body wouldn’t immediately cooperate. But like clockwork, I found a secret burst of energy as I sensed the finish line – and the strong possibility of chocolate – was close. I crossed under the banner with my teeth, bones and self-esteem intact.
As I drove back to the city, I heard a horn honking in the lane next to me. A woman smiled and gave me the “thumbs up”. As she passed me, I saw her bike rack and her triathlon number. I knew at that moment I wanted to learn how to do better, and even though it’s a personal race, I didn’t have to do it alone.