When the weekly indoor workouts I had faithfully attended began to transition outside in the springtime I was all set. I had a bike, I had a wetsuit and I had running shoes.
I wasn’t terribly sure how to actually use any of it, but I had it.
I’m sure I’ve chronicled some of these stories somewhere already in these blog pages but I don’t remember where exactly, so forgive me as I go through some of them again now.
My biggest fear in moving to the outside workouts was in actually riding my new (well, new to me) bike. If you remember, the last time I had actually ridden a bike was approximately 25 years previously; a bright orange Schwinn Stingray with a huge banana seat and these great sweeping ape-hanger handlebars that I got for my 12th birthday. It sure as shit didn’t have any gears, or brakes that you operated with your hands so this was going to be all new territory for me.
Luckily (depending on how you look at it), the first springtime workout was going to be the group ride, meaning I was going to learn how to ride a bike in front of other accomplished cyclists.
A few days before the ride, in complete state of panic, I watched a few cycling videos on YouTube to see what in the hell I was supposed to wear. I mean, surely you don’t ride bikes in track s pants do you?
Besides the pair of padded diapers and clipped in cycling shoes that I had picked up for my spin classes, I didn’t have any other cycling specific gear beyond my water bottle. I didn’t have a nice, aerodynamic cycling jersey or fancy riding gloves so I opted to wear an old, oversized wicking shirt I had found at the Goodwill for a few bucks. I also bought a cheap helmet and, yeah, good to go.
Here’s me in all my newbie glory:
I may not have looked very pretty but, hey, I was probably only going to end up in a crumpled pile by the side of the road anyway.
Oh, and for the record, this is still the same bike I ride today.
On the morning of the ride, I was picked up at my doorstep by another member of the group I had met and befriended over the winter, Manisha, who also conveniently worked at the local Liberty! cycle shop. We had arranged it this way so she could at least show me how to change the gears, as well as clip myself in and out of the pedals so, hopefully, I wouldn’t make a total ass of myself.
If you’ve never ridden in clipped in pedals before, let me assure you that it’s a bit daunting at first. I had already picked up a cheap pair of cycling shoes with SPD clips to use in my spin classes but, riding clipped in on a stationary bike is one thing, riding outside with traffic and shit is entirely another.
I was quite literally fearing for my life.
However, I did ultimately manage to arrive at our groups’ agreed upon meet up place approximately 4-5 longs kilometers away pretty much unscathed. What this means is that I didn’t wipe out or end up as a greasy smear underneath a passing motorist.
Again, yay for the small victories!
As it happened, Bill was also leading these group rides and for the next two hours he ran us through the in’s and out’s of riding in a group formation (the same fundamentals I am teaching my daughter now – click HERE), or what’s known as a ‘peloton’ if you want to be all fancy about it. Eventually the imminent fear that I was about to kill myself at any second began to subside and I actually started to relax and enjoy myself.
On more than one occasion, Bill would have to call me back after I had managed to get myself too far ahead of the rest of the main group. I guess all those winter spin classes meant that I had somehow developed this new strength in my legs that I didn’t even know I had. After months of sitting on a stationary bike at the gym riding outside was like passing through Dr. Who’s time tunnel. I’m not sure really if my newfound “speed” was because I was good at it, or if the other better cyclists were just humoring me.
(Likely the later)
No matter, I was just having fun riding my bike for the first time in nearly two and a half decades. What I remember most is the feeling of sheer joy that can only come with cruising along somewhat effortlessly at 30kph down back roads that you have never been on before. It was like I was 12 years old all over again and exploring my neighborhood and ultimately tasting freedom for the first time.
It’s a feeling I still get when I ride my bike now.
The indoor swim sessions also moved outdoors to the old canal in Welland. These scared me at first as well. I mean, anyone who has ever seen ‘Jaws’ is likely going to have images of being bitten in half by a creature from the deep run through their mind at some time despite the fact that the scariest thing in the Welland canal is likely a rusty shopping cart.
What spooked me even more was that I was now going to have others actually see me in my wetsuit. As if the sizing at the store wasn’t embarrassing enough, now I had to actually put it on in front of people. At least at the store, I had an entire team of shop attendants to help me but now I was going to have to wedge my fatness into it all by myself. This process alone probably lasted longer than the actual swim workout and, truthfully, for the next few weeks I was mindful to arrive well before everyone else just to repeat this struggle in stoic silence.
