I hadn’t even seen the dark waters of the Hudson river in early morning light, but I was already thinking about what it would be like to drown in it.

It the 2005 NYC Triathlon, and like everyone else who’s faced a swim in an open body of water at their first triathlon, I was freaking out.

The journey had begun back in 2004, a late winter night.  The week before, one of my gym instructors announced he was starting up a triathlon club.  He encouraged anyone interested to come to Toga bikes the following Tuesday.  I had seen the Dick and Ricky Hoyt videos.  I had seen the Julie Moss crawl.  I saw the Gatorade Chris Legh tale. I was a gym bunny, I was motivated, and I was single.  I thought I’d give it a go.

Toga Bikes

When I walked into the bike store the following week, my jaw clenched. I would have browsed around but I had no reason to buy anything. Everyone there was tight, taut, with shining shaved legs and round bulges of shoulders and biceps straining underarmour shirts or collared office gear.

I didn’t even own a bike. I didn’t even have the shoes. I just really liked spin class.

But despite my incredible level of intimidation, I stayed through the entire meeting.  I gave them my name and email.  And I walked out of the meeting into the chilly evening feeling just a little braver than the hour before.

Specialized Dolce Comp 2005

Step one was to get a bike.  So I wandered back to Toga a few weeks later, one week after the bike shoes purchase — and no, they are not for gym nerds and yes, they really do make a difference, even if you are just taking spin class.  Three hours of a very nice gentleman named Tony’s time later, I had a red Specialized Dolce Comp on order.  One week after that, I picked up my beautiful bike.

Getting it home was a little less pretty.  I walked it five avenues to the park.  I didn’t have my shoes with me, I was wearing a coat, how to go back to the Upper East side?  So, naturally, I waited for the bus.

Several angry waves of a bus driver’s hands later, and I was in Central Park, with no helmet, with a bag full of new clothes hanging from my bike, and wondering if I was insane.  For about one minute.  And then, I was 10 years old again, but faster, meaner, and lighter.  Riding by the light of Central Park at night,I felt incredible.

The one race everyone on the newly formed team, Terrier Tri, had committed to doing was the NYC Triathlon.  A few weeks later, I sat in my cubicle in midtown starting at the race distances on the slick NYC Triathlon website, heart pounding: “1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10km run.”  10km run I could do.  But a 40km bike?! A 1.5km swim?!  I froze, I panicked, I told myself it was “impossible!”  The swim loomed large:  “Is this insanity?  Am I really willing to risk my life to prove some kind of athletic point?”

My swims were aggravating at first. I could barely go 400 meters without having to stop. “I’m just not a swimmer.” There was a reason I was one of only two asked to stay home rather than compete in an away meet in middle school.

I signed up for an indoor triathlon hosted by jackrabbit sports, a NYC triathlon store. One of the organizers asked me, “are you a swimmer? You look like one.”  I decided it had all been in my head — I was keeping myself from the success out of fear!

A near-last-place-finish swim later, the organizer–a friendly, gray-haired man named Neal Cook–suggested I come for a private swim lesson. Two weeks, one hour, and $100 later, I knew how to breathe, how to angle my head and torso down towards the bottom of the pool, and to emphasize my arms over my legs.  I could swim for an hour now without ever stopping.

The Hudson River Start

Race Morning.  5 am.  The swim goes in waves, with the oldest women’s age group first.  In that first wave, I saw an older woman just floating with the current — only her head and shoulders visible, twirling around, literally being dragged along just by the force of the current.  It relaxed me a bit. “Ok, ok, it’s going to be OK… ”  In fact, the water in the Hudson was moving so fast that when a swimmer in an early wave jumped in and missed the rope stretched across the pier, she had to fight for a minute to get back to the start.

Finally my wave came.  I was in the youngest of the female age groups, and they helpfully combined us with the elite physically challenged athletes like the famous Carlos Moleda.  Great, thanks organizers, as if there wasn’t enough pressure, now I have to worry about being run over in the water by a former Navy seal with arms bigger than my legs.  Awesome.  I told Carlos it was an honor to be in his wave, and vowed to let him and everyone else swim ahead a bit before I started.

“Final wave, in the water” they announced, and I jumped in.  Cold! Nerves! And then the siren.  Wait, wait, let them go ahead, and I plunged in.  Dark green nothingness was before me.

A painfully slow 30 minute swim later, complete with one unpleasant crash of my foot into un-identifiable Hudson river sludge, I finally arrived to land again.  And got to run nearly a mile to the bike transition.  Again, thanks a lot race organizers.

Transiton.  “I don’t need all these air cartridges” I had said to myself earlier that morning.  “It’s just extra weight.”  But earlier that morning, a friend of mine with Team in Training said “one of our guys got two flat tires in Flordia.”  So after a slow change (I had vowed to take my time), I was running with my bike towards the exit.  Henry Hudson Parkway, here comes the newbie.

Just before the turnaround point.  I’ve been flying up the hills, passing tons of women.  I’m feeling good.  I’m catching these fast swimmers.  All that spinning paid off.  The highway is littered with glass and trash, but so far I’ve been OK.  Then, “sssssssssss. . . ”  You have got to be kiddding me.

A flat tire. Why hadn’t I paid more attention on my training ride! What did they do? How do I get this wheel off?

20 minutes down, and I had finally figured it out. A kind-hearted and injured triathlete who had dropped out of the race stopped to help me put the wheel back on now that I’d replaced the tub, I was up and going again.  As I rode back over a bridge heading downtown towards transition, I thought to myself, “This is so beauitful.  What a journey I have been on and it’s not even 8am.  How many other 24 year olds would have done this?”

Eleanor waits at the top of the hill

Second and final transition.  Just 10k left to go.  I head up the steep steeep hill that joins Riverside Park with 72nd street, just before the Eleanor Roosevelt statue.  Once I was in Central Park, the team’s coach on his bike saw me.  “This isn’t a training run, this is a race!” he barked at me.  I sped up.  He kept biking beside me.  I was in tremendous pain and deeply exhausted, and really wished he’d go harass someone else.  He stuck with me up the south side of Harlem hill. I kept repeating Nike running slogans in my head.  “Run like the city and pick up the pace.  Run like a commuter and don’t stop until you’re home.  Run like there is no finish line in the city that never sleeps and anything is possible.”  Over and over again, the Nike ad morphed into my mantra, pushing me above and beyond my pain.

Later that same year I joined a marathon team whose motto and race strategy was “I ran my fastest 10k 20 miles into a marathon.”  While I didn’t manage to beat my 10km PR during the marathon, I am proud to say that with Coach Pennino shouting beside me, I ran my fastest 10k in the final leg of a triathlon!

Finally it was the finish line.  I sprinted my way home, and proudly claimed my beautiful medal.

Forth from the left, first row
Fourth from the left in the first row

You can still find me in the photo on Terrier Tri’s webpage, fourth from the left in the first row,  small and pale compared to the other demigods on the team, but happy, happy, happy.

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