Monday, 30 January 2017

I Tri’d…and I Didn’t Drown!!

A Guest Blog by Melissa Widup

I’ve always been one of the weird ones in my family, the first to do many things. Move to a country you’ve never been to? Did it (New Zealand)! Get a tattoo? Check! Lose weight, start running, do a half-marathon, and then a full marathon? Check and Checkarooney! A duathlon? Well, that was sadly derailed after a bike accident on the brand-new, custom-built-just-for-me-I’m-gonna-do-it bike (long story for another blog!). Anyhow, suffice it to say there’s a grocery list of them!

I have always wanted to do a triathlon, but have never found a ‘valid reason’ to just do it, nor really ever thought about it seriously. Somehow it was always a lingering thought that would sneak up to the forefront of the brain for a microsecond whenever someone mentioned the word ‘triathlon.’ Even now, when I hear the work ‘triathlon’, memories whiz me back to high school, back to Mr. Wachholz (‘Walk-Holes’), my sophomore biology and junior anatomy & physiology teacher. He always started the first class of the year with the question “What athlete has the best all-around fitness and health? Answer: A triathlete. Why? They have the best full-body stamina and endurance of anyone.”

Fast-forward 20 years after graduation, my ‘goodest’ friend and I were freezing our tails off on a street corner in a ritzier area of Kansas City in March where, once again, we were playing course monitor for the Rock the Parkway half-marathon. Unlike last year, a lady and her young daughter were with us. A fairly recent divorcee, she was trying to find ways to help her daughter stay active and help others when she could. In our conversations, she said that she was a bit swept up in the previous day’s race expo and talking to a group about a women’s-only triathlon just up the road at Smithville Lake in Missouri. There was that word again, ‘triathlon.’ This time, not only did I think of Mr. Wachholz, but also another thought… ‘I’m going to be the dreaded 4-0. What better way to roll over the odometer of life than by doing a triathlon?’ So, after going home and researching the race, the area, and checking the sanity, (HA!) I decided that, yes, I need to do this!

Fast forward a few months and there I was. July 30th, 2016, three days after turning 40, doing not-as-much-as-I-should-have training, and (gasp!) buying spandex, I suddenly found myself at the starting line with my swimming wave, excited and scared, asking myself ‘What the HELL were you thinking?!’ and reciting words that had become a mantra of sorts: Just don’t drown.

While researching the race, I found out the mission of the WIN for KC triathlon is a women’s-only tri that strives to empower women and to help us remember that sometimes we need to focus on us. Something I myself don’t do as much as I should.

Yup, this seemed like the perfect first-timer triathlon for me. Since I had never done a tri before this point, the questions rattling around in my brain plagued me, so I resorted to the person I knew was the expert…Joe! I don’t think I bugged him as much as I could have (or should have), but in true Joe fashion, he offered advice that I tried to listen to. He confirmed the order of the triathlon since I wasn’t 100% sure (swim, bike, run), and gave me recommendations on setting up the transition area since I was completely clueless. I scrolled through his blog to various races he’s done (very impressive!) which helped a lot, but I still wasn’t satisfied with how I thought it should look. Since I tend to over-think a lot of things, and I was still unsure how to do the transition without tripping someone or killing myself, I turned to the most helpful place for knowledge, the internet. After several failed attempts to find what I was looking for, I finally found a video that explained it perfectly for me and helped ease that strain somewhat.

The day of the race, my sister/chauffeur, Kristin, rode with me to Smithville Lake, a place I hadn’t been to since I was a kid. At 5:00 am, it was hard to see what it looked like, so I was still uncertain about what to do. After unloading the car of my gear bag and Vicenzo Valerio (my bike!), we made our way to the transition area, getting both arms marked in bold Sharpie to stand up to the swim area. Once we reached the transition point, I bid adieu to Kristen to setup my transition. I found the rack for my number (1409), and noticed that it was closer to the end than the middle. Thankfully the rack was still mostly empty, and since I wasn’t sure if bikes needed to be arranged numerically, I scooted down to almost the end to begin my setup. After placing the towel and arranging everything multiple times, I was finally satisfied and left with over an hour until the gun went off.

To kill time, I wandered down to the water to take some pictures and the requisite selfie to prove that I was there and I was going to do it!

