Monday, April 7, 2008

documenting change: twelve.

a triathlete is born.

I can laugh now, but yesterday, it was not so funny.

My first triathlon. I woke up at 4 a.m. thinking, What if I forget how to swim? What if I freeze? Then I talked myself through the process. Keep your feet together, toes pointed, head down, use arms like a windmill that zip up your sides from hip ‘til they’re out of water, head out of water every 3rd stroke to inhale, when head’s in water blow out through your nose. There. You’ll know how to swim. You’ve actually gotten pretty good. I checked the clock and there were 15 minutes before my alarm was to go off. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

The night before, I’d gathered all my supplies. Bathing suit, tri shorts, towel, swim cap, goggles, bike helmet, running shoes, extra socks, change of clothes, sunscreen. The bike was in the car. I’d put bottles of water in the fridge. In the morning, I mixed my electrolyte powder into my water bottles, shook them good.

On the two-hour drive, I sipped some of the water, ate a banana to prevent cramping, ate 2 protein and carb-packed peanut granola bars. I stopped all eating at 6:45 a.m. Let myself sip a little more of the electro-water. SIP, not GULP, I remembered.

About fifteen minutes from the state park, I started picking out songs to get me going. I began with Funkadelic, “Can You Get to That,” a song I always like working out to. I played a couple of Jane’s Addiction songs, “Idiot’s Rule,” “Jane Says.” I played a Gorillaz song, “Dare.” I played one Madonna Song, “Like a Prayer.” When I realized it was about time to get out of the car, I switched back to “Can You Get to That.”

At the park, I signed in. A woman wrote my number, 106, on my arms and legs and my age, 33, on the back of one leg. I met up with my class. I got my transition station set up. Stretched a little. We were cold. We were afraid the water would be cold.

When it was time, we walked down to the edge of the water. The first wave of swimmers (men of a certain age group) went. The second wave went (males again, different age group). I was in the third wave. Men under 29 and all women. It was a small race, just over 100 people. I think there were maybe 30 in my group of swimmers.

In the water we had about two minutes to wade and acclimate. It wasn’t that cold. I took a lot of deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

The man shouted, “GO!” We all began. My face hit the water. All I could see through my goggles, eyes wide open, was brown murk. Three strokes later, I was having a full on panic attack. Lungs constricted, I could not exhale through my nose. Not one bit. I pulled my head out of the water.

I could hear my instructor yelling, “Come on, Herpreet! Swim! Put your head down and swim!” C. says I said, “I don’t think I can do this.” I don’t remember saying that. I remember both c. and the instructor yelling, “Yes you can! You can do it!”

I heard a guy, maybe an official from the event, say, “She can walk if she needs to.” And I thought, There is no way in HELL I’m WALKING through the water. I made a billion attempts to swim freestyle and freaked out each and every time I went under and saw nothing but brown. Something about not seeing my own arms move through the water was beyond unsettling. Not being able to exhale under water made swimming freestyle impossible. You physically can’t come up every third stroke and INHALE if you aren’t EXHALING under water.

FINALLY, I thought, Just do the backstroke. I haven’t swum backstroke in a good six years. But I know it’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re winded or in danger of drowning. (I was unable to breathe, but not about to drown – the bayou wasn’t that deep.) I flipped on my back and swam. The whole time, staring at the blue sky and cypress trees, I told myself, Calm down. Breathe. Calm down. Breathe.

Whenever I thought that maybe I was ready to try freestyle again, I’d flip over, do 3 strokes and flip back over, unable to exhale under water. It was as if I was trying to exhale into the thickest water ever. And I couldn’t. Finally nearing the yellow buoy that marks the end, I swam a tiny bit, and felt myself blowing air through my nose into the water, humming while I did so – just as I’d had to do when I first started training. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, coming up from my diaphragm as air pushed threw my nose into the water making bubbles.

When I emerged, I was so angry with myself. And discouraged. I stomped slowly to the transition area. But my triath instructor kept yelling, “Don’t worry about it. Just keep going!” As I was putting on my shoes, still mad at myself, he was saying, “Hurry up. Get ‘em laced up!” Finally I said, angrily, “I FREAKED OUT in the water!” And he said, “Don’t worry about it. It happens to the best of us. Just keep going.”

When I was finally laced up, helmet on, running my bike out of the transition area, he said, “Have a good ride!”

