Before the start of my first triathlon, I had a couple of random thoughts. As I waded into the Hudson River, the first was that the water looked really murky, and equally disgusting. The second was, “Oh, just get over it.”
Dipping my body down into the brown water, I put my face under for just a second. The water was cold through my wetsuit, and my feet squished on something underneath through my dive socks. Ewww. When did the jock in me get this precious?
In our black wetsuits and yellow swim caps, bouncing up and down in the water, all of us women in the first wave looked nearly identical. I remember thinking how comical it must appear from the shore. Waiting for the horn to sound, I looked quickly up at the beach to see my husband, family, and friends, who had come to cheer me on. Like a distant safety blanket.
At some point in my mid-40s, I began to notice myself aging at a rate that seemed like hyperspeed. All of the sudden I began to put on weight; little baby wrinkles now looked gouge-like, and I began to sprout grays in a most menacing manner. Alarmed at my weight gain the most, I asked my doctor if I could possibly have a thyroid issue. I exercise a lot, and hadn’t changed my eating habits. Letting out a deep sigh, my doctor looked at me pince-nez and said, “Look, you’re getting older. This is what happens. But we’ll check it out.” My thyroid tests came back absolutely normal, and I had my moment of reckoning. Sadly, the game was changing. What had worked for 45+ years just didn’t anymore. I needed to amp things up.
Earlier this year a friend suggested I check out a Masters Swimming group at a local gym. He knew I swam competitively in school, so it seemed like a no-brainer. The only catch: practice was from 5 to 6:30 am, three days a week. As a mother with a demanding full-time job, I couldn’t picture how sleep-deprived me was going to be in the water at 5 am. Where — between commuting, working, and taking care of the kids — would I squeeze it in? I put it off for a few months and then I got some help from an unlikely source: a business conference.
At Brite ’13, New York Times reporter and author of “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg spoke about how habits are essential to success. He listed the steps a person might take to develop a new habit – even an unsavory one like getting up at 4:30 am to swim.
As I was listening to the lecture, I was visualizing fit me, gliding through the water. Maybe I could do it. I decided to follow the advice, which to me was ritualized preparedness, but more simply: a cue, a reward and then routine. (Here’s a great infographic that explains the core steps.) So I laid my things out the night before, packed my gym bag and put it in the car, and then after, gave myself a small reward. (I chose a VERY small piece of dark chocolate or a visit to the hot tub post-workout.) I felt a little bit like a lab experiment, but it did work. The first two weeks were rough, but then once I got used to it, I didn’t want to miss it.
The people in my Masters group were mostly training for other things: namely triathlons and ironmans. I became more and more intrigued by the notion of doing a race myself. As a beginner, I decided on a sprint triathlon, which is an abbreviated version of an Olympic triathlon. A sprint is a half-mile swim, 12-mile ride, three-mile run, compared to an Olympic distance of a mile swim, 25-mile ride and six-mile run. So in addition to swimming three days a week, I began to run. And cycle. I’m a lousy runner, and was really most comfortable in the three-mile range, so I started by just doing what I could do. Two days a week at first, and I built up to five, then eight miles if I felt like it. (Not very often.) However what I found was once I started, the actual workout was fine; it was getting out of my own way—fighting that mental ennui.
My first day cycling I hauled my 20-year-old mountain bike out of the garage, and took it for a ride. We live in a very hilly area, and sadly, I had trouble making it up some of the hills. At one point I felt like I was just cycling in place and was just going to fall over sideways. I needed a real road bike. It was an investment, but the difference was incredible. Getting used to it, how to really ride a bike on hills—shifting the gears when—the strategy of knowing the route to take advantage of hills to propel you up the next—was also something I learned.
The day before the race, the organizers had a clinic for beginners. The main event was explaining the transitions between swimming, biking and running. I was most concerned about how I would get from a bathing suit to sports bra. Turns out, no bathing suit. You just wear your sports bra and tri pants under a wetsuit. Simple enough.
The night before the race I didn’t sleep well. I got up at 5:30, and was a little bleary. My throat hurt a little (the day after the race I found out that I had had strep!) and I desperately needed coffee, but also didn’t want to have to stop during the race. I decided on a tiny cup, and left the house. Once there, I got my race packet and headed to the transition area, which is only open to racers. I set my stuff up; put on my body glide and eased myself into the wetsuit.
In the water before the race began, I looked at the women around me. Would any of these civilized looking ladies trample me at the start? Who? I’d heard stories about how people getting stomped on and swum over at the start of triathlons. Being wary of this, when the horn sounded I swam a little wide — a little too wide as it happened, and I went off course a bit. My wetsuit, once warm and cozy, now just felt icky and restrictive.
I’d done open water swims in the ocean in the Keys as a teenager, but not being able to see in front of me in the murky water was more disorienting than I expected, and the distance seemed longer. I tried to remember some early advice on sighting I learned as a kid from some old-timers in Key West: swim a little, then pop your head up to see where you are, and then just take it landmark by landmark—in this case, buoy by buoy, to the finish. Logically I knew as I swam that I had done much, much longer swims before, so that kept me going. By the time I reached the beach, race volunteers were shouting to me, “Great job! The hardest part is over!” I was happy to hear that for sure, but a little skeptical. But just then I looked up to see my family there cheering, and I focused on the next leg, cycling.
In a matter of minutes, I peeled off my wetsuit, slipped on my shoes, put on my helmet and glasses and wheeled my bike out. In my head I knew the first part of the 12-mile course would be a tough climb, but living and training in a hilly area definitely paid off. As I cycled I was sure to be careful. A couple of friends crashed their bikes while training only a week before, so I was really just focused on finishing, and not crashing. Bicyclists zipped up behind me as we raced downhill. There’s no real reaction time. We passed through a local neighborhood in Sleepy Hollow with sharp turns, and I saw a male cyclist lying on the grass of someone’s home, his head bleeding. A race volunteer was beside him, giving him first aid. It could happen to any of us. Totally unsettling.
I finished the bike route. People pulled in fast, and I noticed some were wobbly and shaky as they dismounted their bikes. Gulping down a ton of water, I waved to family and friends, and started the three-mile run. My legs felt odd post-ride — the muscles expecting another activity, and it takes some time to adjust. The run is on the Hudson, and I think how pretty it looks, as I chuffed along. I heard cowbells, and crazy shouts of encouragement from people lining the race route. It really did motivate me — knowing my family and friends were there, and hearing constant approbation.
“Great job! You’re almost there!” A young volunteer shouted over to me.
“Yeah, I’m totally crushing it!” I yelled back.
It took him a second to realize I’m joking. Once he did, he doubled over laughing. I smiled big and made my way to the finish.
As I approached, I saw the happy faces of my family, friends, and scores of random strangers lined up and cheering. Kids held out their hands for me to slap as I ran by and over the finish line. I was hot, sticky, sweaty, thirsty—and thoroughly happy.
We punish our bodies and ourselves, worrying about what we should be, not happy with what we are.
I still have the wrinkles, and I didn’t lose the weight. But I feel good. Really good.