... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lanikai Triathlon 2013: Accomplished!

I am officially a triathlete!

The nerves hit me as I got onto the plane to go to Oahu. I was on my way to do the thing I had dreamed about for over six years -- it hardly seemed real. As I arrived back in Honolulu I was accosted by the city noise I used to be accustomed to but have since forgotten. I was singularly focused on getting out of the airport and into my rental car so that I could make it into town in time to pick up my race packet and rental bike before the shop closed, so I rushed through the terminal and ran to catch a shuttle.

Getting warmed up in the dark
True to what has become the norm during my training there had to be a hiccup, not that the lack of surprise kept me from yelling and swearing when my rental car appeared to be stuck in overdrive. With no time to go back to the rental car company to get a different one, I had little choice but to drive the fifteen miles into town as is, going twenty-two miles per hour at 6000 RPMs. The engine roared, people honked, I swore, and yet again the triathlon had the upper hand. After about ten stressed out minutes, I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

My transition area
Once I made it to the bike shop, I felt like I could finally relax. Imagine my surprise when one of the staff members outside of the shop that I've never been to saw me and said,
Stripped down and ready to go
"Hey! Ballerina! Ballerinas don't run!"
Apparently I'm famous, albeit with a very select group of people. All the same, it made me feel a little more comfortable when I was feeling very unsure of myself. I got my packet, got my temporary bike, and was ready to go!

Awaking at 3:40am the next morning, it hit me that this was it. Luckily I had written down everything I needed in the days preceding, otherwise I probably would have forgotten everything in my shaky, nervous state. Note to potential or future triathletes: make a list of all the things you'll need for race day and pack your bag the night before, just in case nerves turn you into a useless twit the morning of. I don't really remember the drive to Kailua; I was too busy obsessing about transitions and how best to get my feet clean between the swim and bike legs.

Energy was high when we arrived at the race, still in the dark. Athletes milled around, arranging and rearranging their transition areas and exchanging excited words with others. After setting up my towel, water bottle, snack, brush, dri-fit shirt, race belt and number, shoes, and helmet in the order I would need them, I remembered what I had read about first time triathlon tips and walked around the perimeter of the transition area, identifying the entrance and exit for each leg of the race in relation to my bike and gear. I strapped my timing chip to my left leg, got my number emblazoned on my arms in permanent marker, and stripped down to my tri shorts and sports bra. At 6am, I followed everyone else down toward the water, tingling in anticipation.

The beautiful start!
The crowd was alive, chattering and moving and stretching. I tested the water and was pleased to feel that it was warm enough that a pre-race dip was unnecessary. People started putting on their swim caps and so as the men lined up to start, I took a deep breath and put in my earplugs. The nervous conversations were immediately muted and I was left with the glassy water, the peach-colored clouds and light behind the horizon. It was quiet, and beautiful, and I let my nerves relax and reveled in the fact that all of my work was about to come to fruition in this gorgeous place. The crowd cheered as the men took off, and it was time to line up. Focused, relaxed, and bathed in pastels, I took my place where I guessed I fit in among my competitors, having no idea how my swim times compared to anyone else.

The swimmers head into the blue
When the women's start flag was dropped, I took my time getting into a stroke, avoiding the punches and kicks I had been so paranoid about. I was solidly in the middle of the pack, but I think that for the next triathlon I will start myself a little further up -- I was actually passing several people, no small task when surrounded by hundreds of flailing, splashing limbs. It was a taxing start. I wasn't stressed, but it took a lot of physical energy to find a place among the group where I had space to relax into my stroke and I found myself out of breath, something I hadn't experience before when swimming. Oddly enough, once I reminded myself to breath smoothly and slow down I picked up speed and started passing people. I concentrated on feeling the water run over me and using long, strong strokes and very little kick. Rounding the last buoy, I actually wished the swim was longer. Following the advice of the articles I'd read, I swam all the way in to shore until my fingertips brushed the sand before standing slowly and running back to the transition area. This paid off, as I swam past several people trying in vain to run quickly through chest-deep water.

Run that bike!
The first transition was by far the hardest. I felt out of my element coming out of the water in a hurry and trying to think straight about what to do first to get ready for the bike. Again, I was thankful that I had laid everything out in order on my towel so that I didn't have to think. I rinsed my feet with a water bottle, took a swig of Gatorade, dried my feet, put on sock and shoes, took a swig of Gatorade, put on a shirt, my race number, and my bike helmet, took a last swig of Gatorade and grabbed the bike. I have never run with a bike before, so getting to the start line was a little awkward, but I made it and once I was on the bike the awkwardness dissipated. As I picked up speed and hit the open road, I was overtaken by a wonderful feeling of freedom of movement and pure elation. I smiled from ear to ear like a weirdo for the first two miles.

