“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”~ John Bingham
Interestingly, I had always defined myself as an athlete—in high school I was a champion track and field jock and volleyball player, and during most of my twenties and thirties I was in decent shape, earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and going on to become an instructor. But then I started graduate school and made little time for anything except school. During my post-doc training, and later faculty appointments, “I just don’t have the time” became my mantra. Although this loss of identity was confounding to me I chose to ignore it. Fast forward….my daughter was born in 2005. Eating pounds of Raisinettes made those late night feedings more bearable. But you know, I’m going to stop right there, as I can’t blame the stress of motherhood either on my weight gain—the reality was that I had been overweight for a good deal of my adult life and all I needed was a stressor or reason to eat. Did I think that my life would be stress-free at some point and that’s when I could finally get healthy? Forty-five approached and passed and so did a few more years. Well, they say fifty is just a number. In the world of bicycling, we don’t say, oh I just signed up for a fifty miler,” we say, “I just signed up for a half-century.” Fifty = half–century. Whoa. Yes it is a number, but it is a profound number. We have long shifted from wanting to be older and more mature to accepting where we are and sometimes even wanting to stop the clock. You don’t hear many fifty year olds saying, “I just can’t wait til I’m 55.” As I approached fifty, I realized that if I continued on the path of denial, it would only be a matter of time before my pancreas would protest and I would develop diabetes and follow in the footsteps of my family….a grandmother that died of complications due to diabetes at the age of 38, and a father who developed diabetes in his mid-forties and became debilitated for the last twenty years of his life, finally succumbing to the disease in 2007. On the other side of the family tree, my mother developed heart and lung disease in her forties which resulted in a slow and painful death for the last ten years of her life. Having my own child later in life and being an older mother, along with losing both of my parents within three years of each other created the perfect storm for my own moment of truth. Did I want my daughter’s childhood memories of me to be that of sitting on the couch, watching TV, sleeping all the time, never having the energy to play or engage in her life? Did I want a teenager who was embarrassed (more than typical teenage embarrassment) to be in my presence because of my appearance and health status? Did I want a young adult child who would be burdened with my healthcare issues? But worst of all, did I want my child to grow up without me because of premature death? She and I would miss so much. You can only live in denial for so long until you come to one of two conclusions: I’m uncomfortable with who I am, but I am paralyzed by fear and cannot possibly move forward. Or, I am uncomfortable with myself and I must do something differently or there will be consequences. Not to sound overly dramatic but it was the realization that this could be my last chance to save myself and defy my family history that drove me to take back my life. I couldn’t change the years I lost, but I could define my future. But how?
I have always wanted to do a triathlon, but it would be a fleeting moment and I’d think, yeah, and you always wanted to be in the Olympics too and win the Nobel Prize. I had a friend during internship that came into my office one Monday and showed me pictures of herself completing a triathlon and she actually was standing on two feet and did not appear to be in distress, in fact she was beaming! She told me of course I could do one—that they are all different distances and skill levels and it was one of the most fun things she had ever done. I thought hmm, maybe I’ll set a goal to do one by 45 (I was around 40 at the time). That’s about all the thought I gave to it. And then the “Moment of Truth” emerged (see above). So what does an academic do when they want to embark upon a new journey? They READ about it. Read and read and read and read. I searched on Amazon, one of my favorite pastimes, and bought a few “how to” books, but then one title really caught my eye. It was called, “Slow, Fat Triathlete,” by Jayne Williams. Jayne’s philosophy is simple….don’t wait to lose x number of pounds or attain a perfectly toned body to train for triathlon….quite the opposite…start training right now, today with the body you have and adjust your training program. That brilliant concept had never crossed my mind. Well ok, let’s figure out how to adjust the program for 215 lb 48 year old who had not lifted a finger or even as much as twitched a muscle for the past several years. Jayne also suggests that nothing motivates you to train like registering for a race. As I embraced the idea of registering for a triathlon, I then reminded myself, “Oh wait, you can’t swim.” I could keep myself above water and inch forward but I looked like a cross between a drowning water polo player and a tired dog. Lots of random splashing and kicking, but not a whole lot of forward movement. I would shoot for a triathlon in the spring but my first race should be a 5K. I registered for the CVS 5K in September of 2008…me and about 7000 other people. It was a start.
