I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I’m in the process of a long, drawn-out weaning process off of my SSRI medication for anxiety. It’s a big step; one that my therapist and I both believe I’m ready for, and I’m nervous and excited about it. But that’s another story entirely. The reason I mention it here is because one of the many unpleasant side effects of this weaning process is insomnia. So it probably wasn’t a great idea to do this in the week leading up to my first-ever triathlon. I’m tired.
And I was tired when the alarm went off this morning at zero dark thirty. I felt like I’d finally just fallen asleep and suddenly I was being told by the irritating jingle of my phone that it was time to hop up, look alive and get ready for an endurance race.
I was nervous as hell in the days leading up to this triathlon, a comparatively meager one to the more intense Olympic, Half Ironman, and Full Ironman distances for the more experienced triathlete. The 6th Annual Frederick YMCA Women’s Sprint Triathlon consisted of a 300 meter swim, a 10 mile bike ride, and a 3 mile run. Ideal for any beginner looking to get their feet wet (and mine did) in the sport of triathlon. So, not a big scary distance, but nerve-wracking nonetheless, at least for this noob. My stomach was in tight knots from the moment my feet hit the bedroom floor. The thought of eating anything was nauseating, but I knew I’d need at least a little fuel in my tank for the race so I managed to choke down a banana while I took a last-minute inventory of my gear.
There was a glorious sunrise happening overhead on my way down the mountain and into Middletown – my hometown – where the race was being held. The glow of the morning light awoke something in me. Determination, maybe. Or, happiness. I was happy. I was really and truly happy to be on my way to this race, something that I’d said a year ago that I wanted to do, that I’d made a New Year’s resolution for. I turned on the radio and cranked up the volume, singing at the top of my lungs for the rest of the drive.
I was greeted in the parking lot by my friend Stephanie, also a newbie triathlete whose first race will happen in the next few months. A big hug and a few jokes were exactly what I needed to help keep the jitters at bay. She walked with me up to the transition area, snapped photos while I got marked up with my race number, and hugged me once again before I headed for the indoor pool.
We were lined up for the swim according to our estimated finish times. I’d said that I thought I could finish in about two hours. I knew I was overestimating and betting on worst-case-scenario, but I generally based this off of my usual length of time to complete a 10-12 mile ride, which was about an hour (because I literally live on a mountain and the only place I ride my bike are on insanely killer, very non-beginner hills. Elite cyclists fly by our house regularly on the weekends because the roads around here offer beautiful scenery and very, very tough climbs.); and a slower-than-average running pace of 10:30/mile (since my legs are usually like lead when I run off the bike); and a swim time of about 8 or 9 minutes, which is how long I typically took to do 300m in the lake (the only place I’d done my training swims, and I usually had to take breaks every 50 or 100m because swimming positively exhausted me). I gave myself some extra padding for long transitions and a possible potty break. Anyway, I’m glad I overestimated because I ended up swimming earlier than I would have if I’d gotten my finish time even close to being accurate (more on that later).
As I was waiting in line watching the other ladies ahead of me do their swims, I spotted my friend Lauren on the other side of the pool. She was holding a sign that said, “Go Suzanne” and she was very clearly searching for me in the crowd. I jumped up and down trying to get her attention – I was so happy to see her! I couldn’t believe she’d actually come out to watch me do the whole race. I knew I had some friends and family coming to cheer for me at the finish line but I was surprised that she was there so early. I was thrilled that someone would be cheering for me at the swim. I snuck out of line for a quick hello and a hug from my dear friend and I felt so grateful for her cheerful and encouraging presence. The jitters continued to die down.
When it was finally my turn to jump in the pool, the nerves were gone. I was totally focused and pretty damn excited. They gave us a countdown from 10… 9… 8… and when she said, “1,” I was off. I sliced through the water like a knife in warm butter. When I’d finished my first lap, I recall thinking to myself that this pace didn’t seem sustainable, that this felt entirely too fast for my average. Sure enough, by the time I’d finished my second lap my arms were starting to burn. I kept at it. I was breathing hard and struggling to maintain my rhythm. I tried visualization, a technique I’d employed during my open water training, to stay focused. I pictured myself reaching forward and actually grabbing the water and pulling it down towards my body as if it were a pliable substance. The next thing I knew, the woman recording laps reached her hand down into the water and told me, “You did great; you’re all done!” I took a moment to catch my breath then hopped out of the pool. On my way out to T1 (the first transition area stop), Stephanie and Lauren whooped and cheered for me and snapped more pics. One down, two to go.
T1 was incredibly stressful. In fact, the transitions were the only parts of the race that were actually nerve-wracking. I attempted to dry myself a bit with the towel I’d draped over my bike saddle, but that proved futile. I was shivering from the cold morning air – and the fact that I was soaking wet in said cold air – so the first thing I did was attempt to put on the long-sleeved half-zip top I’d packed for the bike ride. This took forever. The wicking tech fabric would simply not slide on over my skin. You know what it’s like to try to put on a wet bathing suit when you, too, are also wet? That. And I was still a bit dizzy from the swim, so trying to balance on one leg while I tugged a fitted sock and then a road bike shoe onto each foot was incredibly challenging. Eventually, I gave up trying to do it from a vertical position and just sat down on the ground, planting my right foot (wearing only a sock) into a puddle of my pool water drippings as I did so. Great. Now I would have a soaking wet sock on me for the rest of the race.
