My First Triathlon: The Dawn of a New Decade

author : Lagoon
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Celebrating a milestone 60th birthday with a Sprint triathlon. I followed the training program conscientiously with one exception--I never got around to practicing an open water swim.

It all started when I was searching for a way to commemorate a significant birthday—the dawn of a new decade, my 60th birthday. I felt like celebrating the milestone, rather than mourning the loss of my youth, or dreading a steady decline into my “golden years.” Grateful for my good health, and embarrassed to take that precious gift for granted any longer, I decided to launch my sixth decade by completing a triathlon.

A triathlon was not drastically outside my realm of understanding. I had never attempted one, but my daughter Jenny is a world-class triathlete, a two-time Kona finisher, and a triathlon coach. She generously offered to coach me, but I was more comfortable beginning on my own with some very helpful oversight from her. Frankly, I didn’t want to waste her time with my newbie floundering.

My training program began with reading every book I could find on triathlons. If there were a triathlon for reading about triathlons, I would have won it. My favorite was Slow, Fat Triathlete by Jayne Williams. The Slow, Fat, OLD, Triathlete would have been better, but that book has yet to be written. After extensive review and analysis, I realized that I had to stop reading about training and actually do it. A training plan from Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week by Week Training Guide fit the bill.

Wow, I was no longer just working out, I was training! Biking was the easiest. I own a fairly decent road bike and have completed several 500-mile bike tours across Illinois and Wisconsin over the years. Swimming was my favorite part of training. It felt wonderful to be back in the water again like a kid. In the pre-Title IX era, I did not swim competitively in high school, but would have loved the chance. I spent many long summer days swimming in lakes, and took swimming classes in college. I am comfortable on the bike and in the water. Not so with running. I can’t really run or jog. I just kind of shuffle. “Surely the training program will help me shed some pounds and make running more feasible,” I thought.

I followed the training program conscientiously with one exception--I never got around to practicing an open water swim. My daughter and every book I read strongly cautioned me to practice in open water, but I wasn’t worried. Unlike some newbies, I was not afraid of the water and had spent more than my fair share of time swimming in lakes. Of course, that was decades ago, but that’s a minor detail, right?

On race day, after a mostly sleepless night, I awakened at 4:30 a.m. before the alarm chirped, not a bit tired. My wonderful husband drove me through the pre-dawn quiet and the adventure began. I was one of the first in the transition area,. I selected a good spot and set up my area just like the book said. My favorite part was meeting my wave mates and hearing their stories. I was surprised that even in my advanced age group, nearly everyone had professional equipment and was quite serious about the event.

I was in the third wave, which made me very happy. It left little chance my biggest fear would materialize--coming in last. Others were studying the course and planning their routes (a zig zag around five buoys) but I can’t see well without my glasses so I just continued chatting with my new friends. I was pretty relaxed. I figured I would just follow the crowd around the buoys. Seconds before the first wave went off, thunder was heard, lighting was spotted and the race was delayed. Soon we were all shivering in a downpour, but I was still having fun, chatting and laughing with my wave mates.

After a one-hour delay, the race finally began and suddenly I was in the water...but I wasn’t swimming. Just like the books warned, I “choked” in the water. I was gasping for breath. I couldn’t see anything. People were smacking into me. It was a nightmare. I dog-paddled and couldn’t catch my breath. I floated on my back and still couldn’t catch my breath. I tried swimming a few strokes and got wildly off course. I hung onto the buoy to catch my breath. Other swimmers bunched up around the buoy, grabbing at each other. Some looked panicky and asked for help from the swim buddies. I looked behind me and saw only about five pink caps from my 65-person wave. My worst fear was coming true...“I am going to be the last person out of the water!” I thought. “Maybe I won’t even finish! Oh, the humiliation!” Somehow I finally calmed down, got my bearings, and managed to find my swimming rhythm. After that, I was fine and I even passed a few pink caps. I came out of the water shaken and still out of breath, and had to walk rather than run through the transition area.

Despite my horrifying swim, I came through T1 easily and almost cried with relief when I got on the bike. “Oh, thank God!” were my exact words. The course was flat, the sun was shining and I felt strong. I made no attempt to pace myself or save my legs for the run, choosing instead to maximize my time on the bike. I passed many of my wave mates and was not passed by any from my wave. I headed into T2 giddy with the joyful bike ride.

Unfortunately, I could not find my spot in T2. I had walked through all the transitions before the start, but things looked very different without the bike racked. I wasted time going up and down the racks looking for my spot. Nonetheless, I was soon heading out on the run.

As I hobbled out of T2, a volunteer shouted, “That’s it! Get your legs back before you try and run!” Ha! Little did he know that I was actually “running.” The run was not fun, but mentally I was OK as I expected it to be very hard. I ran/walked the entire course. The course was lovely and I enjoyed looking at the beautiful homes in the historic district. Quite a crowd lined the course, cheering and clapping. I had fun with them and told them I would run only if they clapped. They happily complied and I picked up the pace for a bit each time.

Near the finish line, the crowd thickened, shouting, “You’re almost there! Keep going!” I doubt their definition of “almost” was the same as mine though. The finish line was nestled in a leafy, winding riverfront park, and was hard to spot. I struggled to keep running because I didn’t want to be seen breaking into a run just for the finish line. Amazingly, I heard the race director announce my name as I was crossing the finish line with my arms raised in triumph. I saw my husband’s proud, smiling face. He was grinning from ear to ear. Our eyes locked and we wordlessly celebrated the great good fortune of turning 60, the fun of trying something new, and the joy of sharing the journey.


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date: July 28, 2008