C. said that when I was in the water saying, “I don’t think I can do this,” he was thinking: I didn’t get up at 4:30 in the morning and drive 2 hours for you to drop out now! I asked, “Did you say that?” He said, “No.” I said, “You should have. It might have put things into perspective.”

When I started riding, the panic ended, but the comedy of errors began. I rode – ALL of the other people so far ahead I couldn’t see them. I got to a fork in the road where there was a sign with a picture of a cyclist and an arrow pointing in the direction we were to head. Bear in mind that you’re riding FAST. I ride by – go where it points. And I second-guess my eyes. Did I read that arrow right? I was heading out of the park. I thought the whole event took place in the park?

I go a quarter mile. I get to the ranger station. I stop. In the middle of a RACE. I STOP. I ask the ranger (a girl who looks about 23), “Is this the right way to go for the race?” She stares blankly. “Did you see about 100 cyclists go by here five minutes ago?” “I don’t remember,” she says. You don’t remember, I think. Shit. I went the WRONG WAY. How could a person not see that? Staying calm, “Do you have a copy of the route for the race?” “No.”

I begin turning around, putting my free foot back into its pedal cage. My right foot is already in the cage, and I accidentally jerk my right knee away from the bike, my right foot basically attached to the pedal, which causes me to pull the entire bike DOWN. I crash. “ARE YOU OKAY?” says the ranger, a look of panic on her face. “I’m FINE!” And I take off. Back to the fork in the road. Only to find that I’d read the sign right the first time…I ride back in the direction of the ranger station. And out of the park.

When I reach a mile marker, I realize I’m headed in the right direction. Eventually I see a cyclist coming toward me. Here comes the winner, I think. Eventually, little groups of cyclists begin racing past me. I’m hoping I’m close to the halfway point. I get there. I turn around, head back toward the park entrance. One lone girl cycles by me, not yet to the halfway point. I’m not last!

I keep feeding myself little rules. Lean forward. Stay straight. Stay hydrated. At various points, I pull out my water bottle and sip (Sip, don’t gulp). I’m very impressed by my ability to stay balanced while riding and also pulling my bottle out of the bottle holder. Sipping without tipping. Good job. Now don’t let that girl get ahead of you.

I ride. I sip. Just when I’m ready to ride like the wind, I place my bottle into the holder, and I hear a thump. I look back to see that I’VE DROPPED MY WATER BOTTLE IN THE ROAD. Do I go back? Do I keep riding? What do I do? Do I go back? No. Keep riding. NO! I might NEED that! I might get dehydrated!! I turn around. I retrieve my water bottle. I place it in its holder. And I ride. Again. Don’t let that girl get ahead of you.

And she passes me.

Then, strangely, a red truck passes me. Pulls over. She pulls over. I turn back trying to decide: Do I stop? Does she need help? Keep going. Just fucking ride. And I do. Maybe she’s a volunteer? Maybe they have someone ride behind the last cyclist? I guess I am last after all.

Still I ride. Still I ride. (ha-ha)

I get to the transition area. Mount my bike. My feet are 100% numb. My legs are wobbling. You better start running before you fall down. I run a quarter mile. I hear myself complain: My shins hurt. I walk the next quarter mile. Two little girls, about five years old, are at the halfway mark holding out water cups. “You can do it!” they scream. “Good job!” they yell. What do you know. I think. But then I hear myself again. You better fucking run this last mile. And I do.

The announcer yells, “And our final triathlete from Baton Rouge, Louisiana is coming to the finish line! And I’m gonna butcher her name!” I turn to him, running, and shout, “HERPREET!” and he announces: “CAPRI!” I finish my first triathlon. I look down and see that my knee has a big red blood clot from the fall. The blood makes me feel sort of proud.

C. says that someone did drop out of the race. “Oh. She looked okay to me,” I say. Then he tells me, “I overheard some girl say, ‘Well, I did better than last year. At least this year I beat the 74-year-old.” “I didn’t beat a 74-year-old?” I whine. Then, silently: I-am-so-beating-his-ass-next-year.

It was our sixth wedding anniversary, so we stopped in Breaux Bridge on the way home and ate a huge Cajun meal together. My next triathlon is May 4th. The swim is in a pool.

SONG: Can You Get to That, Funkadelic

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