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.