Just Keep Going : The Aquaphor New York City Triathlon

I need to get one thing clear right off the bat. I didn’t “crush” or “kill” the Aquaphor New York City Triathlon, but what I did do was finish and I have never been prouder of anything in my entire life.

On Sunday morning, when my alarm went off at 3 am, I woke up feeling calm and ready that it was finally time for the big day. I felt just glad that it was actually time to do the race. I made my protein shake, drank some coffee and checked my bag one last time. The fella got up a few minutes later and by 3:50, we were in a car heading to the transition area. I had decided to spring for a car service since getting from Brooklyn to the UWS takes at least an hour –on a good day- and I thought being stuck underground in the subway would do my nerves in! It is so weird to be getting up to GO somewhere at that time in the morning since the streets were filled with people just wrapping up their Saturday night.  As we got closer to 72nd and Riverside drive, we started to see more people with their telltale numbers on their arms in the cars around us.

By 4:30, we were heading into the park with a huge swarm of athletes to the yellow transition area where I had left my bike the day before. The fella sat on the risers outside & I headed into the athletes-only bike transition to set up my stuff for the race at the front wheel of my bike. I grabbed my wetsuit, flagged the fella down, and we slowly made our way down to the swim start.  It was so amazing to be walking with so many others that early in the morning, dark when we started but as we neared the start, the sun was starting to rise behind the platform we would soon be jumping off of.  It was beautiful and inspiring to be surrounded by so many athletes of all ages, who had all come to test themselves. I shimmed into my wetsuit as we sat on the benches watching everyone arrive. At 5:30am, my phone buzzed in my hand with the calendar reminder “NYC TRI – oh my fucking god” which really about summed it all up.

The first wave was scheduled to start at 5:50, so by 5:40, most of us had moved into our corrals by the railing and were watching the very murky river and waiting so see the pros go. There had been a storm the night before that had really churned up the sediment in the river and that morning, the river had gone from the dark green of the day before to a muddy brown, with far too many dead fish in the river for comfort. I love the group of women I was surrounded by, most of whom had done this before and were ready to get this thing started, but even the veterans around me were slightly skivved out by all of the dead fish. During the hour it took from the moment the pros launched till my wave made it into the water, I heard for the first time the phrase that would define my day: “No matter what happens, just keep going.”

As we finally made our way down the launch ramp and stood at the pier, I was excited. I didn’t feel especially nervous, I felt strong and ready to swim hard and get out of that river as soon as humanly possible. As soon as I got in the water, I realized that the brown murk meant you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. I don’t need to see the bottom (I loved the open water swim I had done before) but a couple of inches of visibility apparently makes a world of difference. Then, I hit a dead fish with my hand and freaked. I did the sidestroke for a few minutes to calm myself down but unfortunately, after that, I couldn’t will myself to put my face back in the water no matter how hard I tried. As soon as I would feel calm and try for the crawl & sticking my face in the water, my back would spasm, arch and pop my face right back out. It would have been comical if it weren’t so annoyingly unhelpful! At every moment of the swim, we were surrounded by kayakers and people on surfboards asking us if we were ok, so I knew I wasn’t going to drown, but I also new that I had 1000m left to go so I damn well better figure out a solution. I wasn’t going to have jumped in the Hudson for nothing. My solution? I backstroked almost the whole thing. I would site something I could see on my back, go until I saw it, roll over, site again – over and over. At one point a kayaker asked me how I was doing – I told him that I knew I was the slowest person out there, but I was ok. His response? “Slow doesn’t matter. You are still moving and that is what counts. You just have to keep going.”  It wasn’t the fast solution but it worked and 27 minutes after I jumped in, I was out.

I ran part of the way between the swim exit and the bike transition but it hurt my feet so I ended up just walking there, determinedly. After spending a few (far too many really) minutes cleaning up and spraying myself with sunscreen, I hopped on my bike and was off. The first 8 miles felt great. I was ROLLING and making up time and feeling super strong. Apparently, a little too strong because midway up the final hill in Manhattan, my pedal twisted right out of the crank and fell off. For the life of me I couldn’t get it back in, I tried for 10 minutes before I was spotted by the amazing Toga bike mechanics that were zipping around the course on a moped– hollering up the hill at me “Do you need help?” – YES, please! After moving my bike and I to the middle lane to look it over, the driver who spoke English said “Ok, we don’t have the tool to fix this, but he says we can go back to his store on 79th and get it. Then, we will come back and fix it, ok?” I must have looked a little dumbfounded because he put his hand on my shoulder and said “it is that or you have about 14 miles on foot to do, I think that would take longer. We will be back. BUT this is important. YOU CAN’T move from here, any further up that hill and we can’t help you. That bridge up there is off limits to us. Ok?” I just nodded and sat down next to my flipped over bike and thanked them for helping me and offering to go so far out of their way for me. “That is why we are here! See you soon!” and they took off.