After getting bored I went back to hang with Vicenzo Valerio, scope out my competition (so to speak), and see what future lessons I could learn. I learned that brightly colored duct tape could be placed on the ground to quickly point you to your rack, though mine was made easy to spot by the Spongebob Squarepants Patrick Mylar balloon that someone had up. One kind lady could tell it was my first tri gave the advice to hang the bike in the direction that you are heading to cut down on turn-around time, which I graciously told her, “thank you!”

After milling and snooping around for a bit, it was time to start lining up for the swim portion of the run, which I knew was going to be the worst part for me. Knowing this, I had signed up for the time trial and went to my slow pace starting area. Aside from not training the way I truly should have, the race was being done in open water at a lake, and I had only ever swam in an indoor pool. It was a calm day without wind, so the water was smooth. This was definitely a blessing, especially since one person said the prior year was so windy the water had white caps on it. I was a bit worried about the water temperature because, while Kansas summers are typically hot and humid, it had been cooler than normal for a week or so. In fact, when I walked outside that morning I had a jacket (thankfully it wasn’t as cool as I had originally thought). Anyhow, as is usual in a group setting like this, people talk about why they’ve decided to do this, and someone reassured many of us that the water was actually quite warm and felt like getting into the bathtub.

Reassuring a bit, but now the nervousness was starting to set in (along with the fear of drowning despite being a decent swimmer). After general announcements and the national anthem, a VIP who had done the race numerous times prior was allowed to go first before anyone. I don’t remember their names, but it was a girl pulling a small raft with her sister who had cerebral palsy. To honor her sister, they always did the race together, which was met with much-deserved cheers.

Once they finished the swim portion, the gun went off for the rest of the crowd, starting with the first wave swimmers who would all enter the water at once. Slowly the lines drifted down and about an hour after the gun went off it was time for my time trial group. Panic was trying to set in, but I managed to keep it at bay (in part by seeing Kristen standing there waiting). At last I was up and into the water I went (which did feel like bathwater, though a bit murkier and muddier). I walked out as much as I could until I could no longer comfortably touch bottom and started to swim.

Five hundred meters? It’s not that far. Suddenly it seemed a lot farther and, since they said you could swim however you were most comfortable, I flipped over and started a backstroke. All was going okay until I got water into my ears and couldn’t hear anything at which point panic was starting to set in. Waving that I needed assistance, the rescue raft came over so I could hold on which allowed me to clear my ears. After getting a much-needed (though I didn’t realize it) drink of water, I was off. Since I had used the rescue raft I think I was considered a high-risk swimmer, so I had a personal coach, so to speak ,following me and directing me. As I was still mostly doing a backstroke at this point, I kept drifting off course so he had to correct me. By this point I was near the end of my time trial (I had signed up for the 20-minute group), but didn’t know (or care) how long I had been going. All I knew is that I was almost done with what was my toughest challenge.

As I was getting nearer to the shore I knew I should be able to stand up and finish the swim portion. Walking out and taking off my swim cap (which I determined I don’t like swimming in), and thinking about the transition and feeling wobbly, I saw my friend Diane from work. While she had said she was going to try and make it, I didn’t think she would, so the surprise and shock of seeing her there led to some emotional tears on my part (and a very soggy and fishy hug on hers)!

Going into the first transition, I looked for the Patrick balloon that led to Vicenzo Valerio (again, my bike!) and started to prepare for the bike portion. Still feeling wobbly and teary, I took my time putting on my hydration pack, shoes, helmet and bike gloves. Having been in a previous bike wreck that, had I not been wearing gloves would have resulted in shredded palms, I never ride without them.

Once settled, I pulled Vicenzo Valerio down and walked out to the asphalt, climbed up, got settled, and off I went for part number two… the 10-mile bike ride.

It started on the road that led to the lake, turned onto the highway and then a (paved) country side road, all of which were blocked off until the last cyclist was off the course. Once I turned onto the highway and got down the road a bit, I pulled over to grab a bit of fuel and a drink of water as I was feeling a bit out of sorts. I ate one of my preferred fuels methods, a Guu chew, and took a couple of sips of water. My mantra after that for a few moments: ‘please don’t puke.’ A couple of deep breaths and some yoga breathing and I was good to go.

