by Debbie Dunn THE CHALLENGE: I had never considered doing a triathlon until a cycling friend of mine brought it up this past June. "If we train and set our minds to it, I know we can at least finish," she said. "It’ll be fun!" Already a cyclist and not a bad swimmer, I figured all I had to do was build up to running a few miles and I’d be ready to go. The choice was the Floridian Super Sprint Triathlon in Clermont, Florida in October—over four months away. The reasoning was that there would be enough time to train, plus by running the race outside our hometown there would be no witnesses to the agony that was to come.
The challenge invigorated me, and I ran out to buy new running shoes, Thorlo socks, and a heart rate monitor. Most importantly, I found www.beginnertriathlete.com's articles, electronic training log, and advice which became my tri bible. It was oddly motivating to fill out all the colored boxes with my swim, bike and run times over the next couple of months as my fitness and endurance increased. RACE PREVIEW: Two weeks before race day I decided to take a drive over to Clermont to check out the course, and especially Lake Minneola where the swim was to take place. It was a blustery day. The lake was covered with whitecaps and looked quite dark, foreboding, and very large. To top it off a large sign posted at the shore said, "Warning: Amoebas, Alligators, Snakes, and other Florida Vermin may be present." Being a Florida resident for over 20 years I was well aware of the alligators and snakes, but amoebas? What could they possibly do to you, and how could you get infected with said amoebas? Through open wounds? Swallowing? In the ears? What?
An article in the St. Pete Times the next day told the story: Amoebas are common to the very warm freshwater lakes of Florida, especially stagnant waters, where they reside in the muddy bottom. They enter the body through the nasal cavity, where the creepy crawly amoeba slides up and enters your skull, where it proceeds to destroy brain cells, causing delirium and certain death. One more thing, no known antibiotics are effective against the amoebas. Ok, I made up the delirium part but I think it goes without saying this is nothing to sneeze at, ha ha!
An extremely fit and ripped Ironman type guy was at the Clermont Waterfront Park as well, just wrapping up his training for the day, probably a 100 mile warm up bike ride and a few 5 mile laps around the lake, no doubt. Having previously done dozens of triathlons, superfit Ironman dude was quite helpful in pointing out where the transition area would be, the swim course (in the lake, duh!), finish line, and parking areas. When I told him I was doing the Super Sprint for my first triathlon, he assured me that I would have a complete blast and have the time of my life. I figured he didn’t know about the amoebas. RACE DAY: Those last two weeks went by lickety-split, and I awoke at 4:50 a.m. in a Howard Johnson’s bed to a dark and rainy race day. After some eggs, toast, and coffee at a nearby Denny’s, we found parking almost a mile away from the race course. It seemed like there were thousands of cars there already, though it was not even yet 6:30am. The first race of the day, the Ironman, was a 7:30 start.
We walked in the rain to a lone pavilion at the park with about 200 people crammed under it in a desperate attempt to stay dry. We found a spot under the pavilion and took in the scene. It was ironic because many of the people in the pavilion were athletes putting their WETSUITS on in preparation for the swim. They were greasing themselves all over, twisting and squeezing into their form-fitting neoprene. One guy approached me and asked me if I had long fingernails that could reach into his ear to pull out an earplug that he had wedged in too far. I thought, "OK, sure, I get asked that all the time by complete strangers, no problem!" Try as I might, I couldn’t get that earplug out, and suggested he may try the medical tent, they would have tweezers. He thanked me and walked off, I never saw him again. A pre-dawn squall threatened to postpone the Ironman start, but right on time all 400+ athletes lined up at the shore en masse and started their 2.6 mile swim around the lake. It was barely dawn, the opposite shore almost invisible, whitecaps all around, and these folks jumped in with energy and glee, starting their very long day of 144 miles of swimming, biking, and running. It was amazing and humbling to witness. Shortly after the Ironman start the announcer began to send out the Half-Ironman folks in waves grouped by age category. By 8:30 they were all out on the lake, and the pavilion was a whole lot roomier, leaving just families of athletes and us sprint racers. With the rain stopped, we headed to get body-marked and set up our transition areas. They used one of those giant stinky black markers on my skin, marking 611 on my arms and on top of each thigh. I thought I was done when my body-marking girl asked me, how old are you? Without thinking I told her, and she turned my leg around and drew a gigantic "42" on the back of my left calf. Nice, no secrets here! "Why don’t you put my weight on my forehead too while you’re at it?" I said to myself. I kept my mouth shut as to not give her any more ideas and got the heck out of there. Each racer has the space around their bike to set up their transition area. I put my bike helmet and related cycle stuff in front, and running shoes farther back for the last part of the race. I grabbed my swim cap and goggles and headed down to the lake shore to wait for the start. My stomach was doing triple flips and my legs were trembling as I checked my watch every two minutes. “Less than half an hour to go, less than 15 minutes, now less than 10…..aaaarrgh….I can’t believe I am really doing a triathlon!!!! Am I completely nuts????” With the rain stopped and the daylight upon us, Lake Minneola was looking a whole lot friendlier than it had earlier that morning. I went down to the waterline and put my toe in. "Wow!" It was really warm. Though the water was tea-colored as Florida lakes are, it was clear with a nice clean sandy bottom and no weeds. Several women in white swim caps like mine approached me and asked me if this was my first tri. Turns out almost everyone around me was a tri-virgin, and I felt my stomach settle down and my face relax into a smile. This was going to be fun! At the shore were the youngest and oldest triathletes in our race standing together, a 10 year old girl and 86 year old man, with photographers all around. If they could do this I certainly could!!!