As I sat in the middle of the road, watching everyone whiz by me, the most amazing thing started to happen – hundreds of people asked me if I was ok, if I needed anything, if they could help… and all of them sincerely would have helped if they could. It was such an awe inspiring show of sportsmanship and I got pretty good at answering everyone quickly that help was coming back for me and I was ok. More often than not their response was: “Ok, once you are fixed, JUST KEEP GOING.” It took about 35-40 minutes for the mechanics to make their way back to me but I was so grateful when they got there. When I exclaimed on seeing them “OH MY GOD you came back! I LOVE you!” they just laughed.  Apparently, that isn’t the reaction they usually get during the race. Seriously though, I have never been more grateful and shocked to see someone. I didn’t really believe they would make it back. The mechanic got my pedal back on quickly and put some more air in my tire because it felt a little flat and pushed me off on my way. Five feet later my tire exploded. “SERIOUSLY??” and I just had to start laughing – I walked my bike back to the guys who were just staring at me trying not to laugh too. He whipped though changing my flat and a minute later I was off again, this time with a slightly less full tire! The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that I must have hit my derailleur when my pedal came off because from that moment on, my bike didn’t really want to stay in any mid-range gear, so for the rest of the ride I was a little over or under where I wanted to be. But I was moving, and if I had learned anything during that almost hour of downtime, it was that to keep moving is all I really wanted.  By that point, I was one of the few women left on the road. The guys who would pass me as I occasionally struggled up a hill when my gear would slip again, would yell: “Just keep going, you are doing good!” When I finally made it to the last mile of the ride with the awesome volunteers shouting out encouragement and directions, I was so proud of the fact that I had just kept going. I might have been one of the last back to the yellow transition, but I had made it. I stashed my bike in it’s spot and took off as quickly as possible. As I came out of transition there was a wall of volunteers, since the red transition was in full gear by that point and came through in the same direction. I was handed a cup of water  -which I slugged – then a stick with a big glob of Aquaphor with the instructions “don’t eat it! rub it!” – and I happily slathered it on under the leg seam of my bike shorts, which was starting to rub hard into my thighs. I had meant to do that in transition, but had forgotten in my desperate desire to keep moving. Once again that day, the race had taken care of me.

By the time I made it out onto the run course, my legs felt like lead, my back hurt and it was blazing hot. 6 miles sounded daunting but I tried to think about it in short stages. One mile to the park… and during that first mile, as I was slowly plugging along, the fella popped out of the crowd and into the middle of the street snapping pictures. I was so happy to see him, but also really confused as to why he wasn’t getting yelled at by the police. I told him about my bike drama and then was like “ok, bye” and ran off. Because really, you just have to keep moving. The next 4 miles consisted of me trying to keep going and talking to myself about needing to keep moving. It was so hot and there weren’t a lot of water stations, so at each one, I drank one electrolyte drink fast, then took two cups of water, walking and drinking them, then running again. The run was filled with such support and encouragement from the kick-ass amazing volunteers who would shout awesome supportive stuff at us as we passed – unlike some of the random Central Park runners who occasionally would shout at you to “pick up the pace! Don’t start slacking now!” Seriously, people. NOT ok. I really had to talk myself out of hitting people who said that stuff. Thankfully, those people were few and far between.

That last mile seemed the longest as I ran but as the volunteers began shouting at me how little was left to go, I got so amazed that I had almost made it to the end. As I approached the line, there was the fella, smack dab behind it and beaming. I think he was almost as proud of me as I was for crossing that line. First words out of his mouth: “Holy shit, you did it! You are a Triathlete!!!”

Turns out my actual time was 4:32 – when I went into the race I wanted a “good time”, by the end, I wanted nothing more than to finish. When I was on that bike course, actually finishing felt like it was slipping through my fingers but everyone was right, you just had to keep going. In some ways, I am glad it wasn’t a smooth race, because then I wouldn’t have gotten to experience the generous sportsmanship of my fellow Triathletes or seen firsthand how dedicated all of the volunteers of the NYC Triathlon are – or maybe most importantly, realized that I really can persevere when a race gets hard. One of my favorite sayings is “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful”.  My race was just that, not perfect but wonderful. When I finally crossed the line, I have never been prouder of any single thing in my life. It was a hard, challenging test but I did it and I really AM a Triathlete. I never thought I would be able to say that but it is truly AMAZING.  Every morning, I touch my finisher’s medal and remind myself that it wasn’t a dream.

