Well, heifers…IT IS DONE. My first triathlon is in the books. Checked off. Completed. Finished. BLISSFULLY OVER.
Get cozy, I’m going to break this all down for you painful detail by detail. Hope you enjoy my story of the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Ever (even having four kids didn’t compare, because, EPIDURAL, hello!) I want to mention something here for you to keep in the back of your mind while reading. Ever since I started running and “racing” (in quotes because, let’s be real, I’m not gonna be out there winning my age group now… or ever, and I’m ok with that)… I ONLY sign up for races that have beautiful, shiny BLING. Medals, baby. Everyone has their price, and that’s mine. No medal, No Heifer. Simple as that… just keep that in mind. Blingy medals are my jam.
Y’all know I’ve been training for it. I may have mentioned my shoulder “injury” in my last post – can’t remember. It got worse, preventing me from doing proper swim training, so I was kind of ‘winging it’ after a certain point – couldn’t train in the pool much so that kind of sucked. Hadn’t biked too much because Phoenix is COLD in the winter (I see your collective heifer-eye-roll here)… but I have never stopped running. So at least I had that going for me.
My heifer friend Erica, whom I talk about a lot, arrived into town Wednesday night. It felt real, but not really. I was half hoping it was all a dream. But then she pulled into my driveway and I knew it was ON. We joked, we laughed, we looked awkwardly nervous (she was completely untrained – which I do NOT recommend – but she’s a farm girl and an athlete at heart, so I knew she’d be ok) Again, don’t recommend someone NOT training for a triathlon. Seems wrong. On so many levels. I digress….
Thursday we had a nice little bike ride … just a 5 mile jaunt to get our legs going. I hadn’t been on my bike, properly training, in uh…. (muttering under my breath here…about 5 months….) DUMB. Got onto my bike, was feelin’ all fly…. til I unclipped on the right side, and leaned towards my left. Imagine in slow motion, someone screaming, “HEIFER DOWN!” I went down like this:
I hear Erica somewhere in the distance chuckling at me. Pride is something I don’t think you can bring into triathlon. I got up, brushed my ego and my shoulder and knees off, and off we went, into the sunset.
Friday comes around, and I’m slightly more nervous because now we have to actually GO. We have to get in the car and drive 4 hours to Lake Havasu. So it MUST be real. We pack up the car. Two bikes, check. Two buckets (for our transition area, a HUGE tip from super-coach Frank Sole, highly recommend him to Phoenix peeps)
Two wetsuits, check. Two bike helmets, check. You get the idea. Off we went. Lake Havasu or bust.
I felt like we were Thelma & Louise. Or something like that. More like Dumb & Dumber, I think. Anyway…..
Arrive into Lake Havasu. Our hotel room wasn’t ready so we did what all heifers do. We go eat. What could possibly go wrong with eating at a place that thinks Donkey is the other white meat?
(In all actuality, the food at this place wasn’t bad, I recommend Casa Serrano if you’re ever in Lake Havasu City. Decent prices, good chips and tasty salsa) And no they didn’t pay me for that plug.
We decide to go explore the area. See what we are up against. Everywhere I read online, it talked about SEEING the course before biking or running it. Seemed reasonable. So we went in search of the beach. THE beach where I’d face down my fears of pretty much everything. Drowning. Hyperventilating. Panic attacks. Death, or even worse, looking bad in my wetsuit. After driving in circles for 30 minutes (I blame “Silicone Sally,” the voice inside my google map app), we finally found it. Looked pretty enough. Not very well marked yet – but we saw the exit “chute” and I kept thinking, “when you’re there again, it’ll be AFTER the swim. You’ll be DONE with the worst part!”
My gut churning, I swallowed hard and tried to look brave. She saw right thru that LOL. Went back to the hotel, and watched Storm Chasers (we don’t have cable tv at home, so I was kind of in love with this beautiful, amazing distraction of people being sucked into tornadoes. Felt akin to what I was about to face in the morning (cue the lightning bolt and music here)
(pic courtesy of NatGeo)
Transition was set to open at 0530 so we set our alarms for 0500 and were lulled to sleep by tornado sirens (on tv). Cue the eyes wide open meme right at 0145 for me. I was already nervous, and tried to get back to sleep. No dice. Thank Gawd for Candy Crush. I got to level 2 billion over the next three hours. No really. I played candy crush for over 3 hours. I need an intervention (send lives, people, send me lives).
