This week marks the three year anniversary of my first triathlon. The year was 2009. Since that first race, I have completed dozens of triathlons, and I am now preparing for my first half Ironman distance (1.2 mile swim, 56 miles bike and 13.1 mile run). In the time prior to that first triathlon, I had run several 5k races, and had even worked my way up to a number of longer distance events. I found racing buddies. We all drove to the races together, sometimes wearing matching shirts. We found camaraderie at finish line festivities and our post-race coffee. We convinced each other to try new distances, new events, and pushed each other past our fears. I credit part of my success today to these three people for believing in me and encouraging me. Steve, his wife, Kim, and her sister, Stephanie, are fantastic people and great athletes, as well. After countless 5k races, Steve suggested that we needed something else, something that took us to a different fitness level, and something that gave us more of a challenge. On New Year’s Day of 2009, I received a call from him while I was grocery shopping in the local market. I heard his excited voice on the other end: “Heath, listen: we are signing up for a triathlon. They are going to sell out and I will sign you up now, but I need to know right now.”
I stood there in the cereal aisle listening to him. I tried to speak: “but Steve, I don't swim like that.” He interrupted me: “Heather, man, you just have to know how to doggie paddle. You know that- right? I mean, come on Heath, you grew up on a lake. You can do it. This is nothing.” Steve continued to try to persuade me. I reluctantly agreed and told him what would become the familiar information of race registration: age on race day, emergency contact name and phone number, shirt size, waiver agreement signature and all the associated fees. Instantly, my world of triathlons began.
I grew up next to a lake and loved to swim. I stayed in the water all day long. I would come home after a long hot day at the beach and still fixate on swimming. I would imagine the streets being filled with water so that I could swim to school. I loved to be in water though I never swam competitively. My brother, sisters and I would dive down to find the old stonewalls on the bottom of the man- made lake that spread out over five area towns. We would swim on a private beach at my grandparents’ home. My sisters and I found the public beach across the lake much more appealing because it had many more boys on it. We would swim clear across the lake to the other, more populated beach. My grandmother would yell over to us from the doorway of her sliding glass doors. At times, she even sent my grandfather out to retrieve us via a row boat. Suddenly, thirty something years later, I found myself standing in a dressing room under a fluorescent light in the swim shop trying on swimsuits. It was the middle of January. My skin color was a whiter shade of New England winter.
I felt my intimidation grow as I walked into the warm pool area. I sat with my legs dangling in the pool in front of the life guards. As I watched swimmers in a steady stream go quickly up and down the lanes, my self-doubt grew. I slowly immersed myself into the cool water. I flailed around the water, my arms fatiguing quickly and grew out of breath after only swimming one length of the pool. One of the lifeguards was an older woman. She sat silently in her chair. She was rigid in her body language and her tone. I regarded this outward appearance as her dislike of me, but then I reconsidered, and conjectured that she held her own life's hurt so clearly in her posture and manner. She was in a kind of self-protection mode brought on by a painful life, but there was most likely a soft heart under her armor. I looked to her and enthusiastically told her I was doing the triathlon. She glared at me for what seemed like several minutes. In an animated manner, I continued to tell her that if she wanted to give me some tips, I was open to it. She then turned her head and said with a faded southern twang: “Well, you're going to drown.” I looked at the guard. Her name was Bonnie. I said: “maybe so, but I am a very determined woman.”
Bonnie continued to watch me get into the pool every day. She reluctantly and gruffly would shoot tips at me as she walked past my lane for the next several months. “Put your head down! Stop flailing! Keep your legs together! Kick! Point your hands down!” One afternoon, a few months later, she saw my frustration and came over to the side of the pool where I was resting. She spoke softly. She told me to imagine an oval ring in front of my face and that each time I go to put my hand into the water I had to put it evenly through the ring. She said to relax, and that my body would naturally know what to do; just to let it. In the end, Bonnie not only helped me become a stronger swimmer, she often pointed to me as an example for other swimmers. She would point to me in the pool to new swimmers, some of them training for their first triathlon: “You should have seen her when she first came in.” I like to believe that my own determination wore off on Bonnie. Over the last few years, Bonnie has shed over fifty pounds and has incorporated an exercise program into her life. I may have helped her as much as she helped me.
