Cool and dark and grey. The morning is crisp and the sun is just beginning to peak above the horizon line, spreading pinks and reds across the sky. Pull on my swim suit, so tight!, pour a giant cup of coffee and grab the bags that will be used in transition. Fumble toward the car for the drive to the race, thinking “What am I doing? Did I sign up for this?” My stomach rumbles in hunger and my muscles are already tired thinking about the sprint tri course.
Waiting. Waves of athletes have already begun their race and I watch them churn the water into a frothy foam. Waiting as shiny wet bodies emerge from the lake and wriggle out of wet suits. The sun now warming my body, the sounds of rock music pumping across the landscape in Lancaster and the grounds teaming with fit and toned bodies stretching and prepping for their time in the race. The grass is dewy under my bare feet and the swim cap feels oddly taught over my dry scalp. I stand in a mass of women, clad in seal-like wet suits and Speedos, and look out at the now glassy lake I will soon enter. “Go!” a voice from a loud speaker calls. The wave of yellow-capped swimmers pushes me out into the water and I float and kick toward the ropes, the chill of the fall lake water raising goosebumps on my skin. I look to the orange bouy, the turn around point, and begin my methodical, slow crawl through the water. Bodies thrash around me. Skin touches skin. I try to stay focused. I have trained for this some in the pool and tell myself that I can do it, that it is not that far. Warmer. There is now space in front of me as the pack breaks up. My body feels good and I enjoy the blue of the sky as I swim a moment on my back to rest, the murky green of the lake as I struggle to see through my pink goggles. The orange bouy is now behind me and I am heading to shore. I am a fish, a lake trout, a turtle. But I am swimming, the scariest part of the tri race for me. I am out of the water, up the slippery ramp onto dry land, and running to my bike. I am awake and the sun beats on my damp skin, promising me a comfortable bike ride.
Dry off. Force on socks and shoes, helmet and sunglasses. Slather on SPF and I am wheeling my bike out of the transition area and onto the road. It feels good to stretch my legs and pump the peddles. Passing. On your left. I feel the blood and adrenaline run through me as I ride up and down the hilly course, sometimes overtaking a rider in front of me. My muscles scream on the hills but them rejoice in the downhill reward. Dappled sunshine filters through the trees, the road is smooth and stretches on and on. I shift gears; I hear the chain moving from wheel to wheel and the whir of my tires as I click off the 12 miles. Cows. The smell of dung. Road kill. Amish farmers on carts hauling massive stacks of cut corn stalks. Cyclists everywhere moving toward one destination. I wheel back onto the main course, glide into the transition zone, dismount and feel my legs wobble as I regain control over them for the run.
Helmet off, gloves off, rerack bike, swig of water and I am running. My legs feel heavy and foreign for the first quarter-mile and especially on the hills. On the flat terrain I try to speed up, to set my eyes on the runner in front of me. “Yes, I can pass him.” And I do. I run to the out-and-back, turn around the pylon and hear “You can do it! Looking good!” from people clustered on the country road. “Thanks”, I call back, that sounds good, and I push on, knowing I am in the home stretch. Right. Left. Right. Left. My feet take over and I try to set a rhythm and roll with my gait. My feet pound hard on the asphalt. My arms move in tandem with my legs and I establish a pattern to my breath. Out, out, in. Out, out, in.
Music. Loud speakers. Cheering. I can hear it now as I approach the end of the course. The energy pulls me forward and I make one last effort to pass another runner. I overtake her and feel good. My breath sounds loud in my ears and my heart beats like it will erupt from inside my ribcage. There’s Walt, smiling at me with a camera in his hands. “Almost there. Go, baby!” The final chute is lined with spectators calling encouragement and clapping. And I push it across the timing mat and finally stop, hands on knees, head dipped low so I can try to catch my breath, which sounds like a freight train in my head. I am tired, my legs heavy, my body sweaty, but I feel good. Not as bad as I feared, I think to myself. I did it; I finished and didn’t suffer too much on the course.
The music is pumping across the airwaves, other competitors are finishing their race and the feelings of elation and accomplishment are almost palpable. People are smiling, eating chilled bananas and bagels, rehydrating with water and Gatorade, hugging one another on a race completed. I am happy to be part of the experience, to now be a “tri-athlete”, to have met a personal challenge. It feels strange to stop, to sit in the grass and peel off my wet socks and shoes. I think about the miles my body has just covered and say thank you to my legs, my heart. Walt hugs me and smiles, camera ready to record my victory. I look at the numbers inked on my arms and legs, #325, age 46, and feel strong and happy and so thankful that I am physcially able to compete and enjoy pushing myself toward a finish line.