Taking Leaps: Triathlon on 6 Days Notice

By Greg Forbes Siegman | Jan. 21, 2013, 10:46 a.m. (ET)
In November 2012, while in Florida for work, I learned of a local sprint triathlon taking place on Thanksgiving. Despite having just six days to prepare, I registered for the race. The short notice was one of several obstacles in my path. In 2009, I was injured in a fluke accident and had surgery on my spine. I also have had four operations on my feet. 

gregWhen USA Triathlon asked me to reflect on my recent triathlon experience, I thought about which part of the process I would discuss. Rather than focus on my injury, the road to recovery, or even the race itself, I decided to write primarily about a different chapter: two triathletes I met along the way, how I met them and how they impacted my experience.

After I signed up for the 2012 Turkey Triathlon, my first task was to make a list of things I wanted to obtain in advance of the big day. Since I was hundreds of miles from home, I needed, well, everything. Bike, helmet, wetsuit, goggles, water bottle, Cheerios, Clif Bars, you name it.

I quickly discovered there was a seemingly straightforward item on the list which might prove to be the most elusive. I needed a ride to and from the race. On just a few days notice, in a city far from home, it can be hard to find someone, with a bike rack on their car, willing to pick you up before sunrise, on Thanksgiving, commute 30 minutes, wait a couple hours, and then drive you back.

As I mulled my options, I decided my best chance to hitch a ride rested with the other people registered for the race. After all, they would be heading to the same location at the same time. If I contacted enough of them, maybe I could get a lift.

It only took one call.

When I reached Jordi by phone, introduced myself and explained my predicament, she offered to assist. And she wasn’t just referring to transportation. She also helped me get a trisuit and some of the other items on my list, shared tips on nutrition and sent messages of encouragement.

With Jordi leading the way, the week was a whirlwind of fun and anticipation. But on the morning of the triathlon, as a chip was attached to my ankle, the reality of this physical challenge hit home. With just a few days to line up the items I needed to compete, I’d spent little time contemplating the actual race. As an official scrawled numbers across my shoulder and calf, my mind took off on a race of its own.

Yes, I did a sprint triathlon before — but that was four years and one spinal surgery ago. Should I really do this? Yes, I was back in the gym now, but I signed up for this six days ago. Could I really do this?

Twenty minutes before wading into the water for the first leg, I wondered whether my leg would last. I became so distracted by doubt that I could not even put my goggles on correctly.

By comparison, the man positioned next to me in the transition area seemed calm, focused and efficient — situating his bike, shoes and other gear in just the right way.

When Dan saw the difficulty I was having, he stopped what he was doing and lent me a hand — even though we were strangers, even though I’m his age (and therefore, in theory, his competition) and even though he only had another minute or two to finish his own preparations.

As for the triathlon itself, I know I finished somewhere near the back of the pack, but I forget exactly where I ranked — and I don’t really care. I do recall I felt the ground beneath my feet as I crossed the finish line, a sensation I no longer take for granted. I also remember the spectator who found out I had no family in attendance and cheered for me as enthusiastically as he rooted on his own son.

When the race was over, Dan and I exchanged congratulations and contact information. My new friend and I met up for a celebratory meal a day later. Jordi and I shared one, too.

While their acts of kindness before and after the race meant a lot to me, I was not surprised by them. What they did is simply what most experienced triathletes do. They welcome. They support. They guide. They encourage others who are daring to join them. They respect others who are taking leaps alongside them. And in the end, I think that is what makes the experience so meaningful for those of us who are competing for the first or second time.

No matter how satisfying the feeling when we cross the finish line, the triathlon is ultimately not about the destination we reach. It is not just about the journey we take as individuals to get there, either. It is also about the people we are privileged to meet in the process. Long after sweat dries, long after pain subsides, long after we lose track of medals, those bonds are what endure.

Greg Forbes Siegman is co-author of "The Silhouette Man." He can be reached through the contact Ppage at gregforbes.com.

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