“Why exactly did you want to do a triathlon?”
Joe and I were sitting on our front porch, sipping beers and talking through the weekend ahead, figuring out who was going where with which kid, and what all we needed to do to prepare for the various family and work activities we had on our plate. While we’d hoped to all get down to Ann Arbor for the weekend, for my first attempt at a swim-bike-run event, it was becoming clear, thanks to a few life things (namely, a puppy that unexpectedly had to get stitches and stay overnight at the vet), that it would be a lot logistically for all five of us to make the four-hour-long trek south for this early Sunday morning race.
I was bummed to not have everyone come along, but it made the most sense for just Emma and me to go; in addition to setting my mind right to finish something I’d never done before, we also would have a MRG booth at the race expo Saturday afternoon. It would be a busy couple of days. I was happy to have Emma with me, and we decided to make it a fun mother-daughter weekend.
Hashing out these weekend details that night led Joe and I to talk more about the race itself and how I was feeling going into it. Joe has long known that I’ve had the idea of a triathlon in my head (and he’s quite familiar with my life-is-short, why-not-go-for-it mentality), but he’d never really asked me outright the motivation behind my desire. Now that it was about here, he posed the question. “Why exactly did you want to do a triathlon?”
It’s a good question, and it left me a bit speechless for a moment. Why did I want to do this, really? Why do any of us take on things that are tough and new and out of our comfort zones? I found these words: “Something about the challenge of it really intrigued me. I want to see what it’s like, if I can do this.”
I believe the timing of this particular triathlon — the Tri Goddess Tri at Waterloo Recreation Area in Chelsea, Mich. — and where I’m at in my running and endurance athlete journey played roles, too. It’s been a rough go this past winter and spring, running-wise. I haven’t been able to shake 100% a foot/calf injury — this meant I had to pull out of training for my 8th marathon, at Bayshore, in May — and in turn I’ve struggled with not feeling completely myself. I’ve had my share of running injuries over the years, and I realize healing happens and we do get back out there eventually, but this particular one has dragged on for a long time, even after doing all the right things like resting a ton and laying off running for weeks at a time (at least I’ve learned this much, that listening to my body is the answer.) I’d be lying if I said the lack of running hadn’t affected my mental and physical well-being in recent months.
So the idea of going after this entirely new goal, and pushing my mind and body in different ways, really resonated. What could happen if I dedicated myself to swimming laps in a pool and in open water on a consistent basis? (Talk about going outside my comfort zone…) And how much stronger could I be if I logged some serious miles on my road bike?
I found out this past weekend, when I lined up at the start line with several hundred other women, a majority of them also new to triathlon. At one point on the beach, as we waited for the official start Sunday morning, race organizers asked how many participants were 50 and older and were doing a triathlon for the very first time. At least a dozen women raised their hands. How cool is that?
In fact, this triathlon is incredibly beginner-friendly, and it shows early on when during the outdoor packet pick-up/expo there are activities like Transition 101. This involved Epic Races founder and triathlete Eva Solomon going through the steps of setting up your transition area spot — “the hub” of the race, where athletes stage their bikes, helmets, shoes, fuel, etc. Later, everyone walked to the beach/swim area, where Eva explained the race buoys and how exactly we’d all swim the course. (This event features sprint and mini-sprint distances as well as a duathlon option for those who prefer to only run and bike.) It definitely helped that I’d done a non-tradition triathlon in the past — the M22 Challenge, a run-bike-paddle race in northern Michigan — so I understood the transition component and what it’s like to have three different disciplines in one event. Even so, the swim portion of a triathlon takes it to a whole new level, I discovered. I signed on for the sprint triathlon, which consisted of a half-mile swim (32 lengths in a standard metric pool), 10.7-mile bike ride, 3-mile run (part of which is a trail run with one steep downhill section).
Here’s how the weekend played out:
Thank goodness I packed completely the day before (not always a strong suit of mine, procrastinator that I can be) and we were out the door and on our way downstate by 8 a.m. We stopped for coffee and breakfast burritos at Breakaway Cafe, one of my new favorite spots on the east side of Traverse City (definitely check it out next time you’re here; it’s attached to Einstein Cycles, a cool and friendly bike shop. Thanks to Byron for wishing me luck on the triathlon!)
