Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Aspiring No More

Last Saturday I stood on a beach at 6:30 am while a stranger wrote numbers on my arms with Sharpie. My husband's hybrid was balanced in a wooden rack between some impressive-looking road bikes, standing guard over my running shoes. People bustled around me, some walking bikes, others clipping straps to their ankles, yet others testing the water. A man spoke into a walkie-talkie about buoys and kayaks. This was not my typical Saturday morning.

Two hours later I stood in 66 degree water wearing a bright green swim cap, waiting for the horn that would signal me to start swimming. So began my participation in the North Country Triathlon in Hague, New York, my first sprint triathlon. The horn sounded for my wave and we started swimming. Thirty seconds later the bottom of Lake George disappeared from view and my swimming became floundering as I fought a wave of panic. My wetsuit felt tight and I couldn't catch my breath, nor could I put my face back in the cold water. Six months in a heated pool had not prepared me for the cold lake swim.

After thirty minutes I dragged myself out of the water. Freestyle had been abandoned, but I managed to complete the half mile swim with a combination of breast stroke and side stroke. Occasionally I floated on my back and kicked. I did manage a few seconds of freestyle as I got close to the shore and could see the sandy lake bottom again. I was tired and knew I was one of the last people coming out of the water, but the swim was just the start, so I stripped my wetsuit off as I plodded up the beach to my bike.

The start of the bike course was uphill. For a couple of miles I pedaled furiously with my chain in the smallest rings and seemed to go nowhere. The slower swimmers from the wave after mine passed me on their fancy road bikes (the faster swimmers had passed me in the water). I kept going. After six months of training, I planned to finish this thing. At an aid station I grabbed a cup of water and asked if we ever got to go downhill. The volunteer laughed as she told me the top of the hill was right around the next bend. Sure enough, a few minutes later I was coasting downhill.

It turns out the clunky hybrid is capable of some decent speed. Hours and hours of pedaling with the bike sitting on a trainer in my kitchen during the winter and rainy spring must have paid off. My legs weren't screaming despite the long uphill climb, so I pedaled to maintain my speed. I even caught and passed a couple of people. Flying down one hill, hearing nothing but the wind in my ears, I realized that I was having fun. Even though I was racing, I was relaxed and enjoying being out in the fresh Adirondack air. The frustrating swim was out of my head. Instead, I was wondering how I could get my hands on a road bike for next time. At that point, I knew there would be a next time.

I was almost disappointed when the transition area came into view and I had to get off the bike. I found my place in rack and left my bike, then turned and ran back out of transition and onto the run course. The sun was strong and the run also started uphill. I was running too hard and felt my heart rate climb, so I took a couple thirty-second walking breaks, had some water at the next aid station, then started running again. It took a couple of minutes, but I found my rhythm and the rest of the run went by quickly. Before I knew it I could see the finish line. Just as it came into view I could hear someone coming behind me. Not wanting to get passed at the end, I sprinted to the finish, slowing down just before crossing the line to wave to my kids and my mom.

A volunteer handed me a finisher's medal while another cut the timing chip strap off my ankle. Then I got hugs from my family. My son told me to wear my medal, so I did. I was no longer an aspiring triathlete. I finished. I am a triathlete.

Monday morning, after taking the remainder of the weekend to think about my race and what I needed to do to get better, I registered for another triathlon. In September, I'll be competing in the Lake George Triathlon. This will be an Olympic distance event, twice as long as the sprint I'd just completed. This time I will be ready for that swim.
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