It’s official! I am a triathlete! This past weekend I participated in the Atlanta Iron Girl Triathlon, which consisted of a 1/3 mile swim, an 18 mile bike ride and a 3 mile run.
I remember reading about Goddess Jessica’s triathlon experiences here
, and even before I ever thought it would be possible for me to do one, I loved reading about her experiences. When I decided to take the plunge myself, I reread her posts to give me further inspiration and the ability to believe that I could do this, too. So now, I’m posting about my experience in the hope that it inspires someone else the way I was inspired by her story. One thing is for certain, while this was my first triathlon, it is most definitely not my last!
My husband and I headed up to Lake Lanier this weekend, a huge man-made lake and resort about an hour north of Atlanta, so I could participate in the Atlanta Iron Girl along with about 1400 other women. I had trained and done all I could to prepare for this race, both physically and mentally and felt confident but still nervous. The swim portion, my weakest area, was the part that concerned me most. But for the most part, I was just really excited and told myself to just have fun and enjoy the experience.
We got to the transition area around 5:45 a.m. on Sunday morning and a volunteer marked my arms and legs with my race number and also put my age on the back of one of my legs. I went over to my bike and eked out a little room on the ground beneath it for my stuff and since I had some time before we had to go to the beach, I had the tires on my bike checked by the local bike shop volunteers, drank a bit of water, made a porta-potty stop, and checked my transition area one more time before going down the hill to the beach and check out the swim course for the first time. It looked both not that bad and exceedingly long. We were starting in waves based on our age group and last names. We basically had to start out on the beach and swim in the shape of an upside-down U, ending up back on the beach. I was expecting to complete it somewhere in the range of 20-35 minutes. I just kept telling myself to get through the swim and that I could manage the rest of the race. We entered the water and stood around for a few minutes. Another girl standing in front of me heard me when I exhaled a sigh of nervousness and said she felt the same way. We wished each other luck and waited for the call to “Go!” When it came, we dove forward, and I quickly found that all that was said about the start of a swim race was true. I got kicked but thankfully not too hard, and had to navigate my way so as to not swim into the people in front of me. Almost immediately I swallowed a bunch of water and had to suppress the urge to panic. I flipped over on my back and caught my breath and allowed the faster swimmers to get ahead and around me. I didn’t want to be in this position for long, as I couldn’t see where I was going and I was using my legs more than I wanted to before having to use them for the rest of the race. After I calmed down and there were fewer people around me, I flipped back over and started to freestyle. I actually felt pretty good, even though I knew I was at the back of the pack for my wave. Still, I managed to pass a couple of other swimmers and saw a few others hanging onto one of the lifeguard kayaks posted nearby, getting a rest. As I made my way through the last third of the course, I kept looking up every few strokes to see how close I was to the finish. I also started having the faster swimmers from the wave behind me begin to pass me. That last buoy seemed to not be getting any closer! I looked down and saw plants growing up towards me. Was I close enough to touch land? I tried but nope, still too far out. I kept swimming and finally, that last buoy was to my right. Just a few feet more and I’d be done. I stood up and came out of the water and as my feet touched the beach I looked at my stopwatch which I’d started right as I began the swim. It said a few seconds over 15 minutes! What!?! That can’t be right! Oh my God, I just finished the swim in 15 minutes!
The walk up to the transition area, while steep, wasn’t as bad as I remembered, and it was lined with people shouting words of encouragement. Once I got up to the top, I jogged around to my transition area, passing a friend who was at hers and yelled out, “15 minutes!” I got to my area and squirted some water onto my sandy feet and then dried them with a hand towel. I put on my socks, strapped on my biking shoes and wiped off some of the dripping water from my arms and legs so I could reapply sunscreen. Then I put my helmet, gloves and sunglasses on, took a sip of Powerade, grabbed a GU gel from my bike kit, picked up my bike and headed out of the transition area.
