Sunday will mark 11 years since this photo was taken at the finish of my first triathlon. I think it was the summer of 2001 when I started thinking about doing a triathlon, but it's hard to remember exactly. I know that when I started my Ph.D. program in the fall of 2001, I mentioned it in my introduction and that I got a lot of help from a classmate and a faculty member who had been competitive swimmers, because I really didn't know how to swim.
I had seen the Sylvania Triathlon bikers riding by my house -- the first race was in 1981. So it was something I had already heard of when I read You Don't Have to Be Thin to Win(Affiliate link) and realized that it was possible to do something shorter than the race I remembered, and that there were all-women's races that might be friendlier to beginners.
That first race was a pure joy -- you can see it in my face. I wasn't sure I could do it at all, so I trained hard and stayed motivated. My focus was completely on doing the race -- I thought that if I was destined to be fat, I could at least be healthy and athletic. I also saw a nutritionist, figuring that if I was going to train hard like this, I should probably try to be healthier. This, not a diet, was how I lost the first 30 pounds. Then I joined Weight Watchers and lost another 15-20.
About a year later, I joined Team Toledo, which was mostly composed of very serious triathletes, though there were some members who were beginners like me. Having a group to train with helped me, but I also started to compare myself to the other athletes. Some of them look like gods and goddesses walking the earth. It was easy to feel inadequate. My husband was also racing very competitively at this time and was in a "no pain, no gain" mindset, which definitely rubbed off on me.
I did the full Sylvania Triathlon in 2003. I had a very hard time with the heat and I don't think I trained enough to be really ready for such a long race. I felt very bad when I finished and thought there was something seriously wrong. I went to the medical tent and they said I was just overheated and dehydrated. They ran cold water over my back from a garden hose and made me drink a lot. I went back to sprint races for a while and then tried Chicago in 2005 -- it was another very hot, very hard race.
I continued to train and do races, but somewhere along the line, the joy went out of it for me. I lost the beginner's mind and started to worry about my times. I never felt fast enough, and I regained some of my weight and started to feel too fat to be part of a triathlon club. I'm not sure when I quit, but it was around the time that I started working on my dissertation in 2006. Looking at my race history, I didn't do a triathlon myself in 2007, though I did take part in a relay with an online friend who had been hit by a car when cycling. I did the swim, and also walked with her and the rest of the group for the 5K. In retrospect, the fact that someone I knew had been rendered a paraplegic when training for a triathlon scared me a lot. That was also the year I graduated with my Ph.D., so I had serious writing time to put in -- I didn't really have time to train for a race. I did some running, but mostly just to blow off steam from my long chair sessions.
I kept telling myself that I was going to rejoin Team Toledo when I was thin enough to belong. I did start swimming with the Sylvania Masters, which has a lot of Team Toledo members. Last year I paid my dues but never went to anything. This year, I have been going to the open-water swims. I'm still pretty heavy and self-conscious about it, especially in my bathing suit, but I am tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the day that I will feel like I belong. No one has said anything to me and, since there are a lot of new members, a lot of people probably just think I'm one of them. The club has gotten a lot bigger and there more different body types, so I don't stand out like I used to feel like I did.
Someone who knew me way back when gave me a big hug yesterday, and said "It's good to see you back." I am glad to be back, and it is nice to be missed. I love the open-water swims and I wouldn't have any other way to do them without this club. I might not be able to get rid of the occasional feeling that I'm too fat and slow, but I don't want to let them boss me around anymore. I'm 42 years old and not getting any younger. If I want to keep doing this sport, and I do, I'm going to have to accept that slowing down a little might be part of that process.
This time around, I want to keep that beginner's mind. It's okay to push myself, but it's not okay to make my races a test of my worth as a human being. No one but me really cares what my time is. I am, at best, a midpacker, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. I'm just happy to be here.