The Rise and The Fall

Our lives move in waves.  People come swimming in and out of them.  Projects ebb and flow.  Relationships crest and crash, smooth out and can eventually flatten completely if we let them, while life continues until the next dip, the following rise, the next encounter with the sway of the currents.

My life has taken some pretty interesting rises and falls, let me tell you.

I recently read a beautiful essay about how most stories are like sine waves – whether the telling begins in the dip or the crest, the end on a high or a low, and what happens in between those curves is up to the storyteller – but the basic form of our collective narrative is the rise and the fall.  Again and again.  Throughout history.  We rise and we fall, and we get back up and do it again.

I’m telling you this because I sat on a friend’s couch today.  I sat and I listened as she told me a part of her story.  I sat with a notebook on my lap and as she described a sliver of the events in her life, a pattern began to emerge and a sine wave took shape in my mind, which translated into my pen moving in waves along the page.  A story snake.  I saw clearly the rise and fall, the rise and the fall, her rise and her fall.  Over and over, again.  This woman is resilient beyond belief.  She struck me as heroic and she is brave, but I bet she wouldn’t want me to tell you that.  Because she is also every woman.  She is you and she is me.  Hers is a story I badly want to tell.  And the thing is, the thing is, her story has become part of my story.  Our stories are intertwining as we strive to build a relationship, a partnership, ride the waves together.  Our sine waves overlapping, our story snakes becoming friends, acquainting themselves with one another.  She wants me to be the teller of her story.  What happens next will either be the rise, or the fall.  This is the pattern, on repeat, of our lives.

And I couldn’t help but reflect on my own life, on my own story snake, as I drove away from her house and made my way to the library to get to work.  My life has similarly had its troughs and peaks, its highs and its lows, and I realized that at this moment, right now, TODAY, this is a high point.  And in reflecting, I see there are really only two truths to reaching that high, to loving your life and being happy and fulfilled.  If I had to simplify, yes, I’d say there are only two.  I know you know what they are in your heart but humour me.

  1. Do what you love.  2. Persevere.  That is it.

Life is hard, incredibly hard.  And UNFAIR.  So unfair.  You’ll never get what you deserve.  Unless you work for it.  And I’m not talking about I’m going to work on this thing I want for a day or two.  If you want something, and I mean really want something, you have to be in it for the long haul.  I’m not talking about I’m going to hope this happens.  A friend of mine posted this quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupery the other day, and oh how it resonated within me,

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

I would add, a goal without a plan and the perseverance to see that plan through is just a wish.  Hold onto hope and faith.  They have their place.  But believe, most of all, believe in yourself.  Believe in your goals.  And make a plan.  Then push through it.  Ignore the naysayers, there will be plenty.  Ignore the naysayers in your own head.

I met with a friend the other day who once was a competitive swimmer and knew about my former life as a competitive gymnast.  “You must have body issues from being in gymnastics,” she surmised.  Au contraire.  My coaches never talked negatively about our young bodies, instead they marvelled and praised us for what our amazing bodies could do once we earned it.

I almost quit gymnastics at age nine – the year I became a competitive athlete.  This was a major low point for me.  I had to learn to do a back handspring (popularly referred to as a backflip).  If I didn’t do it, there would be no moving forward.  Go backwards to move forward, I see the irony.  I was terrified.  My mom took me out for lunch one school day after mysterious stomach aches had materialized.  She was rightfully worried about me.  She asked me frankly what I wanted to do about gymnastics, if I would continue.  There was no judgement, only love and support in her voice.  I made the decision then to push on.  This was a conscious decision and it was mine to make.

By the time I was twelve, I could do a roundoff back handspring with a layout full twist in the air.  Floor became my strongest event and I loved it.  That year my floor routine, with all its back (and front) flips, placed second in the province for my age and level.  Was it because I had been given the choice, didn’t give up, and then succeeded that I loved tumbling all-the-more?  Maybe.  Couldn’t hurt.

I didn’t learn to loath my body through gymnastics, I learned to respect it.  My body sent me soaring through the air, flipping around a bar high above the ground, turning backwards on a balance beam and dismounting off the side in a back tuck with a perfectly stuck landing.  My body felt strong and well and could do amazing things and I’ve never forgotten that feeling.  My stint as a competitive gymnast brought me confidence that I have carried with me throughout my entire life.

Gymnastics practices were grueling, and they were long.  I learned how to be tough.  How to survive five-hour training sessions that ended with runs outside on the burning gravel in the summer heat.  How to fall on my head and get back up and try again.  How to turn my body into one huge muscle, then how to make those muscles ache; the balance between strength and graceful beauty.  Gymnastics gave me grit.  I learned how to handle pain and stick it out, when it is worth it.  You don’t put yourself through hell for things that aren’t worth it.  Children, worth it.  Athletic pursuits, worth it.  Family and friends, worth it.  Writing a book, worth it.  Building a career, worth it.  Passion projects, worth it.

Some things that aren’t worth it: toxic friendships, money for the wrong reasons, a bad marriage, situations that invoke guilt, doing things out of shame or a feeling that you ‘have to’, letting others take advantage of you, crutches or quick-fixes, abusive partners…the list goes on.  Not all of these things I’ve experienced first-hand, but certainly I’ve been duped into my fair share of bad ideas.  I’ve lead myself down some not-so-good roads, to some not-so-good places.  But today’s my day.

Life is too short not to ride the high of the waves, and lately, I feel like I’ve been surfing.  Literally, I have been surfing, and that’s part of it, but there’s more.

There was a time I had a handful of blog posts and one measly article to my name.  The piece was the story of my daughter Elyse and my love for her.  The piece was about what people with Down syndrome can do if we believe they are capable.  I’m still telling that same story, my message has not changed, but my platform has grown, and so have I.  Elyse is set to be on the cover of a national magazine, with my article as the feature piece.  I did not see that coming, I did not prepare for that high, but maybe I did.  I have a book ready for publication, another on the way.  I’m set to start my MFA in creative writing this spring.  Everything I have done up to this point has brought me here.  Not one thing goes to waste, even those times I was duped, those perceived failures.  Those not-so-good roads to go down; I learned from them.

Was it my teenage years of being a competitive gymnast that gave me the strength and determination to write and keep on writing the past eight years until I would arrive at a book and a new career? Until my writing would appear in newspapers and magazines and that my message would be heard?  You tell me.

“You’re Type A,” my husband says, meaning it as a compliment, in that I am driven, competitive, ambitious, highly-organized and aware of time management (but as psychology is one of my majors, I need to point out Type As are also widely known as being impatient, aggressive, more stressed and a slew of other not-so-nice words, like psychopaths – all of which I reject completely).   But I’m not so sure that’s it.  I don’t think my life has arrived within me innately.  I’m a person who’s always had to work her ass off to get what she wants, and where she wants to go.  I have trained myself hard to ride those waves, and I have no doubt it was the training that got me to where I am today, and the many, many, many, many, MANY times my face has slammed down hard against the waves as I fell off my board.  But I’m in training for the long haul, and I’m not going to quit.  As far as I have come with my writing and my story, there are so many places left to go, pages to fill.  I want to make waves around the world.

My husband, who pokes fun at my psychology degree – but exclusively reads books about psychology – calls this attitude of mine a “growth mindset.”  His eyes get wet when he says it, like the psychological term holds great reverence, and I suppose it does.  There is something to be said for believing that with determination and hard work you’ll get there, no matter your innate abilities.

Whatever comes next, the rise or the fall, and historically speaking, I may be headed for the fall, I’m going to hold on tight and ride my board while this wave of good feelings and good fortune lasts.

Rise and fall.  Rise and fall.  Our chests heave.  In and out, like breath.  Our very lifeforce.  Breathe.

And when the swell returns; I’ll be ready to catch that next wave.

Stay Humble

I’ve been at the pool three days a week lately, triathlon training, and I developed this sort of confidence that maybe I was getting to be a pretty good swimmer.  Despite my affinity for water, up until recently, I considered myself a not-so-good swimmer.  I hit the pool regularly for a whole year leading up to the two sprint triathlons I completed last summer, and I still felt as though I was half drowning on race day (partly because I was).  Regardless, I got through the 700-meter swim portion of the race – twice.  But you can’t ‘get through’ a two-kilometer swim, the half ironman distance I’m now training for; or rather, you can, but it’s not advisable.  I want to feel like a mermaid in the water, otherwise I’m not going to be able to ‘get through’ the ninety-kilometer bike ride and half marathon to finish the ironman.

With a coach, I now have so much of a better idea of how to prepare in the water – of course I do!  I used to jump in a lane and swim for distance, completely ignoring technique, interval training, and speed work.  It’s swimming!  I’ve been doing it since I was a kid!  What’s there to know?  As it turns out, a lot.  The mermaid bit, those aren’t my words.  Let me explain.

So I’m hitting the pool about three days a week, as per my coach’s plan, and feeling pretty good about myself.  If you ever want to feel good about yourself, this is how you go about doing it: look the part.  Get properly outfitted, in other words.  I bought myself two snazzy new suits that actually fit me correctly and goggles that were made for my face.  I also snagged a cap that has extra room for hair pulled back in a bun – genius design!  About the suits, bathing suits should fit you like a second skin.  I had no idea.  I was wearing a bathing suit that was about four sizes too big for me before, I kid you not.  The bathing suits I squeeze myself into now feel like they were made for my kids’ dolls, but the kind woman at the swimwear speciality store assures me they are the correct fit.  I can tell you without a doubt that tighter is better when it comes to swimwear, especially after a friend recently shared her swim story with me.  On her first day back to the lane swim in years, she got eyeballed for choosing the ‘medium speed’ lane (there are complicated pool politics) and rudely asked, “are you sure you’re fast enough to swim in this lane?”  As if that wasn’t bad enough, poor woman, determined to prove the bugger wrong (in yesteryears she was a competitive swimmer) she took off down the medium lane, determined to make a good pace.  On the way back, in the middle of her exertions, both of her breasts popped out.  I’m sorry, there is no redemption in this story – my friend hasn’t gone back – but we will honour the incident as a cautionary tale, the moral being to wear a suit that fits snug in the chest.

One of my weekly swim training sessions is part of a Masters swim class.  The beauty of these classes is there is a coach on hand, and we are presented with a set amount of drills.  There’s a camaraderie with the other swimmers and best of all, you usually have a lane to yourself or with only one other person.  At the onset of the Masters swim class I was feeling good about myself because a) I looked the part, with my skin-tight suit and shiny new goggles, and b) I was finding Masters relatively easy, while some of my peers seemed to find it hard.  To give you a sense, the harder workouts my triathlon coach provided including almost an extra kilometer of swim work in the same amount of time as the one-hour Masters class.  On top of that, at Masters we are allowed to wear fins.  If you aren’t familiar with the awesome power of fins let me tell you this: they give you turbo power in the water.  It’s like going from a rowboat to a yacht.  I flew through the first few weeks of Masters swim and didn’t I feel so high and mighty.  Then it happened.

On the third week of Masters swim class we got a new coach.  At the end of class, he suggested the workout he was assigned to give us seemed too easy for some of us and that he would be stepping it up a notch the following week.  I clearly thought he was talking to me.  I approached him when the other swimmers went to get changed and told him I was training for an Ironman and he said he’d help me get there.  Surprisingly, he made no comment about what an outstanding swimmer I was.

Fast forward to the next week.  The new coach gives me a few pointers about my stroke.  I’m not getting it.  I’m not lifting my elbows high enough out of the water, but my arm is going too high.  This is really tricky to try and fix when you’re trying to keep up with a pack of swimmers and the pace of the workout, but I did my best.  I couldn’t help but notice for the first time that whenever we did a drill holding a flutter board and using only our legs, I was generally the first one across by quite a few seconds (yay running legs!), but when we threw arms into the equation, many swimmers were finishing close to the same time as me and some before me.  Some who weren’t wearing fins like I was.

Here it comes.  “Hang back a minute,” the new coach said, as he sent the others on their way.  “I want you to watch her technique over there, do you see how her arms and hands barely skim the surface of the water?  You are lifting your arms up way too high.”  I stood there and I watched, and I learned from someone who was doing the work better than I was.

“I am going to record you so you can see what you’re doing,” new coach told me.

Oh. My. God.  So that’s what I look like?

I was grateful for the new coach’s honesty.  He was so kind about it too, not making me feel bad in the slightest in front of the others.  Clearly, he doesn’t want me to drown in the two-kilometer portion of the race, either.

I walked up to the woman afterwards who was oblivious at having been my good example of how to swim, and I told her in a friendly tone, “he told me to watch you.”  I was pleasantly surprised when she explained that I will know that what I am doing in the water is right because I’ll feel like a mermaid.  I want to feel that way.  I’m working toward that ease and delight.  I told her my frustrations with my arms, and she explained that when she gets tired, she tells herself, “think eleven and one, arms at eleven and one” that is where she aims in front of her.  I found that to be a helpful piece of advice.  I regularly find it helpful to defer and inquire of those who possess more skill than I do.  In other words, it’s beneficial, as a learner, to stay humble.  Keep yourself in check.

After giving a talk about Down syndrome in a school with my friend Emily, where hundreds of kids screamed, clapped and cheered for us, I hit up the pool.  Nearing the completion of the hour-long lane swim, I was one of the only ones still out there, if not the only one.  An older gentleman who has been kind to me in the past sat there watching me, and as I took my ten second break between sets, he called out, “I don’t know how you do it!” which made me laugh.  I felt like ducking my head under the water.  “She’s a wonder woman!” he called out to no one in particular, as I blasted off away from him, propelling myself through the water to the other side of the pool.  On my way back, he called out one last sentiment, “You deserve a gold medal!” And with that, he left, leaving me to figure out the mechanics of my stroke.

Sign Me Up, Coach

I’ve been dabbling with triathlon, training and racing, on and off for a few years now, but today, everything changed.

It’s 4 a.m. and the sky is dark, dark, dark. Penelope awoke in the night and she is cuddled in close to me now; she’s wedged herself firmly between Dan and I and she’s breathing on the back of my neck. Every once and a while she coughs, ferociously, like a dragon is trying to come out. Needless to say, I’m awake.

Being awake isn’t the end of the world; I lie there with my eyes closed as my mind warms up with thoughts of the day ahead. Today’s a big day. I’m starting my new triathlon training schedule, and this time, I have a coach.

I rise at 5 a.m., quietly pack my bags. The game of musical beds that began during our travels continues. I leave Penelope and Oreo, our dog, sprawled out on my bed. Dan has moved to Penelope’s room. I drive through the still morning, not a soul around, make my way to the gym.

My coach uses the program Training Peaks to load my schedule for the week. She is tailoring this schedule for me, so that not one iota of my energy is wasted. I have faith in my coach; she’s an elite athlete, and a mom to three, just like me. The workout for the day is a forty-five-minute cycle divided into intervals of various effort levels, followed by a twenty-minute cardio, core and stretch regime.

It’s 5:30 a.m., no sign of any sun outside, not even one that has ever existed. Inside the gym, I walk into the spin room. Turn on the light. I’m wearing my special cycle shoes, the ones that I my feet clip into methodically, one, two. My legs are pumping, one-two-three, one-two-three, easy, easy. I find my rhythm. I’m listening to an audiobook, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni, one hell of a book, and keeping an eye on the clock. At a certain point, about thirty-five minutes in, I feel a bead of sweat materialize in the middle of my forearm and slide its way down to my elbow. A simultaneous drop forms along my neck and snakes its way down my chest, dividing my torso in half. Still, when I finish my ride, I know I haven’t exerted myself enough. What does 75% effort on the bike look like versus 80% effort? I’m learning.

I click off my cycle shoes, one, two, and slip back into my reliable runners. Running, I can do. But I’m not running today, I’m hopping. I’m hopping one hundred times, times three, in all directions, and the strange part is, in this gym of people working out, all these weirdos in here at 6 a.m., I don’t feel weird or self-conscious jumping around at all, because I know what I’m doing. I have a coach, and she told me so.

I’m the exact person who should have a coach. I’ve been told I’m very coach-able; I respond well to instruction and especially, ahem, praise. In the context of sports, I like being told what to do. The main thing that stopped me from getting a coach sooner was my own hang ups, the spiteful doubts parading through my brain, sticking out their tongues. You don’t deserve a coach. You aren’t good enough. You haven’t shown you’re committed enough. You don’t make enough money. You aren’t giving enough of yourself to others. You don’t have enough time. Enough, enough, ENOUGH. I’ve had enough of excuses, and so I let myself be myself.

My true self is an athlete. Somewhere deep inside me is a competitive gymnast and she remembers what it’s like to push herself; to improve fitness and learn new skills. She needs a challenge. She is strong and fierce. She beats boys in arm wrestles. She is the person I am, because she formed who I have become. I can’t ignore away my physical ambitions and desire to compete. I don’t want to win, in any race, I just want to make myself proud, the inner gymnast in me proud. I want to stretch the bounds of my limits a little bit more. Earn the sweat dripping from my elbows. I want to fully live as the person I truly am. An athlete.

I had a funny thought, it made me snicker. Athlete mom. I’m an athlete mom! Why does that sound so funny? It isn’t funny! There are tons of moms out there working it, working out and working at this thing called life, and I just want to give a shout out and say, hey. I’m an athlete mom, too. We’re doing it. It isn’t easy to put yourself first for that one hour of the day, but my god, if you don’t, who will? Not your husband. He means well, but it’s probably a struggle for him to get his own shit together. Not your kids; the neediest, attention suckers in the world also known as my sweet darlings whom I love very, very, very much. Not those people, and those are your people. You. You are the only one who can put yourself first.

When I arrive home at 7 a.m., my crew has come to life. My husband did get his own shit together and made time for a run on our treadmill before work while the kids played merrily by his side.* I grabbed myself breakfast on the way home.

I bite into a toasty warm egg sandwich and sip my English Breakfast tea misto. I sit and enjoy myself, taking a moment to jot down a few notes from the essay I read the night before. I shower. By 7:40 a.m., I am making lunches and cleaning up and getting the kids ready for school and I feel nothing but gratefulness and so joyful. Exercise makes you feel good, so good, and so does looking after yourself. The time away for me and the treat breakfast were equally essential to my great morning.

I think this morning was the first morning since we’ve been home from our trip that I didn’t have to lose my shit to get the kids out the door. When it was time to go, Elyse was still sitting at the table eating, saying “no”, poopoo to school. My bucket full, I didn’t bat an eye at her belligerence; I packed the lunches I prepared into their respective bags then helped load Penelope and Ariel and the backpacks into the car. When I came back inside, Elyse had her coat and boats on, ready to go. I kissed the top of her head. We jammed to our favourite tunes in the car and had pleasant chit-chat like this is how every morning goes. I got everyone where they needed to be on time. ON TIME.
Maybe the moral here is that we all need support. We need to take time for ourselves, and we need the support of others to do it. Maybe you need a team of people like I do. A husband, a coach, a teenage babysitter. That’s okay. Maybe exercise isn’t your jam, but if you like to paint, or knit or fly a kite – I don’t know – whatever your jam may be; who can help make that part of you a reality? By putting the supports in place in my life, by asking a coach to help me, I feel better able to help others and care for my children. I feel like a better mom and a happier person. Those two things need not be mutually exclusive. Nobody else could make that decision for me. I had to figure it out and make it happen.

Admittedly, we’re on day one here, folks. But every day counts when you’re training. I have a long road ahead, about six months until my actual race, my first 70.3 Ironman, and I chose this route. This route that suits me. I chose this route and today was the day I realized how happy I am not to be going it alone.

*To be fair, my husband usually has his shit together and coaches and supports me in many aspects of life. Love you babe!

The In-Between

I’m walking to the library, laden with notebooks, my laptop, beverages in each hand (my morning Green Monster smoothie and a London Fog) when it hits me: a gust of cool wind blowing across my bare, short-clad, legs. A chill cuts through me. I’m wearing thong sandals and a neon orange halter top underneath a light-weight black long-sleeved tee that’s open at the back that I thankfully thought to throw overtop. I am dressed for summer, which today the weather has confirmed it is decidedly not – or rather, the summer I once knew is slipping away before my very eyes and bare knees.

Standing in our kitchen early this morning, three-year old Penelope, with her mop of curls, had a far-off look. “It’s time for school now, mommy?” She felt the unmistakable shift in the air, the characteristic and melancholic pull of the final two weeks of August closing off the season.

As if the cool breeze hitting my legs wasn’t enough of an invasion on summer, I crossed paths with a large yellow bus on my drive downtown. You know what that means. And yesterday, in our local café, I ran into two teachers prepping for back to school. I remember those days well; the equal sense of rising panic and elation, prepping for twenty-five new grade one students, still haunts me.

What hits home, personally, is that my summer training is complete. I participated in my second and final triathlon of the season last weekend and that’s it. Finito. No more lake swims to slot in, or forty kilometer bike rides (though I would like to get in more bike rides before we’re blanketed with snow), or back-to-back “brick” workouts of running and biking. I’m in the week after the race, forcing myself to be still, wind down, take a break and admittedly this is hard for me. What’s next? screams my insatiable ego. An ultra race? A half iron man? We’ll see.

Luckily, I’ve had something to fill the space, the gaping hole and sense of loss the end of summer brings, in the form of a round-the-world trip to look forward to. I’m losing my kids to school only to regain them for a second summer in October – and I can’t wait. Ariel and I look at websites together, clasping hands and jumping up and down giddily in anticipation. Of the three, she’s the most fully aware of the adventure that lies ahead. Interestingly, I think it will be the youngest two, who are developing their sense of time, who will be the most present.

A month ago, our travel agent sent us an itinerary for Japan through a reputable company that included hotel stays and some transportation (but not all) for an outrageous sum I refuse to even write here. I will say it was four times more than I was willing to pay. She wasn’t being cruel – Japan is expensive – but I knew I could plan our Japan segment much more wisely and cheaply by booking it myself. The trade-off was time.

Having put off the job for most of the summer, one day this week I finally got up at five in the morning and spent a solid five hours poring over Japanese accommodations. I continued my research for a few more hours the next day. This is my idea of rest after the race. From an affordable Airbnb in downtown Hiroshima and vending machine ramen to a lavish hotel with our own private onsen (hot air bath) overlooking Mount Fuji that includes our meals, we are going to get to experience it all. Our trip has been weighing on my mind and I can breathe now that I’ve got most of our Japan stays booked. Two more days – one in Kyoto, one in Osaka – left to arrange, then we’re off to Thailand and the unknown. I don’t ever want to become a travel agent, but planning your own trips and discovering new countries and cultures is hella-fun. And we haven’t even left home yet.

There are two weekends left in this Canadian summer, really only one to get back-to-school shopping done. I happen to be going to Montreal to visit a childhood friend and her new baby this weekend, so Dan is in charge of back-to-school shopping. He will be the one braving the crowds in the mall with the girls, picking out Velcro running shoes and pencil case supplies, water bottles and lunch containers, maybe a new outfit or two – and for that I am grateful. Both for myself – for not having to do it, and for my husband – for getting the chance to. Organizing the tiny details of our children’s lives is both a great privilege and a weight best evenly distributed. Truth be told, when it comes to shopping, Dan is probably better at that stuff than I am anyway. I usually do it because I’m the one who’s around, but he has a penchant for coordinating outfits I can only aspire to.

While letting summer go is hard, there is an excitement that accompanies back-to-school. The promise of reuniting with friends, new backpacks and shiny shoes, crisp duo-tangs; of kids emptying out of the house and regaining routines. The draining of leaves to reveal their true colours, raking said leaves, the shortening of days, apple picking and pumpkin carving, turkey eating. Fall isn’t half bad. Some, like my husband who continues to wear shorts late into November, might say it’s their favourite season. While the Purdham family is going to miss the tail end of fall – Ariel was surprised to learn we’d be in Japan for Halloween (where apparently they do celebrate) – for now we’re going to try and stay in the present moment, and appreciate this last bit of summer while it lasts.

My First Triathlon Experience at Guelph Lake I

Hand shielding my face from the sun, I stood looking out over the water at the point where gentle waves lapped the shore. Seven hundred and fifty metres looks like a long way out, let me tell you, especially when you’ve been practicing twenty-five meter swim lengths in the pool. I looked for a sympathetic gaze among the small crowd gathered at the beach. “The swim is daunting, isn’t it?” I threw the comment at a couple nearby. “Is it?” the man challenged me. No sympathy here. It’s race day, and everyone has their game face on.

I would be lying if I lead you to believe Guelph Lake was my first of first triathlons. Last year, I participated in Milton’s Try-A-Tri early on in the season, a respectable 250m swim, 10km bike ride, and 2.5km run. I rode a mountain bike and got in the water with little to no swim training, comforting and consoling myself with the notion beforehand that I was “an athlete” and therefore could complete the Try-A-Tri “no problem”. Also, haven’t we all been bike riding since childhood? And swimming! I love swimming! In pools and laying out to dry on the deck. These thoughts were delusional.

Swimming and cycling for pleasure are not at all the same thing as the activity performed in the pursuit of sport. Akin to the way walking and running are not the same thing. And though I was training for a marathon, and considered myself in decent shape, that short baby triathlon distance killed me. The swim was a complete disaster. I tried every stroke imaginable and came out of the water gasping for breath. The bike ride was equally traumatizing, as every single person passed me by, throwing their dust in my wake. And the run – my area of expertise – felt like a flop. My legs were bowls of jello filled with lead, and by the time the “bricks” feeling passed, the race was over. I was determined that my next triathlon experience should be different. After a sprained wrist in a bike accident debacle, I took the rest of last season off, choosing instead to focus the rest of the summer on marathon training, which took place in the fall.

With my marathon complete, I hummed and hawed. To run another marathon, or get back to triathlon training? I didn’t feel like I could pull off both. Upon reflection, I felt like triathlons and I had some unfinished business. I couldn’t let one fall off my bike get the better of me, and so I leaned back in the direction of multi-disciplinary training. My initial plan was to kick off the season with a Try-A-Tri, and work up to a Sprint Triathlon, but the race dates and our family’s plans conspired to push me right off the bat: I would compete in Guelph Lake I Sprint Triathlon.

With close to five hundred competitors in the Sprint Triathlon, as well as a relay and duathlon that run concurrently, it’s a busy and popular race. In planning ahead, I decided I would arrive an hour and a half before my 9:00 am race time. This would give me ample time to park, use the bathroom, set up my space in the transition area and register, orient myself as to the course layout, check my bike and take it out for a jaunt, go for a short jog, get my wetsuit on and last, but not least, test out the water and swim a few strokes. An hour and a half ended up being the exact perfect amount of time for me to accomplish these steps.

But let’s back up a step! How did I get to race day? As a person who’s been an athlete and competitor in some form of sport since I was a kid in the single digits, here is what I find works well for me.

Weight training. One day a week, I attend Body Pump at Goodlife Fitness. It’s a one hour class and you cover every muscle group. When I let this class go because I found the training to be too much when marathon training, I regretted it. Strength training appears to be quite important to my fitness regime.

Yoga. I try to make it to Body Flow at Goodlife every week. I find the combination of stretching and strengthening makes a huge difference in how I feel, and helps soothe achy muscles.

Running. While running is taking a back seat in my triathlon training, I’m still running three days a week on average. One of those runs is a long run, which for the purposes of my training now, is about 10km give or take a few. I was also fitting in two other 5 – 6km runs at a regular or tempo pace (a bit faster than normal, but not race pace), but I will be exchanging one of these for an interval workout in the space between now and my next triathlon. I’d like to get out running some sprints on a track while it’s nicer out. Speed workouts and interval training are what make you faster. You run faster but actually running faster. Two years ago, I placed third in a 5km road race by applying this principal of running faster to be faster. All winter long, I ran intervals on our treadmill and progressively increased my speed and sustained interval periods to longer and faster, building to a speedier pace than I’d ever run before. Translating that speed to outside was difficult, but manageable with practice, time and sustained effort.

In addition to running, I’ve had to put a major focus on swimming in the past year and with the nicer weather, getting out to go cycling as well. As I’ve really only been biking with the warmer weather, though, in retrospect, I probably should have been doing spin classes all winter, and it isn’t surprising that the cycle portion ended up being my weakest leg of the triathlon. On the bike is where I need to focus before my next triathlon, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Swimming. I have been swimming all year, early Saturday mornings. In doing so, I’ve worked up to fifty laps. For my race, I needed to be able to swim the distance of thirty laps, but open water is a different beast.

Cycling. I try to get in a long bike ride with a friend on the weekend, and another shorter bike ride or swim through the week. As the cycle portion for this race was 19km, I was aiming for 25km rides as a shorter training distance and closer to 35km for longer. I am going to continue to extend these distances.

And last, but definitely not least, probably the most important aspect of my training is my rest day. There is no way I could sustain the amount of exercise I do without taking at least one day off. When marathon training, I scheduled two.

Sprint Triathlon distances are not all created equally. While Guelph Lake I is 750m swim, 19km bike, 5km run, the next race I’m planning to attend in Orillia has the Sprint distances at 750m swim, 33km bike and 7km run. That’s a 40 percent increase in the bike and run! I’m going to have to step up my bike training.

So here’s how the race played out.

My swim training paid off. I felt comfortable in the water, no matter how much of it I swallowed. Picture a mass of writhing salmon headed upstream, and that was what the experience felt like. Bodies flailing around me. On the plus side, you forget you’re in the middle of the lake. The swim is set up as a trapezoid. Out, across and then back. The swim across, parallel to the shore line, felt relatively short compared to the out and back. At some point on the way back, my arms were numb with fatigue. My hands and feet were numb from the cold. The water was a cool sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Landing ashore was a godsend. Then I was off, running up a hill to get back to the transition area, trying to strip off half my wet suit in the process, and breathing like a fish out of water.

Next the bike. DO NOT FORGET: helmet on and clipped before you even think about touching that bike! I later told Dan that I found the cycling section to be the easiest, though it is comparatively the longest section of the race. While the swim took me 19 minutes, the bike lasted for 44 minutes. Dan, ever my biggest supporter and toughest coach, gave it to me straight, “That’s because you weren’t pushing hard enough.” He’s probably right. Though I was working hard, there’s no doubt I have a thing or two to learn about how to cycle more efficiently. One step I can implement is to wear my bike shoes, which are clip in, instead of my running shoes. While wearing running shoes saves time in the transition zone because you don’t need to change shoes, bike shoes have their advantage. Instead of working to pull the pedal upwards, the bike shoes will do that for me, therefore using less of my energy and making my stride on the bike smoother (and silkier too, I imagine, especially if this was a hair commercial.)

Though I wasn’t super-fast, I felt strong on the bike, and it helped that I saw my cheering squad, my adorable little family, standing around the first bend. If that doesn’t give you a boost, I don’t know what will. Well, okay – besides training.

With the bike portion over with, only the run remained. As I used my Garmin watch in triathlon mode, it only showed my overall race time (and now was not the time to be fiddling with it), so I had no idea what my pace was, I just pushed myself to run as fast as I could at a jogging pace. The run portion is where endurance training pays off. But man, was it tough. Five kilometers is normally a comfortable distance for me. If you told me to get up and run 5km right now, I could (though I might ask you to leave), but as soon as you put some speed behind it, and a bike ride, and a swim, the Triathlon run feels almost like a new sport.

For starters, your legs will be unnaturally heavy from the bike, and I also had the unpleasant sensation of a stomach cramp. I felt irritable, like I needed a good stretch or – you know that feeling when you get restless legs? I had some of that going on, too. Eventually, my lungs and legs were burning. Truth be told, I was annoyed by the amount of effort this run was costing me. This is the curse of playing favourites: mistaking your preferred leg of the race for being the easiest. Not the same thing! It may be the lesser of three evils, but it’s evil all the same! Nevertheless, and despite my gripping, I was happy afterwards with my time of twenty-six minutes. And of course, I pulled out my signature move, and ran a hard sprint at the end and ended up passing at least five people. The crowd went wild, “STRONG FINISH!!!!” they screamed in excitement from somewhere beside me. When I sprint at the end, I know I gave it everything I have.

Completing the Sprint Triathlon was anything but easy. And though writing about it a few days later is making me feel exhausted all over again (partially because I still am), I had so much fun and am excited to complete another one!

In case you’re wondering, in terms of the burn, the Sprint came nowhere near the exertion it takes to complete a marathon, which makes total sense. Compare the hour and a half the Triathlon took me to the four and a half hours spent running my first marathon and it’s a no-brainer. I would rate racing a half marathon as being more demanding on my body than the triathlon felt as well, as a point of comparison, which also takes closer to two hours.

What it comes down to is this: how difficult you find your first triathlon will completely depend on your level of training and preparation going into it.

Best of luck, and to all the triathletes out there: have a great season!

 

Ten Things I’ve learned from Triathlon Training so far

Learning something new is hard.  Prioritize.  Last summer, in the spirit of marathon training, and pushing myself to get fitter and try new things, I thought adding in triathlon training would be a great boost to my fitness level.  The additional new challenge was a mistake, at least for me.  Having gone through it, my advice is to tackle one new sports adventure at a time.  The strenuous runs of marathon training left me depleted – too tired, much too tired, to tack on extra swims and bike rides.  I needed my two days of rest.  I couldn’t focus or fit all the workouts required into the week without doubling up on workouts (we’ll get to that), and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my ultimate goal of completing a marathon by cutting out runs.  Last summer, marathon training took precedence; this is the summer of the triathlon.  One thing at a time, at least when you’re starting out.

Bricks is a real thing, and not the kind you use to build a house.  I’m discovering the joy and the burn of bricks, back to back workouts, this spring.  I’m definitely new to this, and working on adjusting and attuning my workouts to my body’s needs, but essentially you can do a swim, then a jog; a bike route, followed by a run.  Two workouts in a row, however you like, but usually, the run comes at the end.  In theory, you’d think that’s because it’s easiest, but from a fitness standpoint, I’m not sure if that’s true.  The other day I performed my usual long Sunday run, a ritual I’ve kept up faithfully through the winter.  For runners, the Sunday run is familiar, a long jaunt at a comfortable pace.  I made sure to knock out at least hour-long runs through the winter months to keep up some endurance.  On this particular day, I ran thirteen kilometers in an hour fifteen.  I hadn’t meant to run that far, but as the route played out – I had.  I gleefully accepted my family’s invitation for an early Mother’s Day brunch at Cora’s, fed my growling stomach, then proceeded home for an easy two hour bike ride with my friend.  Easy for her maybe.  Pushing to reach the peak of every hill we crested, my legs burned a deeper sensation than anything I’d experienced on my light-hearted run.  My friend laughed at me kindly, suggesting I may not want to run before our ride the next time.  I’m thinking she was right, but am still resistant to giving up my Sunday run, or even moving it to Saturday, or Monday (my day off), but I may have to.  I laid down, immobile for several minutes, on my bedroom floor after almost three and a half hours of moderate to intense exercise, and Dan just laughed at me, “You done?”  While, from a purest perspective, this might not have been a Bricks workout per se, with a Cora’s breakfast in between, it achieved the desired result all the same.  “Bricks” refers to the leaden feeling in your legs, especially after coming off the bike and going for your run, with back to back workouts.  Another combination I’ve now attempted and plan to repeat is the swim/run combo.  Though this combination of activities doesn’t play out in the Triathlon’s swim/bike/run sequence, it’s quite an effective workout.  On my first go, I swam for 20 minutes, about 30 laps, then ran for 30 minutes, 5.5 kilometers.  Fifty minutes of exercise midweek felt great.  The challenge was fitting this all in before getting the kids to school and an employed husband off to work.  You have to find ways to make it work.

