No one considered me an athlete. At age 49, I never considered myself an athlete. Yet, I was intrigued when a colleague, much younger and fitter than I, mentioned competing in a sprint triathlon.
The race included a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and 3-mile run. A paltry undertaking for some, but for me, the task seemed daunting. I had five months to prepare.
Biking and running seemed feasible. If I faltered while biking and was overtaken by men in multicolored Spandex, I could slow down and let them pass. If I ran out of breath while running I could just walk fast. But swimming in open water? This was a potential drowning. I needed help.
‘A true athlete’
I enrolled in an open-water swim clinic offered by a local triathlon-training club. I arrived to class in a blue, spongy, deep-sea diving suit with zip-up jacket. The other swimmers looked like shiny, black seals in their full-body wetsuits; I looked like a blue Nerf ball.
At the end of class, my performance was rated “diligent” but certainly not adequate for an open-water swim. I bought a proper wetsuit and began weekly lake swims, always with my husband or daughter kayaking by my side.
Cycling was the easiest of the three legs to prepare for — until stupidity usurped rationale. I marked out a 12-mile path on a bike trail close to home.
On a cool, breezy, drizzly Seattle morning, I set out. Four miles in, the breeze turned to wind and the drizzle to downpour. Stubbornness kicked in. I vowed to complete 12 miles despite wearing non-waterproof Lycra pants and a short-sleeved shirt.
Just keep moving, I told myself. A true athlete would not turn back.
I know now, a true athlete would have been dressed in rain gear.
I reached the car drenched, shaking and scared. It took two days to recover from hypothermia.
The next challenge to overcome was the transition from biking to running. The issue is circulation: The blood supply to the quad muscles used for pedaling must shift to the calf and hamstring muscles used for running. This doesn’t happen quickly. The blood pools in the quads after the racer jumps off the bike and begins to run. Legs that once ran like a gazelle now move like a drugged elephant.
I practiced running after biking regularly, but I worried the legs might give out on race day.
The mental challenges
That day arrived. I joined the mob of athletes and pretended I was one of them. However, my shaking indicated otherwise.
Get in the water and move, I told myself.
Two female racers couldn’t miss the anxiety oozing from my wetsuit. A woman standing next to me said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
I told her I was nervous, too, and tried to cheer her on. “No, it’s not nerves,” she said. “I just saw my ex-girlfriend. I can’t believe she is here.”
I offered to stand closer to give the ex the idea this woman was not alone. She smiled and wandered off. Her scorn of my offer as a surrogate lesbian made me laugh and slightly calmed my nerves.
I joined the beginners group and readied myself. “Three, two, one.” The horn bellowed a loud squawk.
I eased into the race, dipping my head underwater every few seconds. Then panic set in. The lake was vast and dark. On each side of me, crooked spider arms were clawing, splashing at the water. The ominous rapid breathing was mine. I just need to survive this. What had I practiced?
I rolled on my back and moved slowly, legs paddling, arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross.
I needed a vision: My mother. If she can survive six over-achieving sons, a heart attack, multiple surgeries and losing half a leg to a drunk driver, I can do this.
Those lifeguards on the surfboards are here for people like me. Just swim surfboard to surfboard.
After 25 minutes and several floating breaks, I emerged. I didn’t drown.
In my ecstasy, I fled to my bike high-fiving a woman wearing a medal. “Excellent job. You won.” I didn’t realize we all got medals once we finished.
Wetsuit off; shoes on. Now, the bike.
I felt relieved with bike and solid ground underneath me. The fear of drowning was replaced with elation as I rode across the Interstate 90 bridge: sunshine, warmth and a panoramic view of Mount Rainier.
Jubilation was interrupted when four 20-somethings passed and one said, “49,” reading the age written on my calf. “I hope I am still doing this when I am your age.” I threw her a menacing look and a mental expletive.
Back to my fantasy: I am a female Greg Lemond, riding solo to the finish line at the Tour de France.
The fantasy ended abruptly when I got off the bike and tried to run. Each leg weighed 200 pounds. They wobbled, but I had to finish. I told myself it was OK to walk until the blood reached my running muscles. I advanced the walk to a very slow geriatric run, a sort of a shuffle. Slowly, the shuffle turned to a slow trot and the trot to my 11-minute-mile pace.
Competition was replaced by camaraderie. There were overweight women speed walking, a blind man with a rope tied around his waist, the other end to his son. Some of us ran together, asking the same questions. “Is this your first?” “How did you do in the water?” “See you at the finish line.”
I crossed it feeling like an Olympic athlete winning the gold.
I’ve done three sprint triathlons since that first race. Open-water practice is still with a kayaker by my side. My daughter rows and cheers me on.
“Two more Yao Mings to go, Mom.”
My weekly runs are still 11-minute miles, and I bike indoors with a stationary bike during inclement weather. But I am quite proud to be part of a group of courageous older adults who choose to push beyond perceived limitations.
I am a triathlete.
CATHERINE DEWAR PAUL is a North Seattle resident. She will run her fifth Seafair Triathlon on Sunday, July 21, at Seward Park. To comment on this story, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.