I shot out of T1 like a bat out of hell; riding it, proverbially, like I stole it. This was the fun part. I absolutely love being on a bike. I can’t believe I haven’t been a regular cyclist for years. There were hills, yes, but they were teensy tiny baby hills compared to what I’d trained on, so I actually passed quite a few people. Despite thinking I’d never be somebody who would yell, “On your left!” in a race, I actually got to yell that 5 or 6 times. In sum, I made those hills my bitch.
On the final mile or so back to T2, I saw a woman running on the sidewalk who seemed to be scanning the cyclists as if she was searching for someone. It took me a moment, and it took her a moment… then we each realized, “Hey, it’s you! Yeah, it’s me!” It was my friend Jenny! She’d told me a few days before the race that she wanted to come cheer me on but she had a long run scheduled that morning (she’s training for her first half marathon) so she would try to run around the race course to see if she’d spot me. It worked! I yelled, “I’m so glad to see you!” And I couldn’t hear what she was yelling back in response, but I realized that as much as I wanted to slow down and chat with her about everything that had happened so far, I really did want to push myself to make the best time possible, so I yelled, “I’m sorry, but I gotta go!” and I took off.
Heading in to T2, I spotted more familiar, friendly, supportive faces: My dear friend Antonette and her son, my husband, my children, and my dad, who’d never seen me finish a race before. I was immediately ferklempt upon spotting my gentle giant of a father and the pride-filled smile on his face as I rode into the dismount area. Once again, I was compelled to stop and chat, but I had a race to finish. Two down, one to go.
UGH. Curse you, transition area!!! I joked that triathlon transitions are almost as stressful as labor transitions, only I wasn’t actually joking. I was so disoriented and felt so rushed that I made silly mistakes, like putting on my bike helmet – the one I’d just taken off – instead of my visor. I fiddled with the laces on my Hokas for what felt like ages, even though they’re a locking lace system and required no actual tying. Eventually, I made it out of there. I chugged a Huma gel as I started to run. I wasn’t hungry and didn’t feel like I needed it, but I knew it was a good idea to get some fuel in me just in case I bonked.
The start of the run course was in grass (ugh) and uphill (double ugh). My legs were a hundred pounds apiece from the bike ride. Once again, visualization helped me here. I imagined I was running up a set of stairs. When you run upstairs, your knees move upward and you use the balls of your feet to propel yourself up. Think up, not forward. Run up, not out. I shortened my stride and brought my knees up higher until the course flattened out. I passed several women at this point. The run was my strong suit. Even though I’m not a fast runner, I’m consistent, I don’t take walk breaks, and I’m great on hills. This was easy. I could do this.
At the turnaround for the course, Stephanie was there with the Frederick County Moms Run this Town chapter handing out water and Gatorade. Seeing that smiling face of hers again renewed my energy. I grabbed some water from her outstretched hand and exchanged a joke about how she was supposed to have spiked it with booze for me. My pace felt fast. I kept glancing down at my Garmin and seeing it read 8:45, 8:40, 8:50… Wait, what? I don’t run sub-9-minute miles, and I sure as hell don’t run them off the bike and after a swim. How was I doing this? Once again, I was worried that I was moving at an unsustainable pace but I stuck it out and went with it. A few times I slowed to a 9:50 or 10:00 pace when I veered off at a water station for a drink or when I hit that hill again on the second loop, but for the most part I hovered around 9:00/mile. Dayum.
Finally, I was in the homestretch for the finisher’s chute. In the days leading up to the race my four year-old daughter and I had talked about her joining mama for the run across the finish line. She was very excited about this. When I ran past my crew of cheerleaders, I reached out for her hand and told her it was time to cross the finish line together. She had a huge grin on her face that was simply magical. It is such a powerful thing to show your children firsthand that you are strong, that fitness is fun and rewarding, and that they can do it with you. My daughter, Blossom, and I ran hand-in-hand across the finish line of my first triathlon. When the girls at the other end of the chute handed me my medal, I gave it to my daughter and asked her to put it around my neck for me. She did so, happily. And then she immediately asked for a snack because waiting for mama to finish had made her “so hungry.” Sure thing, kid. I know you’ve had a tough morning.
I felt fantastic! In fact, I felt like I’d really worried about it for nothing. I felt like I probably could’ve done a much longer triathlon, like I hadn’t maxed myself out at all. Could I have really been out there for almost 2 hours, my estimated finish time? After hugging my loved ones and thanking them profusely for spending their Sunday mornings waiting around for me to finish this race, I decided to go to the chip timing results booth to see what my official time was.
Are you serious?
What the what?
The breakdown went something like this (and I don’t have the actual numbers in front of me, but I have the general idea, so these are rounded numbers):
Swim: just under 6:00 (I’d estimated 9:00)
Bike: 44 minutes (I’d estimated 60)
Run: 27 minutes (I’d estimated 32)
I was floored, and thrilled. And I also felt a bit silly for telling everyone I would finish in two hours since that was nearly a 40-minute overestimation. So if you want to finish an easy triathlon, train hard. Swim in the lake, ride the hills, run the hills. The actual race will be a piece of cake compared to the blood, sweat, and tears you poured into the training.
And it helps to have a kick-ass cheering section.
So I did it. I saved my money and bought a bike, I trained like hell, I got a season pass to the state parks so I could have unlimited lake swims and learn how to swim like an athlete, I ran even when it made my lips turn blue, and I am an actual bona fide triathlete. I really did it. Like my friend Antonette’s sign that she and her son held up for me said: