I know that sounds nuts. At age 39, I should be well beyond that. But let me explain.
Running has been my outlet, my saving grace, my comfort zone, for several years now. I used to get nervous before running races. What do I eat? Did I train right? What do I wear? How do I pace myself? It was kind of intimidating at first, but I made myself do it, and the more I did it, the more confident and experienced I became. It wasn’t so scary anymore.
And then, I roped a friend, Angela, into a long mountain race. She was afraid, too, but did it, and did it well. When she was done, this woman, a swimmer throughout childhood, somehow decided that I owed her a triathlon – or three – in exchange. I agreed that this was a reasonable tradeoff when she was scared out of her wits before that race.
We first targeted the Highline Hustle this spring, but it’s so far off, and smack in the middle of my kids’ year-end mayhem. It might’ve been foolhardy, and might’ve been a great idea – maybe a little of both. Either way, I found myself signed up for the Desert’s Edge Sprint Triathlon, held at Highline Lake and surrounding roads and trails, a week ago.
We’d been swimming a lot, Angela and I. It had mostly been at the pool, in the comfort of the lap lanes at Colorado Mesa University. I’d practiced on a bike as well, loaned to me by a friend who is a bona fide IronMan, and didn’t mind helping me learn to ride it and use it after 30-plus years since my last time on a road bike. The thing that was scaring me most of all, though, was this open water swim. Dark, green/black, swamp creature water. Still, I borrowed a wetsuit from yet another helpful friend, and made my way out with several other ladies for a practice swim at Highline Lake a few weeks ago.
I’d heard horror stories about open water swimming. It’s not the same as being in a pool. The vastness of the lake, being out in the elements, and in a wide open body of water that is whatever temperature it happens to be that day. It causes the most even-keeled, strong, confident athlete to freak out sometimes. People kick you, swim over you, grab you, and every other form of contact you’d never expect if you are not immersed in this whole multi-sport thing.
It scared the crap out of me. I had the wetsuit, which was supposedly going to provide flotation to some degree, but I just wanted to run and retreat to the car when we were getting ready to enter the lake, and swim in wide open water. Still, I knew, I really needed to practice what I preach to the kids. Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t label or pigeon hole yourself as any one identity, or decide before you try that you’re no good at something. Even if I didn’t ever make a regular habit of triathlons, I needed to get in that water and swim.
So in I went. Into that black, murky water, squeezed like a sausage into a rubber suit. Scared out of my mind. Before I could turn back to shore, I reminded myself to just start, slowly. One stroke at a time. Every time my face was in the water, I couldn’t see a thing through my goggles. Just swamp creature water. Looking up and realizing I was now well beyond the shoreline, I had it – that moment when I felt anxiety rising. I didn’t want to do this and just wanted to swim back and wait on the shoreline.
But wait. I couldn’t let this fear get the best of me. In that moment of anxiety, I remembered an experienced triathlete telling me, “It’s OK. Don’t be scared. It’s just swimming. If you do get scared, flip over and backstroke until you calm down.” I tell my kids to not avoid doing things because they’re not the superstar who knows everything. I couldn’t NOT do this open water swim, even though the dark water was making me feel closed in and like I might not be able to get back to shore on my own.
So I didn’t swim back to shore, terrified of the dark, open water. I flipped over to my back. Breathed freely, stroked slowly. The anxiety attack that was surely coming never occurred. After about 30 seconds, my greatest fear, that dark open water, had melted away. I resumed swimming, making my way around the buoys, and came back to shore, no longer afraid of the dark.
And then, last weekend, I finished my first triathlon. I was pretty scared the night before, but I DID it. And now I know it’s not the big scary thing I’d built it up to be. Just a swim, and a bike ride, and a run. I was so glad I didn’t let the dark terrify me out of not doing it.
The kids might not get why Mom does this stuff. In fact, I think they think it’s pretty weird that someone would squeeze into black rubber to swim in a lake in October. What I do hope they get from it, though, is that if they want to be something, in the words of the Avett Brothers in “Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise:” “Decide what to be and go be it.”
It’s not about being the best, or smartest, or fastest. It’s about finding what interests and drives them, and not letting fear get in the way.
Karah Levely-Rinaldi is a mother of four, a daycare provider and an ultramarathon runner (and triathlete!). Read her Mondays on FruitaMoms.com.