I signed up for my first sprint triathlon almost four years ago. It was January, and I was sitting in my cubicle at my old job, my leg splayed out in the aisle next to me encased in a metal brace. It was the armor around my torn MCL that I had damaged while on the ski slopes. I was sad and depressed, and I was 60 pounds overweight, not to mention finding it almost impossible to quit smoking. I felt empty and ugly.
I’m not sure what possessed me to sign up for the race, although I am pretty sure I felt the need to scare myself out of the depression and the pattern of emotional eating that seemed to always accompany my funks. I had previously read about the Tri for the Cure somewhere, but that day I had a sudden surge of guts that caused me to check out the website. It was a sprint triathlon for women only. There would be a half-mile swim. (I hadn’t been in the pool since my days on the high school swim team 13 years prior, and the thought of seeing myself in a bathing suit caused acid to rise into my throat.) There would also be a 12 mile bike ride. (I thought about it as I studied the website some more and realized that the last time I had been on a bicycle was right before I had gotten my driver’s license.) And the last part of the race would be a 3.1-mile run. No problem. I could totally do that. I mean, sure I was out of shape, and heavier than I had ever been before, oh, and my knee was currently in a brace that barely allowed me to walk, but I thought, it couldn’t be that hard. Right? I paid my 85 dollars, and convinced myself that I could accomplish a lot in the seventh months before the race.
Or maybe not.
I spent five out of the next seven months not really doing much of anything except continuing to feel sorry for myself, eating and drinking too much, and complaining about the way I felt and looked, but never owning it and taking action. Two months before the race my friend, Brenna, asked me if I was still going to do it. I hemmed and hawed and said, “I don’t know; probably not.”
And then I made a bunch of excuses. My knee was still bothering me a lot. I needed to get my old bike back from someone I had lent it to. I hadn’t been feeling so great lately. I needed a gym membership with a pool. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Somehow though, she managed to talk me out of the haze I was in and into doing the race. She was signing up, too, and we would tackle it together. She could barely swim; I was vastly unsure of my cycling and running skills. We had two months to figure it out.
My first outing on a bicycle was traumatic to say the least. Brenna and her then fiancé and Mike and I hit the road. All three of them are avid cyclists. Next to that trio, I was a hot mess. I was wobbly and tentative on a hand-me-down bike that was about six inches too small for my six-foot-one, bordering-on-obese frame. I felt like a circus clown cruising around on a child’s tricycle, although I was much less coordinated. My brand new helmet and rolled up yoga pants reeked of my amateur status. As soon as Brenna saw my bike seat, she said, “You’re going to have to get a new saddle.”
Once I realized that a saddle and a seat are the same thing, I asked why. She said, “If you don’t know why when we’re done riding today, I’ll explain it to you”
The brief ride that followed was devastating. I fell just short of having a seizure as each car drove past me. I was in the bike lane, sure, but all I could keep picturing was one false move, me falling sideways into the road, and my head being crushed like a grapefruit beneath the tire of an aggressive Prius. The other three rode ahead of me, going only slightly faster than my snail’s pace of about two miles an hour. They almost couldn’t go slow enough to let me keep up.
When we returned from our ride, which couldn’t have been more than about 6 miles or so, I said to Mike, “I’m going to have to get a new saddle,” and hobbled inside to remove the sandpaper that had seemingly been planted in my underwear
I dragged Mike to the pool at 24hour Fitness the following weekend, and I was delighted to discover that I could still swim. In fact, I had finally found the one thing I was better at, athletically speaking, than Mike is. Even though putting on my newly purchased, plus-sized bathing suit was depressing, the weightlessness I felt in the water, and the fact that I was still capable of effortlessly gliding through lap after lap did wonders for my severely broken self-esteem. I felt just like myself for the first time in a long time, and the muscles beneath my thick layer of fat felt suddenly useful again. My body was remembering what it felt like to be an athlete instead of a professional depression victim. After swimming for an hour, I reluctantly dragged myself out of the pool, showered, went home, and promptly slept for 10 straight hours. It wasn’t the usual depression-induced sleep; it was a good, tired, earned sleep. While I was sleeping, the old me was just starting to wake up.
