Sunday, October 5, 2014

On the rebound

After I had finished my first marathon, I would cringe when I was referred to as a "marathoner." Sure, I had done one marathon, but I couldn't relate to those "real" athletes who I understood to be marathoners. Eventually I settled into that identity, though, after I'd run a few more and realized that marathoners come in all shapes, abilities, and avocations. Today however, I feel a lot differently about wearing these badges of honor, and encourage everyone to put them on early, and wear them proudly. If you run, you're a runner. If you've run a marathon, well then you're a marathoner. And guess what? I've now completed a triathlon, so here it is: I'm a triathlete.

And you can bet I'm going to wear this one proudly. Last month I raced my first triathlon, TriRock San Diego, which I'd entered without any real preparation, and with no idea how to race it. Just two weeks out from a marathon that had gone very badly, I was not yet mentally or physically recovered, and while I knew I had the basic fitness for the individual activities, had zero triathlon training under my belt. (Actually I didn't even have a belt; I only learned the day before about tri belts!) But once I was lined up in that holding area waiting for the start, none of that mattered. I'd already jumped in, and I was going to figure out how to get myself through it. With a little help from my friends:

Julie, me, and Krista, moments before the swim start.
It took a lot of neoprene, latex, lycra, and good old
fashioned emotional support to hold it all together.

It was a brutally early morning (a 6:30 a.m. start, which required a 5:15 a.m. arrival at the Embarcadero Park downtown), but the atmosphere in the transition area was thrilling. And intimidating. At road races, you look around and see all shapes and sizes lining up to compete. But at a triathlon, you look around and you pretty much see a bunch of bad asses. I found a volunteer to get me marked up, and when she asked my age (so she could write it on my calf), I hesitated for a moment before I said it out loud: "forty." Oh, right! It's my birthday! In all of the excitement, I'd momentarily forgotten.

Brand new age group!

I didn't know anything about setting up a transition area, but TriRock had provided an awesome athlete checklist, so I had packed everything I needed (except that belt) and just looked over at how Krista had set hers up, and did the same. My girlfriends and I had a few minutes to nervously fidget and ponder how it was we had gotten ourselves into this, and then it was time to head to the water. As we watched the first waves head out, I noted with a gulp how far those buoys looked, and turned to Krista and Julie and said "I really wish I'd done some swimming in preparation for this." We had ourselves a good laugh, and then we were off.

An experienced triathlete friend had encouraged me not to get mentally ahead of myself during the race, but to be present in each individual sport, which turned out to be incredibly helpful advice. In the water, I kept my mind on the swim, and didn't let myself think about the bike, the sport that gives me the greatest anxiety. I hadn't swum the distance (1500m) in a couple of months, and didn't have a good feel for how to pace myself. I knew I was strong enough for it, though, so decided not to worry about pace (I don't have a waterproof watch, anyway!), and instead just enjoyed it. The view of the sun rising over the Coronado bridge from my vantage point in that warm 74-degree water was remarkable, and as I relaxed into my stroke, I remembered how lucky I am that I get to do any of this.

Just out of the water, and headed toward T1!
(Now that I'm a triathlete, I totally say things like "T1.")
Once I was out of the water, I spotted my husband and mother-in-law waving and cheering, a perfect distraction as I nervously ran to the first transition area (T1) to get ready for the bike. Here was the moment I'd been dreading for months. But the fatigue and bliss of the swim had softened the edges of my anxiety, as had the hilarity of my wet, awkward bumbling with the cycling gear, and within a few minutes that went by in a blur, I had mounted my bike and I was off. I spent the first few minutes wondering what important thing I had forgotten to do, and getting comfortable on my bike (I hadn't been on it in a full month), but eventually I settled in for the 22-mile ride. I hadn't ridden more than 15 miles in about a year, and so really didn't know what to do with myself. But as the thoughts of worry about working too hard and not saving enough for the run came, I remembered that good advice, and instead just rode comfortably, and enjoyed the scenery. This course was fantastic, taking us onto Naval Base San Diego, past the big ships and some great city views. My favorite part was that it was a double-loop, so I was able to spot Julie and Krista out there a couple of times along the way, even though we were riding different speeds and distances.

Finishing the ride, and heading into T2,
behind the San Diego Convention Center.
My husband, mother-in-law, and friends were cheering on the sidelines shortly before we arrived back at the transition area, and a wave of relief washed over me as I passed them and pulled in to get off my bike. I hadn't wrecked, or caused a wreck (that I knew of, anyway), and was feeling strong. "Time to run, hooray! This part, I know how to do!" I thought to myself as I switched out my helmet for a visor, pinned on my bib, gulped down a few bits of food and water, and set out on the six mile run. Which quickly turned into "Wait a minute, what is this? This doesn't feel like running ..." The first mile was an absolute bear, and I felt like I had concrete blocks strapped to my shoes. I had done two very short bike-run brick workouts as I was tapering for my September marathon, so I did have some familiarity with this sensation. I was really unprepared, though, for just how trashed my legs were going to feel by this point. But again, the course saved me with lovely views, and a double-loop that provided plenty of opportunities to spot my friends along the way. While far more difficult than I'd anticipated, those six miles were among my favorite I've ever run.

My back and legs were in a world of hurt
by mile 5 of the run, but I was all smiles.
I genuinely loved every second of this race, and it provided a much needed mental reset after getting so thoroughly wrecked in the last marathon. My first triathlon was like that really great first date with an exciting new person, after having your heart broken in a long term relationship. I'm on the rebound, and the sport of triathlon caught me in a moment of vulnerability, when I was beginning to doubt myself as an athlete. I'm reminded about the part of me that loves being the "new kid" and not knowing what I'm doing. I'm kinder on myself when I'm trying new things, and let myself enjoy the adventure. In the hours and days that passed after crossing that finish line, I began to feel some forgiveness toward the marathon and toward myself. If this 40 year old body can finish an Olympic distance triathlon on that little training, then it can surely keep up the quest for a Boston qualification, and get it done.

I can't say I competed strongly in this event, but I will say that I competed well. I learned some things that I'll apply to future triathlons (oh, there will be future triathlons), and now that I have a sense of what it's like to string all of these events together, I know that I could have pushed harder on each of them individually. I don't enjoy cycling enough to become a serious triathlete; I just don't want to spend that much time on a bike! And while me and the marathon are going to get back together, and keep working on things, I think I'm going to keep this little love affair with the triathlon going on the side.

Friends for more than a quarter century,
and now, partners in TRI!


  1. Great job finishing your first triathlon. I agree that sometimes it is just fun to be the "new kid" and just try something new and not having any expectations. Love your recap!

    1. Thank you! I really hope I can hang on to that sense of fun an adventure in my next one, and not get TOO hung up on the expectations that I've set for myself.