The Dumbest Thing I Ever Did…So Far

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.

Wellington Lake
Beautiful Wellington Lake


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.

Training at the pool
Training at the pool


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.

Swim Bike Sell Outfit
I may not have felt ready but I looked ready.


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.

Buoys go way out
Buoys go way out into the lake


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.

Waterfall at Wellington Lake
Waterfall at Wellington Lake along the run


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.”

My Bike at the Triathlon
My Bike at the Triathlon


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.

Final run of the Triathlon
Final run of the Triathlon


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.

Finishing the Triathlon
Finishing the Triathlon.  See the people packing up.


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.

And thanks to SwimBikeSell for the fabulous triathlon outfit and SwimBikeMom for good triathlon advice.


**UPDATE – I did a 2nd triathlon the next year – I was a little smarter but more scared:  My 2nd Triathlon – Where Fear Shows Up

  • Deborah Freeman Mitchell

    You are awesome!!!! Well….I knew that before but now I think you are really awesome!!!

  • Marlene

    Yay for you! I’m glad you pushed through to the bitter end. Lots of lessons learned that you can share. Hooray for angels. You are definitely one to many people. Hope your muscles recover quickly!

  • wow what a great story! Thanks for sharing!
    Racing is about competing against yourself, your own fears and assumed limitations. It doesn’t matter where you rank compared to others. Congratulations on completing the challenge! 🙂

  • Well done! You finished a bad ass triathlon. That puts you way ahead of 99.9% of us! So you may have come last in that field but in reality, you’re in the top 1% of people in the world at running triathlons coz you have done it!

    Congrats and a brilliant blog post too!

  • Andrea, I can’t tell you how much your story inspires me. You are AWESOME! And you finished! And it doesn’t matter when, you did it! CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!

  • Aww you rock Denise and you inspire me with all you do too!!

  • Vickee

    For those who don’t know you IRL – you are a beautiful woman, Andrea. I love you to bits! You have encouraged so many people in your life in the years that I have known you! You are so funny, so generous, so GIVING – I’m glad you gave yourself the gift (really! It will be!) of this triathlon. Plus, it’s total fodder for your comedy routine. P.S. I had to look up how to spell triathlon. I had an extra vowel in it. So, you know that me and that race are not friendly.

  • Thanks so much Scott! 🙂

  • So true Mana – it’s always against ourselves 🙂 Thanks!

  • Aww thanks Marlene! And love to see your posts about taking on the longboarding challenges – we have to keep pushing ourselves, right?

  • Aww thanks Deborah!

  • Greg Jameson

    Awesome story Andrea! You made my day (and now I feel really out of shape!).

  • Great story Andrea 🙂 I got massive respect for you for completing it. Well done!

  • You rock Vickee – you are too funny! And I have to say you are an angel to so many – I always love your candid tell-it-like-it is attitude so we all feel a bit better.

  • Thanks Greg – I know you ride!

  • Thanks Andy!

  • Linda Wisler

    Good going, Andrea. And, that amazing smile at the end after all that death! What an inspiration to try that which seems unreachable and to be aware in our everyday that just getting by, for some, is an incredible challenge. Angel opportunities abound for all of us. Cheers!

  • Amy Kinnaird

    As a short distance runner and used-to-swim-at-the-gym-er, I applaud your race! As you know, most everyone else in Colorado wasn’t even attempting this. They were in bed eating pancakes while you where rounding the buoys! Applause from here! (Great story telling, too.)

  • Marlene Hielema

    Yes we do! Keeps us young inside and out.

  • Congratulations Andrea! You completed a race most of us would never attempt and lived to tell about it. Thanks for brightening my day with an entertaining and inspirational post!

  • Betty Oppenheimer Taylor

    Way to go!

  • Debbie Peck

    So proud of you Andrea for sticking with it! Great job! It’s wonderful to see that you can see the humor in things. I laughed pretty hard reading this, but also smiled in quiet admiration. P.S. The outfit totally rocked!

  • MaryKay Morgan

    I totally love you! You do shazam proud!

  • Oh, Andrea. What an adventure. I’m really proud of you for setting the goal and following through. In spite of the challenges that would have sent any mere mortal back to the starting line. I believe that life events like this a more than touchstones along our journey–they are initiations into deeper ways of being. Your decisions to keep going were about more than just this race. Expect to see huge growth in your personal and business worlds after this. I’m thrilled for you. And I admire you. You go, girl!

  • Oh my goodness Andrea! That was awesome! I’m so glad you endured the whole thing. You are so strong. Good for you!

  • Cyndi maupin

    Andrea, I am so impressed that you didn’t give up but instead reached deep within yourself to keep going. Congrats and you are a huge WINNER!

  • Kristy Schnabel

    I was waiting to hear what happened with the triathlon because I saw your snazzy outfit, then the next thing I saw were pictures of Alaska, so I really had to track this one down. Once again you exemplify that if we figure out everything before we leap, well, we wouldn’t do much. I am beyond impressed that you finished. For me, the swimming is easy, but I couldn’t do the running or biking. 65 degrees is just about perfect for me — a wetsuit would have been a pain to put on and off and would have been too hot, not to mention that it makes you float too high. You’ve proved that you are an amazing woman who doesn’t quit despite obstacles, and you’re an example to us all. Congratulations on your achievement! (And you beat the million people who didn’t get up off the couch that day!)

  • I know – it’s been a crazy week for me! Speaking on Thursday and then leaving directly to the airport to go to New York. Nuts! Thanks Kristy!

  • Thanks so much Linda!! We miss you at Atonement 🙂

  • Mmmm pancakes 🙂

  • Thanks Stan!!

  • Thanks Betty!

  • Thanks so much Debbie – you are awesome 🙂

  • Aww – that’s why I could do it – because Shazam! 🙂

  • Thanks Charlene – you are too sweet!

  • Oh thanks Lillian!

  • Thanks so much Cyndi! Hope you are well!

  • Congrats Andrea! I’ve done hundreds of tri’s and there is always a story that goes with every one of them. You encountered a common one – bad swim. It’s a crucial stage and lots can go wrong. One of mine was the reverse of yours — having a wetsuit on when the water temps approached 80! That was the last time I used it. Those wetsuits are tricky business. You’ll do great on the next one.

  • Thanks Jeff! Yes, the swim section was not my favorite 🙂

  • But YOU DID IT!! Way to go, Andrea. It doesn’t matter that you struggled… and it doesn’t matter that you came in last. YOU FINISHED — even though it was hard. There aren’t too many people that can say they’ve finished a triathlon. But you can! You should be so proud of yourself!

  • You are my hero. I laughed, I cried when reading this. I am so damn proud of you and what you did – I can’t wait to hear about it personally. Hats off to you Andrea Vahl – what a life experience!

  • Thanks Kelly! You rock 🙂

  • You are so awesome Tara 🙂

  • Joe Cirelli

    Awesome Andrea, but talk to me before you sign up for things in the future. On the other hand, you made it, so what the heck!

  • Lisa

    Andrea, you are a rock star! This was such an inspiring article. I started working out this year and every day I learn that I am capable of more than I ever thought possible!

  • I absolutely love this story. I really felt like I was there with you learning the lessons of struggle and strengthening my soul with self motivation. I’m proud of you Andrea. And you should be so very proud of yourself – you did it!

  • What a way to debut in triathlon! Whew! That’s quite a race report. Well done and glad to read your second story about your second grace, – glad it went far better. Took a lot of guts to try again. Congrats.