We had to put down our fastest 5K time and since I didn’t have one, I was herded in the back of the pack with the other infinity 5Kers. By the time the gun went off for our wave, about fifteen minutes into the race, the frontrunners were crossing the finish line. Fifteen minutes to run three miles?????? I would be lucky to run one mile in fifteen minutes. Well, run is a gross exaggeration. I walked the entire race and noted that even as I was walking as fast as I possibly could, other walkers were flying past me. Fifty three minutes later, I crossed the finish line. But I crossed it! And there was nowhere to go but up. I came home and had to take a nap, I was so exhausted. Every muscle and joint from the waist down was screaming and my head was throbbing. Where was that runner’s high? Ugh, even my endorphins were dead. But I did my first 5K!!!!! And now just had to think about adding minor details of the swim and bike
My next step was to join Weight Watchers to lighten my load, so to speak. I had been a member of WW back in the days of starting members off with an 800 calorie diet for week one and you gradually increased 100 calories or so each week. I remember it being such a torturous experience that I dreaded going back, but knew I needed help. The science of weight loss has informed WW programs and they now had the point system. So instead of starting at some obscenely low caloric diet, you started at a much more reasonable level and the more you weighed, the more food you were allotted, and as you lost weight, you lowered your point allotment to match your weight. I don’t know of any better program for weight loss. I rarely felt hungry, never had to deprive myself of any specific food and could eat a little extra when I exercised. I started going to the local Y and finally worked up enough nerve to first, wear a bathing suit (something I had not done in about ten years) and second, try to make it across the 25 yard pool which required every ounce of courage I had. The first time I tried, I was able to make it across back and forth for a grand total of 50 yards! I thought my arms were going to fall off. But I was encouraged that I could even make it across. I would go weekly and each time attempted to add another 25 yards. But after making it up to about 200 yards, I realized doggy paddling was just not going to cut it. My arms were flailing, my body was more vertical than horizontal and my head was way above the surface of the water. (That is called maximum drag in tri lingo. Drag=slow) And there was no way I was sticking my face in the water. Because then I’d have to figure out how to breathe AND move my arms at the same time. Even though I was in a 25 yard pool with lifeguards, I was afraid I would drown. And if I felt I could drown in a pool, what would I do in the open water. I desperately needed swim lessons….
I met weekly with a swim instructor who would teach me the fundamentals and mechanics of swimming. It was so much to think about. Face in the water—yes I had to—turning it just enough for my mouth to be above the surface, lead with my hips, keep my legs straight and kick from the hips, lead with the elbow and keep it high, thrust my hand in the water like I’m aiming for a mail slot, rotate my body so that I’m not moving through the water like a flat bottomed boat. There was so much to think about that did not feel intuitive or natural in any way….the countless drills of swimming on my side with one arm extended and only being able to come up for air by rotating my hips…and the countless gallons of chlorinated water that I swallowed trying to learn these drills. Three strokes and then come up for air. It seemed like an eternity underwater and I would panic and gasp for air. And now, instead of being as inconspicuous as possible as I slunk from the locker room into the pool pre-lessons, I had to meet someone on the deck of the pool, stand there to discuss strategy, and then have them critique every muscle movement and mistake by yelling (not in a mean way of course) across the pool as I swam in my lane. Could I have had *any* more attention drawn to me and my very nonswimmer-like 215 pound physique???? Ugh. But you know what—who cares?? Did anyone there really care? Was anyone really paying attention to me? And if they were paying attention or had any negative thoughts, did it affect me directly? No, I was there to learn to swim, period. Do you think anyone is sitting at home now right now thinking, “Wow, I remember back in the winter of 2009 I saw an overweight woman taking swim lessons at the Y.” Really now? If there is one thing I can impress upon my audience, it would be to not let anyone one else’s perceived (or real) reaction interfere with you doing something you really want to do.
But each week, I could swim further and further (still having to stop periodically) and most important I felt more comfortable in the water. And I noticed something that I had never experienced before. The more I swam, the more weight I lost. I still had to follow a healthy diet, but the weight was coming off easier than ever—in my late forties, at a time where weight loss is incredibly difficult because of fluctuating estrogen levels. (I’ve learned to love to swim, in fact it’s my favorite of the three legs and it continues to keep my metabolism revved and efficient.)