THE SWIM: With a loud air-horn blast, wave number one of 60 ladies started running and diving into the water. Since I’m fairly tall I figured I could gain faster distance on two feet, and then dive in at the last minute. The water was a complete washing machine of arms, legs, feet, elbows, knees, waves, and splashes. This was nothing like laps at the pool, nor the nice calm open water practice swims at Clearwater Beach. I kept telling myself, “Relax, you’re not going to drown, you’re an excellent swimmer,” etc… but the feeling of panic was just below the surface (literally!). My breathing and heart rate were completely out of control; my adrenaline was running full speed.
In my excitement I swallowed some water and then inhaled more for good measure, getting a nice dose of amoebas in my nasal cavity, no doubt. Soon I settled in into a steady side-stroke, keeping my face away from the slapping waves, and made some progress. Once we got into deeper water there were volunteers on kayaks floating around the perimeter of the course, making sure no one cheated by cutting around a buoy, and to pull out anyone who needed help or had swallowed too many amoebas. The group started to spread out, leaving a bit more room, and I relaxed a bit. This one girl and I were neck in neck, and we kept trading kicks with every other swim stroke. It went like this, (kick), "Sorry!", (kick!) "Sorry!" ….on and on until the final stretch. Up ahead I could see racers standing up and staggering out onto the shore. I was almost there! There was quite a crowd, and more lined up along the dock that we had to swim by on our way in, all of them cheering like crazed idiots. I looked at my watch as I exited the lake, eight minutes since I entered the water, my personal best! Seeing an event photographer ahead, in my giddiness, I stood up on one leg, gave him double thumbs up, and a ridiculous grin. I crossed the rubber mat that read my timing chip with a loud BEEP, and I was off to the transition area.
T1 (Transition #1- Swim to Bike) It was almost a quarter mile from the edge of the lake to where my bicycle was stashed in the huge race transition area. To get there involved a barefoot run in the thick sand up the lake shore, across a paved parking lot, then down the length of a grassy field to my bike. My heart barely had a chance to slow down from the swim, and my breathing was taking on this sucking type sound that I have never heard before. I was really pushing hard, and I had to keep telling myself to relax, you are only competing against yourself, calm down, RELAX, this is supposed to be FUN!
My bike and gear were all nicely laid out as I had left it, and I went through my practiced routine: rinse feet, dry feet, bike socks, bike shoes, headband, helmet, sunglasses and finally gloves. My hands were shaking so badly, I kept trying to put four fingers into three holes of the glove. “Relax---take your time,” I kept telling myself. I took a guzzle of Gatorade from my bike bottle; a quick double check of my inventory, and off I went pushing my bike towards the transition exit. I hit another rubber timing mat –BEEP! More photographers, volunteers, crowds, went by—I barely noticed them. I had my game face on now! BIKE: As soon as I stepped on the pavement, volunteers were yelling, "Get on now! Go!", so I did…or at least tried to. My rubbery shaky legs struggled to straddle the bike and clip into the pedals. How embarrassing would it be to fall over in front of all these people just trying to get on my bike? Very. So I held myself together, and with one big pedal push, took off upright on two wheels. I immediately started to relax. I said to myself, "This is the best part, my strongest most comfortable event, the bike- woo-hoo!!" The cycle route was an 8 mile loop around beautiful Lake Minneola, flat and fast, with policemen at each intersection blocking all traffic for us. Sweet!! This was going to be a cakewalk compared to that swim, and the run soon to come. Right away the course went up a small short hill, took a left, down another small incline (whee!), and around a curve. I looked up from my handlebars, and there it was—the Hill from Hell. My heart sank. It was steep, it was long, and it was ugly. Racers were on foot walking their bikes, and this was the first two minutes of the ride! Granted, this wasn’t the infamous Sugarloaf Mountain (yes a mountain in Florida, probably the only one) that the Ironman racers had to tackle on their course that day, but it was bad enough.