0500 comes. Time to get up. Erica wakes from a good night sleep (HOW she slept so great before a race I will never know) and I only half jokingly asked her if maybe we could just take selfies on the course and make it LOOK like we participated. That went over well (NOT).
We get dressed into our crazy triathlon-wear. I was excited to “tri” out my new tri-kit for the first time …. I had bought it recently and was planning to train wearing it underneath my wetsuit in my first open water swim (which never happened, because my coach had a family emergency)…. so this was its maiden voyage. Oh boy. Donned the tri-kit, threw on a sweatsuit over it, some sneakers, and off we went …. I was nervous. WHO does a triathlon without EVER having worn a wetsuit (other than to try it in, once)? WHO is dumb enough to do a tri without properly biking in the last few months, and without having completed the famous, favorite BRICK workout. For those non-triathletes reading, a brick workout is just another evil workout designed to kill you slowly. You can check out that link if you’re interested in learning how people die slowly after biking. ME. This heifer is dumb enough to do a triathlon like that. (#neveragain) My inner voice is screaming at me to tell you “in my defense, I had a SHOULDER INJURY!!!! I could not swim 60 laps because of the pain, despite PT and Active Release Therapy). There, now you’ve heard my inner voice. But still. STUPID. But I’m too stubborn to quit, so……..
We load up the car, head over to the very-dark, very scary looking transition area. It’s 0530. We see lots of athletic-looking, athlete type people. I was asking myself WHY I had ever thought this was a good idea. (I still don’t know why I figured this would be fun). No clue. So these athlete-types were prepared, flashlights in hand, walking their bikes over the sand (can’t let FastBetty touch the SAND, oh NO !!!) and setting up their areas. I looked at Erica, asked if we could say we came, take a few pics, and go home. She told me no again, so we unpacked our stuff and set it up in our transition area. (this pic below was taken once the sun came up and warmed the outside temp to a toasty 62′, which was warmer than the 60′ lake, but whatever, not that I’m bitter about that)
(yes, those ARE my Jenny Craig anytime bars there, I knew they wouldn’t make me sick, and nutrition is a big part of this tri stuff, so I ate one before the swim and after the bike). Note the Body Glide. Never forget the body glide. EVER. Trust me on this one, heifers. Just.Don’t.Forget.The.Glide.
Then we realized we needed to get our “body marking” done. They take a sharpie and write your bib number on your arms. And your AGE on your calf. They asked me how old I was. I said 29. Then they wrote 42 anyway, on my leg.
Things started feeling real to me. The clock struck 0700, which is when we agreed we would put our wetsuits on and go “warm up” in the lake. That is so funny to me. Warm UP in 60′ water temps. Warm UP. Right. Anyway – everyone said a warmup is essential in a cold swim because, well, you could die. Seriously. They have ambulances on site, they have very able bodied young strappin’ EMTs (oh wait, I’m getting off course here)… Anyway – you have to warm up. I made Erica take a pic of me in my wetsuit, because, well, PICS! You don’t lose over 100 pounds and NOT take a pic of yourself in a wetsuit (do you?) See below forobligatory wetsuit pic.
I did love the swimcap we were given. It says, “I am a triathlete” so you know, street cred. Please note in this pic I cannot actually feel my feet. The grass was FREEZING cold, and I was just now beginning to realize the gravity of what was in front of me. That smile is SO fake. It was hiding big crocodile tears that I was afraid to let fall.
Off we trot (stroll, meander, waltz?) how does one go to a lake? We walked down, our feet numb. The beach was very rocky and full of shells, pebbles, etc…..Each one felt like a knife in my feet. I was off to a great start. It could only get better, right?
