If you like triathlons, central Connecticut is the place to be. It turns out all summer long, there is a sprint tri every Thursday at one of our local lakes. It alternates between two locations, but one is at Cedar Lake in Chester, CT. Cedar Lake is gorgeous and some years we have purchased a summer pass to swim and picnic there. It’s got a beautiful sandy beach, a nice gentle entry into the water, a snack shop where, as Aidan will tell you, they used to sell excellent homemade onion rings until the ownership changed and they switched to some lame frozen variety. And every other Thursday, a triathlon.
Swifty and Teacher Runner did the first one a fewf weeks ago, but that was three days before Mystic and I didn’t feel like working that hard right before the race. They came back full of tales of hilarity and fun. They had to rack their bikes in a bush, Swifty wore her bathing suit for the swim (the only person to do so!), Teacher Runner’s bike chain came off during the race (Swifty rescued her), they laughed a ton and Teacher Runner came home with a shiny new 5K PR. Yes, at the end of the sprint tri.
So this week it was my turn to be the newbie while they showed me the ropes. We got there in plenty of time to use the actual bike racks and get signed in.
We got our numbers written on our arms in sharpie. How badass! One woman parked her bike near us and asked if we were wearing our wet suits or not because it was pretty warm. We just laughed because none of us owns a wet suit! Finally it was time to get in the water.
The men and the relays start first and then the women follow with a two minute delay. I thought, “Wow! I’m doing a triathlon! This is a very surprising development!” Teacher Runner yelled out “You can’t see underwater!” Right, because it’s a lake. Ha ha. But a lake I have swam in many times and I’ve spent a lot of time in lakes, so no problem, I thought. Coach Cowboy advised staying near the back of the pack to stay out of the mix. Fine with me. Everything started off ok. Stroke, stroke, breathe, check buoy. I was churning along. Near the back, but that’s fine. Then I actually started gaining on someone. Unexpected, but okay. I started to head around them to the right and at some point got a mouth full of water. Also, I suspect all the adrenaline was building up because suddenly I couldn’t get my breath at all. It was like the one time I panicked in the pool and thought I might not make it to the edge except I was not even halfway to the buoy yet. Not even close.
I stopped for a second to try to catch my breath. Then I did some breaststroke with my head up. That generally calms me down. I tried to swim again, no go. I decided to try backstroke. I’m not bad at backstroke and you can breathe the whole time, a distinct advantage. However, my backstroke is ridiculously crooked and within four strokes, I was wildly off course. No good. I switched to sidestroke for awhile. That was better. I felt like I had no power in my arms at all, but at least I was moving forward. Then I switched back to breaststroke. The nice lady on the boat came up and asked if I wanted to hold onto the boat for a minute. That seemed like defeat and also, honestly, I was very unsure I would be able to let go of the boat and start swimming again, so I said no thank you. She asked if I was injured. I laughed in my head and said, no, I’m fine. I’m just kind of freaked out. I just kept at it with my slow breaststroke. By now everyone was way ahead of me. Actually, one person still seemed to be behind me and I decided to just try to stay in front of her.
The advantage of breaststroke with your head up is that you can sight perfectly so at least I was efficient. SLOW but on course. My arms still felt pretty useless and I kept thinking, oh triathletes are supposed to swim with their arms to save their legs! Oops! But really, there was nothing I could do about it. Every now and then I thought, just try freestyle again. Just one stroke. One stroke to tell Chris about when you finish. Right, left. But, whenever I went to lift my right arm out of the water, panic set in again. Ok, breaststroke was the way to go.
I finally rounded the buoy. Oh damn it was going to be a long, long way back to the beach. Chug, chug, chug. I finally got to the buoys that mark the swim area and tried again with a little freestyle. Just lift that right arm, Sarah! Nope, not happening. Ok, just swim until you can touch and then walk it in. Fine. Everyone on the beach is cheering Go Number 27! Go! You got this! Well, not everyone. The grown-ups. The kids had long ago become bored and were back to playing. No matter. I smiled and just thought, thank goodness that is over.
I truly have no idea what happened with this panic attack. I’m used to swimming in lakes and in this lake in particular. I know I can swim 500 yards though I don’t usually do it without pushing off a wall. I didn’t feel tired. The water wasn’t too cold. You could easily walk right in. It was just a total freak out. I think next time I will borrow a wet suit. I think before next time I might have to go practice one of the open water swims they have down at the lake. Next time I will definitely get in the water and swim around a bit before the event starts. Apparently I’m truly insane because I’m already saying “next time.” I have heard of many people panicking during open water swims and I have not understood it. Now I have had that happen myself and I still don’t understand it. I did not believe this could happen to me and it absolutely did.
When I got back to the beach, I managed to run, sort of, over to the bikes. This time I remembered that hurrying is actually allowed in transition. I stared down at my shoes for a second, realizing that I had to somehow get them on my feet. Sat on a towel, brushed off feet, socks on, shoes on. My Gu was right there, so I had a Gu. Helmet on. Walked (quickly!) to bike exit. More cheering and off I went.
