I earned the right to be called a triathlete
Its 7:30am on a Sunday and I am staring at Lake Nummy in New Jersey’s Belleplain State Forest. Its cold and rainy, with a light drizzle making patterns across the water, the dark, foreboding, and cold water. Water that for some God-forsaken reason I’m about to swim in.
I block all my doubts, all my fears, all my thoughts out of my mind and concentrate only in one thing: warming up. I jump, I swing arms, I shout. I need to get my core body temperature up for while its June, this lake is cold and I’m gonna be swimming a half-mile in it. A half-mile of thrashing that I am not looking forward to.
I have no choice though as this is the first leg of the 8th Annual Cape May Triathlon, and I’ve been training for this day since I foolishly signed up for it in a drunken stupor after the 10th Annual St Patrick’s Day 10K back in March.
There’s the shout and we’re off! I hold back, letting the pack hit the water first, letting them have that initial shock of cold, letting them set the pace and the course. A pace I will not maintain, as the second I try to swim, the moment I put my head into that cold dark water, I freak out.
It’s so dark and so thick I cannot see a thing. Not the bottom, not the guy in front, not even my hand. This is not like the crystal clear and chlorinated YMCA pool I trained in. No this is a nightmare. I can’t open my eyes underwater without having a claustrophobic shock. So I keep my head above water, swimming like a kid on a summer’s day.
I try again, and forget to breathe, coming up for air in gasps. Over onto my back I flip, relaxing with a backstroke and thinking through this unforeseen problem. As I do the cold kicks in. My legs are tingly numb, my hands are prickly numb, even my thighs are chilled. On my back I forget my breath and just think ‘core body heat, core body heat,’ trying to will myself warm.
Then I see people walking in waist deep water next to me. Standing, I catch my breath and warm my legs as I push through the water in a half-walk half-swim. This is better. This I can do as pond grass pulls at my legs, pond muck at my feet, and I puke pond water. It deepens and I am back swimming. Now I am in my groove and I can swim a semi-submerged crawl.
Onward we go, splashing in this muck water pond, re-churning the weeds and mud already turned by the leaders. Onward to the beach where the crowd awaits, cheering us as we emerge covered in pond scum. Onward to the transition area where my bike awaits the next leg.
I dry off, turning the towel from white to brown, and whip on my bike gear as I chat with my friends. Terri and Eric are here supporting me in this insanity, supporting by drinking with me at Triton Tavern, the local backwoods bar, the night before, laughing at our yurt accommodation of the night, and enjoying the race in spite of the cold and constant drizzle.
As I pedal off eating an apple, I check my place and my pace. I am behind most of the men in my 30-35 age group and a few of the 30-35 women who started four minutes after me, but I am ahead of everyone else. I made the swim and now I can concentrate on the bike. My pace is good, I’m in my ‘journeyman gear’ where I know I can ride without stress on the flats and no one is passing me yet.
Soon I shift up as this course is very flat and fast and I start to gain on and then pass other riders. At first it’s the fools, those who are good swimmers but decided to ride beach cruisers or ancient Schwinn’s. Then its those on mountain bikes, which are great for trails but are woefully under-geared for a road race. Finally I start passing others on fast race bikes like mine.
Or I should say my father’s, as I am riding my Dad’s racing bike, his light and speedy Trak he gave me just before he died. This is my inheritance. Not fancy houses or stacks of cash but a lowly yet lovely racing bike. A bike that I now love and treasure as one of the last gifts from my Dad. My marathon-at-60, super-athletic till the day he died Dad.
Soon I start passing a scary sight. I start passing those who are hobbled by flat tires, either swiftly changing to new ones or cursing their bad luck as they wait for the rescue van. Not one or two mind you, but five or six cyclists, which as I’m near the lead, means that a good number are dropping out and in danger of getting the dreaded DNF (did not finish). This is now my great fear, a flat, as I have no spare tube, only luck and hope.
Onward I go, passing even more folks, good riders these, as I power on. As I pass, I can’t resist a talk or two, telling each the good and bad news. The good news being the distance we’ve traveled according to my handy-dandy GPS I’m riding with, and the bad news being either the distance left or more painfully, my passing them.
Now before you think I am a thoroughbred among draft horses, I’m getting passed too. Not often nor by mere mortals, but on occasion by real athletes, men and women working pedals so fast they pass me as I’m standing still. And I’m not still; I am going 20 miles an hour according to Mr. GPS.
I’m pedaling in my own hard way, fighting the boredom of the long straight-aways, the wetness of the constant drizzle, and the fear of every flat-causing bump. I do form bonds, as I like to do, with random contestants. Women like Clickety-Clack with her clicking bike and sprint and fallback pulse-pace. Men like Team Duron who goaded me with his own good news/bad news commentary of passing me. And random folk like the drivers who honk and shout encouragement as they drove past with windows down and hands waving high.
Soon we were rounding the Belleplain State Park gates, passing accursed Lake Nummy again, and zipping into the transition area for a switch to the run. Here I don’t even change from my bike gear, only trading bike shores for Nikes and hitting the trail, again apple in hand.
Oh my legs! I can’t feel my toes. They are numb from the bike shores. I can’t feel my thighs. They are numb from the strain. I can’t feel my ass. It is numb from the seat. Still I run on in a half-crip gait, trying to pace with my breath not my legs.
As I question my heart, thinking I should stop before I die, I hear huffing and puffing behind me. I hear ‘I got good news and bad news! Good news: it’s almost over. Bad news: I’m passing you!’ With that, into my life and past my aches comes Team Duron. To the challenge I rise, and through the pain I sprint. We have half a mile, then a fourth a mile, and then just a tenth and we are neck and neck sprinting!
Around the bend, with finish in sight, Team Duron finds one last bust, passing me as I howl in anguish. Passing me to finish just seconds before me, earning us number 90 and 91 out of the 400 competitors in this 8th Annual Cape May Triathlon. Yeah, you read that right. Out of 260 crazy triathletes, I ranked in the top third. I swam .5 miles, biked 15 miles, and ran 3 miles in 1:31.
That’s ninety-one minutes of speed and sweat that earned me right to call myself a triathlete.