I am new to triathlon...again. I would like to share my story to hopefully inspire some to try the sport of triathlon. I am going to prove that anyone can do it, even with the obstacles life throws at us.
Several years ago I was a recent college graduate who had just won two Division II National Championships in volleyball and was a full scholarship athlete. I was in the best shape of my life and despite suffering a torn knee ligament and back injury (that still bothers me) during my college volleyball days I was still extremely active. I received about $600 from friends/relatives as a graduation gift and decided to purchase a mountain bike. Since my childhood days I’d always loved bike riding but never had a “fancy” bike and made do with what I had. At age 10 I remember suckering my two best friends into riding our bikes to Stanford Shopping Center (about 30 miles roundtrip from our Sunnyvale, California suburban neighborhood). My friends, being the good sports that they were, agreed and we were off on our adventure. Several hours later we returned home exhausted but smiling, and I was hooked on bike riding. However, it always took a back seat to my organized sporting activities, first soccer and softball, and later volleyball. So, I decided to treat myself to a mountain bike. Off I went to the nearest local bike store and purchased a brand new Diamond Back Ascent EX with Shimano LX components. Best of all it was in my favorite color, purple. This was back in the day when front shocks were relatively new and beyond my price range so I made do without. I rode that bike all over the hills and trails of Santa Clara County that first summer, logging close to a hundred miles a week. After the summer was over I went back to school to complete the prerequisites for nursing school. I had always wanted to be a nurse but wasn’t able to major in nursing as a full-time athlete so instead I majored in psychology, always knowing that when I finished my undergraduate degree I would return to nursing school.
The next three years I enjoyed the good life. I completed nursing school while coaching high school and club level volleyball. I also continued to ride my beloved mountain bike every chance I got and also began running on the local trails near my house. I found that I really enjoyed running, although in the beginning I was horrible at it. Keep in mind that volleyball is primarily an anaerobic sport so I had difficulty running for any distance or length of time at first. But, I kept at it and after about a year I could comfortably complete trail runs of 5-6 miles, not fast, but at a respectable pace. After I completed my first full year of nursing school a friend from my volleyball days also started running with me. She also got into bike riding and we spent our free time working out together.
The following summer was the summer of 1994. We saw an ad in the paper for a Danskin Women’s Triathlon in San Jose, CA and decided to enter. I had always dreamed of being able to do a triathlon but was too intimidated to enter. So, we made a pact and signed up for it. This was in April, which left us with just two short months to train. So...in addition to cycling and running I added swimming to my workouts. It was horrible at first. I could barely swim 100 yards without stopping but kept at it. By the time our triathlon rolled around I felt comfortable swimming the 400 yards that would be required.
The day before the triathlon we had to check-in and pick up our race packets. I was so nervous but also excited. We went down to the race hotel and low and behold there were hundreds of women there just like us, beginners! There were several vendors selling all sorts of tri-gear (a girl always loves to shop) and we left with not only our race packets but several clothing items! The following morning dawned bright and early and we made our way to Lake Almaden in San Jose for the race. We both had mountain bikes which we knew would be slow but we didn’t care. I put a pair of slicks on mine but my friend had to make do with her knobby tires. Once we arrived we couldn’t believe how many people were there. We finally started to relax and weren’t so intimidated. We racked our bikes, got painted, and made our way to the starting line.
The swim as a lake swim, followed by a 12 mile bike, and a 3 mile run on a paved bike path. Finally it was our age-groups turn and the starting gun went off. I jumped in with all the other swimmers only to learn that swimming is a contact sport in triathlon. I quickly made my way over to the side to allow the faster swimmers and settled into a comfortable stroke after about 100 yards. Once I completed the swim and made my way to the bike racks I knew I was hooked. The rest of the race went well and although I knew I would never be competing for any age-group prizes I still had fun.