My whole point to doing the tri (as with any race I do) is to not be last, but ultimately, just finish. If I do end up being last, at least I can say I finished and that I got my money’s worth!

Having the fuel and the water helped and I started a good cruise. The route was hillier than I thought but was by no means steep, so it provided a good challenge. After turning onto the country road there was a course monitor providing motivation, so this was a good resting point to take in some more Guu chews and water since I was feeling better.

After bidding adieu to the course monitor/motivator, I continued on, slowing down as I made the turnaround and started back. I was literally halfway done! Coming back up towards the highway I saw someone’s cheerleader holding a sign that said ‘Go Mel! #1409’. My first thought was ‘someone’s got my name’, followed by ‘holy cow, that’s my number!’ It was my friend Sarah that I hadn’t seen since a random bump-into at a race a few months prior, and prior to that it had literally been YEARS since we had seen one another! Once I realized it was Sarah, and waving like a loon, she realized it was me and waved back frantically as well. (Since everyone was decked out in sunglasses and helmets, she thought she had missed me)!

After seeing cheerleader number 2, tears round 2 started (not good while cruising on a bike, just sayin’!), I turned back towards the road with a new bit of motivation.

As I turned onto the road that led back to the lake, you could see people leaving who had already finished the race looking triumphant. After repeated ‘Doing Greats!’ and ‘Great Jobs!’, the notice to slow down before entering the transition came up. So I slowed down and prepared for the dismount and final transition.

Since I’m not brave enough to wear clip-style bike shoes (it’s a lack of coordination thing I admit), all I had to do was hang Vicenzo Valerio back up, remove my helmet and gloves, and take off the hydration pack. Compared to the swim-to-bike transition, this was nothing!

After getting everything at the transition settled, it was off for the final part of my first-ever triathlon… the 3.1-mile run.

By now I’m feeling good and pumped that ‘I’ve got cheerleaders!!’ I turned onto the path mapped out for the run and passed 2 of my 3 cheerleaders who, ironically enough, were standing near each other. After a running introduction (literally) of them to one another and high-fives, I entered the woods to truly finish the last part.

I was doing pretty okay until leg cramps started in (unfortunately I’m very prone to them), so I started to walk a bit. Knowing I have this pre-existing condition for leg cramps, I was stocked up on salt capsules and swallowed a couple, which helped alleviate them. I continued to walk a bit and then started to run, but it was no good, the cramps started again. I realized now that I wasn’t going to be doing much running but kept up a decent walk-jog pace that I was happy with.

Not quite to the turnaround there was a high school group of kids who were set up as an aid station, so I took the opportunity to grab a needed drink and a couple more salt capsules, and carried on knowing that the turnaround was coming up. At the turnaround the energy hit full-on, so I increased my walk-jog pace as much as possible. 

Coming up to the edge of the woods signaled that the end was near, and I knew once I was through the gate that the finish line was just beyond. I was almost done with my first triathlon! Knowing this gave a final burst of endurance, leg cramps be damned, and I went for it! Seeing and hearing all 3 of my cheerleaders (by now Sarah was there as well), as well as seeing the finish, I crossed the line with an exuberant ‘YES!’ and a (most likely not pretty) jump, but I did it! I had finished. 

After crossing the finish line and meeting up with my cheerleaders, I found out that Diane and Sarah were in Facebook messenger conversations throughout the whole thing to determine where I was at in the race. Again, more tears on my part! Once I had caught my breath we started milling about. First thing I wanted to do was see what my final results were since (for once) I wasn’t keeping track of time.

We found the booth where they were printing race results, and I didn’t do too badly for a first-timer! My swim time was only slightly longer than the 20:00-minute that I had signed up for, the bike portion was decent, and the 3.1/5k was pretty on-par for walking most of it, especially with leg cramps. Overall, yes, I was quite proud of me!

While I know I would have finished the race regardless, knowing that I had cheerleaders made the day that much better. Besides wanting to do the race to promote turning 40, my mom died in January, so this was as much for her as for me. Knowing that I have my mom’s Strength literally (it’s tattooed on my wrist in her handwriting) as well as a familial trait of stubbornness, I set my mind to it and I did it.

I finished my first-ever triathlon, and I didn’t drown!!