It’s 9:30, and I’ve been here an hour already. My friends have stuck their hands in the water, and they say it’s warm. And I believe them, because I know how warm 74 degrees is. I think, didn’t I already say that it’s like room temperature, but it’s wet?
I’ve already picked up my packet. There’s a sticker for my bike, my number to pin on my shirt when I start the bike portion of the race, and a sticker for my helmet. My number is 50. I guess I registered relatively early.
My bike is hanging up in the transition area. All the bikes are arranged according to number. Transitioning is completely new to me. I have my bike shoes positioned just so, my helmet hanging off the handlebars, and my water bottle full of delicious electrolytic sports drink. They also gave us a small pack of energy gel in our packets. I’ve already opened mine and eaten some. It’s apple cinnamon, and it’s not bad at all.
Volunteers bodymark us: our numbers in permanent marker on each knee, each bicep, and our AGES on the right calf.
I fasten my racing chip to my left ankle after not following directions and initially putting it on the right one. This is after some guy walks up to me and makes a point of it. That’s some good sportsmanship right there.
We each get colored caps according to age and gender waves. Young men, young women, older men, older women, then the “Clydesdale” and “Athena” categories. My cap is bright green: I get to swim with the older women.
I’m wearing my tri suit. It’s black. I’m wearing a t-shirt over it, and I start to feel a bit nervous. By this point I’ve lost my goggles, so when one of my friends asks for the car keys so she could go get something, I asked her to get me her spare set of goggles.
She comes back with the goggles. I try them on. The seal on them is pretty lousy and the suction is close to nonexistent. My friend tells me as much. I keep pushing them onto my eye sockets until they stick on my face. I get a little bit more nervous.
It’s about 9:50, and I remove my t-shirt and set it at my transition area. I walk with my friend to the swim launching site. I see giant hazard-orange buoys marking the horseshoe-shaped course. The first wave – red caps – walk into the water and get into position. An airhorn sets them off. Three minutes later is wave two, yellow caps. Three minutes after that: wave three, blue caps.
Then we bright green caps wade into the lake. I float toward the back of the pack. I’m treading water. I notice my breathing getting faster. I feel a few kicks from the surrounding treaders. Two minutes until the horn. Slight panic sets in. I keep treading. I try to calm myself down, but it’s not working. Ninety seconds. Treading, treading. One minute. Probably the longest minute I’ll ever experience. Thirty seconds. The crowd begins to inch up to the starting line.
All I know is my arms flail, and I can’t breathe. I know I have to get around that horseshoe, but I can’t breathe. My lungs constrict, and water splashes everywhere. I try freestroking, the way I’ve been training the past six weeks, but I can’t move my arms the way they know how. The water is choppy, and I am certifiably freaking out.
I roll onto my back and begin backstroking. My breathing is still rapid and very shallow, and I’m trying to fight the fear of drowning from entering my thoughts. I keep backstroking. I sight toward the starting line, and I see the final wave starting.
The sky is perfectly blue and clear above me. I stroke and kick, stroke and kick. Water splashes over my eyes, and I sputter and cough. Stroke and kick.
The next time I bring my body up to sight, I’m not very close to the buoys. I’ve been veering off the course. So I turn my body, and I keep stroking and kicking.
I bump into a few swimmers. I feel their feet or arms brush against me. I accidentally hit one swimmer as I bring my arm down to stroke (then kick). In between gasps I tell her I’m sorry, and she tells me it’s fine, and she keeps on.
I sight the rescue boat. I keep getting closer to it and farther from the buoys. I sense that I’m zig-zagging, and I try to correct myself repeatedly. I don’t feel tired at this point; but my breathing is still a problem.
My thoughts trail to conversations I’ve had the past few days. I’m not sure how much time has passed. I pass the big orange buoy marking the halfway point. It feels like I’ve swum way more than a quarter mile. I’m sure I have. The lifeguards are following a few of us stragglers. I raise my head to sight the rear of the course and no colored caps are behind me.
I take a moment to rest on a water noodle one of the lifguards has brought. I try to take a few deep breaths then I lurch ahead through the water. I try freestroking again, but it’s not working out. Back to the backstroke. Back to my distracting thoughts and the clear, blue sky.
Two-thirds of the way I sight and a really nice lifeguard tells me how much farther I have to go. He lets me hang on to the end of his surfboard, and he turns slightly so that I can see. There’s a big yellow airtube wiggly-man billowing at the end of the dock marking the finish line. It looks so far away. I curse. I tell the lifeguard I’ll be backstroking the rest of the way. He tells me he’ll follow me just in case I need another break.
Stroke and kick, stroke and kick. I’m counting strokes at this point, sighting every 25 strokes or so. The end doesn’t look any closer, but I can feel some progress. I’ve caught a second wind of sorts. The lifeguard says people are cheering for me. I can’t hear them: the splashes and whirs of my own body are the sounds I choose to focus on. This white noise has calmed me for however long I’ve been in the water. I feel like I’ve been swimming forever.
I make a note to thank the lifeguard later for his help and patience.
I’m going to finish. My breathing has calmed somewhat, because I’m going to finish. It’s okay if I’m last out of the lake.
I make it to the dock. I pass the wiggly man and grab onto the dock. One of the volunteers tells me I have to make it to shore – that’s where the swimming finish line is.
One last surge toward the finish line and my left calf muscle cramps up in a wicked way. I tell the lifeguard. He tells the volunteers on shore. I wave my arms under water because I still want to get to the finish line. I spent so much time dealing with fear, actual pain isn’t that big of a deal.
I don’t know what time it is.
I get to where I can actually stand up, then I wade up to the shore, pushing past that damned charlie horse, and I grab some volunteers’ outstretched hands to get onto dry land.