I continued to do triathlons over the next four years, gradually moving up to the Olympic Distance. These races were much more difficult and there certainly wasn’t anything scientific about my training. I mainly enjoyed the challenge of completing them and pushing my body beyond what I thought was possible. I was definitely at the slower end of the spectrum but I was also built a whole lot differently than most triathletes. As a volleyball player in college we lifted a lot of weights so I put on about 10-15 pounds of muscle during college. No matter how much I worked out I couldn’t lose that mass so I was never going to run like a gazelle. I didn’t care though, I was still in great shape and felt stronger than I had ever had.
In the fall of 1995 I landed my first nursing job in a critical care unit. The hours and stress took a toll on me since I had to work graveyard shift for two weeks and then switch to day shift for two weeks. I continued this hectic schedule for the first six months until an evening shift position opened up. I absolutely loved my job, and still do. The hours were sometimes long and I worked hard but I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I got out of shape in that first six months but once I started working evenings I slowly regained my fitness. In the spring of 1996 I met the man who would later become my husband. We had tons in common and enjoyed going biking and running together. It seems most of our activities were centered around exercise. My husband had also completed his first triathlon but didn’t care for the swimming aspect and decided to stick with biking and running. Although we worked out a fair amount we also spent a good amount of time eating out and going to movies, which didn’t help out with my fitness level. In the spring of 1998 we moved in together. The apartment we were renting was near a paved bike trail so we continued to run and bike, although not quite as much.
Little did I know it at the time but that summer was the beginning of several injuries that would rob me of my ability to exercise. It all started out innocently at a local 5K run. In the beginning of the run I tripped on a speed bump and jammed my ankle. It hurt but I continued and completed the run, not thinking much about it. I took a couple of weeks off since it was still sore and also didn’t enter any triathlons that summer. After a couple of weeks I started running again but not as regularly as I would have liked. It seemed that between work and living together I just didn’t have as much time to exercise. Gradually, my fitness declined but I was still able to run an occasional 10K or go on a 20 mile bike ride.
In December of 1998 we got engaged and began to plan our wedding. I also enrolled in graduate school at the same time. I spent the next six months planning our wedding while also taking 12 units in graduate school! Needless to say I had little time to exercise. I still tried to run but was noticing that when I was running I kept getting a severe cramping pain in both my lower legs (below my calves but not my Achilles). At first I thought I just needed to stretch more so I would stop and stretch, only to find the pain got worse! This continued for about a year before I finally sought medical care (Lesson #1-always LISTEN to your body). My physician thought I just had tendonitis and sent me to see a physical therapist. I faithfully went to PT every week and continued to try and run, only to continue having problems. By now it was the Fall of 2000 and I’d had this pain for about two full years. My symptoms had gotten so bad that after 10 minutes of running I had such severe pain that I had to stop and was also finding that my feet were going numb. I knew something was seriously wrong. I also couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs or even a small hill without severe pain.
Near the end of September my husband and I moved to a new place. We spent all day Saturday lifting furniture and boxes. At about 3 AM I woke up with a bad side cramp, it felt like a runner’s cramp. I told my husband and he jokingly said, “maybe you have appendicitis.” I blew him off and went back to sleep. The following morning we continued to move and cleaned out our old apartment. By the afternoon my pain was worse and I assumed I had pulled a muscle or something. I went to work the following day and remarked to one of my coworkers that I had pulled a muscle moving and it hurt to laugh. We had a meeting that day at work so I wasn’t out on the floor. By this time I was guarding my side with my hand and it was starting to hurt to touch. I made it through the morning part of the meeting and went to the hospital cafeteria for lunch. After lunch my manager remarked that I didn’t look good and insisted I talk to one of our physicians. I grudgingly agreed and one of our physicians examined me. She said she thought that I should go to the ER and that I definitely did not just pull a muscle. So, off I went down to employee health. Once there, they examined me and by now I was getting pretty uncomfortable. They recommended I go to my hospital (I received care at a different hospital than my employer) ASAP. My coworker drove me to my hospital and eight hours later I was in surgery for appendicitis!