I put on my street-cred swim cap, then my goggles and we stood there in ankle deep water for a few minutes. I’m not sure what Erica was thinking but I was trying not to cry. This very athletic-looking guy was to our right, and he looked like he might have actually trained for this. He looked READY. I can’t describe a “ready” look on an athlete, but you’d have to see him to know, and you would have agreed, he just looked READY. So I asked him what his best advice was, and he told me to put my goggles on AND THEN my swim cap over that. Seemed legit, so I switched things up andwas feeling READY. (ok not really). He said, “trust your training” and to have fun. I looked at Erica and laughed so hard. TRUST YOUR TRAINING. I did learn to do amazing freestyle and felt pretty good about my form, but the biking part, the brick part, the Open Water Swim training, yeah…about that…. So I thanked him, then fought back the tears, again.
We slowly walked into the freezing cold water. My coach told me ahead of time to splash water on my face so that I could get used to the feeling of the frigid water. He said it’ll help me be prepared, and that I would have to conquer my breathing technique despite the feeling like someone just sucked the air and life out of you, and left ice cubes inside your brain. Yeah. He was right. That water was nasty. It was colder than Chicago in January. It was ugly-cold. But I splashed, and splashed, and splashed my face. I took the final plunge, and let the water into my wetsuit. Well, that was a new feeling. Kind of like being locked in a meat freezer. (not that I’d know firsthand). It was cold. Nobody around me was grimacing. They all accepted it as part of the fun. I changed my perspective and splashed around like a freakin’ dolphin, trying to enjoy the feeling of my limbs slowly going numb. Embrace the suck, they say. I was embracing the suck.
I got my wits about me – as Erica announced happily that she was peeing in her wetsuit (it’s a thing, guys, people pee in their wetsuits to keep themselves warm, and also maybe if they had too much diet dr pepper first thing in the morning, but I’m not giving away Erica’s secrets here). So she’s happily peeing and I’m over there just trying not to puke. I needed to try out actually SWIMMING in this fancy wetsuit. Those things are expensive, for the record. I wanted my warmup to be respectable so I could break it in. Let me just say this. Sticking my head in the water during my mega-streamlined freestyle stroke nearly killed me. The first time. No way. I decided I’d breast stroke and side-stroke this bad boy all the way around the buoys and back to the shore. NO FREAKING WAY was I putting my face in the arctic water. Nope. No. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.
Things are moving along, the announcer starts telling us that the first wave is going to begin. My heart rate is climbing. I can feel it. I took deep breaths and remembered my mantra. It’s lame. It’s short and to the point. It’s very me. “Handle your sh*t.” That’s what I repeated to myself the entire time. Just.Handle.Your.Sh*t.
The first wave went off. I have never seen quicker swimmers. These guys were like dolphin missiles. (is that a thing?) They were SO fast. They were real athletes. I was a wanna-be who couldn’t even pee in her wetsuit (performance anxiety I guess). They were OUTTA there. So fast. I watched in awe, really.
After a few more waves started, ours was called. I was honored to be standing amongst maybe 20 amazing women. How do I know they were amazing? They were encouraging me and Erica in the water during our “warmup” … giving us advice, encouragement, and passing along any tidbit of helpful info they could. Loved every single one of these amazing women. The starting noise was sounded, and we were off. That water. It was SO cold. The splashy splashy in my face wasn’t enough to acclimate me. I decided on a nice breast stroke as I looked with panic for the first buoy. Surely I was getting close to it. Not so much. I had only gone maybe 4 strokes. I kept going because well, that whole “handle your sh*t” mantra.
The water was pretty choppy. Winds were calm but the water was movin’ all around like a heifer in a mud bath. I had taken meclizine (seasick meds) prior to the start, so I figured that’d be good enough. WRONG. Remembering the sage advice of my coach and other amazing triathletes I’ve met along the way, I flipped over onto my back to catch my breath and get my bearings and wits about me. My goggles were making some kind of optical illusion on the sides and the motion of the reflected water in them was enough to make me feel even sicker. So I flipped back over and tried freestyle again. No dice. At this point, I had passed one lifeguard, who had a woman hanging onto her floaty life saver raft, and this poor woman, who was literally no more than 50 strokes in, cried uncle. I heard her tell the lifeguard “take me back to shore, I can’t do this.” I felt AWFUL for her. Plus I totally understood her feeling. The panic of floating around in choppy open waterYou can’t touch the bottom. You can’t SEE the bottom, and you have like 19 miles to swim before the first buoy. That kind of strengthened my resolve so I kept going because I didn’t want to be in that situation and if I stayed there one more minute – I would have turned back.
