There is a constant flutter of what feels like butterflies in my stomach, a surge of adrenaline in my shaky hands, and the pulsating beat of my racing heart. I seem to be going through these feelings a lot lately, yet this time these are not nerves; these are the pangs of excitement.
The night before my second triathlon and the anticipation leaves me exceptionally restless. As the glowing green clock on my nightstand blinks just before 10:30, I know my focus should be on rest and sleep, but instead I am transfixed on thinking about transitions, swim starts, and bike mounts. This race will be different from my first one in that there will be more racers and bigger competition, but the biggest change for me will be going from a 600 metre pool swim to a 750 metre open water swim. Mass bodies all charging towards the water at one time, no deck, no ropes, and no black lines to guide me; this is very different. I glance over to the side of the bed to see my race day gear neatly spread across the chair and on the floor. I have checked and re-checked that I am not missing anything, my bike is already racked in transition, and in an almost paranoid-like fashion I have set four different alarm clocks. There is nothing left to do, but sleep.
The blast of four alarm clocks going off in rapid fire succession, and their ensuing unison of music flows throughout the room and awakes me to a vertical position in record time. The pounding beat of my heart at 4:45 in the morning brings a wave of nausea, as I try to sort out where I am, and what I am supposed to do next. It’s race day and moving forward would be a good start.
As I descend on to downtown Kelowna, I see a parade of sleepy looking athletes sauntering through body marking, last minute fuel loading and hydration, bike checks, warm ups, and transition setup. The setup of your transition area is like practicing a religious ceremony, and is done with purpose. It is a meticulous process where your gear must reside in its precise position to ensure a smooth transition from one sport to the next. One slight movement to the left or right, an inch above or below and precious seconds are wiped from your time. It is a section of the triathlon that is oftentimes overlooked in training, but I have ensured adequate practice of shoving my wet feet into shoes, bike mounts and dismounts, wetsuit stripping, and race belt fastening. On this morning, I strategically place everything in it’s exact location, mime my way through the motions one more time before grabbing my cap and goggles to hit the water for a warm up.
Down at the beach, with 20 minutes to race time, anticipation and gut wrenching nerves pierce the air like a cold wind. Each athlete is focused on their own superstitions and routines. Since my stomach can’t handle real food at this hour of the morning or before exercise, I choke down two gel packs and half a bottle of liquid energizer. Then I jog barefoot up and down the rough sidewalk with a couple high knees, twists, turns, butt kicks, stretches, and a lap in the warm water. It is a stunningly beautiful morning for a race. Unlike the mood of apprehension on land, the water is as calm as a millpond, the sun is shining and the air is warm.
As race time approaches we are summoned to the start line, a wave of approximately 50 pink caps of women, ranging in age, size, and experience muddle together. We share one common goal, to cross the finish line. Some will set personal bests, while others will complete their first race.
As the 10 second countdown begins my heart beats slightly faster and I can barely stand still before the horn blares and like a running mass of madness we charge into the water. Legs thrash, arms flail, heads bob around in panic, some stand up again, some start the breast stroke or the doggie paddle, while I feel the rush of the draft propel me forward and I find my rhythm. My heart is racing and with each breath I am somewhat desperate for air as I intermingle with a swarm of other bodies. It doesn’t take long for the mass to separate and the thrashing around me to subside along with the racing heart and desperate breathing. I find a pair of feet to draft behind and set into the motion of a controlled and comfortable pace. Every 12 strokes or so I lift my head slightly and strategically to sight my route and continue on, one arm after the other, with the repetitive voice of Dory the fish in my head, “just keeping swimming, just keep swimming.”
With what feels like moments later I start to see weeds, rocks and sand, and as I raise my head to sight the beach, I drive my body through the water like a shark racing after a meal, until my hands touch ground. In a mad scramble I clamber back to the upright position and race up on to the sand, greeted by a crowd of cheers. I feel strong. Into transition I snap on my lid, flip on my sunglasses, grab the bike and run towards the bike exit.
It takes a minute or two for my muscles to transform into the motions of cycling. Although just as my legs find the zone, I am faced with an uphill battle. I see a clump of riders have slowed to a seated calm pedal, but I am shifting my gears, standing out of the saddle and driving my tree trunk legs through the motions of the climb. My ass tries to sink closer back down to the saddle, but my mind denies me any chance of slowing down. I know once at the top it will be fast descent where I can rest my legs. As I emerge back downtown I am greeted by the enthusiastic cheers of random strangers before heading back out for lap two, which feels even stronger than the first.
Twenty kilometres done, and I am now focused on slipping my feet out of my clip-in shoes mid cycle without bailing. My nerves creep in for a split second as I remove my foot from the shoe and the pedal spins it and momentarily drags it on the ground before my foot flips it back around. Successfully barefoot, and still on the bike, I sight the dismount line, and hop off. Then I am running into transition where I rack the bike, remove the helmet, slip on the runners, clip on the race belt, and attempt to get the muscles to transition into the motions of running. There was a lot that just happened in that brief moment.
For the first 500 metres I feel my legs moving in almost a cycle-like effort, as I pound the concrete. Their heaviness is evident, and it feels like I am running with cement poles.
Over the next kilometre my feet settle into a comfortable pace as I grind out the last leg of the race. The run is my weakness, but it is also a calm journey; most likely because I am moving at a turtle’s pace. There is time to think, reflect and enjoy the course. Faster athletes effortlessly cruise past me, and I curse at my giant useless legs with the promise of hurting them next week in training.
As the final kilometre mark comes within sight, I pick up my stride, pump my arms just a little bit faster, round the corner, sprint across the bridge and head down the path towards the arches of the finish. A crowd of more random strangers cheer me through the end, and I feel exhausted, yet I find just enough energy to smile.
It’s been close to a year of dedicated training, hard work, new adventures and challenges, and I feel even hungrier for more. This is just race number two, a tiny fraction of the Ironman distance, and it’s still the beginning, but it’s a new venture conquered and just one step closer on the road to one hundred forty point six miles.