Early morning stillness on Lake Michigan last Sunday before the 2014 North Shore Triathlon.
Saturday night I sat in a hot salty bath with nerves in my tummy over an email I’d just received from one of my swim team friends.
I went to the pre race meeting this afternoon. They said that depending on the water temp and waves tomorrow morning we may not be swimming. Instead we will do a 1.5 mi run in place of the swim if it is called off. Just wanted to give you a heads up. See you tomorrow. I will be there by 5:30-6.
Is this some kind of cruel joke? I don’t run. I signed up to swim the first leg of a triathlon relay—not run. Running hurts my shins, like, a lot. I have a recurring nightmare in which I try to run and I can’t. In dreams and on earth, I’m not that good at running. And I don’t like doing things I’m not good at. (I know, get over yourself, Emily.)
So I did what I always do when I’m anxious—made myself busy. Packing my bag, returning texts and emails, filling water bottles, digging out a sports bra, doing dishes, searching for my very old running shoes…
And then I noticed my shoulders felt a little sore from a dryland workout two nights before, so I filled my tub with the hottest water I could stand, poured cup after cup of Epsom salts and a few drops of Eucalyptus oil into it, lit a candle and sunk beneath the surface for a good 30 minutes.
I do a lot of my processing submerged in hot water in darkened bathrooms. And, in this particular session, I had an actual chat with my body:
“Hey, legs. Thanks for being there. So… you may end up having to run tomorrow. I know we’ve been planning to swim in some really cold water—and thanks for being ready for that—but I just want to give you a heads up that the water might be too cold, and we might be running instead. Did you hear that, knees? I know you’re not really used to running, so how do you feel about this? I don’t want to do anything you don’t feel like you can do, so let me ask you, legs, knees, hips and body, are you cool with a 1.5-mile run?”
Then it happened. My body talked back. Like an instant message in my brain:
“Girl, look at us,” my legs said. “Of course we are cool with a 1.5-mile run. We can do that. You can do that. We’ll have fun together.”
“Wow, legs! Thanks!” I replied. “I promise to take reeeally good care of you all day afterward, regardless of whether we swim or run. Thank you so much for being up for anything, body. I’m so grateful to you.”
I woke at 4:45 a.m. and, in my walk to Betsy’s house, saw a woman in a peach party dress closing the car door while her nicely dressed male companion puked in the gutter. I love a late night, but I was surprised to discover I was much happier being on the early riser end this morning.
Amanda, Betsy and I huddle up in the wee, chilly hours.
We drove in darkness to Wilmette, where we learned the swim was still on, so I pulled up my wetsuit and tried to wait till the last minute possible to remove my shoes. On the beach, the sand was extra cold. I overheard that the water was 52 degrees, just one degree over the cutoff for a swim cancellation. Crowds were gathering—600 people, to be exact. Almost everyone was smiling, or laughing, about what they were about to do. I was excited. And nervous. All the women looked so fit, so strong, so young. What if I couldn’t hang with them?
Swimmers begin gathering on the beach before the North Shore Triathlon, in which nearly 600 athletes competed last Sunday.
I watched four waves of male swimmers enter Lake Michigan before me and no one shrieked in pain or turned back from the chill. Then my wave was called. I waded in, water seeped through my wetsuit. I lost my breath, and then it felt invigorating as I bobbed among the others. “So do we just swim right this way, following the buoys all the way down?” I asked to no one in particular, probably super annoying, but I’m a double-checker from way back.
“You can swim wherever you want,” sassed an agro young thing who’d pushed her way to the front like she owned the race. Ok, Sassy Agro Chick, I thought.
The starter megaphoned “go!” and we took off. I resisted the urge to grab her foot and yank her back at the sound of the start. Turns out Sassy Agro Chick was hella fast. So I made sure to draft off of her. I got kicked or elbowed a couple times by bodies in the crowd at the start, but about 100 yards in, Sassy Agro Chick and I had broken away from the others.
