I’ve been preparing for Sunday’s Olympic-distance triathlon in Marin County since July. It has taken so much blood, sweat and tears (literally) it’s incredible. This week is the time for the mental and emotional preparation. My awesome sports psychologist, Michelle Cleere, gave me the assignment to write about my upcoming triathlon exactly the way I want it to happen. This is it. I would love it if you would read this and then imagine it happening just like this for me on Sunday. It’s my best case scenario, my dream event. Thank you ALL for your incredible support and encouragement in this undertaking! Much love and gratitude — Susan
On my knees. Arranging items in a pile on the floor, some of which I’d never heard of three months ago. A box of silicon earplugs nestled like soft eggs. Swim booties. Purple spandex. My Team in Training wetsuit with its oddly comforting smell of rubber and salt. I’m checking things off on the list our coach sent us, building a little altar to improbability and miracles. I love the ritual of lining everything up the night before, touching each object, asking each one to do its job, to keep me safe, keep me healthy, warm, dry, hydrated, nourished. Vanilla GU and a lavender towel.
I set my alarm and sleep with dreams of floating effortlessly, rolling over hills up and down and taking sure steps.
4:30am. The alarm goes off and I don’t want to hit Snooze. I’m excited to get up in the dark. Today is the day. Today is the day I become a triathlete. For me, believing that I can be a triathlete is like believing I will be an astronaut, a tightrope walker, a brain surgeon. A fantasy of the nth degree. But today I’m going to put on the costume and the identity.
First layer: the purple tri shorts (padded for biking, quick-dry for swimming) and top. I’m so proud to be part of this team. Then thick sweat pants, heavy socks, a sweatshirt. I need to keep warm. Warm warm warm to carry me into the ocean. Is it raining already? Maybe. It’s okay. It’s just water.
Breakfast. Coffee, water, whole wheat English muffin with peanut butter. Maybe some cut up apple. Boil some eggs to take in the car. Fill the water bottles, one with Gatorade and one with water.
Transfer the gear pile into my gym bag. Check everything twice. John is out in the garage, oiling and cleaning the bike chain, filling the tires. He’s a great bike support. Hard to believe that three months ago I was terrified to get on a bike of any kind, that I couldn’t turn, stop, or start without falling over. I still have scars on my legs from all the falls I took.
5:30. Time to pick up Lily. My buddy, my angel, my constant companion since the day we sat next to each other for the first time at Kick-Off in July. She has pushed me, nudged me, encouraged me and made me believe that I can do this. I will so miss our nighttime swims, with her reading the wet workout sheet from the light of the pool. Nobody in the pool but us crazies, and then rewarding ourselves with a rest in the hot tub after.
We drive through the dark morning, no traffic, over the San Rafael bridge, over the very water we will be swimming in. It’s quiet. We’re contemplating the hugeness of what we’re about to do.
By the time we get to the transition area and our reserved parking spot, our coach Haakon is already there. He helps us find good spots right next to each other and gives us some encouraging tips before saying his mantra, “Let’s do the damn thing!”
I drink hot tea mixed with electrolyte powder to get warm and stay warm. Also to fill up my bladder so I can warm up my wetsuit and my body with some nice warm pee later on. (didn’t know that trick, did you?) I’m wearing my daughter’s Oakland Strokes fake fur parka and thinking of her encouraging “Go Mama!” vibes from Peru.
Then it’s wetsuit time. I put the Bodyglide on my ankles, wrists, neck, armpits, and then stretch the thick skin over my body. I remember the first time we got these – it was an Olympic event just trying to wiggle into it. I thank the wetsuit for keeping me warm and buoyant in the water. I love this thing.
It’s time to go down to the water! There’s a bagpipe player leading us all down. The sound of the music gives me goosebumps. My heart is pounding out of my chest. It’s still pretty dark but the light is breaking over the water. We walk over the rocky beach on a special carpet and WOW it’s cold! But it’s okay. I walk in up to my knees, then calves, then thighs then I just better dive in and get the shock over with. YOW! Yeah! It’s refreshing! It’s super refreshing! All my teammates are around me. We’re laughing and shrieking from the cold, letting the water into our suits from our necks. I know people are peeing around me. It makes me laugh.
There’s about 15 minutes from the time we get in the water until our special TNT wave begins. I use the time to float around, to realllllly get used to the water, to take a few warmup strokes. Breathe. I think about my special breathing mantra: “gentle” on the exhale into the water, “kind” on the inhale. Gentle-kind-gentle-kind. I look out at my first landmark, the pier. No fisherman today, no line to get tangled in. The giant orange buoys are bobbing around gently and easy to see. I’m just going to swim swim swim like I did at Keller Beach.
