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  • Writer's picturehlhowells

Things I've learned doing Triathlons

Two weekends ago, I showed up to the start line of the first triathlon I have done since the birth of my younger son, Zeb, almost two and a half years ago. It was a sprint triathlon (a half-mile swim, a 12.5 mile bike ride, and a 5k / 3.1 mi run), which doesn’t seem like much to me. I’ve been doing triathlons since 2002, at various distances up to the two Half-Ironman events I’ve completed, which clocked in at 1.25 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking, and 13.1 miles of running, each. I love endurance races. I have completed multiple half-marathons in most years since my first one in 2004, and I have one full marathon and one 100-mile “Century” bike ride under my belt as well.

But here’s why this short little race was different:

1) It was not only my first triathlon since Zeb was born, it was also my first triathlon since I turned 40 years old this past spring. It is a life goal of mine to complete one FULL IRONMAN event (2.5 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles running) prior to reaching the age of 50. And now that I have entered my POWER DECADE (which spans from age 40 to 50), I’m not having any more babies, and it’s time to get serious about starting my path toward that full Ironman event I’m going to complete in the next ten years.

2) I got a PR! (A personal record.) This was the fastest sprint triathlon I’ve ever done, and I blew my previous best time out of the water by almost 10 minutes. I still am not fast, but I do like to improve on my own past performances, and in that sense, this was a decisive WIN!

3) And this is the sickest part of all: I didn’t really even train for this damn thing. Don’t get me wrong. I have been running all summer. I run all year long. I have done two half-marathons and a trail half-marathon so far this year. So yes, I was well-trained for the run. But the swim? The bike? When I look back at my work-out log for 2019 (I’ll admit I’m one of those obsessive people), I have only been lap-swimming TWICE, and I have only been out on my bike THREE TIMES since New Year’s Day. Arranging childcare for a swim or a bike ride is much more challenging than plopping both kids in the jogging stroller for a run, and I have let it be more of a barrier than I like to admit. Yet I not only rocked the run, I biked the course like a bat out of hell, and nailed my fastest ever half-mile swim time . . . without training at all.

I had NO IDEA I was going to step out onto this course and get a PR. In fact, I thought I would occupy my typical place at nearly the end of the pack, in the sparsely populated -- but content! -- crew of folks I affectionately refer to as the “slow-but-happy” crowd. I merely wanted to get back out there, get my feet wet again, complete one triathlon of any length, and be able to tell myself I was back in the game for my Power-Decade push toward a Full Ironman. Nothing more. Yet somehow, without really training, I got a PR.

But let’s back up a bit.

Historically, I started doing triathlons to lose weight, the first time I found myself about 100 pounds overweight. I have never been a competitive person. I would get upset as a kid when my family wanted to keep score at miniature golf; I don’t enjoy games for competition, only togetherness. I’m not athletic, in the traditional sense of the word. My middle-school gym teacher once held a parent/teacher conference with my mom to tell her I was the clumsiest girl she’d seen in 25 years of teaching gym. I’m not usually allowed to play sports with balls. I’m a danger to myself and others.

But I needed to do something, so why not go completely nuts and sign up for a triathlon? At age 22, 100 pounds overweight on a 5’1” frame, as someone who loved to swim but hadn’t done it in years, HATED to run, and was not even really stable on a mountain bike, I signed up for my first triathlon. I’m clearly insane.

Friends, I could not even run a half a mile. I would run for one minute, then walk for one minute, then repeat. I cussed every step of the way. Running SUCKED. By the end of my first year after college, I had finished a Half-Sprint triathlon event. The run was a mile and a half! This was in the summer of 2002. Then, that fall, I did my first Sprint tri, including a 5k run. And the following spring, I finished my first Olympic-length tri. By then, I’d lost 70 pounds, and . . . I’d gotten the bug. I loved endurance racing.

