It’s 4:00 am on June 1, 2014, my alarm rings and I spring awake. It’s here… today…THE day. I sit on the edge of the bed, and for a moment I think about how far I’ve come in a very short time. Convincing myself that I’m ready, dispelling the thoughts that I’ve had for the last few days of doubt, and questioning myself, did I train enough? Did I train right? I didn’t look back and before I stood up and forged forward, for a moment, my thoughts rewind 14 months earlier to where I was face down on that bed in that hotel room. My heart pounding out of my chest, drunk, stoned, a pack of cigarettes a day, way overweight at 230 lbs., 44 inch waist, hoping that’s where they were going to find my 54 year old body in the morning.
I was told, after the fact, that I had a moment of clarity. It was what I needed and wanted. It was the end of my life as I knew it and the beginning of the beginning. I decided that I wanted to live. I wanted to be a better husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and friend. The next day I was fortunate enough to be able to check into rehab. I got sober, clean, and began to wake up and 21 days later, came home calm and peaceful… and determined to change, to transform. The anger, resentments, and everything else toxic were disappearing. Even though my failing marriage couldn’t be saved, a slow positive transformation had taken root. Staying positive, happy, sober, optimistic, were all part of my mantra. I started to eat better, care for myself better. I started to exercise, workout, lose weight, feel healthy, and with no pressure it just felt natural. I flouted any and all negative comments directed at me along the way… “Don’t lose any more weight”, “You’re going through a midlife crisis”, “You’re trading one addiction for another”, "You’re too old to do that”, “You’re being selfish." The only thing I was truly selfish about was my sobriety because if I didn’t have that, I had nothing. I further wanted to learn about what I was putting in my body, nutrition and incorporated the gym and exercise into my life and I felt like a sunrise.
Then one day, August 25, 2013, I decided to take the old bicycle out of the garage just for some different type of exercise outside of the gym and maybe just feel like a kid again. I realize now, that was the moment in time that ultimately lead me to try for a triathlon. I’m not sure what prompted me to get to that point but I never looked back. I immersed myself learning, reading, and watching everything I could about triathlons, the race itself, sprints, olympics, half Ironman, full Ironman, how to train, techniques on swimming, biking, and running as well as the equipment and heart rate monitors and heart rate training, eating correctly and refueling and the list goes on. I watched and read every motivational speech and video I could find on the Internet. Some of the things I drew on and that were burned into my mind when I just wanted to give up, when I hit a wall, or when I bonked, were Jimmy Valvano’s speech while dying of cancer, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up" or Eric Thomas, "Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it will last forever." I was determined to do this and the first and only goal at the onset was to simply finish. Now, 14 months later, 177 lbs., 34 inch waist, no cigs, no booze, no more bad food, low cholesterol, no more bad lifestyle, no toxic relationship, I'm in good shape and my doctor has okay'd me to go. In fact she tells me I can do a sprint triathlon every month this summer and go for an Olympic length or maybe a Half Ironman before the year is out.
I had my pre-race morning routine all set and when I got out of bed, I did exactly as planned. I had a bagel with peanut butter and even though I had butterflies, I still ate. I tried to stay focused and calm and did so fairly well. I had everything in the car and the bike on the rack. I was ready to roll and was on my way at 4:30 am. I had to be at the site between 5:15 and 6:00am and I was on time as the ride out was about 40 minutes. A nice quiet calm ride heading east on Long Island as sunrise approached. After arriving, I got my gear, checked in, got marked with my bib number on my arm and thigh and my age on my right calf and my timing chip. I got to my numbered rack in the transition area, laid my gear out like I had practiced. I forgot nothing and I was ready. I was just trying to keep busy as to not give any doubt, fear, or nervousness a chance to sneak in.
The day was supposed to be beautiful and it was shaping up that way but at 6:30am with 26 minutes until my wave was to go, it was 54° F. I had my tri suit on already and it was time for the wetsuit. It went on without too much difficulty and a woman next to me helped zip me up. The camaraderie just seemed to be that way. It was very cool. To quell my nerves I made idle chat with some of the other athletes, perhaps looking for anything to squash the underlying nervousness. Then, I heard my name, I spun around and there they were, my two sisters and my 75 year old mother came to root me on. I knew they were coming but didn’t think I’d see them until the end. They were beaming, smiling ear to ear, they were as excited as I was and I could see it in their faces. They knew I wanted this, I think they knew I needed this too, another hurdle to put the past further behind me. They wanted their picture taken with me… they made me feel like a rock star. My sisters were joking with me about how crazy I was to do this and they put me at ease. I had to get going and I just thought, 'they’re here and they’re here for me'… my family. No time to get choked up or emotional about it right now, I’d save it for the end. OK...the announcement was made. Time for the first wave, the elite athletes were off first. But before that, our National Anthem… the flag hanging and majestically flowing between two huge fire truck ladders in the early morning sun… O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The athletes started to make their way towards the bay to the starting point. Wave one athletes were wading in, the countdown from 10 seconds and at 6:50am they went with all the other athletes watching intently. A bit of a stiff current going from left to right made them start the next waves a bit more to the left. The chatter was that the current will be pushing us after the first buoy. Any help I can get was welcomed. Wave two athletes were wading in, the countdown from 10 seconds and at 6:53am, off they went. My wave, wave three was next. I look at my heart rate monitor and I’m at 120. I didn’t care - it was the nerves, the adrenaline, I was ready to go. The water is 65° F and I’m bracing myself before I step in. As I step in… wow, not as cold as I expected on my feet. Another weight lifted as I started to wade in with the others up to my waist and then my chest. Wetsuit doing its job, LOL, another weight lifted. There was no turning back now, no second guessing. I was thinking, 'just do as you trained.' This was a real moment of truth for me. Man vs. nature and man vs. man. The countdown started from 10 seconds and at 6:56am, off we went and off I went.