OK, great, one sport down, but there were two others to contend with. But now hey, at least I knew how to ride a bike! I had bought a hybrid the previous summer—my first bicycle in at least 20 years. My last bicycle 20 years ago was a three speed or maybe ten speed, who knows because I only rode in one gear and the rest were kind of a waste. Oh and it had a very uncomfortable seat. I was amazed how bikes have evolved over time. This new baby had 18 gears and I could not believe now easy it was to pedal! And the seat was big enough for two! I was so proud of my bike until I showed my brother. His eyes grew wide and asked, “You’re going to do a triathlon on that thing???” And I believe his next words were that all I needed was a basket and bell for it and I could probably catch Toto. What are younger brothers for? I did not let my enthusiasm waver. Truth be known, I didn’t even know if I could sustain a ride on a bike with my weight and my back. And to be in shape to ride 15 miles, I had to ride my bike several times a week. But it was now winter so I was banished to the basement, or in our house, the dungeon. Most people, even the most avid triathletes would rather stick a needle in their eye than ride on a trainer. But it’s what you do if you live in New England. The alternative is biking in frigid temperatures on ice and snow. The dungeon it was.
The concept of an actual training plan was not something I thought about initially. I would pretty much swim, bike, and run when I wanted for as long or as little as I wanted. I’ve become much more regimented now with the assistance of a coach, but my first year, I was just trying to work up to the distance of each individual sport for a sprint distance triathlon. More than anything, I was having fun. And I was losing weight and feeling fit again. As I think about it now, I had never embraced the Zen of running, in fact, I disliked it especially when I was younger, I could barely swim, and I could take or leave cycling. But stringing all three of these sports together is like magic….it’s as if it is an entirely different sport. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. So it was time to make it real. Around February, many races start opening up on-line registration. Some open sooner, some later, but I had specific requirements. I was looking for a sprint distance (which is a misnomer) that was relatively close. I found one in June 2009 and YAY, the swim was only 300 yards!! It fit the criteria of being close enough to home, early enough in the season to get me motivated, and it was a relatively short race. I went to the website and went through the registration process, asking how old I was, what category did I want to compete in, did I agree to waive the right to sue them if I keeled over….etc. Then I hit pay and holy sh*t, it was now very real.
I was up at 4:30am ready for the big day. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning! I had my oatmeal and banana for breakfast, got dressed, packed up, and headed to the race site with my family in tow. After carefully setting up my gear in the transition area and getting my body marked, it was time to suit-up and head to the beach for the start of the race. I had tried on my wetsuit one time before the triathlon in the comfort of my own home and all seemed to go well putting it on and taking it off. I had “studied” the tricks such as applying gobs of Body Glide especially to your ankles, calves, knees and other areas of resistance, and making sure you start peeling off your wetsuit as soon as you exit from the water, since it is easier to remove when you are still wet. Neoprene is such an interesting material—it goes on easier when you are dry, but comes off easier when you are wet. Go figure. Well, I spent so much time learning about how to put my wetsuit on and take it off, I neglected to read about actually wearing it. All I knew was that this piece of rubber was going to help me glide across the water like a skipping rock and that it would provide some buoyancy. What I did not realize was that it was going to try to choke me once I had it on. I had to immediately undo the velcro and rip off the collar and take my arms out of the holes. OK, so maybe I was feeling a little more jumpy than in my bedroom modeling it for the fam. But it was now a couple of minutes before race time and I had to put it back on. I loosened the collar this time.
The race organizer welcomed us and the Star Spangled Banner was played. Twas a beautiful, bright sunny day and the temperature was perfect! As I stood with the other athletes on the beach, I felt this overwhelming sense of pride, confidence, and gratitude. But that was to be a short-lived feeling as the start gun sounded and everyone charged into the water. I chose to stay at the back of the pack for fear of being trampled by the stampede. I was less than 100 yards into the swim and something happened that had never happened to me before while swimming in the comfort of the 82 degree indoor pool at the Y, with its friendly walls always there to greet me for a rest. This water was freezing. I could hear myself breathing really heavy and could feel my chest heaving. And my arms felt fatigued—already—not even a quarter of the way through the swim. What? And then that evil neoprene wetsuit tightened its grip on my neck. It wasn’t going to help me glide across the water, it was trying to drown me!!! I couldn’t breathe, I started to pant, I couldn’t touch bottom, and my arms not only hurt, but began to feel like lead. I couldn’t hear anything but myself gasping for air. I was terrified. I thought, “What the hell were you *ever* thinking, that you would be able to do something like this. You’re in way over your head (literally and metaphorically). There is no way in hell you’re going to make it.” The more negatively I thought, the more my body would react—heart beating out of my chest, gasping for air, lightheadedness, and being totally unaware of my surroundings. My emotional memory had taken control. My limbic system had