I’ve had – and expressed – mixed-feelings about referring to myself as an athlete for as long as I’ve been training. In fact, when explaining to friends or new acquaintances how I’ve spent my weekend racing or why I feel like I live at the local YMCA, I usually stammer something like, “Well, I … do … some… triathlons in the summer.” To use the phrase, “I compete in triathlons,” seems laughable, because let’s face it, there is no podium time earmarked for me anytime soon; I am not really competing. For the most part, I’m just trying to cross the finish line before the 70-year olds and pregnant women and ideally, without relying on any kind of medical attention in the process.
That’s it. That’s my overall goal: Beat the elderly and/or the knocked-up to the finish line and to the best of my ability, avoid an embarrassing cardiac incident.
Yesterday, on my 39th birthday, at about 7:55 am, that all changed as I was standing in front of 50 or 60 other 39-year old women in the warm and murky water of Centennial Beach in Naperville, Ill.
The first triathlon of my racing season, I felt confident enough (after months and months of training) to put myself at the front of the pack and be the kicker, not the kickee. The water temperature was actually warmer than the air temperature but even so, I squatted down in the water and allowed it to seep in through the neck of my wetsuit, so it wasn’t a shock when I started the actual swim. I splashed the water on my face and arms. Two friends (one of whom was going to be racing) were on the sideline, screaming and clapping for me (having peeps is nice) – and then the gun went off.
I didn’t run any farther into the water – I plopped in, headfirst and started to swim. From the get-go, I focused on my catch and my breathing – I didn’t want to be exhausted before I rounded the first buoy. And because I didn’t have people bumping into me (I swam on the far left since the less-confident swimmers somehow gravitate towards the right, where the ropes and swim buddies are; it’s a clustercuss of elbows and feet and I worked to avoid it), I was moving at a fairly good clip. While I admittedly don’t know how to sight, I did something that resembled sighting, found my buoy, and moved towards it. I stuck to my plan and took the buoy wide and slow. Because I was in a wet suit, I was buoyant when I wasn’t moving, so I used my buoy time to catch a 3-second breather while I looked forward to find the clearest path to swim on the straight stretch in front of me. I did this for 750+/- yards. I navigated around each subsequent buoy with ease and at the end of the swim, I launched myself out of that pool like I had somewhere to be. No walking this year.
Out of the water, my husband and kids cheering me on, I asked Carlo for my estimated time: “15 minutes, give or take” he shouted as I ran past him. By the time that registered – that I had trimmed 1 or 2 minutes off of last year’s time – I reached my coach, Alicia, and Craig, who taught me how to swim three summers ago, at the top of the hill where we were to run into T1. Alicia’s hand was in the air, ready to give me a well-deserved high-five. She couldn’t see me swim from her post, but she could tell by my smiles and by the fact that I was running out of the pool that I had a strong swim and that I was very, very happy with whatever happened in the water! Craig might have been confused. I’ve never been a confident … or happy … swimmer, so seeing me run out of transition with a maniacal smile on my face caught him off-guard. I had enough time to shout “15 minutes” to Alicia and Craig as I moved into T1.
T1 is a long-ass haul from the pool to where my bike was racked. Running barefoot, I wasn’t exactly breaking any records for speed, but it allowed me to take in my accomplishment. The 15-minute swim, combined with the two- to three-minutes of standing with my wave in the water sank in, and I felt like that swim alone, not even the year’s worth of training and oodles of dollars spent on gear, but that singular swim, earned me the title of athlete. And that gave me the confidence and courage to run out of T1 with my shoes clipped in and rubber-banded to my bike pedals, so I could attempt a pseudo-flying mount.
Pseudo-Flying Mount -- there was no flying. Since this was the first attempt during in a race (I’d practiced that week at tri-clinic and on my own in the alley behind our house), I wanted to balance my new athletic ambition with the good common-sense caution of a 39-year-old mother, so I pulled my bike to the side (far left is the way to go) and slipped my left foot into the shoe first. I swung my leg over the saddle and placed my foot on top of the right shoe and pedaled a few strokes so I had some momentum. Better than any of my practicing, I managed to slip my right foot into the shoe, get a few more strokes in, and bent down to secure the Velcro strap that keeps my shoes on my feet. My husband saw it all. I didn’t swerve. I didn’t fall. Before I hit the first turn on the bike course, I felt my athletic pride swell: I pulled off a move that I had watched professional triathletes do on televised events. I didn’t do it as fast or as effortlessly as they do it, but I did it! And lived to tell!
The rest of the race was fairly uneventful. I said “on your left” more during that race than I did in the three races combined from 2010. The last loop of the course was a bit windy, but I pushed through it, managed a traditional dismount (I unclipped both feet and rolled to a slow stop, then got off the bike, shoes on feet) and had a lot less hustle in my barely-perceptible jog thru T2. My race mates racked their bikes sloppily, so I ended up placing my bike near a tree instead of racking it (I lost time there; bad decision), put my running shoes on, grabbed a hit of water and my Garmin and made my way out of T2 and onto the 5k run course.
I struggled to find a comfy pace while I struggled to get the Garmin working, all while trying to drink the water that I took right out of transition. Carlo and the kids cheered me on and I became very aware of how tired my legs were from the bike ride – they had little interest in running even a measly 3.1 miles. I didn’t pull out any crazy-fast speeds for the run, but I did manage to finish in less than 30 minutes, a first, so it wasn’t anything to undo my accomplishments earlier in the race.
Within minutes of finishing, I was with my family and the ladies with whom I’ve trained, beaming with excitement at how great I felt my race went (all this after we lost, then quickly found, my 10-year-old daughter). This year, we reviewed the course with a little more analysis than we did the previous year, where we just seemed to be thankful for crossing the finish line. Clearly, this wasn’t the first time we’d been to this rodeo. We came in with goals and expectations of ourselves and with more training under our belt this year, we weren’t just better athletes, but we had also acquired the tools to gage whether or not we’d achieved those goals long before the race results were posted.
I’m not sure if my tri-friends struggle with the a-word and if they have, I hope they’re struggling with it less today. We all earned the rights to the title athlete yesterday.
Cheers, athletes! Until we race again…