I cautiously entered the water anticipating a cold chill to zip up my spine. The New Hampshire lake was much more comfortable than I thought it would be. I submerged my feet slowly, soaking in my own world of calm, surrounded by friends and strangers getting ready to take the plunge into the first leg of a triathlon. It was about 8am. The early-morning water welcomed my feet, then my ankles, then crept partway up my shins. It was all surprisingly pleasant — an early morning calm before the storm of competition.
I was about to participate in my first triathlon. In some ways, I felt like an impostor. As I stood there in a Nike sports bra and bikini bottom (complete with little beads dangling at the sides — which one of us was not afraid of creating a little extra drag in the water? This girl!), I realized that maybe it appeared I wasn’t taking this as seriously as the other athletes around me, most of whom were decked out in various forms of official triathlon gear and easily removable wet suits. But all who assumed this would have been wrong.
Sure, I wasn’t there to win (really!), or even necessarily “race.” I was simply there to finish, to challenge myself, and mostly to do it with the group of people who had encouraged me to join them. But this triathlon meant more to me than finishing quickly. Completing it at all (which I knew I would do no matter what, but hoped I could do with relative grace and success) would be my victory.
When it comes down to it, I was totally unprepared. I never swim (unless you count the 3 preparatory swims I did the week leading up to the triathlon — the first of which left me panting pretty uncomfortably hard, the second of which made me feel like I was trying to be Diana Nyad en route to Cuba — even though it was probably a 10 minute swim). I hadn’t biked in months and any biking I have done has been on totally flat concrete with a hybrid or mountain bike (not ideal). As for running, I had only just worked my way back up to 4 mile runs four years after a knee injury that prevented me from running at all.
Despite being pretty unprepared on paper, I was feeling good and ready to take on this challenge. As you get older, you realize a lot of these things are more mental challenges than physical ones. I knew that if I pushed myself, I could do it. Mental challenges have become my favorite hobby — now I just had to get my body to follow. Plus, I was lucky enough to have a very supportive, silly, low-key group of people doing it with me. All in all, the conditions for trying and giving it my best were perfect.
I was definitely nervous in the weeks leading up to the triathlon, but then something changed (as it always does) on “race” day; I felt incredibly relaxed. Waking up with the sunrise, loading the beautiful road bikes we rented onto the car, and packing my caffeinated gels and electrolyte-rich gummies for the transition points made it all a little more exciting. Strapping a timer onto my ankle and getting my number written on my limbs made it all real. I was one of “them” now. I was ready to try.
The race started off brilliantly. When it was time for my heat to dive into the water, I was as calm as I could have hoped. And just as life goes, everything turned out a little differently than I expected. I thought the swim would be the most uncomfortable and foreign-feeling event, but I felt relaxed, strong, and calm swimming, like I was the only one in the water (until, a few laps later, I got the equivalent of “run over” by super swimmers — which I was surprisingly ok with). When you’re a competitive person, something switches in your brain after a race starts. My biggest concern was keeping track of that switch — dimming it, if possible, without fully extinguishing it — and staying reasonable (in other words, constantly reminding myself that I was not a competitor, I was a participant).
I could barely believe it when the swim was over, because I felt so… good! I felt strong, I was breathing well, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start. Despite competing as individuals, the group I was with decided we would all finish together. So I was surprised when I was one of the first ones out of the swim, and took my time walking to the transition area. I even got to take a bathroom break. Now that’s a relaxed triathlete!
Then we all mounted our bikes and set across the little wooden bridge to begin the ride. I had spent so much energy worrying about the quarter-mile swim that I had barely even considered the fact that there would be an extremely challenging (read: SUPER hilly) 12.1 mile bike ride afterwards. Biking is something I know how to do — right?! Well, yes and no. I have never really learned how to properly and strategically switch gears, and hills are not something a city kid gets to practice on much. Not to mention, I had never ever been on a road bike — let alone a $2,000 bike that I was borrowing for 1 day. So, my plan for “winging-it” was about to get interesting.
Sometimes in life, you just find yourself on a bike with a set of hills ahead of you. At that point, all you can do is start pedaling. So, that’s what I did. And man, this bike felt good! In some ways, I felt like the bike did the triathlon for me… But it took a mile or so to get comfortable with the ride. Less than half a mile into it, I encountered my first hill. I switched into the lower gears and gave it my best, with lactic acid building up a little too quickly in my quads. The burn came on a little too soon, given that this would be about an hour-long ride, so I tried to just focus on my breathing and pacing myself.
When I got to what I thought was the top of the hill, I quickly realized it was only the stoop leading to the front door of a fifth-floor walk-up apartment, and I still had the five flights of stairs to get up to (and then a trip to the rooftop, apparently). Cue: humbling experience.
