People do crazy things when they approach their 40th birthday. So when my younger sister, Jenny, called me from Atlanta several months before her big day, I was startled by her plan. “A triathlon?” I asked, taking a deep breath before replying with, “OK, I’ll do it with you!”
I’d always thought about doing a tri. It was on The List Of Things To Accomplish In My Life. One problem—although I’ve competed in numerous running races and been biking for years, I can’t swim.
I mean, I’m allowed in the deep end. I’m good on a boogie board in the surf and I can keep my beer above the water. But swim? Without a noodle? In the deep, murky water with the fish and moccasins and alligators, oh my? The swim would be in the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of the magic kingdom, somehow that was comforting. Surely Disney doesn’t allow any moccasins in their lagoons…
I knew I would have to go public with my commitment. Once I announced my intentions, pride would keep me from backing out. So one day while lunching with my friends, like an alcoholic at her first AA meeting, I said: “My name is Debbie and in May I will swim across the Seven Seas Lagoon.”
And then an amazing thing happened.
They didn’t laugh or ask what the heck I was thinking—they climbed on board. One by one, each wanted to be a part of this challenge. For some it was a way to stick to an exercise program; others just wanted to be part of the group.
But for each of us forty-some-thing housewives and soccer moms, it meant learning something new. While none had any desire to do the whole triathlon, six of my dear friends formed two three-person relay teams. I suddenly had six training buddies, two per event, plus my sister.
We would “tri” it together.
For the next five months, our lives were defined by training schedules, proper nutrition, and getting adequate rest. Jenny and I traded training updates over the phone and by e-mail. We shared tips, not on how to swim faster or shave seconds off our run times, but on how to fit in training for three events and still get dinner on the table and stay awake through homework and bedtime stories. We each had our own personal goal for the race. Mine was to make it out of the lagoon without having to be rescued.
Our friends had similar goals. Julie and Heidi would be doing the swimming leg for their relay teams. While Heidi swam in high school, Julie, like me, had never swam before. Our first step was to figure out how many pool laps amounted to a quarter mile. Then we had our training plan—be able to swim that many laps without drowning. Julie helpfully pointed out it was equivalent to four football fields.
I had this vision of my funeral—my casket moving across the lagoon in the Illumination Parade, Donald Duck officiating as Mickey and Minnie consoled my husband and children, and the guests in honorary black swim caps.
We learned so many things about swimming, like if you go to the grocery store too soon after the goggles come off, you get a lot of funny looks. And how, in February, getting into the pool isn‘t as bad as getting out.
With Donna and Hope, I learned that the bike leg is all about equipment. One evening, Donna and I agreed to do a 20-mile ride with a local cycling group.
When I arrived at the starting point, more than a little nervous about our ability to keep up, I found Donna hiding in her car. Then I saw why—about fifteen streamlined road bikes, tires so thin you wonder how their riders could balance. The cyclists were in bright-colored jerseys, aerodynamic helmets, and fancy shoes that clipped right onto their pedals. Had the Tour de France stopped in Ocala? We were way out of our league, but the leader of the pack volunteered to stay with us if we got separated from the group. If?
We had barely removed our bikes from our cars when they took off like a flock of birds, departing suddenly in unison. We had no chance of catching up, but managed to ride about three-quarters of the distance before darkness—and sore buns—forced us off the road. Not bad for a first effort.
The run portion of our training was the easiest for me and the two running-leg participants, Laurie and Christy, as we all had been running regularly. Jenny had it a little harder on the hills in north Georgia, but the hill training would serve her well in the end.
Before long, The Big Day had arrived. As the sun emerged over the treetops, illuminating the water, it was time to take our places. We all hugged and wished each other luck. It was time to find out if it was worth it—all those winter swim sessions, painful bike rides, and early morning runs.
The swimmers made their way down to the lagoon. As we stood shoulder to shoulder in our bare feet and swim caps, we looked around at our competition, our comrades—the women who, like the eight of us, had spent the last several months pushing themselves to new limits. These women were amazing—all 1,200 of them. They didn’t look like athletes. They looked like mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and daughters. They came in every age and every size and shape you could imagine.
And when the starting gun went off, they swam. Some backstroked or sidestroked, but they swam. And we swam along with them. First thrashing and kicking through the hundreds of bodies, all fighting for room to move. Then finding the open water, and a pace, a groove.
“I am a swimmer,” I said to myself with each stroke to control my pace and my nerves. As I reached the halfway point I realized I was going to make it. Running out of the water, I checked my watch. My time was horrible, two minutes slower than I’d hoped, but I did it. I am a swimmer.
Where the swim was every-woman-for-herself, the bike segment was all teamwork. Some women sped along on racing bikes, shouting encouraging words to the slower bikers. Others wobbled along, cheering on the faster riders who passed. I had no idea where my sister or any of my friends were in the race, but hoped they were having as much fun as me.
And then we ran. But many walked. Most of the women had taken time to put on a T-shirt over their swimsuits and written across their backs were the names of who they were racing for—the names of the ones taken by breast cancer, the ones whose race was over. As each one of us ran or walked through Cinderella’s Castle and down Main Street to the finish line, we felt like princesses—and athletes.
When each woman crossed the finish line, her name and hometown were told to the crowd. Gradually, all eight of us finished and reunited. We hugged and high-fived and celebrated our collective accomplishment. We each realized that all those times we had proclaimed that we just wanted to finish, not to win, we had it wrong.
To finish was to win.