It’s been a little more than a week since I crossed the finish line of the One More Tri in Asbury Park, and if I’m being honest, I’m still a little emotional about it. Let’s recap:
The morning of the race I woke up completely nerve-free: my race bag was packed, bike tires were full of air, my legs felt strong even after racing the Seaside Semper Five 5K the day before.
We arrived at the iconic Carousel building just as the sun was trying to come up, and I picked up my race packet, got marked up with my number, slipped into the transition area, and prepped.
After I felt confident everything was ready around 7am, I kicked my flip flops off and we walked up to the boardwalk at around 7:15, where pre-race announcements were being made. By then the day had broken: cloudy, cool, and dry – perfect race conditions!
Once we got up there though, I looked out at the water and received quite a shock: the buoys were MUCH farther apart than I expected. There was NO way I’d be able to swim that! I started to panic. The Jersey Girl Tri swim was 300 yards, and this was only supposed to be .25 mile, or about 440 yards. This looked WAY more than 140 yards longer. Something was up.
At the water’s edge, I had a full on panic attack and started crying. And no amount of positive self-talk helped. Even Mike couldn’t calm me down. My confidence was shattered, and unfortunately I would not get it back up to 100% for the rest of the race.
Things happened quickly from there – the first wave of 30 or so Special Olympics athletes started first, men second, and women third. We had an “in-water start”, which is something I’d never heard of: you swim out to the start and tread water before the gun goes off. They say it’s to conserve energy but I still spent energy and added another 50 yards of effort getting OUT to the buoy, but now I know!
It was happening whether I was ready or not, so I sucked it up, got my good luck kiss, and walked into the water.
After swimming out with the rest of the women to the first buoy (which felt like FOREVER away!), we waited for a few minutes for the guys to get a good headstart, then the gun sounded and we were off! Within the first 30 seconds, I knew I was in trouble. Everyone around me took off like dolphins, and I was left at the back of the pack giving it my all for 1/4 of their speed. There were a few folks back there with me, but not many.
After a solid 5-7 minute effort to get to the first buoy, I gave myself permission to roll over and recover with the backstroke for a while. I focused on my breath and the clouds over my head, kicking with all my might for a solid few minutes and when I got tired, rolled over excitedly to see how far I’d gone – and found that while I only got about 20 yards towards the next buoy, I had backstroked myself 30 yards out to sea. After dropping the biggest F-bomb of my life, I dove under the water and power-swam back towards the crowd, then kept going to the second buoy to reach the halfway point, exhausted.
At this point I genuinely considered waving down a swim angel and asking for mercy. I thought about all the things in my life I set out to do and failed, and how miserable that list made me feel. I thought about how I started running (and competing in triathlons) to prove to myself that even if I can’t learn how to knit or learn sign language, I can accomplish some things. Like completing triathlons. And when I pictured the DQ next to my name in the race results, I got so mad. If I quit, all those negative thoughts I think about myself in my worst moments would be true. And I wasn’t about to let that happen.
To stop the negative thoughts, I found a mantra: Just keep swimming. Repeated it in my head over and over to the rhythm of my strokes, alternating between freestyle and backstroke 3 or 4 more times. After what felt like an eternity I finally saw the last buoy at the turn back to the shore.
I was joined by a Special Olympics athlete and his swim angel fighting their way back to the shore too – I shouted out some encouragement to him and he shouted something back (I was too far away to hear), and before I knew it I saw the swimmers in front of me standing up and walking. A few kicks later my toes found the sand and I was running through the surf. Finally I made my way safely onto the sand where Mike was cheering me on. He walked with me and asked how I felt as I moved on shaky legs. All I remember was saying “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” before giving him a half smile and taking off for the next leg of my journey.
The crowd support was incredible – I could hear the people on the boardwalk cheering on the swimmers that made it out ahead of me, and felt a little burst of energy. On the boardwalk I grabbed a cup of water and pumped my arms over my head to everyone’s cheers, and slowly walk/ran my way over the painful little rocks on the concrete to the transition where I threw on my shoes and helmet and wasted no time getting out of there.
Total Swim: 22:45
Transition 1: 3:09
The bike course was two loops around a 5.88 mile course, and I cruised out smiling, cheering along with the crowds at the transition area and waving at Mike as I passed. I was ready to do this!
But about a hundred yards later, I felt like I was pedaling through sand. The headwind was STRONG, my legs were shredded from the swim and my bike gears were jacked up. Every time I tried to go lower, the pedals caught and it felt like the chain was slipping off the gears.
Right about now, all those folks who wagged their fingers at me for riding a mountain bike are probably saying “I told you so”. And to them I say “Go sit on it and spin”. I know it’s not ideal, but I had to work with what I had. This bike got me through Jersey Girl perfectly and I had no reason to believe I’d have any issues. Until I did. Again: now I know.