Thankfully, when it came to actually get in the water…I was in love. I mean, I really loved it. Sure I still had the odd “duuuuuuuun dunnn… duuuuunnnn duun….duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun…” go through my head at random points and I know that some people tend to get nervous and experience panic attacks at not being able to see the bottom of the pool and whatnot, but I found the whole thing thrilling. I loved seeing the odd fish swim beneath me; I loved hearing frogs croak underwater; I loved the feeling of weeds brush against my face.
I still do.
I wouldn’t say I was a natural, but it certainly wasn’t hard to talk me into going for a swim after the initial few workouts that first season. Truthfully, it never has been ever since either. It’s easily my favorite workout of the summer.
I kept up with the running too.
I had no idea how to actually plan and implement a well-structured weekly run program, but I laced up regularly and ran around the block ad nauseum. I still wasn’t very confident to venture out beyond my own neighborhood at that point.
The club also ran outdoor Brick workouts and I did those too. It was likely during these specific Thursday night workouts located in Pelham that I actually started to develop a little confidence that I might actually be able to do this triathlon thing.
I got faster; I got stronger; I got fitter.
I even got thinner.
I also bought the ‘Triathlon for Dummies‘ book which, truthfully, I never read. It just made me feel more validated as an official triathlete in a weird way.
(Note: When I did eventually sit down to read it months later, it was complete shit)
Somewhere down the line, I figured a test race was in order prior to actually meeting my brother on the starting line in June (we had previously arranged to race the Welland sprint distance race). It might even be that Bill himself suggested I do just that. I do remember though him telling me to forget the whole “try-a-tri” thing and just jump straight into a Sprint distance race. I think my heart likely stopped when he said that but not wanting to appear cowardly, I agreed and signed up along with some of my other training buddies.
However, I couldn’t also help but notice this on the on-line registration form:
“I acknowledge that a triathlon is an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits and carries with it potential for death, serious injury, and property loss.”
What. The. Fuck?
I almost backed out then and there.
Anyway, that first race came in late May in Milton, Ontario. I drove up with Jeremy, one of my new friends from the TryForce group and although I’m pretty certain we must have talked on the way up, I remember nothing of the trip aside from experiencing a complete and utter anxiety attack that I was in over my head…way over my head.
Surely, I was to multi-sport what belt sanders are to nipples. I had an entry level wetsuit, an old bike, a pair of discounted tri shorts and a cheap top I had picked up at Zellers the night before and cut off the sleeves to appear more “sporting” and a pair of Dollar Store sunglasses. I mention this all now because when I rolled into transition, I remember being completely overwhelmed at seeing all the thousands of dollars’ worth of fancy, carbon fiber, space-age looking equipment.
I understand now that all this stuff isn’t necessarily important (in fact, much of it is about as about as useful as a bucket of armpits) and that you can’t simply buy results, but I didn’t know that then and I felt like a complete fraud. If I had any doubts before, I was absolutely panicked now.
Jeremy and I milled around after we had set up in transition, careful to lay everything out as I had been instructed, and he introduced me to a few of the pro’s that he knew who were also competing. They were all standing around fussing over their bikes and discussing their anticipated goal times, etc..
They were all relaxed and focused; almost bored looking. I was definitely envious and maybe even a little star struck.
I was a total duck in water; calm and collected on the outside, but under the surface my lizard brain was working overtime on freaking out.
Suddenly, in what might be considered as a charitable moment of comradery for the obviously poor, fat guy on the periphery of the group, one of them (Hi, Wolf!) turns to me and asks: “what’s your goal today?”
“Umm, I don’t what to shit myself”.
“…or die”, I quickly added.
They all laughed, but I was being deadly serious.
Eventually, the announcer starting calling the racers out of transition to the water’s edge.
“The end is nigh”, I thought.
By this time I was in full blown panic mode. I pictured myself being literally beaten to death in the water (like THIS) at the hands (not to mention knees, elbows and feet) of 300 other more capable triathletes. Shit, I might as well just roll myself up in a carpet and harness myself to an outboard motor to be dragged all over the lake while everyone else took turns punching me in the face. At that precise moment, that option was more enticing.
Shit, water boarding seemed like more fun.
From here, I’m just going to quote word for word from another blog post where I’ve recounted this exact moment before:
“When the time came to enter the water before the race’s official start I found myself smack dab in the middle of the pack and I totally freaked out. Certainly my imminent death by drowning was at hand. So much so was my fear at the time that I immediately moved to the back of the pack with the old ladies and doggie paddlers. Certainly, I was a little more skilled (maybe) but damn if I wasn’t terrified of being in that washing machine.
