My fear in advance of my first Olympic triathlon was never that I wouldn’t finish. I would find a way to will myself to that finish line. My fear was that I still would be in over my head. Like I’d be bringing up the rear far, far, far behind the rest of the pack. I’d be that gal who obviously didn’t belong among a field of bona fide triathletes.
My coach, who was in Canada the day of the race for his own race — an Ironman at that — send the training group an e-mail before the race that said: “Repeat after me . . . you have trained hard and you are ready for this race!” I still felt a little like a poseur since I didn’t follow the training plan quite as militantly as I would have preferred.
Immediately after the cannon fired to signal the start of the race (yes, they fired a cannon … how awesome is that?), I found myself treading water, waiting for my own swim wave to start and feeling the panicky feeling I often get in open water coming on. The adrenaline, the crowd, the open water, it was all just too much, and the feeling of being a poseur was taunting me. When the race coordinator shouted “go!” I slipped into breast stroke instead of the freestyle stroke I’d worked so hard on all summer. I hated myself in that water for not looking the part of the sleek, aerodynamic triathlete, but by God I did not want to drown. I just wanted to keep swimming. And keep swimming, I did.
The flat tire I was convinced I would have never showed up, and the massive hill that scared me so much during my little driving preview of the course turned out to be not so bad. I mean, it was still a bitch of a hill, but I was prepared for it. Plus, there was a breathtaking (in the good way) view at the top and a kick-ass long and speedy downhill immediately thereafter. And then it occurred to me: I was having fun.
I was waiting for the mental wall to hit me during the run as it usually does. I hate running. I really hate running in the hot summer sun. I especially hate running at the end of a triathlon. I was certain that running a 10k in the hot summer sun after biking 25 miles and swimming 1500 meters would end up being the most mentally demanding thing I’d ever done in my life. It wasn’t. Sure, I had to walk a bit, but I ran far more than I ever presumed I would, and it really didn’t take digging that deep to do it. Around the 4.5 mile mark, I nearly started crying out of sheer pride for how well I was doing (fucking endorphines). Instead, I dug into my pocket for a Gu energy pack to give me a little burst of finish-strong energy and ended up with peanut butter Gu all over my hand. I mean, I couldn’t get all the way through the race without incident, right?
The last half mile or so of the run was straight up a hill and culminated at an 18th century fort, giving the race its “Storm the Fort” moniker. Any good triathlete knows you sprint the last hundred meters or so to save your pride in front of the crowd of onlookers at the finish line. That sprint actually knocked the wind out of me. I had felt pretty good on the course, but I still found a way to leave it all out there all the same.
One of the most wonderfully surprising things about the race aside from feeling good in the thick of it was that every single competitor shared words of encouragement along the way. They all had a “great job” or “keep it up” to offer me as I met them on the out-and-back run course — me on the out part, them on the back. It was the most Susie Sunshiny race I’ve ever been a part of, and as cheesy as it sounds now, I totally ate it up. And they were all still hanging around the finish line when those of us in the back of the pack made it there, cheering each one of us by name. And despite the fact that I was wheezing my way over the finish line, I did actually cry a little bit. It took me three hours and 24 minutes to get there, which is admittedly slow, but time was never the point. For the first time in three years of doing triathlons, I felt like an honest-to-goodness bona fide triathlete.