The Real Reason People Compete in Triathlons- It Ain’t the Medals

A few minutes ago, I saw the last remnants of my race number slide down my arm as the soap and water carried the marking away.

I completed my first triathlon today, and it was a much more emotionally charged experience than I bargained for.

The alarm went off at 5am, and having not slept most of the night in anticipation, I sprang out of bed and grabbed the swimsuit and race skirt I placed on my dresser the night before.  I threw on a jacket almost as an afterthought, since I knew I would not wear anything but minimal clothing during the race.  Was I ever thankful for that jacket.  5am is cold, even in Arizona.

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My mother-in-law, Sandy, and I were both racing.  My father-in-law, Eric, was kind enough to drive us to the event, so we would not have to worry about parking and so he could help us unload our bikes from the rack on the roof of the car.  By help, I mean he unloaded them for us.

Neither Sandy or I had every participated in a triathlon before.  We scoped out the area, figured out where to park our bikes, and then set off to collect our timing chips and get our numbers marked on our bodies.  As the volunteer wrote 349 on my bicep, my ego ballooned.  Memories of watching televised triathlon events flooded my mind- racers sprinting out of the water, their race numbers written on their arms and calves.  Ok, I wasn’t ready to do an Ironman, but I still felt proud to count myself among the number of athletes sporting numbers.

Before the race, there was a small ceremony.  The organizers of the event gave speeches, and introduced the professional athletes who would start off the event, which was to benefit the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  A woman was introduced as the leader of the survivor group.  She mentioned that she first participated in the event when she was going through chemo.  That moment gave me pause.  Many of us were there to prove something to ourselves- to test our strength and push our limits.  I can’t really fathom what that experience must be like, challenging your physicality while fighting for your life.  I must not have been the only one moved by the power of the survivor athletes.  My friend, also named Sandy, mentioned how she had participated in training sessions with some of these ladies.  She eavesdropped as they compared scars and shared stories.  She was struck how for them, this wasn’t just another race.  Crossing the finish line was a metaphor for a much greater battle.

I am a bit of a sap, and I always feel a little tug on my heartstrings when I hear the national anthem.  As I looked at the flag and held my hand over my heart, I internally voiced thanks.   I live in a country where maintaining my health is part of my recreation.  I have a body that, while not perfect, is healthy and agile.  I have been afforded a lifestyle that ensures proper nutrition, time for exercise and appropriate healthcare.  Most of all, I have an entire team of people who support me.  I had a wonderful coach, Mike Schifano, who dedicated time every week to teach me to swim.  I have a fantastic family that helped me train, by working out with me or watching my kids so I had time to devote.  The friends who wished me well and encouraged me are innumerable.   Even when I stop to contemplate it, it is still difficult to comprehend just how blessed I am.  It seems limitless.

I watched as a spectator while the pros gracefully swam up and down the lanes, so sleek and fluid they seemed almost to levitate on the water’s surface.  As my start time approached, my coach gave me some final advice.

“The only thing different today is that you will have people passing you and you will pass people.  That’s ok.  Just keep swimming.”

Well, I did not pass anyone, but I certainly got passed.  Swimming is very difficult for me.  I knew I was uncomfortable in the water, but I was not prepared to feel claustrophobic.  A swimmer passed me, and I got lost in a bubble trail she left behind.  For whatever reason, I began to panic.  I actually thought “what if I have a heart attack out here?  Will anyone even notice?” I imagined my body floating lifelessly as competitors brushed on by.

I knew the swim would be a physical challenge, but I was taxed by the mental game.  I plodded along, reminding myself it was only a short distance.  At three different points, I turned over to float on my back to catch my breath, mostly to calm my nerves.  As I looked up in the sky, I felt defeated.  Upon reflection, I reminded myself that just two months ago, I couldn’t swim 50 yards.  Today, I swam 400.  I may not have been as graceful or composed as I hoped, but hell, I finished!

I climbed out of the water knowing the worst was over.  I jogged to my bike, put on my shoes and helmet, and headed for the road.  I have never tried to ride a bike fast.  That probably sounds silly, but usually, I am just happy to sort of cruise along at whatever speed feels comfortable.  This time, I was pushing.  Anyone riding along side me might have thought I was a bit strange, because I talked myself through it.  “You can do it.  Push yourself.  Keep it up, girl.”

The biggest surprise of the race was hoping off my bike and racing to the start of the run.  Forgive me for getting personal, but there was a rush of sensation to my nether region.  I recall a character in The Road to Wellville riding her bike as a means to release.  At the time I saw the film, I thought it was ridiculous.  Well, today’s race may have changed my thinking.  I won’t say I had a full on O-face, but it was only an eight mile course.  Perhaps another couple of miles and I would have discovered the real reason people compete in multiple triathlons.  It’s not the medals, or the free chocolate milk at the finish line- it’s, well, enough said.

One of the sweetest aspects of the day, were all these men there to support women.  The event was women only, but there were knights in biking armor riding along, offering words of encouragement and fixing flat tires.  I was surprised when I rounded the corner to finish the bike ride, and found three knights of my own cheering me along- my two sons, Liam and Kellen, and my husband, Ben.

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I have completed quite a few races, but I have never had anyone cheering for me at the end.  When I saw their faces, I teared up with emotion.  They will probably be too young to remember, but I hope somehow, there is an image of this day embedded in their minds.  I hope I illustrated what it is like to challenge yourself and come out a better person for it.  As I ran the final leg of the race, I couldn’t wait to get to the finish line, knowing they were there waiting for me.

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I have no idea what time I ran because as I crossed the finish, I rushed directly to hug Kellen.  As we were walking back to the car, Liam was holding my hand and asked if he could do a race with me some day.  I said I thought that was a great idea.  He responded by saying “I want to do a race so we can win together.”  That sounds just about perfect to me.

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2 Responses to The Real Reason People Compete in Triathlons- It Ain’t the Medals

  1. Love this. I completed my first triathlon a few years ago…I only did 3 and you are right – it wasn’t about winning any medals – but more about proving to myself I could do it. Congrats, it’s a big deal!

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