On August 11, 2018, I had the distinct honor of participating in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Cleveland Ohio. Although I qualified for Age Groups in 2015, I never made it to the event, life got in the way. This year, 2018, I set it as a goal to qualify. I had one shot at it in the Pat Griskus Olympic Distance race in Middlebury, CT on June 16, 2018. I ended up winning my Age Group and this win qualified me for the upcoming event in Cleveland. I was pretty excited as I had always wanted to see what this event would be like. Who knows if I’ll qualify again, so I seized the moment.

I’ve been participating in all triathlon distances since 1995. That’s 24 years, for those keeping track at home. I’m grateful that I have stayed healthy and injury-free for over 2 decades. It’s my plan to keep going as I truly love this sport. Training and competing brings me great joy and I have no intention of stopping anytime soon.

Not much surprises me anymore in this sport. I’ve seen it all. Panicked swim starts, serious head winds on the bike, seemingly insurmountable hills on the run, heat, and just plain exhaustion. But, on Saturday morning, at the swim start of my first Age Group Nationals, I had one more obstacle to conquer.

This is my swim story:

It was 7:00 am. My transition was all set up and I was ready to race. Since I was in Wave 13, I had nearly 90 more minutes before I would enter the water. I found a swing bench at the bath house. I didn’t want to stand, so it was nice to rest my legs. I met a really nice woman named Kate and we chatted awhile to pass the time.

During this waiting time, I found out the start got delayed, first 5 minutes, then 10. More waiting! At least it was nice out and not super hot or pouring rain. My husband, Leland, has trained me to see the “it could be worse” scenario.

A little past, 8:00 am, I put on my wetsuit and headed closer to the swim start. The water still looked pretty calm. Yesterday I did a practice swim with my new friends Pattie and Krista. We entered the water around 11:00 am for our swim. I was the worst 16 minute swim in my recent memory. The swells were so high that sighting was pretty much impossible. I also found myself getting a little queasy. I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit so I thought even if the conditions are the same on race day, a wetsuit will give me more buoyancy. I was hopeful the winds would die down or be non-existent on Sunday. We met a friend for lunch on Saturday and he looked up something on his phone and said the water will be calm tomorrow, something about a “north wind.” He was right. At 7:00 am, the lake was super calm. I even have a photo to prove it.

Unfortunately around 8:20 am, the winds picked up and it was pretty much the same conditions as Saturday. I tried not to think about it. I thought I’d just have to get through it.

Finally, at 8:30 am, “the pink caps” were called for a short swim warm up. I got in the water, a nice 75 degrees. Since I was wearing a sleeveless wetsuit, I thought I’d be better off than Saturday. Well, I was wrong. I don’t know if I started out too fast, or it was inevitable, but after a few minutes of swimming, I found the swells to be too much. I wouldn’t say that I panicked, but my mind starting spinning. “Could I do it?” I seriously considered bailing. For a split second I tried to imagine what it would be like if just turned back and quit (something I have never done before).

I noticed a few other women around me doing breast stroke. I started doing side stroke. I know! It’s the most inefficient stroke, but it kept my head out of the water the whole time and I was making forward progress, albeit at a snail’s pace. As many pink caps started to pass me, I could still hear the announcer on the shore talking to the next wave. “That’s not good,” I thought.

The conversation in my head went like this, “It doesn’t matter how you do in this race, you just need to get through this swim. The rest of the race will be fine.” So, with permission from myself, I continued with side stroke for a little while longer. I thought I just needed to go to the first turn buoy and then I’d be fine. At least that’s what Pattie told me yesterday when we did our practice swim. Pattie’s advice was in my head for much of the first part of the swim. Thank you Pattie!

After what seemed like an eternity of side stroking, my breathing seemed to slow down and I thought I might be able to do some freestyle. I hadn’t even hit the first orange buoy yet. There were still huge swells and my body felt like a small log with arms just bobbing up and down in this enormous body of water. At one point, I looked up and saw a woman swimming towards me. I think she was heading back to shore. “That’s not me,” I thought, “I am going to do this.”

A short while later, as I was trying to sight the orange buoy, I saw what looked like a big red pontoon boat, but I think it was a Zodiac. I noticed at least 2 women in pink caps boarding the boat. I even saw other women holding onto the boat or kayaks, presumably to rest.

“That’s not me,” I thought, “I’m going to do this.”

Eventually, I made it to the first yellow turn buoy. “Yes!” I thought, “I’ve made the turn, the rest of the swim will be a piece of cake.” Boy, was I wrong. Now the waves/swells were hitting the long side of my body. And while I wasn’t getting slammed with water every time I took a breath or sighted, I felt like a kayak that couldn’t “right” itself and was being taken for a ride in the wrong direction. It took a lot of energy to stay on course and find the second yellow turn buoy. At this point, I wasn’t having anymore issues with queasiness and I was just used to the huge swells, but I couldn’t swim straight and stay on course. That was annoying as I knew I was swimming so much more distance and working much harder. But…again, I had to remember it was just about completing the swim and getting on the bike. Eventually, I passed the second turn buoy and I was on the path to the finish. At this point, the swells were now helping me get to shore. I did find it hard to stay straight, and it was still hard work to pull through the water, but I did it.

I saw Leland at the swim exit and I did smile, so he was none the wiser. I’m sure he worries because it was nearly 15 minutes longer than I had told him. I’m sure he was happy to see me exit the water.

I finished the swim in 44:26. Not a PR, but a finish and that is what matters most.

The bike ride was fine. I’m not super speedy, but I was happy with over 17 mph. It’s typical that I get passed by many on the bike. I hold my own, and I’m happy with that. While I have aero-bars, I don’t spend that much time in them and I’m not sure that slows me down a bit. Oh well.

When I was on the run, annoyed with the first uphill or the unrelenting sun, I reminded myself that while I was in the water, all I wanted was to get to the run. Here I am…so just shut up. 😉

I hardly looked at my watch for the run and just went by feel. I was pretty happy with my run (8:16 pace) and overall, pleased with my time. I was secretly hoping I could have broken 3 hours. I do think/believe that if I had had a normal swim experience, I would have finished right under 3 hours. But…those were not the conditions that were presented. Every race day brings a new set of challenges. We deal with them the best we can and that’s what makes us triathletes. Every race is different. Every time I cross the finish line in one piece, feeling strong and even a little bit invincible, it’s a victory!

Finishing, upright and smiling…that’s what matters most.