All photos by Eric C Stafford.

Finding Comfort in a Wetsuit : Preparing for the NYC Triathlon

It is amazing how complicated getting ready for the swim leg of the Aquaphor NYC Triathlon seems because really, I have nothing to base it on. It has been my biggest worry and easily the thing that has caused me the most concern, even with all of the veteran’s advice about how it really isn’t so bad. Once I had the distance down in the pool, it was really the getting in the Hudson River portion that was my final stumbling block.

If you are going to jump in the Hudson River – on purpose – really, a wetsuit is necessary, even if it isn’t required. I haven’t ever worn a wetsuit so when I was originally looking for one, I was looking at the sleeveless versions, thinking that I would want the shoulder movement but was set straight by one of the NYCTri vets whose brains I have picked.  Her advice: “SLEEVES. Seriously. You want sleeves.  It is the Hudson after all, the more coverage the better.” After looking at all of the local shops, I ended up finding a great deal online at Wetsuitoutlet.com – which has deals on really nice suits & an awesome return policy if you end up hating the suit. For the week it took to arrive, I spent most of my time yelling at the fella “Where is my SUPER suit?!”.   Thankfully, he fully got The Incredibles reference and didn’t think I had just completely lost my marbles. When it finally arrived, I was excited and so glad it actually fit! Seriously though, I LOVE it and it really does make me feel like a super hero.  I kind of want to wear it all the time…

The first time I looked at JackRabbit’s class schedule, all of their swim sections were sold out, but when their June newsletter came out a week later, they had added a few extra open water workshops & I immediately signed up for one of them. I chose the final one they would be holding before the race, wanting to have time to get my distance up before I actually went out into the open water. Sunday, I finally got out into the open water and practiced in my wetsuit for the first time.

The workshop, which was held in Brighton Beach, was a 1.5-2 hour clinic described as an introduction for people with limited experience in “basic open water swim and tri race skills, including but not limited to sighting, getting into your wetsuit, drafting, dealing with waves, swimming straight, signaling for help and staying relaxed.  You will finish the class much more confident and comfortable in your ability to swim safely and continuously in the open water than when you began.” Which was exactly what I was looking for – plus, I was really excited to get to have some time with an actual Triathlon swim coach. On Friday, I got an instruction email about where to meet, with really clear, easy to follow directions for taking the subway out there, a picture of the structure we would be meeting at and the name and number of the woman who would be checking us in and watching our bags while we were out in the water. Seriously, JackRabbit won my heart with making it all so easy, comfortable and worry free because it let me focus on what I was really there for!

Our coach for the day was John Stewart, an USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach and a veteran of triathlons from sprint to iron-distance. John was awesome – funny, very knowledgeable and calm. As soon as he arrived, he launched into the topic of the day. We spent a few minutes up on the boardwalk in the shade talking and getting pointers before heading down to the beach to get into our wetsuits. Our group was slightly smaller than scheduled because 7 people who where supposed to be there called out, so there were only about 11 of us. I fully expected the class to be filled with super serious type-A’s, obsessed with improving their time, who would not be fun to spend the morning with.  It turned out that this group wasn’t like that at all. Mostly, everyone was fun and relaxed and just wanting tips on being more comfortable in the water.  We only had one super serious woman who basically worried about every single thing, beginning with even getting her suit on. Which, while listening to her on the boardwalk I thought was strange, but turns out that I have a weirdly easy suit to get on. So, while everyone else shimmied, hopped and yanked their suits on, I stood there fully dressed and starting to bake in the hot sun. I started to wonder if I was going to overheat out in the water when I was moving. Once everyone had their wetsuits on and we made it out into the water, I realized right away that wasn’t going to be an issue at all. The water was chilly and I was so glad to have the suit on – the two members of our group who had decided not to wear suits for the race looked miserable!

