A gray sky hovered threatened rain over the Sports Core Pool in Ocean Pines that Saturday morning as the competitors stood around our transition tables. Colby, the race director for the third Super-Sprint Triathlon, gave us final instructions: 18 lengths of the pool, a six-mile bike ride, and then two laps around the lake (about 1.8 miles). The race itself would be a relay, with each member of the six three-person teams completing the entire triathlon. If the rain came she would allow those who wanted to ride an aqua bike for twenty-five minutes instead of run the risk of a spill on wet streets. No one seemed interested in that, though.
My first attempt at this race (and my first ever triathlon) resulted in a first place win for our team, and a fast time and a high bar set for myself. The second time I did this in the fall the course was slightly different (a much shorter run) and I swam an extra lap. Still, both events were fun, with participants out for nothing more than a good time.
John, whom I met at the first triathlon and who has been my teammate throughout these events, was first in the water for our team, The Daddys. He’s a strong swimmer, having competed in high school and college. A heart ailment kept him sidelined throughout his thirties, and he’s been trying to get back to competition. Tim, who had raced with us in the fall, injured his collar bone when he fell off his bike two days before the race. So Colby recruited a new member for our team. Mitchell, a NASA engineer and father (he fit right in with The Daddys), would race second. As usual, I would take anchor.
Our toughest competition this year would be from three members of the Salisbury University women’s swim team, all of whom admitted to being terrible runners. In my experience triathletes by and large despise the run portion of the event. Swimming comes easy, and the bike is fun. They run because they have to, not because it’s something they want to do.
These ladies were trained athletes, though, and their speed in the water was remarkable to witness. The second member of their team completed the nine pool laps in less than 5-1/2 minutes, nearly fifty seconds faster than the next closest competitor (that was me!). Their combined swim time was less than 18 minutes!
John came back from the bike first and started his run. The SU swimmers were in second. Third coming into the run was the Irishman Barry who sported a beautiful red beard and spoke with an Irish accent. Despite the chill in the air Barry stripped off his shirt and set out running as though he were chasing wolves. Later he would tell me that those first few hundred yards his legs were jelly and he couldn’t get a rhythm. It was the same feeling I had my first time coming off the bike into a run. I have discovered that the bike-run transition is the hardest in the triathlon.
Barry was a rocket ship around the lake. He cruised like he had fresh legs, blasting past the SU swimmer. John was in the final stretch coming down the straightaway towards the transition point when from behind we saw redbearded Barry. The Irishman whizzed past John in the final hundred meters.
I had been up late the night before for the second night in the play I was performing. I hadn’t been to the pool in weeks, and hadn’t swum a lap in two months. I was lucky if I ran one day per week, and the last time I road my bike Obama was president. My son, j, showed little interest in being pushed around in the running stroller. He wants to run with me! But he’s only two, and short, so my “runs” are usually short, slow walks. I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d be in shape to top my previous time in this race. But when I saw Barry stream through the run like he was out for a Saturday morning stroll, I knew my goal for the day: if nothing else, I wanted to beat Barry’s run time.
Lack of training has become a hallmark of my recent races. I hadn’t done laps in weeks, hadn’t run more than twice in months. My swim coach, Maria, told me I had better beat my time from last year or she was going to make me pay for it at our next swim session. I didn’t think I could swim as fast, nor bike as hard, nor run as quick, as I had when I was well trained, and well rested, but I was sure going to give it my best.
I went out in the water too fast, too excited, and pushed myself hard. By the third lap I had lost count, just as I did last time. I tried to keep a steady pace, breathe every other stroke, so as not to lose my breath. I’m good at pace. I also knew that once on the bike I’d have six miles to get my heart rate down.
The signal for my last lap (a blue lap board in the water) came when I thought it would. But then I heard yelling. My team, and our timer, were telling me I was already finished. Was that a lap too soon? No matter. I pulled myself out of the pool with sore arms and a head full of cotton, the effects of not enough sleep. My heart was a Buddy Rich snare.
I didn’t spend time toweling off. I slipped my dripping wet feet into my already tied shoes, pulled two shirts over my head (because of the slight chill in the air), pulled a Buff on my head, and clipped the helmet in place while I was running out to the bike.
