Sunday, April 24, 2016

Finishing the Race (aka: My First Triathlon)

(By the way, the background in this photo is a metaphor for my success.)

Isn’t it ironic that I last wrote about minimalism and then didn’t post anything for weeks? Well, at least I’m not a hypocrite. One thing I like about this blog though is that I can write whatever I want to write about, whenever I want to write. That’s the joy of it.

One thing that’s been taking up my attention lately (aside from two busy babies) is training for a triathlon, which was one of my 2016 resolutions. It was my first one, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was physically prepared, yes--I’d trained for months and I was in good shape, so I felt sure I’d be able to make it across that finish line at the very least, and I did. But I had no idea how unprepared I was until I was miles off course and completely lost.

The triathlon started with a 750 yard swim Friday night. I took my time, finished in 21 minutes (not excellent, but not terrible either), and a couple of race officials even acted shocked when I embraced my two little tots after getting out of the pool. They might have been faking it to make me feel better about my time, but regardless, being a mom to a nursing baby and busy toddler, I was completely satisfied with just finishing.

The next day, I was a little more nervous. I hadn’t trained much on a bike, and so even though I’d built up enough strength and stamina to go the distance, I wasn’t sure how good a biker I’d be in the actual race. It turned out that my worries were well-founded. My first hitch was finding my bike as I crossed the starting line--there were hundreds, and they all looked alike. Even though I knew the row my bike was on, I didn’t spot it right away, and so after walking back and forth a few times--as everyone else passed me on their bikes--I had to get some help from a friendly race official.

That was pretty embarrassing, but we quickly found it, so I hopped on, and off I went. And then he stopped me....because I wasn’t supposed to get on my bike until after I got past the bike racks. So I scrambled off my bike (easier said than done--it’s precarious up there), walked a few more feet, then I hopped on again and was finally off.

It took a couple miles to get the hang of shifting on the bike I’d rented. And I wasn’t used to riding alongside cars whizzing past me on the highway and crossing through busy intersections, so I was pretty tense and anxious as I tried to keep pace with the other bikers. Passing roadkill every few hundred yards, I became aware of how easily I could lose control of the bike and get flattened by a speeding pickup truck. I wished I had a sign on my bike that said, “SLOW DOWN! I’m not just a biker, I’m a mom!” What would my babies do without me if I didn’t make it back to them in one piece?  

I sent up a silent prayer (or two or twenty), and tried to stay calm. I looked around cautiously and took in the breathtaking view of the green hills and trees in blossom all around me. I started to notice bikers going the opposite direction on the other side of the road, so I knew I was nearing the turn-around point. What a relief that was--the way back would be easier, more familiar, and mostly downhill.

A sampling of the scenery

 “This is my last turn, I thought. The turn-around point must be straight ahead from here.” I couldn't see any bikers ahead of me, but I took a left as the race official motioned, and was pleased to find myself biking through a beautiful neighborhood with tree-lined streets, ponds full of baby ducklings, and parks shaded by weeping willows. I was so busy enjoying the scenery that it wasn’t until after a couple miles that I realized I hadn’t seen any bikers coming back on the other side of the road. I should’ve reached the turn-around point already. I didn’t want to believe it, but it was starting to look like I was off-course.

When it finally hit me that I was really lost, I broke down. I had no idea how to get back on course. (I should have, but I’m getting to that.) Even more, I was terrified at the thought of having to find my way back without the race officials to help me cross all those busy intersections. I knew they’d be gone if I went back--I’d biked too far off course and all the other bikers would’ve reached the turn-around point already. And without the race officials to direct me, how would I even know where to go?

I kept biking (and sobbing, simultaneously), trying to decide what to do, and when I paused at an intersection, I happened to meet a family on their bikes. I asked if they had a phone I could borrow, thinking I would call Ben to come pick me up. When I told them I was in a triathlon and had gotten lost, they looked up the race course online (thank you, smart phones!) and helped me figure out where I’d taken a wrong turn and how to get to the turn-around point from there. I climbed on my bike and started back, but I still wasn’t sure about finishing--part of me wanted to give up and wait for Ben or a search party to come looking for me. I even considered biking another three miles to my house, which would've been a lot quicker, and then I wouldn’t have had to bear the shame (I thought) of showing up after everyone else had finished.

“If I knew I'd make it back, I'd keep going,” I thought. I still felt panicked at the idea of being alone on that busy highway, so I just kept praying for God’s help, and the more I prayed, the more I felt I should finish the race I'd started. And I’m so glad that I did. As I got closer to the turn-around point and started to recognize the course again, I got a little more confident. “All along, I just wanted to finish,” I thought. “All I have to do is finish. It doesn’t matter if everyone else's packed up and gone home and I come in dead last, so long as I'm not dead. God, my family needs me. Please bring me back to them safely.”

After a few miles, I passed another biker, who was walking her bike along the highway, so I stopped to see if she was okay. She'd gotten a flat tire, so she was finishing the bike course on foot. I was shocked at how cheerful she was. "These things just happen," she said to me with a great big grin. "You're just a couple miles away. Go for it!" That encounter totally changed my attitude and perspective. She could've easily been frustrated and discouraged, like I was, but she was making the best of it, even if that meant walking the rest of the way. I sped away with a little more pep and little less caution (but still enough to stop at a major intersection and wait several turns for a crossing signal). By this time, I'd made up my mind that I'd finish, no matter how long it took.

