I Finished my First Triathlon, But Accomplished so Much More!

author : fivecents
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What my first sprint distance triathlon taught me about myself.

“Today, you’re starting this race a different woman than you will be when you finish it.”

Cheesy, I thought to myself when I heard the race announcer say it.
I wanted to get going.

I was standing alone at the sandy start line in June 2009, amidst 2,000 women in goggles, wetsuits and rainbow-colored swim caps, shivering from a mix of cold weather and deafening anxiety, struggling to push down the lump of panic that was slowly forming in my throat as the announcer spoke.

This was the morning of my first triathlon, and though I was amazed by the energy, enthusiasm and emotion of the crowd, what I wanted most in the world at that very moment was a friend, someone to share it with, someone to calm me down. I was tired of explaining to all the nervous and smiling girls in my wave that I was, in fact, alone here; that I was racing by myself. I did not consider myself brave or courageous. At that moment I felt stupid for thinking I could handle such a thing. I wanted the race to start. I wanted the sun to come out from the clouds again. I wanted to see my family and my boyfriend and my friends.

But I had told everyone to arrive in time for my swim start at 8:24 a.m., not for the start of the race at 7:00 a.m., and so I was alone (and had been since 5:00 a.m.), surrounded by a swirl of competitors and energy and rubber and precautionary sunscreen. The only thing that kept me sane was Twitter; if I didn’t know anybody in the mob around me, I could at least broadcast my experience to calm my nerves. And so, I continued tweeting right up until my boyfriend appeared at 8:00 and took my phone for me. It was the only thing I could do while waiting impatiently for the race to start.

It begins

I had no idea I would be so nervous. Ten weeks ago when I signed up, it was almost on a whim. I was planning to do a half-marathon in 2008 and was secretly hoping to follow up with a marathon in 2009, just in time to count the accomplishment before I turn 30. But instead I injured my back and ended up at the chiropractor, the doctor and the X-ray machine, with a prescription for physical therapy and no prognosis. I was frustrated and unhappy and gaining weight. And I hurt. Yet there was nothing wrong with me. “You have the Mladic back!” my dad pronounced. My dad has had two back surgeries. This was not welcome news.

My co-worker suggested a triathlon. For whatever reason, I signed on without giving it much thought. She sold it pretty well, “Anyone can do a triathlon. If you get tired, you can just sidestroke in the pool, pedal slowly on the bike or walk the run. It’s short. You can do it.” And I bought it. I signed up. I figured I could get at least three others to sign up with me. I overestimated my persuasive powers. Apparently not many people like doing three sports in one day.
I, on the other hand, thought it sounded fun and less harsh on my back than running every day. And so my training began, six days per week for 10 weeks: running, swimming, biking and strength training.

At first people were supportive. My Facebook page was filled with messages of support. But that support quickly eroded. It was spring in Chicago and my friends didn’t understand why I wasn’t going out. My best friend, whom I love dearly, needed my support through some things in her own life, and wished I would “get over this working out thing” I was doing. (Joking, of course, but half-way serious.) It hurt to not give all of myself for my best friend. But I couldn’t be up until two in the morning every weekend; for my health, for myself, I needed to focus on training. I invited her to start working out with me to start a healthy habit, but she declined. I tried to be there as best I could, but post-workout, work-night phone calls are usually pretty empty.


She wasn’t the only one I left hanging. “You know, sometimes you get on a streak where we see you often,” another close friend explained. “And other times you sometimes drop back. This is just one of those times. Nobody expects you to be out year round.” Still, it felt to me like everyone was out and about, whooping it up without me. And I was letting everyone down by not being “fun Nicole.” Despite my disappointing social performance, I kept my training schedule.

I made compromises for the sake of my workout schedule every day. To wash the dishes or go to the gym? To stay out with clients or go to the gym? Time and again, I committed to the triathlon. After a while, the commitment got easier. I was happy at the gym. I found a rhythm in the pool. I slept better after a hard workout. The stronger I felt, the better my back felt. Soon, my back was a non-issue and I was feeling great (with a very dirty house). In May I ran a personal best at a 5K charity run. My uncle told me it was the best he’d ever seen me run.