Running is the obvious third member of the trifecta. I have always had a weird relationship with running. I actually like it. But I have never been good at it, even when I was really slender. Add 60 pounds to that, and a few more years of puffing on Marlboro Lights, and I was basically screwed.
That first attempt at running will stick in my mind for probably the rest of my life and will keep me from ever becoming sedentary again. I slipped into a pair of XXL sweat pants and a giant t-shirt and put my dog on his leash. My knee was mostly healed, although the strain of weighing almost 250 pounds was still the cause of some occasional pain. With my trusty dog, Blue, by my side, I walked out the door and up the block towards the corner. I told myself that when I reached the corner, I would begin to jog. And that is what I did. As each foot hit the ground, I felt every extra pound that had gathered on my tall body jiggle and jump around. After I heard the smack of Nike to pavement, I would feel the meat of the corresponding thigh continue it’s Jello-like motion for a full second afterwards. A car drove by, and the driver stared openly. Tears started to run down my face as I realized that I must look absolutely ridiculous. I made it one block before I had to stop. My knee was screaming and my lungs were on fire. I walked for about a mile and made another attempt at a run. This time, I made it about half a block and could go no further. This was not going to be good.
Eventually, the day of the triathlon arrived. As I stood in the water with all the other women who were between the ages of 30 and 35 waiting nervously for the gun to start us off, I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt fat and exposed and scared out of my mind about what I was about to do. Then the race started. The water became a whirlpool of athletic 30- to 35-year old limbs and torsos. It was organized chaos, only organized in the sense that everyone was headed in the same direction. I took a foot to the face and got a noseful of water. I freaked, but then realized that my feet could still touch. I thought, I am just going to stand up and turn towards the shore and walk my fat ass the hell out of here. Then suddenly the wake of 100 swimming women picked me up, and I was doing something that I had done naturally my whole life. I was swimming, and I was good at it. I swam past half of the women in my wave, cranked my propeller arms around and around, and felt better about myself than I had in a year.
I finished my swim in a very respectable 19 minutes. The bike and run would be a different story, and it would ultimately take me almost two hours and twenty minutes to complete the race. But complete it I did.
Yesterday, I completed my fourth sprint triathlon. I did it in 2 hours and 2 minutes, feeling slightly defeated because I really thought I was going to break that damn two-hour mark this time. Real triathletes would probably laugh at a time of two hours for a sprint race. It is hardly impressive, and many everyday athletes do it in an hour forty five or less. The elite do it in just over an hour. But I only let myself feel defeated for a few minutes when I remembered that I’m not competing with the elite triathletes of the world. (if I was, I’m pretty certain they wouldn’t feel too threatened) I am competing with the sad, fat girl who started this race three years ago, and I am competing against her with everything that I have. And she is backing down. In this competition, I get a little faster every time. I weigh 47 pounds less than when I first put my shaky toe in that tepid reservoir. I will never touch another cigarette in my life. I can lift heavy things and do hard stuff. When I absentmindedly reach to scratch my arm or leg, I am shocked to find that the flesh is firm and muscular. I sign up for scary things like half marathons and 10k races and then I show up and do it. I log miles and miles running around my neighborhood knowing that the drivers are now staring at my backside in a good, albeit chauvinistic and degrading, way.
Today I turn 33, and I do so knowing that I will never go back to being what I was; I’m in too deep now. Instead of being addicted to ice cream and nicotine, I’m addicted to the endorphins and the runner’s high, and the happy lolling tongue of my dog as we hit mile three. I’m addicted the rhythm and purpose it gives my day and the way it allows me to have an ice-cold Coors Light or two on a summer afternoon without worrying about the calories. I’m addicted to the thought that I will someday raise children who are strong and aware of what their bodies are capable of and who takes risks to see what they can do next. I have more goals to meet along this road: shorter times, longer distances, smaller jeans. There is nothing standing in my way, though. Tri me.