We stayed with my aunt and uncle in Dexter, about a half hour drive from Waterloo Recreation Area, where the expo and race is held. This is a beautiful state park — the largest state park in the Lower Peninsula at more than 20,000 acres — and it was fun to explore it some since we arrived a bit early before booth set-up began. This park features five campgrounds, 11 inland lakes (including Big Portage Lake, where the swim takes place), and 47 miles of hiking trails (a portion of which is part of the running route.) We also had time to catch a bite to eat in nearby Chelsea before heading back to set up the Michigan Runner Girl booth and connect with race organizers and my tri coach Michael Parker.
It was incredibly hot on Saturday, and we were glad to be beneath the tent, shaded from the sun. It’s always a blast talking with fellow Michigan Runner Girls, and this time around, given my newbie status, I asked pretty much everyone who stopped by about their own triathlon journey, whether this was their first one, too, or if they’d been at it for awhile. Thanks to those of you who offered race day tips and encouragement!
We stayed for the delicious pasta dinner, during which I gave a brief talk (I may have been more nervous about that than the race itself…I’m still getting the public speaking thing down) and we also heard from fitness expert and TV personality Fitz Koehler, the race announcer who got us all pumped up to take on the challenge that is triathlon. At this point, I admit the overall anticipation was making me a bit antsy — I wanted to just get this race going already!
By the end of the day, Emma and I were ready to head to my aunt and uncle’s place to get some rest. It would be an early morning — 7:30 a.m. race start and Coach Mike recommended we get there by 6 a.m. to get by bike and other essentials all set up in transition.
Up at 5 a.m. to dress, make sure I had everything I needed, and have some coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee.
Emma was a trouper, getting up so early, but I told her she could catch some rest in the car even after we arrived. Parking was right next to the start and finish, which was super helpful. I left her to snooze a bit while I set up in transition. I wore my MRG race tank and quickly got chatting with other women who follow the blog and podcast. It was so good to meet you, Erin, Abigail and Erika! (I met a few others, please forgive me not remembering everyone’s names…please just know that seeing your friendly smiles and talking with you before the start was so helpful in calming my nerves and getting me excited about this race.)
With less than a half hour before the start, I headed back to get Emma and we walked down to the beach, where a group of athletes were finishing up a yoga session Epic Races held for participants. Next year I think I’ll try to get there for this.
One of the tips shared with me was to not wear your wet suit too soon because it’s easy to get too hot while waiting for the race to begin. I found myself watching what everyone else was doing — some athletes were in the water, keeping cool just standing in knee-high water, while a few others swam to as a warm-up. Still others wore their suits to their waist, which is what I opted to do.
With this particular triathlon, athletes head into the water one at a time, three seconds apart and based on age group. (Minus a small group of elite athletes who all took off together and clearly knew a thing or two about swimming strong in open water.) This allowed me to see how people got into the water and would start their swim, i.e. walk/run in the shallow part by the shore until it got deep enough to dive in and start with your swim stroke.
Soon enough, my age group (40-49), got into line and at a mat on the sand, we took turns heading into the cool water. Volunteer counters recorded our bib numbers and entrance time. There really wasn’t much time after that to think before I was under the water and attempting to find my way toward the first buoy (which from the shore start looked very, very far away).
Some people talk about the panic that can set in when swimming with others around you, and trying to make your way from point A to point B. While I wouldn’t say I panicked exactly, I did find it harder than I imagined to get into a groove. I started out freestyle stroking. But quickly felt myself going to breast stroke; it just felt easier. I had a moment of, “What in the world am I even doing?” I second-guessed my ideas of wanting to be a triathlete. Maybe I’m just a runner. A cyclist. Who needs this swimming stuff anyway? But just as quickly as these thoughts entered my mind, I told myself to take it easy, to breathe…just breathe…and focus on the here and now. It was going to be OK. I could do this. It was hard, so hard, but I could do this. Just like with running — one foot in front of the other — I told myself, “One stroke forward, then another.” Breathe.
I thought I’d use the freestyle stroke mostly, but I ended up mixing it with the breast stroke and, every now and again, a side stroke. And that was OK. I could see I was moving forward, I was getting to where I needed to go. All around me I could see others were doing what they needed to do, too. Some a single stroke, others a mixture. I collided with fellow swimmers a couple of times, but nothing major, just an arm hitting their leg, and everyone was nice about it.
As I neared the final turn that would take me toward shore, I turned my head up toward the sky, soaked up the sunshine for that brief moment, and gave thanks for the ability to be out in the water on a gorgeous Sunday morning. I was moving my muscles, I was pushing myself in such a new way. I didn’t HAVE to do this, I GOT to do this. This thinking helped propel me forward, switching to freestyle again and pushing the water behind me as I eyed the shoreline.