Or at last, I loved completing endurance events. I wasn’t really racing. That whole non-competitive thing again. I didn’t give a hoot if I was slow, as long as I got to the finish line. In fact, I didn’t even give a hoot if I was the last person to finish the race. Several times, I WAS the last person to finish the race. Once it was due to two flat tires, but most of the time it was simply due to me not being very fast.

I was dedicated! I trained! I signed up for progressively longer distances – and I loved it. I wasn’t fast, but I could go FAR. I just wasn’t competing. I have always been motivated by deadlines, so I signed up for races – not to race, but to give myself a deadline. I needed to complete XYZ distances by ABC date, and man, when I had those deadlines, I would do the work I needed to do, to go to completion. I would truly show up to these races and think: “We all trained on our own, and now we’re here to do it together, just one time.” Though I was in my 20’s, I would sincerely feel my heart swell with pride when I was passed by people 30 or 40 years older than me, thinking, “I hope to be able to do that by the time I’m your age!”

I gradually stopped hating running, and started to feel -- meh -- neutral about it. Then, I got my first “runner’s high”. I came home after a less-painful-than-usual night run in Arizona, and it kicked in about 10 minutes after I got home. I inexplicably felt the drive and energy to clean the whole house. Over time, I grew out of embracing running as a necessary evil, and started to find it necessary for my mental health.

Still, I never got faster. I just ran slowly, farther. I affectionately but self-effacingly referred to myself as the “fit-but-fat poster child”. I stayed in the slow-but-happy crowd, all the way up through my first half-Ironman. That was in 2005: the Mooseman Half-Iron Triathlon, in New Hampshire! After weathering one flat tire on my bike and needing to walk much of the 13.1 mile run due to an injury, I completed the Mooseman triathlon after the race had officially ended. The time deadline was 8 hours and 30 minutes, and I crossed the finish line around 8:49. This meant I was listed online as a “DNF”, or “Did Not Finish.” I still had a great time! I wrote a three-page thank-you letter to the race organizers who continued to track my time, allowed me to complete the course, and even kept the volunteers there handing out coke and chocolate chip cookies so I was supported the whole way. The experience was wonderful, and I knew I had completed the distance and had my time recorded, despite the DNF status posted for the world to see.

That was also when I realized that my distance goals would ultimately be out of reach if I didn’t improve my speed.

By necessity, most races have cut-off times. If you do not reach certain distances by certain times, you are not guaranteed support to finish the race. This is for practical reasons. Car traffic needs to take over the streets again; volunteers need to go home. In some races, you’re even pulled from the course due to safety concerns.. I thought I'd have to give up my dream of completing a full Ironman, because I would never make the cut-off times. I thought all full Ironman events had 12-hour cut-off times. I was out of the running, and I was disappointed, but not defeated.

I continued to sign up for races, and decided to “take it easy” during grad school. I trained and showed up for several Olympic-length triathlons. I noted my PRs during that time, but didn’t put much stock in them. I fell in love with road-biking in the Appalachians around my university, and completed a very slow 100-mile Century ride (Mountains of Misery, in the Appalachians, with 10,000 feet of vertical climbing!) with my fiancée the year we married. I really enjoyed it, but I still was off-course, thinking there was no way I could complete a full Ironman.

The year I graduated veterinary school and moved to Colorado, I decided to try a full marathon, to see if I could complete such a thing in under the time allowed. I focused on increasing my mileage, but I also had to be mindful of the time cut-offs, as I would need to complete the 26.2 miles in less than 6 hours to be considered a “finisher”. Friends, I finished that race in 5 hrs and 50 minutes. Hot damn! I was back “on”, and I had proven to myself that I could beat a time cut-off, even if I wasn’t fast.

Denver Rock and Roll Marathon, 2010

The following year, I completed the Ironman 70.3 Boulder race, a half-iron distance, in 8 hours and 12 minutes. I was a “finisher”! And, I met some female full-iron finishers while waiting to start the swim. They told me that many full Ironman races, in fact, allow 17 HOURS to complete the race. My dream crept back in: if I can complete a half-Ironman in less than 8.5 hours, then maybe, just maybe . . . I could finish a full Ironman within 17 hours. In 2011, when I finished that race, I was 32 years old.

