She who has the most fun — won! I loved that expression when I first heard it by my mentor and friend Sally Edwards, the originator of fun and fitness in women’s triathlon. She probably never intended for me to take it quite so literally, but I can’t help it. If you can’t have fun with sports why do it? In fact, being a competitor, I want to get on the podium in fun. I bought my first roll of fun tickets when I attempted to qualify for the ITU Sprint World Championships in Chicago on September 2015.
To qualify, I needed to go to Milwaukee in 2014 for Sprint Nationals. I hoped to race fast enough to be one of the top 25 in my 60-64 age group. I trained hard, but finished in 27th place — two spots short of the 25 needed to qualify for the ITU World Championships. Sitting second on the waitlist caused me daily angst. I scoured my emails, checked texts and resurrected my answering machine in hopes of an invite. More than a year later, and just six weeks before the big event, my number finally came up. I was officially invited to play with Team USA.
With just six weeks to train, I mapped out my simple “sprint express” training plan: Speed over endurance, recruit playmates and, above all, don’t get injured. For running, I announced I would be doing six weeks of “Tuesdays at the Track.” To my delight, several friends signed on to support me. Running at the track makes you feel like a “big dog.” The dozens of high schoolers and maintenance workers cheering from the infield at dawn sure lifts the middle-aged ego factor as well. We were five committed friends sharing the same Eau de Sweat perfume, grunting and grasping for air on every classic quarter. And, of course, we had to hit Starbucks following the workout to debrief every lap.
I recruited my husband to workout with me at the pool. I hoped to draft off some strong swimmers when I reached Lake Michigan. Paul’s 6-foot frame, immense shoulders and powerful kick provides a huge wake when he swims. This offered me the perfect opportunity to practice drafting in his bubbles. Our sets began with me in the lead, and then he would catch me. I’d tuck into his bubbles until the next lap. Over and over we practiced. I look back at those workouts knowing my fun ticket was a bargain for all I received in return.
For biking, I found a willing training partner in a seasoned triathlete-turned-century-rider. Together we were able to bike up and down the Valley. We agreed on the less is more philosophy using high intensity intervals to push ourselves. She garnered my next fun ticket when she turned me on to a shared plate of fries as recovery food. I doubt I’ll ever revert to post-workout bananas again.
With training progressing nicely, my next amusement was securing my Team USA parade and racing uniform from USA Triathlon. When it arrived in the mail, I tried it on, ran Rocky-style up the stairs, took one look in the mirror and hooted like an owl. This was cool! My name was emblazoned on the front and on the back. And a matching stars and stripes jacket to boot. Could I just keep the uniform and skip the race? Not a chance.
A week before Chicago, members of my Roaring Fork Women’s Triathlon Team threw me a “Worlds” party complete with world balloons, world stress balls, world lollipops, chocolate starfish, silly center pieces and Frank Sinatra singing, “This is my kind of town … Chicago is …” If there was a fun raffle that evening, I surely had the winning ticket.
With race week at hand, I packed my bags, sent my bike to Chicago via Raceday Transport, and embraced the taper week. My most important goal was already met. I was healthy, happy and not injured. Now I just had to play ball … or triathlon.
The ITU World Triathlon Grand Final was like nothing I had ever experienced. There were more than 50 countries in attendance and nearly 6,000 athletes. I am not a stranger to Chicago, having grown up in the suburbs. But the logistics involved in this race were staggering. We would get Facebook updates hourly on the weather, changing start times, registration changes, and even last minute course changes. The Parade of Nations was one day. Packet pick-up another. Bike racking was the next day. Gear drop off was yet another. And each at different venues. One moment you could not wear a wetsuit … the next you could. One moment you could not use disc wheels … the next you could. Another moment, tornado warnings caused the expo to be shut down and everyone sent home.
I made list after list. I used up an entire spiral notebook to keep myself organized. My mind was boggled. My anxiety started to rise along with the temperature. When I found out my start time was noon and the temperature was expected to be 85 with 60 percent humidity, I considered jumping onto one of the Chicago Tour busses for an architecture tour instead of a triathlon. I decided I needed another mantra. “She who controls her nerves … deserves!”
I slept in on race morning in an attempt to shorten the hours before my start. At my designated “gear drop” time I schlepped back to the transition area to layout my racing gear. No towels allowed. No rack markers whatsoever. No bags. None of my creature comforts from home. I arranged my bare necessities and trekked nervously back to the hotel where unbeknownst to me another fun ticket waited.