As I rode down out of transition, I passed my husband, who yelled my name as I rode by. I turned and waved so he could get a photo but I wasn’t slowing down. It wasn’t long before I was passing other riders, and a few passed me. As we left the park, we encountered our first hill. That slowed some riders down, but I passed them and kept going. A little further on, a nice little downhill led into the first big incline, which several women were walking. I passed more people and kept going, feeling good and strong. I was yelling out the requisite warning “On your left!” so many times, I felt like a broken record. But what a great feeling! This was definitely my element. I was conscious of not pushing my legs so much that I wouldn’t have the resources left to run 3 miles, but I just kept going steady and moving without overexerting myself. As I made my way up yet another hill, I felt a little bug hit the back of my throat. Ugh, that hurt! I grabbed my water bottle and washed it down, telling myself that a little extra protein never hurt anyone. Then I was coming up on a steep downhill, which led into a steep incline. The fears I had early on when biking of going too fast down inclines didn’t enter my mind as I went into a drop position, trying to garner as much speed and momentum going into the hill as I could. I got about two thirds of the way up before I had to pedal and put some effort into getting up the remainder of it and then it was onto the next one, a steep and long incline that had become the stuff of legends for those who’d done the race before. We’d all been warned about these two hills, and told that a lot of cyclists, even experienced riders, had to get off their bikes and walk them. I was determined not to walk any portion of the bike course, and adjusted my gears accordingly to make it up this behemoth incline – but I still managed to do it without dropping into the lowest gear. Looking up, I think I saw more people off their bikes than on, and some weren’t even bothering to make their way over to the right before dismounting, so I had to go around them as I pushed my way forward. Before I knew it I was through the worst of the hills and passing the 10-mile marker.
Then I was in the home stretch, wishing that the bike portion was longer even as I was glad to be completing it and moving onto the last stage of the race. As I neared the transition area, I passed by my husband again, and I could tell as he saw me that he was surprised I was back so quickly. We’d talked about it the night before and estimated that it would probably take me about an hour and a half, maybe a bit less, to complete the bike portion. As I rounded the last little hill leading into transition and dismounted from my bike, I looked at my watch – just a few minutes over an hour since I started! Wow, I was making great time!
Back into transition and I tore off my gloves and swapped shoes as I drank a bit more Powerade and grabbed another gel for later in the run. I took off at a slow jog and began the run course. It was a rolling hill course, but ultimately nothing too steep – nowhere near what we encountered on the bike. I ran up to where I could see one of the park’s roundabouts in the distance, and women running down both sides. In my hope to soon be crossing the finish line I actually thought for a moment that maybe this was the turnaround point, even though I knew rationally that we hadn’t gone a mile and a half yet. Soon I saw the truth of the matter, we were to keep running on through and past the roundabout; I wasn’t even at Mile 1 yet. I kept running at a relatively slow pace, stopping to walk at a brisk pace when the inclines got too much; I wanted to be sure I had enough energy in me to run the last portion of the race into the finish line. I passed the Mile 1 marker, where volunteers were handing out cups of water and Gatorade and one guy was yelling that the halfway point was just a little further. I took some water and poured it down the front of my shirt. Oh, that felt good! A little cooler now, I picked up the pace and ran to where a guy was standing, surrounded by orange cones and a blue mat. He was yelling encouragement and high-fiving each woman as they ran around him, telling us we were doing awesome.
As I circled that roundabout I’d mistaken for the turnaround point, I knew I was in the last half mile or so. I was about to finish and become an Iron Girl! As I got closer to the finish area, more and more people were lining the road, yelling out encouragement. Our bibs had our first names printed on them so it was really cool to hear “Go Lesley! You’re doing great!” from complete strangers. I could hear the announcer at the finish calling out the names of the women as they crossed the finish line and the high-energy music playing on the loudspeakers – I was almost there! I ran up the last hill and up the short path through to the finish area. I saw my husband and waved but kept running – no photo op was going to make me stop and add time to my finish! Thankfully the last little bit to the finish was downhill and I ran through, so elated that I had reached this point. I crossed the finish line as I heard my name called out over the loudspeaker as an official finisher. A volunteer handed me a sponge that had been soaked in cold water and oh, that felt so good to press against my hot skin. Another volunteer slipped a medal around my neck while yet another gave me a bottle of ice-cold water. I had done it!
I met my husband nearby and he wrapped me in a big hug as he told me how great I’d done and how proud he was of me. It was an emotional moment as I realized that I had just completed my first triathlon. And not only that, but I finished with a respectable time: 2:07:28, ranking 425 out of almost a thousand finishers. In my age group, I ranked 91 out of 209. For the bike, I actually ranked 175 overall! For most of my life, I’ve had this one identity – the fat girl, the uncoordinated kid who was never good at sports and was always picked last for any teams. I never even attempted most sports because I just assumed I would be bad at them. Essentially, I had cheated myself of possibilities. Now, I see nothing but possibility. My body has endured a lot, but I am finally treating it well and recognizing it for that gift that it is. As I work off the excess pounds, I see my body emerging – muscles and bones that used to be hidden under fat. Better still, I feel the changes in my body. I can move more, do more, push more. A little over a year ago, I wasn’t able to run a mile and the idea of participating in a half marathon or triathlon was inconceivable. Now, it’s not only possible but a reality. I have achieved what I never thought I could do. I am an athlete.