But as I listened to my body more and my distances became longer, I noticed another hurdle: My exercise induced asthma was getting worse. At the finish line of that personal best 5K, my chest tightened up. As my dad raced for my inhaler, I began to worry yet again that I wasn’t fit for a triathlon. But unlike my back issues, this time I didn’t put off a trip to the doctor or try to work through the pain. A trip to the allergist and a list of confirmed asthmatic allergens later, I started on a new regimen of lung treatments designed to get me through the triathlon. Within two weeks, my lungs were performing up to speed with the rest of my body. Physically I was ready.
Mentally, however, I was building myself into frenzy mode.

Filled with worry

Two weeks before the race, with local temperatures hovering in the 50s at night, I began obsessively checking the weather. The week of the race, I was in full panic mode. I was texting my coach — the same friend who encouraged me to do the race – to share my concerns. Should I get a wetsuit? Water temperature turned into my favorite discussion topic. And it stayed that way until the day before the race.

The day before the race, the highest temperature didn’t even reach 60. It was pouring outside. The fitness expo was filled with Amazon women, all of whom had wetsuits. I did not. I probably asked 10 people what to do. Each had a different opinion. A 50-year old told me it would be no worse than a cold shower. A muscled, superfit athlete told me I absolutely needed one. I weighed the $300 cost in my head ($300 for 15 minutes?!?) and talked a vendor down to $150 for a suit. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Standing in the rain, trying on a suit too big for me, I learned not one vendor had a wetsuit for rental or purchase in my size. The nail was on the coffin. I was going to swim cold. I went home and chugged a bottle of Cherry Pepto.

That night, my boyfriend and I checked into the host hotel, a Holiday Inn in Naperville, about an hour outside of the city. Another woman, also in total freak out mode, told me how mad she was about the hotel choice. Now, I know this sounds ridiculous, but the moment I stepped into the hotel I knew the universe was trying to tell me something. A six-foot-six, two-hundred-seventy-something pound man in a kilt was standing at the desk with a puppet on his arm, letting the puppet do the checking in. Behind me, a man with hair to his butt in head-to-toe tie dye was discussing photography with a couple in what I can only describe as renaissance gear. A few tipsy elf girls strolled off the elevator, looking for the nearest party.
 “Sci-Fi convention,” the woman at the front desk explained. For some reason, a wave of relief rolled over me. I’m pretty sure that was somebody up there – my grandma, my grandpa – telling me to lighten up. Enjoy the moment. As I walked outside to gather my things, the sun broke through the sky.

Later that night, I ran through my pre-race checklist, packed my bags and set out my supplies for the next day: helmet, race belt, sports bra, tri-suit, shoes, Gatorade, banana and more. I slept well that night. As well as I could, I guess, considering I would awake at 4:30 a.m.

Race morning

My alarm jolted me out of bed in what felt like the dead of the night. I dressed in the dark, rustled my boyfriend out of bed and off we went, he sleepily and I electrified, into the sunrise. We passed some sci-fi-ers smoking a hookah. I don’t think it contained tobacco.

He dropped me and my bike off at 5 a.m.; I insisted he go back and sleep until 7 a.m. He was working on a paper for his summer law clinic and he couldn’t be in the set-up transition area anyway. I was on my own. I got my body markings (one for your swim wave on the leg, and two for your bib number on the arms). I thought they looked cool. I hope I looked confident. I was honestly fine at that point. One girl told me I was brave for being without a friend. Another lent me sunscreen. We debated the benefits of the wetsuit yet again. The sun started to heat up the parking lot, the energy level rose and I was excited.

Which brings me back to the beach. After two hours of mental preparation and meeting fellow triathletes, I was suddenly feeling very alone, wishing I hadn’t blown off my friends for 10 weeks, pushing down the panic of the unknown and cursing myself for the mental drama.

And they're off!