But I toughed it out, and after 3 miles of fighting, finally got into a comfortable gear for the rest of the first loop. At mile 1 of the second loop (Mile 7-ish overall), we went back into the headwind and I spotted a woman ahead of me on an old school cruiser with a basket. I passed her for a mile or two, but when I tired out she soon passed me once again, followed by another speedy lady who came up from behind me, laughing in relief: “I thought I was the last one back here, thank goodness for you!” And then she passed me.
That was seriously not the thing to say to me in that moment. I kept waiting for someone else, but once we turned around and I got a good look at the rest of the course, I realized the truth: I was the last person on the bike.
And that’s when I cried. I cried like a big dumb baby as I pedaled my big dumb mountain bike for the last 3 miles and wished that I’d never started this whole big dumb thing. I tried as hard as I could to try to gain on Bike Basket, but she was just too fast. At the bike finish I hopped off, walked my bike in and Mike found me, smiling and asking me how I was feeling. All I could do was choke out the words, “I’m last,” before sobbing. In front of everyone. I was SO MAD at myself. But I just kept going, racked my bike, waved back to Mike, and took off on the run.
Total Bike: 1:05:44/11mph
Transition 2: 1:35
“The run is your sport. You are a runner.” I kept telling myself this as I put one foot in front of the other, my eyes on Bike Basket’s hot pink tank top about 250 feet ahead of me. It wasn’t even a desire to finish anymore – it was pure anger. Anger at myself for being so slow, for being 10 lbs overweight, for signing up for things that I had no business trying to compete in, for thinking I could do this in the first place. It got ugly out there.
But then something strange happened – I started gaining on her. Before I knew it, I was only 100 feet behind her, then 50 feet. I took inventory of my body, looked at my pace of 11:15 and thought… you can do better than this. So I did. Once we rounded the lake, I caught up to her and heard “Fight Song” coming from the speakers of her phone. I’m probably the only person on the planet who doesn’t like that song – and after hearing it on repeat the whole run as she paced me, I now really HATE that song! – so it propelled me to go even faster. Once we hit mile 2, I hit the gas and passed her.
We moved back onto the boardwalk for a bit, then around Boardwalk Hall where I slowed to a walk for 30 seconds or so. That’s where I found and passed another competitor, who I applauded and chatted with, but once I heard Bike Basket/Fight Song creeping up behind me I took off running again and told myself that was it. If she passed me again I would undoubtedly suffer a complete nervous breakdown on this course, so it was all or nothing. At the turnaround I saw just close she was to catching me, so I pushed. Off the boardwalk, around the hall, and back onto the boards for the final stretch, no looking back.
Honestly, I wish I could find her now and thank her for her inspiration. I’m sure she was fighting her own fight out there as well, and we were neck and neck for so long that I almost considered introducing myself. But out there on that cloudy, windy course, the sight of her ahead of me – then RIGHT behind me! – was better motivation than any power song or positive mantra ever could be. Thank you, Bike Basket!!
Once I was in sight of the finish line, the crowds started cheering as soon as they saw me, and I gunned it and crossed the finish line with my hands raised above my head and my face screwed up from fighting happy tears.
Total Run: 32:56 – 10:59/mile
TOTAL TIME: 2:07:01
Once I crossed the finish, I was greeted by two of the sweetest little angels from the Special Olympics – a little blonde boy and an even littler ponytailed girl who were handing out medals. When I saw his face looking up at me as he held my medal out to me, THAT’S when I started crying. The whole thing – all of the negative self talk, the anger, the frustration, the anxiety – it all meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was these kids, and the Special Olympics of New Jersey and all the inspirational, amazing, determined folks that are affiliated with them.
Mike found me a few moments later and I completely broke down sobbing in his arms. I had done it! It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, and it was over. He helped me pull myself together, got me some food at the awesome (still fully stocked even though I was third to last!) food tent, and we got my stuff out of transition and back to the car.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotionally and physically drained in my life, until we got home and were hit with terrible news: our Sammy had a real family who really missed him, and we had to give him back.
To say that I was gutted is an understatement. There was a moment there after I saw the Missing Poster where I thought I’d be sick from crying so hard. It felt like a bad dream. Mike was shattered. After we called his family and let him know that he was OK, we made sure to enjoy every moment of the time we had left with him. I know it’s for the best that he’s back with his family, but that little guy brought such joy to our lives right when we needed him, and we’re thankful for every moment we had.
It was an extremely emotional day for sure, and one that still leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth. But it’s a part of my history now. I learned a lot about myself out there. I like to say that every run – good or bad – changes me for the better. If that’s true, then this swim-bike-run made me three times better – tougher, stronger, and wiser. And I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
EDIT: I just received an email from race officials admitting that, after many people contacted them about the swim distance, they discovered they were WRONG! The .25 mile swim was actually… get ready… .45 miles. That’s almost double! No wonder it looked so crazy long: they made a mistake while measuring on race morning. Vindication! But it’s still pretty cool – I now know that I can swim almost a half a damn mile, then bike 12 miles and run 3. That’s pretty damn badass, if you ask me!