Getting injured sucks.  Again, a year ago, while marathon training, I was running more kilometers than I’d ever run before.  I should have considered this was not the time to try something new.  I bought my first used road bike anyway.  My first real ride out on the road, wearing new special shoes with my feet clipped in to the pedals, when the path I was traveling on split, I waffled on which way I was going and came to a stop at which point my feet, firmly clipped in place, failed to catch me and I toppled over.  My gut instinct was to place my hand down to brace my fall.  Big mistake.   I would feel the strain in my wrist the rest of the summer and that effectively cemented my decision to put triathlon training on hold.  When you’re trying something new, like having your feet clipped in, you’re going to fall.  It’s inevitable.  I needed to be in the right head space for that, and know that bracing myself on my side was a better idea that catching the weight of my fall solely on my weak wrist.  I also should have put off getting clip-in shoes until I was comfortable on the bike.  I’ve been out a few times this year now, and I’m just allowing myself to feel at ease with the placement of the gears and how my road bike works out on the road.  Adding in locking my feet in place, as well as cycling on the road with all its inherent dangers, was too much for me to process all at once.  This year, I’m breaking it down a bit, and building my confidence by heading out with friends who know what they’re doing.  Which brings me to my next point.

Training with a friend is more fun.  I enjoyed having Dan as a running buddy for the two plus hour weekend runs we did in preparation for our marathon, but I was just as content to do my short runs on my own.  I actually love and relish the solitary nature of running.  Swimming at the pool, I don’t mind hitting the lanes solo, but when it comes to getting out on a lake?  It isn’t smart to swim alone; I’ve got plans to go with a friend.  Both of my longer cycles have been out with friends this year, and it made such a big difference, especially in my confidence on the road and my ability to get through the ride.  Halton Hills where I cycle is, well, as you can imagine, hilly.  My legs were burning through those rolling hills, but I felt a whole heck of a lot better knowing my friend’s legs were burning too, and that we’d be able to joke about it on the other side.  From a safety perspective, on the bike there’s safety in the peloton.  Cycling also takes a long time!  You can’t hammer out a five kilometer run in twenty eight minutes and be done with it.  No, no!  To get a workout in, you’re out there for at least two hours.  It’s nice to pass the time with someone by your side, and to have someone looking out for you and vice versa.

There are unwritten rules of the sport.  I look to my friends with experience to fill me in on the subtleties of the sport – I’m still learning.  As I stumbled through my first Try-a-Tri using my old mountain bike early last summer, I quickly learned my place as the newcomer, as we were relegated to the least desirable stations on the bike rack.  I learned about the extensive tattooing that goes on with black permanent marker up the back on my leg and across my arm, and how to hang my bike by the rear of its seat.  An official spoke to me sternly about when you have to mount your bike – was it before the start line?  And how you must do the inverse on the way back, dismounting and walking across the line, which makes no sense to me.  I’m going to have to check that again, before my next race, because there are penalties if you don’t get it right.  I tried to bring my phone out on my ride with me and was stopped by another official.  “You can’t bring that out there.”

“I’m using it to track my distance,” I quipped back, trying to appear like I knew what I was talking about.

“Hmm, okay.”  They had announced this asinine rule about phones being allowed on the bike course ONLY if used as a metric device.  I now have a watch, and will leave my phone behind to be picked up for the final run segment of the race, as I love my tunes.

There’s an unspoken motto between cyclist to “look after your own”.  Fooling around by myself one day, cycling through my neighbourhood, testing out my new road bike then stopping before crossing the road, a cyclist dyad came to a halt across from me on the other side of the street.  “Do you need any help?” they asked.  Did I look like I needed help?  Probably.  “No, I’m fine, thanks.”  I waved them on, slightly embarrassed.  They lingered.  “I’m almost home,” I assured them.  Cyclists look out for one another, and a cyclist pulled over to the side of the road, their wheels no longer in motion, may need a hand.  It’s nice to know I’m becoming part of a community.

Swimming, on the other hand.  I swam in the fast lane at the pool for the first time the other day.  I’ve been swimming regularly over the last year and building up stamina.  When I started, I had a hard time finishing a lane of front crawl properly (despite loving swimming my whole life) and now I can swim fifty laps in about half an hour.  I’m not breaking any speed records, but I’m happy with how I’ve improved, and know I will continue to do so.  Anyway, when I arrived at the pool during my usual time on Saturday morning, I looked around and the fast lane had the least amount of swimmers, so I hopped in.  A friend of mine leaned over from the medium speed lane, “Oh, you’re in there now, are you,” she said, a sparkle in her eye, “Watch out for the big girls.”  Well, truth be told, I was jostled, nudged, and passed as these “ladies” somersaulted past me and rocketed themselves off the wall.  Once I came up to breathe and ended up sputtering and choking on water that was kicked in my face.  I loved every second of it.  The big girls obviously have swim experience dating back to the womb, and ran through their drills like clockwork.  I admired their competitive spirit, and I figured out how to stay out of their way.  So unspoken rule number one, don’t go in the fast lane if you can’t handle the heat.

