Swallowing muddy river water and getting drenched by football players: tales from my first triathlon

Awhile ago I thought to myself, “You know, I’d love to spend one of my summer Saturday mornings getting up before dawn, swimming down a muddy river, biking a long ways, and then running a few miles. All in the rain. That sounds like the perfect morning.”

So I signed up for a Sprint Triathlon.

To be fair, when I signed up for the Tri-Columbus Chattahoochee Challenge, I assumed high heat and humidity, given that it was Georgia in the dead of summer. But no. Pouring rain, soaking wet before even getting near the river. And yet, I lived to tell the tale. So let me tell you this tale…

The night before, Greg and I sat on the bed in the hotel room, talking about my feelings. I’m a counselor, and I love making other people talk about their feelings, but I dislike talking about my own. Call me a fraud, it’s okay.

I was exponentially nervous, my heart pounding in my ears, my brain doing everything but rest. I fell asleep by midnight, woke up at 3:10 … and remained awake until a text message from my Dad got me out of bed at 5:09. (a.m.). I was supposed to get up-and-at-’em at 4:40. I set my alarm to a Sidewalk Prophets song to begin the day on a note of inspiration. This is why we don’t use phones as alarm clocks: because when they don’t change from central to Eastern time, they are an hour behind, thus you are an hour behind.

Rush, rush, rush. Take lightning-fast shower, take out the dog, braid hair, get in race gear, put together bag, put bike on bike rack … in the dark and in the pouring rain, because it’s 5:15 a.m. and the sun isn’t awake yet but you are, and you’re drenched. But your adrenaline is pumping and you hope to God the race isn’t cancelled because people came to watch you but you hope to God it is cancelled because then you don’t have to face the failure you’re sure is just around the corner.

IMG_0888At the race site, everyone is all smiles. I mean, even in the dark and under the gray, crying sky, everyone is pretty happy. My sweet husband who hates being wet in regular clothes doesn’t complain, he just helps me set up and get my packet and watches me get stamped with 227 on my both my arms, then he sees me get stamped with 30 on my left calf because that’s the age I’ll be in December. Shenanigans.

Then we wait. And wait. And wait under a train  bridge, huddled against the edge of the overpass so we don’t get dripped on. The local weatherman is emceeing, and he tells us the worst is just about done, and in just a few moments, we all emerge from under our coverings, tentative, like Dorothy after the storm when she’s finally in color, and we hope Weatherman is right.

So, I decide, I might as well swim in my race shorts, since they’re already soaking wet. This would save me time, since trying to get them on after swimming would have been a hysterical yet timely and sticky mess.

Fifteen minutes after the original start time, we get a briefing that tells us how slick the roads are so be very, very careful on the bike and run. We sing (more like hum along to) the Star Spangled Banner. A cannon fires. It’s all very exciting…

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And then we wait. And wait. And wait, racers huddled together while one at a time slide down the rainbow:

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The last time I knew of was 8:17 a.m. I was near the front at that point, so I must have started a few minutes later. I don’t really know; it was a whoosh of activity. I was ushered to a taut string and told to wait. I was told to step over the taut string, at which point a beep indicated the start of my race. I was helped onto the rainbow, and AWAAAAAAY WE GO!

I plunged into the water and could hear my dad screaming from above, “Go, Elisa! You can do it! C’mon, Elisa! Great job!” I had barely started and my dad couldn’t help himself but shout with pride. That’s just the kind of parents I have.

The swim downstream the Chattahoochee was more difficult than I expected. I hadn’t trained with moving water, and I’m pretty sure the stomachache I had later was a result of swallowing probably about a glass-and-a-half of river water. Yum! But it was coming at me so fast, I had a good amount of trouble breathing. I tried freestyle but could barely catch my breath, so I went to the breaststroke, my favorite and the one I most often trained on. I even passed a few people! The only things that calmed down my breathing was focusing on my breathing and keeping in mind my sweet girl’s face. (Yes, I’m talking about my dog).IMG_0905

13 minutes and one second later, I was out of the water (thank you, sweet teenage boy volunteer, for pulling me onto the ramp) and running toward the transition where the bikes were. I threw – literally threw – my bright yellow swim cap and light blue goggles at Greg, who was running up the ramp with me, yelling encouragements as I barefootedly tried to not fall on the slick turf. My dad ran alongside me, too, and said he was already tired. 🙂

At the bike transition, I speedily unwrapped a banana and took a bite – the one-hour wait by the river before the rainbow had my belly growling. Greg asked how I was, I said “Okay,” threw on my shirt, socks and shoes, took my bike down from the rack, and got to work.