I kept going. And going. And going. I heard a lifeguard call out to ME “you’re going the wrong way.” Oh crap. Are you serious? All this work I’m doing to avoid my face in this Icelandic water, and I’m freakin’ going the wrong way? Yeah. I sure was. I wanted to throat punch her, but she was too far away, so I got brave and did a few freestyle strokes until I couldn’t feel my cheeks. I was making slow progress. I could see Erica WAY ahead of me – at least I thought it was her. All the other people had cleared the first buoy and were almost at the 2nd. I was the second to last. I only know that because I accidentally kicked a guy who was doing even worse than I was. (spoiler::he did finish, an hour behind me, for the whole race) I am so glad he finished. He was really struggling out there. I felt his pain.
I made my way to the second buoy. I have no idea how. But I did. I even risked a few more freestyle strokes to get there faster. I did as many as I could handle before needing to flip on my back to control my racing breath and my panic. The lifeguard was still there shouting to me “wrong way again!” I really hated her and loved her all at once. I looked up and could see NOTHING. The sun was creating glare on the water. I could not see the shore, I could not see the buoys, I could only see my life flashing before me (in hindsight, I should have eaten more cookies).
At this point, I had one stretch left to go. I decided to suck it up and try freestyle yet again. I paid for all that training, damnit, I was going to use it. Four strokes. I made it four strokes, and had to switch to my back again. I decided to just embrace the suck once again and started doing this toddler-like flippy motion with my hands to propel me through the water. (once again lifeguard chick was guiding me “stay to the right of my voice” and “just stop stroking and rest, you’re not doing yourself any favors”). I kind of liked having my own personal water sherpa.
I was getting closer to the shore. I was swimming for what felt like 4 hours, but I was finally able to SEE the floor of the lake below me. I optimistically put my feet down figuring I’d hit pay dirt, but… nope. No such luck, had to keep swimming towards the sound of the race announcer. I had trouble sighting the shoreline still, but I kept going towards the lighthouse that was close to the exit. FINALLY. FINALLY. I was finally able to put my feet onto the lake bottom. I figured I’d be fine at this point. I had conquered my Mt. Everest. I had DONE IT.
Well, kind of.
I couldn’t stand up. I was swerving like a drunk guy after a night of binging. It was downright UGLY. And beyond that, I felt scared. I was well past seasick at this point, but I couldn’t walk. I was stumbling. I looked NOTHING like those triathlon pics of strong women exiting the water after their best swim, ready to go attack the bike. Like this lady. I looked nothing like her. Rock on, anonymous internet swimmer, you are my hero!
I looked nothing like this amazing athlete above.
I was assisted out of the water and could not walk straight. I was grasping the side fence so hard I might have pulled it over. I heard in the faint distance a guy calling for a med assist. “Bob, we have a medical just outta the water.” They guided me to the med tent and I felt the eyes of 243 concerned medics and a race director looking at me with pity. I couldn’t even talk. I was barely able to breathe properly from panic, exhaustion and utter disorientation and nausea. The guy (couldn’t even tell you who he was, what he was wearing, etc) who was in front of me was telling me “let’s get you help. You’re not going on to the bike.” My head was spinning, I wanted to projectile vomit on him for saying that, even though I could barely comprehend what he was telling me. I didn’t come all this way to quit. (I might have joked about it, but I don’t think I really would have quit. Maybe). At that point through, I spotted Erica in our transition area (she’s from Nebraska and pretty pale, so it’s not hard to spot her). I let out some puke on this guy’s feet (sorry random race guy, sorry) and gave him my Philly-girl wave, and stood up straight to wobble my way to my bike rack.