And then, my internal crisis was rudely interrupted by the blaring of a horn, indicating the race had started. I was 90 minutes away from my wave start – it felt like a week – and it was a roller coaster. I was awed by the power of the elites, I was humbled by the cancer survivors, I was swept up by the spectators and fascinated by the ages of the oldest competitors. One woman walked out of the water and immediately needed her cane. But she did it. She walked up the beach with her cane.

My boyfriend showed up right on time. He carried my warm-up fleece, snapped pictures and hugged me good luck wishes. But he was a spectator and so when my orange cap went on, he stood in the spectator area, cheering me on. I signed up for this by myself, and I would do this myself. I had to get in the water and get going. The waiting was killing me.  

My wave got into the water at 8:20 a.m. The sun made a re-emergence and was proudly beaming down on our group as we playfully cheered ourselves on. There were 50 of us or so. I was positioned in the back, goofily grinning and looking out of place. By the time I got in, the water had warmed to 70 degrees and I instantly knew my worrying had been for naught. This was it.

The air horn sounded and we were off, a mess of flailing limbs and splashing, bobbing bodies. The swim was harder than expected. I could not swim straight. I could not get into a flow. I kept bumping up against slow breaststrokers in front of me, and getting lapped by fast swimmers behind me. I could not break free from the pack. I swallowed a lot of water. I worried the women in front of me had peed in the pool. It felt like an eternity in the water; like a floating roller derby. I was winded when I got out of the water. I had to keep going.

The bike

The next leg was the bike and that wasn’t difficult for me, but I went a lot slower than anticipated. I didn’t pass ANYBODY on the bike. (I was counting.) Lots of women passed me. Still, it was sunny and my energy was good. I caught sight of my aunt and uncle, cheering me on loudly from the sidewalk and it bolstered my spirits. I started to hear people cheering on the streets. I smiled the entire second lap of the bike. By the time my hour-long ride was over, I was having a ball. But the run was still left.

I had heard a lot of girls freaking out about the run in the same way that I freaked out about the swim. The run, however, was my best leg of the race. I ran the whole way. I passed people. I said, “Keep going!” and “Nice job!” to those near me. I ended up running my regular 5K pace, even though my legs were on fire. I couldn’t believe I had the energy. I couldn’t believe I was running. I couldn’t believe I was laughing.

As I came down the home stretch, through the trees on a beautiful summer morning, strangers along the course were reading my name on the race bib and calling out my name. “FINISH STRONG NICOLE!” and “YOU GOT THIS! GREAT JOB NICOLE.” I was soaring. I crossed the finish line and the announcer called my name. I threw my hands in the air. A woman gave me a medal and snapped my picture. I held back tears. My aunt, my uncle and boyfriend were waiting at the finish line with congratulatory hugs. I took it all in.

Post-race joy

I suppose I realized it then. But I was too tired to think much about it. I came home and posted my race results (1:55:50), shared the news with my friends who couldn’t make it and looked through pictures. I was basking in the post-race buzz. But only today did I truly realize what the race meant to me. I didn’t do this with anybody else, for anybody else. I did it for me. I conquered my own fears, overcame my physical issues and mental anxieties and persuaded myself to accomplish a goal I never imagined I could do. Five years ago, a 5K seemed like an impossible task. Yesterday I finished a triathlon. The post-race big breakfast was nice, but the knowledge of my own strength and the depth of my determination will stay with me for life.

Ten weeks ago I made a commitment. I didn’t know what it would take, or how it would affect me or how far I’d have to reach inside myself to do it. I didn’t realize how much making a commitment to myself would teach me about the life I live, and the life I want to live. Ten weeks ago, I signed up for a triathlon. And today, one day after crossing the finish line, I won’t call myself a changed woman.

Rather, today I will call myself a woman for the time in my life.

(Originally posted at http://thebudgetingbabe.com/2009/06/16/i-finished-my-first-triathlon-but-accomplished-so-much-more/)

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date: April 28, 2011


Triathlon! Running, kayaking, hiking, travels, photography.


Triathlon! Running, kayaking, hiking, travels, photography.

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