The Hill from Hell was not in the sprint race description that I had read. But there it was regardless. Putting my game face back on, I took some deep breaths while fast-pedaling to get a head start, and started up the incline. I was determined to stay on the bike at all costs, walking was not an option. “Grind, grind, grind…pass some slower riders….grind, grind, grind….now some walkers….just a little more….almost there…standing up on the pedals now…going so slow that I’m starting to lose balance…..keep it up…..to the top….YEAH- I did it!!!!!” The bike course smoothed and leveled out as it curved around the lake. I passed some riders, some others (mostly men) blew past me, and I found myself relaxing and enjoying the ride. There were no spectators on this part of the course, just the occasional policeman holding back traffic. One photographer was sitting on a stool on the side of the road, and I gave him my best smile as I rode past. The peace was about to end as I neared the eight mile mark and approached the madness of the tri-crowd and transition area, and I felt my stomach tense up in anticipation. I turned a sharp curve and rolled down an incline to see volunteers in the road in front of me yelling, "Slow down, slow down!" A hundred feet further they were yelling "Get off, get OFF the bike!" I dismounted my bike on pavement with bike shoes on, and carefully made it to the grassy transition area without slipping on my cleats. Leaning on my bike like a rolling crutch, I half ran/staggered to the bike rack. T2 (Transition #2 - Bike to Run) I tore off everything I wouldn’t need for the upcoming two mile run (helmet, gloves and bike shoes), and donned my racing belt with race number and running shoes. I took a good swig of Gatorade and stumbled off on wobbly legs for my most dreaded part of the race, the run. The path ran along the edge of the lake for almost a mile, and then turned back, headed past the transition area, past the giant screaming crowd, down the end of the parking lot, past a field, around a grove of trees, and back for the finish. RUN: As I started on the run course I tried to keep a positive outlook on the two miles of pavement pounding that awaited me. I had never been a runner, not in high school, not ever. I had trained for months, first walking, then jogging a little, then gradually lengthening the runs until I could go the entire two miles. I was already so incredibly tired and winded; my heart rate was right up near 100%. I tried to calm myself and get my breathing under control as I slogged along the path. Every other runner passed me easily, and I fought to keep my own pace. The first mile of the trail was pretty isolated with few spectators, just the occasional dog walker or stroller pusher. As I made the turn around the pylon and headed back towards the main race area I could hear cowbells rattling and strangers yelling, "Go Debbie go!! You can do it! Not much farther!" I wondered to myself, “How did they know me?” Then I remembered that my first name was in big bold letters on the front of my race number. Normally I would resent this invasion of privacy, but in this instance it was inspiring and motivating to have a constant cheer section yelling my name for the last half mile of the race. Volunteers on each side of the path held out cups to the runners calling out, "Water! Gatorade! Water!" I grabbed a water cup and held it to my face and tried to drink. My breathing was so heavy, I inhaled deeply while drinking and snorted a whole nose full of water which caused me to cough and sputter. I thought to myself, “How ironic is it that I’ve almost drowned in a cup of water less than an hour from swimming hundreds of yards in an amoeba-infested lake?” I entertained the thought of trying another sip, then thought better of it, and dumped the ice-cold water over my head. I was now approaching a grove of trees that the path curved around and then on to the final stretch to the finish. No smiles for the photographer this time, all my focus was on surviving these last hundred yards without choking, cramping, or losing my breakfast. As I turned the last corner behind the trees I was suddenly alone, no spectators, no photographers, and no other racers. With my heart rate still hovering between 96-100%, I took the opportunity to slow down for a 30 second walk to catch my breath. "Almost there, you can do it, just one more push and you’re done!" I told myself. Elation replaced exhaustion as I broke out into a run down the chute to the finish past the cheering crowd. "BEEP!" went the timing mat as I crossed the finish, and my very first triathlon was over. Volunteers and strangers high-fived me and patted my back with enthusiasm, and I felt like a celebrity. It was a fantastic feeling. Someone ripped the timing chip band off my ankle, another handed me a nice cold bottle of water, and I was officially a triathlete. Not an Ironman nor Olympian, but a triathlete nonetheless. To add even more thrill to the personal victory of finishing, I had actually placed third in the female novice division! I practically fell over from shock when my name was called at the awards ceremony. Needless to say I have marked my calendar for the next triathlon. If this forty-two year old non-runner’s body could conquer amoebas, the Hill from Hell, and almost drowning in a cup of water to finish and place in her first triathlon, anyone can.