I used the side railings to help hold myself up and struggled to get to my bike, and my glorious bucket that I wanted to either vomit in, or sit on. Erica looked great. Very energetic, and wanted to know how I was doing, I just looked at her, flopped down on my bucket and asked her to please get this wetsuit unzipped behind me. She was happy to help (she’s really the best race partner, because she puts up with me). She was telling me how she, too, was feeling nauseous and disoriented after the swim, which made me feel marginally better. I wanted to vomit up a week’s worth of food, I wanted to pass out, I wanted to go home. I seriously thought, for the first time, right then, on my bucket, that quitting could be an option.
Cue the next race guy. Up comes a nice guy with a walkie talkie saying into it “I’ve got her, hang on” and he is STARING at me. Wondering why I’m leaning over the bike rack rail and palerthan… I don’t know. Just super pale. He then does one better. He calls over the medical guy, who rolls up in the blinky-light med truck, wanting to whisk me away back to the tent, where they will give me fluids, and make sure I’m not a danger. The guy asked me “you’re not going on the bike, are you?” with wide eyes. I look over at Erica. She’s gearing up. Her helmet is on, her sunglasses are at the ready, her bike shoes are on. I wanted to cry. Again. She told me later she was afraid at that very moment, that I’d pull the plug. I wanted nothing more than to pull that stupid stupid very awful very dumb triathlon plug. But I didn’t. I told the medic in front of me and the other medic in the vehicle waiting for me that I’d be fine (you know they had to have been laughing so hard at my stupidity, and worried about my safety and me hurting others too, I’m sure)…but I didn’t give in. They kept asking Erica “are you with her, I mean are you WITH her? You’re not going to LEAVE her, right???” and Erica assured them she wouldn’t let me do anything dumb (oh you know, like aTRIATHLON…but whatever). The race director asked me to not be a hero. Don’t go out and hurt yourself and others because you were foolish, etc….blah blah blah yada yada yada.
I sat down and assumed crash position. Gulped hard, swished some water around in my mouth and slowly stood up to get my shoes on. Then I fell over, but whatever. Details. I sat back on the bucket, took a few more breaths, and slowly put on my shoes, my helmet (had to try 34 times to buckle it, I was pretty shaky) and search for my race number belt and my sunglasses. I slowly walked my bike down the “bike out” area while these race guys were looking on in utter horror. They were worried and really, after seeing on the bike course how FAST some of these real athletes come out from behind you – I don’t blame them. If I fell over, I’d have taken out a few and we’d all have had some awful injuries.
Erica PROMISED these guys she’d look after me (and she did – she is THE BEST ever, if I haven’t mentioned that.) I tried to clip into my bike after we cleared the grassy area. That didn’t go so well. But I didn’t fall over. Progress. I tried again. Eh. Not so much. I tried that magical third time, and clipped in. YAY. I was rolling. I am proud to report I did not fall over once. The chilly air felt SO SO SO SOOOOOO GOOD in my face. I was still nauseous but the disorientation was dissipating and the color might have been returning to my cheeks. Mentally I was noting a small victory finally, that I DID finish the swim. I was too busy dying directly after the swim to really THINK HARD that I had just finished a triathlon swim. In open water. With no OWS training at all. And never having worn a wetsuit to swim. That made me feel all warrior-y.
