So I signed up for a triathlon. Before you go jumping to conclusions, signing up was not the dumbest thing. Lots of people do triathlons. I love running, I love biking, and I’m a decent swimmer. So why not?
The problem was I signed up for the wrong triathlon. A horribly terrible yet very scenic triathlon. And it wasn’t really that the triathlon was terrible. The problem was that I had no business signing up for THAT triathlon.
Seemed Like a Good Idea
I live just outside of Boulder and I think that changes your perspective. Here, going on a 50 mile run is not abnormal. Everyone’s doing it. And I just want to fit in.
So when “everyone” was doing triathlons, I thought, sure why not?
I was looking through them I saw the “Sprint” distances which are typically a ½ mile swim, a 12 mile bike ride, and a 3 mile run. I already running 6-8 miles normally and biking longer distances so I thought – hey I’ll go for a longer one, a Sprint is for sissies.
I was looking around and found one that looked so pretty – in the mountains, off-road bike trails, a waterfall along the route – I was sold. The area was Wellington Lake near Bailey Colorado.
It was a 1 mile swim, 24 mile bike ride, and 5 mile run – piece of cake I thought. I’ll just train a little more for the swimming and I’ll be all set.
I Did Train – I Thought
I had never done a lot of swimming but I wasn’t a bad swimmer. So I signed up for a masters class at my local pool that met 3 times a week at 5:30 a.m. and you would swim for an hour.
I went twice a week for about 5 weeks and I really improved. The coaches gave me great tips to help my breathing and strokes.
But I didn’t do much open water swimming – I only tried it twice. Most of my experience was in a nice warm pool with a big fat line on the bottom of the pool to tell you where to go.
I was running 2-3 times a week at distances of 4-8 miles so I thought I had that part sewn up.
Then I did a few long bike rides on trails near my house and got my bike all tuned up. Good to go!
And most importantly, I bought the right outfit.
Then I Almost Died – About 12 Times
The triathlon start time was 8:30 a.m. but I got there around 6:15 to get checked in and to be able to pretend like I knew what I was doing.
A triathlon goes swim, bike, run so I was happy to get the swim out of the way. Luckily they had a “first timer” wave at the end so that we didn’t have to go with the larger waves. There were about 15-20 other first timers.
The first problem came when they announced the water temperature at 65 degrees. The website had said it would be between 68 – 72. So all the triathletes got their wetsuits on. I didn’t have a wetsuit.
As we got ready for the swim, one woman said, “Look at you with no wetsuit!” And I was like “Yeahhhhhh. I’m pretty badass. I don’t need a wetsuit.” Ok I didn’t say that. I said I didn’t have one.
Out of 200 people there was only one other person without a wetsuit. Great.
So she said what people say when they don’t have anything better to say “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” But no one really means that.
So we start the swim and swimming in open water is almost nothing like swimming in a pool except that you are wet. It’s way colder, you can’t see anything, and there are giant waves (ok maybe not giant but very large).
The swimming leg was where I almost died the most. The swim was out and back and you had to pass 4 buoys that went almost the length of the lake. The lake was so cold that my goggles kept really fogging up and I couldn’t see a thing. By about the 2nd buoy I knew I had made a huge mistake.
The great thing about the swimming leg is that the race organizers don’t want anyone to actually die during their race so they have plenty of lifeguards on kayaks to help out and watch the swimmers.
By about the half-way point I had my own personal lifeguard following me. He would call out every few minutes “Doing ok?” I’d say “Yes, doing fine!” all chipper-like while I took in heavy waves of water and looking in his general direction through my fog-covered goggles.
When finally I passed the last buoy and had about 100 yards left, my personal lifeguard left my side. I was so excited to be in site of the shore. I heard the people on shore clapping and cheering me in.
Then it happened. I got a massive leg cramp – the kind where your leg just folds up and becomes totally useless. I couldn’t do anything – I tried different strokes but nothing was working. I thought this is it, this is where I really die and everyone on shore is cheering.