Once I made it to the transition point, they were already announcing the race winners over the loud speaker. I hung my bike on the rack and started my 5K run, hoping no one but Ben had noticed. "Just finish," I kept telling myself. My backside was sore from the bike ride, and at times I wanted to slow down and walk, but I distracted myself by admiring the beautiful homes and hills and streams as I jogged past.

The race officials, who were still stationed along the 5K course, were cheering me on, too. At first I felt guilty and apologized for making them stay so late, but they assured me that they were there to support me and keep me safe. And as it turned out, I wasn't the last runner they were waiting on after all. Along with the biker on foot I'd passed earlier, I passed a couple of incredible elderly ladies (that's right, elderly), who were also racing just to finish, and we cheered each other on as I passed them.

The arrows on the road were difficult to follow, and I almost got lost once or twice again, but as I finally saw the finish line ahead, I picked up my pace almost to a sprint and crossed with a huge wave of relief and satisfaction. I could see the relief on Ben's face, too--he hadn't seen me in the transition as I'd hoped, and he'd been worried about me. And as I'd feared, almost everyone had packed up and gone home, but with my little family and a few race officials cheering for me at the finish, it just didn't matter anymore. I FINISHED!

With all of the emotions I felt that day, at one point I reasoned that it was the race official's fault that I got lost--that he misdirected me--but by the time I finished, I knew everything came down to me. I was the one who hadn't studied the course, who got lost, and who found my way back to finish the race. I definitely had help--I couldn't have raced at all without Ben taking care of our kids or all the volunteers who made the race happen, and heaven knows I'd be dead without God's grace and protection that day--but whether or not I got lost, and whether or not I finished was my choice. Lesson learned. And at the risk of sounding like a complete sap, I believe it's a lesson for life, too.

So here's some advice for other first-time triathletes, along with a few life lessons for all of us trying to "run with patience the race set before us." (Hebrews 12:1)

Advice for first-time triathletes:
  • First, watch someone else compete in a triathlon. If you don't know someone, watch a YouTube video.
  • Find an experienced triathlete to talk to and get their advice.
  • Study the course ahead of time and know it by heart. Go and drive it or ride it so you know exactly where to go on the day of the race.
  • Keep a map of the course with you, folded up and tucked into your waistband. It wouldn't hurt to carry a waist pack with your phone in it either, in case you or someone else is in trouble.
  •  Don't think you can follow the other athletes and stay on course.
  • Also, don't think you can rely on the race officials or arrows to keep you on course. They are extremely helpful, and you should pay close attention to them, but they can be confusing sometimes.
  • The race officials aren't perfect--they're just volunteers and they don't know everything--but they're there to keep you safe and support you, so don't hesitate to ask for their help. They'll do anything they can for you, whether it's helping you find your bike or the bathroom, giving you snacks and water, or just cheering you on, even if you're dead last. Remember, they've given up their whole day to help you, so don't forget to thank them!
  • If you get off-course or get a flat tire, just keep going. It's worth finishing.
  • It's your first time, so pace yourself. Don't worry if people are passing you. You can worry about improving your times later.
  • Find a friend to compete with, and stick together! The race will be easier and more fun when you can help and cheer each other on.
  • Enjoy the scenery, but don’t get so distracted by it that you lose your way or lose control of your bike.
  • Wear sunscreen, and trade your helmet for a hat when you start your run (or you WILL get sunburned).
  • It’s hard work, but have fun, keep on praying, and keep on smiling!

Life lessons for running the race with patience:
  • Watch and learn from others who are achieving the same things you hope to.
  • When you're planning for the future, find someone to talk to who's been there before and get their advice.
  • Trust that God has a course for your life and ask Him to guide you.
  • Study His words and know them by heart.
  • Decide now what choices you will make and which way you will follow.
  • Keep a copy of your favorite verses so you can refer to them often.
  • Don't think you can follow the crowd and find your way.
  • Also, don't think you can rely only on God's leaders without knowing the way for yourself.
  • His leaders aren't perfect. Teachers, ministers, bishops, church leaders--they're just doing their best to serve God and they don't know everything, but they're there to support you and help you find your way, so don't hesitate to ask for their help. They'll do anything they can for you, whether you need a listening ear or advice or just someone to cheer you on. Remember, they're sacrificing a good deal of their own time, so don't forget to thank them!
  • If you lose your way or hard times slow you down, don't give up. Even if you've made a huge mistake, it's worth finding your way back, no matter how afraid or embarrassed you are or how impossible it seems. And just like the biker with the flat tire, when the unexpected happens--whether it's a health problem or divorce or financial crisis--just keep going. It may slow you down for a while, but it doesn't have to keep you from finishing the race, or from enjoying it. You can do this, and God will help you every step of the way.
  • This is your one chance to live your life, so pace yourself. Don't worry about trying to keep up with anyone. Have patience with yourself and others. "Life is a marathon (...or triathlon...), not a sprint."
  • Find a companion to spend your life with, and stick together! Life will be easier and more fun with your spouse when you help and cheer each other on.
  • Enjoy life, but don’t get so caught up in pleasure that you lose your way or lose control.
  • Wear the protection of God's armor every day (Ephesians 6:10-17).
  • It’s hard work, but have fun, keep on praying, and keep on smiling!