Summer had arrived and without the confusion of school I was free to train and get acquainted with my new bike. I was going to milk the next 3 months for all that they were worth! My training was going well and I was up to swimming 1,800 yds at the local athletic club in my hometown of Salem. 1,800 yds was kind of a benchmark for me because that was about the distance of the swim portion of the race that I was entered in. I knew that if I could get up to that distance in the pool then I would probably be alright during the race. The only problem being that the race was in open water, a lake. I tried not to think about that at that time, I would deal with that fear later. My biking was going great and felt comfortable that I could easily handle the 25 mile bike portion of the race. I think I had gone for a long ride of 35 miles one day, so that wasn’t going to be an issue for me. The run portion was another story though. My longest run up to that time had been just 4 miles. I was running at a local park that I enjoyed that was near my home. The distance that I needed to run during the race was 6.2 miles or 10k. I was definitely worried about this fact. Here I was about to go and enter this triathlon and had never swam in open water before or had never run the distance that the run portion of the race consisted of. I was definitely getting nervous. At the time, I had this ceiling in my head about what I was capable of doing. Luckily for me, I soon realized that the only limits we have are the ones that we put on ourselves. I would soon find out that I was capable of much more than I thought.
When race day arrived, I was one nervous little young man. My dad had come to the race with me being the supportive, loving father that he was. We drove down the night before and stayed at a motel. I remember that we went out for Italian food, because I thought that I needed to carbo load the night before the race. So I stuffed myself with pasta and bread. The next morning as we got to the race site, it was a sight to behold. I soon found myself surrounded by hundreds of bikes and incredibly fit people. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. After checking in and finding a transition station for my gear and bike, I went over and got numbered. Now getting numbered for a triathlon really isn’t any different than say getting thumb printed down at the police station; not that I have ever had that pleasure before. It is a form of identifying the athletes. The volunteers, using black ink sharpies write our race number on both of our shoulders as well as on the back of our calves. It helps race organizers identify the triathletes as they come out of the water or off of the bike. You see this was before chip timing and volunteers had to write down our numbers as we crossed checkpoints so they could give us our correct times for each section; the swim, the bike and the run. Luckily for me, I didn’t hear anyone moo nor scream from a fire hot brand or I might have wondered if I was in the wrong place.
The hour before the race was one full of butterflies, porta-potty trips and staring at all of the fit women. It got to the point where I just wanted to get started. Although I was in awe of the women, I could do without the butterflies and porta-potty trips. After shaking my dad’s hand and receiving his well wishes, I put on my colored swim cap (makes it easier for the volunteers on the canoes and surfboards to see us in case we get in trouble) and made my way down to the lake. As I walked to the lake, I thought of a couple of things. First of all, what was it going to be like to swim in the open water and secondly what was it going to be like swimming in the open water with a couple hundred other guys all at the same time? I am glad that I saved these questions until the last moment. Had I not, they would have kept me up at night and I needed my sleep. Well, I knew that I was a pretty good swimmer, so I wasn’t worried about that, it’s just that I had this instant realization that I hadn’t been practicing in a food blender because that is what this was going to be like. Especially at the start of the race I figured. So what did I do, I instantly became wise beyond my years and subscribed to that famous quote and let discretion be the better part of valor. When the gun went off to start the race, I let all of the lemmings go ahead of me and gave them about a 30 second lead. I figured that I would start swimming without everyone else’s arms and legs kicking me in the head and potentially knocking off my goggles.
Although at times I could be a typical early twenty something guy and be brave or stupid or make a fool of myself, I was glad that I wasn’t at the start of the race. My instincts were right and giving everyone a bit of a spot was perfect. I was able to find my stroke almost immediately and didn’t have to worry about the mass confusion. It was also kind of fun as I began to pick off some of the other swimmers. About half-way through the swim my fears began to subside in regards to this being my first open water swim. The water was level, the wet suit I had on helped keep me warm and I hadn’t drowned yet. So I figured all was well and it was. I could only then begin to realize that I was actually in this race that I had been planning for, for over 9 months. It was going to be a good day I then thought to myself; even before I got out of the water. And you know what…it was a good day. Getting out of the water well in front of many of the other more experienced athletes made me feel like I belonged; before the start of the race, I wasn’t sure. At the time, being a little more myopic, I felt this to be totally true. But you know what? I was wrong. Everybody participating in that race that sunny day in July of 1987 belonged. The person who crossed the finish line first as well as the person who came in last; it didn’t matter. When we are younger, we have a tendency to disregard others who are just participating. We sometimes think that glory should only be given to those who are the fastest or most accomplished. That is the furthest thing from the truth. We all are participants. Everyone has a different story or situation that they are playing out; whether it is in a triathlon, a job, or the classroom of life. I belonged in that race not because I got out of the swim before some of the other participants or because I had a faster time on the bike than four other guys in my age group. I belonged because I was trying to learn about myself. Life is all about trying to learn about oneself. I just chose the sport of triathlon and a race held in Cottage Grove, Oregon to do my exploring. It took me a while to learn this, but when I did, it opened my world up to wanting to help others learn about themselves and be the best that they can be as well. There is something very special about breaking personal barriers. If we hold it in gratitude and with the right attitude, others bear witness that they too can grow and live out their dreams. When we hold it to ourselves and don’t understand that we are all part of the greater good, then it feels very shallow and empty. There will always be someone who does something better than you. Don’t run yourself into the ground trying to be better than that person. Set your goals and dreams for yourself and the growth that will come with your journey. That is where true happiness comes from.
After being on hyper focus, prior to and during the swim portion, I remember the rest of the race being a bit of a happy blur. I remember feeling very elated that I was at the race and being able to express my new found confidence in myself this way. It was also very special having my dad there to cheer me on. It meant a lot that I was able to “show off” in front of him. I knew that he felt proud of me that day. I felt proud of myself that day as well. It turned out that not having run 6.2 miles before wasn’t an issue for me. With the kind people cheering all of us on, as well as the volunteers handing out water and smiles, I didn’t even think about it. Although I do remember walking for a little bit, the rush of this new experience and the personal high that I was on carried me through to the finish line. I was hooked for sure! I couldn’t wait to do another one; to recapture this feeling of being truly alive. I was a different person after this experience. Although at the time I didn’t know it, even though I could feel something special wash over me, this race was just the tip of the iceberg as far as my journey of self-growth went. This was the first domino to fall and I was just along for the ride as my passion for this new sport guided me to bigger and better things. Humbling adventures, soulful explorations and magical dreams fulfilled awaited me on this path of no return; this path of becoming the best that I could be.