Do Or Not Do: This Is My Tri!
I was up before my alarm went off the next morning: Race Day. Trying to make as little noise as possible, I tiptoed around The Boyfriend’s Upper West Side apartment as I ate breakfast (cereal with skim) and got dressed in the clothes I’d laid out the night before: bathing suit, shorts, tee shirt, flip flops. Everything else I’d need for the day — swim paraphernalia, helmet, sneakers, energy gels, etc. — were in a duffel bag laying in the middle of the entryway so there was no chance I would forget it. At 4:45 a.m., he blearily walked me to the door, wished me good luck and kissed me good-bye.
“I’ll see you at Gray’s,” I said. He’d told me he’d be standing on the course near his favorite hot dog joint on 72nd Street. Though he’d once missed one of my race finishes because picked the exact moment I crossed the finish line to patronize the bar sponsoring the event, I wasn’t worried. What did worry me, as I hailed a cab to the transition area, was the first leg of the race: an almost-one-mile swim, scheduled to start in about 90 minutes.
It was raining when I left the apartment. Not awesome. I had racked my bike the night before in the transition area, a fenced-in piece of land in New York’s Riverside Park where volunteers watched participants’ stuff all night to make sure it didn’t get stolen. Awfully nice of them, right? Bertha, my blue Trek 7.2 FX, was hanging where I’d left her in her designated spot. I dropped my bag, arranged things in a way I hoped would help me get on the bike quickly and then followed everyone else north along the riverwalk to the swim start. The rain had stopped.
I walked near a short woman who was chatting with her male companion. “Can you see any jellyfish?” he asked cheerily, peering over the railing into the murky Hudson. She seemed less enthusiastic about exploring and just as relieved as I was when he couldn’t find any jellies.
“I just keep telling myself, ‘I am a good swimmer. I am a good swimmer,’” she said to me, adding, “This is my first Olympic.’”
Yay! Someone who shared my anxiety! “This is my first ever!” I said in a burst of camaraderie that fizzled when I saw her reaction.
“Really?” she asked, her face hard to read. “Well… good luck!”
I slowed down a little to avoid any more awkward conversation. The butterflies cued up their iPods, laced up their shoes and redoubled their efforts.
We walked nearly a mile before picking up our timing chips (worn on a Velcro strap around one ankle) and getting body marked. A volunteer with a stinky black permanent marker wrote my race number on my left arm and the back of my left hand, then my age on my left calf. I put my shirt, shorts and sandals in a plastic bag and placed it in a truck that would carry it to the finish line. From then (around 6:15) until the end of the swim, it was just me, my bare feet, my bathing suit, swim cap, goggles and noseplugs.
Laugh if you must.
I joined the other women in our corral (determined by age and sex) and waited to be moved closer to the barge floating at 99th Street. Every time a wave of swimmers would jump in the water, we’d move up. The waves were leaving the start every three minutes or so; the barge was getting closer and closer. I tried not to get freaked out by the fact that I was one of only a few people not wearing wetsuits. They make you streamlined and more buoyant in the water, and they keep you warm if the water is cold. But the river temperature was 74, the race announcer had told us, and I had no driving desire to shimmy myself into a thick rubber bodystocking.
Finally, my wave walked down the ramp and everyone jumped in the water to get ready for our start. I sat my tush on the edge of the barge and eased into the Hudson, then came dangerously close to a moment of pure panic. Because there were so many women in the water in front of me, I couldn’t get a handle on the rope we were supposed to hold on to so the current wouldn’t carry us away before our wave began. I was surrounded by swimmers who were going to thrash and kick as soon as the horn sounded, and I was sure I’d be pushed under with no way to hold my ground.
“I can’t get the rope,” I said, trying to sound like I wasn’t freaking with a capital F. Rationally, I knew that there were lifeguards on the barge, at the finish and in kayaks all along the swim route. But all I could do was think about how the water was so murky, I couldn’t even see my feet beneath me; if I went down, how would they ever find me?
I will forever love the woman in front of me who turned her head and said, “I’ve got it. You can hold onto my shoulder if you want.” I did, I exhaled, and we bobbed companionably for a few moments before it was time to go.
The first few seconds of my swim were all about getting out of the way of the faster women in my wave. They all pulled ahead pretty quickly, leaving me and a few other stragglers to do our thing in peace. I settled into my breast stroke and the panic left me. Just like that, I wasn’t worried about anything anymore. I was going to be fine. Snail-like, but fine.
I lost count of the number of race waves that overtook me. I tried to swim a straight line so I wasn’t wasting energy. I tried to keep the river water out of my mouth — it was safe to swim in, but would YOU want to drink the Hudson? As I neared the finish barge, I thanked the nearest lifeguard for keeping me safe.
“Sure. You okay?” he asked. I couldn’t see him clearly, but I think he had just caught sight of the ’plugs.
“I’m fine. Just slow,” I chirped back cheerfully and set my eyes on the prize.
The most disgusting part of my entire first triathlon experience came when I realized that the river was so shallow in the lead-up to the finish barge that I’d have to walk up to the barge’s ramp. THE BOTTOM OF THE HUDSON IS THE MOST HORRIFYING THING I HAVE EVER TOUCHED. It felt like pudding full of silt. It felt like rot and slime and ick. Every time I put my foot down, I felt like it was being sucked into the river bottom. Totally disgusting.
But soon that didn’t matter, because I stepped onto the metal ramp and a volunteer helped me up onto the barge. I started hooting like a crazy person: I was done! The swim was done! And I was alive! My hardest part was over, and I was pretty damn psyched.
No rest for the weary, though. I still had some biking and running to do!
To be continued…