A triathlon starts with a swim, they say, to lessen the likelihood of fatigue-induced drowning. Photographs of the Northern California race location did not imply risk: tropical fish gliding through clear, serene waters under a cloudless sky. But race day dawns in a chilly mist. Kayakers bob on four-foot swells around the course perimeter; the rescue boat hunched in the middle of the course has already plucked two seasick swimmers out of the gunmetal sea.
Wetsuited and lilac-capped, my goggles already fogging, I approach the first buoy. 100 of us swim in each group, clustered by age and gender, identically costumed. From above we might look like a dragon from a Chinese New Year parade, the long, sprawling tail decorated with purple rubber balls. As we navigate the triangular course, we choke on fifty-eight degree seawater, arms tangled in noodles of brown kelp, turning our heads for breath after breath. We kick each other with numbed feet, knocking bodies as we scrabble for a good position.
Why do endurance sports appeal to anyone, let alone those of us with young children? We are busy and exhausted. In many cases we have households to run, careers to pursue. No time, no energy.
We run for our sanity. As parents, our independent adult selves exist as a state of being that we gather up like water drops on a washcloth, squeezing them into a mason jar for later use. Exercise gives us escape, mental clarity, a greater capacity for patience, all in one endorphin burst. Post-workout, we feel more equipped for our roles as art director, short-order cook, hygiene supervisor, naptime enforcer.
For me, exercise affirms my status as a Healthy Person. This was not always so. When I was 28, doctors discovered a benign tumor on the outside of my intestine. Five years later, the tumor came back, and another invasive surgery resulted in a permanent colostomy. I spent my recovery learning to use my newly configured intestines. A walk around the block took all of my energy. But then I got better. I tried out some races. I like the feeling I get when I’m training, gratitude for my body’s resilience.
Around the time that I was contemplating my first Olympic-distance triathlon, my friend Beth developed a brain tumor, her second in five years. She underwent surgery, and then began a long regimen of chemotherapy. For both of our illnesses, Beth and I traded roles of caregiver, sitting at the foot of each other’s hospital beds, making meals, accompanying each other on walks. This time, I could do a race in her honor. I learned about Team in Training, where I would raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In turn, they’d provide me with the training I needed to complete the race. I would need a lot of help. Even though I’d done two sprint-distance triathlons, I was far from an expert.
Triathlons are not a team sport. But training with a group held me accountable. Rain or shine, a group of people waited for me to show up early Saturday mornings for a bike ride or a run. I began to look forward to Monday evening swim practices, the churn of water, the chlorine up my nose, our voices echoing off the concrete as we conferred with each other between laps.
“Did you know your arms are crossing in front of each other in your freestyle stroke?” My coach asked me. I did not. “Imagine you’re paddling a surfboard,” he told me. “Make a vee.” I liked having someone tell me what to do. I enjoyed swimming as fast as I could, until exhaustion crowded out other thoughts and emotions. After I showered and dressed, I would go back out to the pool deck to use the bathing suit dryer. I’d look across the darkened room to the water, now a piece of glass, hardly believing it had been a chaos of waves and limbs just moments before.
Always a solitary exerciser, I looked forward to the chance to form friendships in an athletic forum for the first time in my life. I imagined running in groups of two or three, then meeting up to exercise long after the race was over. But I was one of the oldest members of the group, and I the slowest, always dead last on group rides and runs. On the walk back to the parking lot after practice, people would talk about their time goals, their plans to break their records from previous events.
“I just want to do the whole race,” I told everyone. “I don’t care about my time.” But it was a lie. I worried about being the last person to cross the finish line. In fact, during my training, I became obsessed with time: my infant daughter’s eating schedule, my two-year-old son’s nap schedule, and whether or not I could sandwich exercise between it all. The hours I spent training and sleeping (not enough) and those I spent folding laundry, doing dishes, cleaning spit-up off my clothes (way too many). The time it would take me to complete the race, from the moment the starting gun went off until I crossed the finish line. The clock I forgot to watch was Beth’s, which was running out faster than any of us could have predicted.
