By this time, we’re all aware that I don’t really prioritize personal hygiene. I usually DO shower anyway; it just cuts into my sleeping hours and seems like a terrible chore. But this time, I had an ironclad reason not to: what was the point, if I was going to be shoving a swim cap on my head and jumping into a smelly lake in less than 12 hours?
It was one of the only good things I could think of about having to swim the 0.62 miles required in the triathlon I had entered. It was 0.62 miles more than I had really prepared for.
I don’t think I’ve been that nervous for an athletic event since the last time I sat in the start box waiting to gallop my horse around a cross country course (and at least that was a more legitimate fear of death and dismemberment—horse trials rarely wrapped up without the paramedics scraping at least one rider off the course and carrying her off in an ambulance).
Nobody’s words of encouragement were really making the butterflies any better, until I came home and found a note on our dry erase board on Saturday night, “Out with friends for the night. Good luck tomorrow. Just don’t drown and don’t quit.” Well, if you put it that way. Surely, I could manage those two little things. I suddenly felt better. Shortly after that, another friend texted me some more sagely advice for my first tri, “Don’t worry about leaving time to pee before the race. You can just do that when you get in the water.”
There you have it. The three most important things to remember when completing a triathlon: don’t drown, don’t quit, and feel free to pee in the water. I had this thing in the bag.
The next morning, I gave myself the usual lecture required to get out of bed at 4:30am, made it to the park (mostly) on time and (somewhat) awake, and was greeted with a smile and a hug from L, who is almost scarily perky prior to 6am. Thank goodness one of us was awake though, because without her, I would probably have forgotten to pump up my bike tires and gone into the water with my goggles on upside down, among other things. And without her, I would have had nobody to introduce me to all of the wonderfully kind people I met throughout the course of the day.
This post is already showing signs of going on forever, so I’m just going to hit the highlights like I did for the Tough Mudder. You might still want to get a snack and a pee break at this point, just to be safe.
SWIMMING: Once I had got my goggles the right way around, I tried to enjoy the last few moments during which everyone might still be under the impression that I knew what I was doing, because once we officially started swimming, it was abundantly clear that I did not. To be honest, most of the swim is a blur in which the only things I clearly remember were how beautifully bright the sun was on the water and how much I was gasping for air the ENTIRE time (because, as I’ve mentioned before, I just CANNOT learn how to breathe and swim at the same time).
I had a quick discussion with my shoulder and we decided that freestyle was not going to happen. After about five minutes, I decided that breaststroke wasn’t such a good idea either. Thank goodness for backstroke. If you backstroke, everything’s quiet, and you can breathe. At least, you can breathe until the fast swimmers from the wave behind you catch up. And the wave behind them. And the wave behind them. Then you inhale a lot of delicious lake water, which I’m choosing to believe must do wonders for your immune system.
At one point when I was spluttering around, making almost no progress, and trying to hack the water out of my lungs, I noticed that one of the kayaks positioned along course seemed to be surreptitiously following me. Yes, I was that girl. The one who looked like she needed to be rescued. Good grief.
STILL SWIMMING: The swim seemed to take FOREVER. Actually, let me rephrase that—the swim DID take me forever, compared to almost everyone else. But at least I never thought, “I can’t finish this,” and I never thought, “I wish I hadn’t signed up for this.”
However, thoughts such as, “When the hell is this swim going to be over?!” and “This sucks,” drifted though my head on a regular basis.
FLYING: Of course, I wasn’t really flying. But after struggling in the water for almost 40 minutes, being on a bike felt like the most amazing thing in the world. I was cruising too. Every time I passed someone, I would studiously say, “On your left,” just like L had instructed me to, and I seemed to be saying “On your left,” an awful lot. Fantastic. Look at all these people I was passing. I must be fast.
It only took me a few miles before I began to recognize the bikers I was passing. I could recognize them because I kept passing the same few people over and over again. I would overtake them on the way up the hills and they would catch me on the way back down. Oh well. I still FELT like I was going fast. And at least I looked like I might have ridden a bike once or twice before in my life. Things were looking up. This was much better than swimming.
TOO MANY HILLS: Actually, after having heard a lot about the terrible hills, I wasn’t finding the course to be unreasonably difficult. But about 10-15 minutes into the ride, my lower back started to hurt every time I would go up a hill. This mysterious back pain happened the last time I rode my bike too, but then I just blamed it on heavy deadlifts at crossfit less than an hour beforehand. This time, I had no such excuse and was kind of confused. But I couldn’t get too worried about it, since the rest of me felt great, and biking was still so much less miserable than swimming. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
The only thing that made my back feel better was to sit up absolutely straight and take my hands off the handlebars every once in a while. So much for looking like I knew what I was doing: “Why yes, this unicycle-type seat is extremely speedy despite its deceptively non-aerodynamic appearance.” I kept reminding myself that I didn’t know any of these people, so it didn’t matter. Although I strongly suspect that one of the photographers managed to snap a picture of me riding like this before I realized what she was up to.
BIKES ARE COMPLICATED: It’s a good thing I’d given up on disguising the fact that I had no idea what was going on. I may have looked a bit foolish taking my hands off the bike on the way down the hills, but I had to deal with the complicated procedure of gear changing on the way up. Now, I am aware that my bike has gears, and I even know how to use them. But I kept forgetting which way was up and which was down, so I’d get half way up a hill, try to switch to an easier gear, and get a lurch and a wobble as I accidentally made it harder.
It would make sense if this had happened about 50 percent of the time, since I was basically just guessing. But instead, I turned out to be the worse guesser in the history of incompetent bike riders, and switched it the wrong way on almost every hill. I promise, I’m not exaggerating even a little bit.
HOBBLING: I was relieved to get to the run, since it was the only element of the race that I actually train for on a regular basis, and since it was only three and a half miles, I was pretty sure I could make up some time and blow through it quickly.
If swimming before the bike made me feel like I was flying, biking before the run make me feel like I was wading through cement. To her credit, L did make me practice this bike to run transition once before, but I must have forgotten how much my ankles and shins hurt during the run (or, more likely, mistakenly attributed the pain to recent crossfitting like I had done with my back), because they hurt a lot. So I ran slowly. REALLY slowly. Okay, maybe I was shuffling. I think there was a speed walker who may have been keeping pace with me. It took at least a mile and a half for me to get my legs back. But I didn’t mind. The race was almost over, and I was so thankful that I didn’t have to swim anymore. I would happily take running with the most excruciating shin splints over another swim any day. Have you guessed what my least favorite third of the race was yet?
TWO HOURS TWENTY NINE MINUTES: The nice thing about taking forever to finish a race is that all of your friends have finished it first. Even people I had only met a couple of times were cheering me on at the end. People are lovely. So is finishing a race.
I know I usually write about the ways in which I mess up and embarrass myself. And I do it because we all need a reminder that life is a lot of fun, even if you flub it up most of the time. So most of my race highlights might look more like low lights, but the race as a whole is wonderful and entirely worth it. Every time.