I knocked on my hotel door and found the deadbolt fixed. Hmm. Knock again. “Hello Paul, I’m back!” Knock again. Hmm. Suddenly, the door opened wide and my mouth fell open. Like an apparition, there was Marco, my youngest son, fresh off the plane to watch me compete. I love a great surprise and was astounded they could actually pull this one off!
Yet, I still had to race. So after several more hours of distraction, Marco, Paul, my sister Katie and I marched to the race start. Picture the beautiful Chicago skyline, iconic Buckingham Fountain, mile after mile of Lake Michigan beachfront and you can visualize my race course. It couldn’t have been more spectacular. It was race time.
Finally, over 50 women, 60-64 year olds, gray haired and red capped, from around the world, lined up in our corral. By this time it was 80 degrees and sunny. The sweat was already dripping like buckets down the inside of my wetsuit when they signaled us to jump into 64-degree Lake Michigan. Before we even had a minute to adjust our goggles the gun went off.
I took off at a good pace but I could not see any marker buoys. With the choppy waves, arms churning and my aging eyesight, I simply could not see my way. Before I got too far off course it was over, but not before the next men’s wave caught and left me in their wake.
The transition was almost a quarter mile away and I ran barefoot as fast as I could underneath Lake Shore Drive. We were not allowed to take off our wetsuit until we got to our bikes. The heat kicked in immediately, giving me a new respect for firefighters.
Chemosabee, my pink princess bike, was waiting in her stall ready to bolt. The bike course, three laps around Columbus Avenue, made for great spectator viewing, but also tremendous bike congestion. My Colorado fan club yelled and waived the Colorado Flag every time I went by. Thank goodness they were there because I lost count and had to call out “Is this my last lap?” To which they shouted back, “Affirmative!”
I racked my bike, grabbed my visor and took off. But within the first mile I could see my heart rate rising and perspiration flooding my eyes. I took a walk break. Then another. Each time I began running, a wave of hot coals passed through my body. I walked again. The heat was shimmering off the city pavement. I was literally melting down on the run. I recognized what was happening. One of my anecdotal theories is that ever since breast cancer and 16 rounds of chemotherapy, my body does not adjust well to the heat. It’s happened before. And it was happening again.
At the first aid station, I did a double car wash, two cups on my head, two on my back, and two down my throat. That cooled me off enough to get to the next aid station. Yet I could not get a rhythm. I could not get my heart rate below the redline. I knew I was giving up any sense of eye of the tiger when a “62” on her leg passed me and I had no competitive desire to stay with her.
So, as I have done in the past, I reluctantly re-adjusted my attitude. I looked at everyone else on the course and let them inspire me. We were all in the same boat and yet they were still going. I told myself this is just the last leg of a wonderful weekend and I just needed to keep moving. I told myself I have nothing more to prove. I was here. Smell the road … I mean roses. I told myself to finish this race for all the folks who never got a chance to start and for all the folks who ever thought of quitting. And before I knew it, Buckingham Fountain was before me. I timed my walk breaks so I could run in and smile for the camera. Finished!
This would usually be a ta-da moment for me. So I was surprised when I found it difficult to revel in my accomplishment. I found myself spiraling into thoughts of self-criticism. I was mad at myself for blowing up on the run. I was frustrated that I couldn’t swim a straight line. I was embarrassed that I lost count of my bike laps. I wondered if I could have tried harder. The days following the race continued to test my mental skill training. And I should know better, I’m a coach after all. “Stop it. Boss it back. Snap out of it.”
And so in time I did. I had to remind myself why I went to Worlds in the first place. I didn’t go to qualify for the Olympics. I didn’t go to get on the cover of Triathlete Magazine. I knew I was a minnow in a big pond. I went because I wanted to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I wanted to enjoy it. Life is too short to make our sport stressful. Most of us have enough of that in our lives already.
I’ve stayed in this sport for 30 years because I have kept it in balance. In triathlon, just like life, you have good days and bad days. And like life, the bad days help you embrace the good days even more.
And when I reviewed my Worlds race, it really wasn’t bad at all. I loved the excitement, the cheering, the healthy fatigue and the sense of empowerment at the finish line. I loved the pre-gaming of goal planning, sunrise workouts with friends, local benchmark races, burgers and beer, latte rewards, shopping, surprises, uniforms, traveling, sightseeing, Facebooking and the exhilarating Rocky Mountain high of training in my own backyard paradise.
I reminded myself of the fun tickets I had punched all along the way to the World Championships. I wanted to get on the podium in fun … and in my book I won.
Nancy Reinisch, LCSW, 62, is a psychotherapist, USA Triathlon Coach of the Roaring Fork Women’s Tri Team, and author of “Chemosabee, A Triathlete’s Journey Through the First Year of Breast Cancer.” She lives in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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