It took about six weeks to recover from surgery completely and I resumed going to PT after that. A couple of more sessions and my therapist recommend I see a sports medicine physician. I got an appointment rather quickly and went to see a specialist. I suggested to the sports medicine physician that maybe I had compartment syndrome, a condition caused by the muscle swelling and the fascia (covering around the muscle) not being able to stretch with the muscle. Once this happens circulation to the muscle is diminished and the symptoms of claudication appear, severe cramping pain and numbness. He thought that could be a possibility and made an appointment for me to return to be tested for it. The test involved him inserting a needle into my lower outer legs connected to a gauge to measure pressure inside the compartment or space between the muscle. He did this while I was at rest and then had me run on a treadmill until my pain appeared and then tested the pressures again. Sure enough, this is what I had. Finally, an answer! After undergoing a bone scan to rule out other possible causes I was scheduled for surgery. In the spring of 2001 I underwent bilateral lower leg fasciatomies. The recovery was fairly rapid and I was back running symptom-free in about a month! I was so excited that I could exercise and resume my old lifestyle. I was still busy working on my graduate degree but at least I could exercise again! However, the toll of not really being able to do meaningful exercise over the past 3 years had taken its toll on my body. I was now about 35 lbs overweight and out of shape. I was frustrated and down on myself. I had no energy and felt sluggish. I spent the next year or so working out inconsistently and still feeling sorry for myself.
Finally, last year I made a decision to get back in shape. I started watching what I ate and exercising more, although still just casually. I lost about 12 pounds initially. I continued to exercise fairly regularly, but never really pushing myself. In October of 2002 I went on a 5-mile trail run, my in about four years. It felt good to get out there and push myself. The next morning while getting ready for work I was pretty sore and when I got up from putting my shoes on I tweaked my knee. I had pretty severe pain right away and could barely stand on it. Uggh! After seeing my sports medicine physician he suspected I had torn my meniscus. I underwent arthroscopic surgery in December 2002. The good news was that I didn’t tear my meniscus but there was some wear and tear that needed cleaning out.
My New Year’s Resolution was to finally get back in shape and feel good about my body. In a five year period I went from being in excellent shape to being a complete slug. On January 1st I entered the Body for Life program, which is focused on strength training, along with short cardio sessions. I spent the next 12 weeks lifting weights three times a week and doing 20 minute cardio sessions three times a week. At the end of the 12 weeks I didn’t really lose any weight but I did lose bodyfat and put on muscle. I had doubled my upper body strength and my knee was completely healed with no residual pain.
Finally I was gaining some confidence back in my fitness! I continued to run and do cardio after the program but stopped lifting. I am one of those rare women who puts on muscle really easily and I felt I didn’t need to gain any more mass. I went on a walk with my friend (the one who I used to do triathlons with) and we decided to enter a Tri for Fun sprint triathlon in June. She is also married now and had two kids under age 3 so fitness has been a challenge for her too! We made a pact back in March, and although life doesn’t give us much time to work out together we agreed to do the race in June.
I started swimming and added biking to my routine. I am now working day shift so sometimes it’s difficult to workout after a 12 hour shift but I make time. Then, in April I saw an ad for San Jose Fit, a marathon training program. My husband said he thought I should try it, it would give me structure in my training. I also had the secret dream of doing something like that but didn’t think my body could handle it. I told myself it would be a good way to jumpstart my training and if I completed it I would should for an Olympic Distance or Half-Ironman distance next summer (2004). I started the San Jose Fit program in April and it has done wonders for me. When I started the program I could still only barely run three miles. Last week I ran 9 miles straight! I never dreamed of being able to run more than six miles and now six miles is fairly easy! I am training for an October marathon and am also planning on doing an occasional sprint distance triathlon this summer as a break from training. I haven’t been doing much biking or swimming but have been doing lots of running. It’s tough on my body and I am battling shin splints and a nasty case of plantar fasciitis but I am sticking with it. I am finally feeling fit again, and although I have a long way to go, I still have to courage to give it a tri!
Hobbies: Triathlons, hiking, chasing my son around.
Job: Critical Care Nurse