Three strokes, inhale on the left, three strokes, inhale on the right. That’s my normal swimming pattern, but I’m not in the pool anymore. Each time I come up for air saltwater fills my nostrils, threatening to sink me to the ocean floor.
The swell has risen quickly this June morning off the coast of Georgia’s Tybee Island. The sprint triathlon organizers planned an open-swim with the tide but have changed their minds, so we’re battling three-foot waves plus a rip current. I have to dig hard to move ahead a few inches. At least the waves and sea spray distract me from jellyfish. Stingrays. Sharks.
I focus on my trainer Jennifer’s words: Don’t drown. Don’t crash your bike. Run—don’t crawl–to the finish line.
I readjust my breathing: stroke, inhale left, stroke, inhale left, stroke, inhale left, stroke, stroke, switch sides. It isn’t pretty, but another 400 meters and I’ll be done. Well, first a 20-kilometer (12.4 miles) cycle and a 5k (3.1 miles) run. Then I’ll be done. As challenging as the swim is, the thought of pedaling in a wet tri-suit makes me queasy. And the run? Unimaginable.
What the hell have I gotten myself into?
* * *
As children, my sisters and I water-skied, body-surfed and snorkeled despite our fear of sharks. In my twenties I ran, rollerbladed, parasailed, climbed, hiked, back-country and downhill skied, practiced Iyengar yoga, scuba dived, windsurfed and kayaked, testing my body’s limits, enjoying its pleasant ache.
Winter surfing in Maine soothed my thirtysomething soul. A bonus: frigid water kept sharks away. I thought my forties would bring more adventure, stronger muscles, an even leaner me.
Then my body failed. IBS made food my enemy. My left foot broke. Add two years of healing, foot surgery, depression and 20 pounds, and I felt demoralized and old.
Slowly, slowly I worked my way back to fitness. Yet I mourned my days of athletic adventure. So, when Jennifer mentioned the Tybee Island Sprint Triathlon, I felt that old familiar excitement.
I began in the pool, swimming 750 meters in a disappointing 20 minutes. By week three I’d shaved it to 18 minutes using Jennifer’s intervals: hard freestyle for 200 meters, easy 100, harder 200, recover for 100, pound out the last 150.
Cycling gave me pause, but in the spin room Jennifer offered another strategy: “If your calves get tired, concentrate on pedaling front to back. When your thighs burn, shift to up and down.” After a few open road sessions, I got the hang of it.
But the running . . . oy! Weak knees and a surgerized foot made for a glacial pace. Workout by workout, we increased the treadmill speed to 6 mph. My lungs screamed. My feet ached. But I knew I could finish a 5k.
After each solo session, I texted my progress.
Me: Ran 3.8k in 30 minutes!
Jennifer: Next time 4k in 29!
Swam 750m in 18 Tues
Can you do 17.5 Thurs?:-)
Road biked 15k in 35
Do the full 20k next!
One week before the race, when my BFF Lisa’s beau Bert and I got his road bike adjusted, the cycling clerk just shook his head.
“It’s too small for you.”
I shrugged. “It’s my first triathlon,” I explained. “It’ll have to do.”
I also bought GU (“goo”) energy gel, a hit of fructose and electrolytes in icky flavors. I grabbed a few Peanut Butters and wondered if I’d hurl.
I now had everything: black tri-shorts and tri-top, chartreuse sports bra and running cap, broken-in running shoes. Jennifer’s hydration belt. Bert’s bike was short, though faster than my clunky hybrid. My last swim came in at 17 minutes: best yet! Though the last run was slow—39 minutes—I did it non-stop.
The night before the race, I slept just three hours. “You’ll be fine,” Jennifer said. “Adrenaline will take over.”
A reassuring lie.
We loaded our bikes into her pickup, drove to Tybee Island, signed in then walked to the beach.
Yikes. A sea perfect for windsurfing, not swimming.
“Okay,” Jennifer advised, “go way around the first buoy. Avoid the pack—who knows what they’ll grab onto! Don’t push too hard at first. Slow and steady, then run straight for your bike.”
The whistle blew for us novices, and I jogged into delicious water, high 70s. But the current—holy riptide! And Jennifer was right about the other swimmers: their flailing was freaking me out.
* * *
I make decent swim time: 18.5 minutes. A friend ten years my junior, a competitive runner, no less, and I emerge at the same time. That feels damn good.
I run like heck for my bike, brush off the sand, dry my tri-suit with a damp towel, don helmet and . . .
I cycle the entire 20 kilometers alone. All the swimmers I’ve bested zoom past me on their perfectly fitted bikes, and there I am, toodling along on my short, borrowed bike, my shifting technique amateur at best. Between heat, humidity and loneliness, I lose a lot of time.
At least I think I do. With no watch, the race feels surreal, suspended outside of time—a Jean Cocteau film for the athletically inclined. The good news? I’m competing only with myself to power through the pain and exhaustion.
Also, when I squirt peanut butter GU into my mouth, I do not hurl.
As I turn off Tybee’s main drag, Lisa and Bert are waving. That gets me through the transition to the run.
Or, more accurately, shuffle. I’m not dead last, but close.
Every kilometer, volunteers hand out water. Dump the first two over your head, Jennifer has advised. Drink only the last. I do as told, but scalding GU oozes through my ears and into my brain, and now threatens to seep out of my boiling eyeballs.
I’m about to give up and sing Meatloaf: “Two outta three ain’t bad.”
Then I spy a familiar figure.
“Drink it!” Jennifer hands me a water bottle as I waddle along. “Okay, let’s finish strong!”
For the next 1.25k, Jennifer inspires, goads, chides me and pours water over my head. When we spot the celebration area, she yells, “Go girl, get it!”
And I do get it, weeping with relief, pride and exhaustion as I dash—yes, dash!—across the finish line while my husband, dad and two step kids cheer me on. I cannot believe I have achieved this goal. I have seriously impressed myself.
Will I do another triathlon? Maybe. But since then, I’ve completed a Color Run 5k in an astounding (for me) 32 minutes. Blake and I rode horses in Vieques. And I practiced knee flips on my niece’s trampoline. Whatever adventure I choose next, I’ll do it proudly wearing my Tybee Triathlon commemorative T-shirt. And I’ll bring along some GU. Just in case.
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in giving Sprint Triathlon’s a go or if you are a triathlete already, click here for more information on upcoming events and Fiftiness would love to hear your stories!