It probably goes without saying that a mother of seven young children doesn’t exactly have a lot of time on her hands. As a mother of seven young children, I would concur with that observation. However, I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to successfully teach children to reach for their dreams and achieve their goals is to have dreams and goals of my own. One of my stretch goals, which I knew would require a significant amount of effort, from finding time and energy to train, to confronting the anxiety of an unfamiliar experience, has been to compete in a triathlon. On the cusp of my fortieth birthday, I decided now was as good a time as any. So, I did it.
I wish I could claim that completing a triathlon has been a lifelong dream, but like so many ambitions in my adult life, it came sometime after I emerged from my painfully introverted shell. The ambition to do a triathlon didn’t hit me like a lightning bolt–the epiphany sort of sneaked up on me and has been marinating in the back of my mind for a while. Earlier this year, I decided to do a quick 40 Before 40 list (if you know nothing about me, know that I live for lists…) with moderately challenging goals that I was confident I could complete in the year before(ish) my birthday. Et, voilà. The countdown to complete the goal was begun.
First, I had to FIND a triathlon that was welcoming enough to beginners that it wouldn’t chew me up and spit me out. Swimming in a lake so cold it required athletes to wear a wet suit? NOPE. A triathlon done completely on gym equipment and the pool? PASS. A city-centric triathlon? NOT MY IDEA OF FUN. Fortuitously, I found a sprint (a.k.a. shorter) triathlon not far from our house and on an August Saturday when no one else had anything planned. The thought of crossing another goal off my 40 Before 40 list overrode any self-doubt that would have otherwise paralyzed me, so I filled out my information, clenched my eyes shut, and pushed the send button. Since the world around me didn’t implode, I took it as a good sign that maybe I hadn’t made a horrible mistake.
There were a lot of aspects of a triathlon I knew I wouldn’t figure out until I was on the course, so the best I could do to prepare was to train my body as vigorously as possible. Soon after signing up for the triathlon, I confessed to my family what I’d done, and they wholeheartedly began their roles as coaches, mentors, and cheerleaders. I rarely worked out alone–there was always someone willing to go with me, which was often a blessing and a curse. I may not be in the best shape of my life, but most of the time, I can still whoop my kids in athletic competition. That meant I’d have to take several shorter laps near the house so I could drop them off and either pick up another kid who was fresh and rested, or finish the workout in a brief solo stint.
Jack and I have always tried to foster our children’s individuality–they’re not a single entity to us, which also came in handy for triathlon training. Henry, Zoey, Peter and Adam preferred racing against me on their bikes, Kate and Claire would lace up and hit the road with me, Evelyn humored me and spent a few days a week coaching me how to swim competitively, and Jack accompanied me to the gym to lift weights. Friends who’d done triathlons offered advice (pro tip: if you ever do a triathlon, make sure you especially practice riding a bike THEN running… jelly legs are a real phenomenon 😆). I truly appreciate the effort everyone else took to contribute to my ambition.
When the weekend of the triathlon approached, as usual, dread nestled itself comfortably in my gut. What was I thinking? Why did I assume I could compete in THREE sports in one early morning?? The combination of fear of the unknown, self-doubt, anxiety over doing something solo and new, and competition nerves was a potent cocktail. Fortunately, I’ve learned to recognize my insecurities for what they are and have intentionally chosen experiences that have forced me to confront those particular feelings. Having Jack, the kids, and other family members and friends as cheerleaders also helps. 😘
The morning of the triathlon allowed me a rare quiet moment in my life. It was just me and my thoughts on the car ride to the course, and without having to get a bajillion kids ready to go with me, I was early enough (also a rarity) that I could park, reassemble my bike, check tire pressure, ensure I had everything I needed, and take a second to reassure myself that I was not crazy.
Okay. Maybe a little crazy, but so were the other hundred-ish people out there, too.
All athletes were congregated in a small parking lot, acting as the makeshift transition area, where bikes and the few necessary supplies were stashed. The triathlon official in charge of maintaining order in the chaos made me laugh when he greeted me–I was told serious competitors were asked to kindly be at the front so the rest of us could party at the back. I thanked him and picked a spot between two people who looked old enough to be my grandparents. We unpacked, got our body numbers, swapped stats (I had more kids than anyone there, but they also had competed at their first triathlons before I was even born, so…) and generally enjoyed our low-key, bizarre, par-tay.
When it was time to get the REAL party started, a hundred barefooted athletes meandered down to the shoreline of a neighborhood pond. The course was marked by three red inflated balloon-ish markers in the pond. Mercifully, instead of a mad dash into the water, athletes were sent in two at a time every three seconds. Aside from never having swam competitively, I also should mention I have TERRIBLE ears. Or, more specifically, tubes. The teensiest bit of water in my ears makes me feel dizzy while swimming, and often leads to annoying ear infections. I kept letting people eagerly push ahead of me so I could check my custom ear plugs for the umpteenth time until there was no one but the grandmas and grandpas left. I quit using my ear plugs as an excuse and waded into the water.