The first order of business was getting used to being in the suit, IN the water. Since I hadn’t ever actually had a wetsuit on in the water, the fact that water actually does get IN the suit shocked me but I felt marginally better that I wasn’t the only one surprised! As we slowly made our way out into the water until we were just treading water, I was really happy to feel just how buoyant a wetsuit makes you. It was also during this portion that I learned my favorite thing of the whole day:

“You cannot sink in a wetsuit. You can drown if you are facedown, but if you start to panic or get tired, flip on your back and you will float. In fact, given the current, you really could just float all the way there, you would eventually make it.”

We practiced floating on our backs for a little bit and while our resident panic-er freaked out and couldn’t relax into it, I found it really, really comforting. You really do just bob there in your suit with absolutely no effort at all. Have I mentioned I love my super suit??

We spent a lot of time practicing sighting drills because it isn’t something you do in a pool. In a pool, the black line at the bottom tells you if you are straight or not.  Out in open water, you need to rely on landmarks. We practiced 3 different ways of sighting – before or after you breathe and then every few strokes. Mostly, I really, really want to look at where I am going, so pretty much the ones where you looked each time worked the best for me. I don’t think I ever did manage to not try and sneak a peak in at every stroke even when we weren’t supposed to. It was also great to get you used to swimming in a pack. It was nice that it was really easy to become accustomed to – weirdly, it was actually kind of comforting to be swimming in the midst of the pack.

We swam closing our eyes to see how straight we actually swam and learned how to correct if we tended to veer one way or the other.  Although I REALLY hated this exercise, it turns out in general, I go pretty straight even without looking! Who knew? Some people tend to really veer one way or the other and one lady in our group actually swam in almost a complete circle. It was funny because as straight as I would swim, that exercise completely and utterly freaked me out. The panic-er in our group LOVED it and it calmed her down not to look, but for me, it was the complete opposite. I really want to see where the hell I am going – always. Thank you, I will be keeping my eyes open the whole time!

It was so amazing to swim in open water and it is totally different. I loved the freedom of not being in the pool  and the feeling of the water stretched out around me. It was so liberating and really, the wetsuit makes me feel like anything is possible. After almost two hours in the water, we headed back into shore. I was tired but felt so much more comfortable about the swim portion of the NYC Triathlon…

Photos by Eric C Stafford & end quote just some internet goodness.

The Only Possible Answer Was Yes: The Aquaphor Tri Team

About a month ago, I received an email that totally turned my life upside down – in the best possible way. The email was titled “Invitation: NYC Triathlon – Aquaphor Tri Team” and I gasped as I read it what it was offering me. I have wanted to do a Triathlon for YEARS – for me, it has always been that “I will really be an athlete if I can do that” thing. These days, I feel like an athlete but that thing in the back of my head has remained. To have the chance dropped in my lap to compete in one of the premiere Triathlons in the country, and one that I had completely written off because I couldn’t remotely afford the entry fee, was shockingly awesome. It honestly never occurred to me to not snap up the opportunity. I immediately wrote back to say yes.

In some ways, it is great to not have time to really freak out about it – really, because there is too much to make happen before the race that there isn’t a window of time to panic. Head down and get prepared -mostly what that has involved has been LOTS AND LOTS of swimming. It’s funny, when I was little, swimming was the one thing that I loved.  At every Navy base, there was always a large, magical place of escapism for me at the pool and I would swim laps forever, easily doing a mile a day. However, it has been years since I even had access to a pool, so the very first thing I did was figure out how to change that. To that end, I have been at the amazingly beautiful Reebok Sports Center/NY’s pool 3-4 times per week. The pool is amazing and seemingly never overrun but always filled with serious swimmers of all shape and stripe. There are a lot of people who are obviously training for the Tri too, which is inspiring to see… and has incidentally provided me with swimming tips.  I don’t think swimming is “like riding a bike”, but I have been shocked at how quickly it has come back to feeling natural. I am back up to mile swims and have loved every moment I have gotten to be back in the water. The swim was really the only part that worried me and while a mile swim in the Hudson still seems slightly scary, it no long sounds so daunting. Plus, my wetsuit has been ordered and really, how can you not feel like a superhero getting to race in one of those??

I really can’t wait for the Aquaphor New York City Triathlon and I almost can’t believe it is happening, but as everything starts to fall into place, it doesn’t just feel like a crazy dream. I am so grateful for the exciting and truly amazing opportunity to be part of something so special and when July 8th rolls around, I am going to be ready. Until then, I will be swimming as often as possible…and biking…and running….. so there may be a few weeks before I get back to lots of class reviews!

Top & bottom photos from Aquaphor New York City Triathlon’s Facebook page and the quote in the middle just a really good thing to remember.