Readers of my “Tri, tri again” post will be (hopefully) pleased to hear that I met my physical goal for the summer last weekend, on August 15, when I completed a triathlon sprint in Novi.
Not that I was remotely organized. I signed up only days before the race, vacillating between the Novi race and one scheduled the following weekend in Brighton (but since Joe and I would be out celebrating our upcoming seventh anniversary the night before that one, I thought better of it); I got lost trying to find the packet pick-up place the day before the race, while Lily was napping, and then I helped Joe’s brother’s family move into their new home in Ann Arbor; and minutes before my heat got into the water for the swimming leg, I heard about a chip we were all supposed to have on our ankles – there had been no such thing in my packet. Oops.
“Just shout your number wherever you’re making a transition and see one of us with one of these,” a woman said, pointing at what looked like an adding machine. Um, OK. Seemed unlikely to happen, but I nodded and thanked her anyway.
The half-mile swimming course was a big triangle. I swam the first two sides of it feeling pretty good, then reached the first buoy on the last side, stuck my head up, and thought, “Holy crap, I’m far away from the end.” Suddenly feeling fatigued, I did an easy backstroke for a moment to gather myself, then popped up to tread water and see exactly where I was – which was WAY off-course. But I wasn’t quite ready for more crawl-stroke, either, so I just pointed my head in the right direction, did some more back-stroke, and hoped for the best – briefly kicking someone’s crawl-stroking arms along the way. Such is the nature of these things.
After a couple more minutes, I flipped over, did some more crawl-stroke, and the end was finally in sight, so I gratefully walked onto dry land, happy to have made it over the toughest hurdle.
I dutifully yelled my number to the nice woman who gave me the instruction to do so and made a sad attempt at jogging to my bike. (No one was there to cheer me on, unfortunately, because the race was in a residential area, and to cut down on traffic, Joe and Lily would have had to go to a nearby school and taken a bus in, as I had had to do early that morning.)
Once there, I pulled off my swim suit (which I’d worn over a sports bra and spandex shorts), pulled on a work-out shirt, biking gloves, socks (after drying my feet off), running shoes, and helmet, and jogged my bike to the transition area.
The 12 mile bike consisted of doing a neighborhood street course two times through, and although it was flat, I struggled far more than I expected to. (I passed several people on this leg of the mini-sprint tri last year.) But after it was done, I hobbled my bike back to its assigned place and took off the gloves and helmet to run – in what was perhaps the stiffest run of my entire life.
Now normally, running after biking is always a tough transition. Your body’s all hunched up on the cycle, and suddenly, you’ve got a fully upright body carriage and you’re calling on entirely different muscles. When I’d practiced both together before, the first mile or so of the run was awkward, but then I’d begin to feel more normal, and the stiffness would dissipate.
Not so much on race day. Right through to the end, I felt like my legs were made of wood, and I could never quite pick up the pace. People that had stopped to walk a couple of times along the way finished ahead of me; but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same and gather my energy for short bursts. I just knew I wouldn’t feel as good about my effort if I did that, regardless of whether I got some seconds back on my time.
Yet as I got close to the end, I did start wishing those who passed me well. “Good job,” I said to one man. “Have a good finish.” And he said, “Thanks, you too.” And some kind, supportive spectators clapped for me, though I was way, way, way far back in the pack.
Technically, I didn’t crawl across the finish line, but it was nonetheless a sad little end. I had to explain to the person who was at-the-ready to remove my chip that I didn’t have one; I realized I hadn’t shouted my number beyond the swimming transition area; and although I, like everyone who competed, got a finishers’ medal, there was no one but a sea of (way more athletic) strangers with whom to share this moment of minor triumph.
But perhaps I shouldn’t shortchange this by calling it “minor.” While every adult in the world seems to claim to have been chosen last for teams in gym class while growing up – how is this mathematically possible? – I really was, because I was bulky, awkward, and moved with a leaden lack of speed or grace. I was coordinated enough to score a spot on the dance team in high school, but I simply don’t have a physiology that lends itself well to sports. And although I have run regularly for years, I don’t, nor will I ever, have one of those long, lean, classic runners’ bodies, and running will never come easy to me. I’ve adapted to running through discipline, consistency, and stubbornness, but I have no natural talent for it.
Same goes for biking, which I nonetheless enjoy, and swimming, which I’ve never worked at that consistently. I can do these things, but none of them come easily to me.
But maybe that makes it all the more important that I set these goals for myself.
Lily, for her part, adopted my finishers medal the moment I came home, wearing the red, white and blue strap around her own neck. Later in the day, while still wearing the medal, she stomped around the driveway on her trike, then suddenly got off and started running down the sidewalk with purpose. I realized then that Joe had probably tried to explain to her what I was doing earlier that morning, so she was play-acting her own little triathlon. (Since then, she’s also insisted she wants to go running with each of us when we’re lacing up to take turns on routes around the neighborhood.)
This gave me the thrilling feeling that I’m doing something right. That already, at age two, Lily’s absorbing the fact that physical activity and exercise are things that are important to both her parents, and she wants to be part of that, too.
But the other person that’s part of my mental landscape whenever I’m pursuing any kind of physical goal is my mother, who, as a young teenager, contracted Polio. The disease deadened nerves in her legs, and while she surprised her doctors by learning to walk again, she never, throughout the rest of her life, was able to run, jump, or dance again.
Astonishingly, she never complained about this to us. But I always remind myself that even if I’m dead last in a race, I’m lucky to have two legs that work.
“Use them,” I tell myself like a mantra.