Several years ago, I got the urge to do a triathlon. When my second pregnancy occurred almost immediately following the first, I mentioned to my sister-in-law that I would probably never get around to doing that triathlon after all. She encouraged me to make a new goal – to complete a triathlon by the time the baby was 2 years old. Well, that second baby just turned 18 months old…
Around April of this year, I did an Internet search on triathlons in Michigan and found one that was a Sprint distance, taking place not far from our home in September. The race happened to fall on the day before my 35th birthday. I thought that was fitting, so I decided to do it. I e-mailed a friend and co-worker who had taught me how to swim laps when I became pregnant the first time. I explained to Maria, who is a former high school swim coach, what I wanted to do and she was extremely supportive. “You can do it!” she told me. “Want to do it with me?” I asked. “No way” was her reply.
I then came up with an incredibly vague training plan. With two little ones under the age of two and a half, I decided that I would be doing well if I could swim, bike and run once a week. I did that for several weeks, then discovered a website for ‘Tri Newbies’. There were several training programs online, including a 10-week program for beginners doing their first Sprint, which I printed out and started following.
The training program involved working out 5 days a week, sometimes twice a day! Since my boys go to bed fairly early, I was able to do most of my biking and running in the late evening, after putting them to bed. I’m definitely not a morning person, so that approach worked out well for me.
About halfway through my training, I decided to get new running shoes. I went to a new running store in our town and told the salesman I was training for my first triathlon. He asked me where I was swimming and I explained that I worked at a college and was swimming at a pool on campus. He asked if I had done any open water swimming. I told him no, and confessed that I was a little nervous about swimming in a lake. I was grossed out by the thought of seaweed touching me and fearful of contracting some disease from swallowing lake water! He invited me to join a group of swimmers that met twice a week at a lake not far from the store. I told him I would think about it.
A few weeks later, I got myself out of bed at 7:00 on a Saturday morning and drove out to the park where these swimmers met. The running store manager was there and he explained that the lake was approximately ½ mile across and everyone swam out and then back for about a 1-mile swim. I told him that I’d never gone further than 400 yards in a pool. There were two other women training for their first triathlon, and neither of them had made it across the lake yet. I ended up swimming out halfway, then turned around and swam back to shore. This was further than I had ever swam before, but it felt easy! The next week, I decided I was going to swim all the way across the lake. Another woman said she would try it with me. When we both made it across, our fellow swimmers met us with cheers and hugs. It reminded me of why I wanted to do a triathlon.
As my race approached, I made a list of gear I would need to bring with me on the day of the race. I decided I would drive myself to the race instead of riding with my husband and our two boys. I knew I would be nervous that morning and didn’t want to be late to the park because of a toddler emergency.
The morning of the race arrived and I was nervous, but ready. I drove myself to the MetroPark where the race was to be held and arrived an hour and a half before the start. I racked my bike along with the other Sprint athletes and made my way to registration. I ran into a couple of people I’d met while training and chatted with them. I made my way to the body-marking area where they wrote my registration number on both arms and both legs, along with my age on the back of one leg. After the body marking, I ran into another friend who was doing the Sprint race with me. She and I checked out the swim course and decided we would stand aside after the start and let everyone else go ahead of us in the swim. (That turned out to be a big mistake.)
A few family members showed up to cheer me on. My husband was there with our sons. My mother and sister came, too. Some friends of ours live very close to the park, so they showed up with their daughter. We all gathered on the beach for the start of the race. My boys had fun playing in the water while we waited for the race to start. The weather was cool and foggy, and standing on the beach with 400 other swimmers, all waiting for the start of the race was very exciting!
They started the swimmers off in five waves. The young men doing the Olympic distance went first, then the older Olympic-distance men. They Olympic women went next, then the Sprint-distance men. I was in the 5th wave with all the other Sprint women. The horn sounded and we were off! I walked into the water behind everyone else with my friend at my side. I took off swimming and looked back at her. She had a panicked look on her face, and she wasn’t moving! I said, “Come on – you can do it”, but she just stood there, panicked, shaking her head so I had to go on without her.
I got into the swim and realized it was complete chaos. There were arms and legs everywhere, kicking and punching. I decided that swimming freestyle was going to be impossible due to the crowd of swimmers. I did the breaststroke, keeping my head above water so I could avoid crashing into others. I tried to make my way past the crowd of slow swimmers, but I was boxed in. I headed to the turnaround point 250 meters out. There were Olympic racers headed back already and they were swimming right into us. There were even some people doing the backstroke who couldn’t see where they were going. It was a mess! At one point, I got smacked in the head and my goggles came loose. I treaded water while I adjusted them, and swallowed a huge mouthful of lake water. Yuck!
Finally at the turnaround point, I broke free from the crowd and was able to swim freestyle. I finished the swim and ran out of the water. I ran up to the transition area and rinsed off my feet with a water bottle. I sat down and put on my socks and shoes, threw a t-shirt on over my tri suit and grabbed my bike helmet. I hopped on my bike and started to ride out of the transition area. An official yelled at me, “You can’t ride your bike in the transition area!” so I apologized and hopped off. I walked out of transition, got back on my bike and rode off.
After the crowd in the lake, it felt strange to be biking all by myself. Once I felt comfortable on the bike, I pulled out my bottle of drinkable yogurt to refuel. I was holding it in my hand, which rested on my handlebars, when I suddenly hit a big bump. Yogurt splashed all over me! I drank the rest of it and stuffed the empty bottle in my seat bag. During the ride, I watched closely to see if anyone who passed me was riding a mountain bike as I was. I’m happy to report that no mountain bikers passed me, only those on road bikes. I even passed a few people myself, one of them a slim young 27-year old (who later passed me on the run). I did two laps around the park (20 Kilometers) and rolled back into transition.
As I approached the transition area, I saw my youngest son trip and fall on the concrete. He started crying, hard. My girlfriend saw me hesitate, then yelled, “He’s fine – keep going!” I traded my helmet for a baseball cap and threw on a pair of soccer shorts. I wound my way around the transition are to the start of the 5K run. The beginning of the run was over a hilly, grassy area. I only ever run on pavement, so I was really concerned I was going to trip and/or break an ankle. I eventually made it onto pavement and realized that the morning fog had burned off and it was really hot. I was incredibly tired during the run and wanted more than anything to stop and walk. As I reached the halfway point and turned around, I saw my friend who had frozen up at the start of the swim. I was happy to see that she was still in the race. I kept going and eventually reached the grassy area that meant I was almost done. I could hear a man on the loudspeaker calling names. I heard him say, “Where is Debbie Gowan?” and I laughed. As I got closer, he announced my name again and told everyone that I was completing my first triathlon. I crossed the finish line and received a cold, wet towel to put over my shoulders. I turned in my Champion Chip and made my way over to my family. They said, “We’re so proud of you!” and I felt tears in my eyes. I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life, but felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. I’m a 35-year old mother of two… and a triathlete!