I was marinating in my warrior mind right up until I saw the first hill. Hills? There are hills? Heifers. I live in Phoenix. I don’t road bike up hills (and in fairness, remember I had not biked in months and months, anything more than 5 miles). Hills. Great. That’s ok. I’m armed with knowledge on this one. My coach told me nobody shouldunclip in the middle of a hill and take the chance of wiping out. If I was feeling unsure, unclip then walk up the hill. Crap. That meant I had to unclip and risk falling anyway (I ride more like a toddler than an athlete wanna-be). The first few small hills I was able to power through, I was literally at 3mp up those hills. Mega-athletes came whizzing behind me. Their tri-bikes have solid wheels and they honestly sound like cars as they are passing me by. One by one they passed me. All of them. Every last one of them. I saw another hill coming and I knew I had to unclip. My quads were on fire, I was still feeling bad from the swim and I didn’t want to survive that water only to die on the bike (no drama much here from me, right?) So I unclip and start walking up the hill. It was at this point in the race when I lost my emotional crap. I was crying. I don’t even know WHY I was crying. I had a panic attack. I had to unbuckle my helmet just to breathe. I never stopped walking up the hill and I heard SO MANY of these amazing athletes encourage me as they zoomed by me “great job!” “don’t quit!” “keep moving forward, girl!” Men, women, etc. They were amazingly encouraging as I was losing my crap right there. Lest you think I’m kidding, Erica was kind enough to capture it for everyone. I wanted to throttle her when I saw her with the camera. I did. I was so quiet she even said to me, “Mel, I have no idea what to do with you when you’re quiet. No sarcasm, nothing. I was scared!” So here I am, coming up the top of a long, gradually increasing hill. I hated her for the pics then but they help tell the story now.
I swear that was a hill. I swear. It doesn’t look like it – BUT IT WAS A HILL I PROMISE! That’s my “I want to die now” face just in case you haven’t made one before during a race.
We came to the first turn around and I was super excited. HALFWAY. We had made it halfway. Wrong. It was just a turnaround point – just a right turn then back around to more hills. What’s that my kids say? #FML? Yeah. That. That’s exactly what I was thinking.
Erica continued to support me, stay with me, and snapped this pic which she later talked about. She said she kept watching me, very worried that I was going to swerve even worse and crash to my bloody death, taking with me 54 able-bodied athletes zipping around me. She said that. I think she had good reason to worry. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Here’s the view of the most faithful tri-partner ever.
I felt bad she had to stare at my arse for 12.something miles. Sorry, Erica.
Fast forward through the bike course, and we finally made our way back down to the transition area. NEVER in my life was I so happy to finish a bike ride. Ever. Ever. I was so happy, are you feeling my happiness? So very happy.
We racked our bikes, and set out for our short 5k walk. Why was it a walk? Because, exhaustion. She wanted to jog. I actually COULD HAVE jogged, I’ve actually TRAINED to jog. I could have. I just didn’t have it in me. We opted for a nice 5k stroll down through Lake Havasu city. A few smart alecky people made a comment “wow, you guys aren’t working as hard as the other athletes” to which I shot then my best angry eyes, and kept on walking. We did pass one woman, who appeared to be in our age group, not a college mega-athlete, as were most of the competitors, and she said the best thing to us. She said, “Way to go, normal people! Way to go!” and we laughed and laughed all the way to the finish line. Nobody was more shocked to see us than the race director. He looked at me with surprise and said, “YOU FINISHED??!!!” I couldn’t tell if he was asking or exclaiming. Either way, I didn’t care. Take THAT Mr. Race Director. Take THAT.
I was readying myself for receiving my coveted prize. The medal that I had already made space for on my medal rack. The ONLY triathlon medal I was ever going to have (because, #never again)…. when I was told “this year there are no medals.”
Why do I do this? I run not only for cookies but for SHINY BLINGY MEDALS. Are you KIDDING ME, there are no medals? No. It was not a cruel joke. This year, there were no medals. This was the only thing I took away from the race expo as a memento. Please know I’m biting my tongue on SO many off color jokes about this pic.
My advice to anyone who is considering their first triathlon? TRAIN. TRAIN. TRAIN. Don’t think “oh open water is no big deal, I can do it.” Because it’s scary out there. Because panic is real. Because you can have all the swim technique training you could get but still choke out there. Triathlon was like this for me:
If you’ve read this far, you are a warrior-reader and you deserve a shiny blingy medal, too!
Thank you for sharing my first triathlon experience with me. Thank you ALL for the support you’ve shown. Thank you to my fellow “Pathetics” who have encouraged me all the way and given me great advice, and funny stories too. Thank you to Erica, for this incredible memory (because really, there’s no medal, so it’s just a memory). Thank you to my awesome heifer-husband David for all the support and pep talks. And thank you, heifer family, for being part of my herd.
Here we are, just two heifers, after a triathlon, not wearing any medals. Because there were none.