A runner does not a triathlete make.  A word about fitness and transference.  I do think I am a better cyclist because of having my legs trained for running.  Better than I would have been had I not been a runner, at least.  But being a good runner, a marathon runner even, does not make you a good swimmer.  Swimming, I’m coming to learn, is all about breathing and good technique.  I’m trying to read up about it, but I think investing in a swim coach may be worth it.  The swim kicks off the whole shebang, and for some, there’s the added stress of the open water and risk of drowning in a panic.  In my first triathlon last year – I did complete one Try-a-Tri before calling it a season – I completely underrated the importance of the swim.  I love swimming!  How hard could it be?  Hard.  Like, really hard.  Friends warned me that during the swim I might get hit or kicked in the face, and to watch out for flailing arms and legs.  I was the person with the flailing arms and legs others had to watch out for.  I confessed to another friend beforehand that I didn’t think I could sustain front crawl the whole way because I hadn’t practised very much (I’d only gone to the pool twice).  He looked unsure, shaking his head, but suggested maybe I could back crawl for a while.  In the end, during that short swim distance, I swam every stroke in the book.  Except front crawl.  I did front crawl for the first three stokes, came up sputtering and choking on water (like with the big girls), and moved right on to breast stroke, in my comfort zone, which is not exactly known as being the triathlon stroke of choice.  I know I made it onto my back at some point too.  And sideways.  On both sides.  Yikes.

Train hard and reach for a goal.  This year, I’m approaching triathlons as my sole focus, and have put more effort into my swim and bike training.  I’m incorporating weight training and stretching through yoga into my training as well.  I hope this will make me as prepared as I can be for my second ever race, and that I can finish it feeling depleted, but happy with my preparation.  I have a secret goal, too.  I usually keep my goals to myself, but it sometimes helps to share them.  I want to complete the Sprint distance this year, not just the Try-a-Tri, which increases the length of the swim to almost double, and increases the cycle and run distances as well.  It’s the swim I’m worried about, and I think that’s what the majority of triathletes would tell you.  Nevertheless, by the end of the summer, maybe even my first race – we’ll see – that’s what I’d like to do.  I’m not the kind of person who jumps right to the marathon distance, never have been.  That’s just not me.  Instead, I’m the person who makes the slow climb to the top, with missteps and close-calls along the way.  I dangle and scrape by until I’m ready for the next pitch.  To those who start at the summit and tackle the ironman Triathlon distance which begins with an almost four kilometer swim, followed by a 180 kilometer bike ride and ends with a full marathon, I salute you, and maybe I’ll meet you there one day.  One move at a time.  If I do, there’s going to be a tattoo involved, a real one.

There’s a lot of gear involved.  Getting into triathlons is expensive!  Being a runner is awesome.  All you need is yourself, some workout gear (any old t-shirt and a pair of shorts will do), and a pair of running shoes you need to swap out every once and a while.  Done and done.  Okay, if you want to get fancy, you can add in some sort of device and wireless earphones to play music, and a high-tech watch to track your speed, distance and pace.  You won’t get hurt without the extra gadgets though.  And heck, there are ultra-runners who race around bare foot and shirtless through the high-range sierra mountains.

Cycling comes with its own set of paraphernalia.  You’re going to want padded shorts, and even then – ouch.  There are racer tops, which I somehow got suckered into buying.  You’ll need glasses to protect your eyes against bugs and the sun, and a solid helmet to keep you from dying when you fly off.  There’s also bike shoes that clip into special pedals and the padded gloves to protect your hands.  And that’s just the gear on you.  Then there’s the bike, the priciest piece.  I’d never considered the type of tire, rims, seat, frame or brakes my bike had before, but those features are majoring selling points for hard core athletes.  I bought my road bike used, but new road bikes start anywhere from a few grand upwards of $10,000 or more, the price of a small car.  This does not interest me in the slightest.  I just want to get out and ride with the bare minimum of hassle.

There’s the pump you need to inflate the tires and keep them rock hard for maximum performance, and the adapter, that little gold nugget, you need to enable pumping.  A light, reflectors, bell, water bottle holder and (optional) storage compartments to adorn your bike, as well as an odometer or other necessary device to track your distance, speed and cadence (pedals per minute).

With swimming, you need access to a pool, which unless you live in a temperate climate year ‘round, and have access to a lake or swimming pool, probably involves paying some sort of fee to use an indoor public pool.  You need bathing suits, to be sure, and I have tried swimming lengths in the pool without goggles and I do not recommend it.  I’ve also tried getting away with cheap goggles and learned the hard way why that doesn’t work either (because they don’t work).  Don’t forget that stylish plastic cap for your head!

But wait!  Now you want to race and you’re going to swim in open water! For buoyancy, and protection from the elements you’re going to want a wetsuit.  You can rent one for about $50 or, you can do what I did, and buy one used or new.  I got mine used for $100, and have used it more than twice, which is nice, with plans to use it more and get my money’s worth.

Being involved with triathlons is expensive.  At least initially.  See note above regarding gear.  Add in the cost of registration, getting to races, factor in any hotel costs if you need to travel and stay overnight for an early start and did you know, there is even a triathlon suit you can wear?  I bought one after my first race, though I now think it looks ridiculous.  Think of a one-piece cross between a bathing suit and padded bike shorts, and if you’re me, for some reason you’ll buy the one in black, pink and blue with polka dots.  I’m forcing myself to wear it this year, as a penance for the silly splurge.

So why put myself through the financial cost, the scheduling burden, the overwhelming amount of gear, the risk of injury and the challenge of it all?  I think I answered my own question with that last bit.

Multi-sport training is fun.  I love being active outdoors, and I love to challenge myself mentally and physically without putting too much strain on my body.  I think training for triathlons is a good way to accomplish both of those goals.  I’m new to the sport, and I hope to one day look back on this post and laugh at myself gently holding all the knowledge, training and experience from the ledge where I have yet to stand.  Until then, I’ll take things one stroke, pedal, and step at a time.