I continued to train, trying to shake off the horror stories told to me about being kicked in the face during the swim part of triathlon, and about the excessive amount of chaotic and intense energy at these events. I thought this kind of energy would place it right up my alley; however, it was the dread of this controlled disorder that almost deterred me from continuing to do races recently. I was feeling burned out, tired and not sure why I why I continued to put myself through these anxiety inducing events. On the other hand, I was hooked on them and was uncertain where this compulsion came from.
As January rolled around this year, I continued to search for my own personal answer. The registration window came and went to participate in that tri event that had been my very first one back in 2009. I found myself training with Sue, who has now become a friend and training guru, that has competed in the Ironman triathlon event, a race that consists of a 2.2 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride and concluded by a 26.2 full marathon distance. I found myself vicariously experiencing these Ironman races and triathlons through her accounts of them. I listened with amazement, contemplating my own future in participating in one of these Ironman events. A few weeks ago, I finally contacted the race director and asked if I could have a spot in the local triathlon, the one that started me off. I was still unable to answer the question of why exactly I continued to participate in these events, and why, more importantly, I allowed myself to succumb to doubt and pressure that preventing me from even trying.
I stopped writing this blog last week because of training, work and life, as well as my own paranoia. I began writing the answer to the above question and about my love of competing in triathlons while my head simultaneously worked against me. I envisioned dramatic conclusions to the race where I would be dead due to some tragic misfortune. Despite these obsessive thoughts, I actually became excited about the event a few days before the race. As I rode with a friend through the cycling part of the course, I informed him of the small details: where the hills are, where they had recently repaved the roads, where the transition area is. I excitedly relived the feeling of coming around the corner to see the stop light right before the descent that is the quarter mile remaining to the finish. This is where the crowds of people gather to cheer on the participants. As I relayed my own triathlon stories, I remembered the tension and thrill in the air, that we, as a group of amateur athletes, were doing something that pushed us out of our comfort zones. We were striving to get more out of life, at a time of day before most people were even awake on a Sunday morning. I thought of the sun coming up over the pond, the fog lifting over the trees, uncovering the day. I thought about the cold sand between my toes as I lined up to enter the water. The swim is probably the most difficult and anxiety- provoking part of a triathlon. I thought of hearing passing comments, some of them filled with doubt, others were a mutual swapping of encouragement. I felt the camaraderie. I thought of where I was seven years ago, smoking over two packs a day, barely being able to chase my then toddler around the playground.
I pushed through the triathlon, taking two full minutes off of my previous time. I heard my name at every corner. Over the years, I have taken pride in how I have established my own relationships within this particular small town community. The site of the swim of the triathlon is also the place where my son’s father had his first manic episode, and this always provokes a sense of dread when I visit that place. This history was before my son was born, but it still stays with me and how I think of this community. Over the years, I have reconfigured my identity to this town. I took the scary and difficult memories, and turned them into strength.
I had my usual post-race thoughts to do better, of wanting to immediately push myself harder, to be stronger and faster. After the race, I was talking with some friends, and found myself speaking to an acquaintance of one of these friends. I believe her name was Michelle. She was as small, fit woman who exuded warmth. She was charged to have just competed in her first triathlon. As we spoke, she commented on my necklace, a small silver ring shape tied to a piece of leather that had engraved on it the words swim bike run. She said how much she liked it. I looked at her and, in unrestrained moment, asked her if she wanted the necklace, as I untied the damp knot from behind my neck. I handed her the necklace, explaining that I wanted her to have it. She protested as I placed the necklace in her hand. I said to her: “this is what life is about- right?” She then gave me a big hug. I walked away from her knowing I had indeed won, won so much than a race.