Over time, I thought more about it and fleshed out my goal. I would spend my child-bearing years, from age 32 to age 40, tackling shorter races. Working on my speed. Decreasing my times. Still not competing against others (it’s just not in me), but racing against my own old times, reaching for PRs. Then, once my kids were a bit older, and I had more time to train, I would once again start to tackle longer races, and work my way up to doing ONE full Ironman before the age of 50.

Now I’m 40, and I’m right where I need to be. Between age 32 and now, I have become a mother, twice, to two beautiful amazing humans who have changed my world. I have become more than 100 lbs overweight twice more, when I put myself on hold in service of bringing them into the world and keeping my head afloat. And twice, I have lost the weight, and gotten back to my commitments to myself. 10 days ago, I dipped my toe back in that triathlon water, and got a PR on my first race back in the game. This followed another PR earlier this year, where I had my best-ever time on a trail half-marathon. If I’m getting two PRs in the first year of my Power Decade, and one of them is for a race I barely trained for, imagine what I can do once I actually train!

But it’s important for me to say that this is not about bragging rights. In fact, one of my co-workers recently overheard me talking about these races, and said – “I didn’t even know you were doing that last weekend!” I don’t do this for anyone other than me.

Here is what I have learned about myself doing triathlons, and here is what keeps me focused on this ABSOLUTELY INSANE goal:

· I have a pathological obsession with completion. Obviously. And this is a really good, healthy outlet for it.

· Like many people, and especially women, I struggle with believing I am worthy, capable, and deserving of self-care. Doing progressively longer triathlons has proven to me that I am capable of doing more than I think I can. I have repeatedly achieved goals I didn’t know were possible. And this has given me the confidence to take on things I was scared to try in other areas of my life: Marriage. Motherhood. New careers. You name it. I’d rather go down trying (or Tri-ing! Ha!) than ever say “can’t” to myself.

· Moving my body outdoors IS self-care. When I’m running, biking, swimming, or hiking, these are the ONLY times my mind goes completely quiet. I’m a better person after I come home from these excursions, and I am NOT the person I want to be when I don’t make time for this.

Over the years, I’ve had many transformative triathlon moments. The moment when I completed my first race, running a mile and a half. When I finally stopped hating running. When I finished a half-ironman, a century ride, a marathon. When I realized I’d have to begrudgingly focus on my speed if I wanted to take on a full Ironman. Along the way, I've learned I sometimes have to embrace things I don’t want to do with a growth mindset if I really want to end up reaching my goals.

Ten days ago, in that Outdoor Divas race, I had yet another Transformative Triathlon Moment. Once I was on the bike, feeling like I was flying, I noticed: I was passing people. Lots of people. People who were younger than I am, with nicer bikes than mine. People who started in waves earlier than mine. I passed people going uphill. That has never really happened before. I’m not in the slow-but-happy crowd anymore. Look at these results:

For the first time ever, I am in the top 50% of finishers. Holy crap. There’s a whole new lesson here for me here. The lesson is this: the Primal life-style WORKS. I told a little lie of omission here when I said I didn’t really train. I didn’t bike or swim to prepare for this race; that part is true. I didn’t carbo-load before this race the way I’ve done in the past. And I didn’t do it before my previous trail half-marathon PR this year, either.

I have, in addition to running, simply been focused on eating well. Taking care of myself. And following the Primal Blueprint laws for physical fitness: moving frequently at a slow pace, lifting heavy things, and sprinting once in a while. That is all. I have gotten two PRs this year, putting in only a small fraction of the time I would have spent training for these races in years past. And I feel better than I ever have, with the wind in my jersey, passing my fellow racers on my right, as I think:

Maybe when they’re as old as me, they’ll be doing this, too.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ve got a full Ironman in me, in the next 10 years. If I don’t make it, I’ll surely go down Tri-ing. Wish me luck. And come with me.


Outdoor Divas Sprint Triathlon, 8/18/2019, PR

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