It's amazing how two letters can sting, how they can change the way you feel, how you want to look at yourself. I still feel them in the pit of my stomach, 48 hours after the Go Girl Triathlon.
Race morning. The Go Girl Triathlon was at Eagle Creek Park in northwest Indianapolis. Parking was a bit of a pain, as it seemed limited and far from the start - about a half-mile to three-quarter-mile walk. As we put my bike together, I was feeling antsy that I wouldn't have time to check in, get marked and set up my transition area before the 7:30 a.m. mandatory pre-race meeting. Mark calmed me down, though, and as he promised, we managed with more than enough time.
After all, it takes about 5 minutes to throw some crap on a towel. The only thing that took any real amount of time was unmating my socks and turning them right side out.
Swim. At 8 a.m., the announcer gathered the elites to the start and shouted go. One by one, participants crossed the mat, ran through the sand and hopped in the water. The swim was a staggered, individual start - with one racer going in every 2 seconds. Seeding was according to your bib number, which was based on how you ranked yourself on the entry form. I was toward the back, and I found myself near the beach watching the elites swim. Rather than a sense of calm washing over me, I felt fear. Anxiety. Trepidation. I made myself look away and headed toward the back of the line.
About 10 minutes after the start and with one elite already out of the water, it was my turn. I hopped in, and I tried to tell myself to relax. I tried to tell myself to take it slow. Swim evenly. I tried not to worry about the others around me. At first, it wasn't so bad. I remember kicking myself for not taking off my wedding rings but thankful the water was warm - 79 degrees. And then gulp. I swallowed a mouthful of resevoir water and started to gag. I stopped to tread water and calm myself but my breathing was already labored. I flipped to my back but it did little to ease my anxiety. I doggy paddled. I swam a poor breast stroke. I gulped. I choked again. I flipped to my back for the second time in 100 meters, and I was grasping for strength. I tried again to swim but the struggle grew.
In the distance, I heard a voice. "Are you OK?"
The truth: I wasn't. The kayak paddled next to me, and the volunteer urged me to grab on. And I fell apart. The disappointment. The frustration. The failure. It was drowning me.
I thought holding the kayak meant that the race was over for me, and the emotions sent my breathing out of control. When the volunteer asked if I could continue, I said no. And I knew it was the truth. A pontoon boat came over, and I went aboard. My race was done.
The volunteers aboard were kind and encouraging, doing all they could to ease the sting. Another participant was soon on board, and we exchanged a few disappointing remarks. The only thing I remember hearing, though, is the words of a volunteer: You can still continue.
They drove us near the shore, and we jumped out and swam ashore. I ran across the timing mat and headed toward my bike. The race wouldn't count but I needed to prove something. To myself.
Bike. After spending what felt like 15 minutes trying to get my ProCompression trainers on my wet feet, I grabbed my bike and headed toward the mats. Some people were walking but I knew I needed to jog it - no matter how awkward it felt.
The bike course was an out and back, starting in the park and heading out toward the roads. There were hills - lots of rolling hills - as it wound through the trees. I would venture to say it was beautiful if I had been paying the course much mind.
But I wasn't. My focus for the entire ride was to hammer, hammer, hammer. If there was ever a point where I felt like my effort was easing, I made myself work, even if it was on the uphill. I would spot a cyclist and work to pass her. And one by one, I did. In fact, I spent nearly the entire 10 miles passing riders and was only passed by two women, both of whom I passed later.
When I rolled into transition with a time of 36:36 - nearly 9 minutes faster than I had anticipated, I was elated. I might not have been able to do the swim but damn if I didn't do my best on the bike.
Run. Transition was much quicker this time around, switching my helmet for my Nuun visor and taking off my Naawk sunglasses.
The run course started uphill, which might have been the meanest thing ever. My legs already felt like hell coming off the bike and challenging them with an incline was a doozy. But I was determined. I didn't want to be the participants I saw walking at the start. I wanted to run.
And I did. Much like the bike, I made my focus to run strong and steady - even though it felt like I was moving through sand. I didn't wear a Garmin and so my focus was purely on effort.
There was a water stop at mile 1, and I slowed to a walk to take in a cup. I had Nuun in my Nathan vest but I needed a change in flavor and the water tasted so good. Once I tossed the cup in the garbage, I picked up the pace and kept trucking. Another short walk break at mile 2 for water, and I continued on.
Just after that stop, I got passed for the first and only time. I had seen the woman on the way out, and she was hauling serious behind. I knew she'd catch up to me. After she went on, I just tried to pick runner after runner. It was getting harder at this point, as the temperature and humidity were high, but I needed to do something that I could be proud of.
It was a downhill to the finish (the bonus of an uphill start), and I crossed the mat. My time for the 3 miles was 26:49, an average of 8:56. It's by no means a record but far faster than a) I had "budgeted" and b) than the miles felt.
The finish was odd knowing that it wouldn't count. It was hard wondering whether I should actually take a medal (I did). It was sad to see Mark, who had such faith in me, and know that I didn't live up to that.
Walking back to the car, my emotions were mixed. My heart felt heavy with a sense of failure. I had let down those who left supportive comments, wasted my in-laws' time (they watched Miles) and squandered the opportunity to be an ambassador for the race. For the first time in a long time, I could not finish what I started. But I was proud that I kept on. That I didn't get off that boat and just stop there. I was happy that I was strong on the bike and steady on the run.
I was happy I even tried.