Six, maybe seven strokes in, I started questioning my decision. The 52-degree water rushing over my head, in my ears, in my mouth, around my face…it was all so much worse than even the coldest June morning at Ad Astra. But I can’t let Sassy Agro Chick get too far ahead of me, I thought. Body, let’s do this!
We did it! And now my body and I are going to start training for all three legs next summer.
One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. I put my face down and plodded forth, counting strokes to try to stay focused. Occasionally, I popped my head up to see where I was—and to make sure I still drafting off Sassy Agro Chick. Soon we were mingling with the men who’d started two minutes before us and I eventually fell off her trail in the crowd. My arms were in shock. The cold was all-consuming. My shoulders could barely rotate. I felt as though I was clawing at the water in an eccentric dog paddle. I kicked harder, relying on my legs to move me along. A couple times, I paused for a breaststroke break, saying aloud, “This is absolutely crazy. What am I doing?”
Each time, my body talked back, “We’re doing a race. So, c’mon. Get your head back down and let’s race.”
The whole thing is a real-deal blur. It was only 500 yards, and what ultimately took me 6 minutes, 44 seconds is an icy haze. I rounded the last buoy, swam till it was shallow enough to walk, immediately yanked off my cap and goggles and started running up the beach, catching sight of my family on the way. Both boys and Brian had just arrived at the sidelines and were intently searching the crowds for me. I heard Brian say, “Boys, keep an eye out for Mommy.”
“Heeeeey!!! You’re here! Hi, guys!” I called joyfully as I jogged toward them (you’ve seen Baywatch, right? Totally what I looked like.) Charlie’s eyes lit up, Kip’s face cracked into a huge smile and Brian looked excited, and relieved, that he hadn’t missed me.
I emerged from the cold water to cheering, kisses and nuzzles on dry land.
“Goooo, Mommy! Go, Mommy!” Charlie and Kip cheered as I passed them. Seeing their animated faces gave me the jolt of energy I needed to run uphill in the cold, squishy mud a quarter mile to the transition area. Once there, I clumsily ripped off my timing chip, almost falling down in the process, and handed it over to Betsy for the bike leg. She took off quick and my boys soon joined me, covering me in nuzzles, hugs, kisses and more cheers. “Yay, Mommy!” they said. “You look so strong, Mommy. Did you swim fast, Mommy?”
The fam loves on me after my race leg. Sharing the post-race glow with my kids was the best feeling ever.
Turns out I swam fast enough to place third overall for women in the swim, which was exceedingly gratifying for this old bird, even if Sassy Agro Chick did beat me. And then Betsy rocked a stellar bike leg, followed by Amanda’s mind-blowingly fast 22-minute 5K. As relays go, we placed second, beating out a team of 20-something guys and ceding victory to a charming trio of men, one of whom looked startlingly like Bill Compton (any True Blood fans out there?), so I was ok with it.
Standing around by the finish line eating bananas, drinking coffee, chatting with new acquaintances and old friends was dreamy. I got to watch a couple of my favorite swimpals, Joe and Toussaint, cross the finish line for the full triathlon, a scene that brought me so much joy I’m going to start training for one myself. They absolutely rocked their races and it filled me up to watch them doing their thing.
Toussaint and Joe, my masters team swimpals, flank me at the finish line after they nail their triathlons.
All day, I found myself straight-up reveling in what my body and I had just done together. It was a breakthrough day for us. Like any relationship, we have our ups and downs, but my body and me, well, I think we’re starting to find our groove.
Instead of fixating on my various body neuroses, including the stretch marks my sons proudly tell me they created, my interior monologue was saying, “Right on, Bod. You are so amazing.”
To which my body replied, through happy tears, “Thank you so much for finally noticing.”
This is minutes before my body and I put our wetsuit to the test in 52-degree water. And, in case anyone’s wondering, hell yes, I was wearing lip gloss.