We got to the transition area sometime during dawn, when daylight had not yet taken over. The sight of the lake, dark and frigid, sent a little shiver down my neck - it crossed my mind I was in over my head, a thought I banished quickly due to its unpleasant literal implications.
We were early enough for me to prepare without hurry and ask all my questions - how do I use all these bib numbers, where does the chip go, will I know which way to swim? I watched how other people set up their spots in the transition area, the biking shoes and running shoes and helmets and gloves and water bottles all carefully laid out on folded towels, and I felt like an amateur. I didn't have biking shoes, and had stowed everything in a plastic bag. It was windy and a tree-toppling storm had just roamed the area two days before - weren't they afraid all those little things will blow away? Obviously not. It was just me, being anxious.
I wasn't hungry, but I ate a honey stinger waffle (I really like them), and realized I had read nothing ever about fueling for a triathlon. An Ironman I talked to once at the balloon fiesta had mentioned something about eating while on the bike.
The swim beach was also the finish line for the run. Almost everyone started working on putting on their wetsuits, and I felt like an amateur again, watching the Greek gods oil their smooth bodies before battle. After a few minutes of fretting it occurred to me to check how bad things were going to be - I walked to the water and stuck my hand in it. Oh. It wasn't by far as cold as I expected. It wasn't warm, but I didn't see why anyone prepared to do the heroic swim/bike/run would need a wetsuit.
Someone told me a couple of days later wetsuits help you float and this is why everyone was wearing them. So now I know. At the time they seemed totally unnecessary.
The waves started, Olympic distance first. I watched them. They were all swimming freestyle, or so it seemed. After a while I spotted one or two people who were doing breaststroke, so I wouldn't be the only one. But maybe they only did so at the start, until the crowd thinned, so they would see where they were going.
Then my wave started too - the last one. Everyone swam freestyle and left me swiftly behind. I expected that, but it wasn't fun. I was the last one in the whole race, and I had just started. One of those rescue boats they keep around approached me and a nice man inquired, "are you all right?" Hell, yeah, I am just doing breaststroke. Instead of saying that I thanked him graciously for his concern. It didn't help morale that I couldn't discern where I was supposed to go - a big yellow buoy. It was somewhere, but we were swimming against the light, and all I could see was the glitter of the lake where the other swimmers parted water, and I wasn't getting any closer to that.
All of a sudden the big yellow buoy was right in front of me. I made a left, as instructed, and went for the big red buoy. This was the longest stretch in the water, but the easiest for me. I had gotten used to the whole thing, and the OLY swimmers, who were doing two loops, were everywhere, so being the last one wasn't obvious anymore and I almost forgot about it.
But then, from the big red buoy to the shore, it was a struggle. There must have been a current there, because I kept drifting left while I was aiming right, and I wasn't making any progress at all, the shore was as far as it had been, I was swimming and swimming and getting nowhere, and the lake, I could swear, was alive - turbid and threatening, with a will of its own that didn't care about mine.
When I finally made the landing I was shaking like a leaf and sobbing like a child. The racks were empty of bicycles so, hey, it was easy to find mine. I dried my feet off with my tiny towel and pulled on socks and shoes. I was so confused I didn't know which way the helmet went (I had bought it only the day before), but I found the bib number I had stuck on it earlier, and that, I remembered, was supposed to be the front.
The bike course started with a slope so steep I had to walk it. I got the idea from other people. By the time I got to the top I was calm and ready for a ride.
I expected the biking to be no big deal, but I am not sure anymore. It was hilly. The downhill parts offered a few glorious moments, but the uphill stretches (mile after mile, or so it felt) were nothing I had ever tried before and I struggled. Hard. I don't think the other people (OLY, doing two loops) had it easy either, but they still passed me, one after the other, going twice as fast as I. At the half-way point I had another honey stinger waffle, since it was indeed easier to eat on the bike than while running. After what seemed like hours (1h 11 min to be precise) I reached the transition area again, almost crashed at the bottom of the slope where I had to make a right, and didn't dismount where I was supposed to, since I had no idea.
The run course was hilly too, and by now I was tired and hot and didn't understand anymore why I had wanted to do a triathlon. But running while tired and hot I had done before, and there was nothing to stress about - I would finish this, I only had a 5K to put behind me, there was no time pressure, even if I walked the whole course my triathlon was done. I had done it. I didn't need to kill myself running uphill. All I had to do was keep moving.
I was on a flat stretch and running again, at leisure, when something, inside, clicked. I don't know what it was - the certainty that I was so close, the way my shoe bounced off the ground, the desire to break free, the habit of finishing strong perfected in so many marathons - something. I took off like an arrow. And I ran from there to the finish the way I would have run if aiming to win.
Yeah, I know. 2 h 26 minutes, not quite last - a few people still finished behind me. They must have had a flat tire or something. The swim was 31 min 14 seconds for a half a mile. Some of the OLY participants swam a whole mile in less than that. Nevertheless, for a day or so, I felt like a triathlete.
If I ever do one of these things again I have to master freestyle first.