I trained most for the bike, so I expected that to be my second-easiest event. False. It was the toughest. I got passed by dozens of racers, IMG_0917including an 8-year-old boy peddling with his parents. I passed a man with a flat tire, and a woman who was doing very well, she just seemed tired. But whoosh, whoosh, whoosh… one by one, they passed me. Although at one point, a man seemed to be drafting me. I thought he must not really know what he was doing, because did he notice how slow I was going? I enjoyed the scenery, though. Even amidst the rain – which had stopped for the swim but had picked up again during the bike – the river path was nestled beautifully between Georgia green and the wide Chattahoochee. One vehicle did almost run me over since he didn’t see the large orange cones and “RIGHT LANES CLOSED” signs. No big deal. A cop promptly scolded him, which provided some satisfaction.

One hour and 13 seconds later, the run. Greg put my bike back up on the rack for me, I took off my helmet – which, in case I haven’t mentioned, I failed to do during one morning of training, meaning I ran .25 miles down the road with my bike helmet still on my head – and I was off to the races (in my soaking wet socks and shoes from the morning’s downpour)! I rounded the first corner and when I went to round my second one I honestly didn’t know which way to go, because the cop yelled LEFT, LEFT! but everyone was going right, right. I kind of danced right there and pointed to my fellow racers, until the cop noticed his mistake and pointed me right, right. Greg ran up beside me and asked, “Let’s jog, shall we?”

I ran through some football players who offered, “Drink or shower?” And even though it was raining, I asked for a shower:

 

People along the route lied, though, because they said we were almost done. Lie. Not when you still have 2 miles of a 3.1-mile course to run. You’re not almost done until the finish line was in sight, at which point the volunteers on either side started telling the truth, “C’mon, almost done! Keep up that pace!”

My biggest pride point on this race was that I didn’t stop once, not during transition and not even on the run, when most people walked at least a few feet. I completely understand walking, but I didn’t walk. I ran the whole thing in an average of 9:53 minutes/mile. So to end the race on a sub-10 min/mile pace, I was ecstatic. I kept pace with one fellow for a little while, he and I alternately passing and lagging behind each other. We joked about “his” pink flip-flops left askew in the middle of the race route. He was ahead of me toward the end until I  sprinted like I was on fire toward the finish line, coming in at just over an hour and 46 minutes.

 

Not too shabby, and still 14 minutes under my 2-hour goal. It all went by much quicker than I had anticipated, and it was a lot more fun than I expected. I can’t remember the last time – if ever – I have pushed my body’s physical limits as I did on Saturday. And what an incredible sense of accomplishment I felt, knowing I pushed myself, I challenged myself, I completed a “very flat course” that wasn’t flat at all, didn’t stop once, and ended it all with a smile. And a bottle of gatorade. And enough sushi to feed a family of five.

 

Top 5 lessons learned during my first triathlon:

– Bring extra everything – socks, flip-flops, race shirt, race shorts.

– Have someone there to cheer you on, because even though you’ll swallow a gallon of river water after laughing at their louder-than-everyone-else cheers, it’s worth it.

– Don’t be the nerd who shows up first, especially if buckets of water are falling from the sky. You’ll have more than enough time to get what you need, pin on your number, set up your stuff, etc.

– Listen to good, solid, encouraging lyrics all the way up to the race. Or else you’ll have Because you lie like a penny in a parking lot at the grocery store, it just comes so dang natural to youuuuuu, oh you liiiiiiiiiie. No. I fought to keep Roar, God of Angel Armies, and lines from Couples Retreat and The Proposal in mind to drown out the high-pitched ‘Lie’ lyrics.

– Have fun. This means don’t compare yourself to the 39 people who passed you. Remember what you’ve trained for, what your body can do, how far you’ve come. The rest is just background noise…

I felt amazing when it was done. I was still smiling, and I felt my family’s support at every transition and every turn. I’m grateful for the allowances God granted (smooth transitions, no flat tires, moist contacts) and feel incredibly accomplished.

So I guess my original thought of getting up before dawn, swimming down a muddy river, biking a really long ways, and then running a few miles does make for a great morning. I lived to tell the tale, rain-soaked and all, I have a medal to prove I finished, and though I’ll never be an Olympic athlete, I’ll know I’m living my best life, today. And that, my friends, is the main point of it all.

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