Thursday, July 23, 2015

Becoming a triathlete

As a kid my mom made sure to take my brother and I to swimming lessons at our local YMCA. I remember graduating from guppy to minnow and how proud I was to be able to swim continuous laps. Then before I started school we moved to Mexico where almost everyone I went to school with was a member of at least one country club. This was all new and foreign to me, but the kids were friendly and I soon learned that it was the norm to get invites to each others clubs. I was thankful for all those swim lessons and pruny fingers I endured to make sure I was comfortable in water. These kids had spend their entire lives in and out of pools. It came natural. We would race from one end of the pool to the other. It felt like I would spend hours on end just treading water; I was one with the water.

After moving back to the US I would swim occasionally, but never like I did in those earlier years. My form got sloppy and it became only about recreation and never for sport. I focused on other things like soccer, volleyball, softball and arts. As the years passed I spent less and less time in the pool, until I finally I couldn't even remember the last time I had gone swimming was.

On Thursday July 25th I took a leap of faith, and with no prior knowledge of the sport, I signed up for the Chicago Triathlon - Sprint distance. This is madness right? I must have still been on that runners high from finishing my first half marathon a few days earlier. I have absolutely lost all semblance of reality. I've just signed up for a triathlon!? I don't even have a bike. Or a wetsuit. Do I need a wetsuit? Do people change between each leg? I don't even know which comes first. Oh boy...I'm definitely in for a ride.

First step: call the family. They might want to know you've lost your mind. Shock. Disbelief. Wait, you're doing what now? Yes, I'm doing a triathlon in less than a month. No, I'm not sure what I'm doing either. Yes, I'm excited. And Scared. Mostly scared.

And so it began. I scoured message boards and websites, anything I could to wrap my head around what I would be doing. First step, what do I wear for the swim? After much deliberation I ordered a trisuit and wetsuit on Amazon. Thankfully they arrived only a few days later and both fit like a charm. Next, I need a bike. Went to the shop and decided on a nice Trek Hybrid. I wasn't ready to go all in on a road or tri bike. I mean, what if I don't even like triathlon? Hah, yeah that's a joke, when have I not become all consumed with something I set my sights on?

So there I was. A brand new baby triathlete with some bare minimum gear but a ton of heart. Luckily I found a fellow sorority sister who was also doing her first tri and we began to train together. Jenny and I would meet in the mornings before the sun came up to do our run. We decided to swim on Tuesdays. I showed up to my first open water swim lead by Lifetime and just hoped for the best. Like a clumsy baby animal I struggled to get my wetsuit on. I marveled at all the seasoned athletes with their "suit juice" and plastic bags and baby shampoo. I'm not even sure what any of these things are for but they look intriguing. And necessary. Yes, we need baby shampoo. Right?

Ok, time to hop in the water. Sweet baby Jesus its cold. Goodness gracious. People enjoy this? How? And you want me to do what now? Let the water INTO my wetsuit? I thought the whole point was to keep it out? Perhaps this is not for me. I can barely even see in the water. This it always here? Time to swim to that buoy they tell me. I dunk my head underwater and great, this is marvelous, I've forgotten how to breath. Or is my wetsuit slowly asphyxiating me? Just keep swimming. Just keep moving. Basically all I've done is tread water and attempt to freestyle and now I'm starving. Well kids, its been real but I think its time to head home and never come back. Who invented this open water swimming anyway?

Yeah, those first few weeks of training were rough. I had to learn to do things I always thought just came naturally. I was anything but natural. Even the bike felt awkward. A few weeks before the race there was an invitational sprint distance event, untimed, to acclimate to triathlon. It was here that I met Claire and Denise (who I'm sure by now you've realized are my tri family, forged in fire and body glide). They gave me hope. I realized I wasn't alone and maybe this wasn't so bad after all.

The day before my race was the super sprint race. Jenny had decided to go with this distance and I was there to cheer her on. The energy was absolutely electric. I smiled, I cried, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This. This would be me tomorrow. I will be able to claim the title of triathlete. That night I slept at another sorority sisters apartment (thanks owesome! I luhhh you!) and she walked me through the pre race prep. We laid everything out and then made sure to get some rest. Well maybe she rested, my nerves got the best of me and all I could do was lay there and dream about each leg of the race.

I woke up in a panic. Is it late? Did I miss it? Oh, its time to head to transition? Ok let me grab a flashlight. Under the cover of darkness we found our bike rack, set up our transition area then headed back to her apartment for an extra nap. There was a folly of errors when leaving for the second time and I almost missed my swim start. I suited up in my wetsuit in the car and literally jumped out of her car on Lake Shore Drive. I hopped a fence and there I was watching all the women with the matching swim caps hop into the water. I was frantic. Oh no, I haven't even zipped up. The nice gentleman at the swim start must have recognized my panic and offered to zip me up then push me in. Shit. I've lost my nose plug. It has been claimed by the depths of Lake Michigan. You can do this. Get it together.

I pretended like all those spectators were cheering for me. Let's go Jack! Jack? Oh no, they said Nat right? Transition was a bit of a blur. I got what I needed to and made my way to bike start. For the record, Lake Shore Drive is NOT flat. I'm not sure how I was under that misguided impression but it was totally false. That WHOLE DAMN THING is nothing but rolling hills. To my baby triathlete legs and unskilled gear shifting they felt like mountains. WHHHHHHYYYYYY did I do this!?! Somewhere around Wilson there is a man standing in the median and he yells out to me. "Hechale GANAS!!!". Thank you sir, I needed that. Time to giddy up!

The run. Ooooh the dreaded run. This is where I should feel most comfortable. I want to die. My legs feel like cinderblocks. Am I even moving? Oh heyyyy there's my family! Did you guys come to carry me away? Much of this run is me convincing myself that my heart will go on. Yup, totally in the Titanic, I feel like I'm on a sinking ship, kinda way. A hill? Why on God's green earth would you put this hill just before the final turn to the finish line? Its just.not.right.

Ok here we go, there's my brother and Colleen his girlfriend. They've come to say their last farewell to my sanity. You've got this. Keep pushing. Left foot, right foot. Wipe that sweat off. Holy mother of God, I can SEEEEEE the finish line. All smiles. Some tears. THIS.IS.IT. This is what it all comes down to, me and this final chute into glory. I hear screaming, perhaps that's for me. I can't even tell. All I'm focused on is that red timing mat. As I cross I feel the most intense wave of elation, pride, exhaustion. It just all hits me at once. I see my mom and grandma as I walk through the finisher area. Just seeing them makes me tear up all over again. I've done it. I actually did a triathlon. And the look on their face is priceless, it tells me what I need most, I've made them proud.


  1. Hey - great to meet you (again?) this morning! Just wanted to say hello and that triathlons are SO much fun! Let me know if you have any questions or want any tips for them! I'm also a member of the Chicago Tri Club and we have a number of fun events to help prepare for triathlons too!

  2. First off, thanks for taking the time to write out your blog posts. Fun to hear about how you got your start and how that feeling at the finish line is unforgettable.

    I'm just beginning my own triathlon journey and to help myself and other novice triathletes get off the ground, I've built out a simple triathlon training tool called Triathlon Ready (

    I'm looking for feedback from experienced athletes to help make this the best tool it can be. Is this something you'd be interested in?

    Thanks for your time and happy new year!