As I rode, I think it was during mile 6 or 7 that the relentless presentation of consecutive hills began to wear on me a little. At this point, I had lost site of some of my teammates, and I realized I was riding my own race. I kept playing around with the gears, looking at the speed of other riders’ legs and trying to figure out what I should be doing. Then, I got to the hill that would put me in my place. Ah yes, everyone has that hill…
My legs were burning from the previous set of hills, and without a downhill in site, I was a little horrified when I approached this new one. Despite feeling mentally centered, suddenly my legs didn’t seem to have enough to give. There were people walking their bikes up the hill all around me, and I desperately refused to become one of them. But without putting the bike in a low enough gear, I suddenly realized I couldn’t even pedal forward. Sometimes in life, we get to a point where, despite our best intentions, our body just says: “nope, it’s too steep.”
This hill owned me, and when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to move forward, I had to do the one thing I was trying with all my might to avoid: I had to get off my bike, and walk it about 50 feet. As I joined a few other walkers around me, a guy kindly rode by and offered to help me if I needed it. I thanked him and said I was fine, and just did my best to get my beautiful rented bike and me up that beast of a hill. Once I got to the top, I figured I’d just slip back on the bike and keep riding. But, nope. I was huffing and puffing and no matter how hard I tried to pedal up the next smaller hill just enough to get my feet back in the toe clips, I couldn’t. I wasted so much time just trying to get back on my bike, that I eventually decided to just jog up one more hill with the bike (which quickly became a slow walk) and then make up for lost time the second half of the ride.
Much to my relief, I saw my race-buddy waiting for me at the top of this hill. I was able to get back on my bike, regroup, and ride out the whole second half feeling deeply relieved that there were some downhills, not to mention the entire ride was really just peaceful and beautiful, despite how demanding it was for me.
When I saw the 10 mile marker, I couldn’t believe I was almost done with the bike. This gave me the fire I needed to try and finish strong. After dropping the bike off at the transition and getting another swig of some disgusting lime-flavored caffeinated gel, I couldn’t have been more ready and excited for the run. I knew running was my strongest event and all I had to do was get through 3 more miles before I could say “I DID IT!”
As I began to run, my legs felt a little heavier than I had hoped they would. It took about half a mile to get into it, but with my race-buddy at my side, I was able to find a good strong pace. That is, until I started getting a cramp in my side at about mile 1.5. We were running well and I knew I could have a strong run until the stitch in my side was so sharp I was forced to stop for about 10 seconds. Luckily, the stop was quick and I was able to run through it. Despite being pretty uncomfortable from the stitch, and knowing that my little ankle bracelet was digging into my skin, causing it to bleed a little, I felt about as good as I could have ever hoped to! We passed people who had passed me on the bike ride, and I knew we were going to finish strong. When I knew the finish line was near, I dug deep and made a little sprint to the finish line (after all, that competitive part of me needed its moment at some point!).
Then it happened: WE FINISHED. We did it. There is nothing more gratifying and more beautiful than putting yourself through something challenging, and crossing a finish line. In that moment, I just felt lucky. I felt grateful for the supportive people around me, grateful for my body and my knee for allowing me to get to this point again, grateful for all the strangers cheering us on along the way, grateful for the guy who offered to help me out when one hill got the best of me, grateful to New Hampshire for being so beautiful, and mostly, grateful for the people who were running alongside me — the ones who encouraged me and waited for me if I fell behind, and the ones who let me run ahead when I felt strong.
This race wasn’t a race at all. It was a personal challenge. Luckily, I got to do it with a group of people whose main focus was finishing together, not ahead of one another. In the end, what mattered wasn’t how quickly we ran through the finish line or what our times were; what mattered was that we finished, that we swam through the chaotic lake water, we biked our way through the steep and challenging uphills (even if some of them were so steep I nearly had to come to a complete standstill), and we ran through the finish with whatever we had left.
You learn a lot about yourself when you push your limits. With my thirties just around the corner, I realize that this has been a decade of doing just that. I’ve had a lot of hills and a lot of humbling moments in this decade, I’ve been surprised by what were my strongest moments and humbled by my most disappointing ones, but I’ve also had some of the most proud and gratifying moments of my life… so far.
With three decades and now a triathlon behind me, I am more convinced than ever that it doesn’t matter if you have to get off your bike and walk up some hills, or if you finish faster than anyone else: it’s all about pushing yourself through that finish line, being proud of yourself when you cross it, and recognizing who is there with you — both finishing with you and cheering you on — when you do. Then, it’s about being grateful that you’re there at all. And boy, I sure am.
In fact, I want to do that again.