Like my last two triathlons I would borrow John’s bike. My bulky and hulky SUB Trek might be good for hauling multiple kids to school and trips to the grocery store but is unsuited for competition. John’s road bike was a little small for me, but it worked fine in the last two triathlons. This time the front gear was jammed so I had to stay in a higher gear, but that didn’t bother me.
As I set out on the partially wet roads, my biggest concern was taking a spill. One of the other competitors had come back from the bike with a scraped and bloody arm. His bike had slipped out from under him on the first turn. I slowed as I made my way onto Ocean Parkway and within two minutes saw the SU Swimmer on her return. I thought, if she’s a slow runner I might be able to catch her. Then I remembered I still had most of six miles to bike—close to 20 minutes. She’d have to be a darn slow runner to get through 1.8 miles in 20 minutes. The odds were that she wasn’t a slow runner.
I pedaled and let the wind dry me. I focused on my heart rate, on not pushing so hard that I wouldn’t have some breath left for the run. The miles seemed to go by so slowly I felt I must be hardly moving. But before I knew it I was turning around. The wind was now in my face, and my neck was starting to ache, so I put my head down and watched the road in front of me. I stuck to the travel lane, avoiding the shoulder. My mantra: avoid rocks and pebbles, avoid potholes. Cars gave a beep as they passed to let me know they were coming, and I ignored them, kept pushing, kept pedaling.
Then I saw the police car and I made the turn onto Cathell Road, and then the final stretch into the parking lot. My team was there to greet me. John said, “The SU swimmers have already finished.” I figured they had. But I had still had a goal.
I stripped off my two shirts, swallowed some water, and began to run. My legs were jelly, my thighs burning. I knew the first few hundred yards would feel like this. Soon enough muscle memory took over and my legs did what they’ve been doing for years. On the other side of the lake I passed the runner whose team was in second place. He’d originally been the first racer on his team, but had felt faint when coming out of the pool so he had taken a rest and switched to doing his bike and run as the anchor leg. As I ran past him I panted, “Looking good.”
That was when I realized how out of breath I really was. My lungs were burning. My heart was going to explode. A short stretch of the trail went through some trees and the terrain changed a bit. My legs loosened up as I hopped over roots and jagged around sharp trail turns. I passed between a gaggle of geese. A mother with her baby geese hissed at me. I hissed back.
I came around the first lap with my head down and my mind focused on how out of shape I was. Someone may have called my name, but I didn’t look up. I was too busy trying not to collapse. I kept telling myself, “Less than a mile. Less than a mile.” I could suffer through less than a mile. I knew I had to give this everything I had.
In a few hours I’d take the stage as Simon Doyle for a double header. I’d probably be exhausted by the end of the night, but that didn’t matter. Later would be later, and I’d handle it with coffee and a short nap. I came around the back side of the lake, then through the trees, and passed the geese. The mother goose hissed at me again. “Don’t worry,” I panted. “I won’t be back.”
The end was in sight now and I gave it all I had. My legs were fine. It was my lungs that were hurting, and my heart like an alien trying to burst from my chest. I sucked air like I was running on the moon.
I had slowed a bit on that second lap, I knew, and untrained and exhausted from a long week I didn’t know if I would beat Barry’s time or not. But as I came across the finish I knew suddenly that it didn’t matter. I had pushed myself as hard as I could push myself. I’d swum hard, biked hard, and run hard. I came across the finish, back into the warmth of the pool building, my lungs crying out, my heart now a big kettle drum. I walked around, then I stopped and doubled over, then stood again and kept walking.
It took ten minutes before my breath, and my heart, were back to normal.
In the end our team came in second overall, though somehow I managed to finish first individually. My swim may have been off by fifty yards because I managed to beat all but one of the other swimmers which means I may not have come in first after all. I know I can swim fast, but I’m just not that fast. Certainly not faster than John.
But for me the most important time was the run, as it always is. And on the run not only did I beat my time from last year, but I also managed, somehow, to complete it about one second faster than Barry. It wasn’t much, and I think if the goose hadn’t hissed at me I might not have made it at all.
As ever it was a hugely fun day. The competitors were amazing, all of us cheering the others on. Down to the last finisher. If it weren’t for the fact that I had a play to perform I would have stayed and cheered on the last runner, too. But the play beckoned. I hung up my racing flats and put on theatrical makeup and a British accent.