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For the past ten years or so, I usually set my sights on an annual goal; something new I haven’t experienced or something that pushes me farther along a familiar path. In this way I’ve run my first marathon, my first sub-5 hour marathon, my first trail run, my first Ultra and completed my first book. Usually, after a bit of well-earned down time, a conversation emerges: “What next?”

“Well,” my eldest said laughingly during one such talk, “Mom hates biking and can’t swim, soooo….”

Triathalon. Right.

Which is how I found myself, on a recent Sunday morning, standing knee-deep in a Minnesota lake, wearing naught but bike shorts and a sports bra, and quietly weeping.

I do not like swimming. Swimming over my head, I mean. In water so impenetrably dark that they would more than likely never find my poor, lifeless body. What a terrible way to end the weekend.

“You should get in here and get acclimated to the water,” said Hubby, frolicking about like a happy little sea otter and completely, callously oblivious to my eminent doom. “It’s kind of chilly.”

I don’t want to.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t form words. I was too busy mentally listing all the reasons why I did not wish to participate in this stupid tri anymore, death by drowning chief among them. There was the fact that I’d already finished the entire distance twice during training, so what was there to prove? Plus, I’d suddenly remembered that I’m a runner, baby, not a cyclist—my bicycle, in fact, was very easy to spot among the sleek road bikes… it was the one with big, retro fenders and a carrier rack. (How else are you supposed to cart your box wine home?) And finally, if I didn’t do it, who’d be the wiser? Hubby was the only one I knew in the vicinity and I was fairly certain I could intimidate him into silence. All in all, there was only one reason I could think of to continue… the race shirt.

Oh, it was a good shirt. Colorful, with a beautiful replica of a Minnesota lake. And emblazoned on the back, the word “Triathlete.” I really wanted to wear it, but after all these years of racing, I will not wear a shirt I have not earned. One time, a girlfriend and I signed up for a Valentine’s Day race. We had picked up our shirts and our race packets but, when we woke race morning to the 16th straight day of frigid Minnesota temperatures, we decided to bail— Because we are too damn old for that nonsense, that’s why! And though the shirt was actually adorable, baby blue and festooned with hearts, I could never make myself wear it. I finally took it to Goodwill, buried in a bag of regrettable fashion choices.

Now I had a choice to make. Was I really superficial enough to risk actual death because I thought the race shirt was “super cute?” I glanced at Hubby, splashing about without a care in the world. Boy, was he going to be sorry when I was gone.

They called my wave to the starting point and counted down from ten. As the rest of the swimmers burst forth, I held back. At the very least, I could avoid getting kicked unconscious by an over-zealous competitor before we’d even cleared the kiddie area. Then I was off.

The water was chilly, yes, but also pitch black. My arm, as I pulled under my torso, looked eerily green—like the night vision shots from the Blair Witch Project movie. Not comforting. I snapped my head out of the water and doggie paddled for all I was worth, eyes fixed on the distant buoy marking the turn around. Swimming straight for me, was a woman from the previous wave, shaking her head and mouthing, “No. No. NO.” as she attempted to wave over a life guard to kayak her back to shore.

I am not lying when I say open water swims are scary. I am a LAND ANIMAL, people. Some of us may find the water joyful and benevolent. And I feel that way, too— in a pool. But send me out into water that is god-knows-how-deep, with nothing to grasp to and I feel as insensibly horror-struck as if I were a cow, dropped wild-eyed and frothing into the waves, wondering how the hell I got out here.

The unfortunate lady, headed to shore, was experiencing the exact same reaction that I had three weeks previously. I am lucky enough to have easy access to a lake and we thought it would be good practice to leave the pool and head over to the beach. On my first attempt at an open water swim I lasted about ten minutes before I was overtook with absolute terror. If I hadn’t spent the twenty-one subsequent days diligently learning to throttle my panic with the power of my brain, I would’ve been water-wrestling that woman for the nearest kayak.

Do you know what saved me? Two women, swimming along side me, kept flipping over, alternating the front crawl with a few moments of back stroke. The problem being, they lost complete sense of where they were, and would immediately start zigzagging back and forth in front of me like drunken frat boys. Both of them. Every damn time.

Fortunately, irritation is a much more familiar and manageable emotion than terror. “Son of a biscuit!” I’d mutter, trying to keep out of their erratic paths. “Pick a lane!!” Oddly comforted, I grumbled my way around the buoy (hooray!) and back to shore.

The rest of the race was easy. There are those who might suggest that if you have enough breath to sing out loud as you bike along the roadside, you might not be pedaling hard enough. To them I say, “Shut Up.” I was just happy to be alive. Besides, it was the fastest I’ve ever biked. Who cares if I was smoked by more than one septuagenarian? Well, I do, a little. But not enough to bike faster.

Pretty scenery, though.

Then we were off to the run, which is really what I should have been doing in the first place. The first mile was difficult, due to the tightness in my legs from all that dreaded biking, but the scenery was beautiful. It helped distract me from all the runners who had already made the turn toward the finish and who invariably felt the need to tell me I was, “Looking good!” and offering the encouragement that, “You can do it!”

I hate this. I KNOW I can do it, thank you very much. Maybe not gracefully, quickly or photogenically, but I can do it. All my thin-skinned-ness comes out and though I smile tightly and chirp, “Thanks! You, too!” I’m forever stifling the urge to yell back, “YOU AIN’T BETTER THAN ME!” Although, clearly, they are.

Things really got heated when I spied Hubby, mere minutes behind me on the run. What the…?!!! Hubby doesn’t run! His “training” consisted of three swims and multiple cases of Summit IPA, under the guise of “carbo loading.” How the hell did he catch up to me?

I waved off a volunteer offering water.

“I can’t stop!!!” I said, “My husband is gaining on me!”

She laughed. “Don’t worry, we’ll stall him!”

I shook my head and yelled over my shoulder, “Stall him? No! TRIP him!”

She laughed again, naively assuming I was joking.

I found out later, that the reason he was doing so well was because, failing to overtake me on the bike, he became convinced that something terrible had happened and assumed he needed to hurry to the medical tent. So driven by concern was he, that he never even stopped to take a walk break during the run. If you understood how out of character this is, you would have felt as flattered as I did. His lack of confidence in my abilities notwithstanding, it was actually so sweet that I didn’t even mind when his overall time turned out to be three minutes faster than mine. Well, almost.

So that’s the story. Did I actually face down death? Probably not, but it sure did feel like it. For me, the race was already won once I managed to overcome my panic and finish the swim. I think that deserves a drink. If you’d like to buy me one, I’m easy to find— I’m the gal in the tee-shirt.

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The Rise & Fall of a Momocracy

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