Somehow, after a couple of minutes of flailing around, I was able to stretch my leg out and make it move again. I made it to shore and was so relieved to have the swim part over.
I thought that the biking and running would be much better. Boy was I wrong.
The biking was one of the reasons I signed up for this race. They mentioned the rolling hills and I liked rolling but I found that I mostly preferred rolling downhill.
I had done long single track bike rides around my house but they didn’t involve the 3 mile climbs that this race had.
The other issue was that the area hadn’t had rain in about a month so many areas of the trails were pure sand. It was like biking on the beach. Uphill. For 24 miles. With big boulders on the path.
It was horrible. And beautiful.
I had to get off and walk my bike a bunch. I had forgotten to put an energy bar in my camelback (super dumb) and it was wicked hot.
But the trail was lovely and I tried to enjoy the 2 downhills that were on the course in between the 15 uphills.
Then I got thrown from my bike and almost died. Ok maybe not thrown totally off but I hit a sandy patch and landed hard on my shoulder.
The last 3 miles of the bike portion was 3 miles literally going uphill the whole way. I cried. Mostly because I knew I still had a 5 mile run.
And the run was not that much better. As I came in finally from my bike ride, many of the people were done with the whole race. And leaving. In their cars.
I seriously wanted to quit. I came into the transition area and thought about pulling out. I felt stupid for signing up for this race that was so clearly out of my league. I was angry that I hadn’t prepared more. And I was embarrassed that I wasn’t finished yet.
But I knew I had signed up for the whole thing. And I was so close. Ok still 5 miles away but relatively close.
Angels Were There
I put my bike on the rack and said “I’m still going” to no one in particular. A woman nearby who was packing up with a medal around her neck looked up in surprise and said “You go girl.”
I encountered angels all along the race, not only in that woman with the medal, but in the organizers who cheered me on through the aid points on the bike and run portions, in the butterfly that flew in front of my bike for a long while as I struggled up a hill, in the sprinkling rain that baptized me and cooled me down when I really needed it, in the racer who was biking not far from me who checked on me when I fell, and in my lifeguard friend.
But one angel that I really appreciated came near the end of the race. I had about a ½ a mile left in the run and was on the dirt road going towards the finish and a car was coming towards me. A boy who looked about 11 rolled his window down and said “You’re almost there, keep going!”
He’ll never know what that gesture meant to me.
I Came In Last – Really Really Last
So I finally get to the finish line and I was last. I wasn’t just a little bit last. I was really really last. The only thing they had left was the finish line structure and the mat to record my chip.
Literally every single other part of the race gear was packed up.
And as soon as I crossed the finish line, they started dismantling the finish line. My bike was sitting by itself in the grass and you never would have known there was a race there.
People later asked me how my triathlon went. I said it was horrible. And beautiful.
But I think hard things often are. You are proud of those horrible moments where you want to quit and you keep going.
You aren’t usually proud of the the things that come so easily. Like breathing. Which I have a new appreciation for after that swim.
And what I find is that you can shock and amaze yourself at what you are capable of. You are capable of extraordinary things.
Angels come to meet us in those horrible places. It made me think about where I can be an angel for someone else. Give them a bit of hope that they are almost there. Keep going.
And while I may not do another triathlon (although I have the outfit so I should), I am grateful for this experience to show me that I could do it. I finished.
If you are going through the horrible, watch for angels. You can do it.
Thanks to Without Limits
I have to give a shout out to the wonderful organizers at Without Limits for their great race. It was well marked and well run. I appreciated so much that you kept the course open for me to finish.
Your lifeguards were great and the people along the way at the aid stations were angels. I would highly recommend this race to anyone who wanted a more challenging course. And who was well-prepared.
**UPDATE – I did a 2nd triathlon the next year – I was a little smarter but more scared: My 2nd Triathlon – Where Fear Shows Up