As I swung back into the park, I could hear the Spirit Squad’s cowbells and the cheers of “We Know! We Know!” Obviously, all my teammates had passed along word of my predicament. I held up one grease-laden hand as a badge of honor and pedaled by them. I had to loop around passing them again and was serenaded with the oddest sports chant ever, “Leland changed a flat! Leland changed a flat!” I guess it was better than “William wants a doll.” This was why I trained with a team, knowing that everyone was pulling for me and could appreciate the obstacle that I’d just overcome.
I tried to visualize that my legs were like two, tiny, pale pistons, working up and down for the second loop. The speed I felt I lacked on the first loop appeared and helped me power up the two hills and back to the transition area, where I dismounted.
Running on biking shoes is similar to running on tap shoes with heels under your toes. I took care to cross the plastic matting with care, not wanting to add “wiped out in the transition area” to my list of triathlon firsts.
I was now 2/3 done with the race. I swapped out my biking gear for a running hat, shoes and sunglasses now that Apollo had seen fit to drag his ass out of bed and burn away some of the fog. Still wet and kind of tired, I headed out for the three-mile run knowing I was going to have to do it without an iPod or a workout leader to talk me through it.
I exited the park and spied another TTNE jersey…was that Kristen, a workout leader? “She’s hilarious and would be a great person to run alongside,” I thought. I picked up my pace a little and noticed she had stopped to walk. Awesome (for me). I caught up to her and we started to chat a little bit. Then the crusher, “I’m doing walk/run intervals,” she said. Oh man, I really was going to have to do this solo. We chatted until it was time for her to walk and I jogged onward.
A long, shallow incline greeted me at the first turn. I wasn’t happy, especially since the course was a tight loop and all the runners ahead of me were now passing me on their way to the finish line. I’m not sure what I thought about, but I kept going. The air was thick and still, and I felt like I was running in a steam room. I allowed myself a moment to walk at one point, and then kept going.
Then I saw them. A slow parade of TTNE jerseys. Tanya, Nance, Destiny, Jeananine, Johanna, Laurie, George Mary Ellen all with words of encouragement, low-fives and totally positive energy. Even the volunteers, out sweating in this weather, were in good spirits, offering funny comments that kept me going.
At the turn-a-round, I grabbed several cups of water to drink and dump on my head. A dad stood in the driveway while his young son played nearby. “You’re halfway there,” he said. “I keep hearing that, “ I replied. “I’d like to run the whole way back, “ I said to my new sensei. “That’s a great idea,” he said. Having agreed on how brilliant my race strategy was, I set off downhill.
I kept an eye on my heart-rate monitor, knowing that I had to keep my number somewhere in the 160-170 range. I passed a few people and then saw one more TTNE teammate working her way up the hill. I tried to offer her the same encouragement I’d received when I was in her position. I’m not sure if it helped, but it was nice to see a familiar face.
I made the turn back towards the park and spied another TTNE jersey up ahead. Could I catch up to her? I tried to pick up my pace, but it was hot and my legs were heavy at this point and I’m not sure if there were a noticeable uptick in speed. I fantasized what it would be like to finish. Would one of my teammates sprint out to run alongside me and encourage me? Should I raise my arms, flex my biceps, do the Gangham Style dance (do they still do that?).
Suddenly, I was behind Jane and chatted with her for a second as I moved past her onto the sidewalk alongside the beach. The final stretch before the finish line. I could see Lynne in the distance with a camera. Did I look ok? Was my hat straight? Was I running with a purpose or running like a porpoise? Did I look tired or strong? There was one more runner in front of me…could I catch her?
I ran past Lynne and started to extend my stride. I checked my watch. 182 beats per minute. Totally too high, but it was the last 100 yards. I passed the runner and made the turn towards the finish line. A volunteer said, “you made it. Empty the tank.” I wanted to go faster, but I think the tank was pretty much empty.
Then I heard the cowbells and the Spirit Squad and, specifically, Patty the workout leader’s voice shouting encouragement. Isn’t it funny that in a huge park, filled with spectators and a PA announcer, your ear could pick out a few distinct sounds? I ran down the chute and crossed the finish line with my hands high and a smile on my face.
The volunteers stopped me to take the chip off my ankle and gave me a bottle of ice-cold water and my medal.
My first medal.
Hanging from a ribbon was this bronzy disc that said I had completed a triathlon. The thing I never thought I could do, never conceived that I could do, was now done. The medal was heavy in my hand and I soaked in that accomplishment.
I exited the finish area and hugged Lynne and saw Janice and the rest of the team coming over. My flat-tire story had earned me an additional badge of honor, and I smiled sheepishly. At this point, it was a bit of a blur, people asking if I had fun, if I’d do it again, if I liked it.
24 hours later, I still can’t say if I had fun, but as my son said once, “I’m proud of me.” I can’t even say what the best moment was, but I can tell you one that’s in my top three.
Immediately after finishing, watching all the TTNE participants come in and be cheered on by the rest of the team. That was a great moment. There are few things better than this kind of moment. It’s a moment filled with people whom you care about, who care about you, who had an interest in your effort and knew what the experience was like. Sharing this moment, in the moment, is totally unlike Facebook or Twitter or the Kardashians kind of sharing. It is a pure, unfiltered joy borne of collective hard work, humor and, in many cases, kindness.
The triathlon for me was not only about the race itself, but also the journey I took to get across the finish line. If that’s clichéd, so be it. While I never thought I could do a triathlon, never even thought about doing it, I do know that I NEVER could have done it without my coaches, the workout leaders and my teammates.
Published July 15, 2013