A triathlon consists of a swim, a bike ride, and a run. The distances vary but the structure is the same – swim, bike, run. On Saturday, I completed a sprint triathlon, the shortest distance of all tri events. It started with a 750 meter swim in Lake Mead, a 12.2 mile ride on a road that wound its way from Boulder Beach into the hills, then culminated with a 3.1 mile run through the streets of Boulder City.
There is a surprise fourth part of the tri that starts well before you ever get to the course. They don’t tell you about this part. It’s called “packing.” And it took me far longer than any other part of the race did.
By late Friday night, I looked around my garage, expecting someone to place a race medal around my neck for my Olympic level of organization. Working off of three separate lists, I took great delight in checking items off as they were placed in the car. Crammed to the gills with gear, it now encased all of the red lululemon bags I owned, several gym bags, and one very colorful road bike - I call her “Rainbow Brite.” Amid the packages of Honey Stinger waffles, I had my Transition 1 (T1) bag, a wetsuit, the baby blue swim cap that denoted my beginner status, goggles, another pair of goggles, gels, socks, extra socks, more socks (I hate wet feet), towels in case my feet were somehow still wet despite three sock changes, water bottles, Nuun, a change of clothes, extra contacts, moisturizer, lip balm, bandaids, Neosporine, and a prescription for antibiotics to consume immediately upon exiting the murky, parasite-filled waters of Lake Mead*.
The only thing not packed were my running shoes; they had been dropped off in a random parking lot in the heart of Boulder City earlier that day. “Transition 2 area,” the nice volunteer lady assured me. I looked at her with skepticism. I didn’t realize leaving the shoes to my beloved sport would cause so much internal conflict. I struggled to walk out of that parking lot as my Adidas Boston Boosts stayed behind, looking abandoned and helpless. The race promised overnight security. Really? Running was the one part of this whole adventure that I could actually do; without shoes, I was screwed on that aspect, too.
Once the gear was secure, I focused on the players. Our plan was simple and we all knew our parts. I was picking Johnny up at 5:10. We would head to the beach for the swim. After I got on my bike, he would drive my car to T2. Brian and Scott would meet him there to watch the transition and the start of the run. The start was also the finish, so *hopefully* 25 short minutes later, I would round the corner and complete my first – and possibly last - triathlon. Medal, hugs, photos, maybe breakfast. Just your average Saturday morning.
For the record, you know you have a great training partner when he unflinchingly agrees to not only postpone his long run to Sunday to aid in your quest to finish your first tri, but also when he casually mentions he’s getting up at 3am to “get a quick run in” before heading out. When I pulled up at 5:13am, Johnny was cheerful and ready to go, miles already done. I offered him coffee; he offered to act as my gear sherpa, race cheerleader, personal photographer and official ponytail-holder when the vomiting started.
That’s a REALLY good training partner.
I knew we were a good team – we had spent the better part of the last few weeks coordinating several “Ghost Runs” sponsored by the Downtown Summerlin lululemon store. Throughout our training, we're almost always on the same page and have an easy ability to communicate, sometimes without even having to speak. But what I didn’t anticipate was how important his presence would be once we finally arrived at the beach. Sitting in the car, staring at the dark, choppy waters, I could not bring myself to open the car door and face the day. Just as the tears welled up and that choking-crying thing started, Johnny launched into a subject completely unrelated to swimming, drowning or contracting a flesh-eating virus. His happy post-run chatter completely eclipsed my growing fears and provided the necessary distraction. The tears disappeared as quickly as they came on. Crisis 1: averted. Thank goodness for good running partners!
We spent the rest of the morning taking silly pictures, watching other athletes, eating waffles and running to and from the port-a-potties. It was a brilliant morning; the temperature rose as the sun came over the mountains, making it cool but comfortable. Southern Nevada is really a lovely place to live and I have to pinch myself occasionally to remind myself these dazzling sunrises and colorful, desert landscapes are real.