So far so good and I’m in the pack and not getting kicked. I think I’m sighting pretty well heading to the first buoy. Then, just what I feared: I’m getting gassed just before the first buoy and I start one arm swimming it. A volunteer paddles over and asks if I’m ok. I’m disappointed that I’m not doing well. He calms me and tells me I can do this, do as I trained, put your face down and swim. I do but slow down again. A fleeting moment flashed about quitting. I just couldn’t. A thousand thoughts passed through my brain. Don’t give up, don’t ever give up, my sisters and mom’s excited expressions, the guys at the gym, the hell I left behind me… just get through the swim and the rest is cake. And so I did, I swam. I just kept swimming like I trained as the second buoy was right there and then a right turn to the shore. I swam until I felt bottom. I got on my feet, and as if I was doing it my whole life, started to get out of the wetsuit like I was taught running towards the shore.
I saw them before they saw me. My mom and sisters were cheering me on as if the NY Rangers won the Stanley Cup. I reached T1, alive, LOL! I was noticing that there were not too many bikes remaining but yet again went into action like I trained. The wetsuit came off with some difficulty but not too bad. I put the helmet on and made sure it was strapped. My socks and bike shoes went on ok and off I was running out of T1 with the bike. I jumped on and off I went. I felt at home, at ease. The bike did seem to be my strong sport while I was training and I was feeling it. As I got about two miles into the 10 mile ride, I started passing other riders. I was riding into a slight breeze and my pace was still okay so I was thinking that on the ride back I would really cook - and I did. I passed more and more riders on the way back knowing I’d need that for the run. Just before the last turn into T2, there they were again, waving and screaming and cheering me on. I was feeling like a really lucky brother and son.
I got to T2, and again, with no issues and changed into my running shoes, took off the helmet, put on the race belt with bib and out I went. I was on my way. I could really do this. My pace was OK and I just plugged away. I was passed a few times but seeing the ages of 20 something and 30 something pass me didn’t bother me much. I hit the halfway point of the 5K run and I stopped for 15 seconds. It was just enough time to pour a cup of water over my head and drink another and then I forged on. I was over the bridge and down to the last half mile. I was going to finish - and not dead last either. Into the last turn I could see the finish line. A hundred yards to go, then fifty yards and I started to sprint, I wanted nothing in the tank when I finished. Spectators cheering us on, I felt it coming, all the emotions, training, hard work, dedication, and commitment to do this was welling up. Last summer it was a pipe dream to be crossing that finish line and now it was so vivid and just before I crossed I heard my name on the PA system. I crossed the finish line, hands in the air and with a smile, just like it was suggested in everything I read, and got my medal and…there they were. My mom and sisters, right there, open arms, so excited for me, as if I won the lottery. Hugging me and I was hugging them. They were amazing telling me that I did it and how proud they were of me. I couldn’t hold back the tears - thank goodness for my sunglasses. It was all coming out, in tears of joy, happiness, accomplishment, and that weight being lifted. I eventually composed myself and I couldn’t stop smiling. I ate some fruit and bagels, and drank water and some chocolate milk, and finally wanted to sit down and watch the medals being given out. I was ready right then to train for the next one and to train for the next distance.
I’ve had a couple weeks to reflect on it now and I was thoroughly satisfied in spite of the swim. I also thought that I’d take a week off before training again but it was in reality only a few days. The biggest education I got was the race itself and I can now train better and smarter for the next one in four weeks and I’ll get a coach now as well. It was an awesome feeling to cross that finish line smiling and it meant so much more and to see my mother and sisters right there, beaming when I did. I think they have no idea what it meant to me, and how I felt that they were there. So, I have to dedicate my very first triathlon to my mother Madeline and my sisters Annmarie and Linda because they made it so much more special by being there for me and cheering me on. I’m no longer that guy face down on the bed in that hotel room. It’s official, I am a triathlete.