hijacked my prefrontal cortex—there was not a shred of rational thought, only fight or flight. Except I couldn’t flee and I was getting too tired to fight. Although I was in emotional overdrive, I starting to regain some semblance of focus. Perhaps it was the wave of humiliation at the thought of being brought back to shore in the little red rescue boat after swimming only 100 yards, and that everyone I knew either was there watching from shore or knew I was doing this event. But something knocked me back onto reality. I was able to put words to how I was feeling….let’s see, where have I heard this described before….increased heart rate, increased respiration, sensation of choking, dizziness, detachment from one’s surroundings aka derealization…um….PANIC! I was having a panic attack! I was having a panic attack AND I was in the middle of a lake where I could not touch bottom. (I don’t suppose it matters where you have a panic attack…it could be the comfort of your own home and I imagine it still feels quite unbearable.) And then I reminded myself that I was a clinical psychologist. And one of my areas of expertise is stress/anxiety/ panic. I have treated hundreds of individuals with panic disorder and performance anxiety. I had to snap out of it and get a grip, right now. The first thing I assessed was whether or not I was going to quit. Nope, not an option. Then I did what I have told others on thousands of occasions….breathe…just breathe…observe your breath and continue to breathe. I told myself, forget about the buoys, forget about the distance, the only thing that matters is your next stroke, and then the next, one stroke at a time, be in the moment and all that matters is this next stroke. My breathing slowed and I started to develop a rhythm. When my arms started to tire and I felt I needed a break from swimming freestyle, I rolled over on my back and paddled away. I noticed how blue the sky was, and the beautiful reflection of the sun on the lake. When I felt ready, I rolled back over. And I discovered a secret. Even if I didn’t move my arms or legs, my wetsuit kept me afloat. It had redeemed itself! I rounded the buoy that signaled the halfway point. I was halfway there, but just kept focusing on one stroke and then the next. A kayaker paddled by me and asked if I was ok….and I could honestly answer that I was! I thought to myself, even if it takes me all day, I can do this. The last person to cross the finish line is still a triathlete. And then an amazing thing happened, I felt my hand scraping the bottom of the lake as it entered the water and I could stand up. There were people on shore yelling and cheering for me and everyone else exiting the water!! I couldn’t believe it, I ran down the beach, disentangling myself from my wetsuit, slid it right off and ever so happily mounted my bike. It felt so bizarre being soaked and riding my bike, but I thought, wow this is what triathletes do. I was overjoyed riding my bike, so thankful that I didn’t drown, feeling so energized as I passed others, but then near the end of the bike leg I realized, oh wait, now you have to run. I dismounted my bike. As I started to run on my rubber legs, over which I had no control, it occurred to me why people do brick training and that I would need to start incorporating that into my workouts. Even though I felt like I was dragging two concrete slabs, I ran faster than I had ever run before. And there it was in front of me, the finish line! I really crossed it…with a huge smile on my face. And later on I would find out that I came in first in the women’s 50 to infinity class (perhaps I was the only one—who knows). I won a really cool aluminum water bottle and it is one of my prized possessions. I was a triathlete. And I was so hooked, I couldn’t wait for the next race.
So fast forward now to the present. Four years and 90 pounds ago. I still consider myself a “newbie.” While I have survived panic attacks in the water, torrential downpours that delayed my first Olympic distance triathlon for four hours, having my phone swallowed by the mud and water, thus, losing any means of communication with my ride home, falling off of my bike and landing into a ditch, getting kicked in the face by other swimmers so hard that my nose has bled, having a purple toe that could need amputation at any moment, (and loving every minute of this), I have still not been through nearly enough to call myself “seasoned.” Last year I completed two half-iron distance races, but this year I’m stepping way out of my comfort zone to tackle a half-iron distance put on by the big boys and girls at M Dot. Would I be able to actually make it through a fairly challenging course? There is something strangely exciting about not having definitive the answer. During the early phases of training this past winter, on some days the Amica race felt way out of my reach, and other days I knew I could push through any amount of pain and would crawl across the finish line if I had to. I listened to my coach, followed my training plan religiously, soaked in support from family and friends, but most important, listened to my body.
As I become aware of my rising stress levels a few weeks prior to this competition, I tell myself, I am going to enjoy every moment of the week before the race; that the hard physical work is already done, and at this point, it’s all about the mental game. My attitude is shifting from fear and anxiety to joy and gratitude. This endeavor is supposed to be about fun, and as I have said numerous times, when it’s no longer fun, it’s time to hang up my wetsuit. Sunday I completed my third half ironman. My daughter asks what is the other half? Certainly part lead, especially my legs, part lunatic, part glutton for punishment. And of course there is the part of me that is full of gratitude for this opportunity to dance far outside the fringe of my comfort zone. It’s astounding what our mind can push our bodies to do. How much further can I dance? Full IM within the next two years before I hit my mid-fifties? We’ll see.