The DJ/announcer gave very clear directions as each wave of swimmers lined up: sprint athletes were simply swimming in a large rectangle – green bouy, green bouy, orange bouy, shore. Seemed easy enough.
Wave after wave of athletes lined up and dove in. They were all making it look easy. This gave me courage to put a foot in the water. Okay, not as cold as I thought. I gingerly made my way over the rocks in the shallow water, feeling hopelessly slow and heavy. These rocks were sharp! Ow, ow, ow. Please, no cut feet. I need my feet to run. Once I was in knee-deep water, I threw the rest of my body in like a bloated manatee to avoid further foot worry. Oh! Cold but not too cold. My feet floated as I let the water come up to my chin. My wetsuit was so…warm. It was like swimming in a thick, buoyant sweater. Mmm. Again, I reflected on the ease of this sport. Only a few more steps: next, put face in water. Then, swim. Finally, win race.
I continued to splash around in the shallow water like a toddler, convinced I was “warming up.” Am I warming myself up temperature-wise, or like, warming up in terms of swimming? I still had no idea. I Googled “how to swim in open water” the night before and the main point in all the articles came back to the same thing: practice in open water. Darn it. Talk about a day late, a dollar short.
More and more baby blue swim caps approached the water and my wave finally lined up; at the same time, the faster swimmers exited the water to get to their bikes. There were less and less spectators on the beach as folks peeled off to follow their friends and family members. As I glanced back, I could still make out the Johnny’s tall frame. He was filming everything and grinning from ear to ear. Well, I reasoned, at least he’ll be available to identity my body if I go under.
Strangely, despite my morbid thoughts, I had very little fear. I was more amused than anything. And curious. Very curious. I just wanted to get started to see how it all played out. Once again, anticipation was the worst part of this whole experience.
My fellow blue cappers and I all bobbed quietly near our buoy. The announcer went over the swim route again. If my Boston wave was all similar-looking lean, mean, PTA moms, this group was the opposite. It was rather eclectic. Men, women, all shapes and sizes. There was no commonality except the color of our swim caps. I looked around, trying to ascertain who was going to be the first person to kick me in the face.
The announcer finally, blissfully shouted “Go!” and that was it; we all dove forward like sleek dolphins. Well, I felt like a sleek dolphin in my wetsuit-sweater. This is fun! I kept my distance from other swimmers as avoid their rapidly moving feet. Four strokes in, I felt amazing. I concentrated on using my lats, not my shoulders. Wide arms, pull, kick. This was going perfectly! I turned to the side to take my first breath...
...and promptly got hit with a huge wave of water. Right in the face.
Coughing and spurting, my gorgeous swim ended in less than four seconds. I pulled my head up, went vertical and blinked. What the hell? Waves? I had not anticipated this. Heck, I was annoyed when the water slides were on at the outdoor pool at Lifetime, creating a slight push in the water of the lap lanes. Perhaps I should have swam a bit more in that gentle push…because this was a real current and I actually had to make forward movement. Um…how?
For about three minutes, I continued to swim freestyle. And each time, it went the same: stroke, stroke, breath, massive wave in the face. Cough, choke, go vertical. I glanced around and realized: I’ve made no progress. How the hell do you do this? Perhaps this is why they said to practice a lot. Damn those experts and their helpful advice.
Then it dawned on me: not only was I not moving forward, the current was actually pushing me backwards. As in, back to shore. Gah! I swore a bit while treading water, assessing my options. Kayaks and boats circled nearby, but I wasn’t in trouble. With my vast amount of adipose tissue and my super awesome wetsuit-sweater, I could float forever. Drowning was not a concern. I just had to figure out how to maneuver through this water.
So I did the only thing I could think of: the breast-stroke. With my head completely out of the water, I kicked my way to the first buoy. I kept my eyes on the green balloon, never losing sight of it. People all around me were flailing and grabbing on to kayaks. Sleek doliphins? We were totally the beginner group. This was more like a blooper reel of how not to do an open water swim. I felt like a hulking blue-eared sea turtle swimming slowly past the watery chaos. I felt like an idiot, but at least it was working.