On the bike, I really felt my tired legs. I had done a pretty serious track workout on Wednesday (the day before) and then had a session with Tough Guy Trainer where he got more serious with the squats. Coach Cowboy and I had already decided track and trainer were not happening on the same day again and we had considered pulling the plug on the tri, but I really wanted to do it so, here I was. Ten miles to go on the bike. I rode off alone crossing my fingers that the course was well marked and that the police had not decided to go home yet. It occurred to me that if I got off course, I was completely screwed. I did not have my phone with me. Even if I had had it, who would I call? In any case, thank goodness, the first turn was marked and that gave me hope that the rest of the turns would be as well. I even remembered to start my watch about half a mile into the ride.
I like biking. I have close to zero experience racing on a bike, but I used to do a fair amount of cycling in high school and college and even grad school. It was never a competitive thing, but I’ve ridden in the bay area so I have done my share of hills. Yes, my bike is funny looking but I’m comfortable on it and that counts for a lot. This ride felt similar to the bike leg of the Shamrock duathlon in that it went on a long time. Very pretty countryside. Some hills though nothing too awful. It was on the bike that I thought: crap, that swim was SO bad that I am really going to have to do it again. But I also thought, even in a situation of complete panic, I didn’t give up and I feel pretty good about that. It reminded me of being in front of a lecture hall unprepared, and just thinking, okay, in five seconds, words need to come out of your mouth. These words should have something to do with political science. Mostly I am prepared for class, but standing in front of a large group of people and speaking is a situation that scares a lot of folks and I have a great deal of practice doing it. I think that swim might have been one of the first times I felt like my professor life paid off in my athletic life because generally it is the other way around.
I actually passed a couple of people on the bike. I passed two guys! I think one of them might have been disabled and the other his helper. But still. I passed guys! I passed one woman. I was second to last out of the water with a much older woman behind me. She came zooming by me on her bike, ha ha! Go speedy old lady biker go! I actually enjoy the bike portion of these events because I am pretty unworried about it. If I’m going uphill or flat, I am usually trying pretty hard. If I am going downhill, I am generally going as fast as is comfortable to me. That is totally okay. It’s kind of a no worry zone as long as I don’t get lost or crash. When I got to the end of the bike course and there was a big sign saying “SLOW DOWN” I thought, yes! I am happy to oblige!
I got to the entrance to transition and the nice people said “Dismount please!” Oh right. Get off the bike. I actually walked quickly with the bike to the rack. Took one look at the rack and thought, screw that, and threw my bike on the ground. There was plenty of space and basically every other bike was already in the rack. I grabbed some Gu again and remembered to take off my helmet. Yeah me! I took my hand held water bottle and set off back to the gate. Which, it turns out, was the wrong gate. Runners leave via a different exit. Oops! I found the way out and off I went.
There were plenty of people running here, though all the opposite direction on the out and back course naturally. But everyone was really friendly and cheering me on. I have often cheered for people near the back of the pack and I totally appreciated it though I still was kind of wishing not to be at the back.
I had that same weird feeling from the duathlon of being disconnected from my legs. I can often guess pretty close to my pace without looking at my watch but when running off the bike, I’m way off. Plus, with the track workout and the weight lifting session on Wednesday and that terrible swim and tired legs on the bike, I figured this will be the time I look at the watch and it says 11:30. Nope. 8:45. What the hell? How could that be right? Stranger still, I tried to slow down and I sort of couldn’t, but I was pretty sure I also couldn’t run a 5K at that pace. I finally got my pace to 9:20 and just tried to hold it there.
You really aren’t allowed to wear headphones in a triathlon, which I find sort of a drag. However, I just kept slogging along, knowing that it would have to end eventually. Also, it was pretty running along the lake. My legs were so tired that it was just force of will to keep going. I sometimes count when I run if I get tired. I think I am counting breaths and I have a lot of rules about it. For shorter runs, I count to 40. For longer runs, I count to 100. No looking at my watch until I finish counting. Any counting mess-ups and I have to start over. Never start counting until I have only about ½ a mile to go. For this run, I broke pretty much all the counting rules. I started counting .8 miles into the run leg. Which means I had 2.3 miles to go. I counted to 100 over and over again throughout the whole race. That’s a lot of counting, but it kept me moving.
I actually passed a couple of people on the run, but I really just wanted to be done. When I finally got near the end, I heard Swifty and Teacher Runner cheering for me. I crossed the timing mat. THANK GOODNESS. Finally, I could sit down. I have rarely been so happy for a race to be over. Swifty got me some water and it turns out that first timers get medals and magnets. I just sat for a few minutes to collect myself.
This was a really tough race for me. Between the tired legs and the swim-induced panic, it was harder than I had expected, even going into it with low expectations. I finished 91/94, surely the closest to last I have ever been. Yet, I found that it actually didn’t bother me. I was happy to be done. I’m eager to figure out what in the world happened in the water. I want to keep improving so I can at least keep up a bit with Swifty and Teacher Runner (who set another 5K PR!). I’m going to be incredibly nervous going into the next triathlon, but I also know there will be another triathlon.