Race day marks 11 weeks and 3 days since Beth died. By now I’m used to the sound of her voice in my ears, our conversations coaxing me up hills on my bicycle, pushing me to keep running down the trail. Now, as I’m swimming, I hear Beth saying Keep going. Think of the giant sandwich you can eat afterwards. In my head, her words emerge as those of a sarcastic cheerleader rather than a coach. I smile underwater and, as I round the second race buoy, my shoulders relax. Every third or fourth stroke I hit a patch of kelp; I yank on its rubbery edges and swim through it. A quarter-mile from the beach, I accelerate and begin passing other swimmers. It’s a rare experience for me to pass anyone doing any kind of activity, in a race or otherwise.
When my hands hit the sand I stand and jog toward the beach, barely outrunning an oncoming wave. The cheering crowd and the music blaring through the loudspeaker disorient me. I speed-walk up the hill to the transition area, my legs wobbling. The swim, my strongest leg, is over. Time to peel off my wetsuit, clip on my bike helmet, lace up my shoes. I find my gear, laid out neatly on a towel next to my bike whose rear tire dangles on the rack. Behind me, a digital clock ticks away the hours, minutes, seconds in giant lime-green numerals. Hurry up, it seems to be saying. You’re running out of time.
At the registration table the day before the triathlon, my heart sank when I learned that I would be in the last swim wave, with a 9:30 start time. Each section of the race closed at a certain time so that the elite athletes, slated to go last, could compete on a relatively empty course. I was concerned about the bike closure, listed as 12:00. Even if I had the fastest ride of my life, I’d never make it. A race volunteer tried to reassure me.
“As long as you’re on the course by the closure time,” she said, “you’ll be fine.”
Now, I’m on my third bike lap of four. I take sips of lime-flavored electrolyte drink to get rid of the salt water taste in my mouth. Tiny needles of rain peck at my cheeks. One hundred feet away, waves crash against craggy black rocks, kicking up the stench of salt and fish. I pass the Beachcomber Inn, its billboard announcing “Best Summer Rates” through the veil of fog.
I’m full of confidence, fueled by adrenaline and the encouraging words from a woman who passed me on the last hill.
“Keep thinking about that woman on your back that you’re riding for,” she said, referring to the photograph of Beth I have pinned to my water pack. “You’re almost there.” As other Team in Training folks ride past, we call out words of encouragement as we pass each other. I feel, for the first time today, for the first time ever, maybe, like a competitor. A cyclist. I don’t even mind the rain. Better than being too hot I think as I take another sip of sports drink.
“Kill it, Janet!” a woman from my group yells as she pedals past.
“Go go go!” I yell back. I look at my watch. 11:53. Plenty of time. I approach the turnaround for my last lap, and the yelling crowd.
And that’s when it happens.
I see a black mesh barricade in front of me; on the other side, the mat I need to tag with my bike tires, the stretch of road ahead. I think of the craggy rocks, more visible with each lap as the fog retreats, the Beachcomber Inn at the top of the final hill, far in the distance. I’m supposed to pass these things one more time, finish my protein bar, drain my water pack.
“Break the race up into segments,” a teammate suggested. “Just focus on each section of the race as you’re doing it.” I’ve been trying to do that, to remember all of the race wisdom, not worry about my pace, the course closure, or the clock. And now my forward progress is grinding to a halt. Another interruption, just like my surgeries, Beth’s death. Everything, it seems, happens to me out of order, and not at all how I’ve planned it. The barricade stretches across the road like a boulder plunked in the middle of the river I’ve been paddling down.
“I have one more lap to do,” I yell to one of the volunteers as she waves her arms at me.