Making the first turn, I had convinced myself the current would be better going in another direction. Nope. It felt worse. How is that possible?! My breast-stroke turned into a side stroke. Again, I felt no panic – thankfully – just annoyance and mild amusement. This would be much easier with no wind and no current. Also, no waves. And if possible, please paint large lines on the bottom of the lake so we can all stay in a lane. Just some suggestions, thanks.
By the time I hit the second buoy, I was sick of the side stroke. Now, headed into shore, I tried freestyle again. Nope, more waves in the face. Gah! This was impossible. Keeping my face out of the water, I flipped over on my back. Just a nice flutter kick while doing elementary backstroke arms. If that didn't work, I had only one tool left in my swimming arsenal: the doggy paddle. I had sunk lower than I ever dreamed in the last twenty minutes, but wasn’t sure I was ready to break out a doggy paddle. So I breathed, stared at the sky, and willed myself back to land.
My hybrid backstroke was going quite well until I kicked some unsuspecting fellow blue-capper right in the head. “Sorry!” I shouted at her. She never looked up. Once I was certain she was still conscious, I flipped back over. To my horror, I realized I gone in a giant squiggly line.
I was actually farther away from the shore now.
Channeling my inner Dory, I just kept swimming. Again, because I was a technically a beginner, I really had no expectations about the race. I wanted to finish and to have fun. I wouldn’t call my turtle-swimming fun, but I wasn’t drowning either. Both contacts appeared to be in place. I gave myself a bit of room to not excel and continued frog-kicking my way to freedom.
Finally, finally, finally, I hit solid ground. Two feet on very sharp rocks – ouch! Getting out of the water, I moved literally as fast as I could. The rocks and my now-heavy not-quite-so-awesome wetsuit-sweater didn’t help matters, but I hustled as fast as my sea legs would let me. Johnny, ever handy with his phone, caught the whole thing on video. In my mind, I felt like a lithe, powerful competitor muscling her way to dry land. Upon viewing the actual video, I look more like Godzilla emerging from the depths of the ocean, ready to sack Tokyo. There was nothing graceful, quick or even athletic about my shore entry. The only good thing is I’m smiling – out of sheer relief to be back on dry land and because of the total ridiculousness of it all. I mean, I could be eating pancakes with my family. Instead, I was doing my best impression of a prehistoric radio-active monster wearing an ankle monitor.
I was smiling but discouraged by the time I found Johnny and my shoes. Johnny pointed out my flip flops and I scooped them up as fast I could. Then he said the best possible thing anyone could say in that moment: “You look much better than certain people that have come out! They've come out crying.”
Wait, what? Other people are...crying? I'm not crying...I'm just wiping the boogers off my face and trying to shake the water out of my ears. Are you telling me other people thought that was hard, too? Not like I want to springboard off of their misery but…I want to springboard off of their misery. That’s how racing works.
Reenergized and emboldened that not all was lost, I ran as fast as I could up to T1. My wetsuit slipped off easily, a result of the copious amount of TriGlide applied earlier. You could use that stuff to fry eggs, fix a squeaky door, anything. It’s amazing. I poured two bottles of water over my feet, wiping them carefully to ensure no loose rocks got caught in my socks. I accidentally put my right sock on while my foot was still wet, but that was okay; I knew I had another pair waiting for me at T2. (At least, I had to believe I did). I wiped more snot off my face, sucked down a gel, and took a long swallow of water. Okay, bike time.
* just kidding. I'm sure the water in Lake Mead is perfectly safe. I only saw one three-eyed fish during my swim.
** don't drink and register for races. Very dangerous behavior. You'll end up on a beach at sunrise, spraying yourself down with the athletic equivalent of cooking oil.