The bike leg went really well. I was passed three times and passed at least fifteen people, maybe more. I tried to stay in a gear that was comfortable but fast, one that wouldn't over-work my legs but kept me passing people. I took long pulls on my grape Gatorade, which tasted like heaven. The ride went through Kailua and onto the military base. I had never seen the Ko'olau mountains or the ocean from that perspective. It was beautiful and even in the midst of the race I had to appreciate the grandeur of the landscape. The weather was perfect, the colors were bathed in early morning light, and I was flying.

Mmm I want more Gatorade
About a mile from the turnaround point, I became acutely thankful for the trials and tribulations I have experienced on the bike here on the Big Island. The otherwise flat course reared up into a huge hill that rose upward and curved to the left. I felt overwhelmed for only a moment before remembering that I was vastly better prepared for hills than a lot of people riding around me. Boosted by this knowledge, I down-shifted and started pedaling with the same mindset I use around here: "Just keep pedaling. You don't have to be fast, just be steady. Just keep pedaling. You're strong."

My attitude, and training, paid off. I chugged by at least five cyclists on the way up the hill, hearing them gasping for air in huge gulps as I maintained my normal rhythm. The tiredness I felt when I finally reached the top was familiar, and didn't phase me as I flew back down the hill. A little more Gatorade, more satisfying than a fine wine, and I was good to go.

Almost there
The transition into the run was easy. Since I was not exactly competitive in this race, I didn't change shoes between the bike and run legs, so all I had to do was rack my bike and take off my helmet. Reminding myself to start slow, I jogged slowly out of the transition area feeling like my legs were encased in concrete blocks. I was once again glad that I had done some research and knew to adjust my pace downward to counter the numbness in my legs, which makes it difficult to judge how fast you're going and creates the tendency to start too hard.

The first mile was hell. My breath was steady but my legs weighed a thousand pounds. I had assumed that the run would start out strong and get more and more difficult as my fatigue caught up to me, so I was a little concerned. After what felt like forty-five minutes I passed the 1-mile marker. Just beyond that was a elderly local woman, sitting alone on the edge of her lawn smiling, waving, and holding a sign reading "Imua!" meaning "Go Forward!" Within minutes, I realized that my legs were loosening up and the run was becoming easier. By the 2-mile marker, I felt normal. I focused on my form, the same things I've repeated to myself a hundred times in the past four months: hips forward, pull your chest back, forefoot strike, arms moving straight forward and back, shoulders loose. I sped up. In the last mile I passed four people, and by the end of the race I was feeling good.

The last third mile or so was on sand -- a fact that was conveniently left out of the race information. The view, however, was phenomenal and the finish line was in sight so I pushed and even passed one last person before making it to the end. I was surprised to find that for the last half mile all I could think was "I'm so sad this is almost over. I don't want to wait until November to do this again!" I can totally see how people get addicted to doing triathlons!

As I ran along the ocean, I thought about sitting at my computer in Boston the first time the thought of doing a triathlon  entered my mind, wondering if I could ever actually do it, and about all of the excuses that had held me back for so long... I thought about the difficult moments of training, or the frustrations and discoveries and about the fact that this had been six years in the making...

And then, I crossed the finish line!

I finished in 1:29:03, at least 15 minutes faster than i was expecting and almost perfectly in the middle of the pack. For a first time effort, I was extremely happy with my time. It makes me look forward to my next triathlon and the opportunity to improve now that i know where I stand.

This experience has changed me. It has strengthened me. It has overwhelmed me, kicked my ass, and given me many gifts. Today, it taught me that even goals that have been neglected can be recaptured and accomplished. It has searched deep inside me and given me a new identity: a triathlete!

Proof! My t-shirt

Proud finisher
I want to say thank you to those of you who have helped me along in my triathlon journey. Thank you to my mom, for inspiring me with her own triathlon experiences, and my dad, for being with me during the toughest miles. Thank you Kate, for supportive texts each morning the week before the race as well as listening and supporting the whole process and Sean for adjusting his schedule to allow me to fit in my training. Thank you to Hawaii Sport Magazine for introducing me to a wonderful community of people, and to Zara for letting me stay with her and going out of her way to help make the night before and day of the race easy for me. Thanks Zara and Jenn who dragged their butts out of bed super early to be there to help me get ready and cheer as I came across the finish line of each leg. Thank you to everyone who sent me supportive messages the day of the race, it meant a lot to me. And, thank you to everyone who has read this blog for sharing in my experience! On to the next!

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