“You won’t have time,” she yells back, pointing toward the course exit. I dismount onto rubbery legs. The elite race started only twenty-five minutes before, but already the leader is retrieving his bike from a set of racks placed outside the transition area for the professionals. Normally the elite racers go in the first wave of a triathlon, getting up before dawn and using the main transition area just like everyone else. This race was apparently a deluxe deal: sleep late, get your own special bike rack, and have the course all to yourselves. Only they didn’t. Plenty of people are still completing their last lap as the elites start theirs. I feel singled out for discrimination. But there’s no arguing, or doing over. My only choice is to move forward through the rest of the race. I weave my way through the crowd to the opening in the fence marked RUN START, fighting off tears. Time to run.
“Are you on your second lap or your third?” A woman asks as she runs past me, her blonde hair tucked in a still-tidy ponytail.
“My first,” I say through gritted teeth. I add her to my list of People I Hate Right Now, immediately below the race director, the elite athletes, and all of the people I asked about the course closure who told me not to worry. I think of the time I’ve spent – a year – preparing for this day. All for nothing. Surrounded by thousands of people, I feel a surge of loneliness. My only companionship since my feet hit the water hours ago has been the imaginary conversation I’ve carried on with Beth.
Race volunteers stand every half mile with Dixie cups of water and Powerade. I’ve just passed the fourth water stop when I feel someone’s hand clamp down on my shoulder, pushing me forward. I turn and see a man who, his attention on his own water-grab, did not see me.
“Sorry,” he calls behind him, already past me. He wears a pro-athlete unitard. It’s one of the elite competitors, the one who will go on to win the entire race. I got off the bike course for him, and now he’s trying to run me over.
Remember goal number three, “enjoy yourself?” I say in my head, pep-talk style. You’re failing. I try looking on the bright side. My legs don’t ache as much after nineteen miles of riding as they would if I’d done the full twenty-five. I won’t be the last person to cross the finish line. I think of all I have done, and try to be proud of my accomplishments. But the pride feels forced, the victory hollow. I came here to do the whole distance, just like everyone else. Beth is dead. Can’t I complete this fucking race?
We run on a concrete boardwalk lined with tourist shops and restaurants. The road above is filled with people ambling by, unhurried, as though no race is taking place. I turn toward the ocean, trying to focus. I think about how calm I felt swimming, despite the chaos, the waves, the kelp, the cold.
I make a decision, and my mind settles. I accelerate, and think of the running advice from my training coach for the first time all day. For those last yards, my feet strike the pavement mid-arch, my stride quick as though I’m running on hot lava. I cross the finish line. Racers are eating, taking photographs, laughing, celebrating. I weave my way through the crowd back to my bike. I clip my helmet strap around my chin, walk my bike onto the race course, and climb back on.
I ask a race official for permission to ride my final six miles. She tells me to wait until the road clears of everyone else: racers, officials, onlookers armed with cowbells and party horns.
“Remove your race number from your bike and helmet,” she says. “Cover up the Team in Training logo on your shirt.” She doesn’t want me to cause alarm to anyone seeing me still riding my bike. I can’t be mistaken for a racer. I should look like someone out for a leisurely afternoon ride. I leave my water pack with Beth’s picture in the transition area, next to my wetsuit and running hat. Water bottles and half-empty gel packs form a breadcrumb trail across the damp grass. I zip my jacket up over my race jersey, and tuck my finisher’s medal in my pocket. And then I started pedaling.
The final lap turns out to be my favorite. I thought it would feel like a consolation prize, this post-race ride. Instead, it feels like a victory lap. It’s my own private triathlon now, and for the first time all day I enjoy the feeling of solitude. The lump in my throat dissolves. Through the retreating mist I see cormorants and gulls bobbing on the water. Underneath them I can picture seals swimming, their sleek bodies following a northward path parallel to my own on the other side of the outcropping of rocks.
The miles pass as my focus shifts from pedaling to what I will order from room service when I get back to the hotel to imagining my kids’ faces when they greet me at the airport the next afternoon. And I always circle back to Beth. For that brief moment of my solo ride, I think of her -- gone -- without a feeling of sadness, a weight on my chest. She wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I completed the race in my own way. She would be proud.
Look at you, she would say. You’re a triathlete.