The very first stroke in the water, I aspirated some straight into my lungs. A) Nasty. B) Inconvenient. Nothing like starting a race while hacking said lungs up into the pond. When I was sure I wouldn’t choke again, I got to work. It was alright swimming with a more mature crowd. I kept pace and thought I was doing alright until I looked up to see how far away the first red bubble was.
I might as well have been crawling to it. Maybe wiggling on my stomach like an uncoordinated penguin would be more accurate.
The thing about swimming in a pond or lake as opposed to a pool is that there’s no real way to judge how far I had traveled. It wasn’t swim 25 meters and turn around at the wall. The thought of being forever paddling toward the first red ball made me feel uneasy, and the more uneasy I got, the harder I breathed and the harder it was to swim. Call me crazy, but I don’t particularly care for the feeling of doing aerobics while being expected to hold my breath more than half the time.
I noticed one of the lifeguards watching me with a keen eye, like she was ready to drag me into her canoe at the first sign of trouble. I put my head down and (very slowly) kicked my way around that danged triangle, and even managed not to be the last one back to shore. Ha. Win #1.
I tiptoed quickly to the transition area, giving myself about twenty seconds to towel dry, yank on my socks, shove my feet into my shoes, put on my helmet, and take off at a mad dash on my bike. About a week before the triathlon, I’d panicked about my generally crappy Walmart bike (are we sensing a theme about panicking? Hmm??) and found a guy selling secondhand name brand bikes. I was so, SO glad I got something even halfway better. The thing about the bike portion of a triathlon is that it’s really the only phase where a person can have a mechanical advantage. And boy, oh boy, are the advantages obvious. While I was busy catching all the poor souls chugging along on their crappy Walmart bikes, some of the little old grannies who I’d out-swam came tearing around the bike course on their spiffy triahtlon-specific bicycles. If a person doesn’t even break a sweat while riding their bike at 25 miles per hour, then they’ve probably got a decent bike. Side note: save for one of those bikes for the next triathlon.
Aside from noticing the differences in bike quality, biking was by far my favorite part of the experience. I found myself generally plunked in the middle of competitors, which is a very à propos metaphor for my life… always chugging along in the middle. Personally, I genuinely loved it. For several miles, there was no one in front or behind me other than the course officials directing me along. HUGE bonus was that the entire course was in the beautiful countryside. I clicked my tongue at all the horses, made kissy noises at goats, and rode through endless acres of green corn and soybeans. It was absolute bliss to speed along the backroads before other people might have even been inclined to roll out of bed on a Saturday morning.
As all good things must come to an end, I eventually pedaled back into the transition area where I was met with the jubilant cheering of Jack and the kids. Jack and I had both agreed it was best not to wake the kids up early to watch me float along in the pond, then disappear on a bike ride. For the run, though, they were there for it. With wobbly, tired arms and gelatinous legs, I hoisted my bike onto the stand, ditched my helmet, and began my 5k run. Of all the sports I’ve participated in, I have the most experience in running. I’ve had times and seasons when I had a decent pace, and though my gait was nothing to sneeze at, one of my secret weapons is my grit. When other competitors started shifting down into a walk, I kept chugging along knowing that the finish line was at the end of the loop.
Less than thirty minutes later, I kicked it in to the end, ecstatic that I’d managed to complete my very first triathlon, with the bonus of beating the time I’d aimed for. Instead of estimating my pace to bring me in at two hours, I finished in 1 hour and 47 minutes. Not too shabby!
I recovered with the usual post-race snacks, most of which were consumed by my locus-like children, who are always hungry, no matter if they’ve just eaten an entire Thanksgiving feast. I won the division I’d entered in, laughably entitled the “Athena” division for women (or “Clydesdale” for men). Let’s be real… it was the chubby girl group. While I appreciate the organizers recognizing that people of a–ahem–certain body type do not typically compete in triathlons, they ought to have judged my performance against the rest of the general triathletes. The Athena and Clydesdale participants were in a category of their own, though when I look at the results, I lugged my body to the finish line before about a third of the rest of the competitors, AND not all of them were only enough to be my grandparents.
Frankly, though, I feel like I should get a little extra credit. A win is a win. Go me. And, I did it while carrying around extra weight made of homemade bread and chocolate chip cookies. Not everyone can do that.
We celebrated post-race with a meal of southern comfort foods, from greasy fried chicken to mashed potatoes and rolls. I would have eaten dirt if that’s what everyone else wanted–I was too pooped to cook and extremely grateful for the rare opportunity not to have to.
The entire experience was terrible and incredible, all rolled up in one incredibly interesting and intense experience. I will definitely be competing in triathlons in the future, and know where I can improve (more lake swimming practice WITHOUT snorting water up my nose, a high tech futuristic bike, and less cookies so I can run faster, for starters) so the next one, I can PR.
Phew! A very satisfying goal crossed off my list, followed that day by the fourth and fifth event of the triathlon–a shower and a nap. 😜