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Twenty Years in the Making: I Am A Triathlete

by Karen Gray-Keeler

“But I’m not a runner.” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. You can walk part, run part. That’s what we did last year,” said the woman next to me as we toweled off in the locker room after swim practice.

I was in awe of my teammates – middle-aged women like me – who were talking about participating in an upcoming sprint triathlon.  I realized that that week was the perfect time for me to become a triathlete.

Competing in a triathlon had been my pipedream for twenty years – ever since I had watched an in-flight movie about the Ironman Triathlon on my way to Hawaii. The fantasy was an ocean away from the reality of my Midwestern life. I wasn’t a swimmer, biker, or runner. At that time my only exercise was chasing after my three little boys. I loved being with my kids. Taking time away from them to train wasn’t even a consideration. I had grown up in a time and place where girls’ athletics were almost non-existent. It wasn’t a matter of getting back into shape. I didn’t have a clue where to begin.

When the boys got older I bought a bike and discovered that I loved the adrenalin buzz from the exercise. Biking was easy. I wasn’t fast, but I had endurance and relished biking long distances.

A few years ago I went on a bike trip in the Canadian Rockies with four other women. When my friend in New York told her colleagues about the trip, they told her she wouldn’t be able to do it. “How hard can it be? I’m going with four middle age women from Chicago,” she said.

The rest of us repeated, “how hard can it be?” to her as we labored up the mountains. Although I found it necessary to “stop to admire the view” occasionally on the uphill climbs, I had the satisfaction of completing the entire route. I was a biker – but I still didn’t swim or run.

Not knowing that I wasn’t a swimmer, a friend invited me to join her at her swim team practice a couple of years ago. I trusted her when she said that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a swimmer – the team was for adults at all ability levels. My body ached when I got into bed after that first practice. The coaches’ instructions and the other swimmers’ encouragement convinced me to join the team. As my middle-aged body worked muscles I hadn’t known existed, I discovered the exhilaration of a tough swim workout. I was starting from nothing so all I could do was improve.

The team expected everyone to compete in the state meet. I had a conflict the first year, but I didn’t have any excuse the second. Although I was one of the slowest swimmers on our team, I had endurance. I had trouble keeping track of distance and time so one of my coaches wrote my registration information on a scrap of paper for me. My biggest fear when I signed up online was that I would make a mistake and put down a time that was faster than Michael Phelps.

I had never even seen a swim meet before. I was afraid I’d show up at the wrong place and miss my races, my goggles would slip off, and I’d lose track of how many laps to swim. I met my goals – I signed up, showed up, and swam. The icing on the cake was winning four ribbons. I was a swimmer – but I still didn’t run.

The ladies in the locker room had given me the key to being a triathlete. I didn’t have to run – I could walk. The next day I bought my first pair of running shoes and a bike rack for my car and registered for my first triathlon. It was my oldest child’s 28th birthday.

Four days later with “381” written on my arms and legs and a timing chip around my ankle, I jumped into the water. The 300-meter swim was shorter than my team’s usual warm up. It almost didn’t seem worth getting wet for.

The 10-mile bike ride on traffic-free, smooth streets with cheering onlookers was a breeze. As I left the bike corral, I jogged. I couldn’t pace myself because I didn’t have any concept of my speed, time, or distance. I got past the cheering throng before I started walking.

When a seventyish man slowly jogged past me, I decided to use him to set my pace. I started running again. Volunteers along the route handed out water bottles as we ran by. He took one. I took one. He poured the water over his head. I poured the water over my head. He tossed his empty bottle on the ground. I held on to mine as I ran and looked for a recycling bin. I didn’t know the protocol. Littering didn’t seem right. Then I noticed lots of bottles on the ground and realized that volunteers would be picking them up. Runners were supposed to be concentrating on running not on recycling. I tossed my empty bottle on the ground.

The man kept running and I couldn’t keep up. My pace slowed and I started walking again. I alternated running and walking. A spectator cheered, “You are almost there!” I picked up my pace and thought, “I can do this! I’m going to run across the finish line.” I rounded the next bend expecting to be steps from my destination. I wasn’t, but I was close enough to the cheering crowd that I was too embarrassed to start walking again. I pushed myself and ran across the finish line. Seconds later someone slipped a medal on a ribbon over my head.

Of the four hundred people who had entered the competition, 363 completed it. I was older than 340 of them.

I’m still not a runner, but after twenty years my pipedream is a reality. The triangular medal pinned on my bulletin board reminds me – I’m a triathlete.

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