I’m tired of survival of the fittest ruining everything.
After writing a piece about one of my former high school classmates with a gravely ill paraplegic son, I raced out the door for a briefing on a mini triathlon Sunday at the YMCA. I began stressing about it, wondering if I could do it with a case of the sniffles and a bigger case of nerves.
And then I got a huge dose of reality, and a double shot of humility. I thought about my classmate and her son fighting for his life. I thought about people who wish they could participate. I asked myself if my performance, or whether I looked horrible in our team photo, mattered.
I decided it doesn’t. No one except someone with an incredible amount of spare time would care how I looked or fared. So when swimming coach Tess urged me to correct my very poor swimming stroke, I didn’t. When my husband looked at me as if to say, “Why the hell are you doing the breaststroke?” I shrugged. When my running coach Maureen stopped her Honda Civic and ordered me not to walk, I didn’t until she was out of view.
In the end, it doesn’t matter – not a whiff. Float, paddle, peddle, cruise, jog, walk, crawl. Cover the distance. Life’s not always about coming in first, even if you’re the competitive type like me. It’s hard for me to let go of my edge, but I’m trying.
For the record, I finished third from last among 11 competitors. I was among the oldest women and there was no escaping it: a 59 in black Sharpie was scrawled on my left calf, in case anyone saw it and got the urge to beat me. But guess what? When I began the running leg, I was dead last. So much for motivating anyone.
The one woman I did pass in my age group, Mary Kelly, couldn’t care less. And the one guy I passed, Philip, 48, was power walking, taking along his kids and a buddy for the 3.1 mile final leg. Spotting my kids near the outset of run, I begged one of them to join me. I needed to be lifted up, even by an ornery teen telling me to get moving.
And then Kayne West’s song “Stronger” miraculously came on my I-Phone. “Now that that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger.” I listened to that song 10 years ago when I began running again after a long break. It was in the best shape of my running life when a dog mauled me, sidelining me for more than two months. I stopped running for years after the dog bite, mainly because I was terrified of being attacked again.
But I began running again in the summer of 2016. I heard running was good for anxiety, and I had plenty of that. I needed endorphins to level me out, and guess what? Running and fresh air made me feel better.
Pounding my feet to “Stronger,” I found my groove, though it didn’t last long. I had to stop and walk several times to catch my breath. I was, to use my latest favorite term, “gassed.” I usually can’t stand walking during races, but I didn’t care. Some days covering the distance is all you can do.
When my energy waned again, the theme from Rocky came on. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a better song for motivating people when they feel like packing it in. I played it at least five times in the second part of the run, and am convinced I couldn’t have staggered home without it.
This is the second mini-triathlon I’ve done, and it was harder than the first because I knew what was involved. You swim 36 laps (a half-mile), spin for 45 minutes or 13 miles, and run (or hobble) for 3.1 miles. “Why are you doing that?” my mother asked. “And I don’t want you to do it if you have a cold, OK? Just forget about it if you’re not feeling well.”
Don’t you love mothers? They give us an out for everything. My mother has never understood my interest in sports, which began about age 13. She’s not athletic or competitive, which I love. I got my competitive drive from my father, and often joke that as the second of seven girls, I was the son he never had.
I loved my first mini tri. We were a tight-knit group training in spring when everything is full of promise, and did our tri last Mother’s Day. I had a lot more trouble settling into this group. We began training in mid-January, jogging on treadmills because it was too cold or dark to run outside. I couldn’t swim with the group on Tuesdays because of a previous commitment. The only saving grace was the spinning. We had spiffy new bikes and a much bigger spinning room.
The first time around, I made a buddy in a woman named Heather, who needed my help and support running. I got to know Heather well, and we motivated each other. I didn’t have Heather this time around, and I missed her.
This second group was more fractured – loosey goosey if you will. I liked everyone – Erin, Heather #2, Amy and the others – but I didn’t feel I was making any connections. I felt alone.
But as we gathered in the Y lobby for last minute instructions and pep talks from our coaches, I looked around, and finally felt something. We were all in this together, whether we realized it or not.
Without Heather #1 at my side, I struck up conversations with whomever happened to be on the next treadmill or spin cycle. People opened up about their reasons for doing the tri. Most people just felt they needed a challenge, or to kick up their exercise regimes a notch or two.
Philip, who sat on the spin bike next to me during the tri, said “I did it because I’m tired of being fat.” Oh yea? Lost any weight? “Yea, but I keep finding it,” he joked.
But Mary Kelly was different. The first week, Mary told me that she had just completed chemotherapy for breast cancer, and was still receiving infusions during our training. This was Mary’s fourth tri. She said the thought of doing another tri often kept her going during her grueling days of chemo.
As I sat with Mary and Eileen, a whip smart official at Yale, a few weeks ago, Mary said, “When you get breast cancer, everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re so brave to go through the chemotherapy.’ I’m not brave. I don’t want to die.”
Mary has an incredible approach to tri training that I’m sure she applied to her treatment. She puts her head down and does what she needs to do, oblivious to the time it takes to get the job done. She was the most focused member of our group, an inspiration to us all.
When she tried to pull out the cancer card on Sunday while changing out of her swimsuit into her cycling gear, her friend said, “You can’t say you’ve got cancer any more. You had cancer.” We all smiled.
We all have different things that inspire us through dark or difficult times. One person’s celebratory trip to Paris is another person’s mini tri. It’s just important to have a brass ring, something to keep you motivated and keep things interesting.
Just before going under for a colonoscopy last year, the anesthesiologist asked me to think of a place I’d like to go. “Montana,” I said wistfully. He laughed. “That’s a first,” he said. “Usually people say Europe or tropical islands. Montana?”
Hey, I was being honest. Deep blue sky as far as the eye can see. Wild animals roaming freely. Hadn’t he ever heard of the song “Home on the Range?”
Along with Mary, there is the married couple Bud and Lisa. I love these two because they refuse to sit next to each in the spin room, and Bud never answers when Lisa asks, “How’s your heart rate Bud?”
Veterans of prior tris, they have both had their share of health problems. Bud underwent brain surgery after his last tri a few years ago. He’s in his 70s now and has to be careful. A few weeks ago, they decided the swimming is too much, and dialed it back to a biathlon (cycling and running).
Since I was the last one out of the pool this time around, I’m thinking a biathlon might make a lot of sense for me too.