And then I was there, in shallow waters and I stood up and ran toward the beach. “Mom!” I heard Emma shout and I looked to my right to see Emma standing right there, smiling and snapping photos. I was so happy to see her and together we ran up the beach and along a path toward the transition area. “How was it, Mom? You did it!” she said as she ran barefoot alongside me and I tugged down my wet suit (another tip from fellow triathletes: start taking off your wet suit as you’re leaving the water.)
Then I was in transition, where I found my bike and sat down to take the rest of my wet suit off. I took a few deep breaths, grabbed a bite of an energy bar, sipped some water, and got my helmet and shoes on (note to self: take off the swim cap and goggles first!). With everything on, I ran my bike out and headed for the road.
Getting on the bike felt good — really good. I quickly realized how strong I felt as I shifted gears, left the park and got onto the bike route. The course included rolling hills and right turns only, which was very nice. I had no idea how long I’d been in the water, and I went into this race with no time goals (I really just wanted to finish feeling good), but something clicked in me as I rode. I reminded myself that I’d been cycling a lot this spring and summer so far, that I had done 17 miles at the M22 Challenge just a few weeks prior. I wanted to push some and see what I had.
The scenery was lovely throughout the bike ride. Tall trees, a warm breeze, little traffic. Country roads. I found myself passing other cyclists (“OK, so I am a slower swimmer, but I’ve got this biking thing down…”) I climbed the hills — up and over, up and over is always my mantra, whether on bike or when running — and sped past clumps of more cyclists.
As I headed into the park again, completing the bike portion, I wondered how my legs were going to feel during the run. Jelly-like, I supposed, given I’d kicked it in on the bike. And, there was that half-mile swim before that, of course…
The greatest part of the run was the trail section — it was winding, tree-lined (thank you, shade!) and felt like home to me. My legs did feel tired, and my first mile was excruciatingly slow, but I picked up the pace for the final two miles and once I hit the pavement in the parking lot near the finish, I was feeling strong — and ready to finish.
This race, and maybe most triathlons, was very spectator-friendly. Family and friends can stick close to the transition area and see their athletes multiple times. Emma definitely was running in a few different directions, trying to snap photos and cheer me on, but at least it was all pretty much in the transition area.
Seeing her as I rounded the corner and headed toward the finish chute left me emotional, as finish lines tend to do. But this time, I felt especially emotional, realizing what I was about to accomplish. It had been tough. I wondered, during the final miles especially, if I’d be wanting to do this again. I surprised myself a little by having my answer not long after crossing the finish line. Yes. I do want to do this again.
After a sweaty hug with Emma, and high fives with friends I’d met over the two days there, Emma got a frozen mocha at the post-race festivities and I indulged in cup of Cereza Rey, a cherry cream stout lager from Wolverine Brewing Co., the brewery on site and offering up complimentary cold ones to finishers. So good.
We had a long ride home ahead of us, so we took off not long after, with a stop in East Lansing (of course!) for lunch. We had to visit campus, if only briefly, and Noodles & Co. was calling our name.
It’s been nearly a week since the race, and I’m still flying high on the experience. It’s been a busy week — Andrew celebrated his 14th birthday Wednesday and Emma turned sweet 16 on Thursday! — so there’s a lot that’s taken over my mind and schedule. But I’ve been thinking about this race a lot.
T1 (Transition 1): 3:01
Bike: 37:29 (16.4 mph)
Run: 26.55 (8:58 pace)
Age group: 18 out of 32
Chip time: 1:38:20
I say often, and I do believe it to be true – life begins outside your comfort zone. But it’s one thing to say it, and another to live it. This race experience was living it for me. And it was a reminder that I need — and want — to do more of this. I can do hard things, and these hard things help me on my ongoing, never-ending journey to become the best version of myself.
I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Thanks to everyone who has sent emails and texts supporting me on this triathlon journey. I have truly appreciated each and every one. And I have to give a special shout-out to Epic Races’ Eva Solomon and Mary Culbertson, and to Michael Parker of Parker Performance for all that you did to help me prepare for this amazing experience. Thank you so very much.
Who else here completed this triathlon? I’d love to hear about your experience?
How have you gone outside your comfort zone lately? I want to hear about this, too!