When the race started, I literally waited for nearly everyone else to get on with it before I even started. I remember watching the flurry of white water erupt from the main gaggle of swimmers and it looked absolutely chaotic. Eventually, I started myself and it wasn’t long before I had joined the fray of flailing body parts, except, it wasn’t as bad as I had thought. Dare I say it, I actually found it exhilarating. Sure I look some lumps and I’m confident I gave some back in return but, all in all, it wasn’t bad. It was tough, sure, but it wasn’t as ‘scary’ as I had initially thought it was going to be.”
In fact, I had stopped being so scared and I think I might have even been smiling, or so I am told anyway. Maybe it was just my face had been contorted into a permanent rictus of fear…I’m not sure.
Either way, I had survived the first leg and I was now onto the bike, of which, I was a little more confident.
Here’s me, blubber and all getting out of wetsuit in transition:
Now, anyone who’s raced Milton before knows that there’s a huge ass monster hill early on in the bike course. Of course, I didn’t know that because I didn’t have the wherewithal then (i.e. common sense) to actually research the course prior to racing it. So as I rounded the third corner, I saw ahead of me what looked like a trail of ants climbing up an ant hill, except those weren’t ants, those were riders making their way up the Sixth Line Hill (approximately a kilometer long) in the distance. This was easily going to be the biggest hill I had ever attempted.
I think I aged about 25 years in that moment.
Not being the best climber at that point, I dropped my gear into the easiest gear I could get into and pedaled as if my life depended on it and I started to pass others riders who were walking their bikes up the hill instead. My lungs burned and my heart was beating faster than a Spider monkey jacked up on Mountain Dew…but I made it. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t someone at the top in tight lederhosen and trumpeting on enormous flugelhorn to signal my arrival at the summit, but I digress.
The rest of the course is a blur because after that first monster of a hill, everything else paled in comparison. I do remember going down the Sixth Hill Line later on though, and that was infinitely more fun.
Inertia is the fat man’s best friend don’cha know?
Anyway, I rode back into transition feeling pretty proud of myself and figuring that things were going well despite my feeling like I was going to throw up. Thankfully, I had also managed to avoid shitting myself thus far.
Here’s that exact moment:
However, as soon as I put on my running shoes and started running, whatever fun I was having quickly melted away. I couldn’t feel my feet. Like, I literally couldn’t feel my feet striking the ground and I started to worry that I done some kind of severe nerve damage to myself.
I figured that there was really nothing I could do about it at this point so I just kept on plodding along in my own Bataan Death March toward the finishing line. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment as far as running is concerned and I’m pretty sure I died a thousand deaths along the 7.5 kilometer run course. I’m even pretty sure that all the old ladies and doggie paddlers began to pass me as well but I didn’t care, as long as I was still alive and shit free I was happy. In fact, The Coach, of whom I was just getting to know, whizzed past me somewhere along the way too.
Eventually, I did start to feel my feet and legs again as the bike weariness began to wear off and I instantly wished they hadn’t because everything hurt. However, I am a stubborn son-of-a-bitch if nothing else and I managed to make it to the end where all my peers and friends were there to greet me.
Here’s a picture of that exact moment:
Notice the smile on my face.
I was exuberant.
I mean, it sucked of epic proportions but I was extremely proud of myself.
Most importantly, I had crossed the finish line 100% shit free.
For the first time in years, it felt like I had accomplished something of real significance and I was definitely hooked. Suffice to say that I placed myself in voluntary traction on my couch for the entire next day with a bowl of Doritos. I’m sure I even did and said all those annoying things that rookie triathletes tend to do (click HERE) as well. I probably didn’t take my medal off for weeks. I just couldn’t help myself. I felt almost reborn in a weird kind of way.
I would go on to complete five more triathlons that summer, each time I got a bit faster and a little more race savvy. And, oh, that race with my brother that started this whole crazy triathlon crazy train? I beat him. And then I beat him again three weeks later in his “re do”.
I’m not trying to brag or anything, but:
Riding on my wave of uber-confidence I even participated in the ‘Run for the Grapes’ half marathon at the end of that summer, but that’s a completely different story of hellacious misery.
So, yeah, that’s it. That’s more or less how I went from cheeseburgers to triathlon over the course of two years. And I’m still at it, of course. I’ve learned a great deal since then and I like to think I’m much better at it to boot. The funny thing is, I’ve grown beyond these “short distance” sprint events have evolved to become more of a long distance specialist..like I could have ever seen that coming!
That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced my fair share of obstacles and setbacks – shit, these blog pages are filled with them – but I’ve also learned that that’s just all part of the process and part of what makes this sport such a unique challenge. One I hope that I will continue to participate in and enjoy for years to come…unless I do actually shit myself.
Because if that ever happens…I’ll be taking up croquet.