The horn goes off and it’s a churning of arms and legs as everyone takes off. I stay toward the back and the side, away from all the limbs. I’m not in a hurry. I’m just going to take it one stroke at a time. With every breath, I roll almost all the way onto my back and take a nice full breath. I blow bubbles down into the water. Gen-tle. I remember to look up every few strokes and I see the pier getting closer and closer. Then I’m around it and looking for the first buoy. I see the paddleboarders, the kayaks and other support. They’re cheering us on. I get to the first buoy and I’m feeling good. I see some of my other teammates around me. I’m not alone. Swim swim swim. With every stroke the air gets brighter and brighter, the sun coming up. I get to the 2nd buoy. One more and then land. I just look at one at a time. I sing a little bit into the water.
It’s hard not to get too excited when I see people running out of the water. I give it an extra kick and feel my hands touching ground. I scramble out of the water and feel for my wetsuit leash, unzipping it I wobble to the transition spot. Wow my legs feel funny! And the air is cold. Is it raining? No matter, I’m gonna get warmed up soon.
I get to my transition spot. I take a big swig of Gatorade, suck down some GU and peel off the wetsuit. It’s like a giant, wiggly sealskin. BRR it’s cold! I trade my swim cap for bike helmet, my goggles for glasses, and try to dry off as quick as I can. I pull on my socks and bike shoes, take one more drink and pull the bike from the rack.
The first hill out of the parking lot is STEEP but I’ve done it a bunch of times before. I’m still pumped up from the swim. First gear, here we go, just pedal, pedal, pedal… Whoo! Got to the top and have a little coasting before the next long hill up the road. I’m glad I’ve done this route before, glad that the hills and turns are familiar to me now. Just… get .. up… this hill, then around the corner and wheeeeee. I let my heart slow down some, let myself enjoy the downhill through the trees around the part with the beautiful view of the water in which I just swam! It’s pretty soon and I get to the turnaround at the campground. Back past the beach entrance (more hills, but they feel fine) and there are so many people here! I love that there are no cars. People are clanging cowbells and yelling out. It’s kind of fun. I see some of my friends. WOW!
Get to the turnaround and head back out for loop number two. I’m feeling strong now. I’m getting warmer after being chilled in the water and the sun is stronger and warmer. All the familiar turns. I see my teammates passing me on the other side and it makes me so happy to call out to them. What we have all gone through together since July – this is amazing.
Okay, final bike loop. My butt is starting to get kind of sore. The course is getting a little bit TOO familiar. But the crowd is getting bigger as we get closer and closer to finishing. Every time I go past the park entrance there are more and more people there. It’s like a big party.
Finally, down the parking lot hill back to the transition. My legs are definitely talking to me (“Are we done yet?”) – not quite. I hang up the bike, take off my helmet and put on my running hat and running shoes. They feel nice and soft after those bike shoes! Throw back some more Gatorade, a handful of salty pretzels (my power snack) and it’s time for the run part.
Six miles. Okay. I still have this nagging tendonitis in my foot so I’m determined to go as fast as I can without hurting myself. Which at this point means a steady walk. Around the beach area, up the darn hill AGAIN and this time turning left to the trail along the water. It’s beautiful! It’s pretty! Instead of the 1:5 walk/run ratio I was doing during training, it’s now more of a 5:1 walk run but that’s okay. It’s a beautiful day. My clothes are dry, I’m feeling good. I need to use the bathroom and voila! There’s a portOpotty on the corner. Perfect.
Out to the turnaround and back. One final loop! I’ve almost finished an Olympic triathlon! Damn! I’m seeing my teammates fly by. I get so excited to see them. I’m passing my friends and some of them jump up and walk with me. This is so awesome. Final downhill back to the transition area – yeah, Haakon warned us it would be kind of steep. I take my time till I hit the grass and then I can’t help it, I’m running just this last part through the FINISH. FINISH! There’s coach Haakon with my medal.
Where’s the Kleenex? I’m an Olympic triathlete.
November 3, 2011 at 10:42 pm
Susan, I got chills and tears came to my eyes when I got to the part where you first said, “I am a tri-athlete.” Thank you SO much for sharing your journey with all of us so generously. I will be thinking of you on Sunday and sending lots of good energy your way. You are a true champion!
November 4, 2011 at 12:04 am
Awesome post! I second Deborah – it gave me chills. You have every moment visualised and it’s going to be an amazing day. I know it. I know you’re going to finish and realise that you wrote up your recap before it happened.
I’ll be cheering you on from Australia!
November 4, 2011 at 8:44 pm
I’ll be there on the sidelines!
November 5, 2011 at 2:11 pm
Susan this has been a journey you will never forgot and now because of all your tenacity it will be a special, commemoration, positive journey that you will be proud of and be able to cherish. You are an Olympic Distance Triathlete! 🙂 Good luck tomorrow! I will be thinking of you! Dr. Michelle
November 6, 2011 at 8:38 pm
Awesome! By now, you are an Olympic distance triathlete! I can’t wait to read your race report, I hope it went as well if not better than your visualization of the race.
Just getting ready for this, as you know, is a huge accomplishment. 🙂